Aus is a small, dusty village along the unending stretch of desert road that links Lüderitz to the rest of the country. There is not much to Aus, save for a white-washed German church, a gas station, a railway stop and a school. But it turns out this sleepy town played an important role in a forgotten chapter of the First World War.
At the outbreak of the European war in August 1914, Aus was part of the colony of German South West Africa. When the British government kindly asked South Africa to take care of the German colony to its north, the South African government dutifully agreed to do so. Battles played out across the country, including in Aus. Situated along the main rail-line, Aus was very strategically located.
A year of fighting, in which 216 lives were lost, eventually resulted in a German defeat. South Africa happily occupied the colony and then administered it as a territory from 1919. A condition of German surrender was that all non-commissioned officers and troops of the active forces and police would be held prisoner until the war’s end. A tented camp was hastily erected on the outskirts of Aus to hold the 1,438 prisoners, and 600 South African garrison troops were stationed there to guard them. Aus has some of the most extreme weather in the country, with blazing hot summer days and bitterly cold winter nights, which made it an uncomfortable home for the prisoners and guards as the war dragged on.
The Great War officially ended in November 1918. But just as peace was settling, a terrible influenza pandemic struck the camp, resulting in the deaths of 65 German P.O.W.s and 60 South African guards. Finally, in May 1919, the camp was officially closed and the surviving German prisoners were deported back to Germany.
A lonely cemetery, crumbling brick structures and rusting bases for German artillery on a hill above Aus are the only clues left from a time when a European war came to be played out in the distant deserts of Namibia.