Elco Lenstra – We Don’t Want Adventurers Here
In early spring 2018 – which now seems like a lifetime ago – the discovery of my family archive, dispersed over several cardboard boxes, was the impetus to start out on a quest, the final result of which lies before you now. The life of my great-grandfather Ernst August Kaerger turned out to be richer and fuller than I could ever have imagined when I began to impose order upon the formidable mountain of paper.
In the years which followed, it became ever clearer that this was a man whose life had taken an improbable course. Had I presented him in a novel, few would have found him a credible character: a campaign in the vast Namibian desert would serve as the inspiration for an unlikely bestseller, the years in China, where he acquired a certain degree of fame as a jockey, the mechanical destruction of human lives on the Flemish front, the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, the horrors of the Nazi regime. He always faced challenges head-on: during duels with sabres, in heated discussions with higher officers (with exile to China and even exile from his place of exile as consequences) and the setbacks, great and small, of a century filled with upheaval. Wars, the loss of loved ones and family, a pandemic.
In the excerpt below, we find ourselves in Namibia, in 1904, where the Herero people have risen up against German colonial rule. The emperor has decided to deploy his marines, the Seebataillon. One of these marines is the young Ernst August Kaerger, who enlisted as a volunteer after completing his degree in medicine. Thanks to the bestseller Peter Moor’s Journey to Southwest Africa, published in 1907 and based on the journal notes of one of his comrades, it is possible to reconstruct his experiences.
Ernst August was assigned to the Ostabteilung (Eastern Division), under Franz Georg von Glasenapp, who was born into an ancient, noble lineage that produced a great many high-ranking military officers. Perhaps for that reason Von Glasenapp was allocated by far the most difficult task: securing a region in the east to prevent the Herero from fleeing. The region in question, however, was approximately the size of the Benelux and they could not spare Von Glasenapp even four hundred men. This absurd-sounding mission must further be carried out in an area almost devoid of shelter or drinking water. Von Glasenapp, however, was not one to be deterred. The day of departure, with a cheerful orchestra leading the way, the soldiers marched merrily through the streets of Windhoek. They were still healthy and well-fed, an onlooker described them as ‘true Apollos’.
On 14 February 1904 the campaign began. They set out in a fifty-metre procession, including a column of officers on horseback, soldiers on foot and a number of ox-drawn carts. Ernst August marched as he had learnt in Germany: in tight formation, both in posture and pace, his thick coat rolled upon his knapsack, which weighed sixty pounds, the jacket of his corduroy uniform buttoned high. Stiff boots, their soles fitted with metal, however, make marching hard going in fine desert sand. The soldiers struggled to make progress; to their frustration the ox-drawn carts on which they were transporting their things became stuck on countless occasions. Nevertheless on the first day, the Ostabteilung succeeded in covering a virtually unimaginable forty kilometres. At the end of the day they pitched camp by a rock formation ominously named the Black Rock. A handful of guards took up their positions for the pitch-black night, the remaining soldiers crept under their woollen blankets, exhausted. Those unable to sleep heard breaking twigs and noise from animals which they couldn’t identify. Were they really animals, or were the Herero slowly creeping closer?
When the first shot was fired, everyone was instantly wide awake. ‘The entire camp was set in motion,’ writes Frenssen. ‘I head orders; they shot assiduously.’ The official report by the general of staff also describes ‘lively’ shooting on the night of 14 to 15 February, bringing the first three deaths and two injuries of the campaign. Did Ernst August lose his equanimity and shoot into the darkness? Or did he restrain himself like the fictitious Peter Moor, because he could not discern the enemy? The next morning the Herero were nowhere to be seen. No deaths or injuries were found on their side, not even a drop of blood in the sand.
That’s the extent of the official report. Had the inexperienced soldiers, despite the barrage of shots, perhaps failed to hit anyone? The reality was sobering: there were no Herero at the Black Rock at all. The exhausted, inexperienced soldiers, so far from home for the first time, were stressed to the limits. Peering into the darkness one of them saw something suspicious and began to shoot in fear, soon followed by all the other sentries, with other troops hurrying in, dazed with sleep. This was where Ernst August first encountered the chaos inherent in waging war. No one knew where precisely the enemy was, how many there were or which direction they came from. In the gun fight that followed, the German soldiers hit their own people. In the novel Peter Moor drags himself towards them on leaden feet: ‘I saw three comrades lying on the ground, their breasts bloody, their mouths open and their eyes staring and dull.’ Ernst August must have seen them, and may have known the men personally. To him the gun fight was a blessing in disguise. Now that there were injured men to treat, a soldier named Arndt and the marine Henze, he was able to put his medical knowledge into practice. He reported to the Marine-Oberassistenzarzt Dr Wilhelm Belden, the ship’s surgeon from the Habicht. Although Private Ernst August had no official position as a doctor at that point, Belden allowed him to assist, grateful for all the help he could find in the circumstances.
In the following days the marines dragged themselves onwards. A long column lurched through a landscape of thorn bushes, plants as hard as stone, sometimes twice the height of an adult man, with thorns as long as fingers. Their bodies and equipment were covered in a thin layer of dust. Ernst August was constantly rubbing his red, swollen eyes. If one of the carts got stuck, he put down his heavy knapsack and helped the ox drivers dig out the wheels while the rest of the column halted, sought shelter and quenched their nagging thirst. After a couple of days it became clear that the drinking water they had brought from Windhoek was far from sufficient.
Every time the column pitched camp for the night, the troops dug deep holes in the hope of finding water. When they did find it, it was salty in taste, milky due to the high chalk content, and stank dreadfully. After marching for an entire day, they pitched camp and surrounded it with cut thorn bushes, as a primitive kind of fort. Even lighting a fire was not without risk in this hostile land, as smoke from a local plant, the spurge, turned out to be poisonous and harmful to the skin and eyes with direct exposure. Oxen that were too tired to go any further were slaughtered to top up the shrinking rations. Normally there was only a small quantity of rice, from which a tasteless soup was boiled up with flour and water.
In his sparse notes, Ernst August observed that the bread was of deplorable quality. ‘No one had any experience of baking bread,’ he wrote, ‘so if there was any at all, it was sticky and not properly baked.’ It is almost a direct quotation from the novel. Perhaps Michaelsen had heard his friend complain about the bread and written about it in his diary, after which Frenssen noted it down as a useful detail for his own book. No wonder that the bread was barely edible, as the book describes a dough mixture with flour and – rather inexplicably – rum as the only ingredients. When someone suggested that the person kneading the bread should really wash his hands first, the others ridiculed him. Wash his hands, the very idea; besides, there was no water anyway. The troops became exhausted and listless; like sleepwalkers they trudged on and on, without any enemy on the horizon.
The doctors warned the marines always to boil the water they had dug up before they drank it. The officers took this advice on board, threatening severe punishments for anyone who refused to obey. But as the monotonous, cheerless days followed one after another, more and more marines threw caution to the wind. Falling ill was better than dying of thirst. Even the officers, and later the doctors themselves, eventually became too numb to handle the water cautiously and could think of nothing other than quenching their thirst.
The division passed abandoned Herero villages. The pontoks, round huts made of branches and soil, were reminiscent of beehives. No one knew where the inhabitants had all suddenly gone and Von Glasenapp had no way of gaining information. The Ostabteilung had not been equipped with a heliograph, nor a local scout. There was nothing for it but to march on, in the hope of eventually stumbling across the enemy for themselves.
On 23 February, after nine days going back and forth in the desert, a message finally got through to Von Glasenapp in the settlement of Otjiwarumende: another unit was planning to head to the northeast because a large group of Herero appeared to keep their cattle there. Instead of restocking supplies and giving his men a sorely needed rest in the town of Gobabis, he ordered forced marches onwards to push through to the northeast as well. In the subsequent forty-eight hours he roused his troops to cover approximately one hundred kilometres. In vain. By the time they arrived in the location mentioned in the message, the enemy turned out to have left again.
Due to the intensive pace of the march, a number of ox carts with provisions had to be left behind. As if the situation were not unpleasant enough, all the soldiers now had to deal with rationing. Von Glasenapp began to realise that his original mission of preventing the Herero from crossing the border to Bechuanaland, now Botswana, had become pointless. It now appeared that the enemy had turned around and was heading back towards the west. A handful of soldiers remained behind to guard the eastern border and, in any case in part, to fulfil the mission. The rest of his men, including Ernst August, were divided between two columns which would each march a different route west in the hope of coming upon the enemy after all. The marching continued, the supplies became further depleted.
Only on 12 March, almost a whole month after the Ostabteilung’s departure from Windhoek, did Von Glasenapp realise that this could not go on. The young men who had exuded good health a few weeks previously were now trudging onwards like the walking dead. Their uniforms hung in tatters from their bodies, the leather of their boots was dry and cracked. Their faces and hands were broken by insect bites and the giant thorn bushes. In order to present some semblance of military vigour in spite of everything, Von Glasenapp collected a small patrol of his most experienced horsemen, a couple of local servants, a machine gun and a medical cart under leadership of Marine-Oberassistenzarzt Dr Velten. He left the other soldiers to rest in Okanjatu, where there was also a small field hospital, directed by one Stabsarzt Dr Wiemann, who immediately assigned work to Ernst August.
It is thanks to Dr Wiemann that here, for the first time, tangible evidence surfaced of the presence of Ernst August in Namibia. Before 23 March 1904 there is no document in his handwriting, nor any photo of him. With his Prussian proclivity for administration and precision, the staff doctor Dr Wiemann ordered him to fill in a brief curriculum vitae to complete his dossier. He was ordered to produce this in two formats: as continuous text, then summarised in bullet points. My great grandfather had flourishing although not frivolous handwriting. ‘I, Ernst August Kaerger, was born on 3 June 1879, the son of the late tradesman and city elder Wilhelm Kaerger and his wife Ernestine née Kühn of Züllichau, in the Province of Brandenburg.’ And so on. To the question as to whether he owned property, he replied that although he had no debts he also had no money of his own. However, he wrote a tad circuitously that his mother was ‘in a position to supply me with the means of providing my livelihood’. As to his physical state, the marine needn’t worry there either: ‘Hereditary conditions do not exist in my family. I am a practitioner of all physical skills: gymnastics, fencing, rowing, swimming, hunting, shooting and horse riding, the latter particularly here in Africa.’ Moreover, he added, he could make himself understood in English, French and Polish, although he would have little occasion to do so in Namibia. Another reason for writing this CV was his official request to be permitted to fulfil his military service not as a marine but as a medical officer. The local army command was seriously short of medics and immediately sent the request to Germany for approval. They did have one last question: did Ernst August wish to remain in the army beyond his military service? For a man of 25 years of age his answer was rather endearing: ‘I can only answer that after consultation with my mother and with my nearest and dearest in person.’
While Ernst August was finally able to wash again, and was carrying out his administration and working with Dr Wiemann to get the little hospital in order, a group of scouts under Von Glasenapp went in search of the Herero. The patrol did not make a particularly promising start: there was not a soul to be seen here either. How do you fight an enemy you cannot see? But after riding on for a few hours, Captain Eggers, Von Glasenapp’s right hand, returned with good news. This experienced soldier, who had been through a few clashes in the region years before, had succeeded in stopping a woman he found wandering with her child. Once he had bribed her with tobacco, she let slip that there were Herero in the area, only an hour’s ride away. Without hanging around to ask more questions – such as how many there might be – Von Glasenapp hurried into action. At last he would stand eye to eye with the rebels and have the chance to achieve his first victory. Some of his horsemen were local farmers who had signed up voluntarily for the campaign and hoped to get a proportion of their cattle back. They cheered Von Glasenapp’s bold decision to strike without waiting for reinforcements.
The woman had not lied: after an hour’s ride the horsemen saw a gigantic herd of cattle. To their disappointment once again no Herero – it was beginning to seem a ridiculous display – but in any case they did not have to return empty-handed. There was a problem, however, as the herd they encountered was far too big to drive back to the city with just a handful of soldiers.
While Von Glasenapp and his troops were conferring, more and more of the animals noticed the strangers’ presence, until a good three thousand cows and bulls of a great variety of breeds panicked and began to scramble around. The horsemen became separated in this bovine sea. Amidst the chaos, in which the riders were intent on avoiding being thrown from their horses, no one noticed that the unit was coming ever closer to an enormous Herero settlement. Only when the bullets began to fly past their ears did the magnitude of their mistake become clear. Hundreds of Herero warriors, filled with eagerness for this easy prey, threw themselves with war cries on the small scout unit. The Germans’ initial joy at the enormous spoils of war soon turned to confusion. The machine gun that had been presented to them as an unequalled miracle weapon, became jammed after a couple of shots. A soldier who came running up with a new cartridge belt was hit fatally in the chest, after which the machine gun fell silent. Dead and wounded fell rapidly. Even the seasoned Captain Eggers lost his life, a serious blow to the morale of the soldiers who saw it happen. If a man like Eggers could be so easily killed, what chance did they have?
Von Glasenapp gave the order to retreat, towards the medical cart. However, there was no one left to help the wounded: the medic, Dr Velten, had been shot dead while running to the front line to drag someone away. Only with immense effort did they succeed in keeping the Herero back. As darkness fell, in part through the crossfire of the now repaired machine gun, they had the impression that they were up against a far larger force than was actually the case. The next morning they drew up the disconcerting balance. Almost seventy percent of the patrol – seven officers and nineteen soldiers – had perished during the fight. On their return to the camp at Okanjatu nothing more remained of the bravura with which they had set out. The death of Dr Velten meant that an enormous responsibility now rested on the shoulders of Ernst August: although he barely had any practical experience as a medic, the army command decided that Private Kaerger was far more valuable in a new role and officially appointed him to the position of doctor.
To the Imperial Medical Office of the North Sea Naval Station, Wilhelmshaven
By means of the enclosed papers I hereby send the imperial medical service the curriculum vitae of One-year Volunteer Private Ernst August Kaerger, until today of the first company of the Marine infantry battalion, as well as the requisite service reports, with the message that on 1 April the above-named was appointed as One-year Volunteer Doctor by the General of the Marine Expeditions Corps in Southwest Africa.
Allow me in all humbleness to inform you that, due to his exceptional attitude under fire and his decisive treatment of the wounded on the battlefield, this doctor has been nominated by his commander for a very high honour.
Wilhelmshaven, 25 June 1904
The final paragraph of the letter refers to a second battle, at Owikokorero, where the situation was so desperate that even Ernst August, who as a doctor no longer held a combat position, nevertheless had to take up weapons. We can only guess at the precise reasons, but he must have displayed exceptional bravery. Did he shoot in calm concentration at the Herero warriors who came storming on in groups from the bushes? Did he race through a rain of bullets, endangering his own life, to reach the wounded calling for his help? Perhaps both? Whatever happened, a couple of months later, during a modest ceremony, he received the Militärisches Ehrenzeichen ii. Klasse (2nd Class Military Honour Medal) for courage proven under fire. This was a rarity: the medal was only awarded to doctors in exceptional cases, since they were never normally exposed to combat situations. In Namibia things were different: in one in five confrontations with the enemy, doctors also had to fight. For a social climber like Ernst August this was another step: an honourable distinction was the quickest way to a higher military rank.
The battle at Owikokorero also provided something considerably more valuable than this medal, in any case for the course of his life. The photographer travelling with them saw a group of marines sitting together in one of the tents. It was the perfect opportunity to capture the men naturally, without heroic poses or in strict formation. It was to become the oldest preserved photo of Ernst August.