They had been retreating since April, tens of thousands of people and even greater numbers of cattle pulling back toward the high plateau and sandy river valley to wait for the advancing Germans. Their herds were in poor condition and only the families of the headmen and the warriors had milk and meat to eat. The rest of the Hereros made do with veld food and what little water remained to be found in the dry season after the failure of the summer rains. What had begun in January, 1904 as an uprising against an unprepared and lightly defended colonial power in southwest Africa was now met with the imperial might of a warlike Germany and a new commander whose infamous extermination order against the Herero would herald the first genocide of the bloody 20th century.
This map is a detail from one of the remarkable series of military maps produced in Germany for its 1904 war in Südwestafrika and reproduced by the National Archives of the former colony Namibia. The dominant features are the high plateau of the Waterberg, so named for the many springs along the base of its sheer escarpment, and a number of waterholes scattered in the plain where an ephemeral riverbed drains away along the edge of the vast and waterless sandveld to the east. The Herero gathered here between the mountain and the dry Omatako omuramba, their herds stripping the land bare of grass for 25 miles around. Paramount Chief Samuel Maharero concentrated between 25,000-50,000 Herero at the Waterberg with perhaps as many as 6,000 warriors - many armed Martini Henry rifles but with limited ammunition - and waited for the converging German sections to either parley or give battle.
Parley was not on the mind of the German commander, General Lothar von Trotha. A Prussian aristocrat with an iron cross (2nd class) from the Franco-Prussian War, von Trotha had a reputation for effective and brutal suppression of native uprisings in East Africa and served during the Boxer Rebellion as Brigade Commander of Germany's East Asian Expedition Corps. The General was appointed Commander in Chief of German Southwest Africa in May and arrived with thousands of reinforcements for the colony's Schutztruppe or "protection corps" that had been fighting the Herero since January. Von Trotha felt that colonial Governor Leutwein and the Schutztruppe leadership "did not make war seriously." He planned to put down the uprising in one decisive battle and the massed Herero at the Waterberg offered him that opportunity.
Battle came on August 11th in the plains beneath the Waterberg. The Germans were in five separate columns and outnumbered 3 to 1, but their 12 maxim guns and 30 artillery pieces provided superior firepower. At first the German attack was confused and several of the converging sections failed to reach their objectives. There was pitched fighting at Hamakari where Samuel Maharero and his main force fought the main German column for possession of its many waterholes there. Herero snipers were effectively posted in trees and the German gunners were unable to find targets. Only Major Ludwig von Eßtorf's section carried out its part of the battle plan as ordered by taking the waterhole at Otjosongombe.
By mid afternoon the German artillery was turning the tide, its explosive shells and rocket grenades falling heavily on the Herero encampments as well as Maharero's fighters. By evening Von Trotha's main section had taken the waterholes at Hamakari and spent the night in square formation. That night, the surviving Herero streamed passed the weakest part of the German cordon, abandoning most of their precious herds and fleeing eastward into the Omaheke sandveld on what became known as the "Trail of Bones."
The Germans were exhausted and did not start pursuit of the fugitives until August 13th, but they effectively prevented the Herero from turning back and very few made it across to Bechuanaland. Gerhard Pool's biography of Samuel Maharero describes the desperation of that terrible flight that unfolded during the following weeks:
"The Hereros still tell each other tales about their forebears' suffering in the Omaheke. According to them, when the water crisis was at its height, the men drank at the women's breasts, as it was more important to save the men than the infants."
There was no turning back, for the Germans had orders to chase the women and children back by force and were hanging male prisoners. By now virtually a fait accompli, annihilation of the Herero was made formal policy on October 2nd in General von Trotha's infamous Vernichtungsbefehl or extermination order:
"I, the great general of the German soldiers, send this letter to the Herero nation. The Hereros are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and robbed, they have cut off the ears and noses and privy parts of wounded soldiers, and they are now too cowardly to fight. I say to the nation: Any person who delivers one of the Herero captains as a captive to a military post will receive 1,000 Marks. The one who hands over Samuel will receive 5,000 Marks. All Herero must leave the country. If they do not, I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German frontier every Herero, with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will not take over any more women and children, but I will either drive them back to your people or have them fired on. These are my words to the nation of the Hereros. The great General of the Mighty Emperor, von Trotha."
It is estimated that between 50% and 75% of the Herero nation perished during the conflict and from the horrors that followed: between 40,000-65,000 in all. Those captives who were placed in labor camps suffered systematic rape and brutal floggings. It has been called the first genocide of the 20th century, but it did not end with the Herero.
"The Nama who chooses not to surrender and lets himself be seen in the German area will be shot, until all are exterminated. Those who, at the start of the rebellion, committed murder against whites or have commanded that whites be murdered have, by law, forfeited their lives. As for the few not defeated, it will fare with them as it fared with the Herero, who in their blindness also believed that they could make successful war against the powerful German Emperor and the great German people. I ask you, where are the Herero today?"
The general was recalled in 1905, and by the time Germany regained control of the colony another 10,000 Nama had died (50% of the total) along with 17,000 Berg Damara and bushman who were hunted as vermin.