IF there is any historical period which is drilled into the minds of school children in Britain, it is that of the Second World War. Yet the focus on the British metropole and the Western perspective has hidden the vital contributions of British colonial soldiers and labourers across the globe.

Throughout the course of the war, Africa contributed almost one million men to the conflict, across British, French, Italian and Belgian colonies, as well as those from South Africa. Of that number, some 15,000 British African soldiers were killed over the course of the Second World War.

However, in the larger discussions of the war, within popular histories and public understanding, the contribution of African soldiers has too often been left in the shadows.

African servicemen, like their European counterparts, travelled to far away territories to fight in armies for the freedom of their oppressors. Those who did not fight worked within the African continent as labourers, porters, carriers, cooks and mechanics, to aid the war effort. Thousands of Africans laboured during the war to provide vital food, ammunition and mineral supplies, without which the British metropole and deployed armies would have faltered.However, it is not simply the case that British African soldiers have been forgotten – African colonial soldiers in the Second World War, and in Kenya specifically, were purposefully removed from the historical narrative of the war to sustain, protect and justify British colonial rule.

The post-war demobilisation strategies of the British government intentionally stunted African economic and social development to prevent mass societal changes which the wartime global atmosphere thrust upon the world.

The Second World War significantly altered African colonial societies, a booming wartime economy provided skilled jobs for Africans who had previously been forced into subsistence agriculture and similar unskilled, monotonous and exploitative jobs. Military service also resulted in the mass education of African soldiers and fed an appetite for a new life where Africans were no longer suppressed by the boundaries of the pre-war colonial state.

Yet, upon their repatriation, African servicemen received no mass recognition nor reward for their service. There was no follow-through on the promises of post-war employment, further education and training from the British government who made such claims to entice Africans to enlist in their armies.

Towards the end of the war and immediately after, the British Government worked extensively trying to remedy the changes the war had caused in Africa. Officials desired to claw back control of a society which was now filled with ex-servicemen who desired to run businesses, shops, emerge into administrative work and educate themselves further.

Consequently the British authorities, at home and in Kenya, worked hard to prevent the movement of skilled African soldiers into the mainstream workforce and endeavoured to manipulate ex-soldiers back into agricultural work.

To meet this aim, the contributions of African soldiers during the Second World War were downplayed to limit demands for constitutional and social change within Africa and to limit global calls for the emancipation of these soldiers who had helped win the war.

Government documents housed in the National Archives in London have revealed the ways in which the British Government directly told African ex-servicemen in Kenya that employment in a trade was “assured as no other trade is, outside agriculture”.

A PAMPHLET issued in 1945 discussing post-war employment stated that the government only wanted to provide “the best of the army tradesmen” with further training to “make them suitable as peace-time tradesmen”. The pamphlet went on to argue that there was “no use giving this further training to any but the best” because of the lack of employment opportunities, yet the lack of employment opportunities was caused by the British colonial government’s essentially non-existent efforts to provide jobs within Kenyan society for the newly returning ex-servicemen.

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Similarly, colonial officials said efforts to organise training opportunities for Africans to become teachers, clerks and welfare workers “must of necessity be on an extremely small scale and cannot at any rate for some time come to justify the establishment of an institution”. Officials in London told the East Africa Command that the difficulties of establishing such programmes and equipping them would be “insuperable”.

The government issued leaflets discussing the African soldier’s post-war training and demobilisation also indicate that the British government tried to convince Africans that seeking further training was not worth their while.

Leaflets distributed by the Kenya Office publicly informed Kenyan ex-servicemen that army training did not ensure that African soldiers were “suitably trained as civil tradesmen to work in times of peace”. Such leaflets directly undermined the years of training many soldiers had received in the army. It is particularly striking that despite the wartime contributions of such soldiers, leaflets chastised Africans for their apparently inherent inability to economically and socially advance.

One particular leaflet stated that the period immediately after the war offered the chance for “the African to prove that he can do good work and can be relied on. If he misses his chance, it is unlikely that he will get another; rightly or wrongly, he will get a bad reputation and others will come and take his job”. Such documents sneakily placed the blame for a lack of post-war jobs for soldiers not on the poor demobilisation plans which deliberately intended to prevent African development, but on the African ex-soldier’s inherent degenerative qualities.

The document urged that despite their wartime work “the African has not a good reputation as a worker – in the European sense. By and large, he is slow, incompetent and unreliable, with an annoying tendency to wander off to his home for an unspecified period without warning and which is all the more exasperating – without being aware of doing anything irregular”.

Such a categorisation of a soldier of the Second World War reveals how the British government was still enshrined in its colonial sentiments of racial inferiority. This can explain why, at least initially, African ex-servicemen were not granted the kind of honour and gratitude bestowed upon white British soldiers of the war.

Clearly, from the war’s very end, the British government at home and in Kenya were determined to undermine, undervalue and cast-off the effort of British African soldiers during the war to safeguard its colonial interests.

The emergence of a new class of demobilised African soldiers who could obtain skilled employment or easily access training to advance the skills they had learned in the war would have enabled the emergence of a new class of African who had the potential to improve their economic standing and therefore break out of the boundaries of poverty carefully put in place by the British colonial system.

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By confining Kenyan veterans to the shadows of history, the British government could escape any immediate cries for African liberation either at home, within Africa or globally. Clearly, the demobilisation strategies of the British government were an extension of the pre-existing colonial apparatus which restricted the freedom and prosperity of Africans decades before the war.

Such documents housed in the archives not only reveal the struggles which African veterans faced after repatriation, but also highlight the lengths to which the British government went to prevent social, economic and psychological change within Kenyan society. These documents highlight the psychological trickery used to manipulate ex-soldiers to believe that the only way they would find safe employment in post-war Kenya was by reverting back to the confines of pre-war tribalised society.

Another aspect of post-war demobilisation that plagued British African ex-servicemen was the difficulty in receiving payment for service. Research carried out by historians and oral testimonies from African ex-servicemen has revealed that many African soldiers, specifically Kenyans enrolled in the King’s African Rifles, did not receive their war gratuity payments on their return to Africa.

The National: A photograph of a rehabilitation centre in NairobiA photograph of a rehabilitation centre in Nairobi

Kenyan veteran Eusebio Mbiuki was one such man who enrolled during the Second World War in the King’s African Rifles. Upon his return from service in the Burma campaign, he found that his eligibility for service payment, known as war gratuity, was significantly lower paid than for white ex-servicemen.

Mbiuki said that the wounds of poor repayment after the war are still strong, telling Jack Losh and Alessandro Pavone, makers of an Al Jazeera documentary film, that “they should have known how much we had helped them, we were abandoned, just like that”.

Similarly, earlier this year, a document was unearthed from the British archives which revealed that African soldiers who fought in the British Army during the war were paid as much as three times less than white British soldiers. In an article written for The Guardian, Losh revealed that in February, Labour MPs called for the government to initiate an inquiry into the issue.

The document reveals that European privates would receive 10 shillings per month of service, and African counterparts of the same rank would receive 3/50 shillings per month. The disparity in pay reflects the colonial mentality of African inferiority at the time, however following the war’s end, many African soldiers repatriated back to their British African colonies did not receive adequate pay or the payments they had been promised for their service.

Responding to the discovery of the document, Wayne David, shadow defence minister, said: “The Defence Secretary ought to make an announcement to the House of Commons and put on the record that this was wrong and that he’ll put it right ... there needs to be a full-scale government inquiry and all the information needs to be brought forward.”

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Later, former head of the British Army General Lord Dannatt called on the government to pay compensation to those veterans affected.

HOWEVER, in June it was revealed that the government would not launch an inquiry. It was later outlined that the veterans were not on the table. The defence minister Tobias Ellwood told MPs privately that there were “no current plans to take forward any investigations of this matter”. In a letter, seen by The Guardian, the minister said the investigation would require “extensive resources” which clearly, the government was not willing to provide.

Instead, veterans who fought for the British Empire, many against their will or out of the desperate need to pull themselves out of poverty, must go on largely unremembered in the public sphere, with nothing to show for their service but memories of cruelty, inequality and the hardships of war.

The content of the files housed in the British National Archives reveals the British government’s mentality towards its Kenyan soldiers and makes it easy to view the recent decision by MPs regarding wartime pay as a continuation, or at least a symptom, of the political precedent enshrined in British politics – to confine African ex-servicemen to a life of subjugation, poverty and historical amnesia.

Further still, in light of the recent Mau Mau documents scandal – where the British government had been found to be harbouring thousands of hidden documents relating to the Kenya Emergency of the 1950s and 60s – a mistrust of the British government’s telling of history seems justified.

A file is also harboured in the National Archives which contains photos of African soldiers in rehabilitation centres in Kenya for disabled ex-soldiers in 1944. Underneath images of a disabled veteran with his legs amputated standing on his hands angling the rest of his body in the air, it said: “He does not waste in despair. There will be an active body for his artificial legs.” Another photograph is accompanied by the caption: “Even bed patients must not be idle – muscles must not waste.” The image is of African soldiers lying in hospital beds with their legs in the air.

Despite such positive affirmations accompanying the documentation of these disabled veterans, many Kenyan veterans did not receive such rehabilitation and were only ever offered a wooden peg leg.

Historian Timothy Parsons revealed that much like the veterans who did not receive payment, disabled veterans in Kenya were provided with a peg leg and this was seen as sufficient. The Kenyan authorities did not want rehabilitation of veterans to disrupt the “fundamental fabric of tribal society”. Ultimately, Parsons’s research found that the British authorities in Kenya expected African women to take responsibility for mitigating the disabilities of their fellow tribesmen.

Such treatment of disabled Africans who had been injured while protecting Britain perfectly highlights how the British government felt about its African soldiers and established a precedent for how it would treat its colonial African veterans for decades to come.

In light of these revelations found in the archives, the British public should retain an air of scepticism and critique regarding the publicly circulated history of the British Empire and its role in the Second World War.

When observing Remembrance Day parades, or hearing politicians discuss the sacrifices of British soldiers this year, it is important to recognise, remember and commemorate the actions of those African colonial soldiers who the British government has hidden from the forefront of commemorative efforts through decades of historical misinformation and pro-British historical rhetoric.

By failing to acknowledge the injustices experienced by African colonial soldiers during the Second World War, the history of the war will remain steeped in colonial nostalgia which glorifies Britain as a beacon of anti-fascist piety.

Allowing British African colonial soldiers to slide under the radar of the history of the Second World War has helped stop the truly exploitative nature of the British Empire from becoming public knowledge – a precedent which has too long been allowed to be perpetuated by the British education system and by the tradition of Remembrance Day in Britain. In a country with such a large African diaspora, it is hugely important to reshape our understanding of the past, to include the contributions of those people who were forced to participate in British military operations because of British colonial hegemony.

It is necessary then, especially in light of Black History Month in October, and upon the eve of Remembrance Day, to make a conscious effort to commemorate those African soldiers who have been forgotten in the history of the Second World War.

Even more importantly, efforts should be made to compensate and accommodate for those African veterans still alive today, who have not yet been properly recognised or repaid for their sacrifices made during the war.