Commemorating the centenary of The Great War 1914 – 1918 and the South African campaign in what is now Namibia.
This week we remember the centenary of the Battle of Gibeon during the German South West African campaign.
This is the Gibeon Station Cemetery where the Allied and German casualties are buried and commemorated. The site is jointly maintained by the South African Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the German Kriegsgraberfursorge in Namibia.
There are 33 Allied casualties buried in the cemetery:
20 members of the Natal Light Horse.
3 members of the 1st Mounted Rifles (Natal Carbineers).
3 members of the 5th Mounted Rifles (Imperial Light Horse).
1 member from each of the following Regiments/Units:
4th Infantry (1st eastern Rifles).
4th Mounted Rifles (Umvoti Mounted Rifles).
South African Medical Corps.
South African Military Constabulary.
South African Mounted Rifles.
South African Service Corps.
A number of German casualties are also commemorated in the cemetery.
April 28th, 1915 – Battle of Gibeon, Defeat for Germans in South West Africa
By the standards of the Western Front, the battles that occurred between the South Africans and the Germans in German South West Africa were minuscule skirmishes. But these firefights, often between only a couple score of horsemen on each side, determined the fate of a vast area of Africa one and a half times larger than the entire mainland German Empire.
60,000 South African Union troops had invaded German South West Africa after a previous failed incursion, and a Boer rebellion at home, in 1914. The army was led by General Louis Botha, the current Prime Minister, and Jan Smuts, a future one. interestingly, both men were Afrikaaners and had led Boer commandos against the British during the Second Boer War. The two split their command, Botha leading his troops to the north while Smuts concentrated on the south. Botha concentrated his men for a push towards the German colonial capital of Windhuk.
All that faced this massive invasion was force of around 3,000 German colonial soldiers, bolstered by local colonist militia. The Germans depended on mobility and surprise to even the odds, using hit-and-run attacks and ambushes. 700, with two guns, stood in the way of Botha’s column, which consisted of 14,500 rapidly moving cavalry. A Captain Kleist commanded the Germans. He had been ordered to make a fighting retreat and hold back the South Africans wherever possible, and to escort fleeing columns of German farmers and their cattle. The South African 9th Cavalry Brigade caught up to the Germans in the village of Kabus, driving them out and capturing the farmers. The South African cavalry stayed planted in Kabus for the meanwhile.
Kleist decided to try and lure the South Africans into a trap. He dispatched 150 men back towards Kabus, to draw out the foes, while he and the rest of the force waited in ambush along the road to hit the pursuers. On the 23rd a group of German horsemen burst into the town, shooting their guns into the air wild-west style. The South Africans, rudely interrupted at breakfast, gave chase, but they gave up soon and the trap could not be sprung. Kleist decided to rest for a few days. He vastly underestimated the swiftness and experience of his enemies.
In the next couple of days the Union cavalry discovered an uncut German telephone line near the town. They hooked up their telephone and listened in to the Germans discussing the situation with the “Englanders”. The Germans planned to retreat by train in the village of Gibeon. The South Africans devised a scheme to blow the railroad tracks and capture the whole German force.
At night the South Africans rode towards Gibeon and blew up a stretch of the railroad tracks. Kleist’s men woke up to the noise and deployed around the train, in two drainage ditches that offered excellent cover. The Union cavalry that thundered in did not see the ditches, and when a German machine gun opened up it delivered withering fire. The Germans killed 24 South Africans, and wounded or captured about a hundred.
However, when dawn came, Kleist refused to abandon the train, even though it was useless without the rails. Over the night the South Africans had entirely encircled the position. Suddenly seeing the desperate situation, Kleist ordered a retreat. The Union horsemen galloped in. The Germans fell back hurriedly, turning occasionally to make a stand, but their resistance collapsed quickly in the face of overwhelming force. Sections of Kleists command did manage to escape, but they lost twelve dead, eleven wounded, and 180 taken prisoner. This represented a hefty part of the German forces in South West Africa. There would be no more resistance on the route to Windhoek.
Story for the South African Legion of Military Veterans with photos by Charles Ross