Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg has seen three distinct phases in its long history.
- Phase 1 (1843-1914): Imperial Base - British Regiments garrisoned here.
- Phase 2 (1914-1919): Internment Camp for German nationals during World War I.
- Phase 3 (1927-today): Mental Hospital (Psycho-social rehabilitation and Forensic hospital)
The focus of this project is on phase 2, i.e. the history and inhabitants of the internment camp during World War I.
The location of Fort Napier can be explored using Google Maps. The whole area on the hill, partly enclosed by the loop of the railway line, was the historical location of Fort Napier.
Phase 1 (1843-1914)
In their online article Fort Napier: the imperial base that shaped the city at "Pietermaritzburg Local History" dated 5 Nov 2009, Graham Dominy and Hamish Paterson state:
"For seventy-one years, almost half its recorded history, Pietermaritzburg served as an important base for the British Army. Although no battle took place in or near the City, imperial troops marched out to fight in numerous campaigns ranging from minor skirmishes with cattle raiders and black peasant farmers to the major wars with the Zulu kingdom and the Boer republics.
The Imperial Garrison acted as an important link between the City and the rest of the Empire. The regiments that succeeded each other in the local barracks were liable for transfer to outposts scattered anywhere between Dublin and Delhi, China and the West Indies. This leavened the parochial attitudes of the townspeople and gave them a vicarious interest in exotic places and far-flung battlefields. The seven decades that imperial troops spent in the City also linked Pietermaritzburg with major world conflicts. The first garrison commander in 1843 was a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo and the last, in 1914, led the former garrison of the City, the 1st South Staffordshire Regiment, into the holocaust of the First World War battles in Flanders."
During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), the later well-known South African Major-General Dan Pienaar was treated in the hospital at Fort Napier. He was a young boy at the time, and was interned with his family at the Pietermaritzburg Concentration Camp. The young Dan’s leg was severely lacerated by an accident with an axe. In his book, Pienaar of Alamein, A M Pollock wrote of the aftermath of the accident as follows: “Blood-poisoning set in and Dan was taken to the British military hospital at Fort Napier. It was at first feared that his leg would have to be amputated. Several doctors held consultations, and finally Dan’s mother was called in to make the decision. She decided on the more slender chance of her son’s pulling through without amputation. Slowly the leg responded to treatment, but for four long months Dan had to lie in the military hospital. On either side of him and all round him were wounded British “Tommies”. He became their favourite. Far from their own families, these soldiers, in their rough but kindly way, took the small boy to their hearts and lavished upon him an affection they would normally have reserved for their own children. Dan responded, as a child would, and very soon he and these British soldiers were fast friends. That friendship persisted in spite of later misunderstandings and undoubtedly formed the foundation of the deep respect which Major-General Dan Pienaar had for the ordinary British soldier.”
Phase 2 (1914-1919)
From October 1914 to late 1919, Fort Napier was used as an internment camp for about 2,500 German nationals from the then German South West Africa and from all over the Union of South Africa. It was the sole internment camp for German men in Southern Africa during World War I.
A general reference for activities in Natal during World War I is the article The Natal home front in the Great War (1914–1918) by PS Thompson that appeared in Historia, volume 56, number 1 of May 2011.
Fort Napier specific history is contained in Pietermaritzburg's Imperial Postscript: Fort Napier from 1910 to 1925 by Graham Dominy that appeared in Natalia, Issue number 19, 1989. G Dominy and D Reusch wrote an article titled Handicrafts, philanthropy and self-help: the Fort Napier Kamp-Industrie during World War I. Some examples of handcraft during the long boring years of captivity can be seen here:
But much more will be revealed by the personal stories and archive documents that will (hopefully) be collected by this project...
Phase 3 (1927-today)
On their web site at History of Fort Napier Hospital the Department of Health of KwaZulu-Natal states:
"In 1918 it was handed over to union government for use as a Mental hospital. ... In 1927 the hospital was opened by Dr. Willis the first Superintendent. The first patients arrived in 1928.
As one of the institutions within the Midlands Complex the work intermeshes with and complements that of Townhill Hospital but Fort Napier Hospital has been identified as a Psycho-social rehabilitation and Forensic hospital. Fort Napier Hospital has an academic and service component. The doctors, psychologist and nurses on training rotate between three hospitals (Townhill, Umgeni and Fort Napier)."
Events at Fort Napier (25 October 1914 - 11 August 1919)
- 28 July 1914: Outbreak of World War I. German nationals are at first detained at the Milner Park Showgrounds in Johannesburg, then, briefly, at Roberts' Heights (now Voortrekkerhoogte / Thaba Tshwane) near Pretoria
- 24-25 October 1914: About 2,000 German nationals are transported by train from Roberts' Heights to Fort Napier, Pietermaritzburg
- 27 October 1914: Rumours in Pietermaritzburg of an attempted mass breakout at Fort Napier
- 18 July 1916: A terminally ill JW Bellstedt is 'released on parole to Pretoria'. He never recovers and dies in the ZA Hospital, Pretoria on 28 September 1919.
- 20 July 1917: The Prime Minister, General Louis Botha, personally visits Fort Napier, following written complaints on conditions in the camp. These complaints were lodged via the Swiss Embassy. General Botha undertakes to have the issues "speedily and favourably considered".
- 22 July 1917: A follow-up visit by the Commissioner of Enemy Subjects takes place. He promises a 'definite answer in 10-14 days at the most'.
- 12 August 1917: A telegram of enquiry is sent to Pretoria.
- 15 August 1917: A response arrives: "...the Government, waiting certain instructions from England, could not answer before their arrival in another 8-10 days"
- 16 August 1917 (Thursday evening): The start of 'the disturbance' reported at Fort Napier. From the statement by the Camp Captain, Camp III: "Shots followed by cries and the noise of breaking wood and iron was heard from the direction of Camps I and II."
- 17 August 1917 (Friday): Fire set to the recreation room at Camp III
- 18 August 1917 (Saturday): Fire set to building comprising barracks 5, 6, 7 and 8
- 19 August 1917 (Sunday): Emil Gehrer dies of wounds (caused on the 18th) in the camp hospital
- 18-25 August 1917: A total of 31 arrests are made during and following 'the disturbance'. Eleven (including Robert Ahlers) are formally charged and appear before a military court in Pretoria
- 25 September 1917: The accused are found guilty and Robert Ahlers is sentenced to 'eighteen months imprisonment with hard labour'
- 5 October 1917: Robert Ahlers and others start serving their prison sentences at the Pretoria Central Prison
- 5-7 June 1918: Robert Ahlers and August Peters are returned to Fort Napier for re-internment
- 11 November 1918: Formal end of World War I
- 11 August 1919: Robert Ahlers is 'released on parole to Pretoria'
People interned at Fort Napier (1914-1919)
- Ahlers, Robert
- Bellstedt, Johann - being terminally ill, he is 'released on parole to Pretoria'. He never recovers and dies in the ZA Hospital, Pretoria on 28 September 1919.
- Gehrer, Emil - dies of his wounds in the camp hospital, having been shot during the 'disturbance' and arson in Fort Napier, 16-18 August 1916
- Merensky, Hans - see Hans Merensky on Wikipedia or A tale of an extraordinary prospector by EW Machens, as reviewed by John Gurney in the SA Journal of Science, number 105, 2009
- Peters, August
- Schlesinger, Bruno - see Man of Tempered Steel by Helga Kaye