In August 1914
the only regular military unit in Northern Rhodesia
was the military branch of the Northern Rhodesia Police. This strength of this branch was 521 all-ranks
and it was composed of armed African policemen under the command of British
officers. However within the territory
about 300 Europeans were members of rifle clubs and many of them offered their
services as Volunteer soldiers. A
Government Proclamation dated 24 October 1914 created the Northern Rhodesia
Volunteer Force and the Northern Rhodesia Rifles was formed and recruited European
volunteers. Some of the Riflemen were
posted into static local defence units but the remainder were formed into four
mobile units. Majors Robert Gordon and
Boyd Alexander Cuninghame were instrumental in raising the volunteer Riflemen.
based at Bismarckburg at the south eastern end of Lake Tanganyika, increased
pressure on their common border with Northern Rhodesia
by threatening Abercorn. Belgian
military assistance was requested from the Congo and arrived at Abercorn on 22
September 1914. However more Allied
troops were needed to man the German East African border, known as the Northern
Border, and the four mobile units of the Northern Rhodesia Rifles were trained
at Broken Hill and formed into a column which became known as the Northern
Rhodesia Rifles Mobile Column. Three
quarters of the Riflemen had previous military service, mostly in Irregular
Horse units during the Boer War. Major
Cuninghame commanded the column which was allocated 14 ox-wagons, 252 oxen and
30,000 pounds of supplies.
Starting on 23
December the Mobile Column, 106 men strong, trekked 320 miles from Kashitu
Station, 50 miles north of Broken Hill, to Kasama, arriving on 2 February 1915. It rained nearly every day and a trail had to
be improved into a wagon route through the bush. Due to wagons having to be unloaded when
swampy ground was crossed sometimes only two or three miles were covered in a
day. Little African labour was available
and the Riflemen did much off the physical work. Twenty five Riflemen from Fort Rosebery
joined the Column at Kasama. The ox-wagons were left at Kasama (where all the
oxen eventually died of tsetse-fly disease) and the men trekked on another 100
miles to Saisi, this time using African porters to carry the supplies and
personal kits. After a three-day halt at
Saisi Fort the column marched on to Fife,
arriving on 19 February 1915. This had
been a tough and extremely demanding trek which probably would have been
impossible for a British regular army unit to achieve in the same time.
The Germans had
been skirmishing around the southern end of Lake Tanganyika and in December had
unsuccessfully attacked Fife twice. The Mobile Column of the Northern Rhodesia
Rifles was soon in action taking part alongside the Northern Rhodesia Police
and the Belgian troops in patrols into German territory where they encountered
the German tribal irregular troops named Ruga-Rugas. However many of the Riflemen had joined up in
the hope of seeing offensive action rather than the defensive procedures that
were then in place (due to lack of manpower, logistic support and a strategic
plan) on the Northern Border. Also the
Mobile Column wanted to act independently under its own officers and not be
subordinated to the Northern Rhodesia Police.
This dissatisfaction resulted in around 25% of the Volunteers being
given a discharge. By the end of March
1916 the Column’s strength had been reduced to 80 men all stationed at Fife.
Cuninghame now decided to attack the German stockade at Mwenengambe, nearly six
hours march east of Fife. The Column, supported by a section of
Northern Rhodesia Police, moved out on 15 April, spent the next day in
reconnaissance, and attacked at dawn on 17 April. Lieutenant Stannus Charles Edward Irvine,
Northern Rhodesia Rifles, led the attack taking a section through the open
stockade gate and into the German trenches inside. There he received a serious wound in his
shoulder. The enemy, mostly Ruga-Ruga
armed with muzzle-loading rifles, broke out of the rear of the stockade but
were met by the enveloping troops. Forty
of the enemy were killed or captured.
Sadly Lieutenant Irvine died of his wounds the next day and was buried
in Fife Cemetery.
Above: German Ruga-Ruga Irregular troops
A month later
Major Cunninghame led 40 Riflemen out on a reconnaissance of Mukoma’s
village. Whilst camping alongside a
stream near the border on 17 May an enemy force, around 60 men strong, attacked
the British camp at 2000 hours. The
Volunteers stood-to and repulsed the enemy attack but Riflemen Alexander Lindsay
and Arthur John Warren were killed and six others wounded. Five of the Column’s African carriers were
also killed and five others wounded.
Enemy losses were not known.
Rifleman Drostan Arthur Russell was informed that he had inherited a sizeable
legacy. He applied for and was granted
discharge and started marching back to the railway at Broken Hill. Unfortunately he contracted blackwater fever
and died at Mutotoni’s Village, two-thirds of the way along his route, on 25
Now a more
static period and a defensive routine started.
Corporal J.L. Moore formed a signalling section and trained with flags
until heliographs were obtained. Also
two old 7-pounder muzzle-loading guns were received from Karonga in Nyasaland. These
guns were manned by ex-artillery men amongst the Column. Men with civilian specialities such as
mechanics, surveyors, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths and butchers were
allocated to perform these skills in the border forts and strongpoints,
severely reducing the manpower available for patrolling, which nevertheless
continued. Major Cuninghame fell ill and
left for Livingstone on 24 September 1915.
(He died on 17 March 1917 and is buried in Lubumbashi Cemetery,
Democratic Republic of Congo.) The
Column lost a determined and fearless leader who was awarded a Mention in
Despatches. Lieutenant C.F. Molyneaux
now took over command.
A. Standish White and Major Boyd A. Cunninghame on Lusaka station December 1914
Towards the end
of 1915 the Germans became more aggressive along the Northern Border and
Rifleman William Edward Stevens was killed on 11 November whilst taking over
the Tunduma Picket at dawn. The enemy
then tried to intercept the Christmas mail being delivered to Fife
on 22 December. Lieutenant C.E. Mills
and 21 Northern Rhodesia Riflemen, supporting Northern Rhodesia Police and
British South Africa Police (from Southern Rhodesia) detachments with a Maxim
gun, deployed and held off the enemy until the mail reached Fife. The Germans withdrew at dusk having taken six
casualties and inflicted two on the Southern Rhodesians.
This was the
last engagement of the Mobile Column as on 25 November 1915 the staff had decided
that as the Column had served through one wet season the health of the men may
be damaged if they stayed any longer on the border. The option was given to serve on if certified
medically fit or to take discharge.
Lieutenants E.C. Mills and J. Brown and three men elected to serve on
but the remainder of the Column chose discharge. The potential health risk may not have been
the only reason for offering discharge as the Northern Rhodesian Riflemen were
rough and rugged men who joined up in order to fight. They had little time for regular army
niceties and protocol, and they spoke their minds bluntly to visiting staff and
senior officers. This was not what
regular officers, some of them now arriving from Europe,
expected, appreciated or wanted.
discharge started marching back to Broken Hill in mid-January 1916. They had handed over their magazine rifles in
Fife and had been given old Martini rifles
with ten rounds each to carry on their journey.
A report was then received that 60 German troops were heading for Chungu,
40 miles west of Fife, which was a British
supply base. The Column marched through
the night to reach and defend Chungu but the enemy withdrew on learning of the
Column’s defensive measures. At Broken
Hill the Column was disbanded on 19 February, official notice of disbandment
being dated 31 March 1916. Only the four
Mobile Units were disbanded. The static
local defence units of the Northern Rhodesia Rifles in Northern
Rhodesia served on until 1919.
On 1 April 1925 the Northern Rhodesia Volunteer Force was disbanded.
After the war
the four dead of the Mobile Column were re-buried in Ndola
(Kansenshi) Cemetery, Northern Rhodesia (now named Zambia). Six men of the Mobile Column suffered wounds
in action and survived. They were:
Sergeant W.S. Pillans, Corporal J.L. Moore, Rifleman W.J. Celliers,
Rifleman W.M. Elmes, Rifleman D.K. Oberholster and Rifleman G. Van Sykkel.
During the 15
months of service the Mobile Column had marched 4,000 miles. The health of the men remained good,
primarily due to their fitness and ability to tolerate the conditions and climate
on the Northern Border. After discharge
several men went to England
to enlist in British units serving on the Western Front. Others joined the Northern Rhodesia Police or
the Southern Rhodesia forces.
Above: C Company Northern Rhodesian Rifles
Rhodesia Rifles Mobile Units responded patriotically to the call to arms in
1914, as did other similar groups of volunteers throughout the British Empire.
They displayed great physical prowess in marching to the Northern Border
where they provided experienced infantry support to the hard-pressed Northern
Rhodesia Police and Belgian Congolese troops.
The Riflemen who served for the full 15 months of the Mobile Units’
existence were definitely some of the toughest European volunteers that the British Empire produced.
Official History. Military Operations East Africa August 1914- September 1916 by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.
The Story of the Northern
Rhodesia Regiment by W.V. Brelsford.
The Journal of the Orders & Medals Research
Society Volume 49 Number 1, March 2010.
The Northern Rhodesia
Journal Volume V.
The History of the Northern
Rhodesia Police by Tim Wright.