In 1899, the British South Africa Company received a royal charter to administer the territory which later became known as Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). During 1911, North Western and North Eastern Rhodesia were united under a single administration. Sir Lawrence Wallace governed the colony throughout the First World War, which had an estimated population of 850,000 Africans and 2,300 Europeans. The territory shared a 150-mile north-east border with German East Africa and a shorter southern border with German South West Africa.

Northeast border

WO 408/43 (14)

NE Rhodesia, 1911-1942. WO 408/43 (14)

At the outbreak of war, the defence force was made up of approximately 800 Northern Rhodesia Police, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel FA Hodson (WO 372/9/229802). In October 1914, the administration established the volunteer Northern Rhodesian Rifles, forming a column of 106 European soldiers.

Immediately after the declaration of war in August 1914, German troops began raiding Northern Rhodesia along the length of the border. The Northern Rhodesian forces took part in fierce fighting as the Germans attacked the border towns of Fife and Abercorn. Fearing the German threat, the Belgian authorities in Congo agreed to send 500 troops already based in Katanga province. These combined forces cleared the border and forced the withdrawal of German troops by the end of 1915 (CAB 45/9, CAB 45/20).

Early in 1916, Brigadier-General Edward Northey arrived to take control of the combined forces in Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The Northern Rhodesian Police were a key element, together with companies of the British South Africa Police and South African and Nyasaland units. In May, Northey began the invasion of German East Africa from the south in a campaign which lasted until the end of the war.

The advance extended for hundreds of miles through difficult and remote territory. Troops needed food and equipment, which could only be transported by human carriers. Historians have estimated that northeast Rhodesia supplied around 56,000 African porters to the campaign. They were crucial to its success. In a region characterised by many rivers and swamps, the canoe men of Northern Rhodesia played a key role in the transport of supplies by water (CAB 45/29CAB 45/14).

Lake Tanganyika

ADM 137/268

Traction engines used to haul boats, Lake Tanganyika, 1916. ADM 137/268

At the beginning of the war, the German Navy controlled Lake Tanganyika, where they had several gunboats. This enabled the German command to move troops rapidly, and to attack Northern Rhodesia across the lake.

In response, Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, First Sea Lord, authorised a scheme to destroy the German gunboats and seize control of the lake. Two armed motor launches were shipped to Cape Town in South Africa and then transported overland to Lake Tanganyika. Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson was placed in charge of the expedition.

The launches, named Mimi and Toutou, arrived in Cape Town and were then transported by rail to Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia, and on to Elizabethville in Belgian Katanga. Spicer-Simson supervised a haul by motor and oxen across 150 miles of wild bush country and mountains. The boats finally arrived at Lake Tanganyika after a further 400-mile journey by river and rail.

In December 1915, British vessels captured the German gunboat Kingani and sank the Hedwig von Wiessman two months later. The Germans scuttled their other ship, the Graf von Gotzen. The British forces were in command of the lake, safe from a ship-borne counter attack when they began the invasion of German East Africa in May 1916 (ADM 137/268,ADM 137/141).

Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s last raid

CO 1069/133

Surrender of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, East Africa, 1918. CO 1069/133

At the end of 1917, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German forces in East Africa, led a southward retreat into Portuguese East Africa. To avoid confrontation with his pursuers, he again moved northwards, returning to German East Africa and then entering Northern Rhodesia (WO 158/472). In October 1918, he attempted a raid on the food depot in the border town of Fife, but he was defeated by a contingent of the Northern Rhodesian Police and the 1/4th Battalion of the King’s African Rifles (WO 95/5331).

The Germans again escaped to the south. When von Lettow-Vorbeck received news of the armistice of 11 November, which ended the First World War, he led his troops to Abercorn where he surrendered on 23 November 1918 (WO 32/5829).

Key figures

Sir Lawrence Wallace

Sir Lawrence Wallace

Administrator of Northern Rhodesia (1911-1921)

Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson

Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson

Royal Navy Officer (1892-1921)

Brigadier-General Edward Northey

Brigadier-General Edward Northey

British Army Officer (1888-1926)

Detail of NPG x65191 , Sir Edward Northey, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Arthur Hodson

Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Arthur Hodson

Commandant of the Northern Rhodesian Police (1912-1919)

Key documents

ADM 137/268 (1)

Native meal carriers, Lake Tanganyika, 1916. ADM 137/268 (1)

  • Medal card of Hodson, Frederick Arthur: North Rhodesian Police WO 372/9/229802
  • Northern Rhodesia Forces: operations of the Military Branch of the Northern Rhodesian Police CAB 45/9
  • The Rhodesian Column on the Northern Border, 1915-1916 CAB 45/20
  • The organisation of labour in a campaign in Tropical Africa, by Major General Giffard CAB 45/29
  • Activities in the vicinity of the Northern Rhodesian border, 1915 CAB 45/14
  • Lake Tanganyika, 1915 ADM 137/141
  • Tanganyika, January-April 1916 ADM 137/268
  • Transfer of hostilities to Portuguese East Africa: reports and telegrams WO 158/472
  • War diary Independent Column: 1/4 Battalion Kings African Rifles WO 95/5331
  • Protocol of surrender of German forces in East Africa WO 32/5829

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