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The Idea of a British Imperial African Army*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

David Killingray
Goldsmiths' College


Britain maintained small colonial armed forces in the African territories for internal security and local defence. In four periods of international crisis, when the British Empire was faced with a shortage of military manpower, it was proposed that African troops be used in imperial roles outside Africa. These proposals were closely related to the increasing opposition by India to the Indian Army being used for imperial defence in Asia and the Middle East. During 1916–18 a parliamentary and press lobby in Britain clamoured for a ‘million black army’. In the years 1919–21 the War Office attempted to raise an African army for use in the Middle East. On both occasions the Colonial Office vigorously opposed these schemes and the crises were resolved without using African troops. The emergencies of 1939–42 changed Colonial Office policy. African troops were used in the East African campaign against the Italians, as labour units in the Middle East, and then, after 1943, as combatants in Asia where they fought as complete formations within the Commonwealth forces. At the end of the Second World War the Colonial Office wished to maintain a sizeable African army at Imperial expense. However, post-war defence cuts reduced the African armed forces although a small parliamentary and service lobby unsuccessfully urged that an African Army be created as an imperial instrument, and to take the place of the Indian Army.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1979

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1 Tomlinson, B. R., ‘India and the British Empire 1880–1947’, Pts I and II, Indian Economic and Social History Journal, xii, iv (1012. 1975), 337–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and XIII, iii (July–Sept. 1976), 331–49, provides an excellent outline of the changing role of the Indian Army in Imperial defence schemes.

2 See figures given for 1919 to 1937 in W.O./33 1019–1514 (Public Records Office, Kew. Unless otherwise stated, all file references are to material in the P.R.O.).

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46 W.O. 32/5356 Churchill, to Milner, , 23 04 1920Google Scholar. See also BodleianLibrary, papers, Milner, MS Eng. Hist., c. 699Google Scholar, Thornton, to Marsh, , 25 05 1920Google Scholar. Hawthorn, , the Inspector General, in a memo. 12 Aug. 1920Google Scholar, said that colonial governments opposed the use of African troops overseas, ‘naturally so’, and that the War Office proposal to recruit half a million men was ‘visionary’. Most blacks, he added, were sick of war.

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53 W.O. 32/4140 (secret memo.), ODC paper no. 1415, Dec. 1937.

54 C.O. 820/32/34220, secret memo, to S/S at Colonial Office, 11 06 1938.Google Scholar

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56 Crocker, Chester A., ‘Military dependence: the colonial legacy in Africa’. J. Modern African Studies, xii, ii (1974), 265–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In September 1939 the total African colonial forces equalled 19,500; by May 1945 they numbered over 400,000.

57 CAB 65/1/53 (39)3, War Cabinet meeting, 19 Oct. 1939; CAB 67/4 W.P.(G)(40)15, secret memo. by MacDonald, on ‘Utilization of the manpower resources of the Colonial Empire’, 22 Jan. 1940Google Scholar; and War Cabinet meetings of 15 Jan., 25 Jan. and 15 04 1940.Google Scholar

58 W.O. 193/16, War Office secret telegram to C-in-C Middle East, 9 03 1940Google Scholar. Also CAB 67/4 W.P.(G)(40) 15, memo. on ‘Utilization of manpower…’ 22 Jan. 1940; and CAB 66/7 W.P.(40)129, memo, by S/S at War Office, 13 04 1940Google Scholar. MacDonald only agreed to this ‘new departure in British policy’ after much hesitation. In the early years of the war the ACF were an untried quality outside Africa and the Colonial Office was nervous about exposing African troops to possible defeat; interview with Sabben-Clare, E. E., 28 05 1978Google Scholar. See also the paper produced for the Cabinet in 1945 by Sabben-Clare: ‘The colonial military forces in World War II’, CAB 106/307.

59 Lloyd, Lord, who succeeded MacDonald at the Colonial Office in 05 1940Google Scholar, was a firm advocate of using African troops for imperial service. ‘His vigorous driving power and the commanding position which he held in Cabinet were responsible for bringing about a much more active policy by the CO in regard to the use of colonial troops and the part played by the colonies in the global war…the influence of Lord Lloyd was a paramount factor…’ Communication from Sir Poynton, Hilton, 4 Dec. 1978.Google Scholar

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61 W.O. 32/3380, secret, Dec. 1941.

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65 For the first time East and West African forces fought overseas as complete formations within the Commonwealth forces. By May 1945 they numbered as follows: in Asia, 46,050 East Africans, 73,290 West Africans; Middle East, 30,000 EA, 16,472 WA; Africa, 150,344 EA, 56,100 WA; W.O. 32/11751, Laing to Chalmers.

66 C.O. 820/48/34504, Gen. Cunningham, (private and personal) to Moyne, Lord, 16 07 1941Google Scholar: ‘I have been considering for some time whether the East and West African troops would stand up to the German armies. Rather regretfully I have come to the conclusion that it would be unwise to use them.’

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72 C.O. 537/1888, CO secret memo. to Colonial Defence (Post Hostilities) Committee, 9 March 1946.

73 The Jacob Committee's role was taken over in 1946 by the re-formed Overseas Defence Committee. See Defence White Paper 1949 (Cmd. 7631), which said that the West African colonies were unable to look after their own internal security, let alone make a substantial contribution to Commonwealth defence. C.O. 537/1889, Jacob Committee meeting 22 March 1946.

74 House of Commons Debates, 4 March 1946; 5 Aug. 1947; 9 March 1948; 10 March 1949; 16 March 1950; 16 March 1951. For Conservative views see Alport, C. J. M., Hope in Africa (London, 1952)Google Scholar, ch. II; Gammans, L. D., Facing the facts (London, 1945)Google Scholar, and idem, ‘The colonies and defence’, The Commonwealth and Empire Review (July, 1947). See also Darby, Philip, British Defence Policy East of Suez 1947–1968 (Oxford, 1973)Google Scholar, ch. I; Bennett, Valerie P., ‘The evolution of civil-military relations in Ghana 1945–62’, (Ph.D. thesis, Boston University, 1971), ch. 2Google Scholar; Gupta, P. S., Imperialism and the British Labour Movement (Cambridge, 1975), 286–7.Google Scholar

75 George Wigg wrote a number of leading articles in West Africa arguing for an African contribution to Imperial defence; see issues for 16 and 23 Oct. 1948, 11 Feb. 1950, 25 March 1950, 15 Sept. 1951. I am grateful to Lord George Wigg for discussing with me the post-war interest in an African army.

76 Cf. the following articles by Clarke: ‘Economy of manpower in the services’, Royal United Services Institute J. (Aug. 1947); ‘The military and economic importance of West Africa’, Royal United Serv. Inst. J. (1948); ‘Defence and communications in West Africa’ West African Review, (May 1949); ‘African manpower and Commonwealth defence’, New English Review (1949); ‘Army in Africa’, Royal United Serv. Inst. J. (1951). See also Higgins, F., ‘Our African colonial forces’, Royal United Serv. Inst. J. (1946)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kent, J. A., ‘Commonwealth manpower - a plea for a colonial army’, Army Quarterly, lxi (Oct. 1950)Google Scholar. Montgomery, as CIGS, briefly toured Africa in late 1947 and on his return addressed a rather unimpressed Creech Jones on the need for a ‘grand design’, a ‘master plan’ for African development essential for Western security; Montgomery, Lord, Memoirs (London, 1958), 462–4.Google Scholar

77 House of Commons Debates, vol. 497, Army Estimates debate, cols. 1034 and 1157 (10 March 1951).

78 Report of West African Forces Conference, Lagos 20–24 April 1953 (London, 1953).