William Bodle was born in Alfriston in 1855, the son of Charles, an agricultural labourer and Elizabeth, a schoolmistress. He left home at when he was fifteen to join the Army; firstly the Sherwood Foresters and later the Inniskilling Dragoons. At the age of just eighteen Bodle was posted to southern Africa where he saw service in the Basuto War. This was a skirmish with local tribesmen over land which now forms part of Lesotho. Bodle was decorated for his work.
He stayed in Africa and in the late 1880s joined the Bechuanaland Border Police. Bechuanaland had been declared a British protectorate, and in 1888 the Police Force was formed of just 100 European men who patrolled a huge area of, what is now modern day Zimbabwe and Botswana. The history of southern Africa in Victorian times is complex and, as in India was very much influenced by large charter companies keen to exploit the continent for its minerals and other resources. One such company was the British South African Company, founded by Cecil Rhodes. It received its Royal Charter in 1889 and was so large it maintained an army and its own Police Force. In October 1889 Rhodes himself appointed William Bodle as a police recruiting officer and the following year he was promoted to Sergeant Major.
Bodle settled in Salisbury (now Harare) and for a short time ran a general store but the new country of Rhodesia was expanding its borders and in 1893 Bodle took part in the invasion of Matabeleland to the west. Once the territory had been taken, a Police force was required to keep order and Bodle was made their commander. Excitement (and maybe imperialism) seemed to drive Bodle and in 1896 he took a leading role in the Jameson Raid, south into the Dutch held Transvaal. He led a group of mounted policemen in the raid which was intended to trigger an uprising – but failed. Bodle was detained by the Boer government and deported back to England. The raid was the main cause of the Matabele Wars which in turn led to the Boer War.
Bodle returned to Africa within six months and became second in command of the new police force for Rhodesia (confusingly named the British South Africa Police – BSAP) He was soon off again, this time taking a contingent of the BSAP to fight in the Boer War. He led his troops with Baden-Powell to relieve the Seige of Mafeking on 17th May 1900 and a few weeks later was involved in the capture of Pretoria. For his actions during the Boer War Bodle was honoured by Queen Victoria with being awarded a Companion Order of St Michael and St George.
The Boer War ended in 1902 and shortly afterwards a number of different police forces within Rhodesia amalgamated and Bodle, now a Lieutenant Colonel, became the first Commissioner of Police, a position he held until his retirement in 1909.
His retirement was short lived and on the outset of the Great War, Bodle felt the call to arms and assisted in recruitment, including organising the City of London Reserve Force. Despite his age he then took on the command of the Norfolk and Suffolk Territorial Brigade and in 1916 even saw service in France. He finally retired the following year in the rank of Brigadier General but continued to act as a Recruiting Officer for his old Police Force in Africa.
After a life of excitement Bodle retired to his home village of Alfriston and lived in the 17th Century Follers Manor on the Seaford Road. He died in the house in 1924 and is buried on the south side of St Andrew’s Church. His gravestone is in the form of a Celtic cross and is inscribed “Brig Gen. W Bodle CMG – Pioneer of Rhodesia”
The British South African Police was finally disbanded in 1980 when Zimbabwe gained its independence. My thanks to Jack Bond, who is himself a retired BASP officer, for supplying much of the above information.