April 26th, 1915, was the day of "the big fight" at Trekkoppies, one of the few decisive actions to take place in that campaign of cat-and-mouse skirmishes, in the deserts of German South West Africa, during the early part of the First World War. Captain F. E. Jackson, Brigade Signals Officer of the Northern Force under General Botha, has left a graphic description of this inferno in his diary, which tells how lack of water for railway transport nearly lost the day for the Union Forces.
The Signallers worked under great difficulties. They were short of materials and rations, and their transport often stuck in the sand - the all-pervading sand which made cooking and eating impossible at times. In some places the dunes were covered with canvas to prevent the sand from shifting on to the railway lines, and in early April, Jackson reported that his signallers were getting 'crummy', as they were unable to get a change of clothing or wash what they were wearing. To get the best results, the signal stations had to be located on the highest ground, often "the deuce of a climb" according to Jackson. By mid-April they were established on Arandisberg. One day there was such a severe thunderstorm that the men saw a blue flame run along the whole ridge of the koppies, and it was said that one man lit a cigarette from a flame at the muzzle of his rifle.
Capt. F.E. Jackson and Signallers of the Witwatersrand Rifles
On April 23rd, a German aeroplane flew over and dropped three bombs, which slightly damaged the searchlight. The following day Jackson moved on to Trekkoppies. He wrote that they found a few bushes there and that, on the way, they had passed four trees, the first they had seen for many months. On the next day, Sunday, during Church Parade, after the singing of the first hymn, a German aeroplane was sighted, so the men were dismissed. During the night, a strong enemy force was sighted preparing to attack, so the Brigade telephone was moved from its tent to a dugout, built of sandbags by Captain Jenkins and a fatigue party from the Kimberley Regiment. The work had to be finished under terrific shell- and rifle-fire from the enemy.
Captain Jackson wrote, "The Germans opened fire at 7.15 a.m. on the 26th having blown up the railway-line at Kilo 82. Firing continued for four hours; by that time there was not a line of shelters or bivouacs in the whole camp that was not riddled with holes." Things got so hot that the Germans were expected to succeed in their objective, but Jackson heard later from a German prisoner that the fire from the Union troops, especially from the armoured cars and Maxims, was so strong that they were unable to advance against it. From Headquarters at Swakopmund, General Botha continually rang up for information on the latest developments. A special train was sent off carrying 86,000 rounds of ammunition, escorted by 200 men and a squadron of Imperial Light Horse. It should have arrived at 10 a.m., but it did not get through until 2.15 p.m. when the fighting was all over, as it had been delayed at Arandis, there being no water for the engine.
The Germans got to within 200 yards of the Kimberley Regiment trenches, and one of their Maxims directed an enfilade across the trenches at 750 yards. "This is the hottest corner I have been in", wrote Jackson, "but if only we had had artillery to reply to their guns, we could have collared the lot." Over 300 shells were fired during the engagement, and there was not a square yard of ground, according to Jackson, which was not searched by enemy fire. He would never say again that the Germans could not shoot; their artillery work was splendid. He also wrote that the Brigadier was 'a brick', riding about the whole time, personally supervising and giving orders. He had dozens of miraculous escapes.
By 11 a.m. the Germans were getting the worst of it, as the Maxims and armoured cars were pouring lead into them wholesale, and they began to retire, so a counter-attack was started by the Kimberley Regiment and Transvaal Scottish. Even "Skinny-Liz" got in some shots at their retiring guns. Casualties were comparatively light, eight killed and 34 wounded, as the German strength was estimated at about 2,000 men. A prisoner stated that the Germans had attacked because Ober-Lieut. Schiller observing from an aeroplane, estimated that the Union Forces were only 300 to 400 strong, this opinion being confirmed by their ground patrol.
Captain Jackson's native servant, Andrew Geduld, was holding his horse when a piece of shrapnel penetrated his shoulder-blade. The horse was wounded in the chest. It stampeded and was not recovered until evening, having lost its curb rein and neck rope. One of Jackson's signallers, Volk, had the brim of his helmet torn away by part of a shell-case, and the signalling tent was torn to ribbons by shell-fire. A story was told of a party of men from the Kimberley Regiment who were taken prisoner, but escaped, and then took their former captors prisoner.
On April 27th, Jackson noted in his diary, "the lull after the storm of battle. All have had what the Brigadier called, 'a European morning', with breakfast at 8.30 a.m." Prisoners and all wounded, fit to move, had left the previous evening by train for Swakopmund, while the dead had been buried, only 10 yards separating the Germans from the South Africans. Jackson rang up Lieut. Vaughan at Arandis and congratulated him and his men on the valuable assistance they had rendered by their observations and reports, and by their keeping the line clear. Vaughan said that the Germans were still in view up to 4 p.m. and were last seen entering the Oronga Mountains.
The following Sunday, Jackson rode his horse for the first time since the fight. He found the animal very nervous and difficult to manage. He rode to the cemetery at Trekkoppies to look at the graves of those killed in action, and remarked on the lovely wooden crosses made and erected by the different regiments. There was one made by the Transvaal Scottish for Signaller G. S. Reid, aged 62 years, who had passed out as a signaller only a month before. Jackson thought it "such a pity that old men should be out fighting, while so many young, single fellows sat tight at home, living on the fat of the land, enjoying themselves."
Signaller Narramore was left behind to finish writing the names and particulars on the crosses, while Jackson and his men moved forward to Khorab and another phase of the campaign; but, often throughout his diary, he mentions meeting with old friends, and how they refought the Battle of Trekkoppies round the mess table.
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