By: Danielle Sanchez, Assistant Professor of History, Colorado College
Featured Image: Screen shot from Call of Duty: Vanguard (Santa Monica, CA: Activision, 2021).
As a historian of Black World War II, I was particularly intrigued by the inclusion of a Black British officer in Call of Duty: Vanguard. Lieutenant Arthur Kingsley, one of the four protagonists in Vanguard, is a fascinating character, not simply because of his background, linguistic skills, and shooting abilities, but also the ways that he navigates leadership and teamwork while killing a bunch of Nazis. After the release of Vanguard, gamers and others swiftly critiqued the inclusion of not just Lieutenant Arthur Kingsley, but also a Russian sniper who happened to be a woman. Kotaku published a scathing critique of Vanguard by John Walker, who argues the “campaign is an insult to World War II.”1 Walker’s argument is based on the idea that Vanguard isn’t simply anachronistic; rather, it is disconnected from the realities of the Second World War, British colonialism, and mid-20th century racial politics. While I agree with Walker to an extent, I am hesitant to dissuade people from playing Vanguard.
I research and teach about the Second World War and have written a fair share of both popular and academic texts about the experiences of Black people before, during, and after the war.2 In fact, I’m currently wrapping up a new chapter about the experiences of African soldiers during the global conflict. This chapter dives into recruitment, conscription, internment, and daily life during the war years. The experiences of most of these men were, of course, drastically different from the narrative arc of Lieutenant Arthur Kingsley in Vanguard.
While Activision based aspects of the character of Lieutenant Arthur Kingsley off of Sergeant Sidney Cornell, a Black paratrooper who participated in D-Day, it would be naive to assume that most Black recruits who fought for Britain had similar experiences.3 Since I am an African historian (and Kingsley’s character is from Cameroon), I am going to focus on the experiences of African soldiers who fought for Britain and France during the Second World War.
There are a lot of reasons for the distinctively different experiences of Kingsley, but at a basic level, his experiences are inextricably bound to elite privilege. Kingsley was born in British Cameroon and, in his words, was “a Cambridge man, through and through.”4 Education in the metropole, at Cambridge in this case, was fairly rare, especially because of the high cost of education and its waning return on investment, particularly due to the extractive and exploitative nature of colonial rule. Kingsley joined the British Army after he graduated and then went on to fight with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1939. By the beginning of Vanguard, Kingsley rose in ranks to become a lieutenant.
Becoming an officer within colonial militaries was not necessarily impossible. Captain Charles N’Tchoréré is one of the most celebrated African soldiers who fought and died for France. N’Tchoréré was born in Gabon in 1896 and served as a tirailleur sénégalais during the First World War. He joined the military academy in Frejus in 1922 and eventually became a captain in 1933. N’Tchoréré led the 53rd RICMS (Régiment d’Infanterie Colonial Mixte Sénégalais) in France and fought valiantly against Germany during the Battle of France. After his capture, N’Tchoréré, who “refused to be considered as subhuman, demanded the Germans to be treated like a French officer.”5 A German soldier responded to N’Tchoréré’s demand by killing him. In N’Tchoréré’s final letter to his son, he wrote about his commitment to fighting for France.6 Regarding leadership, it is worth emphasizing Captain N’Tchoréré’s case: he led a mixed infantry regiment of men who followed his command until the day he died.
While Black officers like Cornell and Tchoréré certainly existed, a vast majority of Africans experienced the war in quite different ways. Fighting for the metropole was a complicated conundrum for many people in colonial Africa. The generational trauma of the First World War still existed within daily life within many communities, especially in places where colonial powers promised (and then reneged on) expanded rights after the war in exchange for military and labor support during the conflict.
In some regions, recruitment campaigns sought to appeal to potential soldiers through popular media and consumption. For example, the colonial administration in French West Africa released a publication called La Gazette du Tirailleurs, which included a comic serial called “Mamadou Goes to War.” Over the course of several issues, Mamadou decides to join the war effort to fight the evil Nazis, goes through training camp, and is eventually deployed to France, where he makes friends in the surrounding communities.8 British propaganda in colonial Africa also took the form of print media; for example, one leaflet claimed that Nazis would take sewing machines and bicycles away from Africans. My students are often confused by these two seemingly random items, but they are not actually random at all: sewing machines gave people opportunities to make extra money and bicycles provided greater mobility.
Yet, joining the French or British colonial army was not as simple as signing up for most people. In the case of French Africa, conscription was incredibly common and colonial officials often forced young men to fight for France against their will before and after the fall of France in the summer of 1940. In fact, Phyllis Martin discusses the ways that Congolese people would flee into “the bush” when French recruitment officers visited Brazzaville during the Second World War.10 For Africans who joined the French colonial military (by force or choice), they often received lesser rations, inadequate training, and outdated weapons. When they were eventually deployed to France, North Africa, and elsewhere, they experienced racist micro- and macro-aggressions from French soldiers who were allegedly committed to the same cause of defeating fascism.
In the case of Anglophone Africa, race became a point of contention for officials. Early in the war, South Africa’s military only allowed white men to serve in combat roles. Their approach to recruitment eventually changed as “the expediencies of the war forced the government into mental gymnastics: it temporarily waived aspects of its racial policy of segregation, opening its recruitment drive to include black men, Indian men, and men of color” to serve under the Directorate of Non-European Army Services (DNEAS).11 In Nigeria, many young men wanted the opportunity to fight Nazis, assert their masculinity, and engage with ideas of imperial citizenship, but the color bar prevented them from enlisting. In June 1940, the Calabar Branch of the Nigerian Youth Movement expressed frustration with the colonial administration’s failure to accept Nigerian recruits into the war effort.12 Rather, administrators in Nigeria and other British colonies encouraged residents to contribute to the cause through labor and other logistical avenues. Shortly after the Calabar Branch’s statement on the exclusion of their men from military service, the War Office demanded that the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) be reorganized and revitalized to strengthen its ability to contribute to the war.13 Chiefs sent family members to recruitment centers and community members followed, but new recruits found themselves in under-resourced battalions being trained by individuals who did not have skills or experience to train them.14 Nevertheless, the RWAFF went on to fight in East Africa and eventually returned to Nigeria and trained the Expeditionary Force, which was a major part of the Burma Campaign.
Once the British opened more opportunities for recruitment for Nigerians, many joined the fight as either soldiers or laborers. By the end of the war 140,000 Nigerians served as soldiers in the conflict. Some joined to prove their loyalty to the British, but many others were pragmatic and decided to serve in the military because of the economic opportunities that they could attain.15 Similar to French Africa, some men volunteered, while others were conscripted into hard manual labor and/or military service.
For those who fought for France, the fall of France meant not only defeat, but also either a violent death by German soldiers or internment in a German prison camp (and eventually a French camp). To be clear, the fates of these African soldiers were in the hands of German soldiers who bought into racist propaganda about the alleged “savagery” of Africans.16 Léopold Sédar Senghor, the future president of Senegal, is one of the most famous men to survive internment and wrote about his experiences in Hosties Noires.17 For those who were repatriated, they returned to French colonies that now pledged loyalty to Vichy France and the Nazi-puppetry of Philippe Pétain.
Africans resisted mistreatment in the armed forces in a range of ways. Some fled from their stations while others protested or attacked officers. In 1945, African soldiers from British colonies participated in mass insubordination due to their frustration with rampant racism, insufficient pay, and inferior rations. African soldiers attacked British officers and NCOs, which led to three deaths.18 After their repatriation to Senegal, 500 Senegalese tirailleurs protested French efforts to pay them in colonial currency rather than French francs. The French attacked the protesters and killed 35 soldiers in what is now known as the Thiaroye Massacre.
This is all to say that there is ample source material for a historically accurate portrayal of African soldiers in World War II. In his chapter, “The Military Experiences of Ordinary Africans in World War II,” Timothy Parsons writes about the nitty gritty, frustrating, oppressive, and violent experiences of ordinary African soldiers who contributed to the Second World War by force or by choice. While Parsons and many others (myself included) write, think, and teach about “ordinary” Africans, it is clear that Activision wasn’t interested in those histories. Activision, in their effort to create a more inclusive game, made a campaign led by a protagonist whose experiences were drastically different from the hundreds of thousands of Africans who fought in the Second World War. Still, Africans with resumes similar to Kingsley’s did exist, even if they were in the minority. While Kingsley attended Cambridge, Senghor attended the Sorbonne and the University of Paris and would have likely schooled the fictional Nazis that Kingsley encountered in the Vanguard’s cutscenes in a similar manner. Senghor was a Private during the Battle of France, but perhaps he would have ranked up in the years leading up to the fictional Phoenix Mission if he had not been captured and interned following the Fall of France.
I want to end with a seemingly basic question: Did Call of Duty: Vanguard ruin the history of the Second World War? As this article suggests, I do not think that Vanguard gets everything wrong. Clearly, soldiers and officers like Kingsley existed and fought during the war. That being said, Vanguard depicts vitriolic racism from Nazis, but shies away from toxic and vitriolic racism from Allied soldiers, colonial military structures, and the metropole. This is not surprising given that World War II in popular memory is a conflict in which the “good guys” fought the evil Nazis, won, and saved the world from fascist imperialism. Acknowledging systemic racism and discrimination within the militaries of Allied Powers would challenge ideas of what it meant to be a “good guy” and the “greater good” in a war that stripped many people in colonial Africa of basic rights. While a campaign that included details on the violent regime of the corvée system in Free French Africa, medical experimentation on Africans, concentration camps in French North Africa and Ethiopia, conscription, and widespread colonial violence might not translate into a popular video game, these are important histories that I hope gain more attention in the future.
Dr. Danielle Sanchez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in wartime central Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Novels. Her nerdy obsessions: knitting, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez
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- John Walker, “Call of Duty: Vanguard’s Campaign Is An Insult to World War II,” Kotaku, November 11, 2021, https://kotaku.com/call-of-duty-vanguards-campaign-is-an-insult-to-world-1848042030.
- For example, see Danielle Sanchez, “Bar-Dancing, Palm Wine, and Letters: Alcohol Consumption, Social Life, and Entrepreneurialism in Free French Brazzaville, 1940-1943,” Journal of African Military History 3, 2 (2019): 123-154; “Pas de deux as I tell you: Physical Education, Dance, and the Remaking of Discipline in World War II Brazzaville,” in Sports in African History, Politics, and Identity Formation, eds. Saheed Aderinto and Michael Gennaro (New York: Routledge, 2019), 28-42; “The Case for an African Magneto: African Experiences of Torture and Oppression during World War II,” Nursing Clio, December 3, 2019.
- “Representation in Game: Celebrating Black History Month at Activision Blizzard,” Activision Blizzard Black Employee Network, February 17, 2022, https://activisionblizzard.com/newsroom/2022/02/representation-in-game-celebrating-black-history-month-at-activision-blizzard.
- Call of Duty: Vanguard (Santa Barbara, CA: Activision, 2021). Kingsley states that he is “a Cambridge man, through and through” in a Phoenix Mission cut scene.
- Charles Onana, “Préface,” in Addi Bâ: Résistant des Vosges, by Etienne Guillermond (Paris: Editions Duboiris, 2013), 13.
- For more on N’Tchoréré, see Myron Echenberg, “‘Morts pour la France’: The African Soldier in France During the Second World War,” The Journal of African History 26, 4 (1985): 369-70.
- A special thanks to Sarah Davis Westwood, who shared her photographs of the entire catalogue of La Gazette du Tirailleurs, which she accessed at the Centre de Documentation de l’École Militaire.
- Echenberg, “‘Morts pour la France,'” 367.
- “Victory is Vital,” INF 2/1 pt. 4, British National Archives, Richmond, UK.
- Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 49.
- Louis Grundlingh, “The Military, Race, and Resistance: The Conundrums of Recruiting Black South African Men during the Second World War,” in Africa and World War II, eds. Judith Byfield, Carolyn Brown, Timothy Parsons, and Ahmad Alawad Sikainga (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 71.
- Chima Korieh, Nigeria and World War II: Colonialism, Empire, and Global Conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 42.
- Emmanuel Nwafor Mordi, “What if the Huns Come?: Imperial Britain’s Attitude Towards Nigerians’ Enthusiasm for Military Service During the Second World War, 1939-1942,” Journal of Asian and African Studies 54, 6 (2019): 847.
- Mordi, “What if the Huns Come?” 847.
- See Korieh, Nigeria and World War II, chapter two.
- Raffael Scheck discusses both the massacres of Africans following the fall of France and the experiences of African soldiers in internment camps in several of his books and articles. See Raffael Scheck, Hitler’s African Victims: The German Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); “French African Soldiers in German POW Camps, 1940-1945,” in Africa and World War II, eds. Judith Byfield, Carolyn Brown, Timothy Parsons, and Ahmad Alawad Sikainga (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 420-438; “‘They Are Just Savages’: German Massacres of Black Soldiers from the French Army in 1940,” The Journal of Modern History 77, 2 (2005): 325-344; “The Killing of Black Soldiers from the French Army by the ‘Wehrmacht’ in 1940: The Question of Authorization,” German Studies Review 28, 3 (2005): 596-606.
- Léopold Sédar Senghor, Chants d’Ombre suivis de Hosties Noires (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1956).
- Timothy Parsons, “The Military Experiences of Ordinary Africans in World War II,” in Africa and World War II, eds. Judith Byfield, Carolyn Brown, Timothy Parsons, and Ahmad Alawad Sikainga (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 17.
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