Africans serving in the Imperial German Army

Oldenburg Grenadier Company
Rhienbund Kontingent c1810
Illustration by Richard Knötel
from WikiCommons


Since the 17th Century it was popular for European armies to have African bandsmen in their elite regiments. As early as 1685 an African known as Ludwig Besemann was promoted to First Class Drummer ("Heeres-Pauker Erster Klasse") in the army of the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg-Prussia.

Other Prussian rules continued the tradition through the 18th Century. King Friedrich I had 15 African pipers in his Life Guards ("Leibregiment"). Friedrich Wilhelm I had sixteen African musicians in his artillery.

These were doubled under Frederick the Great (King Friedrich II) so that by 1759 there were 32 African musicians in the Prussian artillery.

Several other German states also had African musicians in their armies. The Hessian mercenary armies fighting on the British side in the American War of Independence recruited freed Afro-American slaves as their bandsmen and sometimes as soldiers. Richard Knötel illustrates an African drummer in the Oldenburg Grenadiers of the Napoleonic Wars.

During the Imperial era there were a small handful of Africans who served as musicians in the Imperial army. There were also other Africans living in Germany who had been brought there by various royalty or upper classes as servants or entertainers. One hundred Africans were brought from the African colonies to Germany for the 1896 Colonial Exhibition in Berlin.

Some of these men stayed on in Germany, took German wives and became naturalised German subjects. They usually felt loyalty towards their adopted country and several are known to have served in the Imperial Army on the Western, Eastern and Palestinian Fronts during the First World War.


Highly Recommended External Link - Africans in the Imperial German Army on the Axis History Forum


Kettledrummer Elo Sambo
Prussian Life Guard Hussars
Photo © Joe Robinson

This photograph of Elo Sambo shows him wearing the Dolman tunic of the Prussian Life Guard Hussars ("Leib-Garde Husaren Regiment"). It would have been dark blue with yellow metallic braiding and back fur edging. Note the musicians swallows nests on the shoulder. His peakless cap would have matched his uniform being red with a dark blue hatband and a small Prussian cockade.

Elo Wilhelm Sambo (1885-1933) was born in Jaounde, Cameroon. I have not fund out how he got to Germany but he was endorsed as a godson of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He joined the Prussian army in 1905 ("Eisenbahnregiment Nr. 1") but in 1907 was transferred to the Life Guard Hussars ("Leib-Garde Husaren Regiment") and trained as their kettle drummer. He served with this regiment during the First World War and after the war with the Reichswehr's 4th Mounted Regiment ("Reiterregiment Nr. 4") until 1923. He later lived in Cologne where he joined carnival societies such as "Rote Funken" and later "Blaue Funken" as a kettle drummer for the Carnival Monday Processions. He died 1933 and was buried on the Southern Cemetery ("Südfriedhof") in Cologne. Kaiser Wilhelm sent a wreath for the funeral.

Schellenbaum Player Ben Aissa
1st Prussian Foot Guards
Photo © WikiMedia

This photograph of Unteroffizier Ben Aissa of the 1st Prussian Foot Guards ("1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß") was taken in Potsdam in 1907. He wears full dress uniform consisting of a dark blue Prussian Infantry tunic with white metal buttons, red piping and red collar and Swedish cuffs both bearing white Litzen. The shoulder straps are plain white. As a player of the "Schellenbaum" or Turkish Crescent, he wears musicians swallows nests in red and white on each shoulder. The headdress is a Grenadier style mitre worn only on parade.

Ben Aissa was born in Morocco in about 1887. He was employed as a servant to guide Kaiser Wilhelm II's horse through Tangiers on a visit in 1905. During this tour he was befriended by the Kaiser and was invited to visit Berlin the following year and in 1907 to move to Germany. He joined the band of the elite 1st Prussian Foot Guards ("1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß"). He continued to served with them during the First World War. In 1917-18 he served with the Asienkorps in Palestine. After demobilisation in 1919 he returned home to Morocco.

Music Master Gustav Sabac el Cher
1st Prussian Grenadiers
Photo from Wikipedia

This photograph of Musikmeister Gustav Sabac el Cher shows him in the uniform of the 1st Prussian Grenadiers ("Grenadier-Regiment Kronprinz (1.Ostpreußisches) Nr.1") and was taken in 1908. His uniform consists of a dark blue Prussian Infantry tunic with the regimental elite collar Litzen and the fringed swallows nests and shoulder straps of a Music Master. Being the oldest regiment of the Prussian army, the Pickelhaube spiked helmet of this regiment has the notable scroll of their formation date "1655" across the eagle. The medals worn on the left breast are the Prussian General Honour Decoration, Prussian Wilhelm I Centenary Medal, Bavarian Military Merit Cross (an early issue without flames) and an unidentified Russian medal. Below his bar is a pre-1913 Prussian Long Service Award.

Gustav Sabac el Cher (1868-1934) was the son of a Sudanese valet to Prince Albrecht of Prussia and his German wife. Gustav attended the Imperial Music High School in Charlottenburg and later served as Music Master to the elite 1st Grenadiers ("Grenadier-Regiment Kronprinz (1.Ostpreußisches) Nr.1"). He retired from the Army in 1909 and worked as a civilian music conductor appearing on radio several times in the 1920s. He and his wife opened a cafe in Berlin but were forced to close it under pressure from the Nazi authorities. He died shortly afterwards. On hearing the news, the Kaiser sent Gustav's widow a personal telegram of condolences.

It is unknown exactly how many Africans served in the Imperial German Army. Here are notes on some others that are known:

Josef Mambo (born in 1885 in Tanga, East Africa) was brought to Germany as a child and later served as the kettle drummer in the 3rd Prussian Horse Grenadiers ("Grenadier Regiment zu Pferde 'Freiherr von Derfflinger' Nr. 3"). During the First World War he was promoted through the ranks to Sergeant and was twice wounded, once in Russia and once at Verdun. After the war he took part in the German African Exhibition of the late 1930s where he was interviewed about his life: "Mambo, that was the name of the black man we talked to. He told us of his native lands, which he left when he was a child. In the year 1897 he was brought to Dresden by a baron from Alsace and brought up as a foster child. He never saw East Africa again. Instead Mambo reached a certain grade of fame in Germany, because from 1904 to 1913 he was the drummer of the mounted grenadier regiment in Bromberg, to which he was assigned by the Kaiser for the regiment's 200th anniversary. When the World War started, Mambo first went to Russia and then to France with his old regiment. The Iron Cross second class and Wound Medal show that he fulfilled his duty during the war."
Translated by from "Die Deutsche Afrika-Schau (1935-1940)" by Susann Lewerenz on the Axis History Forum

Kwassi Bruce (born in 1893 in Togo) was brought to Germany at the age of three by his father, JC Bruce (born Nayo Friko) as part of a 100 strong group of African contract workers. These men were brought to Berlin in 1896 from all over the German colonies in Africa to participate in the first German Colonial Exhibition held between April and November 1896. Kwassi made his living as a pianist in Berlin and during the First World War volunteered for service. He saw action on the Western Front where he was captured and spent two years in an allied Prisoner of War camp. It is possible that the photograph of a German African being captured by French troops shown on the Axis History Forum is Kwassi. After the war he returned to work as a pianist in Berlin. See his letter quoted below about the hardships born by African Germans after the Nazi Party came to power.

Heipold Jansen (born in 1893 in Duala, Cameroon) lived in Germany and was a Vizefeldwebel in the Prussian Army during the First World War. He later served in the Freikorps against the Spartacus Rebellion in Berlin. It may be him in the famous photograph seen on the Axis History Forum often mis-titled as being a loyal East African in Munich.

Josef Bilé (born in Cameroon) enlisted at the beginning of the First World War and trained at the garrison Meiningen, but was released in January 1915 on account of a foot injury. After the war he worked in Germany with International Red Aid, a communist organisation to help political prisoners.

Martin Paul Samba (1875-1914, born Mebenga M'Ebono in Kribi, Cameroon), trained at the Prussian Military Academy in Potsdam from 1891. He was commissioned as Leutnant and later promoted to Hauptmann. He left the army in 1894 and returned to Cameroon where he served on Hans Dominik's expeditions into the unexplored depths of the colony. He took part in actions against several tribes but gradually he turned against German rule. From 1912 he began to plan an uprising. In July 1914 he was found with papers showing he was in touch with the British and French to procure arms for a rebellion. He was tried and executed by firing squad the following month.

Alexander Ndoumbe Duala Manga Bell (born in Duala, Cameroon 1897-1966) of Duala Royalty was educated in Berlin and Kiel and served briefly in the German Army. When the First World War broke out he was in Germany. According to "The Royal Pretender" (by Joseph Richard) he fought in the German army during the war. His father Rudolf Duala Manga Bell, was executed in Cameroon August in August 1914 for plotting a rebellion against German rule. After the war he home and later became Cameroon's first elected representative in Paris under the new French rule of Cameroon  During the Second World War he served in the army in Senegal which was aligned with Vichy. In the 1950s he represented Cameroon in the French National Assembly.

Johannes Arra Mensa from Togo trained at the Prussian Military Academy in Potsdam. No other details are known about him.

Martin Dibobe (born in 1876 in Cameroon) is not known to have served in the German army but between 1906-20 worked for the Berlin Public Transport Company as one of the first train drivers on the subway Line 1. A photograph of him in the uniform of a train driver has appeared on the internet including the Axis History Forum. This photograph has confused some readers into thinking he was in an unidentified German army unit. In 1919 he wrote the Cameroon 32 Point Petition to the Weimar Government.

Other Unidentified African German Soldiers have been seen in period photographs. Wartime photographs of the 20th Saxon Hussars, 20th Field Artillery and the 25th Landwehr Regiments show them with individual African soldiers. 

25th Landwehr Regiment c1916-18
In this group photograph of "Landwehr-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 25" an African soldier is seen standing second left. The regiment was garrisoned in Koblenz and the 1915 Tunic worn by two of the men, including the African, dates the photograph to the latter half of the First World War.
Photo © Joe Robinson


After the First World War
In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles cut all ties between Germany and her former colonies yet
many of these African Germans remained in post-war Germany. Some served in the Freikorps and Reichswehr, many retained jobs as musicians or entertainers. One former East African askari, Mohamed Hussein moved from Africa to Germany and made his name as a film actor.

When the Nazi party came to power in 1933 the situation became very difficult for Germany's small African community. In August 1934 Kwassi Bruce (a Western Front veteran born in Togo) wrote a letter to the Colonial Department of the German Foreign Office describing life for Africans in Germany under the Nazi Regime.

"After the National Government took power, all Africans were required to present their passports and identity documents respectively to be verified. Those who had not acquired German citizenship through a naturalisation process had their hitherto recorded German identification documents taken away and exchanged for 'alien' passports. Since the beginning of the National Government we coloured, insofar as we earned our own living as workers, have all, almost without exception, lost our positions and engagements respectively. It has not been possible for us, even after presenting proof of our origin from the former German colonies, to get new employment.

I am a naturalised German (my passport has not yet been taken from me). During the takeover of power by the national government, I played with my orchestra and was director of the same in a good Berlin wine restaurant. My position was permanent. Last March, the owner of the business told me that he regretted that he would nor be able to employ me further with my orchestra because we were coloured. On the 1st April, I had to stop and tried to find a new engagement in vain.

Wherever I asked about employment, I was told that they regretted that they would not be able to employ me because I was coloured. When I referred to my heritage from the former German protectorate of Togo, I received the following answers: "Yes, we don't have colonies anymore", or "Negroes are not allowed to be employed anymore", or "The public doesn't want to see any more Negroes, we have to take the wishes of the guests into account". Even my participation in the World War on the side of the Germans as a war volunteer as well as two years as a prisoner of war couldn't convince any employer to hire me.

The situation worsened for Africans inside Hitler's Reich. Unlike the Jewish people, there were no specific laws passed against Africans. Even so, many were forcibly sterilised and others some were sent to concentrations camps (including Mohamed Hussein, the former East African askari). Hitler's Breslau speech of 1938 warned all non-Aryans to leave Germany. Many German Africans could not leave as they only had German nationality. There are no accurate figures for the number of Africans that died in the Nazi Holocaust.

Links and Recommended Sources
Most of the information for this article originated from a discussion on Africans in the Imperial German Army on the Axis History Forum including figures from the Bundesarchiv records. Thank you very much to all the very helpful people who contributed towards that thread.

Other photographs of African German soldiers were found at the Desert Column Forum (20th Hussars), the Gentlemen's Military Interest Club (20th Field Artillery) and the Joe Robinson Collection.

Discussion on Gustav Sabac El Cher at the GMIC
Article on Gustav Sabac El Cher at the DHM
Black Germans Do Not Exist article on the Free Library including the Kwassi Bruce letter, quoted above.
Erstes-Garderegiment for biographical information on Ben Aissa
"Die Deutsche Afrika-Schau (1935-1940)" by Susann Lewerenz for the quote above about Josef Mambo.
The Royal Pretender : Prince Douala Manga Bell in Paris, 1919-1922 by Richard Joseph for a biography of Alexander Douala Manga Bell.
Martin-Paul Samba on Wikipedia.
Hessians in the American War article on the Von Donop website.

Kettledrummer Elo Sambo leads the band of the Prussian Life Guard Hussars
Photo © Joe Robinson

Please contact me here if you have more information or photos on this topic. 

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