FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
VARIOUS historic literature has been compiled to tell the four-year events of the First World War but it has frequently overlooked the participation of the African foot soldiers, commonly known as askari, a Swahili word for soldier.
The war that broke out on July 28, 1914 in Europe, spread to African colonies and huge numbers of African men were recruited by the warring colonial powers, mainly Germany and Britain.
African men in East and Central Africa were targeted as they were thought to be suitable for the continent’s rough terrain and harsh weather conditions.
The battlefield in Africa was characterised by thick jungles and inhabited by dangerous wild animals like lions and snakes.
The environment had tsetse flies in which no domestic animals could live and therefore no sustained ox, horse, mule, or donkey transport was possible.
Water bodies such as lakes, rivers, streams and swamps waded through by the African foot soldiers were heavily infested by crocodiles and snakes as well.
As a result, the war on the African front brought widespread hardships and deaths to African soldiers, mainly fighting barefoot, hence earning themselves the name foot soldiers.
Although the prevalence of wild animals technically provided food for the soldiers, they also fell prey to the wild animals.
According to compiled accounts of events of the First World War at the Lusaka National Museum, Africans from Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, were among those that participated on a large scale in the war that ended on November 25, 1918 in Abercon, present-day Mbala.
“For instance, at the outbreak of the war in 1914, the Northern Rhodesia Police consisted of only 31 Europeans compared to 768 Africans,” confirms Lusaka National Museum director Victoria Chitungu.
By 1917, the British command began to withdraw the South African, Rhodesian and Indian troops and replace them with more askari.
Early 1918, more than half the British Army in Africa was composed of Africans and by the end of the war, it was nearly an all-African battalion in a war that was not really theirs.
Why the foot soldier
During the war the British sphere of control in terms of colonies in Southern Africa consisted of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Botswana, Nyasaland (Malawi) and South Africa.
Thereafter came racially different men that represented the British Empire, composed of South Africans, including Boers, British, Rhodesians (White settlers in both Northern and Southern Rhodesia) and Indian troops.
“These soldiers had different military wear according to their military unit. What is noticeable about the African soldier is that he fought barefoot, on the rationale that the heavy military boots of the period were unsuitable for African recruits who had not previously worn footwear,” Ms Chitungu said.
Another reason the soldiers were called foot soldiers was that they fought this war mainly on foot covering great distances because, unlike in Europe, the African region’s road network was mostly non-existent by 1914, according to Ms Chitungu.
In most cases, carriages could not be used in many parts of Northern Rhodesia and East Africa where the war was being fought due to bad topography.
“What must be noted is that the Force headquarters of the Northern Rhodesian Police was in Livingstone, a long way away from the Northern border [in Mbala] and East Africa where the war was fought,” she said.
The NRP troops used a train from Livingstone up to the north of Ndola and then marched to Kasama on foot, covering a blistering distance of about 721 kilometres.
Upon arrival, the troops started off for Mbala without resting and speed-marched the 60km to Mbala in 66 hours, according to Ms Chitungu.
However, it must be noted that even though the war might not have been intensive in the interiors of Northern Rhodesia, soldiers were sent from almost all the districts of Northern Rhodesia.
Therefore, different soldiers walked on foot from their regions to the nearest railway station before getting on the train to cover part of the journey to either Broken Hill (Kabwe) or Ndola, and then proceed from there on foot to the Northern Border.
“After long marches, the soldiers were often affected by the weather and around 75 percent of those serving died from malnutrition, malaria, dysentery and blackwater fever,” Ms Chitungu said.
She said the final calamity was the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which affected many soldiers and local communities as soldiers returning home spread the disease to the local communities.
Another hardship faced by the African soldiers was racism. Although the nature of the composition of the British army made it possible for the soldiers to fight shoulder to shoulder, irrespective of class and colour, racial tensions could still not be avoided especially between the blacks and whites.
Matters worsened during the defence of the Saisi military border post in Mbala, where the blacks and the whites were sharing the same trenches for long periods of time.
The NRR objected to this arrangement, bringing about a lot of tensions between the racially different groups. This contributed to the disbandment of the NRR even before the war ended.
Foot soldiers’ bravery
Despite the many hardships faced during the war and the high death rate from mainly diseases and the war itself, the African foot soldiers put up a brave fight, Ms Chitungu said.
Unfortunately, still little is known of these soldiers although few were recognised or rewarded for their efforts.
“However, some records do indicate the bravery displayed by the African soldiers at particular battlefields. For instance, a battle between the British and the Germans on December 6, 1914 at Fife, [now Nakonde] records the death of 102 Private Ndarama of NRP who died in action,” she said.
Another brave action was recorded three weeks later at Fife again where Lance Sergeant Dandalika and Lance Corporal Mpepera fought so bravely that they both received a promotion for their conduct during the action, Ms Chitungu said.
“On April 24, 1915, in a clash with the Germans where the NRP led by Lieutenant G.P. Burton, Corporal Geza and Lance Corporal Chikusi, of the NRP, were both promoted for their performances during the fight,” she said.
Other foot soldiers like Chisenga Lumbwe lived through the war to tell the bravery, sufferings and deaths of his fellow foot soldiers in a war that was not theirs, Ms Chitungu said.
*Zambia is commemorating the centenary of the end of World War I on November 25, 2018.
FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka