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No Insignificant Part

The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East Africa Campaign of the First World War

Timothy J. Stapleton

Publication Year: 2006

No Insignificant Part: The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East Africa Campaign of the First World War is the first history of the only primarily African military unit from Zimbabwe to fight in the First World War. Recruited from the migrant labour network, most African soldiers in the RNR were originally miners or farm workers from what are now Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi. Like others across the world, they joined the army for a variety of reason, chief among them a desire to escape low pay and horrible working conditions.

The RNR participated in some of the key engagements of the German East Africa campaign’s later phase, subsisting on extremely meager rations and suffering from tropical diseases and exhaustion. Because they were commanded by a small group of European officers, most of whom were seconded from the Native Affairs Department and the British South Africa Police, the regiment was dominated by racism. It was not unusual for black soldiers, but never white ones, to be publicly flogged for alleged theft or insubordination. Although it remained in the field longer than all-white units and some of its members received some of Britain’s highest decorations, the Rhodesia Native Regiment was quickly disbanded after the war and conveniently forgotten by the colonial establishment. Southern Rhodesias white settler minority, partly on the strength of its wartime sacrifice, was given political control of the territory through a racially exclusive form of self-government, but black RNR veterans received little support or recognition.

No Insignificant Part takes a new look at an old campaign and will appeal to scholars of African or military history interested in the First World War.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

i would like to thank the social sciences and humanities research Council of Canada and Trent University for funding the research for this book. The staff of the Zimbabwe National Archives, where most of the research was conducted, was extremely helpful and professional. The Department of History and Centre for Defence Studies at the University of Zimbabwe provided ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xi

List of Terms

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pp. xii

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pp. 1-8

THE CITY OF MUTARE, CALLED UMTALI IN COLONIAL TIMES, IS NESTLED IN Zimbabwe’s mountainous Eastern Highlands close to the border with Mozambique. On the peak of a high, rocky, forested hill that overlooks the entire city is what appears to be a large concrete cross. As the hill, called Cross Kopje, is on the grounds of Mary Mount Teachers’ College, a former Christian ...

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1. Setting the Stage: Colonialism and Zimbabwe: The First World War and Africa

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pp. 9-18

WHEN THE FIRST WORLD WAR BROKE OUT IN 1914, THE ERA OF COLONIAL conquest for much of sub-Saharan Africa had barely ended and this fact greatly influenced how Africans, including those in what is now Zimbabwe, experienced this global event. African independence had been crushed and African people were forced to live within the context of an exploitive colonial state ...

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2. Africans in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the First World War

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pp. 19-30

WHEN THE FIRST WORLD WAR BROKE OUT IN AUGUST 1914, SOUTHERN RHODESIA'S small population of thirty thousand white settlers was generally very eager to get involved in the conflict. Identifying closely with Britain, they made overt displays of patriotism, collected money for various war-related causes, and volunteered to serve in the armed forces. At a time when the colony was still ...

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3. Soldiers in the Rhodesia Native Regiment: Their Profile and Daily Life

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pp. 31-52

AFRICAN SOLDIERS IN THE RNR DID NOT LEAVE BEHIND WRITTEN EVIDENCE stating why they volunteered for the colonial army, but analysis of their pre-enlistment life might contribute to answering that question. Similarly, examination of the military culture and daily routine of the regiment might reveal something about the nature of the early colonial society that had produced it and is certainly important for understanding how the unit functioned in East ...

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4. The Road to Songea

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pp. 53-66

THE INITIAL PHASE OF THE GERMAN EAST AFRICAN CAMPAIGN DURING 1914 AND 1915 had not gone well for the Allies. The British attempt to take the German port of Tanga in early November 1914 was a dismal failure. The German warship Konigsberg remained a threat along the coast until it was trapped in the Rufigi River Delta and destroyed in July 1915.With the Allies lacking enough troops to invade German East Africa by land, an “uneasy ...

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5. The Sieges of Malangali and Songea

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pp. 67-78

THROUGHOUT MOST OF SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER 1916, WHEN TOMLINSON'S force was securing Songea, the RNR’s second company under Major Carbutt, the forty-year-old native commissioner of Plumtree, remained at New Langenburg conducting field training and route marches. In addition, eighty machinegun carriers arrived and were given training. Around 20 October, Carbutt’s ...

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6. The Siege of Kitanda

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pp. 79-91

WITH THE DEFENCES OF SONGEA REINFORCED BY SOUTH AFRICAN infantry, the RNR company there was reorganized from four to three platoons and the size of Captain MacCarthey’s intelligence scout section increased to fifty soldiers. This allowed the RNR to expand its intelligence-gathering activities by sending out more small reconnaissance patrols led by African NCOS who questioned local villagers and tried to observe German ...

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7. Disaster at St. Moritz

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pp. 93-103

AT THE END OF THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY, 1917, TWO COMPANIES OF SAI AND one platoon of RNR from Kitanda were sent off to pursue the German force under Captain Max Wintgens which had blocked communication between Songea and Wiedhafen. The rnr intelligence officer, Lieutenant Grey, accompanied this force and would coordinate RNR reconnaissance patrols for the South Africans. Simultaneously, most of the RNR, two companies ...

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8. Mpepo: The Place of Winds

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pp. 105-117

FOR THE FIRST TEN DAYS OF APRIL 1917, COLONEL MURRAY, COMMANDER OF the Southern Rhodesian Column, assumed temporary command of the RNR, issuing orders directly to the unit’s company commanders. On 10 April,Major Addison was sent back to Salisbury to train recruits at the regiment’s new depot and Major Carbutt was placed in command of the battalion. Carbutt, ...

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9. Portuguese East Africa

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pp. 119-134

LATE SEPTEMBER 1917 WAS A TRANSITIONAL PERIOD FOR THE RHODESIA NATIVE Regiment. Casualties and illness had taken their toll. During the preceding months, seven European and twenty-three African soldiers had been killed, and fifteen European and eighty-eight African soldiers had been wounded. This meant that 50 per cent of the Europeans, all officers and NCOS, and 25 per cent ...

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10. Demobilization and Life after the War

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pp. 135-145

AFTER THE DANGER OF INFLUENZA HAD PASSED, THE FIRST CONTINGENT OF about 350 RNR men returned to Salisbury by train during Christmas of 1918. Hundreds of Europeans lined the railway platform and thousands of Africans, who were not allowed on the platform, gathered around the tracks to greet the returning veterans. The RNR band played patriotic and military music. Many ...

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pp. 147-150

THE RHODESIAN NATIVE REGIMENT WAS CREATED IN 1916 BECAUSE THE SMALL settler population of Southern Rhodesia desperately wanted to continue its contribution to the war effort but was rapidly running out of manpower. The settlers justified the recruitment of blacks because the Germans had allegedly broken the rules of a “white man’s war” by employing African soldiers. The ...

Appendix: Short Biographies of Some African RNR Soldiers

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pp. 151-157


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pp. 159-176


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pp. 177-180


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pp. 181-188

E-ISBN-13: 9781554581344
Print-ISBN-13: 9780889204980
Print-ISBN-10: 0889204985

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2006