Major Seth Anthony: The first black African commissioned into the British Army
Thursday 19 March 2009
Major Seth Kwabla Anthony, served in the British Army's 81st division of the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) as the first black African to win His Majesty's commission. And, despite the "colour bar", he rose rapidly to the rank of major.
Though a legend in his country, Ghana, little mention of Anthony is to be found in reports of the Second World War published in Britain. He was teaching at his alma mater, Achimota School, when he enrolled as an officer cadet in the Gold Coast local forces. When war broke out in 1939, he was ready: a one-word telegram ordered him to "Mobilise". He enlisted as cadet Private No. GC15347.
Ghana was of great strategic value, what with Vichy France's presence in neighbouring Togo, Upper Volta and Ivory Coast, and the secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE) had a large operation there. British aircraft meant for the North African front were crated and shipped to Ghana's Takoradi harbour and reassembled to be flown north.
Anthony was involved in training many of the 65,000 Ghanaians conscripted by Ghanaian chiefs as "volunteers" to fight for Britain, 30,000 of whom fought abroad. They liberated Somaliland and Ethiopia (Abyssinia); and later defeated the Japanese at Myohaung, Burma.
A Ghanaian military officer who heard Major Anthony speak at a function held at the Ghana Jungle Warfare School at Achiase, said: "Anthony regaled us with stories about how he and his men used to live off the land in the Burmese jungle, and spring from nowhere to inflict severe casualties on Japanese military formations. They would then vanish back into the jungle – as if they'd never existed."
Anthony was at Takoradi when he received orders to go to Accra "to be sent to the front". But it was a ruse to test his courage. The General Officer Commanding West African troops informed him, instead, that he was being sent for officer training at Sandhurst. He entered the military academy in 1941, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1942.
No sooner was Anthony back home than he embarked for Burma. On the way, at Durban, Anthony experienced the first of many racist incidents that tried his sense of discipline. He was walking past a pub when some white comrades spotted him and hailed him to come and have a beer. But the landlady refused to serve him. The woman didn't relent, though told that "this black man holds the King's commission".
More serious was how to take the disdain the white officers exhibited towards black soldiers. Field Marshal William Slim, who became Chief of the Imperial General Staff, remarked, in his book, Defeat into Victory, that too many British officers believed that all an African soldier needed was "a handful of rice and some bush to crawl under to sleep!" In fraternising with such officers, Anthony ran the risk of being regarded by his compatriots as a sell-out who condoned racism. But he won them over with his prowess as a soldier and a leader.
After the war, Anthony participated in the victory parade in London. Back home, he was given a "European appointment" – Assistant District Officer. As independence for Ghana approached, Anthony was transferred into the infant diplomatic service and attached to the British embassy in Washington. At independence in 1957, it fell to Anthony to open the Ghana embassy in Washington. He also served as Ghana's first permanent representative at the United Nations in New York. His other postings included Ottawa, Paris, Geneva, Delhi and London. He retired in 1973 to live a quiet life in Accra.
Anthony was awarded one of Ghana's highest honours, the MSG, in 2007. Four months before his death, Viscount Slim, son of the Field Marshal and president of the Burma Star Association, travelled to Ghana to decorate Anthony with the Burma Star Badge. He was mentioned in several dispatches during the Second World War and was the recipient of an MBE, Military Division.
Seth Kwabla Anthony, soldier, diplomat and administrator: born Accra, Ghana 15 June 1915; married (two sons, five daughters); died Accra 20 November 2008.
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