Jess Nevins (ratmmjess) wrote,
Jess Nevins

Tim Stapleton's No Insignificant Part.

Tim Stapleton's No Insignificant Part: The Rhodesia Native Regiment and the East Africa Campaign of the First World War does yeoman's work in bringing to light the experience of native Africans serving in the Rhodesia Native Regiment (RNR), a unit of the British armed forces from what is now Zimbabwe, during World War One. Stapleton covers the experience of the RNR in the African campaigns thoroughly and gives a-lot-but-not-too-much detail about the battles the RNR fought in. Stapleton provides context for the RNR and pulls no punches when discussing the racism that the native Africans faced before, during, and after the war.

(The gentleman on the right is an RNR soldier in full kit, circa 1918. He's got a Lee-Enfield, but is in bare feet because RNR soldiers were never issued boots. The British military thought, well, they're all Africans, they've all got tough feet, right? These officers were later shocked to hear the RNR soldiers complaining about having to march over rough ground because it hurt their feet).

That said, No Insignificant Part is mostly lacking the Awesomeness that I hope for in books like this. No Insignificant Part is certainly interesting. It educated me on its subject. But for the most part it lacked plot hooks and anecdotes that made me want to run to my computer and share the stories with the world.

However, there is the case of Sergeant Rita. Sadly (but not surprisingly), there are no photos of him on the 'Net--at least, none that I've been able to find. No sites on him, and no information, either. Quoting Stapleton, "Rita was part of it is likely he was an Ndebele, since most of the first contingent came from Matabeleland and white officers sometimes spelled his name 'Lita' which is Ndebele." 

Because he was literate, Rita was initially posted to the RNR's "intelligence section" and then promoted to corporal. He began leading small reconnaissance patrols and "became an expert at collecting information on the enemy." "Stealth, reliability, and narrow escapes from the enemy became his trademark:"
  • In December 1916, in Songea (now in SE Tanzania), Rita led a recon patrol (as a sergeant he led twenty-men fighting platoons for reconnassaince-in-force missions) and encountered a German force. He "shot a German askari [African soldier under European command--Jess] and was pursued through the bush by about forty enemy soldiers." Rita got away, of course.
  • In late January 1917, at the Siege of Kitanda, a white lieutenant of the RNR led his men up a ridge: "Simpson had been caught in a well-prepared trap; when he advanced up the ridge, he eagerly pursued some fleeing German askari who led his patrol straight into the close range fire of a Maxim gun. Only Sergeant Rita, who was with Simpson's patrol, and a few RNR men made it to the top of the ridge where they took heavy enemy fire but managed to escape down to Kitanda." 
  • After the Siege of Kitanda (entrenched British forces held off attacking Germans), Rita, "who had become a daring and expert patrol leader," was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal "for conspicuous gallantry in action on many occasions. His example and influence with his men is incalcuable." Rita's D.C.M. was the highest decoration awarded to a black RNR soldier.

Rita died in November, 1917 of "natural causes."

Rita sounds like someone deserving of longer treatment, but as might be expected there is little reliable information avaiable on the RNR troops. Few white British writers gave much attention to what their black troops did. The best (tactically) commander the RNR had treated his men like chesspieces and, shockingly, ran away from the RNR when the regiment was struck with influenza. (This is the sort of leadership that the RNR had). And few Zimbabwean writers have been eager to investigate what's been seen as a white man's war that had little to do with Zimbabwe or Zimbabweans. So soldiers like Rita have disappeared down the memory hole--but at least we have Timothy Stapleton to pull them out.
Tags: research nuggets, the superiority of history to fiction

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