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The Order of Hildegard is a military decoration which was awarded by Imperial Germany for just a brief period of time and exclusively in the colony of German South West Africa. This order became the only officially recognized cloth variety of the Iron Cross.

At the start of the First World War in August 1914 Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany decided to reintroduce the Iron Cross in recognition of bravery and valour on the battlefield. He thus revived a tradition of his royal Prussian ancestors. King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia had first instituted the Iron Cross, in three classes, for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars. King Wilhelm I brought back the medal in 1870 for the Franco-Prussian War.

When Emperor Wilhelm II reintroduced the Iron Cross at the start of the First World War he also authorized the commanders of the Imperial armies in the German colonies to award the decoration on his behalf.

The Order of Hildegard (Private Collection Gordon McGregor)

The Order of Hildegard (Private Collection Gordon McGregor)

In German South West Africa the first major battle was fought on 26 September 1914 at Sandfontein. The Schutztruppe, even though outnumbered by far, was able to defeat the South African Union troops. After the battle, Schutztruppe Commander Lieutenant Colonel Joachim von Heydebreck suggested to the Governor, Dr. Theodor Seitz, to award the Iron Cross to several of his men.

However, because of the war the German colony was cut off from the motherland. A temporary solution had to be found until the medals would be sent from Germany. At that time the colony had no factory which could have made provisional medals. Therefore the governor’s spouse, Hildegard Seitz, proposed to award a provisional decoration made from cloth. This variety of the Iron Cross could be made by the ladies of the Women’s Division of the German Red Cross in the Colonies, she said, and it could be sewn directly onto the uniform.

The suggestion was accepted and a decree on awarding the provisional decoration, the ‘black cross with a white border ‘, was issued on 18 October 1914. Among the troops the handiwork was soon known as the Order of Hildegard. According to the decree it was a one-class decoration for officers as much as all other ranks. When awarding the ‘medal’ no difference between first and second class was made.

Hildegard Seitz, the wife of the Gouverneur of German South West Africa, came up with the idea to make a provisional cloth version of the Iron Cross medal.

Hildegard Seitz, the wife of the Gouverneur of German South West Africa, came up with the idea to make a provisional cloth version of the Iron Cross medal.

The first batch of Hildegard medals was awarded on 22 October 1914, the birthday of Empress Auguste Viktoria. Most of the 42 recipients were members of the 2nd regiment which had fought so valiantly at Sandfontein. The next list of 37 recipients (mostly from the 1st and 3rd regiment) was published in Aus on 27 January 1915, the birthday of Emperor Wilhelm II. It is not known how many others were awarded the Order of Hildegard because the relevant documents in the archives of Potsdam were damaged during the Second World War.

The two lists of names mentioned were drawn up on instruction of Lieutenant Colonel von Heydebreck who was tragically killed in an accident when new rifle grenades were tested in November 1914. His successor as Commander of the Schutztruppe in German South West Africa, Victor Franke, decided not to continue with the awarding of the Order of Hildegard but rather with the proper Iron Cross instead.

In German South West Africa the Schutztruppe surrendered to the superior strength of the South African troops on 9 July 1915 in the vicinity of Otavi. Active officers and men were taken to the internment camp at Aus. South African soldiers who were on guard when the Schutztruppe soldiers were moved from Otavifontein noticed the extraordinary decoration on some of the uniforms. What they saw was a white-rimmed black cross made from cloth – the provisional flash for the Iron Cross.

After the First World War the German military authorities replaced the Order of Hildegard with the Iron Cross 2nd class. The provisional decoration faded into obscurity until it was shown to the public for the first and only time at a colonial exhibition, held in Dresden in 1939.

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Swimming in the bay at the breakwater (Mole), standing on the jetty and marvelling at the sunset – that is as much part of a holiday in Swakopmund as salt belongs in the ocean. Imagine that both of these attractions are simply the result of a few quirks of history. It is quite likely that they would not exist if the bay of today’s Walvis Bay, 30 km further south, had not already been in British hands at the end of the 19th century and had Imperial Germany not declared the south-western part of Africa a protectorate and done its utmost to build a harbour for the country…

 The breakwater and jetty are the remains of the first and third attempt to give Swakopmund a pier for mooring the ships – as alternative to the expensive deepwater harbour of Walvis Bay. Construction of the breakwater started on 2 September 1899. Three-and-a-half years later, in February 1903, the small harbour was ready. It was intended for smaller vessels which would ferry goods and passengers to and from the big steamers anchored in the roads. However, after just one year the breakwater basin had silted up to such an extent that even light boats could make it to the pier only at high tide.

Early Simmentaler import, issued in 1993, artist: Carola Kronsbein-Goldbeck

Early Simmentaler import, issued in 1993, artist: Carola Kronsbein-Goldbeck

Thus a different approach was tried in 1904: A jetty with a length of 280 metres was built at a headland south of the breakwater, sporting three sets of tracks – one for cranes and two for railway wagons. Completed in April 1905, the jetty was used for unloading boats. Spruce timber had been the main building material – apparently untreated because at some stage it was noticed that the wood was eaten by woodworm.

Finally, in 1912, a real job was made of it and a new jetty was built from iron and concrete. It was supposed to become 640 m long, jutting out far enough into the sea to avoid the area where the heavy breakers form. The approach to the clearing area was planned to be 490 m long and 7.50 m wide, while the clearing area itself was going to be a platform of 150 m long and 20 m wide. The pylons, consisting of an iron core protected by a concrete case, were driven more than 2.5 m into the solid granite rock of the ocean floor.

The wooden jetty with cranes and railway tracks.  Source: National Archives

The wooden jetty with cranes and railway tracks. Source: National Archives

Construction work was very complex. The holes for the pylons were drilled with the help of divers and heavy machinery, then an iron pipe was sunk into it, followed by the iron abutment. Next the cavity was filled with small pieces of metal and concrete and finally the iron pipe was removed and used for making the next pylon. Construction work was delayed if the drilling equipment hit a layer of Nagelfluh (a concrete-like conglomerate of stones, sand, mud and lime) on top of the granite. Therefore only 260 m of the jetty had been completed by August 1914. The outbreak of the First World War put an end to further construction work and under the subsequent South African administration the deepwater port of Walvis Bay was used of course.

Since the iron jetty was built just a few metres south of the wooden predecessor not even the part that was ready was ever used for its original purpose, not even provisionally. As far as is known it happened only once that a ship moored at the jetty: almost choked with emotion, old Swakopmunders tell you that in 1952 the South African destroyer ‘The Acteon’ moored at the jetty. The whole town was astir and cheered the crew and invited them to the next bar for a roaring party.

Cattle is brought ashore at the breakwater in Swakopmund – as an alternative to the expensive harbour in Walvis Bay (as shown on the stamp).  Source: National Archives

Cattle is brought ashore at the breakwater in Swakopmund – as an alternative to the expensive harbour in Walvis Bay (as shown on the stamp). Source: National Archives

Otherwise the jetty served as a tourist attraction, a photo scene, a meeting place for dates, the start or finish of swimming competitions and also as the backdrop of a restaurant. In the late seventies the jetty was in danger of collapsing and was repaired provisionally. In the late nineties its further existence was at stake when serious damage was detected once more. After several years of public fundraising the City of Swakopmund finally made funds available for the thorough restoration of the jetty’s front part. The far end was eventually saved by businessman Quinton Liebenberg who had the platform repaired and in 2010 opened an oyster bar there.

Contact for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99, philately@nampost.com.na

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