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Mobile Units 1914-1916

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.

The Germans, 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.

Major 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.

In mid-1915 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 July 1915.  

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.

Left: Surgeon-Captain 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.  

Those requesting 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

The Northern 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.

The Empire at War by Sir Charles Lucas KCB KCMG.

Medal Index Cards.

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