This is a short, introductory article about the history of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and the toy and model soldiers that depict the regiment.
You can click on the blue-links or the pictures in this article to visit further posts with more information and lots of pictures – or visit the page About This Website for more details about the site or to leave replies and comments. Click on the category-links if you want to see all of the posts with pictures of Old Toy Soldiers or Modern Models of the KAR. There are pictures of over one hundred different toy and model soldiers from the King’s African Rifles and the askari regiments of other colonial powers throughout the website.
The King’s African Rifles were a multi-battalion colonial army regiment raised in the first half of the Twentieth Century in the Central and East African territories of the British Empire, in what are now the independent countries of Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi.
The KAR were formed in January 1902 by the amalgamation of the earlier East African Rifles, the Uganda Rifles, the Central African Rifles and various native levies from British Somaliland (modern Somalia).
The first toy soldiers in the history of the King’s African Rifles were askari (meaning “soldier” in Swahili) from the earlier East African Rifles, made from hollowcast lead by a toy maker called Reka in London between 1910 and 1932.
The Uganda Rifles and the Central African Rifles were not represented as toy soldiers in their own era but both were made for modern collectors by a model maker called Nostalgia in the 1980s.
From its formation in 1902, the KAR had a strength of 104 white British officers and 4,683 black African askari. These were organised in six battalions across Central and East Africa.
In the regiment’s early days, the KAR continued with the punitive expeditions and small campaigns to pacify rebellious African tribes and suppress Arab slave traders that had occupied its predecessor regiments. In 1902 the regiment also embarked on the longest campaign in its history against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan – known to the British as the “Mad Mullah” – an Islamic fundamentalist in the Bin Laden mould, who led his Dervishes (holy men) in an anti-imperialist war against British, Italian and Ethiopian forces in Somaliland from 1899 until his death in December 1920.
The next toy soldier depicts an askari of the King’s African Rifles from the period 1902-1920 and was made by famous hollowcast toy soldier manufacturer Britains from 1925 until 1966.
In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War interrupted the KAR’s role as a colonial police force and the regiment grew to twenty-two battalions with over 30,000 askari in the campaign to capture German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania) and defeat the German East African equivalent of the KAR, called the Schutztruppe.
One of the KAR’s wartime recruits was Hussein Onyango Obama, the paternal grandfather of US President Barack Obama.
The hard-fought German East African campaign started in August 1914, a few weeks after the outbreak of war in Europe, when the British broke an agreement not to allow a European war to spread to Africa by attacking German outposts on Lake Victoria.
The East African campaign continued in “cat-and-mouse” fashion with British Empire forces chasing the German Schutztruppe led by the tenacious General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck around East and Central Africa until they surrendered 700 miles further south at Mbala, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) a fortnight after fighting ended on the Western Front in November 1918, because of the time it took for confirmation of the armistice to reach them.
The toy soldier to the left also depicts a KAR askari from the period 1902-1920 and is made of “composition” – a mixture of sawdust, casein, kaolin and glue moulded around a wire frame – almost certainly by German manufacturer Lineol, sometime between the appearance of the Britains figure in 1925 and the rise of Hitler in 1933.
The box set below also depicts askari from the KAR’s “classic” 1902-1920 period, made by American manufacturer Comet as part of their ‘Brigadiers’ series.
At the end of the First World War in 1918 the KAR returned to its peacetime establishment of six battalions and fell to fewer than 3,000 officers and askari while continuing the campaign against the Mad Mullah in Somaliland and other colonial policing duties throughout Central and East Africa.
The decline in the strength of the KAR was reversed by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
During the war, the KAR again rose in strength, this time to forty-four battalions. One of the regiment’s first tasks on the outbreak of war was to round-up German nationals in Tanganyika, where famous children’s author Roald Dahl briefly served as an officer before joining the Royal Air Force.
The KAR’s first major campaign of the second war was against the colonial regime in what was then Italian East Africa and is now Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
At its pre-war height, Italian East Africa had an army of nearly 300,000 men – many of whom were native askari, which Mussolini’s toy makers were happy to depict. The slightly under-size hollowcast lead figure to the right was probably made in the 1920s or early 1930s to depict an askari from Italian East Africa. Note the unusual rifle salute with the left arm holding the rifle across the chest – a very unusual position for a toy soldier. The figure below is also an askari from Italian East Africa. This figure was made in the 1930s from solid lead and at 60mm tall is slightly larger than the standard 1/32 (54mm) scale for toy soliders.
In 1940 Italian forces invaded British Somaliland and threatened Kenya. Then, within eighteen months, an army of British, African, South African and Indian forces – including many battalions from the King’s African Rifles – invaded, conquered and dismembered Italy’s short-lived East African Empire in one of the fastest moving campaigns of the entire war.
The KAR went on to fight the Vichy French in Madagascar and the Japanese in Burma where they were part of General Slim’s “forgotten” Fourteenth Army at the decisive battles of Meiktila and Mandalay, which led to the Japanese rout in 1945.
In Burma the King’s African Rifles earned a reputation for bravery in the face of the enemy and stoicism and humour in the face of the mountainous jungle and monsoon rains, and the endless task of felling trees to construct corduroy roads of logs laid side by side through miles of jungle mud.
The set of six plastic toy soldiers made by Cherilea in the 1960s represent KAR askari of the Second World War, although the figures themselves are slightly grotesque parodies rather than accurate depictions of the troops.
Rather more realistic than the Cherilea figures are the toy soldiers by Lone*Star who made factory-painted plastic figures from 1955 to 1976. These show askari in the Australian-style slouch hat which was adopted by the KAR for undress and field headwear just before the Second World War. Click here for more about Uniforms of the KAR.
Reduced again to six battalions after the war, the post-war KAR were deployed to Malaya (now Malaysia) to fight Chinese communist insurgents, Kenya to suppress the Mau-Mau Uprising – where colonial forces met President Obama’s grandfather again in less happy circumstances – and numerous policing actions in the dying days of the British Empire.
Another famous, or rather infamous, member of the KAR from the post-war period was Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who joined the regiment in 1946 as an assistant cook. Amin rose through the ranks to effendi (warrant officer) in 1959 and in 1961 he became one of the first black Africans to be made a commissioned officer, in preparation for the army of an independent Uganda in 1962.
As Britain’s Central and East African colonies came to independence in the early 1960s, each country’s KAR battalion became the nucleus for its newly independent army.
The KAR traditions continue to influence the modern national armies and police forces of many of these former colonies, particularly in Kenya where the Army celebrates the Battle Honours of its KAR predecessors. There are echoes of the KAR in the Kenya Police figure from Marx’s Jungle Jim / Daktari Playsets of the 1970s.
The end of the colonial era also marks the end of toy soldiers from the King’s African Rifles.
However, modern model makers have since made far more figures that depict the KAR and its predecessor regiments for collectors than were ever made as genuine toys for children in their own time.
For collectors like myself, who prefer old toy soldiers rather than modern models, there are other ways to extend the collection. For example, before the First World War most KAR battalions contained a contingent from Britain’s imperial Indian Army.
Therefore, Britains’ Royal Indian Army Service Corps would make an authentic reinforcement for a KAR column marching on the Mad Mullah’s Dervishes or taking punitive action against tribesmen for cattle raiding in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (now South Sudan). However, the metal helmet worn by the white British officer that comes with this set would have been unbearably hot in East Africa, so it might be better to replace him with Britains’ Wolseley helmet-wearing British infantryman in tropical dress.
Differences in uniforms, head gear and equipment should not be a barrier to developing a toy collection on the colonial theme as this represents the polyglot forces of British Central and East Africa, which themselves wore the uniforms and carried the of equipment of many different countries and continents.
Another way to overcome the limitations of collecting by regiment is to extend to toy soldiers that represent the askari regiments of other colonial powers.
The Schutztruppe from German East Africa and askari from Italian East Africa have already been mentioned, but only France equals Britain in the variety and volume of toys that depict their colonial soldiers and there are some excellent figures of tirailleurs – meaning “skirmishers” the French equivalent of “askari” – from the the North and West African colonies of France’s colonial empire.
Probably the biggest range of toy soldiers depicting an askari regiment by a single manufacturer is that of the Force Publique of the Belgian Congo, made of “composition” by Belgian toy maker Durso.
Durso’s Second World War range has over twenty-five different askari figures – including the superb model of an askari on bicycle patrol, below – and there is a further range of post-war figures.
Another alternative route for collectors is the dubious delight of collecting military bands from askari regiments – a genre which seems popular with many modern collectors. Or you can branch out into other collectables, such as as cap badges, medals or cigarette cards.
I enjoy exploring the history of the King’s African Rifles through old toy soldiers – and vice versa – I hope you enjoy exploring my website.