Fighting for Britain: African soldiers in World Wars

27 Nov 2018

By Richard Moleofe

In the few months I spent training with the US Army, I came to appreciate Bob Marley’s song “Buffalo Soldier” in a deeper way and with a new meaning. This is a song I had listened to before without much attention. After listening to a lecture on “The Role of Black Soldiers in the American Civil War” in which the professor kept making reference to the Reggae song, my worldview was changed.

For a very long time, the role of African Americans in both the War of Independence and the Civil War was reduced to just fable stories without proper documentation. The rising of Black academics and certain liberal radical white folks brought to light the plight and role of the Black man in the American conflicts.

Similarly, Africa has suffered greatly from the biased white monopoly views that have for several decades dominated the discourse on the last two World Wars. Beginning with the First World War in 1914, Africans have fought for the freedom of others. Britain as the superior colonial power was in control of a lot of firepower and manpower resources within its vast empire.

No country was left behind in the war effort as far as recruitment is concerned. For our part of the world, this war came at the advent of the Union of South Africa. The creation of this state was as a result of the long and protracted Anglo-Boer War. It was at this war that the British slaughtered thousands of Afrikaners and little did they know that they would need them desperately less than a decade later.

Prominent to the First World War for this part of the world was the sinking of the Mendi. This was a South African warship that was destroyed after colliding with a merchant ship in the English channel in 1917. The Mendi is a grave for a lot of Black soldiers that went down with it.

The point I will be making throughout my argument is that the British used Africans as cattle fodder. It gets chewed by the cow and no one bothers to check where the end product being the dung falls at. In the case of Botswana like anywhere else, chiefs were vital in driving the recruitment. And those from the royalty were given the top rank of Sergeant.

Fast forward to World War II, Africa had an immense manpower contribution as the combined figures topped one million. A great majority of these men became a part of the British Eighth Army which was commanded by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. At the time, the British had a grand plan to make sure that none of the Africans gets to learn the use of small arms. This became a British policy that was aimed at reducing the risk of insurrections after the war. Have you not wondered why troops from Botswana were drafted into artillery units of both field and air defence type? Very few Africans especially from this part of the continent were drafted into infantry units.

However, Montgomery rubbished all these suggestions and put the men to use as according to his priorities. He saw no practicable realities in driving a war effort while attaching racist connotations. But the British attitude helped because most of the dying happened in the front lines. Botswana troops were involved in logistics and as well as serving under Combat Engineer units.

Sooner than later Montgomery’s attitudes came to haunt him after the war. He was appointed as the Chief of Imperial Defence Staff. While holding this position, he visited eleven African countries within a period of two months and produced a scathing report about African desire for self-rule. He insinuated that Africans were savages that are not fit for self-rule. This was according to a  secret report which was published for the first time in 1999 by the British Guardian newspaper.

  In less than a decade after the end of the war, there was already an insurrection in the East African country of Kenya. The Mau-Mau who spearheaded the campaign for self-rule were largely ex-combatants of the Second World War. The civil war for independence went on until 1958 with a huge loss of native lives.

The point I want to clearly make here is that the British did not count our people as worthy human beings whom they could respect. After helping them in the war effort in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the British would not at the least empower the men who went to war for them by entitling them to a retirement allowance.

The British have been very dishonest with Africans. Look at the amount of money that was poured into rebuilding Europe through the Marshal Plan! This was extraordinary and only if a tenth of the investment was spread throughout Africa, we could be far ahead. I know that Africa’s worst undoing has been around issues of governance and I am not in any way in denial of that fact.

The British have exhibited racial tendencies towards Africans in many ways and that has been very clear around issues of war veterans. Africans had no business to be fighting Hitler at all. This reminds me that there were those men who resisted to be drafted into the British military at the time of war. When I grew up there were fresh stories of men who would rather choose to live with pigs in the hogs than go to ward. Apparently those who were monitoring the drafting never bothered to check what was accompanying pigs in their places of abode. Others sprayed pepper into their eyes so that they could be said to be too blind to go to war. Yet more others were saying they could never fight with someone they had not had a quarrel with. This was made in reference to Hitler.

Africa has to demand war reparations from the British. That recompense should come in the form of developmental projects that will benefit the whole continent as opposed to the families of the war veterans. But the reason why the British have forgotten our effort is for the  fact that African lives don’t matter to them.

*Richard Moleofe is a military analyst