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09 July 1915 – Road To Victory

Namibia is mostly desert, and while there are rocky and hilly and dune-covered bits the land is mainly flat, which makes it a much better place to use armored cars than, say, the slopes and spurs of a Gallipoli mountain, or the cratered mud and barbed wire of no man’s land. The above photo shows Rolls Royce armored cars of the Royal Naval Air Service attached to the army mobilized by South African General and Prime Minister Louis Botha, who has personally overseen the conquest of German Southwest Africa.

This moment has been made possible through his deft handling of the logistical and transportation challenges involved in bringing an overwhelming Union Defense Force to the desert. Since the invasion of the Kaiser’s African crown jewel began in earnest, tens of thousands of men, tens of thousands of horses, thousands of motorcars, tons of food and fodder, barrels of fuel, field guns and machine guns, crates of ammunition, tankers of water, etc., have streamed into the German colony via the railroads and roadways, with Botha’s men laying hundreds of miles of track to link his forces with his factories, drilling boreholes to reach aquifers, and replacing infrastructure destroyed by retreating Germans.

Victor Franke, who became the commander of the colonial Schutztruppe in November, surrenders today with 2,166 men near Khorab. German Governor Theodor Seitz has tried to stall for a negotiated surrender that does not end with every German forcibly removed from the country, but Botha’s patience has worn thin during the days of diplomatic truce, and now he demands unconditional surrender. Franke has no good choices left: with the colonial capital at Windhoek already in Union possession, no control of the railway that made a war of mobile defense possible, and the enemy closing in from three sides, Franke must either surrender or make a futile last stand.

He chooses to survive the war, and the news goes out by radio to Paris and London and Petrograd, where it is met with joy. Fittingly, London’s original request to Botha for this offensive specifically listed the radio transmission towers in Germany’s proudest colony as primary objectives. Kaiser Wilhelm II began the war with six colonies; he has now lost four of them, and the last two are already under siege. As noted later by Boer hero and memoirist Deneys Reitz, Namibia is larger than Germany itself, yet the entire land has fallen with fewer casualties than an average trench raid in France.

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Major Erich Victor Carl August Franke, left, in his processing interview at Khorab. Note the staging of this propaganda photo

Franke is more than familiar with this region of central Namibia. In fact, he began the Great War already a national hero for leading outnumbered colonial troops in this area during the Herero and Nama genocide of 1904, using modern rifles and rapid-firing cannon to slaughter and enslave much larger forces of native militants fighting for tribal independence from faraway Potsdam. He even fielded the force which subdued the last free clan, the Bondelswarts of the Khoikhoi tribe in Warmbad, in 1906.

With the discovery of vast diamond mines by 1908, the German government approved the single most costly infrastructure improvement and colonization support program of its brief imperial administration, rapidly exploiting the people and land for all the wealth that could be squeezed out. Then, the dream was to win a contiguous African empire with their first colony of Namibia as its primary port of call; now, Germans do as much damage in leaving as they ever did coming in, for in executing his ‘scorched Earth’ defense of the colony, Franke has poisoned wells and slaughtered tribal livestock to deny their meat to the advancing enemy.

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South African volunteers board a train bound for German Southwest Africa. Railroads were a vital part of Botha’s successful strategy

The inevitable result is civilian famine, a problem that becomes all too apparent to the new masters of Namibia by September. The Union of South Africa is no more eager to leave the native population in peace than their previous masters, either. The hated dog tax, originally imposed to force Bondelswarts into wage dependence by discouraging their pastoral habit of hunting with hounds, is actually increased to exorbitance in 1921. From the perspective of Namibians, ‘liberation’ is hardly accompanied by freedom.

The war here has been every bit as ‘modern’ as the war on the Western Front, with barbed wire and entrenchment and volume of fire playing key roles in combat. The only real difference is a matter of scale, for there are not enough men and guns and shell factories here to fight battles as big or sustained as in Europe. But with the European war still raging and no relief, reinforcements, or resupply on the way, some of Franke’s best weapons have deteriorated beyond use: the airplanes his pilots used to drop bombs on Botha’s horsemen at Tschaukib and Garub have been through too many hard landings, and were scrapped months ago.

Meanwhile, Botha’s South African Aviation Corps buzzes overhead, giving him intelligence superiority even in the wilds where a guerrilla army might try to hide. Whereas the Schutztruppe began the conflict with such superior firepower that they could undertake side offensives, some of Franke’s field guns have been fired too many times and begun to wear out. Above all, he lacks the bullets and shells needed to continue the fight. Beginning the war as the best-equipped colonial military force Germany had, after less than a year Franke’s command has been crippled by distance.

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Via Illustrated War News. South African troops inspect Franke’s remaining weapon and ammunition reserves, now captured