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Did Black Lives Matter to the British Empire in World War Two?

The often overlooked story of the African soldiers who risked their lives and left their families to fight for the British must finally be recognised – as the sacrifice of their white counterparts is

African soldiers in Burma. Photo: Wikimedia

Did Black Lives Matter to the British Empire in World War Two?

The often overlooked story of the African soldiers who risked their lives and left their families to fight for the British must finally be recognised – as the sacrifice of their white counterparts is

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On 15 August 2020, the 75th ‘Victory over Japan Day’ will be marked. Will it recognise the service in World War Two of international combatants worldwide, including a million Africans? Or did they fight in another man’s war for little recognition?

The ‘VE Day 75’ celebrations in May 2020 perpetuated a fictive British-only victory, mythologising plucky English Spitfire pilots flying over the Cliffs of Dover to the strains of Vera Lynn, downplaying European, colonial and international servicemen. VJ Day is always less commemorated, but it is vital this year to recognise the contributions of international combatants. This is especially so for the often-forgotten African soldiers and their families, whose service was never recognised or rewarded equally. Their families continue to ask ‘why?’ after almost all of those involved have passed on.

West African soldiers from the British colonies of Nigeria, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Gambia were crucial in winning the six-year jungle war in Burma (now Myanmar), fighting in appalling conditions to defend India from being overrun by Japan in World War Two.

165,000 West Africans served – of whom 126,000 were Nigerians, more than 15,000 died and 30,000 were injured, many suffering permanent disabilities. Yet official and media accounts from 1945 onwards neglected African combatants in the war, the effects on their families, communities and their role in independence.

Why were West African soldiers fighting an imperial war to keep Japan out of India?

British colonial rule in West Africa originated in the mid-19th Century, reaching northern Nigeria after defeating the Fulani Empire in 1903. British colonial governors, law, police, taxes, education and social structures were imposed, with the aim of ‘modernising indigenous culture’. 

West African troops were recruited to British colonial armies for the formation of The West African Frontier Force in 1900, with regiments raised from each colonial state. The force served within Africa during World War One and, from the outbreak of war again in 1939, it expanded rapidly.

Nigerian regiments formed the majority of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF), 10th Battalion of the 14th British Army and its 81st and 82nd West Africa Divisions. But many Nigerians had little direct contact with the colonial administration. Though increasingly aware of the British as their rulers, they knew much less about India, Japan, an emerging global great-power war, and nothing of Burma or its jungle. 

Arguably, this was not their war, but an imperial conflict in which the Japanese conquest of south-east Asia in 1940-1943 threatened to overrun India. But the fall of France to Germany in 1940 changed this. France had a vast, thinly populated empire in West Africa, which bordered Nigeria and other British colonies. The prospect of German control over these territories through Vichy France threatened British interests until their defeat in 1942. West Africa was hugely valuable to the Empire for its natural resources of rubber and minerals, its harbours, and above all for its men. 

The Human Cost

When war broke out, the West African colonies supported the British cause and general popular and political support boosted recruitment.

General George Giffard commanded West African forces in World War One and, as commander of the RWAFF, saw potential for large-scale recruitment. Few white officers were available, so expatriate Poles and Scots were assigned.

Local chiefs were issued quotas to recruit ‘volunteers’, with the promise of their wages being remitted to the villages. Many men volunteered, with powerful social pressures to enlist. But, in recruiting as many soldiers as possible, there was forceful conscription: an entire platoon was composed of convicts from Kano Gaol, and men were often seized from the streets. 

Robert Rae was a young Scots officer in the RWAFF in 1942 involved in recruiting and training Hausa soldiers (from whom he learned to speak Hausa) around Sokoto, the most northern province of Nigeria. They formed the 10th Battalion Nigerian Regiment, part of the British 14th (‘forgotten’) Army West African Divisions. They fought in the brutal Arakan campaign in Burma in 1944-1945 against Japan, where many were killed or injured in the hostile jungle environment. He fell ill with jungle fever, his life being saved by three of his soldiers. He returned, recovered and lived to 90, leaving an account of his service. 

Many were less fortunate, being killed, seriously injured, or suffering mental illness from their traumatic experiences.

Two brothers, Kobe and Tobe, from Ugbo-Okpala in Enugu State, Nigeria, volunteered. Their mother was a widow, her husband had been captured by slave traders. Narratives of war usually concentrate on the men, but the less-known effects on women’s lives also matter. 

The brothers had high hopes as soldiers in the RWAFF, seconded to the West African Division to fight the Burma War. They left in their prime, when village culture required them to learn traditional life skills to ‘become a man’ and build a family. Their absence left their widowed mother alone with two younger children, dependent on family and villagers to survive.

Kobe returned as a ghost of his former self and Tobe was severely disabled. Both men struggled to integrate and make a living for the rest of their lives.

Many family hopes were dashed, with women left to cope alone in a land with its young men sacrificed, food diverted to the war, and growing civil protests. 

Soldiers were paid Army wages of between nine old pence and a shilling per day – less than half the amount paid to white troops. They could remit three pence to their wives, topped up to nine pence paid monthly, and defer their pay into a savings scheme.

At the end of the war or when demobilised (for some as late as 1947), their deferred pay amounted – on average – to £35 for their service. They could also receive a gratuity of about £24. Only disabled soldiers had a small war pension.

Such trivial payments caused grievances following military service, including riots in the Gold Coast, after promises were made in the Army and broken back home.

Make them Matter

General William Slim, Commander of the 14th Army in Burma, failed to mention the contribution of African soldiers in his end of war speech, whilst African soldiers were excluded from victory parades and the film ‘Burma Victory’. These slights caused much resentment in Nigeria, amid strikes and growing unrest against British rule. 

Did the lives of African soldiers matter to the British Empire in World War Two?

They certainly mattered in winning the Burma campaign. Without them, Japanese forces could have reached India. But, when the conflict was over, the lives of the dead and survivors were disregarded and poorly rewarded. It is an indictment of British rule that they were treated merely as an expedient resource.  

But they still matter today.

Their service overturned racist stereotypes of African men, showing them able to learn quickly, adapting to fight in appalling jungle conditions with great bravery and loyalty. Indirectly, their selfless sacrifice and lack of recognition fuelled opposition to British colonial rule in West Africa, which became unsustainable post-war, speeding up independence. 

Finally, their lives, and their loss, mattered to their mothers, wives, families and children who lived on without them. The impact on the lives of West African women who stepped up, did the jobs of men and ensured their families survived, was huge.

For all these reasons, not just on 15 August 2020, we should remember the difference their lives made.

Ed Keazor’s film, ‘Company Yaya?!?!’ and David Killingray’s book, ‘Fighting for Britain’, informed this article

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