The little-known story of African bandsmen in the German army during WWI

Bridget Boakye June 13, 2018
Josef Mambo (born in 1885 in Tanga, East Africa) was brought to Germany as a child (1897) and later served as the kettle drummer in the 3rd Prussian Horse Grenadiers (“Grenadier Regiment zu Pferde ‘Freiherr von Derfflinger’ Nr. 3”). Source: RareHistoricalPhotos

Everyone knows that Africans have a special knack for music. So much so that their music has influenced many genres of music since the beginning of time. But historical photos now show that African musicians were hired to play as bandsmen in European armies way back in the late 1600s.

According to Rare Historical Photos, beginning in the 17th Century, it was popular for European armies to have African bandsmen in their elite regiments. The first recorded African musician in a European army was Ludwig Besemann in 1685.

He was promoted to First Class Drummer (“Heeres-Pauker Erster Klasse”) in the army of the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg-Prussia, whose artillery had 16 African musicians. Prussian rulers after Wilhelm continued the tradition through the 18th Century.

Frederick the Great (King Friedrich II) had 32 African musicians in the Prussian artillery by 1759, doubling the number his predecessor had. Other German states also had African musicians in their armies.

Speaking on Africans in Germany, the site explained,

“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 naturalized 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.”

Europeans also recruited Africans on the other side of the seas. Hessian mercenary armies who were fighting for the British in the American War of Independence recruited freed Afro-American slaves as their bandsmen and sometimes as soldiers.

So what do we know about the African musicians who joined these European armies? RareHistoricalPhotos has photos, credited to Joe Robinson, and background stories of a three of such African bandsmen. Continue reading to find out more.

The little-known story of African bandsmen in the German army during WWI

Music Master Gustav Sabac el Cher, 1st Prussian Grenadiers.

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.

The photograph above of him was taken in 1908. He is in the uniform of the 1st Prussian Grenadiers (“Grenadier-Regiment Kronprinz (1.Ostpreußisches) Nr.1″), which is 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.

The 1st Prussian Grenadiershe, being the oldest regiment of the Prussian army, has the notable scroll of their formation date “1655” across the eagle of the Pickelhaube spiked helmet. The medals on Cher’s 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.

The little-known story of African bandsmen in the German army during WWI

Schellenbaum player Ben Aissa, 1st Prussian Foot Guards.

Ben Aissa is said to have been born in Morocco around 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.

In 1907, he moved to Germany. There, he joined the band of the elite 1st Prussian Foot Guards (“1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß”). He continued his service World War I. From 1917-18, he served with the Asienkorps in Palestine after which, he returned home to Morocco after demobilization in 1919.

This photograph of Unteroffizier Ben Aissa is of him with the 1st Prussian Foot Guards (“1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß”) and was taken in Potsdam in 1907. He is wearing a 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. His shoulder straps are plain white. He wears musician swallows nests in red and white on each shoulder as a player of the “Schellenbaum” or Turkish Crescent. His headdress is a Grenadier style mitre worn only on parade.

The little-known story of African bandsmen in the German army during WWI

Kettledrummer Elo Sambo, Prussian Life Guard Hussars.

Finally, Elo Wilhelm Sambo (1885-1933) was born in Jaounde, Cameroon in 1885. It’s unknown 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”). In 1907, he was transferred to the Life Guard Hussars (“Leib-Garde Husaren Regiment”) and trained as their kettledrummer.

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 joined carnival societies such as “Rote Funken” and later “Blaue Funken” as a kettle drummer for the Carnival Monday Processions when he moved to Cologne. He died n 1933 and was buried on the Southern Cemetery (“Südfriedhof”) in Cologne. Kaiser Wilhelm is said to have sent a wreath for the funeral.

The photo above shows him wearing the Dolman tunic of the Prussian Life Guard Hussars (“Leib-Garde Husaren Regiment”), which should be dark blue with yellow metallic braiding and back fur edging. He has musicians swallows nests on the shoulder. His peakless cap should match his uniform – red with a dark blue hatband and a small Prussian cockade.

The little-known story of African bandsmen in the German army during WWI

25th Landwehr Regiment 1916-1918. 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.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: June 13, 2018


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