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.




Toy Soldiers by SAE


French tirailleur by toy maker SAE

After the fire that destroyed the Authenticast factory in Ireland in 1953, some of the company’s toy soldier moulds were taken over by Swedish African Engineers (SAE) who manufactured copies of Authenticast soldiers and others of their own design in Cape Town, South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.

The owner of SAE, Curt Wennburg, and his partner came from Sweden and were engineers before the Second World War, hence the company’s unusual name.

French Tirrailleur by Authenticast

French Tirrailleur by toy maker Authenticast

The talented Swedish toy soldier designer Holger Eriksson, who had worked for Authenticast also designed for SAE until he left the company because of his concerns over poor production quality in the late 1950s.

Compare SAE’s bayonet thrusting French tirailleur (above) with the marching figure by Authenticast (left) and the earlier Egyptian infantryman by Authenticast’s parent company Comet (below left) and SAE’s design heritage is obvious: they all have the dynamic quality that is charcateristic of Eriksson’s designs.  Other SAE soldiers look more like the original creations of a separate company – and many are very good despite the quality concerns that caused the eventual breach with Eriksson.

egyptian infantry

Egyptian infantry by toy maker Comet

The toy soldiers below were probably made by SAE, although they do not have the words “South Africa” cast into their base in the way that many of the company’s products do.

Although at first I thought the figures below were intended to represent Gurkhas, but they look more African than Asian and there is no sign of the Gurkha’s famous khukri knife.

With their pillbox caps, bandolier equipment and puttees they are probably intended to depict KAR Askari of the First World War.

Click here to enlarge picture

KAR Askari of the First World War by toy maker SAE

Force Publique by Durso

Askari of the Force Publique by Belgian toy maker Durso

Probably the biggest range of toy soldiers from an askari regiment by a single manufacturer is that of the Force Publique of the Belgian Congo, made by Belgian toy maker Durso.

The Force Publique was both a gendarmerie and a military force in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 when the territory was known as the Congo Free State and owned as private property by King Leopold II of the Belgians until 1908 when the Belgian Government took over direct rule which continued until independence in 1960.

Warrant officer with sword by Durso

Like similar askari regiments raised by other colonial powers, the Force Publique was formed of white European officers and locally-raised black warrant officers and soldiers.  In the Free State period the Force Publique was primarily a tool for internal repression by what is now widely regarded as one of the most brutal of European colonial regimes.

The Force’s only significant military engagement in this period was the 1892-1894 war against Arab traders led by Tippu Tip for control of the Eastern Congo.

Warrant officer with map and binoculars by Durso

Following the takeover of the Free State by the Belgian Government in 1908, the Force Publique was reorganised into twenty-one separate companies, along with supporting artillery and engineers.  This grew to fifteen battalions in three mobile brigades during the First World War, during which the Force Publique fought against German colonial forces in the Cameroun, Rwanda and Burundi – and alongside the King’s African Rifles in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania).

The Force Publique fought alongside the KAR again in the East Africa Campaign of the Second World War – although after the surrender of Belgium in May 1940, the main contribution to the Allied cause by Free Belgian Forces in the Congo was primarily an economic one in the supply of rubber, copper and other strategic minerals, rather than military.

Askari in action pose by Durso

The askari of the Second World War period are depicted by Durso in a set of twenty-five different figures in both ceremonial and action poses, designed and made between 1938 and the mid-1950s.

These figures are made of “composition” – a mixture of sawdust, casein, kaolin and glue moulded around a wire frameon a rectangular base and are 75mm tall, which is larger than the 1/32 (54mm) scale that is the standard for most old toy soldiers and modern military models.

Belgian Colonial Infantry by Durso

Bugler of the Force Publique by Durso

Durso also made a similar set of white colonial infantrymen wearing sun helmets rather than the fez worn by askari.

Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the independence of the Congo in 1960, Belgium continued to organise the Force Publique in the traditional manner of a colonial gendarmerie – separate from the people it policed and officered entirely by white Europeans.

Tightly disciplined and drilled the Force Publique impressed visitors to the Congo with its smart appearance.  Durso reflected Belgian pride in their colonial army with a new set of post-war figures made on round bases from 1956 until the late-1960s.

Askari of the post-war Force Publique

Unfortunately, even as these figures were being produced, the culture of separateness within the Force Publique, encouraged by its Belgian officers – combined with the arrogance of these same officers in denying any change to their soldiers when they remained in command after Congolese independence – contributed to the outbreak of uncontrollable violence that engulfed the Congo after independence and has continued with varying degrees of ferocity to this day.

All of the Durso figures are rare and expensive to collect in the UK, but they definitely reward the collector with their quality and variety.

Askari and bicycle of the Force Publique by Belgian toy maker Durso

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.