“The black sacrifice in the war in Africa has been forgotten,” -Historian Bill Nasson of the University of Cape Town.
L.P. Hartley in 1953 wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.
Historians and lay readers alike normally agree with this phenomenon but often lose sight of the word “place” in Hartley’s discussion. Like any other place we can travel to the past and this is most often done through the written word.
So, on a sultry night in Accra where the air smelled of wood smoke, brine from the wet but welcome breezes off the Gulf of Guinea, the chirping of insects, barking dogs and gunning motor scooters, it felt necessary to pen down the reality of four years of total warfare, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and affected many millions more, but largely forgotten -the World War I.
The African side of this story remains a footnote, despite huge losses of human lives and major consequences for the future of the African continent.
According to Dr. Daniel Steinbach, all colonial powers promoted the idea of a ‘European civilizing mission’ – that is, bringing the rule of law, order, stability, and peace to Africa. Yet, in August 1914, they showed little hesitation before turning this part of the world into a theatre of war.
The reasons for this are manifold: Britain was initially concerned with the destruction of naval and communication infrastructure that could allow German boats to attack Allied ships in the Indian Ocean, while Germany wanted to prevent an attack or conquest of its African colony by attacking its neighbours itself. Quickly, the patriotic desire to support the war by fighting their nation’s enemy in Africa, combined with the prospect of conquering ‘new territory’, became powerful sentiments among many Europeans living in these colonies. The war rapidly developed from localised bombardments and skirmishes into a full campaign.
When the war broke out in Europe in 1914, English and French troops prepared to seize the four German colonies in Africa (German East Africa, German South-West Africa, Togoland and Cameroon).
In the beginning of the war, the majority of combatants were professional soldiers who served in the respective colonial armies. But very quickly, all colonial administrations began recruiting Africans who were either persuaded, or more often pressed, into military service. While many African soldiers took pride in their service and military professionalism, many others resented the fact of fighting in a war which they felt ‘wasn’t theirs’. So, it was not uncommon for soldiers to change sides from the German to the Allied army or vice versa.
Theatres of War
On the continent of Africa, there was action along the coast. In the West and South the Allies attacked Germany’s African ports. They attacked Lome (in Togo), Douala (in Cameroun), Swakopmund and Luderitz Bay (in South West Africa).
In the East, German-held Dar-es-Salaam was bombarded. In the North, the main concern of the British was to safeguard the Suez Canal.
German South West Africa was brought under allied control in the first few months. Cameroon took longer to capture and the East African campaign took even longer, with the Germans led by brilliant German General Von Lettow-Vorbeck.
How France and Britain used Africans
In World War I, France more than any other European power used African troops, including Senegalese riflemen who fought in the victorious battle to take the German colony of Togo. France also sent Senegalese troops to fight at Gallipoli in what was to become Turkey.
Between 1914 and 1918,the French had usednearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans with most of these French colonial troops serving in Europe.
Specifically the French sent 450,000 African soldiers from their colonies in West and North Africa to fight against Germany on the frontline in Europe. The Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis fought for the French army near Furnes, Belgium in 1914.
Africans as well joined in the fighting in France, where a memorial to them stands at Delville Wood, near the town of Longueval, commemorating the Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916.
Britain, too, built up its forces with men from Nigeria, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland (Malawi), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Kenya, but unlike the case of France, these troops all served in the African theater.
Most Africans who participated in the war, however, were recruited or conscripted into labor units, as military service was considered risky — stoking fears that blacks “may get ideas beyond their station,” said World War I historian Albert Grundlingh of the University of Stellenbosch.
The South African Role
South African forces that fought under the British flag were key,especially in the battle for German Southwest Africa, now called Namibia, where the first armistice of the war was signed in 1915, and for German East Africa, which included what are now the countries of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.
It is worth noting that during the war, 700 South African black laborers died when their ship, the Mendi, sank in the British Channel in 1917 on its way to France to help in the war effort.
East Africa, The Biggest Loser
1st battalion of the 4th Ghurkha Rifles lined, in Flanders, Belgium, 1915.
Among World War I campaigns, the East African one was the longest of all: as the armistice was being signed in Europe on November, 11th 1918, the last of the German forces were still fighting their British counterparts.
Kathleen Bomani reveals in WW1’s untold story: The forgotten African battlefieldsthat on August 8th, 1914, the British HMS Asteria and Pegasus protected cruisers bombed Dar-es-Salaam, then the capital of German East Africa, taking the European so-called “war to end all wars” to the Eastern African shores. The day before, Anglo-French forces constituted of Ghanaian, Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, Gambian and Beninois troops had invaded German Togoland in West Africa.
In East Africa, the majority of the about 250,000 soldiers involved in this campaign were either Africans – from East Africa, but also Nigeria and the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) – or Indians.
The lack of sufficient railroads in East Africa, or roads that could be used by motorcars meant that the moving armies relied on the most basic form of transport: human carriers. An established system of African porter transport that existed in the region prior to the war. But, the enormous demand for carriers by all armies resulted in an unprecedented number of ordinary people – men, women and even children – being persuaded or forced into porter services. Throughout the war, more than one million Africans carried provisions, military equipment, or soldiers in hazardous circumstances, for minimal or no pay. The porters were forced to leave their homes to march with the armies in areas foreign in climate, language and customs. About 100,000 porters died through illness, exhaustion, or mal- and under-nutrition.
Those civilians who could remain in their villages often saw their property and livelihood destroyed, as passing soldiers demanded food from them or burnt their houses and fieldswhich later ended in famine. In the resulting severe famines, several hundred thousand civilians perished. These were largely unrecorded by the colonial authorities, and unnoticed by the world.There are no accurate figures saying how many people died of hunger. However, the fact that the colonial administrative area of Dodoma in what is now Tanzania lost 20 percent of its population in 1917/18 gives some indication of the deprivation and misery.
Political Impact of the War in East Africa
Dr. Steinbach opines in his piece titled Misremembered history: the First World War in East Africa,
“The immediate political result of the First World War was the transition of control of German East Africa from the defeated Germany to Britain and Belgium. Neither were able to annex the territories (modern Tanzania for Britain, and Burundi and Rwanda for Belgium) outright, but the newly established League of Nations (the predecessor to the UN) awarded them as ‘mandates’. This meant that the mandate powers had to report annually to the League of Nations on the development of the territories and its inhabitants.
While this system was set up to stop the most exploitative aspects of colonialism through external control, for most Africans, life in a mandate territory was no different to life in a colony. The war had a huge impact on the social and economic fabric of East Africa, but the political changes for Africans were insignificant, as their contribution to the war did not result in any gain in political power”.
Winnings and Benefits to Africa
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany had four colonies: Togo, Kamerun (Cameroon), German Southwest Africa and German East Africa.
The end of German colonization in Africa saw France take over Togo, while a French-British coalition ruled Cameroon. Belgium got Rwanda and Burundi, leaving Tanzania to the British, and Southwest Africa went to South Africa.
One can say that out of the negative implications the First World War gave rise to a crucial change in the relationship between Europe and Africa. Over two million people in Africa made huge sacrifices for the European Allies.
Amid the battles, African cities were taking shape in the first big wave of black urbanization, driven by the demand for labor.
As James Wilson, author of Guerillas of Tsavo, puts it “much more needs to be done to preserve the memory of Africans who fought in the war”.
- Africa’s role in WWI a forgotten chapter. The Washington Times, Wednesday, July 28, 2004.
- Bomani K, WW1’s untold story: The forgotten African battlefields. CNN, Friday, August 8, 2014.
- Das S, 2005. Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. Cambridge University Press.
- Das S, 2011. Race, Empire and First World War Writing. Cambridge University Press.
- Steinbach D, 2015. Misremembered history: the First World War in East Africa.