Equines: War and work horses

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UPON its establishment in 1889, the British South Africa Police (BSAP) was first formed as a paramilitary force of mounted infantry by Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, from which it took its original name — the British South Africa Company’s Police.  

It was, for most of its existence, the police force of the then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

This mounted organisation was initially formed to provide protection for the Pioneer Column. 

In common with other colonial police forces, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Canada, the horses, together with their early officers, were trained at the Police Depot in Dublin, UK.

The (Rhodesian) mounted force traced its equestrian roots to the Bechuanaland Border Police, the Cape Mounted Police and the Cape Mounted Rifles and to the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police of the Cape Colony.  

However, the Ordinance of the BSA Company makes specific reference to the company’s police falling under the discipline regimes of the Cape Mounted Rifleman Act of the Colony.

Since all these units required greater mobility in the open veld and terrain of Southern Africa, horses were best suited to provide this requirement for the troops.  

Classical cavalry units were called dragoons, light and heavy cavalry regiments. 

The dragoons took on the role of mounted infantry, with horses used mainly for transportation into battle, rather than in actual combat. 

The dragoons evolved into scouting and mounted action troops.  

This is perhaps similar to the role of the early Pioneers of policing in the country, particularly during the offensive against King Lobengula.

The mounted force played a central role in both the First Matabele War (1893) and the Second Matabele War/First Chimurenga (1896/97). 

The first occupation of Mashonaland was conducted by a large column of volunteers and policemen, mostly mounted, with the assistance of the BSA Company Police operating as mounted infantry columns. 

Following the occupation of Mashonaland, the Mashonaland Mounted Police (MMP) was formed, while a number of volunteer units were organised, such as the Mashonaland Horse, by men who had not been absorbed into the new police force. 

The MMP inherited the style of its uniform from the Cape Mounted Rifles.

A further police force, the Matabeleland Mounted Police, was formed subsequent to the occupation of Matabeleland.  

In October 1896, following the mounted infantry formula, both mounted contingents were merged and formed into the Rhodesian Mounted Police (RMP). 

This was soon to be re-named the British South Africa Police. The BSA Police fought as mounted infantry alongside Imperial and Colonial Forces during the Boer War in South Africa.

The effective use of mounted riflemen during the two rebellions established the traditions of a mounted infantry regiment within the BSA Police.

Prior to the use of motor vehicles, extended rural patrols were carried out on horseback.  

This required all white male officers to be taught equitation as part of their basic training.  

Up to the mid-1960s, when police officers conducted much of their patrol work on horseback, most district stations had horses and stables.

Even in the last days of the BSA Police, it was a requirement for every recruit to learn how to manage and ride a horse.  

Many may recall wake-up calls before dawn, a dash to the stables to groom and ready their mounts for early morning parade. Selected officers were retained at Morris Depot after ‘passing out’, to train remount horses for future use by recruits and on ceremonial duties. 

The mounted force came to be viewed as the elite ‘Senior Service’ to perform ceremonial duties such as those allocated to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  

Mounted Escorts were provided for such occasions as the State Opening of Parliament and, as such, discipline, presentation and parade drill were of the highest standards.

The tradition of mounted ceremonial duties was maintained well beyond the days of the BSA Police; horses can be seen on ceremonial parade during national events today.

Following the First World War, the BSA Police settled into its civilian police role.  

Though it maintained many of the traditions of a mounted infantry regiment, the function of police horses changed to that of ceremonial duties, but most district stations retained their horses and stables for patrol work.  

But in tsetse fly-infested areas, such as the lowveld regions, where mounted patrols were not possible, camels were introduced.

The introduction of the lance into the regalia of the BSA Police during ceremonial duties came with the earliest escorts and is often associated with cavalry regiments.  

The lances were made of male bamboo, eight feet in length, with chromed steel point and butt and bearing a blue of gold pennon, crimped after the fashion of the 16th Lancers.

Regimental Orders of 1900 indicated that the BSA Police were to carry lances on horseback, in place of rifles, when escorting the Administrator of the Colony. 

The first Royal Escort took place in August 1921, when the Prince and Princess Arthur of Connaught visited Rhodesia.  

The most notable of the Royal Escorts was that of HRH King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother), accompanied by Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret, when they visited Rhodesia in 1947. 

At the Coronation of HRH Queen Elizabeth II, in June 1953, a unit of horses and mounted officers travelled to London and was in attendance during the ceremony. 

Aside from Royal Visits, the BSA Police provided regular escorts over the years, with all the tradition, pomp and ceremony to successive Governors, officers administering government and presidents.

Equestrian sports were a natural offshoot of police mounted operations.  

It was common for police participants to take part in horse jumping and other equestrian events during the annual round of agricultural shows in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).  

Trophies garnered during equestrian events were presented by eminent persons as early as 1915; indicating the longevity of police association with equestrian sports.

The BSA Police also held its own mounted sports events each year. 

These events were the forerunner of the Annual Police Display event which originated in 1943, when police horses participated in a fete to support war time charities, much to the delight of the crowd. 

The annual event became a huge draw that attendances there outstripped those of international rugby matches held at the Police Grounds. 

Since troops on horseback were stealthier and enjoyed greater mobility, a mounted unit of volunteers was established at Morris Depot, to be deployed in counter-insurgency, similar to the Grey’s Scouts Unit of the Rhodesian Army. 

The unit included the first African members of the force on horseback. 

Their first deployment was a combat role in the Plumtree area.  

The unit was also involved in successful anti-stock theft operations 

The Support Unit, which had expanded significantly in the latter stages of the war, took over the Training Depot mounted infantry unit in May 1977. 

Mantle Mounted, as it became known, was deployed to many areas in the then Rhodesia.  The BSA Police was one of the last forces to reverse the trend of using mounted infantry tactics in warfare.  

Grey’s Scouts, a Rhodesian mounted infantry unit, was formed in July 1975, during the Rhodesian Bush War – Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation (1965-1979). 

They were trained as mounted infantry rather than cavalry, and were prepared for engagements on foot rather than on horseback.

The creation of the unit was possibly inspired by the Dragoons of Angola, a Portuguese Army mounted unit, raised in 1966 during the Portuguese Colonial War, to combat guerillas fighting in Eastern Angola.  

A similar unit was also initiated by the Portuguese in neighbouring Mozambique.

Like the Dragoons of Angola, Grey’s Scouts were used for tracking, reconnaissance, pursuit, but mostly for patrols during the liberation struggle. 

The unit was disbanded in 1979, following the end of the war.  

The earliest uniforms of the BSA Police emphasised the need for clothing that was conducive to that of a mounted infantry unit, including breeches, puttees, boots and spurs. 

Leather leggings were introduced in the 1930s while breeches, boots, spurs and legging remained a part of the (No. 1) uniform until 1980. 

As the motor cycle replaced the horse in later years, the use of riding breeches continued as part of the motor cyclist’s attire. 

The official opening of the new Hampton Stables at Morris Depot took place on April 2 1971. These stables were named after Harold Cuthbert Hampton, BEM, who joined the BSA Police in 1919 as a qualified cavalry instructor – initially trained as a sergeant in the 5th Dragoon Guards Regiment, in Wiltshire, England. 

He served 20 years in the BSA Police; all his work was associated with the regiment’s horses.

On December 18 1978, Equitation Squad 14/78 — the first multi-racial recruit squad — began training at Morris Depot in Salisbury (now Harare).  

Included in this historic intake was Patrol Officer Sinclair Roberts, the first mixed race police officer accepted to the force since its inception in 1889, a span of 89 years.  

Dr Tony M. Monda PhD, DVM, DBA, is currently conducting Veterinary Epidemiology, Agronomy and Food Security and Agro-economic research in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.  E-mail tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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