World War 1 in Namibia - Insignia in the Desert

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Monday, 9th February 2015

Insignia in the Desert of South West Africa SWA, by Bryan V. Cooke, was part of the SWA Annual 1975 / SWA Jaarboek 1975 / SWA Jahrbuch 1975.

THE Namib Desert can be a place of magic, a vast canvas of soft pastel colours splashed with vivid hues of rocks and deep shadows. However, at times, during the midday hours, it can be a harsh soul-destroying emptiness of intense heat, glare, dust and flies all crowding out romantic notions of magic. These thoughts spring to mind when trying to imagine the conditions in April, May and June of the year 1915 when hundreds of South African troops were posted to do dreary guard-duty on the rebuilt Otavi Railway between Swakopmund and Usakos.

These were men of the second battalions of three of South Africa's proudest fighting units, the Durban Light Infantry, the Transvaal Scottish and the Kimberley regiments. With them were detachments of signallers of the South African Mounted Rifles who manned the all-important heliograph stations perched on high points near the railway line.

Most of the men were volunteers, drawn from all walks of life. They had been hurried to Cape Town and shipped up to Walvis Bay, to a strange desert land, which few of them could scarcely have imagined in their wildest dreams. Yes, wild dreams of exciting battles against the troops of the Kaiser. Dreams which remained unfulfilled.

It was only their comrades in the 1st Battalions who saw any real action and then only fleeting clashes interspersed with long marches and idle weeks awaiting supplies. Nevertheless, these men of the 2nd battalions had an important role to fill.

The railway was General Botha's life-line. He had to ensure that it remained intact and safe from small German units who had proved their skill in the use of dynamite. Every culvert, embankment and cutting on the line had to be patrolled day and night. Block houses and water supply tanks were constructed at roughly 10 km. centres and all high points adjacent to the tracks were fortified.

Each unit pitched tents for shelter and they were supplied by the many trains moving up to the front. Conditions were difficult and uncomfortable from the start. The tents were pitched on open gravel plains with no tree nor bush worthy of the name to be seen.

Food and water were limited; corned beef and army biscuits the staple diet and the brackish water was always warm from standing in the corrugated-iron tanks. It is easy, even without recourse to the many books published after the campaign or the letters and diaries received from World War I veterans, to recapture a picture of the conditions endured by the troops as wearying hours stretched to days, to weeks and then months. By day there was no shade available other than in the suffocatingly hot tents and plagues of flies made all meals a misery.

The water and the precious few bottles of beer available were always tepid. Sunburn, eye-strain and sore feet were constant problems and by night the men suffered from the damp cold of the desert so unfamiliar to them. The East Wind seems to have prevailed at the time and the Swakopmund hospital was constantly full of troops sent back to recover from heat-prostration and other afflictions.

The troops reacted to these conditions in many ways. Many slept their free hours away; others wrote long letters home bemoaning their fate; a few explored their immediate surroundings, hoping to find minerals, especially diamonds as their comrades in the Eastern Force had done down at Luderitz. But a handful took up a past-time which guaranteed permanent reminders of this important episode in the history of South West Africa.

These were the enterprising men who set out their initials, names and regimental insignia in stone on the gentle slopes of the rocky Namib ridges adjacent to the railway line. No one knows which company of which regiment first thought up the idea, but apparently the craze soon caught on and a keen sense of competition sprang up.

Each group tried to outdo the other in the complexity and skill of their labours. Thus today a journey alongside the gleaming tracks, just a few hundred yards from the tarmac ribbon of the modern highway, provides the curious and the enterprising passersby with fascinating glimpses into the history of that campaign.

Just 27 kilometres East of Swakopmund between the railway and the highway, the first relics are to be seen. On the slope of a ridge lies a magnificent badge of the 2nd Battalion, Kimberley Regiment; a diamond of white quartz pebbles encircled by delicate wreaths in brown and the letters 2 K R again in white.

Below this lies a smaller badge of D Company of the 2nd Durban Light Infantry. Sandwiched between the two badges, in perfect four-foot high letters, lies the intriguing word "TIT-BIT".

Lengthy research in military annals and the kind assistance of the Military Archives in Pretoria, the War Museum in Johannesburg and numerous other military museums, failed to supply an answer to the mystery of this word.

Then the help of the associations of the three regiments involved was enlisted. At last an answer, albeit a little vague, was found. A veteran of the 2nd Kimberley Regt. dimly recalled his unit having had a mascot, "either a goat or a horse", named Tit-Bit because of its habit of begging morsels of food from the men.

Apparently the animal died "or was put on the butcher's block to relieve the sparse diet" (?) and the name was inscribed on the hillside in its memory.

A few kilometres further eastwards, just below a sangar crowning a small kopje overlooking a bridge, one finds a name, "G. C. JACOBS", topped by the figure 2, alongside a metre-wide pathway, (photograph 2). On the other side of the path lie the letters "2 nd K.R."

This sangar is within a mile of the imposing Rossing Mountain and one must scale its topmost peak to admire the spectacular views as well as to explore the heliograph platform built by the Germans and used by South African signallers throughout the campaign.

The signal company camped on a saddle just below the heliograph station. The campsite, as in all cases, is clearly recognisable by the numerous rusty corned-beef cans and the outlines of the tents in stones used to weigh the edges down.

On a slight rise above the campsite lies a unique badge of the "SIGNALLERS, 4th COY., SOUTH AFRICAN MOUNTED RIFLES", (photograph 3). The badge is unique because it is the only one where only white quartz was used but unfortunately, due to the size of the pebbles and the exposed position, it has become somewhat blurred.

A party of well-meaning campers recently tidied it up a little but mistakenly made the "S" into an "R". Back next to the railway line at kilometre 40, an arrow-straight pathway points up a hillside (photograph 4) towards a small circular fort built by the 2nd Transvaal Scottish.

The fort is still surrounded by barbed wire supported by steel posts. A few yards below it lies the most exquisite of all the badges, a thistle "button" eight feet in diameter incredibly well-detailed in brown and white stone and gravel, (photograph 5).

Then on to Kilometre 46 where one finds the best-known of the desert relics, the ninety feet by forty feet badge of the 2nd Durban Light Infantry, (photograph 6).

This huge masterpiece is so expertly laid out in brown boulders and quartz chunks that the details are clearly discernible from the road half-a-mile away.

A few yards from the DLI badge lies one of the Transvaal Scottish, a delicate thistle complete with scroll bearing the famous regiments' Gaelic motto "ALBA NAM BUADH" but with only partially completed encircling wreaths and shield, (photograph 7.)

At Kilometre 56 lies an interesting collection of relics on both sides of the line. Two high-points are crowned by stone fortifications, the Northernmost one further strengthened by three curved stone walls with trenches.

Below the Southernmost fort, in neat letters up to five feet high and expertly framed, lies the name "FORT STAGNATION"! (photograph 8.) How succinctly this name puts into a nutshell the frustrated feelings of those unfortunate souls marooned "in the back of beyond"!

Near the familiar pathway leading up to the other fort is another unusual and curious design, a ten-feet high heart laid out in brown stone, (photograph 9.) What thoughts were passing through the mind of its' builder as he sweated in the sun? Hopefully, soft thoughts of a sweetheart waiting back home!

Next one reaches Arandisberg, that chocolate-brown rocky ridge so familiar to motorists on the highway. On a lower ridge is a clearly discernible stone fort whilst on the highest point is a heliograph platform. This vantage point was visited by General Botha himself on April 13th 1915.

Numerous fortifications mark the guard-posts along the line between Arandis and Trekkopjes. At Trekkopjes station lies a neat cemetary with the carefully tended graves of eight South African and nine Germans who fell at the famous battle there on the 26th April 1915 (photographs 10 and 1I.)

This sharp engagement is famous in that it was the first time that armoured vehicles were used by South African forces in battle. The presence of a unit of Rolls-Royce-engined armoured cars with revolving machine-gun turrets turned the tide in favour of the outnumbered South African force.

On the battlefield, within walking distance of the graves, one can still clearly see the shallow trenches dug by the troops as they hastily dug into the rocky soil to meet the German attack.

Between Trekkopjes and Usakos the countryside becomes bush- and grass-covered and the many fortifications on the hill-tops overlooking the line cannot strictly be labelled desert relics but they are nevertheless worth visits and investigation.

The South West campaign of 1914-15 is such an important part of South African and South West African history and these relics in the desert are well worth protecting for all time. One trusts that the National Monuments Council will keep to their promise to choose some of the outstanding insignia to get the official protection they deserve.

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