Background History


The following is an account of Dr Walker’s military service in German Southwest Africa during WW1.




May 19.—About dawn the road ceased to ascend, and we began to cross a series of beautiful river-beds running into the Swakup from the north. Here the country is like a park; grass is plentiful, especially in the beds of some of the streams, and the thorntrees are numerous and large. In the hopes of finding water, I rode up or down several of these river-beds for a mile or so, but in vain, for not a sign of water was to be seen. It was now about twenty-four hours since the animals had had a decent drink, and, although the sun was beginning to get hot, there was nothing for it but to push on to the water.


My horse being better than most, I pushed on alone to Klein Barmen to search for the water. At noon I came to the spot, just a drift in a river, with two derelict buildings, but no sign of water or grazing. Hunting down the river-bed, I came upon a well of large dimensions, but it was filled in with rocks and the winding apparatus broken. Coming back to the drift, I saw two small notices, one in German, “Neither grazing nor water here,” and the other in Dutch, “I hear there is water and grazing three miles farther; I em trekking on.” Cursing the mocking German, and blessing the Dutchman for his message of hope, I off-saddled my now exhausted horse, sat down under a tree, and waited for the ambulance.


Encouraged a little by the rest, but more by the Dutchman’s message, we moved on again at 3 p.m. We struggled on three miles, four miles, five miles, in the heat and dust, without sign of water. The conductor, able to stand the strain no longer, and probably not wishing to see his animals give in altogether, came up and asked me to ride ahead with him to see if we could find water. In our anxiety we forced our horses into a gallop. Mine felt so weak under me that I thought he would never gallop again. Mounting a rise we saw a roof, then several, then some large farm buildings, and as we descended we saw a large cement dam full of water glittering in the sun, wherein several men were leisurely bathing and washing their clothes.


I turned my horse to a drinking-trough. He seemed to hesitate. I jumped down to taste it; it was quite hot. Later I made a careful examination of the spring. It came bubbling out of the soil at a single spot, whence it was led by furrows and pipes to drinking-troughs and the large tank. The water came out of the ground at a temperature of 49 degrees C., and I could not maintain my hand in it at this spot, although grass was growing up to the edge of this spring and algae were there in plenty. I noticed also a water-beetle or two. The water was quite odourless, colourless, and tasteless. I was told it is radioactive. A three-inch pipe carried the overflow away. It is in reality a little spa, and a shed at hand had two cement plunge baths in it, with the water laid on. We camped under some massive white granite rocks on the bank of the Swakup, within a hundred yards of the spring. The wide bed of the river, with vegetation down to its edge, the glistening rocks, and the distant mountains, all tinted a peach colour peculiar to African sunsets, made a serene and beautiful picture.


May 20.—This morning I interviewed the manager of the neighbouring farm, a blond and communicative Hun mounted upon a mule. He was taking the imminent change of Government in a very philosophical if not cheerful way, and prognosticated a speedy conclusion to the campaign. He said the war would last another five months, and then he dismissed an unpleasant topic with a shrug of the shoulders. This large farm, Klein Barmen, belongs to the German Farming Company, which was really Liebig’s, but went under a German name in this country, London capital being at the bottom of the enterprise. At present they were milking 200 cows, making butter and cheese which they sold to the military. Altogether there were on the place 4,000 head of cattle, and when the number reached 50,000 or 60,000 it was their intention to start Liebig factories.


Immediately after breakfast I was despatched to Groot Barmen, a distance of ten miles, in order to select a site for the camp, and to try to get into telephonic communication with headquarters. This short journey to Groot Barmen is along the Swakup River, which the road crosses several times. The white sandy river-bed, the great trees and mountains, combined to make it very picturesque. Mica here is very abundant, large flakes glistening in the sun like diamonds. Sedimentary rocks, not noticed nearer the coast, were in evidence on account of the strata being twisted and bent in a most marked manner. In one place a layer of sandstone could be seen following the ups and downs of the mountains with great regularity.

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