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TOPIC: The first Train Driver into German South West Africa - Walter Kemery

The first Train Driver into German South West Africa - Walter Kemery 6 months 16 hours ago #57978

  • Rory
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Kemery was a Fireman with the NGR in the Boer War but was better known for his role in the GSWA WWI camaign.

Walter Kemery

Fireman, Natal Government Railways – Anglo Boer War
Sapper, South African Engineer Corps – German South West Africa – WWI


- Queens South Africa Medal to Mr. W. Kemery, Natal Govt. Rlys.
- 1914/15 Star to Spr. W. Kemery, S.A.E.C.
- British War Medal to Spr. W. Kemery, S.A.E.C.
- Victory Medal to Spr. W. Kemery, S.A.E.C.


Walter Kemery was born in Bathford in the County of Somerset on 20 June 1878 the son of Henry Kemery and his wife Elizabeth. He was baptised in the Parish Church in Bathford on 25 August 1878 at which time his father was listed as being a Foreman of a Quarry Works. The spelling of his surname was also recorded as Kemmery as opposed to Kemery.

Three years later at the time of the 1881 England census the Kemery family lived in the Back Lane Devizes Road in Bathford. The family was a large one with his 37 year old parents and their progeny; Albert (15), Henry (13), Edwin (8), Elizabeth (7), Alice (6), Walter (5) and Ernest (10 months) all under the same roof.

Ten years later, at the time of the 1891 England census the picture had altered somewhat. The Kemery parents had been exceedingly busy in the intervening years with quite a number of new additions to the family. Now resident at Woodland Cottage were siblings Henry (23), Elizabeth (16), William (14), Walter (12), Ernest (10), Frances (9) Sydney (6) and Gertrude (5). Walter was already out to work and was a Baker’s Assistant along with older brother William.

Tiring of this occupation Kemery took the plunge and joined the employ of the Great Western Railways in November 1896. Already 18 years old he was part of the uniformed staff in the Goods Department of the Bristol Railway Station at the rate of pay of 17 shillings per day. Whether or not he found the work too onerous is unknown to us but he resigned in July 1897 after 9 months service.

Now unemployed Kemery scouted around for something with which to occupy himself. Victorian England, at the turn of the 20th century, was awash with men out to seek their fortune but constrained in their efforts by the shackles of the class to which they belonged. Men like Kemery saw, as a possible outlet, the need to leave England for one of her Colonies in order to carve out a life for themselves. This could be the reason why, in the late 1890’s, he elected to leave home and journey to South Africa where he joined the Natal Government Railways in Durban, Natal.

Unbeknown to him his arrival coincided (almost) with the outbreak of hostilities between the two Dutch Republics to the north – the Transvaal and the Orange Free State – and the might of the British Empire of which Natal was a part. The railways were to play a vital role in the war, carrying men and supplies into the hinterland and to the various fronts that sprang up as the war progressed.

Being a Fireman with the Locomotive Department of the N.G.R. meant that Kemery was called into action working, in his instance, supply trains between Standerton and Elandsfontein in the Transvaal. As a Fireman he would, quite literally, have stoked and fanned the flames of his locomotive. There was also always the prospect of being attacked by Boer Commandos as they worked their way across the wide expanse of the Transvaal in an effort to avoid the British forces trying to hem them in.

After the war was over Kemery was awarded the Queens Medal, issued on 24 June 1904. He returned to his civilian employment with the railways. At the age of 25 he wed Ada Paddock, a 22 year old damsel, in Redhill, Durban on 22 March 1904 settling down to a life of comparative bliss. This peace was to be shattered for him and for many others a short ten years later with the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. South Africa, so recently at war with itself, was called on to provide an “urgent Imperial service” on behalf of the Empire by invading and conquering the German territory of South West Africa – on her Cape border.

Kemery was one of the thousands of Boer War veterans who, along with their younger kin, enlisted for service in this campaign. Being a railway man it came as no surprise to find him assigned to the South African Engineer Corps as a Sapper with no. 362. Assigned to “C” Company he joined up on 27 November 1914 providing his wife of 113 North Street, Durban as his next of kin.

But what role did the railways play in this campaign? The family from whom the medals were sourced provided quite a bit of context to the role Kemery played but first we need to explore a bit of background to the main event.

The cross border stretch between Prieska, Northern Cape and Karasburg (formerly Kalkfontein), was hastily built as a military railway to give logistical support to General Louis Botha’s troops in his 1915 invasion of what was then German South West Africa.

The logistical support of the Union Defence Force going into battle was of crucial importance, especially in the arid inhospitable landscape of S.W.A. which had few settlements, poor water supply (made worse by the poisoning of wells as the Germans retreated) and no decent roads to speak of. It was therefore imperative for a military railway line to be laid as fast as possible to link between the existing railway systems of South Africa and South West Africa.

In S.W.A. the Germans had built a railway to the Cape Gauge of 3ft 6in from the port of Luderitz to Keetmanshoop (reached by 1905), which was due east, on the far side of the Aus mountains. From Keetmanshhoop the line went northwards to Windhoek (reached by 1912). A line to Kalkfontein branched off from a junction at Seeheim, south west of Keetmanshoop. The railhead at Kalkfontein was reached by 1909 and was about 84 miles away from the South African border (at Narkop) in the general direction of Upington, which was another 88 miles going eastwards.

In South Africa a branch line off the main line at De Aar Junction was built in 1905 to a rail head at Prieska, hence the two railheads were 268 miles apart as the crow flies. Prieska would be the starting point of an extension of the railway to the south bank of the Orange River at a point opposite the small town of Upington, on the river’s north bank, a distance of 140 route miles. Upington was to be the initial staging point for the invasion of S.W.A. from the south to coincide with landings from the sea at Luderitz and Walvis Bay (an enclave which was part of the Union and close to Swakopmund). Luderitz and Walvis Bay were the only two natural harbours along the S.W.A. coastline and thus were the only places to establish bridgeheads to stage incursions further inland.

On the 16th August 1914 (11 days before Kemery enlisted) the plan for the line from Prieska to Upington was passed down by William Hoy, the General Manager of the South African Railways (S.A.R.) to Arthur Tippett, S.A.R.’s Chief Engineer, for the line’s implementation. Tippett moved quickly and was able to report back that the project would take an estimated three months to complete. The rails ultimately reached Upington (south bank) on the 20th November 1914 just as the towns people were expecting an attack by the Rebels led by Manie Maritz. Fortunately the attack only came on the 24th January 1915, which gave the Union Defence Force time to reinforce its garrison at Upington and thus were able to repel a combined German and Rebel assault.

With the rebellion averted and the Germans in retreat S.A.R. were able to press on towards S.W.A. without fear of attack, but first the Orange River had to be crossed. This was first achieved by a temporary ferry which was able to take one locomotive at a time or wagons loaded with railway laying material across the river and was in use until a temporary low level bridge was completed on 16th April 1915. It was with this that Kemery shot to prominence in that he was the Train Driver of the first train that crossed over into enemy territory.



Kemery's locomotive being ferried into GSWA across the temporary bridge

Once the river was bridged it was a race to Kalkfontein with around the clock working - three eight hour shifts a day, with each shift of workers competing with the others to see who could lay the most length of track. As the permanent way was being speedily laid towards its objective, it allowed for the movement along the completed section of line of water, provisions and fodder from stores accumulated at Upington to camps in the bush where transhipment took place for forwarding by lorry to the troops already in the field. By the time it took for the line to be finally linked to the metals of the German line at Kalkfontein the date was the 25th June 1915, a fortnight before the Germans finally surrendered.


The rail map from South Africa into South West Africa just after 1915

The war in German South West Africa was won within the space of a year with relatively little loss of life, as compared to the carnage of the Western Front. In the aftermath of the war in South West the Union Defence Force and South African Railways were quick to repair the damage done to the railway infrastructure and with the conversion of the Otavi Railway between Swakopmund and Karabib, from 600mm to 1067mm (3ft 6in), by August 1915 through running was possible on the Cape Gauge all the way to Walvis Bay, thereby a transcontinental rail route had been created from Walvis Bay to Durban; a distance of roughly 1900 miles.

Kemery, there being no further need for his services in this campaign, took his discharge on 6 September 1915 and returned home. He was awarded the standard trio of medals for World War One service for his efforts – none of which tell the story of the role he played.

Kemery returned to the railways once more and, at some point, was widowed. He was remarried at the age of 55 on 3 August 1933 to a divorcee, Agnes Matilda Smith (born Nelson). He lived at 156 Musgrave Road, Durban at the time whilst his bride to be, all of 52 years old, was resident at 52 Second Avenue in the same city.

Walter Kemery passed away at Addington Hospital in Durban on 3 November 1954 at the age of 76 years and 3 months. He was resident at Flat 3, Innes Court, Innes Road, Durban and was survived by his wife and two children – William Henry Kemery and Doreen Gertrude Elizabeth Turnham.






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The first Train Driver into German South West Africa - Walter Kemery 5 months 4 weeks ago #58018

  • Brianc
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Great write up Rory, just goes to show the importance of railways to a war effort.

Largely overlooked but without the Engineering Corps life would have been difficult for many, especially supplying the Union Forces with vital ammunition and food supplies in the vast barren areas of GSWA.
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