After 1888, when Southern Rhodesia became a British possession, the British South Africa Company was set up to run the territory as a commercial venture. The British High Commission for South Africa was responsible for its overall supervision from 1898, although the Company continued its activities, particularly in commercial agriculture and mining.

In 1914, Southern Rhodesia had an estimated African population of 750,000 and a European population of around 30,000. The British in Rhodesia greeted the war with enthusiasm and volunteered in large numbers. Many European Rhodesians were practised hunters and skilled riflemen. They joined various British Army regiments but were particularly associated with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, which fought on the Western Front and at Salonika. The Company also raised units which served in the campaign in East Africa.

Other Rhodesians joined the Royal Flying Corps. Most famously, these included Arthur Travers Harris (later Sir Arthur Travers Harris), who had emigrated to Southern Rhodesia in 1910. He became leader of No. 45 Squadron, which operated over the Western Front. In the Second World War, he became famous as ‘Bomber’ Harris, chief of Bomber Command.

Although conscription was not enforced, approximately 5,700 European Rhodesian men served in the course of the war, around 40% of the male population.


CAB 45/11 (4)

Rhodesian infantry at Salaita after its capture, 1914-1918. CAB 45/11 (4)

Towards the end of 1914, the British South Africa Company raised the First Rhodesia Regiment, which was made up of 500 European volunteers and a small number of African scouts. The Rhodesia Regiment helped South African troops in the invasion of German South West Africa. After the German surrender in July 1915, the Regiment was disbanded, with many of its members joining British Army regiments (DO 119/913, DO 119/914).

In November 1914, the Southern Rhodesian Legislative Council decided to raise a second regiment of 500 infantrymen (DO 119/903). The regiment was placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Capell and left to defend the Northern Rhodesian border with German East Africa in March 1915. Later it moved to British East Africa, and took part in the abortive attack on Salaita Hill near Kilimanjaro in February 1916, just before the beginning of General Jan Smuts’ East Africa campaign (WO 32/5820).

The regiment fought on throughout General Smuts’ East Africa campaign in 1916, experiencing heavy casualties, but also suffering badly from tropical diseases. It returned to Rhodesia in April 1917, too depleted by illness to continue as a unit. Many required medical care, but others went to Europe where they joined British Army regiments and fought on the Western Front (WO 95/5332, WO 95/5345).

British South Africa Police

CAB 45/49

Diary of Col. R.E. Murray, East Africa, 1 April 1917. CAB 45/49

At the beginning of the war, Southern Rhodesia’s only armed force was the Company’s British South Africa Police. In 1915, the Governor General for South Africa, Sydney Buxton, 1st Earl Buxton, authorised the raising of two further companies of police, consisting of 250 men, to defend Northern Rhodesia.

During August 1915, these police companies went to Northern Rhodesia to patrol the German East African border, where an imminent attack was feared (CAB 45/20). In 1916, Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Ronald Earnest Murray was despatched to take charge of a combined force of British South Africa and Northern Rhodesian Police, which became known as ‘Murray’s Column’. Murray’s Column played a key role in the invasion of German East Africa from August 1916. Murray kept a personal diary which describes in vivid detail the very difficult conditions that the troops endured during the East African campaign. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (CAB 45/4953, CAB 45/5659).

Native Regiment

CO 1069/133

Convoy going out to Colonel Murray's column, Kenya, 1916-1918. CO 1069/133

In early 1916, Francis Drummond Chaplin, chief administrator to the British South Africa Company, agreed to the creation of an African regiment in spite of an acute labour shortage. By July 1916, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred James Tomlinson was in command of the 1st Rhodesia Native Regiment, which was made up of approximately 500 African troops and European officers. A second regiment was raised in January 1917 and eventually merged with the 1st Rhodesian Native Regiment to form a single battalion.  The Regiment played a key part of the capture and defence of Songea in southern German East Africa, but it lost 58 men in an unsuccessful attack on the Germans near Lake Rukwa.

These African troops continued to attack the German forces after their retreat into Portuguese East Africa in November 1917. Over the course of the war around 2,360 Africans were recruited to these regiments, many of them originating in other colonies, particularly Nyasaland (CAB 45/25, CAB 45/26). Several of the regiment’s soldiers achieved great distinction. Sergeant Frederick Charles Booth was awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing a wounded scout at Songea. An African soldier, Sergeant Lita, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the highest award made to an African soldier in the regiment (WO 98/8/352, WO 32/4977).

Key figures

Sydney Buxton

Sydney Buxton

1st Earl Buxton, Governor-General of the Union of South Africa (1914-1920)

Detail of NPG x134745 , Sydney Charles Buxton, Earl Buxton, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sergeant Frederick Charles Booth

Sergeant Frederick Charles Booth

Rhodesian recipient of the Victoria Cross

Sir Francis Drummond Percy Chaplin

Sir Francis Drummond Percy Chaplin

Administrator of the British South Africa Company (1914-1922)

Detail of NPG x122211 , Sir (Francis) Drummond (Percy) Chaplin, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Squadron-Leader Arthur Travers Harris

Squadron-Leader Arthur Travers Harris

1st Rhodesian Regiment, Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force (1914-1918)

Detail of NPG x84305 , Sir Arthur Travers ('Bomber') Harris, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Major Ronald Ernest Murray

Major Ronald Ernest Murray

Commanding officer, Service Company, British South Africa Police

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred James Tomlinson

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred James Tomlinson

Commanding Officer, 1st Rhodesia Native Regiment (1916-1917)

Key documents

CAB 45/20

Enemy positions near Ruhudji River, Southern Rhodesia, 1914-1918. CAB 45/20

  • Demobilisation of the First Rhodesian Regiment in Cape Town, 1915 DO 119/913
  • Demobilisation of First Rhodesian Regiment in Cape Town, 1915 DO 119/914
  • Provisions for enrolment of Second Rhodesian Regiment, 1915 DO 119/903
  • Report by Lieutenant General J Smuts, on military operations with maps WO 32/5820
  • East African Infantry Brigade: 2 Battalion Rhodesian Regiment, November 1916 - March 1917 WO 95/5332
  • 1 East African Infantry Brigade: 2 Rhodesian Regiment November 1915 - October 1916 WO 95/5345
  • The Rhodesian Column on the Northern Border, 1915-1916 CAB 45/20
  • Diaries of Colonel R E Murray, 1917-1918 CAB 45/49
  • The 1st Rhodesian Native Regiment, by Colonel C Harding CAB 45/25
  • The 1st Rhodesian Native Regiment: reminiscences by Lieutenant Colonel A J Tomlinson CAB 45/26
  • Medal Listing of Frederick Charles Booth WO 98/8/352
  • African Distinguished Conduct Medal WO 32/4977