Britain enlisted the help of its colonies in fighting the Burma War in 1945, and of the 90000 soldiers that it recruited from across different countries, over half were Nigerian. Most of these soldiers were young adults, but a large percentage of them were teens as young as 16 who ran away from home to find meaning as soldiers of the British Army.
Their enemy was the Japanese Imperial Army, which had overrun large parts of Burma, now known as Myanmar in South-East Asia.
Even though their contribution was immense, Nigerian and other African soldiers were not acknowledged when the Allied Commander, General William Slim thanked the 4th Division in Burma.
Britain was a major player in the Second World War but it did not have the military might to match its role.
playA photo after a battle on Scraggy Hill at Shenam in Burma
The Burma War was essentially a series of battles fought in the British colony of Burma, in the South-East Asian theatre of World War II.
The war was fought primarily between the British Imperial forces and China, with support from the United States, against the invading forces of Imperial Japan, Thailand, and the Indian National Army.
Fighting another man’s war
While Britain had support from other allies, it had a void in its own forces. This gap was plugged mostly from its colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and South-East Asia.
Of the 90,000 East and West African troops that fought in the war, over half were Nigerian.
One of them was a 16-year-old Isaac Fadoyebo. Like many his age, he had run away from his parents and the village that was all he knew to sign up for the British war effort.
Some of the soldiers were captured and forced into the army. One of such, named “African Banana” by the white soldiers, was a young Chadian who had come to Nigeria in search of his kidnapped sister.
playBoys as young as 16 were conscripted to fight for the British in Burma. (BarBaric)
He was captured in Yola and forcefully conscripted into the army.
“The white sergeant major caught me”, he says, “… and I was taken to Burma”
For others, it was a matter of raw desire.
For many of the soldiers who fought in the war, representing Britain was the greatest honour… or so they thought.
“I was so jealous when my friend joined the army”, says one of the Burma veterans from Nigeria’s north who is now in his 80s, “To wear the Khaki was a thing of pride and when the girls saw me, they would always call me over”
For others, fighting for Britain came with the assurance of a considerable stipend, a job and sustenance where they had few options.
Many of the younger soldiers joined for the allure of excitement and the prospect of making something of themselves in the white man’s land.
What they found was completely different.
“Racism still alive, they just be concealing it”
It took two years of fighting in the intense jungles of Burma to drive out the Japanese. Only a fraction of the forces who actually fought in the front-lines were white.
But if the African soldiers thought their majority would mean anything or imply that they would be treated differently than they were at home, they were badly mistaken.
playAfrican soldiers of 11th East African Division crossing the River Chindwin by ferry before moving towards the village of Shwegyin Burma in December 1944 (Nairaland Forum)
Getting to Burma was a problem in and of its own. “ I did not enjoy the trip…”, says a veteran, “the first set of recruits died on the ship”.
The Burma jungle was a formidable opponent itself, steeped high in the same area as the Himalayas range, the monsoon weather worsened the problems of navigating a jungle that was dense, to say the least.
“Burma Jungle? Very thick jungle”, he says of the monsoon rain-forest, “We had to cut (through) it with a cutlass to make way for ourselves”
But even though each soldier had to carry his own weight and contribute at least equally to the war effort, the Nigerian soldiers soon found that some of the men were more equal than others.
“They treated us like their children but in reality, we were their slaves”, one of the veterans says.
“We’d have to march five or six kilometres through the water, up to her neck in the water”, he gestures. But they fought nonetheless, over two years until the Japanese were defeated.
playNigerian and Indian soldiers share a laugh at a small stream in the heart of the Burma jungle (Nairaland)
The efforts of the West African soldiers in Burma did not go unnoticed, but whether they were acknowledged or appreciated is another question entirely.
Used, abused and abandoned
The British leaders, military and civilian, saw that they did well but they were only adjudged exemplary on paper.
“We went to the war, we came back, what did they do for us?”, asks one of the soldiers.
“The war was beneficial for the world…”, yet another veteran says, “… but it was not beneficial for me”.
Many of the soldiers came home to manage what was left of the stipends they had earned at war and sent home before they returned.
“After the war, we were promised our war bonus…”
playAlthiugh they were largely not acknowledged, West African soldiers all but won the Burma campaign for Britain. (Guardian)
But they were not paid.
“We were under colonial rule so we could not say anything to change it”, another says.
“They promised to send us something — up till now, we didn’t receive anything”
It is nearly impossible to discount the implications of the Burma War on the soldiers who went or on the country as a whole.
Home will never forget you
Although many of them have now passed away, there is a generation who was famed at the time for fighting a white man’s war in the white man’s land and returning unscathed.
To some, it was a subtle validation of the belief that black men are much stronger than their white peers.
The influence has even been immortalised in Nigerian literature, in books such as Buchi Emecheta’s “Joys of Motherhood” where the main character, Nnu Ego had to make do with a small stipend while her husband fought in Burma.
playIsaac Fadoyebo was one of the Burma Boys who died recently, but not before sharing his story with the journalist, Barnaby Phillips. (MartinPlaut)
Few of those veterans are alive but the legacy of that fighting force lives on in folk stories and works of art like the aforementioned.
Someday, the world will ask questions of the long-standing legacy of colonialism and the suffering that Britain caused for men who gave years of their lives, and in many cases, their mental stability, for a war they had no part in, only to be sold false promises.
But then again, isn’t that what colonialism and all other forms of systemic oppression are?
Their story may dampen the spirits of those who seek to make similar decisions in today’s world; chasing a selfish cause in a foreign land for the sake of meaning and financial reward.
But where this is the case, there may be some guidance in the song that led the Nigerian soldiers of Burma into battle.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel
The battalion is almost there
God, we ask your forgiveness
We want victory by any means”