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1914 - 1915

Belgian Congolese military support for the Northern Rhodesia Police

Northern Rhodesia


Northern Rhodesia (now named Zambia) was formed in 1911 as an administered territory by the amalgamation of the two territories of North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia.  However Northern Rhodesia was not administered by Britain but by the private British South Africa Company, as was Southern Rhodesia (now named Zimbabwe).  But there was a difference in the way that the Northern and Southern Rhodesias were governed.  Southern Rhodesia had a much larger white population whose interests were represented on a Legislative Council that could promote Ordinances which became law if the British High Commissioner for South Africa assented.   In Northern Rhodesia legislation was embodied in Proclamations, as it was in the Native Protectorates, as they were then called, of Swaziland, Bechuanaland (now named Botswana) and Basutoland (now named Lesotho).  A British Resident Commissioner for both Rhodesias represented the High Commissioner in South Africa and the Imperial Government in London, and worked alongside the British South Africa Company’s Administrators.

There was also one other big difference between the Rhodesias – Northern Rhodesia had a border with German East Africa (GEA – now named Tanzania).  This border ran from the southern end of Lake Tanganyika south-east to the Songwe River that was the northern Nyasaland border with GEA.  From here the northern Nyasaland border ran on to the northern end of Lake Malawi.  This rough line between the two great lakes became known as the ‘Northern Border’ to those living south of it, and because of its isolation it was a vulnerable British area.

(For further maps click HERE)

The Northern Rhodesia Police in August 1914

The British South Africa Company was not permitted to form armies and so it raised two police forces that were capable of limited military actions.  In Southern Rhodesia the force was titled the British South Africa Police (BSAP), and in Northern Rhodesia the title was a more straightforward one, the Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP).

In August 1914 the NRP consisted of 31 European officers and non-commissioned ranks and 768 African non-commissioned officers and men.  The Force headquarters was in Livingstone, a long way away from the Northern Border.  The force had two parts, The Town and District Police and the Military Branch.  Twelve Europeans and 328 Africans were in the former with the remainder being in the Military Branch. A mobile Column of the Military Branch was stationed at Livingstone. 

The men were recruited mainly from the Ngoni and Bemba tribal groupings plus a few from the Wakunda and Yao communities.  Initial engagements were for four years, and a man had to serve for three years in the Military Branch before he could be accepted as a Town and District policeman.  Thus all members of the NRP received military training, and this experience was to prove very useful in the opening engagements on the Northern Front.  The European personnel were recruited from the BSAP and so came well-trained and with relevant experience of local conditions.

For signalling the NRP held 5-inch heliographs.  The rifles were single-shot .303-inch Martini Metfords with triangular bayonets plus some older Martini-Henrys, and there was a .303-inch Maxim gun detachment. The men wore dark blue jerseys and khaki shorts (see right) on operations and went barefoot.  Head dress was a black fez that was discarded on operations.  The equipment worn allowed a blanket and rations for five days to be carried, along with water and ammunition.  The NRP was the only military unit in the territory as a European volunteer unit had not yet been formed. 

Colonel F.A. Hodson commanded the NRP in 1914.  Operational direction came from Colonel A.H.M. Edwards CB MVO who was based in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia.  He was Chief Commandant of Police and Volunteers for the two Rhodesias.  Co-operation between the BSAP and the NRP was strong, as they both worked for the same employer.

The first move in the south 

The southwest corner of Northern Rhodesia touched the Caprivi Zipfel, a strip of German South West Africa territory.  A joint operation between the NRP and the BSAP on 21st September 1915 saw the occupation of Schuckmannsburg, the eastern German administrative post in the Caprivi Zipfel.  There was no gunfire, although a German police Askari had to be forcibly disarmed.  Some German mules were seized and they were shortly to be very useful to the NRP on treks to and around the Northern Border.  

Initial action on the Northern Border

In GEA the Schutztruppe, as the army was called, was commanded by the very able and effective Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.  On the outbreak of war he did not wait for political direction but ordered previously-arranged offensive action to take place all along GEA’s borders with British and Belgian territory.

At the outbreak of war 2 officers and 99 men of ‘D’ Company, NRP Military Branch, were at Kasama; the officer commanding ‘D’ Company was also responsible for the Town and District police posts at Abercorn (21 men), Fife (7 men), Luwingu, Mporokoso and Fort Rosebery. The Abercorn and Fife garrisons were strengthened from Kasama, and an NRP officer and 20 men started patrolling the border.  Initially the Germans used most of their troops in the eastern border area for an unsuccessful invasion of Nyasaland.

Above: The Northern Border

In early September Lieutenant J.J. McCarthy’s Abercorn garrison was threatened by an enemy armed police detachment led by Oberarzt Westhofen, a medical officer based at Bismarckburg (now named Kasanga).  Westhofen commanded 4 Germans, 52 Askari, 60 armed porters (the Germans trained their porters so that they could become Askari when needed), around 250 irregular troops named Hilfskrieger (‘Ruga Ruga’ to the British), and a 3.7-cm quick-firing gun (a Revolverkanone).   The ‘Ruga Ruga’ liked to loot and rape, and were feared by the local villagers.  The British telegraph line between Abercorn and Fife was constantly cut, the patrols led by Kriegsfreiilliger Unterweltz are recorded as having cut it five times.


On 5th September McCarthy and his 40 men at Abercorn were attacked.  The local prison had been converted into a defended post and the NRP defeated the German attack.  Meanwhile the 3 officers and 80 men of the NRP Mobile Column based at Livingstone were marching up to the Northern Border.  The Mobile Column under Major H.M. Stennett used a train to move north of Ndola and then marched quickly, arriving in Kasama on 5th September.  On arrival Stennett was given a request for support sent by the Resident Magistrate at Abercorn, and so the Mobile Column speed-marched 160 kilometers in 66 hours to reach Abercorn at 0300 hours on 9th September.


Three hours later the Germans attacked Abercorn again, using their field gun to fire 40 shells; two of the defenders, Privates Chasesa and Madi, were killed.  The fighting lasted throughout the day but again the Germans were beaten back.  The following morning saw an enemy withdrawal that was followed up by McCarthy to the Lumi River on the border.  Long-term prisoners in the gaol had volunteered to carry McCarthy’s Maxim gun during the follow-up, thereby earning remission of the balance of their sentences after the war.  Westhofen lost 3 men killed and 4 others wounded.


Town and District policemen were now re-called from rural posts throughout Northern Rhodesia, the District Commissioners being left with Messengers to represent their authority.  A new Mobile Column was formed at Livingstone and the NRP training depot moved to Kasama.

Belgian assistance

When Abercorn was attacked the British District Commissioner at Kawambwa acted without higher authority and requested assistance from the nearest Belgian military post at Pweto on Lake Mweru.  In the Belgian Congo the military force was named the Force Publique and it was organized for internal security operations and equipped at a very basic level with old Albini rifles.  However in Katanga, adjacent to Northern Rhodesia, an effort was being made to raise the capabilities of the units located there, and they were armed with modern Mauser rifles.  The Belgian 1st Battalion was being assembled at Kitope between Lakes Tanganyika and Mweru and the 3rd Battalion was based at Pweto on the north shore of Lake Mweru. The military commander in Katanga, Major Frederik Olsen, immediately reacted and a company of the 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Leleux was in Abercorn on 22nd September.  Three days later Olsen arrived with the remainder of the battalion.  The 3rd Battalion was to follow.  Some of the Belgian Askari were organized into cyclist companies, using pedal-cycles for transport. (See Left)

Initially the Belgians in the Congo had hoped to remain out of the war, just as Governor Schnee had hoped to in GEA.  However von Lettow’s instructions to the Schutztruppe had resulted in German attacks on Belgian territory, both across Lake Tanganyika and further north from Ruanda, and so Belgium ordered that the Congolese borders be defended but that aggressive actions into GEA should not be mounted.  Assistance in defending the Northern Rhodesian border with GEA was officially approved, as an enemy threat to the mines on the copperbelts in Northern Rhodesia and Katanga was evident.

A Belgian post was established at Sumbu in Northern Rhodesia at the south-west end of Lake Tanganyika.  There were no further German intrusions into Northern Rhodesia during the next four weeks, and Olsen’s men were on the point of returning to Katanga when enemy raiders landed from two steamers, the Hedwig von Wissman and the Kingani, on the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika.  The villages of Kituta and Kasakalawe were raided on the 17th and 19th November respectively.  At Kituta two small trading steamers, the Good News and the Morning Star, destroyed. The stores of the African Lakes Corporation, a trading and transportation company, were looted and destroyed. 

At Kasakalawe the enemy seized 145 kilometres of telegraph wire and a stock of metal supporting posts, but on 20th November Major Stennett with 50 NRP soldiers and 150 Force Publique Askari fought to drive the Germans back into their boats, which were protected by guns on the steamers.  In this contact 2 Belgian Askari were killed and 10 others wounded, whilst a German and two Schutztruppe Askari were wounded.  The Germans claimed to have captured four heavy machine guns.  Another small trading steamer, the Cecil Rhodes (see above) , was damaged (seven months later the German steamer Goetzen returned to tow off the Cecil Rhodes and sink her). 

Above: Force Publique Inspection, Irebu

Whilst political negotiations between the Allies were finalized the Belgian 1st Battalion was based at Mporokoso, where it stayed until it moved back to Abercorn in early February 1915.  Belgian and NRP troops then shared the garrisoning of the GEA border between Lake Tanganyika and the Saisi river.  Mporokoso had not been a good station for the Belgians as the local villagers, fearing the cannibalistic reputations of some of the Force Publique Askari, had fled into the bush and so no crops were available for the Belgian troops to purchase.   


Attacks on Fife


A German stand-off attack on Fife fort was mounted on 6th December 1914 using around 250 men, a 3-pounder gun and 3 machine guns.  The gun fired 80 shells from a range of 1,800 metres and half of the shells landed on the fort or in the compound.  The enemy then withdrew having killed 102 Private Ndarama, NRP, who was directly hit by a shell.


Exactly three weeks later the Germans approached Fife again, and the NRP reacted swiftly.  Lieutenant Cussans and Temporary 2nd Lieutenant R.M. Smith led half a company out at 2200 hours onto the previously-held enemy position on the West Ridge.  Contact was made on the crest and fire exchanged for 15 minutes.  Then seeing that he was about to be outflanked Cussans led a bayonet charge straight into the enemy ranks.  The German troops withdrew in disorder leaving one Askari dead and another taken prisoner.  Smith had been severely wounded and Private Kanyanla received a shoulder wound.  For the gallantry he displayed during this night action Lieutenant Arthur Charles de Cussans was awarded a Military Cross (the citation was not published).  Lance Sergeant Dandalika and Lance Corporal Mpepera both received a promotion for their conduct during the action.  When Lieutenant Ronald Maskelyn Smith recovered from his wounds he was promoted to Temporary Captain and given the vital task of organizing porter transport in Northern Rhodesia, for which he was later awarded a Military Order of The British Empire.


In mid-February 1915 the white Volunteer unit the Northern Rhodesia Rifles (NRR) Mobile Column arrived at Fife (see: http://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/296401.htm).  The seasonal rains now set in and restricted large operations, but small patrols and raids continued.

Joint Anglo-Belgian operations


During early 1915 von Lettow-Vorbeck organized a rapid expansion of the Schutztruppe and new units began to appear in the south-west of GEA.  On the Allied side it had been agreed that the Belgian troops in Northern Rhodesia came under the command of the senior British officer in the area, and the Belgians enthusiastically participated in joint operations with the NRP to unsettle the enemy.


In late February 1915 McCarthy with a NRP patrol killed one Ruga Ruga and captured 11 others.  Three weeks later on 17th March he was camped on the Samfu River near the border along with 61 Belgian Askari, 2 European and 4 African NRP soldiers when a German force of 5 Europeans and 150 Askari attacked his camp.  The Allies beat of the attack capturing one enemy European and killing another and also killing 3 Askari.  The Belgians lost 3 Askari killed.  Private W. Bacon NRP was also killed.  The captured German officer was the commander of the Bismarckburg police, Reserve Lieutenant Haun, and he was severely wounded.  (After Haun’s capture Bismarckburg was reinforced by a platoon of the German 10th Field Company, which was enlarged with recruits until on 26th May it became the 29th Field Company.)


On 24th April 1915 Lieutenant G.P. Burton, NRP, with 82 of his men and 50 Belgian Askari, attacked a transport column 34 miles inside enemy territory.  The German commander was Gefreiter d.R. Monich of the Bismarckburg detachment.  Several enemy porters and many loads were captured by the British, but in follow-up operations in the vicinity of the action Burton had to bayonet-charge his way through an ambush.  Lieutenant Maurice Daffarn, NRP, was mortally wounded by a bullet in the neck.  Corporal Geza and Lance Corporal Chikusi, NRP, were both promoted for their performances during the fight.  However during Burton’s patrol some of the NRP rifles jammed and one burst.  This incident and other previous ones led to an urgent request to the British South Africa Company for the NRP to be re-armed.  The Company negotiated the recovery of its war-time military expenditure with the British government.

Right: Major JJ OSullevan DSO Northern Rhodesia Police

The last sizeable joint operation occurred on 21st May 1915 when McCarthy set out from Zombe to attack a German camp reported to be 14 kilometres away on the Samfu River.  He took with him 12 of his own NRP men and 125 Belgian Askari with 2 Belgian officers and Sous-Officier Verscheuren plus a machine gun; the Belgians were the 3rd Company of their 1st Battalion.  Finding the camp deserted McCarthy returned to Zombe but was attacked on the way.  The enemy force was commanded by Lieutenant von Debschit and the German fire killed 2 Belgian Askari and wounded 13 others, one of whom later died.  Sous-Officier Verscheuren was also mortally wounded.  Belgian Askari Staff Sergeant Borazi and NRP Sergeant Mwombera evacuated Verscheuren under heavy fire.  (The picture of Borazi doing this is displayed in the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa.)  Sergeant Mwombera was granted a cash award by the British South Africa Company.  399 Private Kambowe, NRP, was also killed in this fight.  Von Debschit had displayed tactical ability and fought well with a small number of troops, and he suffered no casualties.

The attacks on Saisi

The distance between the Abercorn and Fife garrisons was about 150 kilometers, and the British decided to construct another fortified post in between those two towns.  This was necessary to prevent infiltration by Runga Runga groups who attacked the villages in the area.  A location was chosen on a rocky knoll in between the Rivers Saisi and Mambala; the English name for the location was Saisi but to the Germans it was Jericho Farm.  The new post overlooked the river crossings used by the Stevenson Road that linked Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa.  The farm house was converted into a strong fort that was surrounded by a ring of trenches.

Colonel Hodson, NRP, was the first post commander and he led over 430 Allied troops:

·         214 officers and men from the NRP.

·         14 European Volunteers of the NRR.

·         A BSAP Detachment manning a 7-pounder muzzle-loading mountain gun.

·         206 officers and men of the 1st Belgian Battalion.

·         1 Belgian 4.7-cm Nordenfeldt gun.

·         3 machine guns (2 British and 1 Belgian).

Hodson deployed his troops on patrols on and across the border and had several successful contacts, which obviously more than irritated the enemy.   On 28 June 1915 the German 24th and 29th Field Companies, supported by a field gun and 100 Ruga Ruga irregulars, took advantage of the early morning mist and surrounded Saisi.  The enemy used their field gun, skirmished with the British outer defences, and then withdrew after dusk; a serious attack was not delivered as it was realized that more guns were needed to reduce the fortifications.  Enemy casualties were listed as 3 Germans and 4 of their Askari killed, and 2 Germans and 22 Askari wounded. The Belgians had 6 Askari wounded. One Northern Rhodesia Rifleman, 121 David Alexander Wood, was killed and 3 NRP Privates, 559 Buleya, 1184 Msapenda and 842 Mulundi, were also killed or died of wounds. 

Left: Entrenching at Saisi

Captain J.J. O’Sullevan followed-up the enemy withdrawal and found some graves in German territory.  These were opened up and ammunition boxes containing 5,000 rounds were found but no bodies were in the graves.  It was obvious that the enemy intended to return.  More defensive trenches were dug at Saisi and a fence of felled thorn trees was placed beyond the trenches.  Hodson, who had overall command of British and Belgian troops in Northern Rhodesia, now moved to Fife with 1 officer and 30 NRP soldiers and 10 Volunteers.  O’Sullevan was placed in command of Saisi.

The retired German General Kurt Wahle was visiting his son in GEA when war broke out and he had immediately volunteered to serve under von Lettow-Vorbeck.  Wahle was first employed to organize the Lines of Communication and then placed in charge of the southern area of operations.  He now planned a second and larger attack on Saisi. 

With 89 Europeans, Nos 18, 23, 24 and 29 Field Companies of Askari, a 200-strong company of Arabs, two 1873-pattern field guns and 6 machine guns, Wahle entrenched around Saisi during the early hours of 25th July 1915 and besieged the post.  For the first 48 hours the Germans shelled Saisi but did not cause much damage.  However water ran short as it was normally carried up from the two rivers that were now dominated by German trenches (see sketch map).  This problem was contained by the courageous actions of groups of defenders who crawled down to the rivers at night to slowly fill clusters of water bottles.

Right: 7 Pounder Mountain Gun

The BSAP 7-pounder gun was a British 2.5-inch mountain gun which was jointed between the breech and the muzzle to split the barrel into manageable mule-loads.  This type of gun was known as a ‘Screw Gun’.  The barrel was rifled with eight grooves with progressive curves and this meant that a degree of accuracy could be achieved.  The BSAP gun team demonstrated this by hitting a German gun on its muzzle and putting it out of action.

When the telegraph line to Saisi was cut by the enemy on 25th July Hodson had ordered a relief force to leave from Abercorn, which was about 50 kilometres distant from Saisi.  The relief troops were 270 Askari of the Belgian 1st Battalion under Major de Konick and 50 NRP men under Captain C.H. Fair.  On 28th July the relief force encountered German troops blocking the route north of Saisi, and engaged them in a fierce fight.  This action distracted Wahle and drew away some of his troops from the siege.  The next day 34 of the relief troops broke through into the Saisi perimeter; the remainder of the relief force continued to fight Wahle’s men north of Saisi.

On 31st July Wahle invited the Saisi garrison to surrender, but O’Sullevan refused to consider the idea.  That evening around 1,500 enemy troops mounted an attack on the British perimeter supported by heavy covering fire.  But the German Field Companies and the Arabs declined to charge beyond the outer thorn fence, as the British defensive fire was also heavy. The defenders’ trenches were never threatened.  The siege continued but no further attacks were mounted.  On 3rd August, having consumed his supplies, Wahle broke off the battle and marched his men away.  The Germans were believed to have lost 5 Europeans and 28 Askari killed.  The Belgians lost 5 Askari killed and 3 wounded.  The British had lost one man killed, 1185 Private Malizani, NRP; a figure for British wounded personnel was not recorded.

For his gallantry in commanding the defence of Saisi Captain John Joseph O’Sullevan, NRP, was promoted to Major and awarded a Distinguished Service Order (a citation was not published).    

The Belgians withdraw their troops

The Germans made no further attacks into British territory after their withdrawal from Saisi.  Raids to secure lengths of telegraph wire continued however, and the captured telegraph stores were used to run a new German line between Neu Langenburg, now named Tukuyu, and Iringa. 

Left: Map of Force Publique locations near Northern Rhodesia

The Belgians then requested that their units in Northern Rhodesia, the 1st and the 3rd Belgian Battalions, be returned to the Congo to prepare for a Belgian offensive against GEA west of Lake Victoria.  By 3rd November the two battalions were back in the Congo, but a Belgian detachment remained in reserve at Mporokoso. 

The NRP alone could not have kept the enemy out of Northern Rhodesia.  Belgian military assistance was quickly delivered and was effective, and the Congolese Askari wanted to fight.  Later in the East African campaign the Belgians invaded GEA on two fronts and also supplied troops to be landed on the southern coast of GEA, as well as providing battalions to pursue Naumann’s raid into north-eastern GEA.  Belgium deserves more recognition for the military contribution she made in the Great War East African campaign.  


The Northern Border after the Belgian withdrawal

Despite BSAP reinforcements arriving it was decided that Saisi could not be held and it was evacuated before the end of October 1915.  Recruiting for the NRP continued and later a NRP Service Battalion was formed that fought during the operations inside GEA.  New recruiting areas had to be opened as traditional ones could not or did not want to supply sufficient NRP recruits.  Barotseland in the west of Northern Rhodesia became a new source of recruits.

However Northern Rhodesia’s biggest manpower challenge was to supply porters to support operations on the Northern Border and inside GEA.  Several thousand Northern Rhodesian villagers were employed as ‘1st Line’ porters (marching close to the fighting troops) in German and Portuguese East Africa, whilst tens of thousands of porters worked on the supply routes from the Northern Rhodesia railway line up to and across the Northern Border.

A change in direction on the Northern Border came when Brigadier General Edward Northey was appointed to command the Nyasaland-Rhodesia Field Force (see: http://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/344964.html).  Up to this point in time the Northern Rhodesia and the Nyasaland forces had not been communicating with each other effectively or co-ordinating military action.  Northey’s arrival heralded a new intent to apply professional military procedures prior to a British invasion of southern German East Africa.

In January 1916 Lieutenant Colonel Harry March Stennett, Northern Rhodesia Police, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order; a citation was not published.

Above: Ndola (Kansenshi) CWGC Cemetery.  (A CWGC photo.)

Commemoration

All the Allied dead were buried where they fell.  After the war the British European dead were re-buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot in Ndola Kansenshi Cemetery.  The African dead of the Northern Rhodesia Police are commemorated by name on the Livingstone Camp Memorial.  Un-named and unknown dead Northern Rhodesian porters are commemorated by the Abercorn Memorial.  All these locations are in Zambia.

SOURCES:


Official History of the War.  Military Operations, East Africa, August 1914 - September 1916 compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Hordern.

The Story of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment edited by W.V. Brelsford.

The History of the Northern Rhodesia Police by Tim Wright.

Frontier Patrols by Colonel Colin Harding CMG DSO.

My Reminiscences of East Africa by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

The Empire at War by Sir Charles Lucas KCB KCMG.

The website of the South African Military History Society.

Exhibits in the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium.

To Return to Harry's Africa click HERE

 
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