Imperial German Colonial Wars before WWI

German troops – Boxer Rebellion

Herero Rebellion

At the close of the nineteenth century a few authors – notably a Lieutenant Bilse and Count von Baudissin (the latter writing under the pen name of ‘Baron von Schlicht’, and already an established writer of a number of humorous and other less serious works) – published what might be termed ‘critical military novels’. These were in fact exposés of everyday life in some parts of the German army of the day. Lieutenant Bilse wrote Aus einer kleinen Garnison (published in English as Life in a Garrison Town), while von Baudissin’s book was titled Life in a German Crack Regiment. Both works were originally published in German, and English language editions soon followed. At the time of their publication these books caused a great sensation, for public criticism of the army (and of its officers in particular) by any part of the population was considered thoroughly unpatriotic. The fact that both of these books had been written by serving officers was at the same time unprecedented and quite scandalous. Nevertheless in Germany alone some 40,000 copies of von Baudissin’s book were sold before its circulation was banned by the local authorities, while by 1914 the English language edition had been reprinted no less than four times! For their literary exposés, both officers were formally disciplined, but by then the veneer of institutional professional perfection that had persisted ever since 1871 had been stripped from some important parts of the German army. In practice, Bilse’s book was of less significance as he chose to set it in a German cavalry regiment, whereas he was in fact a member of a battalion of the military train based at Saarbrücken. Although (as was grudgingly admitted at his court-martial) the book accurately recorded the sorry state of discipline and the lack of professionalism in his own logistical support battalion, it was certainly not credible as an account of life in a ‘typical’ German cavalry regiment. Indeed, a British officer then serving with a German hussar regiment observed that, as the military train was very often a refuge for those officers who had been expelled from other regiments, ‘perhaps Lieutenant Bilse’s comrades consisted of an undue number of undesirables.’ Nevertheless, the book was read widely in Germany and elsewhere. It undoubtedly harmed the well-established image of the army and indicated that perhaps all was not as well as it could or should be.

If the authorities could argue that Bilse’s book lacked a degree of credibility due to the author’s lack of first-hand experience of his chosen subject unit and the social strata depicted therein, the book published by Count von Baudissin could not be so criticized, and it was therefore of much greater significance. In Life in a German Crack Regiment the army establishment was for the first time confronted with a work written not by a junior, middle-class officer such as Bilse but one written by a member of the aristocracy, an officer who had himself served with just such an élite guard regiment as the fictional ‘Franz Ferdinand Leopold’ guard infantry regiment featured in his book. Although it was purportedly a work of fiction, Life in a German Crack Regiment provided a telling insight into the decayed nature of some parts of the German army by the turn of the century, and especially so of the quite unjustified, outdated and frequently detrimental stranglehold the nobility exerted upon the officer corps. By relating a number of incidents that he had experienced or witnessed at first hand, von Baudissin laid bare the class system and associated prejudices rampant within parts of the officer corps. These included the deep financial indebtedness of many officers, very often due to their gambling (an activity officially banned but widely condoned) and an inflated social lifestyle reminiscent of the worst excesses of the eighteenth century. Closely allied to this was a general condoning of the frequent drunkenness of many middle-grade and junior officers, often on a grand scale.

Notwithstanding all this, there was an immutable belief within the officer corps itself that a German officer of any rank was invariably superior to all other members of German society, its laws, its behavioural conventions and its social niceties, and this belief was energetically impressed upon the members of the civilian population whenever necessary. Such attitudes meant that exclusivity was ever present, and so the officer corps invariably chose to accept shortfalls in officer numbers where the only alternative was to risk the possible acceptance of socially inferior or politically suspect officer candidates. The consequent lack of officers in some units resulted in an over-reliance upon the NCOs, who had to assume additional responsibilities without proper officer supervision, a situation to which many of the reported instances of bullying or the ill-treatment of soldiers during the late nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth can probably be attributed.

Not surprisingly, such perverse and narrow attitudes of unchallenged superiority and arrogance fed through to the officer’s professional life, and von Baudissin described a pervasive obsession with maintaining a veneer of military perfection within a work environment in which any misconduct or failing by an officer or one of his subordinates could result in the summary dismissal of any officer deemed directly or indirectly responsible. Such dismissal almost invariably meant loss of income and pension – but (above all else in the culture of the time) it also meant the loss of the entitlement to wear an officer’s uniform and the social status which that entitlement conferred. This ultimate sanction was exemplified by the case of Hauptmann (captain) Hoenig, a disabled veteran of the Franco-Prussian War who had subsequently dared to publish a critical analysis of the general staff. Being both crippled and half blind, he had quite sensibly declined the subsequent invitation from one of the members of the general staff to fight a duel. A court of honour was convened to deal with what was construed as Hoenig’s betrayal of the army and the officer corps, and therefore regarded by many officers as little less than treason. Although this quasi-judicial court included officers who had served alongside Hoenig during 1870–1, it nevertheless stripped him of the right to wear his officer’s uniform, and by so doing it in effect also stripped him of his own honour.

Wherever it did exist, this culture of blame and cover-up meant, for example, that officially sanctioned punishments were often abandoned in favour of unofficial disciplinary action that would not need to be recorded on unit punishment sheets – always viewed as the indicator of an ill-disciplined unit – which in turn resulted in NCOs meting out physical beatings as punishments while the officers turned a blind eye. This resulted in a culture of command through fear, in which the bully thrived, rather than one of mutual respect. Indeed, the military culture described by von Baudissin in his book was validated by a number of factual reports in the 1880s and 1890s that recorded instances of physical abuse, bullying and intimidation at all levels and in all sorts of military establishments, from military academies to recruit training units, and in a range of active regiments and other units. More often than not, inadequately supervised or poorly selected NCOs could be found at the heart of such incidents.

As with any peacetime army, the fear of censure was endemic and led to great efforts being made to mask anything that might reflect ill upon a unit or its officers from the lowliest ensign to the regimental commander. In von Baudissin’s view, the army was dominated by a never-ending succession of inspections and appraisals, with every level of command fearful of any error or potential scandal that might occur at a lower level. By including in his work a lengthy discourse between a prematurely retired major and his son, a young and profligate lieutenant, von Baudissin provided a telling insight into the core views and attitudes of the military aristocracy of the time. Therein lay much of the special impact of the book: it set out quite clearly some of the deep-seated ills present in the German army at the end of the nineteenth century, together with the remedies necessary to redress them.

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that such works as those of Bilse and von Baudissin described a situation that obtained throughout the whole of the German army by 1900. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that they did highlight a gradually worsening situation in some units that clearly needed to be rectified, and as such these books and some others that followed them were undoubtedly timely. In the meantime, in his telling criticism of an officer corps that was still based upon the Offiziers-Kaste and upon a system of exclusivity, privilege and often perverse interpretations of the military code of honour, Count von Baudissin highlighted a decidedly unsatisfactory state of affairs. This not only threatened the integrity, professionalism and wider perception of the army, but also all too accurately reflected the wider nation’s early twentieth-century imperial hubris, within which the army was by then both unavoidably and inextricably ensnared. It was with a new awareness of such matters that parts of the army during the first seven years of the new century were finally committed to active operations again, albeit campaigns on a relatively small scale and far from the European theatre for which the general staff continued to develop its grand strategic plans.


The Boxer Rebellion was launched by an anti-foreign Chinese secret society called the ‘Fists of Righteous Harmony’ – hence the name ‘Boxers’ – whose aims and actions enjoyed the covert support of Tsu-hsi, the Dowager Empress of China. The Boxers emerged as an armed force in 1898, carrying out a number of attacks against foreign property and the railway system. Then in May 1900 two British missionaries were murdered in Peking (modern day Beijing), at which stage the European powers demanded the suppression of the Boxers. The Chinese authorities took no action and so an international military force 2,000 strong was formed to deal with the Boxers. This relatively small force landed in China within a month and on 10 June set out on its advance from Taku to Peking. In the meantime, the situation in Peking had deteriorated rapidly: a Japanese diplomat was killed on 11 June, followed by the murder of the German minister, Baron von Ketteler, on 20 June, on which day all the international legations came under attack. Chinese regular troops now joined the conflict in support of the Boxers, and their intervention checked the international expeditionary force 50 kilometres short of Peking. As a result, and boosted by the arrival of a reinforcing contingent of 1,800 men on 25 June, this force fell back on Tientsin, where they were able to alleviate the situation of the besieged legations, protecting them until a large international relief force finally reached Tientsin in mid-July. In response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in China, a substantial international force of about 50,000 men was eventually assembled, with contingents from eight major powers including a German contingent of 900 men, of whom 600 were marines and sailors and 300 were soldiers. Initially it was thought that the legations had already fallen, but then news arrived that they still held out, so this force immediately set out for Peking, defeating three separate Chinese and Boxer armies en route. On 14 August the international troops at last entered the city, finding that against all expectations the legations had successfully survived the siege.

Originally, it had been intended that Generalfeldmarschall Alfred von Waldersee (the former chief of the general staff 1888–91, who had been succeeded by Generalleutnant Alfred von Schlieffen) should assume command of the international allied contingents, but he had not arrived in time to do so before the hurried advance on Peking. Nevertheless, he did subsequently arrive in China in September, in time to engage the Boxers in the area of Peking, at Tientsin and Patachow, and in other parts of Northern China. He also oversaw the capture and destruction of the Boxer stronghold of Pao Ting Fu, the demolition of the Chinese forts at Taku, and the bringing to justice and severe punishment of the Boxers, as well as the imposition of punitive sanctions upon China. At the capture of Pao Ting Fu the newly-arrived German East Asia Brigade led the assault on the town, which was subsequently plundered by the allied troops and put to the torch. The German troops already stationed in China and those who were subsequently deployed to the campaign between the first Boxer riots in November 1899 and the signing of the peace protocol on 7 September 1901 included:

  • 3rd Seebataillon (1,126 men)
  • One battery of Marine horse artillery (111 men)
  • One Kommando Detachment (part infantry, part mounted) (800 men)
  • Sailors from the German East Asia Naval Squadron (serving as infantry)
  • The German East Asia Brigade (from 21 September 1900), comprising:

Two infantry regiments (each of two battalions of 812 men)

One Ulan regiment (600 men)

One field artillery regiment (three-gun batteries, one howitzer battery)

One pioneer battalion (including telegraph and railway companies)

Support troops (medical, train, ammunition handling, supply and other services)

After the campaign, most of the allies reduced their military presence in China significantly – typically to a single infantry regiment at most, with a small complement of supporting artillery and cavalry. However, the Germans continued to maintain a force of some strength in the country, and although the Boxer uprising was undoubtedly of much greater significance in Chinese history than in that of Germany, the rebellion produced one rather unedifying consequence for the victorious German contingent. Following the murder of the German minister in Peking on 20 June, the Kaiser had made a somewhat ill-judged speech in which he exhorted the troops of the German contingent in China to wreak revenge upon the Boxers. The soldiers were to ‘Make for yourselves reputations like the Huns of Attila. Spare none!’ Ever obedient to the Kaiser’s direction, they did just that, killing ruthlessly, plundering extensively and earning from their allies a less than favourable reputation for their arrogant behaviour. Indeed, the origin of the widespread and (by implication) derogatory use of ‘Hun’ later to describe German troops during World War I is most frequently attributed directly to Wilhelm II’s inflammatory direction to the German troops sent to suppress the Boxers in 1900.


By the early twentieth century the principal territories of Germany’s colonial empire in Africa were South West Africa (modern Namibia), East Africa (modern Tanzania), Togoland, and Cameroon (Kamerun), and it was in the protectorate of German South West Africa that the army’s second overseas conflict of the time took place. The main cause of the army’s protracted campaign to suppress a widespread revolt between 1904 and 1907 was the excessively authoritarian nature of the German colonial regime in the territory. On 12 January 1904 this led to a general tribal uprising in which the Hereros led by Samuel Maharero were prominent, being well-armed with firearms and deploying both cavalry and infantry against the German imperial forces. A series of bitterly fought and often quite extensive engagements ensued until 11–12 August, when Generalleutnant (later General der Infanterie) Lothar von Trotha brought Herero forces about 5,000 strong to battle at Waterberg. There, the Germans won a decisive victory, although their failure to encircle the Hereros army resulted in a relentless and ruthless pursuit of the survivors – men, women and children – forcing them into the Omaheke desert, where most subsequently died of thirst, hunger and exposure. Then in October the Nama tribe also rebelled, only to suffer the same fate as the Hereros. Although these two uprisings were suppressed successfully, harsh punitive action by the German forces (which included locally enlisted African troops) against surviving Hereros followed in the months and years thereafter. This attracted numerous accusations of excessive force, reinforced in later times by allegations that the Germans had deliberately waged a campaign of genocide against the Hereros. This was exemplified by the activities of several German-run concentration camps, the most notorious of which was Shark Island, off the West Africa coast at Lüderitz, where only about 245 of the almost 2,000 prisoners held there managed to survive their incarceration. In any event, as many as 100,000 Hereros and 10,000 Nama tribespeople may have died during and after the two revolts – whether in battle against the German colonial forces in 1904 or later of thirst, starvation or summary execution during the uncompromising reprisals subsequently carried out by the victors.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *