On NPR a few days ago, the New-York-based Ghanaian lyricist Blitz the Ambassador, speaking about the artists flying the flag for Africa internationally, said “What keeps us going? It is the fight against invisibility. It is the fight to say that, ‘Yo, we count, and we’re here.’ And, more importantly, we’re contributing so much color to the world.”
Africans have been fighting against invisibility, and for the recognition of our contributions in various spheres of life for a long time, and there’s a certain sadness in knowing that we still have to fight for it today, even as we celebrate our achievements. One of the historical cases of our contributions being made invisible by neglect was that of the role of African soldiers in the Allied forces’ World War II victory.
World War II was the deadliest military conflict in history. When history looks back at the events of that war, the focus is usually on the military might of the Allied nations, and their defeat of the Axis powers. Painfully neglected in the narrative of the war were the thousands of African soldiers conscripted by the British (and other colonial powers). The contributions of these soldiers in the conflicts have been omitted from the history books, or relegated to the margins of official records, and very few of the survivors remain, so their stories have gone with them to their graves. Yet the British Empire’s military success in the Burma Campaign, and the East African Campaign, would not have happened without African soldiers. African soldiers participated heavily in the Burma Campaign in the Pacific theatre against Japanese forces, in the East African Campaign against Italy (Italy also used African soldiers), and in the Battle of Madagascar against the French Vichy.
The British Empire: A Conscripting Juggernaut
The British Empire was a colonial juggernaut whose imperialist imprint was stamped across all corners of the globe. One of the benefits that came with being a colonial power was that you could conscript your subjects to fight your battles, and the British Empire did so on a massive scale. From India to Sierra Leone, the British plucked soldiers from their colonies to fight, and die for them. Africans made up about 100,000 of these conscripted soldiers in the Burma Campaign alone. Most were from Nigeria and Ghana, but there were also Sierra Leoneans, Gambians and other African nationals from British controlled African lands. The majority of African soldiers in the Burma Campaign were primarily the battalions and divisions from the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF).
The King’s African Rifles
In addition to Africans in British West Africa, the Brits conscripted African soldiers from other parts of Africa for the East Africa Campaign against Italy and the German Motorised Company in the horn of Africa, and against the French Vichy in the Battle of Madagascar. The conscripted soldiers from British East Africa were known as the King’s African Rifles (KAR). KAR was formed in 1902. One notable soldier in KAR was Idi Amin, although he did not join the unit until 1946.
The regiments were from British East Africa (now Kenya and part of Uganda), Sudan, British Somaliland (now part of Somalia), Northern/Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (now Malawi), and South Africa. Essentially, if the Brits could get armed combatants from any territory they controlled in Africa, they did.
Along with KAR, British West African forces played major roles in the East African Campaign. In fact, it was the motorised Nigerian brigade of 11th African Division from the RWAFF that captured and occupied Mogadishu, the then capital of Italian Somaliland. Mussolini’s Italian forces had no defence, as they had previously been dealt heavy blows by South African forces. The Italians were easily defeated by the Nigerian forces.
The British Were Not Alone
While the British did most of the conscripting of African soldiers during WWII, they weren’t alone. Italy conscripted Africans, too. Collectively, there were more Ethiopians, Somalis, and Eritreans fighting for Italy during the East African Campaign than Italians. Basically, Africans fought other Africans at the behest, and for the benefit, of feuding European colonialists. The French also conscripted soldiers from their African colonies (Senegal,Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. It took 50 years for the French state to express its “undying gratitude” to the African soldiers who fought on its behalf).
Historically, European colonial powers using Africans as their military workhorse was par for the course. The British Empire, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, France, and Spain all utilised African soldiers, who were commonly known as ‘Askaris’.
The Burma Boys
When we read and hear about the Burma Campaign, and how the Allied forces conquered the Japanese, the visages front and centre are usually white soldiers. In reality, only 2 in 10 soldiers who fought in the Burma Campaign were white. The British relied heavily on Indian, Gurkha and African soldiers. African regiments often worked in tandem with the British Indian Army units known as ‘Chindits’. Of the estimated 100,000 African soldiers that served in South East Asia, over half of them came from Nigeria alone. The African soldiers who survived the war became known as ‘Burma Boys’.
The Burma Campaign was the longest land campaign fought by the British in WWII. The British lost Rangoon (current day Yangon) in March 1942 to advancing Japanese forces, and were soundly defeated. They were forced to retreat and regroup. The fighting ensued, and Japan eventually surrendered in 1945, but their surrender would not have happened without the reinforcements from the British Commonwealth, largely comprised of Indians and the African ‘Burma Boys’. The British did not have the numbers to go at it alone, and the outcome of many war theatres would have been different were it not for African soldiers.
We need to document our history and control our narratives
It’s a pity that it took over half a century for the WWII narratives of the African soldier to be heard. Many of them never made it home, so their narratives died with them. The same can be said about those who survived the war, but came back to nothing. Most of them are now dead. The names of valiant African soldiers are among the thousands of dead listed on the memorial pillars at the Taukkyan War Cemetery. It begs the question why African leadership isn’t doing more to honour these men and preserve their stories. We have a few war memorials here and there, but quite frankly we need more than just memorials. The stories of the African soldiers in WWII came to light because of news agencies like the BBC and Al Jazeera, which is splendid, but what about the Nigerian and Ghanaian news agencies? Why must stories about ourselves have to come from foreign agencies? We have all the information. Why aren’t we documenting these stories for ourselves? We should be the ones at the helm of getting these stories out there; after all, this is our history.
On the education front, things like this should be part of the school curriculum in the countries where the Burma Boys came from. One thing that sticks out for me that illustrates the difference between social studies and history curricula in Nigeria and the US is that historical battles the US waged, and things that shaped the nation, usually becomes part of the school curriculum. The stories don’t die (well, minus African-American narratives which the white cultural hegemony prefers to bury). You can’t take a US history course without learning about the founding fathers, the battle of the Alamo, the Mexican-American war, or the US Civil War etc. In Nigeria, we learn about the history of outsiders. Nothing is wrong with that, but your own history should take centre stage. The Biafran war is not part of a nationwide curriculum, and that is something that ended a mere 43 years ago, so it isn’t ancient history. Our civil war should be part of the curriculum for our students. Most Nigerians know nothing about the Burma Boys, the East African Campaign, the Battle of Madagascar, or the role Africans played in WWII. We can bemoan the British for not doing an adequate job in telling the world how valiant Africans were, but looking at the situation earnestly, it is foolhardy to expect your colonisers and former enslavers to sing your praises. Why would they? These are people that considered our ancestors their property, and they bought and sold them as such. Extolling the valiant narratives of our people is something that we need to do ourselves. That said, in the age of the internet, I’m very optimistic about the future of African narratives.
Further reading and exploration
The Africans who fought in WWII (BBC)
Photo slideshow and anecdotes of the Burma Boys (Al Jazeera)
West Africa was there (Please note, this is a British colonial short film, so some derogatory descriptors and depictions are used.)
Isaac Fayodebo’s obituary
The Burma Boy (Al Jazeera documentary)
Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele (The book is a work of fiction, but Bandele, whose father was a Burma Boy uses the very real narrative to create a very compelling read. See also: BBC interview with Biyi)