Beer Wars

Discoveries at Gobabeb
August 1, 2012
Suspending suspended animation – Namib desert
August 1, 2012
Discoveries at Gobabeb
August 1, 2012
Suspending suspended animation – Namib desert
August 1, 2012

Text Ed Jenkins

Photographs             Courtesy Sam Cohen Library, Swakopmund, Ed Jenkins


The causes of the First World War were complex, and probably incomprehensible to the average foot soldier. Alliances, Imperialism, Nationalism, and Militarism all played a role. But for some of the South African Union troops who fought in German South West Africa (Namibia), one of the reasons for fighting may have been the beer… or lack thereof.

Responding to a request from the British Government, the South African Union (SAU) invaded German South West Africa in the fall of 1914. Landings were done at Lüderitz and Walvis Bay; and a landing on the South African coast allowed the approach to German territory from the south.

Colonel Skinner’s forces, advancing north from Walvis Bay, were initially slowed by landmines, but with German forces electing to withdraw to the east, Swakopmund was speedily occupied.  Preparing for a potential counterattack, SAU troops moved to fortify the abandoned German positions, utilising the materials at hand. Members of the Rhodesian Regiment strengthened the walls of their entrenchments with liquid-filled steel barrels. When they were ordered to join the pursuit of the German forces into the desert, another unit took over their position. It fell to an inquisitive private from the relieving regiment to stab one of the barrels with his bayonet, and discover that it contained German beer.

According to an account by a Royal Navy Officer, “…needless to say, it was not long before the good news spread round the force, and by the next day there were very few full kegs left.”  Of course, as their comrades-in-arms moved east, they missed no opportunity to remind the Rhodesians of their bad fortune, and many rued the nights they had slept against the casks, with no clue of their contents.

Unfortunately their commander, General Botha, didn’t share the enthusiasm of his troops for beer. When he promulgated orders restricting its acquisition, the soldiers prepared a mock gravesite, with an empty beer bottle placed inside a glass-covered ‘coffin’. A simple wooden cross was inscribed:

To our lost Beloved Beer

Died of Consumption

December 29, 1914

Corks, inscribed with messages such as, ‘In loving memory of our beer departed’, and ‘Deeply mourned’ were artfully arranged as a wreath, draped from the cross.

In another instance, Imperial Light Horse (ILH) troops discovered a cache of dozens of cases of, ‘beautiful long bottles of pale, cool-looking Pilsner’, which were collected by headquarters and sold back to the ranks at nine pence a bottle. In another regiment, Christmas day entailed extra rations and ‘a few bottles of light German beer’.

As the war continued into 1915, a common complaint among Skinner’s brigade (in addition to the heat, cold, sand, flies, lack of drinkable water and the terrain) was the German propensity for leaving huge piles of empty beer bottles at every abandoned campsite. For the SAU troops, this was simply adding insult to injury.

The ‘beer gap’ soon became evident. The Germans had lots of beer, but few cigarettes; the SAU troops had plenty of cigarettes, but little beer.

On a hilltop near Swakopmund, ILH troops manned an outpost during daylight hours; at night the Germans controlled the position. One morning, members of the ILH discovered that several bottles of beer had been left for them, with a note asking for cigarettes in return. A regular trade of beer for cigarettes became a daily routine, until one day the ILH men reported for duty in the morning to discover that, instead of beer, the Germans had left a large, crudely concealed mine.

From that point on, ‘the trade was only in bullets’…

This article appeared in the May’12 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.

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