Thursday, April 9, 2015

"It was nearly by a hair that we weren't all killed." - Armored Trains & Herero Rifles in 1904 (Part II)

Detail from Blatt Windhuk, Kriegskarte von Deutsch-Südwestafrika
showing railway line and stations between Winkhuk and Okahandja
In Okahandja during the first weeks of 1904, tensions between the settler community in Deutsch-Südwestafrika and the indigenous Herero people had reached the crisis stage.  On January 11th, Distrikstchef Leutnant Zürn placed a panicky telephone call to headquarters in Windhuk believing that a revolt was imminent, if not already underway.  In response, a train left Windhuk for Okahandja carrying 20 soldiers led by Bergrat Duft, who hoped to negotiate with the Hereros.  Although this train arrived later that afternoon without incident, this proved to be the last time the line would be open for more than a week.  Armed Herero fighters soon surrounded Okahandja and attacked isolated farms throughout the district.

With Governor Leutwein and most of the regular Schutztruppe units far away to the South responding to the Bondalswart uprising that began the previous October, the nearest relief forces were reservists from Windhuk and regular Schutztruppen based in Swakopmund under Oberleutnant Theodor Kurt Hartwig von Zülow.

Conrad Rust's Krieg und Frieden im Hereroland (1905)  provides the most complete account of the first patrols and skirmishes along the railway attempting to reestablish contact with Okahandja from both ends of the line.  Other reports, including the official Generalstab History of the war, are quite brief and pass over many of the details needed to develop a more complete tactical understanding of these engagements.  They also tend to conflate several railroad episodes that took place near Okahandja on January 12th and 13th, and even confuse casualties from other contemporary events with those who fell during these railway actions. 

This post summarizes the opening skirmish on the outskirts of Okahandja on January 12th, and the sharper fight the next day on January 13th beyond the Swakop Bridge.  It is based on my translation of the relevant pages in Rust (pgs. 153 - 156), supplemented where indicated by other contemporary documentation. It describes what happened when reserves from the depleted Windhuk garrison attempted to reach Okahandja by rail.  A subsequent post will address von Zülow's effort to secure the railway from Swakopmund.

Leutnants Voigts and Maul and Deckoffizier Uhlmann, with Schutztruppen
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
On January 11th, a seven-man detachment left Windhoek for Brakwater Station under the command of Leutnant der Landwehr Gustav Voigts.  Leutnant Voigts was a prosperous trader whose business continues today in modern Namibia  as the family-owned Wecke & Voigts department store chain.  Leutnant Voigts summarized the fighting on January 13th in a brief letter to his brother Albert:

"Ich wurde am 13. Januar gegen Okahandja vorgeschickt, um das Maschinengewehr hineinzubringen mit den Reserve leutnants Maul, Boysen, [Director] Henning, Bartotschat und etwa 30 Mann. Bei dem Missionshause waren 60 Meter Schienen ausgerissen, die ich reparieren sollte – ich hatte das Kommando. Aber zwischen Viehe und Barnabas-Klippen faßten mich mehrere hundert Hereros derart hart an mit meinen wenigen Leuten, daß wir um ein Haar fast alle kaput waren. Leider blieb der junge Boysen mit vier Mann und zwei Maschinisten im Feuer."

"I was sent forward on 13 January against Okahandja bringing a machine gun together with Reserve Lieutenants Maul & Boysen, [Director] Henning, Bartotschat and about 30 men. By the Mission House 60 meters of track were torn that I should repair - I was in command. But between Viehe and Barnabas Cliffs I found several hundred Herero who pressed so hard on with my few people that it was nearly by a hair that we weren't all killed. Unfortunately, the young Boysen with four men and two machinists was killed in the fire." (translation mine).

Voigts' letter establishes that he was the senior officer during this engagement and pinpoints the general location of the fiercest fighting, but a carefully reading of Rust reveals that there were actually two engagements, at least two train engines, and several German detachments that came together prior to the second, fiercer combat as Voigts and his force approached "Barnabas Cliffs".

Brakwater bahnstation
According to Rust's account, early on January 12th Leutnant Voigts received a telegraph from Windhuk informing him that the wire had been cut at Okanhandja and that Waffenmeister (Armorer) Trampaneau was heading to Okahandja by train with a machine gun and a seven-man detail to repair the wires.  Learning that Leutnant der Reserve Maul  was also on his way to relieve him at Brakwater with a six-man detachment,  Leutnant Voigts and his men saddled up and headed out to secure the line towards Teufelsbach, using the railway, according to Rust, "als Reitweg" (as a bridle path).

Reaching Teufelsbach at 3 o'clock that afternoon, Leutnant Voigts learned from the local inhabitants that"die Weißen sein mit dem Zuge, aus dem sich mit das Maschinengewehr befand, sämtlich nach Okahandja gefahren" (the Whites, together with the train and the machine gun, all went to Okahandja).  A mile further down the track he encountered Waffenmeister Trampaneau coming back with the train and quite a tale to tell. 

Having reached the outskirts of Okahandja, Waffenmeister Trampaneau's train hit a section of torn up track, sending "der erste Wagen" (the first car) off the rails into the sand.  While attempting to repair the rails, Trampaneu's detail came under heavy fire from Hereros concealed in the town.  The machine gun expended more than 2,000 rounds of suppressing fire "eine gute Wirkung" (to good effect), but the Herero gunfire increased in intensity.   After four of his seven men had been wounded, Trampaneau extricated his battered force and retreated with the train, though probably not with that upset first car.  How was that possible?

The best explanation is that that the train actually approached Okahandja in reverse.  If so, then what Rust reported as the "first car" was in fact the last in line and the first to enter.  That is certainly the position of the train during the second attempt to reach Okahandja by rail, as is discussed below.  Quite possibly the train had twin or zwillinge locomotives, coupled end to end to facilitate transitioning from forward to reverse using just a single engine crew. This was the most common configuration for feldbahn engines in use on the Swakopmund-Windhuk line. 

One of the Boysen family is on the horse at left. It is probably Leutnant Boysen's father, but if it is actually the son, this  may have been taken shortly before he lead his reënforcements toward Okahandja, possibly even that very day.
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
Back at Teufelsbach, Leutnant Voigts reported these developments by telegraph to Windhuk.  He learned that a strong reënforcement was on the way by train.  This force of twenty-one men was commanded by Leutnant der Reserve Raimund (Reimund) Boysen, who had settled in the colony with his parents after serving in 1899 as a one-year volunteer and became in the Schutztruppe.  He was,  like Voigts, a merchant and farmer as well as a reserve officer.  Boysen had twenty-one soldiers with him, along with Railroad Director (Eisenbahn-Direktor) Henning, Senior Mail Clerk (Oberpostsekretär) Bartoschad and Postman (Postbeamte) Wolter, who were sent to repair the tracks and communications with Okahandja.  The train included two open provision cars, with the sacks stacked up along the inside walls of the cars to provide cover.  Leutnant Boysen's train would reach Teufelsbach at 7 o'clock that evening.

Leutnant Maul also reported that he was now on his way from Brakwater with his six-man force.  The night, says Rust, was pitch dark and rainy ("regnerisch und stocksinster") and it took Leutant Maul six hours to travel the short distance between Brakwater and Otjihavera Station, at which point the Germans left their fatigued horses and went on toward Teufelsbach on foot.

The second or Okahandja bridge (Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
Voigts understood from past experience that there Hereros were likely to occupy the granite hills near the rail line to the south of Okahandja, and that these offered additional cover to Herero Councillor Barnabas' massive stone house on the outskirts of the settlement that could easily be fortified and defended by the besiegers.  The key to relieving Okahandja was to prevent this from happening and to do that, the line needed to be secured.

At midnight, January 13, Leutnant Voigts send Unteroffizier Bahrs and two men to scout the railway line in the direction of Okahandja and determine whether the tracks were in order.  Leutnant Maul had still not arrived by 3 o'clock in the morning when Leutnant Voigts decided to follow the scouts by train with his strengthened force. It was still very dark and the train moved very slowly. 

As they approached the first (160m long) bridge over the dry, ephemeral Swakop river, one of Unteroffizier Bahrs' men came back and reported that the connecting rails on the near or South side of the bridge had been pulled up.  The train reached the site of the damage at 6:30 in the morning, when the men discovered that not only the rails but the telegraph wire and rods as well had been heavily damaged.  The Hereros evidently took these steps after the fight with Waffenmeister Trampaneau's train on January 12th which had been able to pass over the rails the previous afternoon.

Detail from Blatt Winhuk, Kriegskarte von Deutsch-Südwestafrika.
Osona, shown to the West of the rail line, refers to a hill 20 km SW of Okahandja,
not to Osona Station which was a short way beyond the Swakop Bridge

Leutnant Voigts sent six flankers out into the riverbed to either side of the bridge and across toward the far shore where they found the connecting rails had been torn up and removed a considerable distance away.  They could see a few Hereros also, withdrawing deeper into the bush   A few distant shots came from the direction of Okahandja, and they learned from Unteroffizier Bahrs that there had been heavy firing in the town all through the night.  Herero horsemen also appeared in the riverbed in the distance.

Oberpostsekretär Bartoschad attached a telephone to the damaged wire and reestablished contact with Windhuk.  Because the track proved to be more severely damaged than had been previously thought, Direktor Henning odered up an engine car with replacement track yokes from Teufelsbach.  The engine that brought these supplies forward also carried Leutnant Maul and his half dozen men.  The rails were reconnected at the South end of the bridge and the train with the machine gun started across at a slow pace so the six flankers could make use of it for cover.

Machine gun emplacement with a low barrier of sacks
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
There was dense bush on the far side, and as the engine entered the thickets it came under brief but heavy fire from up ahead, though this was quickly silenced when the machine gun came into action.  Reports from Okahandja later stated that machine gun firing was heard at 9:30 coming from the direction of Osona (station), which helps to establish when the fighting began along the rail line.As the train approached the granite cliffs that came near the track, it once again came under brisk attack by Hereros firing from good cover above.  Ten more rails had been removed at this point and the train could not proceed until these had been repaired.  It was going to be very hard work under enemy fire, but Leutnant Boysen had brought with him instructions from Windhuk that the work parties must advance and repairs go forward under all circumstances.  

The train slowed.  Those in charge intended to bring the train as close as possible to the place where the rails had been removed since the replacements were so heavy.  The signal of the platoon leaders was heard but the engine failed to stop in time, and three axles of the first carriage went of the tracks so that only one remained on the rails.  The situation was critical and the Hereros took advantage of the situation and to increase their fireThe Germans hurriedly brought out the machine gun and 18,000 cartridges in the second car, piling sacks of rice from the first car around it to provide hasty protection

To make the line free, there was nothing for it but to quickly decouple the derailed first car and heave it over the embankment.  This was a piece of work, says Rust, that proved to be "schwierig als gefährlich" (as difficult as it was dangerous), and it took three attempts under heavy fire for a combined effort to overturn the car.

Rust reports that the Hereros responded to the disorder on the tracks with "Größerem Wagemut" (greater daring).  Just how many Herero fighters were involved at this point is not known beyond Voigt's estimate of "several hundred", nor is it clear who led them.  Samuel Maharero was not in Okahanda at this time but instead gathered with hundreds of armed supporters at Osona, a defendable hilltop 20 kilometers to the Southwest of the settlement.  This put them well in range of the action on the rail line on January 13th that the Germans came to call Osona because Osona Station was a short distance further down the tracks.  Samuel would later write; "Here in Okahandja we have fought three times with the machines and I won", a statement that historian Jan-Bart Gewald believes refers to separate engagements against German trains.  Whether the paramount chief as actually in command during these actions is not clear.  He very well could have been, but he had many of his Councillors with him at Osona and some of these were excellent war leaders.

The German leaders at this point, including Leuntants Voigts, Maul and Boysen, Deckoffizier Uhlmann and Direcktor Henning, were on either side of the railway line in the riverbed.  The enemy fire came from the Viehe house about 250 meters ahead and also rattled down from the hilltops above.  Leutant Voigts ordered the machine gun in the second car to come into action but it remained silent.  The weaponmaster reported that despite the rail car being well entrenched, it was impossible to bring the machine gun into position while it was under heavy fire.  Going back down the track, however, was going to be difficult, for by this time the train crew was taking heavy casualties.  One locomotive operator (
Phillip Fackert) was dead, and the second (Maschinenführer Feldmann) severely wounded.  Rust makes it clear that Voigts went to the rear to confirm this was the case, proof that the train had approached Okahandja with the locomotive(s) behind.

The situation deteriorated by the second as the Hereros moved closer.  Leutant Voights gave the order to give covering fire and slowly move the train back down the track.  Getting the train in motion had little success. "Unter Wutgeheul" (with a furious howl) the Hereros sprang forward to within 30 paces.  Voigts yelled; "Alle Mann zu den Wagen!  Maschine schneller rückwärts!" (All men back in the carriages! Engine quickly to the rear!). 

It was very difficult both to save the machine gun and its ammunition and provide cover for the soldiers returning on the train, the Hereros all the while converging in a closing ring.  German reports from Okahandja also mention that "Gegen 12 Uhr arbeitet das maschinengewehr nur kurz und unregelmäßig" (at 12 O'Clock the machine gun operated but it was brief and irregular firing).  It seems that the machine gun attempted to give cover as the train withdrew, and that three hours had elapsed between the first shots and the last.  It does not appear to have jammed  but rather that the Germans were only able to bring it to bear as they were coming and going and not when the train was stationary.

Getting the train moving quickly was easier said than done, because one engine had a dead operator and
Maschinenführer Feldmann who drove the other was almost unfit for service because of his wound.  These were twin or zwillinge engines, coupled cab to cab, and could therefore be driven by a single operator.  The Germans were lucky that on this day they had two drivers, because without them they would have been stranded, without horses, and surrounded by well concealed enemies.  As it was, they took significant casualties extricating the train.

Finally, the engine started going faster - almost too fast for the soldiers who were still trying to get on board. A native member of the train crew seems to have opened the steam valve too far.  Rust wrote that "nicht alle die mann auf den Zuge zurückerwartete, trafen ein." (not all the men who were expected were met back on the train) and gives the names of five men among the missing who soon proved to be among the fallen.  Whether they were left behind, or were shot down prior to withdrawal, is not clear from his account.
A pair of twin or zwillinge 0-6-0 engines and carriages in front of the Boysen & Wullf Co. store in Windhuk
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
The dead soldiers were Leutnant Reimund Boysen, Unteroffizier Paech (who came to the Schutztruppe from Ulan Regiment No. 1),  Gefreiters August Rudolph and Josef Zülot (both builders) and Reiter Wilhelm Gerwinsky (a Magazin-Aufseher or Magazine Supervisor). Herero losses are unknown, but were likely very slight given that they fired from concealment and from above the stranded train.

After withdrawing about 1500 meters, the train slowed, and the Germans considered making another attempt to press forward.  After cafeful consideration, they concluded the risks were too great and withdrew back toward Windhuk.

"Der Feind erwies sich als übermächtig" says Rust succinctly; "The enemy proved to be overpowering."  He concludes;
"Die Maschinengewehr=Expedition schnitt schlecht ab.  Aber es hätte noch ärger kommen können." 

"The Machinegun-Expedition faired poorly.  But it could have been worse."

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