War, Mobilisation and Colonial Crisis in Northern Rhodesia, 1914-1916


  • Edmund Yorke Royal Military Academy Sandhurst


This article comprises a study of the devastating impact of the First World War upon colonial authority structures in Northern Rhodesia. Deploying extensive official, private and missionary records from Britain, Italy and Zambia, and the testimonies of a few surviving African war veterans, it reveals how rapidly escalating imperial war demands – especially Brigadier-General Edward Northey’s mass mobilisation after May 1916 – caused immense distress and political discontent among the African population. With widespread famine and spiralling mortality rates this article demonstrates how African resistance to conscription, principally as war carriers or porters, rapidly mounted. The deleterious impact of rising African carrier desertion rates and their direct defiance of military and civilian recruiters, culminating in the mushrooming of the anti-war and anti-colonial ‘Watch Tower’ movement, are personified by the major clashes which occurred between the military and civilian authorities over the critical issue of the widespread military breach or abuse of carrier service contracts. This civil-military breakdown extended from the lowest colonial authority institutions at ground-level right up to the War and Colonial Offices in London. The latter’s drastic decision to suspend Northern Rhodesia’s logistical role in the imperial war effort in September 1918, in direct response to War Office refusal to reduce mobilisation pressures and offer compensation for wartime African losses, is highlighted to confirm the existence of a major crisis of colonial control. It is contended that only the belated news of the Armistice, arriving as it did in the midst of a devastating, unexpected German invasion, saved an already deeply emasculated Northern Rhodesian state from total collapse.