Aug 26, 2022 I Brent Swancer

The Strange Life and Adventures of Hermann Detzner

History is rife with amazing tales of exploration and adventure in the uncharted wilds of our world. There are many cases of those explorers who have gone off into the unknown to have experiences most of us couldn't imagine, and bring back spactacular tales. History is littered with such stories, and one of these is that of a German explorer who went out into the jungles of New Guinea and came back with a very fantastic tale, indeed, one which may or may not be true. 

In the years before World War I, part of New Guinea, then known as German New Guinea, was one more piece of Germany’s vast colonial empire, with Germany controlling the north-eastern part while the Netherlands controlled the western half and the British held the south-eastern part. At the time, it was little more than a vast tangled sprawl of uncharted and unexplored unforgiving jungle, and most German surveying efforts had focused on coastal regions and river basins, where the Germans had established plantations. The Germans were interested in sending in explorers to chart and survey the forbidding and little understood interior too. One of these explorers was the German engineer and surveyor Hermann Philipp Detzner, who at the time was serving as an officer in the German colonial security force in what is now known as Cameroon, in Africa. In late 1913, Detzner was appointed to lead an expedition to survey the border between the British protectorate, called Papua, and the German territory, called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, deep in the most remote hinterlands of the territory that neither the Germans nor the British had ever explored before. His mission was to map the region and to evaluate it, describe its resources, observe the flora and fauna, and if possible make contact with some of the uncontacted primitive natives who were now, in theory, living under German rule.

Hermann Detzner

Detzner was not a stranger to such expeditions into remote jungles. He'd been in German Kamerun, now Cameroon, exploring and mapping the colony, and he had participated in a joint British-German scientific and surveying expedition in Kamerun in 1908 and 1909, and again in 1912–1913. These were excursions into some of the harshest, most inhospitable, nearly impenetrable jungle wilderness there was, and so he was seasoned in this sort of thing. However, this time would be pretty treacherous. Considering the sensitive potential political problems that might arise from a German team tip-toeing around British territory, especially since the border between the two was in dispute, Detzner would be pretty much on his own, with no real support if something were to happen, so when he departed into that thick, uncharted jungle in January of 1914 with 25 native troops, 45 carriers, and a handful of other Germans, they were almost completely on their own. 

The expedition proved to be fruitful almost immediately, with the German team discovering discrepancies in the border that favored their interests, and over the next ten months they would make a number of findings that placed more and more territory under German claims. They would also encounter a remote tribe Detzner called the Rockpapua or "skirted Papuans," due to their grass skirts, with the expedition most likely being the first outsiders these people had ever seen. It seemed like the expedition was mostly a success, but then in November of that year they faced a new challenge when one of Detzner’s carriers ran into an Australian patrol at a temporary resting camp, whose commanding officer informed them that World War I had broken out, Australian troops had invaded German New Guinea, and that they were to surrender at Nepa on the Lakekamu River, about a five days walk away. That World War I had started was news to everyone in the expedition, as they had been cut off from the outside world for months, but the fact was that Britain had declared war on Germany all the way back in August. Most of the German colonial troops had already surrendered in September, so the Australians were out looking for stragglers. The team now faced quite the predicament.

Faced with this order to immediately surrender, most of the Native New Guinean members of the expedition simply went back to their homes, while Detzner mulled over what to do. Considering that he was now totally cut off from his commanding officers and had no chance of help or reinforcements, plus the fact that he only had a few lightly armed men on his team with basic rifles and pistols and very limited ammo, it seemed suicidal not to obey the Australian order to surrender. To not do so would be idiotic and illogical, but Detzner nevertheless refused and took his roughly 30 remaining men out into the jungle to evade the Australians and try to make it to Dutch controlled territory, all the way on the other side of the island, where they believed they might be able to negotiate a return to Germany with the neutral Dutch. They would not get far.

Australian forces in New Guinea

They soon had a clash with the local people, after which they were forced to build a raft and float downstream to wherever it would take them. Along the way their numbers dropped as men succumbed to malaria, and several others were captured by Australian patrols, including Detzner’s second in command, a Sergeant Konradt. Even with morale low and his numbers weakening Detzner refused to surrender, and decided to launch a bonkers new plot against the Australians. He gathered together his men, as well as some of the local villagers, outfitted them with a hand-made German flag and whatever they could find to use as instruments, and launched a musical guerilla campaign against the enemy. This entailed marching about waving the flag and playing pro-German anthems. It was an insane idea, and luckily for them the very lightly armed party never did seem to gain an Australian audience for their strange motley brass band.

The group trudged on and their numbers dwindled even more when several of their party fell ill and decided to surrender. Eventually, Detzner’s group fought through the mosquito infested wilderness, avoiding enemy troops and hostile cannibal tribes the whole way, to reach a remote German Lutheran mission at a place called Sattelberg, where the 20 or so remaining men were taken in by the missionaries and locals. The missionaries had signed oaths of neutrality for the Australians, but with a little negotiation Detzner was able to convince them to keep their presence there a secret, despite the fact that if they were discovered by the enemy, the missionaries risked the possibility of losing everything. Detzner established a temporary base camp among the villagers, but his real goal was to get to Dutch controlled territory as soon as possible.

As soon as they had rested and regrouped, Detzner took a small contingent of his men and trekked to the coast, where he had the misguided idea to try and use two small canoes to travel along the rugged coastline to reach the Dutch side of the island, but there was an imposing Australian warship blocking their route and Detzner also learned the Australians had orders to shoot him on sight, so they went back to the mission. After one more failed overland escape attempt that left Detzner with an internal hemorrhage that nearly killed him, he would decide to stay at Sattelberg, where they would stay hiding from the Australians for the remainder of the war and beyond, oblivious that the war had even ended. It was only when Sattelberg missionaries returned from a supply run in late November of 1918 that Detzner and his weary, bedraggled men would finally learn that the war was over. With this news, Detzner and his ragtag group became the last German soldiers of the First World War to surrender on January 5th, 1919, after four years living in the remote wilds dodging Australian patrols, disease, and natives who wanted to kill them and possibly eat them. 

Australian troops in New Guinea

When Detzner returned to Germany he became a celebrity and was hailed as a national hero. People couldn’t get enough of this amazing tale of survival, adventure, and defiance in the face of insurmountable odds in an exotic, faraway land, and he was widely likened to the successful commander of German East Africa, Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had tenaciously defied and held back the British forces in Africa. Detzner was also promoted to the rank of major, and he would write a memoir of his adventures titled Four Years Among the Cannibals in the Interior of German New Guinea under the Imperial Flag, from 1914 until the Armistice, as well as a book on his research there called Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, According to the State of Research in the Year 1919. The book on his scientific survey was a well-reasoned, detailed account that shed light on undiscovered indigenous plants and animals, as well as the life, culture, and language of the uncontacted natives of the region, and was well-received in the scientific community. The other one on his adventures was a more lurid affair describing his hardships and going into great detail on hiding from cannibals and the enemy that read like some pulp adventure story, as well as expounding how the local people were mistreated by the Australians and wanted Germany to come back, which the Germans ate up but which proved to be controversial and provocative in Australia. 

Both books would be extremely popular, selling well in Great Britain and Germany, entering three printings, and translated into French, English, Finnish and Swedish. His work on his scientific survey generated a lot of excitement in the scientific world, earning him an honorary degree and several awards, medals, and accolades from various prestigious organizations such as the Geographical Society of Berlin, the Geographic Society of Leipzig, and the University of Köln. He also became a highly sought after speaker on the lecture circuit. The other book was a bestseller, with people seemingly not able to get enough of this sensational, romantic adventure in an exotic land that most people would never hope to see. It was an amazing tale, but unfortunately, it would turn out that much of it was likely fake.

Cracks in the story first started to appear when an anonymous Australian who claimed to have been there wrote a letter to The Argus, a Melbourne newspaper, that basically said that the Australians had not only made no real attempt to capture Detzner, but had on several occasions had the opportunity to actually shoot him but had let him escape, and that they had always known where he was at the mission. This might have been written off as a jilted Australian throwing salt on the claims out of spite for what had happened, but then two of the missionaries from Sattelberg also came forward to claim that Detzner had not spent the war wandering around the jungle evading Australians and cannibals, but rather had been peacefully studying flora and fauna under the mission’s protection the entire time. On closer inspection, Detzner's narrative was also found to be rife with contradictions and omissions, misnamed places, and miscalculations, as well as flat out falsehoods. It was looking as if his account was more of the pulp action adventure fiction variety rather than any reliable account of what had actually happened. After much public criticism, Detzner, while not admitting his story was flat-out fiction and not apologizing, would admit that he maybe kinda sorta might have embellished and romanticized some elements of his tale, and that it “contains passages that do not correspond with the facts,” although he would never specify exactly which parts were fake. In the end, while Detzner indeed was in the New Guinea jungle for four years and truly did hide out there unaware that the war had ended, it seems that the story contains many elements of fiction and sensationalism, and so cannot really be taken at face value. It’s still a pretty impressive story, and Geographer Robert Linke has commented on it:

Why did Detzner resort to lies to embellish his wonderful story? The unadorned truth would have been enough to establish him as one of the great figures in New Guinea history. Surely, this was an exceptional feat. It is impossible not to admire his sheer elan, his courage and tenacity.

Hermann Detzner in New Guinea

It was not only his memoir of his adventure that was receiving heat, but also his more scientific work. While many of his observations were later found to be true and accurate, others were found to be rife with omissions, ambiguities, vagueness, calculation errors, or were just plain wrong. One problem was that Detzner claimed to have lost much of his documentation or had it confiscated by the enemy, or it had rotted away in the jungle conditions, and some of his notebooks and journals had been destroyed, forcing him to work from memory on some parts. He also explained that he had lost his surveying instruments while eluding an Australian patrol, which he cited as the reason for why many of his assertions and observations were vague and inconclusive, and why his calculations were sometimes inaccurate. This all seems fair enough, and while Detzner had admitted to telling tall tales in his memoir he insisted that his scientific observations and assertions were true and correct to the best of his abilities with the equipment and documentation he had remaining, but the damage had already been done. Although Detzner was known as a very reliable and meticulous surveyor on previous expeditions, in light of his falsehoods in his memoir no one could be sure which parts of his scientific observations and illustrations were true and which were made up, so they were forced to assume it was all lies. Detzner would resign from the prestigious Geographical Society of Berlin, drop out of the public eye in disgrace, and become a veritable recluse until his death in 1970, at the age of 88.

Why did this otherwise dependable observer with a solid history as a reliable surveyor feel the need to embellish his experiences in New guinea? He never did explain which parts of his memoir were made up or bogus, so what can we believe about his account and what should we dismiss? How much of his scientific work was true and how much of it was embellished as well? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, Hermann Detzner was nevertheless a remarkable figure in history, and accurate or not, his story is a curious snapshot of an era of World War I and colonization that is rarely talked about, and which tends to get sidelined by the history of all of the big battles and stories of valor. True or not, even in its most stripped down version it is an intriguing piece of history, and a damn strange tale.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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