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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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On 28 December 1931 it is 80 years since the former Reichskommissar and Landeshauptmann of German South West Africa, Curt von François, died at the age of 79. He only spent five years of his life in South West Africa but nevertheless he left a remarkable legacy. Curt von François is seen as the European founder of Windhoek and Swakopmund. In Windhoek a monument was erected in his honour which shows him wearing the Schutztruppe uniform. Few know that von François was not only a soldier but in the first place a talented cartographer and a researcher who contributed significantly to the development of the former German colony.

Curt von François arrived in German South West Africa in 1889. He was 36 years old and had already spent several years elsewhere in Africa. Born on 2 October 1852 in Luxembourg, he was the third of five sons of a Prussian officer of Huguenot nobility. After high school in Posen he was intent on a military career. When he volunteered for the Franco-Prussian War he was 18 years old. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and was awarded the Iron Cross after Paris was occupied by the Prussian army.

Curt von François wearing a colonial uniform (source: Wikipedia)

Curt von François wearing a colonial uniform (source: Wikipedia)

Curt von François interrupted his military career in 1883 to take part in the Kassai expedition led by Hermann von Wissmann into Central Africa. After that he joined George Grenfell, a missionary, to explore the catchment area of two tributaries of the Congo River. Von François was an excellent cartographer and was awarded the Order of the Southern Cross for his contributions to the exploration of Africa. The order was created especially for him by the King of Belgium and was never awarded to anyone else. On his return to Germany in 1887 von François was promoted to the rank of captain.

Later that year the Foreign Office sent him to the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo in his capacity as surveyor and researcher. But his task was also to sign friendship treaties with the most important tribal leaders. Apparently it was only thanks to the human qualities and negotiation skills of von Francois that the expedition did not end in a bloody dispute with the local population. The expedition was still in progress when von Francois received a request by the German Colonial Society to become commander of the colonial forces, the Schutztruppe, in the newly established colony of German South West Africa.

On 24 June 1889 Curt von François landed in Walvis Bay with 21 soldiers. He marched to Otjimbingwe and set up his headquarters there. Reichskommissar Heinrich Ernst Göring had previously been based in Otjimbingwe. Due to unrest between Namas and Hereros he had fled to Walvis Bay, which was British at the time, several months before the arrival of the first Schutztruppe contingent.

At the insistence of Curt von François the seat of government was soon moved further inland. He chose Windhoek because it was located in a ‘no-man’s land’ between Hereros and Namas and strong springs supplied plenty of water. On 18 October 1890 the first stone was laid for the fort Groß-Windhoek (now the Alte Feste), from which Namibia’s capital evolved.

Von François was appointed Reichskommissar in 1891 and two years later became the Landeshauptmann of German South West Africa. On 12 September 1892 he founded Swakopmund to establish a harbour for the colony which so far had to rely on Walvis Bay, earlier annexed by Britain.

In 1892 Hereros and Namas made peace after 40 years of war. Since the Nama under Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi had never recognized the German protectorate or the colony, Germany now feared that Namas and Hereros would combine forces.

The Curt von François memorial in Windhoek (photo: Wiebke Schmidt)

The Curt von François memorial in Windhoek (photo: Wiebke Schmidt)

The Schutztruppe was reinforced with an additional 225 troops from Germany and on 12 April 1893 von François attacked Hornkranz. German soldiers killed at least 80 people, among them many women and children. Witbooi himself was able to escape with almost all the men who were fit to bear arms. Historic sources disagree on the question whether von François went against a general order from the foreign office in Berlin to refrain from military action or whether the instruction had been changed as the Schutztruppe was reinforced. The massacre at Hornkranz was discussed by the international press for several months. The true number of victims was never conclusively clarified.

The lack of success in dealing with the Nama tribes allied with Hendrik Witbooi soon caused discontent in German South West Africa as well as in Germany. Von François was more of a cartographer and explorer at heart than a soldier. From 1890 to 1892 he had invested a lot of time into mapping the country. On the basis of his cartographic work it was possible to draw the first military maps of the colony a few years later. In early 1894 Major Theodor Leutwein was detached to assist von François.

When von François’ term as Reichskommissar ended that year he was succeeded by Leutwein. Von François was appointed Commander of the Schutztruppe in German South West Africa but was released from his position only eight months later, discharged with pension and called back to Berlin. He was assigned to the foreign office as an expert. In this position it was possible for him to follow his real passion: For study purposes he travelled to north and east Africa as well as to South Africa. In 1905 he visited South America. In numerous publications he reported on the results of his expeditions or discussed the various aspects of German colonial policy.

Curt von François was married twice. During the five years that he spent in German South West Africa he married Amalia Gereses, a Damara princess. A daughter was born from the marriage. After Amalia’s death he again married in 1896 when he was 44 years old. With his second wife, Margarethe Meyer zu Bohmte, he had four children. After the couple‘s divorce in 1911 von François lived in Zernsdorf until his death on 28 December 1931. He was buried in the Invalidenfriedhof in Berlin, a cemetery where many of Germany’s most highly regarded personalities found their final resting place in those days. His grave no longer exists.

The Curt von François memorial was inaugurated in Windhoek on 13 October 1965. As part of the celebrations to mark the capital’s 75 years of existence, Windhoek was also awarded town status. Von François’ daughter from his first marriage, Josephine, attended the festivities. The youngest daughter from his second marriage, Praxedis, had also travelled to Windhoek but the two half-sisters did not meet each other.

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Thinking about it, now would actually be a good time to light a fire and spend the night in the bush. However, Omaruru isn’t much further from here and he easily finds his way in the dark. He is also spurred on by ambition. The trip to Walvis Bay took him less than three weeks, which is really fast but quite normal for him. Wouldn’t they be amazed, however, if he already returned tonight? And terribly pleased about this particularly heavy bag with the letters they always waited for so eagerly? Ignoring the heavy load on his shoulder he continues his trot through the bush. There! Isn’t that the glow of a fire ahead of him? Suddenly a voice booms through the darkness: “Stop! Who is there? Watchword?” It startles him. He hadn’t taken into account that he doesn’t know the watchword. “Tooke”, he calls and because he does not recognize the voice he hastily adds “the postal runner”. “Watchword?” the voice asks again, louder now and nervous. His anxiety turns into fear – the soldier on watch does not know him and will shoot if he does not come up with the correct watchword immediately. “Post, post…” he shouts breathlessly. “Post, post…” he still gasps after a blow hits him on the chest and knocks him down…

Postal runner Richard 'Tooke' Karambovandu shortly before his tragic death in September 1897. Source: Lichtbildstelle des Fernmeldetechnischen Zentralamtes (FTZ) in Darmstadt (seit 1995 Forschungs- und Technologiezentrum der Deutschen Telekom AG in Berlin)

Postal runner Richard 'Tooke' Karambovandu shortly before his tragic death in September 1897. Source: Lichtbildstelle des Fernmeldetechnischen Zentralamtes (FTZ) in Darmstadt (seit 1995 Forschungs- und Technologiezentrum der Deutschen Telekom AG in Berlin)

This is what the last moments in the life of Richard ‘Tooke’ Karambovandu may have been like. Unfortunately there is no source to tell us what really happened on that first day of September 1897. There is no doubt, however, that a tragic mistake was made. Tooke, the postal runner, was highly appreciated by all and part of a trained Herero unit with the Schutztruppe. He was laid to rest with military honours in the cemetery of the Rhenish Mission in Omaruru. His grave can no longer be identified because the customary wooden cross of that time has not withstood the ravages of wind and weather, or termites of course. But 100 years after his death Namibia Post has given him a monument which is visible far beyond Omaruru, and even beyond Namibia’s borders: a postage stamp designed by Namibian artist Joe Madisia. A picture of Richard ‘Tooke’ Karambovandu, which must have been taken shortly before his death, served as reference.

1897 was a bad year for the area of today’s Namibia.  Rinderpest was rampant and cattle died by the thousands. It was a catastrophe for the transport system which mainly relied on the ox wagon. Mail was also affected because at that time postal traffic had already reached a volume which could not be handled with postal runners alone.

Nine years earlier, on 16 July 1888, the first postal agency for South West Africa had opened in Otjimbingwe, with Hugo von Goldammer as the first postmaster. Why Otjimbingwe? Because the office of the Reichskommissar was there. He was chief administrator of the ‘Protectorate of German South West Africa’ which Imperial Germany had proclaimed in 1884.

The beginnings of the postal services were very modest: the post office was a small hut, the full-time police constable doubled as the postmaster. For many years letters and parcels were still distributed via the missionary stations as well. In October 1891 the postal agency was transferred from Otjimbingwe to Windhoek, where a fort had been built in which the imperial commissioner took up residence.

Following the collapse of the transport system in South West Africa in 1897, the Berlin Reichstag approved funds for building a railway line from Swakopmund to Windhoek. As a result the number of post offices mushroomed – first along the railway line, then in other places as well. Postal traffic was temporarily impaired by the Herero and Nama wars from 1904 to 1907, but thereafter the construction of other railway lines – Lüderitz to Keetmanshoop, Windhoek to Keetmanshoop and Seeheim to Kalkfontein-Süd (Karasburg) – led to the establishment of a well-organized public postal service. A regular shipping service was also started between Swakopmund and Germany. The two years of waiting that a German missionary had to endure in 1840 before receiving an answer to his letters had shrunk to just six or seven weeks…

Stamp mail runner Omaruru - Joe Madisia 1997

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

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