Indian Troops in the KAR

Sikh Soldier by toy maker Comet

Before and during the First World War the KAR and its predecessor regiments contained contingents of troops from Britain’s imperial Indian Army.

The 5th (Uganda) Battalion claimed to be the senior KAR battalion because the Indian contingent of the Uganda Rifles was the first to be formed of the KAR’s predecessor regiments.

Indian soldiers have long been popular subjects for toy makers – and generic figures without the uniform details or equipment of specific regiments, like Comet’s marching Sikh or Authenticast’s superbly-modelled Indian soldier, could easily represent the early Indian contingents of the KAR.

Indian soldier by toy maker Authenticast

Britains’ Royal Indian Army Service Corps, below, would also be 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) – although the white officer who came with this set would probably be out of place, because his metal helmet would have been unbearably hot in East Africa!

Britains’ Indian Army Mountain Battery, which used many of the same figures as the Service Corps but is much rarer, would also have seen action against the Mad Mullah.

Royal Indian Army Service Corps by toy maker Britains

As well as Indian soldiers being in the King’s African Rifles, units from Britain’s imperial Indian Army and from India’s Princely States also fought alongside the KAR in their own right during both World Wars and the Mad Mullah campaign in Somaliland (modern Somalia), where Indian units provided camel cavalry, artillery and logistics support for the KAR infantry.

Indian Army Mountain Battery in Khaki by toy maker Britains

One of the most well-known Indian units to fight alongside the KAR was the Bikanir Camel Corps, which was deployed to Somaliland between 1902 and 1904 to help suppress a major Dervish uprising.

Bikanir Camel Corps by toy maker Britains

The usefulness of camels in the arid Somali hinterland led to the formation of the Somaliland Camel Corps as a separate regiment within the King’s African Rifles.

Sowar (Trooper) of the Bikanir Camel Corps

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Regimental Colours of the KAR

The King’s African Rifles were not awarded Regimental Colours until 1923, as Colours were not traditionally carried by Rifle Regiments in the British Army, because of their evolution from light infantry skirmishers of the Napoleonic era.

Colours of the King’s African Rifles

1st Bn KAR Colour Party circa 1958 by modern model maker The Colonial Factor

After it was agreed the KAR should carry Colours, a common design was agreed for all six battalions.

The King’s Colour is a Union Flag, gold-fringed, with a crown, the words “King’s African Rifles” and the battalion numeral in a circle in the centre.

The Regimental Colour is royal blue, with a centre similar to the King’s Colour, except that a lion is in the centre and the battalion numeral on the fly.

The Colours carry the regiment’s Battle Honours.

All battalions are entitled to the same Honours, even though they have not all been at the same battles.

The Honours are:-

  • Ashanti 1900, British Somaliland 1901–04
  • Colour Party, 4th Bn KAR circa 1924

    The Great War: Kilimanjaro, Narungombe, Nyangao, East Africa 1914–18

  • The Second World War: Afodu, Moyale, Todenyang-Namuraputh, Soroppa, Juba, Beles Gugani, Awash, Fike, Colito, Omo, Gondar, Ambazzo, Kulkaber, Abyssinia 1940–41, Tug Argen, British Somaliland 1940, Madagascar, Middle East 1942, Mawlaik, Kalewa, Seikpyu, Letse, Arakan Beaches, Taungup, Burma 1944–45.

    KAR Colour Party by modern model maker Asset Soldiers

Colour Party 1st Bn KAR 1958

Medals of the KAR

Like the troops of all British and colonial army regiments, the officers and askari of the King’s African Rifles could receive a range of Campaign, Long Service and Gallantry Medals for their service.

This is a short summary of the medals most likely to be seen on the tunic of a KAR askari.

KAR Askari by modern model maker Franklin Mint

When the askari of the earlier regiments that preceeded the KAR transferred to the newly-formed regiment in 1902, they might have already received the Central Africa Medal, the East and West Africa Medal, the Central and East Africa Medal or the Ashanti Medal for numerous punitive expeditions and small campaigns to pacify rebellious African tribes and suppress Arab slave traders between 1891 and 1900.

In the same year that the KAR were formed, these earlier Campaign Medals were replaced with the Africa General Service Medal (GSM) which was awarded to British and colonial forces for small wars and campaigns in Africa for fifty-four years, until 1956.

Africa GSM with clasp “Kenya”

Forty-five different clasps were awarded with this medal for particular campaigns.  Most of these clasps were awarded for actions in the longest campaign of the KAR’s history, against Mohammed Abdullah Hassan – known to the British as the “Mad Mullah”– an Islamic fundamentalist who fought a twenty-year, anti-imperialist war in Somaliland (modern Somalia) and for campaigns and expeditions in Nigeria, Nyasaland (modern Malawi) and the Northern Frontier District of Kenya (now South Sudan) in the years up to 1920.

After a gap of thirty-six years, the last and most-widely awarded clasp for the Africa General Service Medal was “Kenya” for the Mau-Mau Uprising between 1952 and 1956.

This superb photograph shows a Sergeant of the KAR around 1905 – he probably served with the Central African Rifles prior to 1902 because he wears the Central Africa Medal with clasp “Central Africa 1894-98” the East and West Africa Medal, the Ashanti Medal and the Africa General Service Medal with unknown clasp.

First World War

KAR askari in First World War uniform by modern model maker King & Country

The Africa General Service Medal was reserved for small wars and campaigns – including those during the First World War but against local opposition rather than German forces; it was not awarded for the campaign to capture German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania) and defeat the German East African equivalent of the KAR, called the Schutztruppe.  For this campaign, askari were eligible for the 1914-15 Star, if they served between August 1914 and December 1915, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – as were all troops who fought in the First World War.

Players cigarette card – hover your mouse over the image for medal details or click to enlarge the picture

Between 1907 and 1942, an African askari completing a period of unblemished service would receive the King’s African Rifles Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.  Until 1932 the qualifying period for this medal was eighteen years.  This meant that it was issued on the day of discharge when the recipient had no opportunity to wear it.  After 1932 the qualifying period was reduced to sixteen years.

Second World War and After

During the Second World War African askari qualified for the War Medal wherever they served and the Africa and Burma Stars if they fought in these theatres.

War Medal 1939 – 1945 (left) and KAR Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

After the war, in the early 1950s, the 1st and 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalions and the 3rd (Kenya) Battalion of the KAR were deployed to fight Chinese communist insurgents in Malaya (modern Malaysia).

Officers and askari who served in this campaign were eligible for the British and Commonwealth General Service Medal – which is different to the Africa General Service Medal – with the clasp “Malaya”.

General Service Medal with clasp “Malaya”

Gallantry Medals

British officers received a wide range of Gallantry Medals for their service with the KAR – including the Victoria Cross, the highest award “For Valour”.  The medal most frequently awarded to African askari for gallantry in the face of the enemy was the African Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).

Uniforms of the KAR

The uniform of the King’s African Rifles was relatively consistent throughout the life of the regiment, although there were variations between battalions and over time.

KAR circa 1912 by modern model maker Beau Geste

The uniform in the diagram below is from an askari of the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion before the First World War – around 1912.

This askari wears a dark blue jersey and puttees, reflecting the regiment’s colonial policing role, with khaki drill shorts and the black fez inherited by the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the KAR from their predecessor regiment, the Central African Rifles; the other battalions wore red fezes.

This askari is not wearing the khaki fez cover with neck flap and fold-down peak that was normally issued for undress or field service, as shown in the modern models by Beau Geste, above right.

The uniform shows the askari’s leather Slade Wallace load-carrying equipment and Martini Enfield rifle with socket bayonet, both of which are Boer War vintage.

Askari, 2nd (Nyasaland) Bn. KAR, 1912

The second uniform, below right, is from an askari of the 4th (Uganda) Battalion in 1917.

He wears a khaki drill uniform with blue puttees and the khaki pillbox cap that replaced the fez in field dress during the First World War – the fez was retained for dress uniform.  Unusually, this askari is wearing boots – most would still have gone barefoot in this period.

He is carrying the 1903 bandolier equipment that was standard issue for the KAR for most of the war, consisting of bandolier pouches attached to the waist belt and canvas supporting straps.  He also carries additional ammunition in a non-standard cloth webbing bandolier.  His rifle is a Lee Enfield 0.303 SMLE with bayonet.

Askari, 4th (Uganda) Bn. KAR, 1917

KAR Askari of the First World War by South African toy maker SAE

The toy soldiers to the left wear pillbox caps, bandolier equipment and puttees – similar to the KAR uniform of 1917.  At first I thought these figures were intended to represent Gurkhas – but they look more African than Asian and there is no sign of the Gurkha’s famous khukri knife.  They were probably made by a company called Swedish African Engineers (SAE) who manufactured toy soldiers in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, to represent the KAR of the First World War.

KAR circa 1917 by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers

The models by modern maker Dorset Soldiers to the right and the vintage cigarette cards, below, show dress uniform on the eve of the Second World War.

Cigarette card from United Tobacco Companies Ltd. Warriors of all Nations series 1937

The fez was retained for dress uniform for the whole of the life of the KAR but the Australian-style slouch hat replaced the pillbox cap for undress and field wear for askari and the solar topee for British officers early in the Second World War.

Boots were introduced as standard for askari at the same time.

Cigarette cards from Godfrey Phillips Ltd. Soldiers of the King series 1939 (left) and Players Military Uniforms of the British Overseas Empire collection 1938 (right) – click on the picture for details of the medal worn by the soldier on the right

KAR by vintage toy soldier maker Lone*Star

The askari uniform below right is from the 5th (Uganda) Battalion in 1945.

He wears the standard field dress for African and Middle Eastern operations at the end of the Second World War, with drill shirt and trousers tucked into webbing gaiters worn with black ankle boots – very like the Lone*Star toy soldier to the left.

His slouch hat has a brown leather hatband and the left brim is fixed to the crown, so as not to interfere with his rifle when aiming.  The blue unit flash and badge are attached to the turned up brim of the hat.

Askari, 5th (Uganda) Bn. KAR, 1945

The final uniform, below left, is from an askari of an unknown battalion in 1956.  His drill shirt and trousers are worn with short woollen puttees, black ankle boots and 1944 pattern webbing. On his head he wears a soft bush hat, alternatively he might have worn a slouch hat or rifle-green beret for undress wear or on campaign.

He carries the 7.62mm SLR L1 rifle with bayonet which most KAR battalions received in the late-1950s.

Askari, Unknown Battalion, 1956

The uniform images on this page are copyright and used with the permission of Uniforms of the World.

Soldier of the KAR, Ceremonial Dress – Painting by J. Gilson from The Royal Logistics Corps Museum

Battalions of the KAR

For most of the regiment’s life from its formation in 1902 until Britain’s Central and East African colonies became independent in the early 1960s, the regular peacetime establishment of the King’s African Rifles was six battalions.

KAR Recruiting Poster

Further battalions were raised at times of war or civil unrest.  This was often done by using a company from one battalion as a cadre for forming a new battalion.  The new battalion was then numbered after its parent battalion.  So a new battalion raised from a company cadre of the 6th (Tanganyika Territory) Battalion would become 2/6th (TT) Battalion.  During the Second World War the numbering of offspring battalions was simplified so 2/6th Battalion became 26th Battalion.

The six regular battalions were each associated with one of Britain’s Central or East African colonies.  At independence each of these country’s KAR battalions became the nucleus for its newly independent army.

However, the composition of the six peacetime battalions changed over the sixty-year course of the KAR’s existence, a summary is set out below:-

  • Central African Rifles by modern model maker Nostalgia

    1st (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR – also known as 1st (Central African) Battalion – formed from the earlier Central African Rifles; became the Malawi Rifles on independence in 1964.

  • 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR – also known as 2nd (Central African) Battalion – also formed from the earlier Central African Rifles; became 2nd Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment in 1962 and subsequently the Zambia Regiment on independence.
  • 3rd (East African) Battalion KAR – later known as 3rd (Kenya) Battalion – formed from the earlier East African Rifles; became 1st Battalion Kenya Rifles on independence in 1963.
  • 4th (Uganda) Battalion KAR – formed from the African Companies of the earlier Uganda Rifles; became the basis for the Uganda army on independence in 1962.
  • Uganda Rifles by modern model maker Nostalgia

    5th (Uganda) Battalion KAR – also known before the First World War as 5th (Indian) Battalion – the senior KAR Battalion as it was the first to be raised as the Indian contingent of the earlier Uganda Rifles – disbanded in 1904, reformed in 1916, disbanded again in 1925, reformed again in 1930; became 2nd Battalion Kenya Rifles on independence.

  • 6th (Somaliland) Battalion KAR, disbanded in 1910, reformed as 6th Battalion (Tanganyika Territory) KAR in 1917, in Britain’s newly-acquired Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa, now Tanzania).  Many askari from von Lettow-Vorbeck’s German Schutztruppe re-enlisted in the KAR.  Became the Tanganyika Rifles on independence in 1961.

At the time of independence in the 1960s, there were two further KAR battalions:-

  • 11th Battalion KAR, which became 3rd Battalion Kenya Rifles on independence, and
  • 26th Battalion KAR, which became 2nd Battalion Tanganyika Rifles on independence.

King’s African Rifles Off to War – Painting by P.W.G. Maloba showing 4th (Uganda) Bn KAR, WWII

For much of the regiment’s history, the name “King’s African Rifles” was also used to describe the British East African Land Forces Command – and so a number of other combat and support units were sometimes described as being part of the KAR, including the East African Armoured Car Regiment and the Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC).

Somaliland Camel Corps by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers – with other figures

The SCC were formed in March 1914 from an earlier Camel Constabulary, in recognition of the usefulness of camels in the arid Somali hinterland.

The SCC served with the KAR in campaigns against the Mad Mullah and continued to police the Somaliland territory between the First and Second World Wars until it was overwhelmed after a spirited defence by the Italian East African offensive in August 1940.

The SCC was re-formed and mechanised during the British campaign to recapture Somaliland twelve months later in 1941, but was permanently disbanded in 1943 after a series of mutinies.

Somaliland Camel Corps cigarette card by Players 1938

Through its life the SCC varied in strength between 400 and 700 Askari and 14 to 20 white British officers.

No old toy soldier maker made a figure of the Somaliland Camel Corps in their own era, however modern model maker Dorset Soldiers made the figure shown in the picture above for me about ten years ago – with an officer and askari from the KAR in the foreground also by Dorset Soldiers and an unknown figure in the background.

Post-War KAR

The first significant post-war engagement of the King’s African Rifles was the Malayan Emergency, where British and Commonwealth forces fought Chinese communist insurgents between 1948 and 1960.

KAR Patrol 1950s by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers

The KAR were withdrawn from Malaya from 1952 onwards because of the Mau-Mau Uprising in Kenya, which was the regiment’s largest and longest post-war action, continuing until 1960.

From 1953 onwards the 1st and 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalions of the KAR were part of the army of the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

My Father as an officer in 1st Bn KAR circa 1955, smoking the pipe he adopted as a mosquito deterrent, by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers

The Federation was a semi-independent state within the British Commonwealth, comprising the self-governing, white minority-ruled state of Southern Rhodesia and the British Protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi).

The Federation was formed with the political objective of forging a middle way between majority black rule and the white minority apartheid regime of South Africa.

My father also served in the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (RRR) here in the uniform of the 1950s by modern model maker The Colonial Factor

The Federation was intended to be a permanent entity leading to Dominion status within the Commonwealth, but black nationalists in the Protectorate territories were suspicious of it from the start, rightly suspecting that it would be dominated by the economic and military power of white-ruled Southern Rhodesia.

King's African Rifles, Blantyre, Nyasaland, 1959

King’s African Rifles, Blantyre, Nyasaland, 1959

In 1959 the Federation’s KAR Battalions and the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (RRR) were deployed to suppress political unrest in Nyasaland and again in 1960 to control the border between Northern Rhodesia and the newly-independent Republic of the Congo, which was descending into civil war.

140801-D0061

Australian WWII infantryman by modern model maker Monogram – a good stand-in for a KAR officer or RRR trooper of the 1950s

The Nyasaland Emergency threw the concept of the Federation into question in Britain and by the time of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous winds of change speech to the South African Parliament in 1960, it was clear that the Federation could not survive.

The British decision that Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland should be allowed to succeed and become independent as Zambia and Malawi led to the dissolution of the Federation in 1963.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the King’s African Rifles became the nucleus for the newly-independent armies of Malawi and Zambia, as the Malawi Rifles and the Zambia Regiment.

White metal toy soldier from South Africa, 2005

Askari of 1Bn KAR at the time of Malawian independence, 1964

Southern Rhodesia renamed itself simply Rhodesia and made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in 1965, which led to the Bush War of the 1970s and black majority rule as Zimbabwe in 1980.

2nd Bn King’s African Rifles in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) circa 1958