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The story of Askaris

THE first Monday and Tuesday of July, every year, are Heroes and Unity holidays respectively on our country’s calendar. Apart from being important public holidays, the days are used to commemorate the country’s heroes and heroines that have contributed to the history and development of our nation in many different ways. But there are heroes of our country whose stories have remained untold hitherto.
In Kalewa in India, for instance, there is a war cemetery where African soldiers who fought and were buried alongside over 3,000 other soldiers. At another war cemetery in Imphal, the capital of the Indian state of Manipur, are words commemorating the memories of the British and Indian soldiers who died during the first and second world wars; “When you go home, tell them of us, and say: For their tomorrow, we gave our today.”
In many other parts of the world where the world wars were fought are the many unmarked graves of Africans who fought in both World War I and II. Over half a million African soldiers, among them as many as 14,580 from Northern Rhodesia, served with the British Army as combatants and non-combatants in campaigns in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East as far as Iraq, Italy, Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Japan.
Today, the stories of African soldiers who fought in the Second World War alongside the British soldiers against the Japanese soldiers constitute one of the silent stories of heroes that have contributed to our country’s liberation.
The history of African Askaris (African recruits who fought in the first and second world wars on behalf of Britain) seems one of the forgotten stories of our country.
In many instances, when one talks of our country’s freedom fighters, they refer to those who fought for our political liberation or the struggle for independence.
However, like their colleagues in Asia and the Caribbean, African recruits in Northern Rhodesia fought in some of the most brutal and fiercest battles for the British Army such as the Battles of Arakan, Kohima, Kalewa, Tug Argan, Chindwin, Burma, Gondar and Somaliland against the Japanese army during World War II.
It is thus no surprise that many of our military barracks in our country today are named after these famous battles. These African soldiers were very young men, some as young as 16 years old, who courageously gave all their might and strength to the war they had little or no knowledge about.
Thus when they returned home in Northern Rhodesia, they could ask themselves; “what have we got out of it all?”
Today the legacy of the world wars remains a contested argument in Africa and among many Africans.
Africans were forcefully recruited or enlisted for the war by the British. Although some infrastructures such as railways were built for military reasons, the world wars generally had a negative effect on African trade and development.
Many major public works and projects such as buildings and the construction of roads were postponed. When the war ended African troops were left with experiences which changed their lives.
They also felt, more than ever, that European colonial powers owed them a great deal for the sacrifice they had made.
Throughout British colonial Africa, complaints on unpaid pensions promised by the colonial British authorities for enlisting as soldiers in the first and second world wars were common among many former Askaris or African recruits.
However, after the end of World War II in 1945, Africans soldiers had a great impact on their contribution to nationalist politics, the rise African consciousness and the subsequent attainment of independence in their territories. In Northern Rhodesia in particular, the return of the African recruits from the war found the situation mostly in urban areas not the same as before.
They found a different political struggle going on which was new to these war veterans. Many of these Askaris despite understanding certain implications had no choice but to join in to support the cause for political liberation already started by other nationalists. It was thus evident that the Word War had exposed them to the outside world. Fighting for the British with the aim of seeing “change” was a justifiable reason for them to also desire for change and fight for independence in their own territory.
For our country, the many names of these African soldiers who fought in the world wars have not been properly accounted for. For a few who are still alive, there is little or nothing done to highlight their contribution to our country’s history and development.
Today, very few of our citizens know about the Zambian soldiers who served in the British Army with great loyalty during both World War I and II.
After the war the British Army in which the African soldiers served later became the Northern Rhodesia Regiment which subsequently became the Zambia Army and part of our country’s defence force after Zambia’s independence on October 24, 1964.
The author is a fourth year student in political science at the University of Zambia.