Over 374,000 Africans fought (and died) for the British Empire in the Second World War.
One of them even rose to the rank of a major – Major Seth Anthony who helped the British by teaching them about jungle warfare. But have you ever heard of Major Seth Anthony? Even a high military medal recommended for him never materialised. Why?
Sunday 11 November 2007 was “Remembrance Day”. And if you want to see the British at their best, you should have seen them parade in London: men and women, many quite old, a few sitting in wheel chairs and others dragging along frail limbs, stiffened by war wounds, all with heads held high, as proud in bearing as a human being can be.
They had reason to be proud. France, Poland, Czechoslovakia (as it was then) and other European countries fell to Germany in the course of World War II. But the Germans could not cross the English Channel to make Britain a “province”, as Hitler would have liked.
Of course, Britain was in alliance with the Soviet Union and the United States for most of the war. But the country could have fallen to Germany before the USSR and the US joined the war. That it did not is due to the hard work and fortitude of many ordinary Britons of yesteryear who defended their country, and gave the Germans a bloody nose while doing it.
The BBC is good at televising solemn events such as the Remembrance Day parade, and this year’s was no exception. I watched in admiration as the stalwart ex-soldiers who had seen off the German war machine marched past the Cenotaph, saluting their dead comrades, with selected individuals laying wreaths to add to the huge but neat collection at the foot of the monument.
And then a thought struck me: “Where are our heroes?” I have no doubt that one or two individual Africans were among the marchers somewhere, representing the soldiers from East and West Africa who had died fighting for Britain alongside their British colleagues. But if they were there, they were not as visible as their British comrades-in-arms. The British are not known for their generosity of spirit or, indeed, gratitude, but this was an omission so glaring that those in charge of assembling people to march on Remembrance Day should definitely make amends for it next time.
I do not say this lightly. Africa played a gigantic role in Britain’s victory over Germany in the War. And to support that statement, I am not going to quote to you the word of an African “nationalist” who seeks to cast a stone at the “perfidious Albion”. No, I am quoting the words of a British historian: Martin Meredith, an Alistair Horne fellow of Saint Antony’s College, Oxford University, and former foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times. In his book, “The First Dance of Freedom”, Meredith wrote:
“Some 374,000 Africans served in the British army. African units helped to defeat the Italians in Ethiopia and Somaliland and the Japanese in Burma, often fighting with distinction. The Royal West African Frontier Force assembled to fight in Burma, was the largest colonial army to serve as an expeditionary force in the history of the British Empire.”
Thousands of these Africans were rounded up from sleepy, peaceful villages by their chiefs, and sent as “volunteers” to die in foreign places that they had never previously imagined existed.
In my own little town of Asiakwa in Ghana, we had at least two people who died in Burma. They couldn’t read a map, so they didn’t know where Burma was. But they died there all the same. I remember their mothers crying, on the day the surviving soldiers returned home and they received news that their children (from whom they hadn’t heard but who they hoped were still alive), would not be coming back like the rest. Don’t those dead heroes deserve to be commemorated at the highest level, just as their white comrades in other regiments are?
British records do not even separate the African casualties from the general British ones. But there are separate figures for the mainly white South African casualties (of course). As I did the research for this piece, I came across a statement that I thought was extremely perceptive. It said, “Only the bullets do not discriminate against the Africans”.
When we were in junior school in Ghana, some of the older boys talked about a man who was a “fantastic soldier” during World War II. They called him “Major Seth Anthony”, and I had no idea that he was an African, nor did I know what “major” signified. He was in fact a legend among the boys – most of whom wanted to be soldiers – because he had shown such leadership qualities and fought so well that the British, not known for treating their black soldiers as equal to white ones, had made him an officer in the British wartime army as early as 1942!
Most African recruits served as carriers or were, at best, foot soldiers. Some were not even allowed to carry rifles – ostensibly, at the insistence of the racist white South African soldiers! Why was that? One wonders. Were they afraid our guys would turn their guns on their racist selves? The notion is hilarious, isn’t it? They much preferred being killed by the Germans and the Japanese to being saved by Africans, right?
There isn’t much written about Major Seth Anthony, I’m afraid, but it appears he was the first African to be given an officer’s commission during the Second World War. He was commissioned at Sandhurst, the famous British officer training school in England. It is such an amazing story that we should have learned about him for our school exams. But we were expected to know facts such as who was the British governor in the Gold Coast who built Takoradi harbour? (Sir Gordon Guggisberg, KCMG – and that will cost you a beer if you please!).
One would have thought that the story of Major Seth Anthony’s valour and exploits would be known by every Ghanaian schoolchild. But although the British were in charge of our school syllabus and textbooks, until the late 1950s, not a word about the amazing Major Anthony was ever included in our lessons. Even today, if you Google his name, only one or two entries come up. The suppression of facts about him is bizarre. I mean – this was a black man capable of leading, and probably having led, a full battalion of white soldiers.
I have learnt that he helped the British a lot by teaching them about jungle warfare, which is what they engaged in when fighting the Japanese in Burma and other countries in Asia. If he had been white, I am sure his specialist knowledge of jungle warfare would have earned him a general’s rank. No wonder his pluck caught the imagination of his fellow black soldiers and he became a legend in the land of his birth - through word of mouth, which, of course, is the best form of tribute.
Fortunately, Anthony’s country hasn’t forgotten him - he was appointed Ghana’s high commissioner to London in the late 1960s and I met him briefly in 1967. He was an amazingly unassuming man. Last year, he was given an award by President John Kufuor. Apparently, he is in such poor health now that he had to be helped up to the dais to collect his award. I understand his eyesight is failing and his hearing is almost gone. He’s over 90 years of age and currently lives quietly at Osu, in Accra.
If you ask me, the British should give him an honorary knighthood before he dies, and invite him to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph this year. For very soon, the old boy will be claimed by his ancestors, who, I am sure, will appreciate him better than the Brits do. Because it really is such a shame that racism, indifference or mere lack of imagination can make the British ignore the exploits of a man such as Major Anthony. Were it not for that rank of Major – which he achieved, of course, by performance alone, against all the odds – no one would even known that he had ever been a British officer and a gentleman, who fought for King and country with all those grey faces we saw on our screens on Remembrance Day.
Just imagine the fortitude with which he must have carried himself during the war: racist white captains and lieutenants who served under him would most probably not accord him the respect due to his rank. Yet he is not even listed in any online search engine that carries the names of British officers of the Second World War! How did the British officers react when he marched into the officers’ mess for “kip” (food) or a drink? I have read that when he returned to the Gold Coast from the war, the British governor had to send a special message to the white expatriates warning them to treat Major Anthony as their equal in every respect. The governor had to do this to nip any racism against this valiant man in the bud – he knew the type of colonial administrative service he was running. But somehow, a very high military medal for which Major Anthony was recommended never materialised.
Eventually, the British appointed him as a district commissioner. He worked in that post until Ghana’s independence in 1957, when he joined Ghana’s diplomatic service. He served in Canada, among other places, before being posted to London.
It is a pity but the more radical of his fellow countrymen will be secretly delighted that the British have accorded him no recognition whatsoever. It is just what they expect of the “perfidious Albion”!