Even in his final days, bedbound in a dilapidated shack in Kenya, 105-year-old Eusebio Mbiuki still spoke vividly of fighting for Britain in the jungles of Burma through thick mud, monsoon rains and the searing tropical heat.
But the veteran’s pride in his wartime service was bittersweet, having received senseless beatings from commanding officers and unequal payment graded to each soldier’s race.
Eight decades on from the Second World War, wrapped in a blanket beneath a leaking roof, Mr Mbiuki died in poverty last weekend on Remembrance Sunday — prompting calls from his family for the British government to compensate its forgotten war heroes for mistreatment.
“He deserved better treatment from the UK,” Phillippine Kathure, Mr Mbiuki’s daughter-in-law and primary carer, told The Telegraph. “He was a soldier. He fought for our freedom and he got nothing in return. He was betrayed.”
Britain’s colonial-era African army was back in the spotlight this month during King Charles’s visit to Kenya, where he presented medals to local, elderly veterans in Nairobi. But Mbiuki’s family were disappointed by the King’s failure to offer any meaningful restitution.
“King Charles didn’t say anything about compensation — I just saw him giving out medals,” said Mrs Kathure, whose veteran father-in-law was languishing at home, days from death, during the ceremony. “The King just did it for the cameras. Just for PR. It did not feel good to us.”
During the Second World War, Mr Mbiuki was among more than half-a-million Africans who fought in Britain’s colonial regiments against the Axis powers in battlefields across the world.
Controversies have emerged in recent years over their involvement. While enlistment was supposed to be voluntary, some Africans were abducted by press gangs and conscripted into service. Mr Mbiuki signed up freely, eager for adventure, but his ethnicity and colonial origins would bar him from becoming a commissioned officer or disciplining lower-ranking white soldiers.
He was also among many African soldiers who faced corporal punishment, which officially had been outlawed by the British army for decades. “They beat us a lot,” said Mr Mbiuki in an interview several years before his death. “Our bodies became so swollen from the beatings. They would slap and beat us until we accepted everything.”
In 1944, following basic training with the King’s African Rifles, Mr Mbiuki joined some 90,000 Africans shipped to Burma by Britain to recapture the country from Japanese forces. He embarked from Mombasa and endured rough seas, crammed into overcrowded cabins below deck.
Once ashore, thousands of miles from Mr Mbiuki’s home, a brutal and tenacious enemy was waiting in Burma’s malaria-ridden jungles. “We started fighting the Japanese straight away,” he said. “You see one soldier fall down, then another fall down. You get scared and know things are getting bad. But you can’t go back. You would just say, ‘God help me, one day I’ll go home’.”
Once the bitter campaign had ended, he did go home and, like every demobilised soldier, received a lump sum known as a war gratuity. But with the amount adjusted to the empire’s racial hierarchy, Britain paid its black African soldiers up to three times less than their white counterparts, even those who had served alongside African soldiers and lived in the same African colonies.
“They should have known how much we had helped them,” said Mr Mbiuki, who in his later years struggled to afford medication or routine check-ups. “We were abandoned, just like that.”
After the war, he became a cobbler and repaired shoes until he was 93, when deteriorating health finally forced him to retire. By then, he had fathered 15 children, eventually becoming a great-great-great-grandfather, with five generations beneath him.
Since 2018, the government has committed to providing Commonwealth veterans with two meals a day through cash transfers — but has refused to act on cross-party calls to address the injustices that veterans suffered under British rule, citing “competing demands” and the “extensive resources” required for such an undertaking.
Next week, Mr Mbiuki will be laid to rest by the grave of his late wife in Mwema, the same sleepy, highland village near Mount Kenya where he was born in 1918, more than a century ago.
His descendants will be among 1,000 people expected to come and pay tribute to the late veteran — one of the last on the African continent — whose military pride was never fully eclipsed by the injustices that he faced.
“Even just a month ago, someone came to visit him and we could hear Eusebio talking about Burma,” said Mrs Kathure. “He was a gent and a valiant warrior who became an elder in the community — a real community man. People came to seek advice from him. More than anything, he just wanted to see everyone at peace with one another.”
Buckingham Palace declined to comment.