Stories of African war experiences during WWII are few and little known. Former BBC correspondent to Africa, Barnaby Phillips helps narrow that gap with his book, Another Man’s War, the personal history of Isaac Fadoyebo, a Nigerian-born Burmese War veteran. Noo Saro Wiwa’s persuasive review suggests it is at once a sensitive exploration of the human condition and a must-read for anyone interested in military history and Nigeria’s socio-political transformation in the mid-20th century.
As a child I remember being confused as to why World War Two was given its name. The conflict involved many countries, yes, but the apparent non-participation of Sub-Saharan Africa (alongside much of the Americas) disqualified it as a ‘global’ conflict in my mind. The Western media focused so much on the experiences of European and American combatants that I took the ‘World’ part of the title to be a misnomer.
The significant contribution of West African soldiers has been under-acknowledged over the decades. However, journalist Barnaby Phillips has done much to redress this in Another Man’s War, a poignant and insightful book that documents the African participation in WWII through the incredible story of one man, Isaac Fadoyebo, who fought in Burma and overcame an extraordinary battle to evade capture.
Phillips, a senior reporter for Al-Jazeera and former Nigeria correspondent for the BBC, based his book on personal interviews with Isaac as well as Isaac’s war memoir, A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck – a copy of which is housed in the Imperial War Museum in London. The book is one of only a few written records of the 100,000 Africans who fought for Britain in the Burma campaigns. Although the book made Isaac the most prominent of the Burma veterans, his story was still relatively unknown to the wider world.
The novelist Graham Greene once said that “Time gives poetry to the battlefield”, but Phillips’s meticulously researched and sometimes harrowing account of Isaac’s experience doesn’t allow for any rose tinting. The book is based on Fadoyebo’s account, plus personal interviews with him and his family. It reads like a thriller in parts, combining journalism and history with a gripping narrative full of insightful anecdotes and visual detail.
Born in 1925 in a farming village near Owo in south-west Nigeria, Isaac enlisted in the army in 1942, at a time when the British needed men to fight against the Japanese in Burma, then a British colony. The British government drew upon its Commonwealth troops as “canon-fodder for the empire”, as one British officer put it. Knowing nothing about the Japanese, African soldiers were sold the idea that they were fighting Hitler’s fascism and that they faced a choice of life under British rule (the ‘finest system in the world’) or succumbing to the Third Reich. For many African conscripts, however, the chance to better themselves and experience something new trumped any notion of loyalty to empire.
Phillips’s description of Isaac’s enlistment offers a fascinating insight into Nigerian wartime society. It is this mix of social detail, artfully interwoven with military history that makes Phillips’s narrative so compelling.
Joining the army was a new adventure for Isaac. Like most of the other recruits, he was travelling beyond rural Yorubaland for the first time and mixing with men of other ethnicities, nationalities and religions: Muslims, Yorubas, Tivs and Igbos rubbed shoulders with Ghanaians, Gambians and Sierra Leoneans under the command of white, British officers.
Despite fighting under one banner, the army was governed by a complex and often divisive social hierarchy in which the inexperienced African recruits made up the bottom rung.
After months of training, Isaac and his fellow recruits set sail to Burma via South Africa and India. The few days they spent ashore in the Southern Cape were an eye-opener. Isaac noted how emaciated some of the black folk looked. Nigerians, although ruled by the British, were unaccustomed to the sort of urban poverty experienced by the black South Africans under the de facto apartheid system.
After several weeks at sea, the troops docked in Bombay and journeyed to Calcutta. There, Isaac got his first taste of warfare when he witnessed two Japanese fighter jets shot down in the Bay of Bengal. Laughing with excitement, he and his comrades ran to inspect the ruins only to be horrified at seeing the partially burnt bodies of two Japanese airmen. Isaac noticed that roasting human flesh smelled just like goat meat.
It is details such as these that breathe life into the narrative, juxtaposing vivid sensory detail with Isaac’s more intimate, personal reflections. Phillips evocative description of Calcutta and Bombay also lends a travelogue element to the narrative, which I particularly enjoyed.
Isaac arrived in Burma, working for the medical unit of the 81st division in the Arakan. Known today as Rakhine, this base was the scene of some of the toughest fighting during the war. The Burma campaign was an afterthought for politicians in London. The prime minister Clement Attlee had said the British would have to get by with African soldiers (the “scrapings of the barrel”), but Isaac and his comrades proved him wrong as they powered through the mountainous jungle.
At this point the book shifts its focus towards war tactics – not usually my cup of tea, yet Isaac’s physical and emotional struggles were compelling enough to make the details about ‘supply corridors’ and ‘pincer movements’ absorbing. Focusing of the story around one person makes for a refreshing change from the accounts of warfare that favour strategic analysis over human interest.
Phillips’s voice adds to the appeal. His semi-literary prose flows beautifully, and he remains even-handed despite having a personal interest in the subject. Heroes and villains are identified on all sides of the social, ethnic and national divides, and Phillips readily questions the accuracy of one or two of Isaac’s minor recollections.
Isaac’s war experience took a dramatic turn when he and a Sierra Leonean soldier named David Kargbo were shot and badly injured in Japanese territory near the village of Mairong and left to die of their injuries. Phillips’s account of Isaac’s day-to-day struggle for survival is a page-turner. The two soldiers are sheltered by a Muslim villager called Shuyiman, who helps them at huge risk to himself and his family.
Reuniting Shuyiman’s family with Isaac became a personal mission for Phillips, and he devotes the final portion of the book recounting his trip to Burma in search of Mairong village. I found myself rooting anxiously for a positive outcome.
To describe Another Man’s War as a book about one Nigerian’s experience in Burma does not do it justice. The book covers the breadth of the human condition, from comradeship, sacrifice, endurance and courage, not to mention the social nuances of empire. It will leave you with a lump in your throat, and a heightened knowledge of Africa’s Second World War experience.
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About the Contributor
Noo Saro-Wiwa was born in Nigeria in 1976 and raised in England. Her first book Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria was published by Granta in January 2012 to critical acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Dolman Travel Book Award 2013, and named The Sunday Times as Travel Book of the Year 2012. She currently lives in London.