Tirailleurs from the French Colonial Empire

French tirailleurs made from aluminium by toy maker Quiralu

All of the European colonial powers raised regiments of black African soldiers and white officers, but only France equals Britain in the variety and volume of toys that depict their colonial soldiers.

In my collection I have some excellent figures of tirailleurs – meaning “skirmishers” the French equivalent of “askari” – fromthe the North and West African colonies of France’s colonial empire.

I particularly like the aluminium figures made by French toy maker Quiralu and the solid-cast figures designed by the talented Swedish toy soldier designer Holgar Eriksson and sold by Comet, Authenticast and Swedish African Engineers (SAE).

French tirailleur by toy maker Authenticast


French tirailleur with long trousers by toy maker Quiralu


French tirailleur by unknown toy maker, possibly Cherilea


The 60mm tall plastic figure to the right displays the key characteristics that distinguish a toy soldier of the French tirailleurs from his askari counterparts in the King’s African Rifles – or the regiments of other colonial powers.   He carries his rifle on the right shoulder in the French style, rather than the left shoulder which would be more typical of a soldier from the British Empire – and like many of the figures on this page, he wears a red cummerbund.  The broad red fez, which can also be seen on the Del Prado figure below, is typical of the uniform of a tirailleur from the French West African colony of Senegal – very different from the pillar box-like British version.

Del Prado

Terailleur Senegalese circa 1940 by modern model maker Del Prado

The manufacturer of this plastic soldier is unknown.  It was attributed to Cherilea  when I brought it on Ebay in 2014 – partly because it shares the 60mm scale of many of Cherilea’s figures – but this attribution is far from certain.

On the other hand, what is certain is that this is one of the rarest toy soldiers in my collection, as it is the only one of its kind that I have ever seen – and it is also the most expensive toy soldier I have ever brought.  This confounds people who view my collection as they assume that the oldest lead toy soldiers must automatically be the rarest and most valuable not a play-worn plastic figure made in the 1950s or 1960s.




Britains Special Paintings and Conversions

A small number of Britains KAR sets have been found with an unarmed African effendi (warrant officer) and askari with rifles but without bayonets.  These were probably special paintings made on demand for sale at Hamleys – the famous London toy store.

Britains standard KAR (left) and special painting with warrant officer (right)

Egyptian infantry – special painting of Britains KAR figure

Special paintings of the KAR figure in blue with white puttees were also sold as Egyptian Infantry.

A single set with an officer wearing a peaked cap has been found painted in olive-green and labelled as Portuguese East African Native Infantry, but it is not known whether this is a special painting or Britains’ prototype for a set they did not subsequently produce on a commercial scale.

Portugese East African Native Infantry by toy maker Britains

Amateur model makers also make conversions of the Britains figure.  Similar to Britains own special paintings, the most common conversion is for a standard KAR figure to be converted into an officer or effendi – as in the seven-figure set below, which has had a sword-carrying officer added.

Britains KAR with officer conversion

Amongst the most interesting conversions I have found are the askari pioneers below, marching with pickaxes, spades and sledge hammers and their rifles slung over their right shoulders. The East African Pioneers were a sister unit of the KAR in the Second World War.

Britains KAR converted to pioneers

Britains KAR with rifle and sling, from left

Britains KAR with rifle and sling, from right

Some conversions are very straightforward but create unique, interesting figures, like this Britains KAR askari that has simply had the standard rifle and bayonet exchanged for a rifle on a sling – the whole figure has also been re-painted.

Idi Amin and the Uganda Battalion

Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin joined the 4th (Uganda) Battalion KAR in 1946 as an assistant cook.

4th (Uganda) Bn KAR – identified by green cummerbund unique to this battalion – by unknown modern model maker

Amin was promoted to corporal in 1948 and continued to rise through the ranks to effendi (warrant officer) in 1959.

In 1961 Amin became one of the first black Africans to be made a commissioned officer, in preparation for the army of an independent Uganda in 1962 – despite having already established a reputation for being overzealous and cruel.

The best contemporary description of Amin during his time in the KAR comes from Iain Grahame’s memoire about his service as an officer in the Uganda Battalion: ‘Jambo Effendi: Seven Years with The King’s African Rifles’.

Gahame was writing in the early 1960s after independence but before Amin came to international notoriety and refers almost in passing to “Saidi, a six-foot-four giant from West Nile who had been the heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda for ten years, [and] had been one of the first Africans from 4 KAR to be given the Queen’s Commission in July 1961”.

The reference to being a heavyweight boxing champion confirms that Saidi is Idi Amin.

Grahame’s book also includes some excellent illustrations, including the picture to the right showing a sergeant of the 4th Battalion in ceremonial dress, wearing the green cummerbund that was unique to the uniform of the Uganda Battalion.

4th (Uganda) Bn KAR by modern model maker Asset Soldiers

Military Bands of the KAR

Band of 3rd (East African) Bn KAR in pre-WWI uniform by modern model maker Beau Geste

The predecessor regiments of the King’s African Rifles all contained fife and drum bands when they were amalgamated to form the KAR in January 1902.  From the end of the First World War onwards the regular Battalions of the KAR’s peacetime establishment retained bands of various sizes for most of the time until Britain’s Central and East African colonies came to independence in the early 1960s.  However, it is very difficult to follow these bands through the limited historic records that still exist.

Band of 4th (Uganda) Bn KAR band by modern model maker Dorset Soldiers – painting and photograph by John Firth http://www.beatingretreat.com

The band of the 3rd (East African) Battalion KAR was probably the largest, longest-lived and best-known KAR band. In the inter-war years the 3-KAR band expanded to the size of a full military band with forty musicians.

In the Second World War many of the band members joined an entertainment unit that was formed to entertain troops in Burma with popular music.

Band of 4th (Uganda) Bn KAR by unknown modern model maker

The band of the 4th (Uganda) Battalion KAR was also well-known for wearing highland dress and is therefore particularly popular with modern model makers. The bands of the Central African and East African Rifles became the bands of the 1st and 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalions and the 3rd (East African) Battalion KAR. 

Drum band of 1st (Nyasaland) Bn KAR by modern model maker The Colonial Factor

The only band in my collection made as toy soldiers rather than models for modern collectors was made in Spain in the 1950s by Julio García Castresana, to represent the Regiment of Regulares of Melilla – the Spanish city enclave on the north coast of Morocco.


Horn player



Band of the Regiment of Regulares of Spanish Melilla by toy maker Julio García Castresana

KAR VCs and the African DCM

The Victoria Cross – “For Valour”

The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.  The words “for valour” are inscribed on the face of the medal.

The KAR’s first VC came just nine months after the regiment’s formation in October 1902 when Captain (later General) Alexander Stanhope Cobbe commanding the 1st (Nyasaland) Battalion with the local rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, won the medal by fighting off a Dervish ambush at Erego in Somaliland (modern Somalia).  Cobbe Barracks in Zomba, Malawi, once home to 1st (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR and now the Malawi Rifles is named in his honour.

The regiment’s second VC was won posthumously by Kenyan-born Sergeant Nigel Gray Leakey of 1/6th Battalion KAR in May 1941, during the Second World War at Colito in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) for single-handedly attacking an Italian tank by wrenching open the turret and shooting the crew.  He was killed attempting to do the same to a second tank.  Colito Barracks in Dar es Salaam, once home to 6th (Tanganyika Territory) Battalion KAR, is named in honour of this battle.

Eric C.T. Wilson VC

A number of officers who served with the KAR were later awarded VCs for their service with other regiments.

In 1940 acting Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Eric Charles Twelves Wilson serving with the Somaliland Camel Corps – and previously the 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion KAR – had the rare distinction of winning a posthumous VC for keeping a machine gun firing in the face of an Italian attack at the Battle of Tug Argan in British Somaliland – only to be found later alive and well as a prisoner of war.

Charles G. W. Anderson VC, MC

Wilson was released from captivity when Italian forces in East Africa surrendered in 1941.  He returned to active duty serving with the Long Range Desert Group in the Western Desert.  Between 1942 and 1944 he fought in Burma with 11th (Kenya) Battalion KAR.

South African farmer and later Australian politician Charles Groves Wright Anderson won the Military Cross for his service as a Lieutenant with 3rd (East Africa) Battalion KAR in the First World War campaign to capture German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania).  He went on to win the VC as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Australian Division in Malaya in 1942 during the Second World War.

Derek A. Seagrim VC

Lieutenant Colonel Derek Anthony Seagrim served a three-year tour with the KAR before the Second World War and went on to win the VC in 1943 by assaulting German positions on the Mareth Line in Tunisia, commanding the 7th Battalion, The Green Howards.

Unfortunately, no VCs were awarded to African askari serving with the KAR – although there were undoubtedly incidents that deserved this highest award in both the First and Second World Wars.

For example, Colour Sergeant George Williams of 1/3rd Battalion KAR was a Sudanese askari with an English name.

Colour Sergeant Williams was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Divisional Commander, Major General Tighe for extricating his platoon and a machine gun under heavy enemy fire at Jassin in the Umba Valley, in German East Africa (now Tanzania) in January 1915.


KAR machine gunner with Lewis Gun, circa First World War by modern model maker Del Prado

The modern model of a KAR machine gunner of the First World War by Del Prado (left) is an unwitting tribute to Colour Sergeant Williams’ bravery.

Colour Sergeant Williams’ VC was not confirmed but he was awarded a Bar to the African Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) he had already won in 1914.

The African DCM – often called the King’s African Rifles DCM – was the medal most frequently awarded to African askari for gallantry in the face of the enemy.  This medal was instituted in 1896 and continued until 1942 in the middle of the Second World War, when it was replaced with the regular British and Commonwealth DCM.

The African DCM

Disgracefully, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government has lost the Medal Roll for the African DCM, so only a few of these acts of heroism by African soldiers on Britain’s behalf are recorded for history.

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).