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Postcards illustrate South Africa's contribution to First World War in Africa

Updated on March 27, 2011
German map of 1915 showing lines of South African troop advances
German map of 1915 showing lines of South African troop advances

War breaks out

When war broke out in Europe in August 1914 the belligerents were all colonial powers with colonies in Africa and so the colonies became embroiled willy-nilly in a war thousands of miles away. The then Prime Minister of the very young Union of South Africa, which had come into existence on 31 May 1910, when the four former British colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, The Orange River Colony and the Transvaal came together in the Act of Union, General Louis Botha assured the British Government that the Union Defence Forces were ready and able to invade German South West Africa (now Namibia).

South Africa contributed to the war effort on behalf of the allies by sending troops and officers into two theatres of war in Africa - German South West Africa and German East Africa, in addition to sending huge numbers to the European theatres of war.

Troops under the command of Sir Henry Lukin were sent to Sandfontein on the Orange River which formed the border between the Union and German South West. Here a battle took place on 26 September 1914 and the Union troops were defeated. However the Union had far more troops at its disposal than the German colonial administration had and soon the numerical superiority combined with an early use of air raids led to the defeat of the Germans.


The first postcard in this series was written on 11 November 1914 by the Rev Gerrit du Plessis, married to my great aunt Mina, and shows a waterhole at Kubub, near Karasburg, just north of the border with South Africa. It is an extremely arid and somewhat isolated place. I can only assume that some Union troops had managed to occupy the area in spite of the defeat at Sandfontein. The card was addressed to my great aunt Hetty, Mina's sister, and reads: "Dear H, This is one of the places some distance inland. We are, however, in a sandy desert. Not a green tree, same of a green blade of grass. Thanks for your very kind letter on my birthday. I hope you are getting stronger and fitter. We turn in very early as lights have to be out at 7.45.(Illegible) often sleep at about 9. Love, G."


On 15 March 1915 the Union Army invaded German South West on several fronts. Louis Botha himself decided to lead the troops into the colony, and at his side was my grandfather, the Rev Andrew McGregor, who was appointed as an army chaplain to the invading troops.

The South African troops took Windhoek on 12 May 1915, just two days after the second of these postcards was sent by Frank de Villiers, to his aunt, my great aunt Hetty, in Cape Town.

The message on the card reads: "We received a post today. This is the first since leaving Swakop(mund) on the 1/5/15. Thanks for your P.C. (postcard). I did not however receive any parcels. Although I should have recd three. Probably they will come later Glad to hear Grandma is better and hope Grandma will soon be herself again. We are in an awful country with practically no food bar meat. Yesterday we recd three biscuits the first for 6 days. Before that we lived on meat only. I am quite well and hope the war will soon be over. Love, Frank."

Frank was the son of my great aunt Lily, and went on to become a bank manager at Springfontein in the Free State Province, where he died as quite a young man.

Birthday wishes from Windhoek

The third card is from my grandfather Andrew McGregor, Captain Chaplain to the 1st Mounted Brigade occupying Windhoek, the capital of German South West Africa, and is dated 2 June 1915. He was evidently writing to wish his sister Hetty a happy birthday for that day, though he seems a little confused as to the actual date of her birthday (his first guess was right - 2 June!): "Just a line to show you that I am thinking of you today. This is your day, is it not, or is it the 5th? Anyway I shall try to think of you on the 5th as well. I am away from my own camp & writing materials & consequently can't raise more than a p.c. Windhoek is a lovely little town, by far the prettiest in this country. Love to all, A.M. McG."

A contemporary map of the campaign published in a newspaper.
A contemporary map of the campaign published in a newspaper.

The East African campaign

The campaign against the Germans in German East Africa was not as successful, and lasted much longer, than the war against German South West. The two cards from that campaign were sent by Frank de Villiers again, this time to a Miss Irene Frantzen. The cards are dated 3 and 9 February 1917 respectively. I have no idea who Ms Frantzen was, he certainly did not marry her. The only message on each card is "Greetings and love, Frank."

South African General Jan Christiaan Smuts, like Botha a hero of the Anglo-Boer War, was sent with some 13000 South African and 7000 Indian troops to the German colony in 1916, but they were constantly outwitted by the commander of the German colonial troops, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck.

The South African troops, attacking from the North, suffered incredible casualties, more from disease than enemy action, and failed to capture Lettow-Vorbeck. They did manage to take control of the railway out of Dar Es Salaam by September 1916. It was from Dar Es Salaam that Frank de Villiers posted his cards.

Smuts himself left Africa to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London at the beginning of 1917. He was replaced by another South African, General J.L. van Deventer, who managed to push Lettow-Vorbeck south where in mid-October 1917 he fought a last battle, at a place called Mahiwa, losing some 500 men to the British force's 2700 killed or missing. Lettow-Vorbeck was immediately promoted when Berlin was informed of this success, the last in foir the Germans in East Africa.

The first of these two cards shows the Bismarck monument at Tanga, where a major battle of the campaign was fought on the 2nd to the 5th of November 1914. The town of Tanga was a busy seaport and the British troops were ignominiously defeated. The second card shows a lovely avenue in Dar Es Salaam.

At the end of hostilities in 1918 Lettow-Vorbeck had still not surrendered, but he did so on 23 November 1918, 12 days after the Armistice which ended the cruel war at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

So ended South Africa's first contribution to a foreign war.

And I would love to know who Ms Frantzen was and what became of her.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009


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    • Steven Matherly profile image

      Steven Matherly 7 years ago from Raleigh, North Carolina

      I was born in Joburg, but have never been back since I was 4 years old. I love S.A. history. Thanks for this information.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Sam - thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      farvbdev 7 years ago

      keep it up

      sam jraous

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      Peter Kirstein 8 years ago

      "Every picture tells a story" - and the story these pictures tell is so interesting! Thanks Tony, I love reading your hubs!

    • advisor4qb profile image

      advisor4qb 8 years ago from On New Footing

      Interesting hub!

    • Mac Mission profile image

      Mac Mission 8 years ago from bangalore

      Your articles so good. How did you collect this?

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 8 years ago from Southern California

      Do you teach African history, or is this just a passion? Whatever it is your are very proficient. I feel as if I am right there. That is a mark of my favorite authors. Please keep up the good work.