Historic Accomplishments History Military People World War 1 World War 2

5m Africans, Carribeans and Asians who fought in WW1 and WW2: Spotlight on King’s African Rifles

The King’s African Rifles, abbreviated as KAR, was a Colonial Regiment of Britain which served from 1902 to 1960s. It was a multi-battalion regiment which worked in East Africa for a more extended period. Britain had without any doubt many possessions in East Africa, and till the independence of British East African colonies, the King’s African Rifles worked up to the mark.

The main functions performed by King’s African Rifles related to security of the colonial territory. Different military functions were also performed by King’s African Rifles during that time.  The King’s African Rifles worked for the internal security of colonial territories at the time of World Wars.

As far as the recruitment process in King’s African Rifles was concerned, most of the people who were recruited as officers were either native people or the inhabitants who had served the British Army. At the start, the King’s African Rifles consisted of battalions which were in Uganda and officers were European. Towards the end of British colonial rule, native officers were commissioned.

The basic size of King’s African Rifles was around 300,000. It was active during the time of 1902 to 1960s and took part in engagements like The Great War (WW1), the second world war, the Malayan emergency, and mau-mau uprising. The countries of origin of African soldiers were Nyasaland, Tanganyika and most famously British East Africa. Let us get to know the King’s African Rifles in further detail.

Creation

In the First ever World War, the King’s African Rifles were involved in the battle of Tanga, in which various units participated. Among many of the African units, the King’s African Rifles is famous for being the unit of President Obama’s grandfather. The battle of Tanga was fought in 1914.

The question which arises further is that how the King’s African Rifles unit was formulated. The basic formation of the King’s African Rifles unit occurred in 1902 and involved six phases, with each phase adding an additional battalion. After the initial formation, various units were incorporated into King’s African Rifles. The units which were incorporated in King’s African Rifles were mostly the dependencies of East Africa. Those dependencies were Uganda, Somaliland, Nyasaland and British East Africa.

There were several battalions made and then disbanded due to various reasons. The first battalion was derived from the Regiment of Central Africa during the time from 1902 to 1964. After the 1st battalion, the second battalion was also formed in 1902 from central Africa but was later disbanded around 1963. Then there was another battalion. The 3rd battalion was formed from East Africa from 1902 to 1963.

kings african rifles 3rd battalion The_National_Archives_UK_-_CO_1069-144-3
The original 3rd Battalion KAR formed in 1902 in Kenya (source)

Later after formation of the 3rd battalion, a 4th battalion was formed or derived from the various companies of Africa and Uganda Rifles who served from 1902 to 1962. The 5th battalion formed 1902 to 1904 was derived from a variety of Indian Companies along with Uganda Rifles. The 5th battalion was prominent as it was raised earlier than any other battalion. However, the 6th battalion was different from the previous ones. For the formation of the 6th battalion, Somaliland was selected from 1902 to 1910, and many people who belonged to the native units of Somaliland were recruited. The 6th battalion was later disbanded in early 1910.

After disbanding of the 6th battalion, another 6th battalion was derived by the former German askaris.  At the time of formation, the battalion consisted of around 104 British officers and other men who were 4,683 in number. All of them combined formed battalions. At the time of First World War, there were almost 22 battalions which consisted of 30,658 native Africans, 1,193 officers who were British along with some non-commissioned (NCO) British officers who were 1,497 in number. They lost around 5,000 men at first and then around 3,000 afterward.

ww1&ww2 - German East africa Askari Schutztruppe - 4picture.jpg
German East African askari (local soldiers)

Engagements

There were many campaigns fought by the King’s African Rifles.

The defeat of ‘Mad Mullah’ Hassan

During the early 1900s, the King’s African Rifles took part in Somalian campaigns which were against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan. In 1920, the King’s African Rifles took a vibrant part in defeating the ‘Mad Mullah’ along with the British forces. Certain British officers who took part in this campaign went on to be promoted: Adrian Carton de Wiart became Lieutenant General and Hastings Ismay eventually became Churchill’s chief military adviser.

kings african rifles Sayyid_Mohammed_Abdullah_Hassan

First World War

King’s African Rifles played a vital role in the First World War as it began with small 21 companies in 3 main battalions. Each battalion had up to 8 small companies each. The King’s African Rifles fought well against Germans and their forces in East Africa. By the end of the First World War, there was a total of 33,348 men in the King’s African Rifles who were conscripted for the sake of war. To avoid any conflict about loyalties, when former prisoners of war were recruited into King’s African Rifles units, the British used them as garrison troop.

The African soldiers and officers were supported by porters, recruited into service against their through “press-gangs”. A book by Edward Paice called “Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa” details how native porters assisting the British were ill-treated having to carry military supplies on their head, due to insufficient numbers of beasts of burden (when horses and mules died from sickness and diseases). Both King’s African Rifle soldiers and porters often had to march huge distances, with very little food and water, lowering their immunities and causing deaths from illnesses.

“Much might be written here if space permitted of all the hardships encountered by white troops in a tropical climate. Before this campaign many men that took part in it did not know what it was to be ill. After a few weeks thousands of these once healthy men returned to the Union [South Africa] broken in health, not to know for months after leaving East Africa what it was to be really healthy and free from pain. Many never will get over their experiences, whilst again many a strong and healthy man never returned to his native land, but fell a victim to malaria, dysentery, black water, or enteric contracted in German East Africa. I do not know a more pitiable sight than a man that one has known as once a strong and powerful athlete, brought by sickness and privation to a poor and wretched thing of skin and bone — Fate’s caricature of a man. Malaria takes many forms. Sometimes just a shiver; next a splitting head and feverish body; other times severe vomiting followed by aches and pains all over the body, and burning heat. Thus, in the East African campaign, where sickness was as bad an enemy as the Germans to the soldier, the hospitals played a most important part. Malaria was at all times the chief enemy of the white soldier and the Indian. However, the ration question had much to do with the poor condition of many, thus making them an easy prey to malaria. I have talked to several men who were with Gen. van Deventer during his advance, and all tell me that frequently they had to go all day without any rations, and depended entirely on mealy cobs picked from local farms through which they passed. In these early days of the campaign the white soldier carried his pack and full kit — the same as if he were in Europe — but mosquito nets were an unknown part of the men’s equipment, whilst the daily dose of five grains of quinine was not thought to be as necessary a daily ration as bully beef and biscuits. Much had to be gone through first before the soldier’s condition was to any great extent improved. I do not think that any army could have suffered more than the first white troops that arrived in East Africa early in 1916. About 80 per cent, of the regiments was, after a few months, no longer fit for active service.” from With the Nigerians In German East Africa by Captain W. D. Pownes. M.G. Royal Sussex Regiment and Nigeria Regiment (Methuen & Co, Ltd. 1919)

During the time between first and second world war, the King’s African Rifles was demobilized.

Second World War

ww2 normandy landing-60527
Omaha beach (public memory of WW2)

During the time of Second World War, the King’s African Rifles fought in various campaigns. The most prominent were the battles against Italians in the campaign of East Africa. Another fight was during the battle in Madagascar.

kar African_Troops_in_Burma_during_the_Second_World_War_SE1884
Men of the 11th Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma after crossing the Chindwin River, 1945(source)

The Burma campaign is another highlight of the fighting achievements of King’s African Rifles. The battalions fought bravely and with expertise during the whole time. Different events occurred which are known as hallmarks of the Second World War. At the end of the great Second world war, around 43 battalions were raised which included the car regiment along with sections like transport, signal, and engineer. Around 9 independent garrisons were also raised as the result of the Second World War. The traditions of King’s African Rifles had a significant influence on today’s modern armies. It may vary from one country to another. After all these years, only Malawi Rifles and Kenya Rifles exist.

KAR_soldiers_collecting_arms_at_Wolchefit_Pass
28 September 1941. Personnel from the King’s African Rifles collect weapons surrendered by Italian forces at Wolchefit Pass, Ethiopia. (source)

Uniforms, Colours, and Battle Honors

Khaki shorts with the long blue jersey and blue puttees was the initial uniform of King’s African Rifles. The headgear was red in color. Amendments later came in the uniform as the blue jersey was substituted by the khaki jacket which was almost colorless. Along with that, the tall fez was changed with the low but rounded cap.

KAR-Drummer-cleaned1-169x400
4th Bn, (Uganda) Drummer, c1913 (KAR Colours)

In past times, the British African soldiers were not provided with any boots. British askari were provided with boots for the first time when they were sent to serve in Burma. The uniform, however, was also different in the Burma battles. The bush hat was worn as the headgear, and the uniform was green in color. After the war, however, the grey-back as they call it collarless angora blue-grey shirt replaced the other uniform.

kar askari in burma
An East African askari enjoying a rest and a cigarette, Burma, 1944 (KAR Burma Smoking).

The badges of battalions changed over the span of time. They were either in Arabic or Roman numerals. The badges varied from time to time depending on the change of script.

Military colours date back to the military arts of Ancient Egypt, 5,000 years ago. They allow regiments to keep formation by knowing where they, and their commander, are in a theatre of operation in relation to battle plans and fellow servicemen. The most experienced or elite soldiers, called “colour guards”, were entrusted with protecting each regiment’s colours. Colours were inscribed with symbols commemorating past achievements and documenting the names of battles. Colours were revered as the embodiment of the tradition and honour of each regiment. Awarding colours to a regiment in past times involved pomp and ceremony. An award could in past times only be carried out by a head of state.

British rifle regiments travelled in a dispersed fashion and were used for skirmishes or as sharpshooters. Therefore, due to practicality British rifle regiments including the King’s African Rifles did not carry colours. Up till 1924, colours were not awarded to the KAR regiment’s battalions. Many battle honours were emblazoned on the King’s African Rifles colours. However, in 1950, the previous colours were replaced.

  • Ashanti 1900 for engagements by the Central Africa Regiment in Somaliland
  • The Great War (Seven Battalions) was another battle honour
  • Second World War: 24 engagements

Various noble soldiers are known as the notable officers of King’s African Rifles. Some of their names are mentioned below:

  • Roald Dahl
  • An art dealer Robert Fraser
  • Sir George Giffard
  • P. J. Marshall
  • Robert Fraser
  • Eric Wilson
  • An author John Seymour
  • Colonial Colin Mitchell
  • Hussein Onyango Obama, U.S. President Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather
  • Captain Henry Alexander Walker, 1st Battalion KAR

Many other similar notable men worked for the success of the British army in overseas conflicts between 1902 and 1963. Their notable services made the King’s African Rifles well–known.

Communication

The native inhabitants of Africa from a variety of tribes were made a part of King’s African Rifles during the time of recruitment. As expected of colonialism, English was the language which was commonly used by all the people. The commands were given and understood in the English language.

Summary

Africans have fought in many conflicts initiated by Europe: Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment in the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, the Colonial expansion wars, the Swazis of the Zulu wars, World War 1, World War 2, the Suez Canal crisis, the Malayan emergency, the Mau-Mau uprising and in suppression of self-rule against their own people. Africans fought for the Allies and also for the German territories, under colonial compulsion. When these wars broke, out the language of “we” and the “commonwealth” was used as recruitment propaganda. When on the back foot, forced conscription was used.

After the war, immigration acts removing the rights of free travel of over 400 million Africans and trade barriers were created to isolate African countries and promote trade between the United States, Europe and Japan. There was no Marshal plan for rebuilding the ruins left in Africa.

During the Second world war, Africans provided goods, commodities, porters, livestock and soldiers. They fought without boots. They were not allowed to be officers or to receive such training. They marched great distances without suitable supplies of food and water. They were sent to high fatality regions like Burma to fight the Japanese. It is a matter of public memory that the United States chose to invent and drop two nuclear bombs on Japan rather than continue to send people to fight them.

Annual ceremonies, the walls of churches, monuments, TV programmes and films routinely produce scripts that omit the contributions of Africa and India to the survival of the United States, France, Britain, Canada, Australia and other allied countries. People who died for a war they did not start, at a time when they could not elect their own presidents, prime ministers, senators or MPs.

Despite the suffering endured by Africa, this terrible ordeal was better than what Nazi Germany’s NSDAP Office of Colonial Policy had planned for North Africa, Mittelafrika and the Union of South Africa.

After independence was granted, responsible African leaders were routinely deposed as part of the cold war between the USSR and “the West”, two former allies during World War 2.

These actions and behaviours were anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, un-Christian, un-civilised and fall short by far of the standards promoted by “developed economies”.

The King’s African Rifles was one of the most significant armed forces during the 20th century to Africa and the World. The 1st battlion became the Malawi Rifles; the 2nd became the Zambia Regiment; the 3rd became the 3rd battalion, Kenya Rifles; the 4th became the Uganda Rifles; the 5th became the 5th battalion, Kenya Rifles; the 6th battalion became the 1st battalion, Tanganyika Rifles; the 11th became the 11th battalion Kenya Rifles; and the 26th became the 2nd battalion, Tanganyika Rifles (Tanzania).

This full-time colonial force was used for war, policing and suppressing democracy in Africa. The force was trained just like a regular national army. Recruits were native to Africa and came from different tribes of Africa. Soldiers served for the period of between 6 years to 18 years. When soldiers from Europe, the United States and Japan went home to rebuild, Africans and Indians went home to agitate for self-rule and basic human rights.

We in no way intend to diminish the sacrifices of everyone who fought in the World Wars. The aim here is to highlight the forgotten African servicemen.

ww2 Indian_Wrens_Visit_Rosyth,_3_June_1945_A29070
Royal East Africa Navy Reserve
Advertisements

One comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.