HISTORY: WHO ARE THE HEREROS?


The Hereros are a people living in what is now the independent nation of Namibia. In 1904, however, Namibia was a German colony: Deutsch-Südwestafrika, i.e., German South-West Africa. While all colonialism was brutal, German colonialism was especially so. The murder and rape of native people was not uncommon and usually went unpunished. In January 1904 the Hereros rose in revolt against their German 'masters'.


The Hereros did not fight as a stereotypical mob of natives charging forward. The Hereros were skilled fighters who knew how to skirmish and take advantage of cover, and who sometimes fought in trenches behind barricades (at battles like Omaruru, Onganjira and Otjosongombe). A German first-person account, by Maximilian Bayer, of the Hereros in combat at Onganjira captures the essence of their tactical skill and fighting style:


“Simultaneously the Hereros burst forth; they left the protective thorn abatis and trenches and ran towards [the Germans]; but not in a wild, thick mass, like the Dervishes at Omdurman, but on the contrary in a long skirmishing line, crouching down and bounding, with great skill and exploitation of all cover." (Translation by Roy Jones)



The Hereros were also masters of ambush and concealment, using smokeless powder to remain unseen. The boulder-strewn hills and thick thorn bushes of Südwestafrika were their element. 


The same boulder fighting-positions and thorn bushes that regularly concealed the Hereros also cut visibility to 50 meters or less, negating the effectiveness of the long-range firepower of German machine guns and cannon. It was only when they charged the Germans (and the Hereros were ferocious in their charges) that German firepower was able to inflict a large number of casualties. 


In fact, unless the Hereros came out to charge, the Germans often never saw a single Herero among the boulders or in the bush! It was only the whistling of Herero bullets past the Germans' heads, and the deaths of German soldiers and officers, that indicated the Hereros' presence. A first-person account by a Schutztruppe who fought in the 10-hour long battle of Owiumbo (where the Hereros pinned down a German force of 700 men) indicates how hard it was to spot the Hereros: 


“One did not see the [enemy] at all; from this morning on I lie in the skirmishing line; I have seen bushes and trees, and I have roasted in the sun; bullets have whistled around me the entire day, but I have not set eyes upon a single Herero.” (Translation by Roy Jones)


Between January and April 1904 (especially in the months of March and April), the Germans went from ambush to ambush and regularly suffered either outright defeat at the hands of the Hereros, or near disaster with multiple infantry companies being pinned down or enveloped. It required a continual buildup of men and supplies arriving from Germany, and the regrouping of the depleted German forces already in the colony, for the Germans to achieve victory. This they accomplished in August of 1904 by a massive, multi-pronged strategic encirclement, converging from all directions of the compass, of the Hereros in their ancestral homeland in the Waterberg Mountains. 


The Herero people - men, women, and children - were then driven from their homeland out to the desert to die of thirst and hunger. It was made illegal for any German settler to provide a Herero with food or water, and any Herero returning to 'German' territory would be shot on sight even if unarmed!


This infamous von Trotha order (after General Lothar von Trotha, who took command of German forces in Südwestafrika in May of 1904) produced such eventual outrage in Germany that it was rescinded. By that time, at least 60% and perhaps as many as 80% of the Herero people had died. This was the twentieth century's first genocide.


While the Herero people suffered terribly in the end, they were not passive victims. They had fought and they had fought well. It was the fact that the Hereros brought a tactical sophistication to their combat, and were able to beat and stymie the Germans for months, which has attracted me to the Hereros and the history of their war.



Copyright  Dr. Roy S. Jones, Jr,  2006-2017