The Genealogical Society of South Africa

World War 1 comes to the Northern Cape-Ken Gillings

The artical below is a summary of a presentation to the Durban and Coastal Branch by Ken Gillings at their November meeting.
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When the South African government declared war on Germany in 1914 (following the German incursion into South Africa at Nakob), it resulted in a bitter feud between several Afrikaner leaders who opposed going to war against a former ally during the Anglo-Boer War.One of these was General Manie Maritz, who had joined the newly established Union Defence Force with the rank of Lt Colonel. Maritz gathered together a party of Boer rebels and decided to attack Upington on the 24th January 1915 although first encounter with Union troops had in fact been on the 19th January 1915 at Lutzputz, approximately 70 km west of Upington. By remarkable coincidence, the rebels’ advance had been observed by a gentleman named George St Leger Gordon Lennox who was none other than the legendary Scotty Smith and who warned the garrison of the impending attack. Maritz had, however, evidently sent a message to the garrison commander - who happened to be Colonel Jaap van Deventer - demanding his surrender. Van Deventer refused and Maritz responded with a note boasting that he’d have breakfast in Upington the next morning.

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The inhabitants of Upington were warned to take shelter in the local church and the two hospitals and at dawn on Sunday 24th January 1915, Maritz, accompanied by Major Jan Kemp (another UDF officer who had joined the rebels) attacked with 1000 Boer rebels, four German guns, two pom-pom guns and two machine guns. The Cape Field Artillery had already taken up a position on two koppies north of the town and they engaged in a duel with the German guns. The rebels – led by a rebel leader from Kakamas named Stadler - approached the town

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Maritz lost 12 killed, 23 wounded and 97 POW to the UDF’s 3 killed and 22 wounded. Kemp surrendered on the 4th February 1915 and he was imprisoned until 1916. Many of those rebels captured were wearing German uniforms. The dead rebels were buried in hastily dug graves in the dry river bed, but the wind soon uncovered the bodies and the Union troops reburied them in deeper graves in the same area. After the war, in 1920, Kemp became a Transvaal MP and he obtained official permission to rebury them in his constituency of Wolmaransstad.The South African casualties were buried in the Upington cemetery and their graves are well maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.There was a second prong to this attack; a force comprising Germans under the command of Major Hermann Ritter. Ritter’s force headed for Steinkopf but on hearing of Maritz’s defeat, decided to attack Kakamas instead. He camped outside the town, mindful of his orders not to remain in South Africa for longer than 14 days. At dawn on the 4th February 1915, Ritter launched his attack under cover of his artillery, hoping to capture the two drifts across the Orange River and then proceed downstream. His force comprised 205 mounted riflemen, four guns and four machine guns. The telegraph line to Upington was then cut and a South African outpost was captured. The German guns opened fire at a range of 920 metres targeting the force of South Africans guarding the ferry while the German mounted riflemen charged down towards the drift. They hit a snag, however, when they were stopped by barbed wire fences, so they dismounted and headed towards the ferry landing on two flanks. The South Africans on the south bank tried to send reinforcements across the river but were prevented from doing so by heavy artillery fire from the German guns.

 Ritter’s men then managed to capture 11 members of the Calvinia Commando at the ferry landing. On arrival at the drift, the Germans discovered that the ferry was on the south bank and they therefore had no means of crossing the deep, fast-flowing river. To complicate matters, some South African soldiers managed to position themselves between the two flanks and realising that he was in danger of a counter-attack, Ritter decided to withdraw.The South Africans then seized the initiative; reinforcements were transported across the Orange River on the ferry and on arrival on the north bank, they subjected the retreating Germans to heavy rifle fire. The German artillery swung their guns’ trails and opened fire in an attempt to cover their comrades’ retreat, but the German rearguard was captured and the guns withdrew. The one section and the guns reached their rendezvous at Biessiespoort by nightfall while the other section was still dealing with the strong South African counter-attack and they only managed to break away at 23h00, reaching Biessiespoort shortly before dawn on the 5th February 1915. The soldiers were parched after fighting without water for the entire day in the scorching sun. That day, they crossed the border back into German South-West Africa, having lost 7 officers and other ranks killed, 6 wounded and 16 taken POW in the battle. The German soldiers who were killed in the action were buried on the slope above the north bank of the Orange River a short distance outside Kakamas, where they still lie buried under an impressive monument. Ironically their graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, while the Kriebsgräberfürsorge in Namibia assists the Commonwealth War Graves Commission with the maintenance of Springbok graves in that country.Two South African soldiers who died while on duty in Kakamas lie buried in the town cemetery; they are Lieutenant J Neethling of the Remounts Department, who died of wounds received on the 3rd February 1915 and Trooper JC Kruger of the Britstown Commando, who died in the town on the 5th December 1915. An interesting aspect of the Battle of Kakamas was that the Kakamas Commando’s commanding officer was on sick leave, and led into battle by an ordinary burgher named du Preez. One of the men fighting under him was his aged father.This was the furthest south that German forces attacked into South Africa during WW1. Two more attacks occurred on the 1st and 19th March 1915 at the remote police border post of Rietfontein but they were beaten off with heavy losses.

The campaign for German South West Africa had by then begun in earnest and the South African forces converged on GSWA from four directions, eventually concluding what has been described as one of the most successful campaigns in modern military history.