- No Insignificant Part: The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East Africa Campaign of the First World War
Historians of African conflicts and the world wars have neglected the East African campaign of the FirstWorldWar. This omission contrasts with the now copious literature on the wars of colonial conquest and anti-colonial rebellions, such as the Zulu wars (1879-80), the Maji MajiWar in German East Africa (1905-07), the Chimurenga wars in Zimbabwe, and Mau Mau in Kenya (1952-56). In larger histories of the First World War, East Africa assumes a relatively marginal place. For Africanist historians and among Africans more generally it has held little interest, being seen as a conflict between rival imperial powers in which Africans had no real stake. In Europe it was viewed as a sideshow. This is a pity. In East Africa the impact on the population was massive. Most fighting was done by African troops from all over the continent. Provisions often came from the requisitioning and looting of African crops and livestock. Given the huge transport difficulties, war materials were transported over vast spaces by well over one million forcibly recruited porters from throughout the region. The theatre of war expanded after the initial feeble British incursions into German East Africa (Tanganyika) to include much of East and Central Africa, while troops came from as far afield as the Gold Coast (Ghana), the West Indies, and India.
Stapleton's No Significant Part, a history of the participation of nearly three thousand Black soldiers in the campaign, is a step in setting the record straight. It is the first detailed study of the Rhodesian Native Regiment (RNR). The main sources are documents in the Zimbabwean National Archives and the war diary of the regiment's first commanding officer, A.J. Tomlinson. By concentrating on one battalion-sized unit Stapleton emphasizes the huge challenges facing soldiers and their officers in the field.
The difficult war experience of Black Zimbabwean soldiers was hugely exacerbated by systemic colonial racism and inequalities that dominated all aspects of military organization, including the command structure, training, uniforms, pay scales, rations, medical services, promotions, punishments, compensation, war pensions, decorations, and subsequent recognition. For example, all regimental officers were white, and the lowest rank for whites was sergeant. Most white officers came from the British South African Police, a body set up to control the African population. No African was promoted above sergeant, and experienced African sergeants were always the juniors of raw whites of the same rank. Cruelly and absurdly, RNR soldiers were never issued boots and were subject to arbitrary violence from their officers. One aspect of African autonomy that was tolerated was access to women - it was common for soldiers' 'wives' to be allowed to accompany them in base camps. [End Page 390]
In chapter 1 Stapleton summarizes the outlines of the establishment of colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia and the first stages of the war. Chapter 2 considers the security situation in the colony including white fears of rebellion, and African reactions to the war. Chapter 3 is a more detailed look at the origins and identities of recruits, and aspects of regimental culture including its ethnic-based organization, which was influenced by colonial stereotypes. Although the regiment was nominally Southern Rhodesian, Stapleton estimates that sixty-two per cent of its members actually came from the neighbouring colonies of Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, and Mozambique. A large percentage of the recruits had been mineworkers, suggesting a direct line between migrant labour and military service.
The first stages of the war in East Africa had not gone well for the British. It was not understood that the best soldiers in African conditions had to be Africans. But by 1916 the imperial army had been reinforced and reorganized. In May 1916 an invasion of the southwest portion of German East African by the Rhodesia-Nyasaland Field Force under Brigadier Northey began. This was the RNR's entry into the war. After landing on the...