Did Black Lives Matter To the British Empire in World War II?, By David Rae, Ed Keazor & Ngozi Eneh Ojo

So, did the lives of African soldiers matter to the British Empire in WWII? They certainly mattered in winning the Burma campaign. Without them, Japanese forces could have reached India. But after the war, the lives of the dead and survivors were forgotten and scantily rewarded. British imperialism treated them merely as an expedient resource.

 

August 15 marks the 75th anniversary of ‘Victory over Japan Day’. Will this recognise the service in World War II of combatants worldwide, including one million Africans? Did their Black Lives Matter to the British Empire, or did they fight in another man’s war?

This matters because Britain still remembers the myth of a Whites-only victory, forgetting colonial and international servicemen. VJ Day is always the poor relation to ‘Victory in Europe’, so it is vital this year to remember the forgotten African soldiers and their families whose service was never recognised or rewarded equally.

West African soldiers from the former British colonies of Nigeria, Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and Gambia were crucial in winning the jungle war in Burma, fighting in appalling conditions to defend India from being overrun by Japan in World War II. 165,000 West Africans served, including 126,000 Nigerians, over 15,000 died and 30,000 were injured, many suffering permanent disabilities. Yet official histories erased African combatants from this forgotten war.

West African troops were recruited into British colonial armies through the West African Frontier Force from 1900, with regiments raised from each colony. The Force served within Africa during World War I. From the outbreak of war 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. Until then, many Nigerians had little direct contact with the colonial administration, and knew little about India, Japan, a global great-power war, and nothing about Burma or its jungle.

So, why did West African soldiers fight in an Imperial war to keep Japan out of India? The fall of France in 1940 opened the French empire in West Africa to possible German control through Vichy France, 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.

 

When war broke out, its West African colonies supported Britain. General George Giffard commanded West African forces in WWI, and as commander of the RWAFF, aimed for mass recruitment.

Local chiefs were allocated quotas to recruit ‘volunteers’, with their wages remitted to the villages. Many men volunteered, encountering propaganda and social pressures to enlist. 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.

Our relatives fought for Britain in Burma and their family stories still matter. One father was a young Scots officer in the RWAFF who recruited and trained Hausa soldiers in Sokoto, the most northern province of Nigeria. As the 10th Battalion Nigerian Regiment, they fought in the brutal Arakan campaign in Burma in 1944-5, where many were killed or injured in the hostile jungle environment. Falling ill with jungle fever, his life was saved by three of his soldiers.

Many were less fortunate, being killed, seriously injured, or suffering mental illness from their traumatic experiences. Two African brothers, a grandfather and uncle, volunteered from Enugu State, Nigeria. Their mother was a widow, her husband captured by slave traders.

The brothers served as soldiers in the RWAFF and left their widowed mother alone with two younger children, dependent on family and villagers to survive. But they returned as ghosts of their former selves, struggling to make a living for the rest of their lives. War stories usually concentrate on men, but imagine the effects on womens’ lives, coping alone in a land with young men sacrificed, food diverted to the war, and growing civil protests.

African 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. When demobilised after the war (for some as late as 1947) their deferred pay averaged £35, with a gratuity of about £24. Only disabled soldiers had a small war pension. These trivial payments caused many grievances post-war, including riots in Gold Coast, after promises were made in the Army and broken back home. Many soldiers struggled to find work and resume their former lives.

Was their service recognised? General William Slim, commander of the ‘forgotten’ 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. This disrespect caused great resentment in Nigeria, amid strikes and growing unrest against British rule.

So, did the lives of African soldiers matter to the British Empire in WWII? They certainly mattered in winning the Burma campaign. Without them, Japanese forces could have reached India. But after the war, the lives of the dead and survivors were forgotten and scantily rewarded. British imperialism treated them merely as an expedient resource.

Yet they still matter today and their stories outlive them. Their service overturned racist stereotypes of African men, showing them able to learn 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. This became unsustainable post-war and speeded independence.

Finally, their lives, and their loss, mattered to their 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 August 15, we should remember the difference their lives made.

 

This article was first published in ‘Byline Times’, UK. It was informed by Ed Emeka Keazor’s 2019 film, Company Yaya?!?! and David Killingray’s book, Fighting for Britain (2010).

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