British and German East Africa, December 1915 to April 1917
Two recent books describing the operational activities of the Rhodesia Native Regiment provide excellent information on the employment of Rhodesian African infantrymen during the Great War. The Rhodesia Native Regiment operated in southern German East Africa and in Portuguese East Africa. However Rhodesian Africans also served operationally in the northern sector of the theatre, operating as part of the 2nd Battalion The Rhodesia Regiment (2RR).
2RR, a white infantry unit, was recruited to a strength of 800 men in Rhodesia, now named Zimbabwe, to fight in British East Africa, now named Kenya. Thanks to a journal written by the Commanding Officer of the unit, Lieutenant Colonel Algernan Essex Capell DSO, we have a comprehensive account of the Battalion’s actions during its short life. 2RR disembarked at Mombasa on 15th March 1915 and returned to Salisbury, Rhodesia, two years later to be disbanded. A report in the Rhodesia Herald dated Monday 15th April 1917 mentioned: Altogether 11 officers and 259 men returned, accompanied by 22 natives, who left with the Regiment and have done invaluable service as scouts.
Scouting in the British East African bush
2RR was first sent by train to Kajiado on the Magadi rail line south of Nairobi. In mid-April the Battalion deployed back down to Voi, with one company moving west up the Tsavo Valley to Mzima Springs. Soon all the companies were operating in or around the densely thorn-bushed valley, which was a useful route for German infiltration parties attacking the Uganda Railway line. Effective scouting became a problem for the Rhodesians as narrow game tracks were often the only routes that could be followed in the thick bush. This restricted the wider deployment of scouts which would have been possible in more open terrain.
Also the Rhodesians were not happy with the quality of African scouts provided locally by the East African Intelligence Department. There would probably also have been a language difficulty when communicating with these local tribesmen. Fortunately the Battalion contained several excellent former hunters and they were used for reconnaissance duties, but the decision was made to bring African scouts up from the home base.
The British advance
Colonel Capell recorded in December 1915: About this time, ten native scouts are sent up from Rhodesia, and are placed under Corporal Guiney, a fearless scout himself; they remained, less two killed in action, until the last, doing invaluable work for the Regiment. It is probable that these men were the first group of scouts to be sent from Salisbury.
The first large operation involving the Rhodesians occurred on 12th February 1916 when a Divisional attack was launched on Salaita Hill, east of Taveta on the German East African border. All movements were pre-ordered (until the enemy counter-attacked!) and infantry scouts had no useful function. Mounted infantry was deployed on the flanks. The attack was defeated when German Askari vigorously charged into the South African battalions on the right, causing them to panic, break and flee, often without their rifles. 2RR stayed firm on the left and withdrew tactically in a well-disciplined and controlled manner. In the centre an Indian battalion, 130th (King George’s Own) Baluchis (Jacob’s Rifles), stood and fought fiercely, thereby preventing even more South African casualties.
The Battalion played a significant role in the next set-piece battle when the Latema-Reata Nek was attacked. Initially the British attacks were repulsed, but then 2RR and the 3rd King’s African Rifles seized lengths of the Latema and Reata ridges and held them all night against fierce counter attacks. Fifteen Rhodesians were killed and 43 others were wounded; two men were taken prisoner by the Germans. Gradually South African cavalry outflanked the Nek to the north, causing the German commander to withdraw. The British then encountered stiff resistance in the Kahe area of the upper Pangani Valley and several actions were fought, but the Rhodesians were not involved as they had been withdrawn to the Nairobi area for rest and recuperation.
The enemy commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, now began to display the successful tactics that he practised until his Schutztruppe entered Portuguese East Africa in the last year of the war. The Germans withdrew down the Moshi to Tanga railway line, ripping up the track and fighting delaying actions. The Schutztruppe fell back onto previously prepared defensive positions and supply dumps whilst the British continually extended their already overburdened supply chain.
The fight at German Bridge, 30th May 1916
The British advanced down the Pangani Valley with one brigade following the railway line, another following the river and a third force advancing east of the Usambara Mountains. All three routes were contested and they converged in the area of Bwiko. Just north of Bwiko, at Mikocheni, the Pangani River curved in to the mountains and restricted the ground available for manoeuvre. Here the Germans were building a bridge, and they planned a delaying action.
2RR was following the river route. The Battalion, like all other white units, was handicapped by the large number of men being treated for malaria and other tropical diseases. However the Rhodesians possessed six machine guns and they now had an opportunity to use them. Whilst 2RR assaulted forward over open ground with the river on its right, 130th Baluchis and the Indian 27th Mountain Battery seized higher ground on the left flank. The Rhodesians displayed their high standard of training by using fire-and-movement skills whilst under erratic but constant rifle fire. Finally the German Askari were ordered to withdraw from their trenches, and the Rhodesian machine gunners made the most of that opportunity. The enemy position was taken but at a cost. Ten men had been wounded, two dangerously and two seriously, and one killed. The fatality was No. 10 Native Scout Levi.
Onwards to the Dutumi River
The main British pursuit now veered southwards down a trolley line running from Mombo to Handeni. On 9th June the Rhodesians were in action again at Mkalamo, a crossing on the Pangani River, but the bush was so thick that few visual contacts were made with the withdrawing enemy. A fortnight later, in the Mzima area, honey bees swarmed out of their disturbed tree-top bark hives and seriously disrupted 2RR’s advance.
From 7th July to 7th August the Battalion halted at Msiha whilst the British theatre commander, General Smuts, attempted one of his several doomed-to-failure envelopment movements. During this period a 4.2-inch gun, recovered by the Germans from the sunk cruiser Konigsberg, constantly shelled the British position causing casualties. The British artillery available did not possess the range for counter-battery fire. By this time 2RR was reduced by sickness to one company of 120 men with four machine guns plus the Native Scouts. Also nearly all the 1st Line transport mules had been lost to tsetse-fly sickness. A supply column that arrived from Taveta in mid-August had lost 60 of its 76 oxen to the fly.
On the Wami River on 17th August the depleted Rhodesians lost five men killed and nine wounded when supporting the 29th Punjabis who ran into an enemy strong point. Other Battalion casualties were one Machine Gun Porter killed and three wounded. These East African porters had been an integral part of 2RR since the machine guns had been issued. Their duties were to carry the disassembled guns and boxes of ammunition, and they were highly regarded for their physical ability and bravery under fire.
By 26th October the strength of 2RR was down to 30 men fit for operations, plus the Native Scouts and Machine Gun Porters. The Battalion was employed on lines of communication duties until men discharged from hospital returned, however these weakened returnees soon succumbed again to tropical diseases. At this time No. 17 Native Scout Corporal Chinanti was killed by a German land mine. He was escorting a party of surrendered enemy Askari when the incident occurred. Colonel Capell recorded that a Christian military funeral was held.
The return to Rhodesia
It was now apparent to the British military staff that 2RR was no longer viable as an infantry battalion due to debilitation caused by disease, climatic effects, and an inadequate diet. On 11th January 1917 the Rhodesians, or what was left of them, marched out of the Rufiji Valley towards Morogoro. At the end of March the Battalion moved by rail to Dar Es Salaam from where it was repatriated.
Several officers and Non-Commissioned Officers remained in East Africa to serve in the new battalions of the King’s African Rifles that were being quickly formed, or in the Intelligence or other military departments. After trying to keep the theatre the preserve of white and Indian battalions for too long, the British now realised that only indigenous African units could stand up to the conditions satisfactorily. The Germans had realised this well before the war began.
British military headquarters posted the Rhodesian Native Scouts elsewhere, but Colonell Capell insisted on their return to Salisbury with the Battalion. The loyal and hard working Machine Gun Porters were granted leave for two months and posted together to a King’s African Rifles battalion. Neither Native Scout Levi or Native Scout Chinanti appear to have been commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and their graves lie unmarked somewhere in the East African bush.
The last words on the Native Scouts come from Colonel Capell: The scouts, recruited in Rhodesia, had done splendid work throughout – always, cheerful, always willing, accepting the risks that all scouts must, with a native’s sang-froid. Thus they had endeared themselves and won the respect of a Regiment that throughout had known no colour bar, and that treated as comrades those that were brave. I refused staunchly to leave them in a land of strangers.
The 2nd Rhodesia Regiment in East Africa by Lieutenant Colonel A.E. Capell.
Military History, East Africa, August 1914 to September 1916, the Official History.
(The books on the Rhodesia Native Regiment are: No Insignificant Part – The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East African Campaign of the First World War by Timothy J. Stapleton, and Masodja – The history of The Rhodesian African Rifles and its forerunner, the Rhodesia Native Regiment by Alexandre Binda.)