The Forgotten Role of Africa in World War I
The continent was not spared the horrors of the Great War
When we think about World War I (assuming we think of it at all), we immediately think of the bloody trench warfare of the Western Front in Europe. Sometimes the focus falls on the Russian theater of the war, but only insofar as it led to the Russian Revolution. Even more rarely, our attention will turn to the war in the Middle East, usually following the release of films like Lawrence of Arabia or Gallipoli. What we never think of, and what few historians ever mention, is Africa.
It is true that the bulk of the war’s action was on the Western Front, but World War I also had devastating consequences for the African continent and its people. While their impact on the outcome of the war was minimal, there were indeed battles fought in Africa between the colonial powers of France, Great Britain, and Germany, and the impact on Africa was significant. Prior to the outbreak of the war in 1914, there were agreements in place that said European powers would not fight in Africa in the event of a war in Europe; these agreements lasted about as long as the German guarantee of Belgian neutrality.
Tragically ignored in most accounts of the war is the fact that African troops from the colonies fought not only in their homelands, but on the battlefields of Europe as well. On the Allied side, there were 365,000 combatants from Africa, of whom over 70,000 perished. Another 250,000 served as laborers, but no casualty numbers exist for them as none were even kept. Another 135,000 African troops fought on the African continent itself, with over 15,000 killed, and over 1.4 million were recruited as laborers. The word “recruited” used in the few accounts of the time would better be labeled as “forcibly pressed into service.” The cost in civilian lives dwarfs these numbers; nearly 750,000 African civilians died as a result of the four years of war.
The battles in Africa were nowhere near the scale of the battles on the Western Front like Verdun or the Marne. There were no constant artillery barrages, no aerial dogfights, no masses of troops crashing into each other, and no trench warfare. The war in Africa had the one thing the war in Europe lacked, however: mobility. The much smaller British and German forces in Africa played a deadly game of cat and mouse during the war, especially in the East Africa campaign. One little-known consequence of these battles was that because of the way the European powers had drawn up borders, with no thought given to tribal or familial boundaries, some African soldiers were forced to fight members of their own families. The war also disrupted agricultural production, which caused widespread famine, the single largest cause of the 750,000 civilian deaths.
African troops didn’t just fight in Africa, of course. As mentioned earlier, 365,000 fought in the European theater, something you almost never see in movies about World War I. France recruited more Africans than any other country, with roughly 200,000 African soldiers serving in the French Army in Europe; these soldiers came from both North and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Germans and Belgians used African soldiers as well, but British military policy at the time prohibited Africans from entering combat roles in Europe, so they only fought in Africa itself. Interestingly, the British did allow Indian units to fight in Europe.
It’s important to remember that in 1914, all of Africa (with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia) was effectively under European rule, making it no surprise that they would draw on their colonies for manpower. The African soldiers on the Western Front suffered the same privations as their European comrades, but added to these was the fact that the winters were much harder on them as they were not acclimated to the bitter cold and snow. Hundreds of thousands of laborers suffered tremendously from disease and malnutrition because unlike soldiers they were treated essentially as beasts of burden. The African troops themselves, being seen as “expendable” by the French, were often used as shock troops and were the first over the top when the battle began. The fact that they proved themselves the equal of their colonial masters did little to improve their treatment either during or after the war. Furthermore, the battles for control of their African colonies gave a preview of the intensity with which European colonial powers would cling to these pieces of empire from the 1950s through the 1970s.
The redrawing of the map of Africa after the Allied victory had a lasting impact on the continent and its people, in much the same way the redrawing of the map of Europe had there. The war redrew the map of Africa in important, often disastrous, ways. Germany lost all of her African colonies, which were divided up between the French and the British. They gobbled up the formerly-German East African colonies with no regard for the people under their rule. The tensions that resulted remain to this day, even after all of the nations of Africa have achieved independence. The tribal and regional conflicts set in motion by the League of Nations’ arbitrarily setting the national boundaries manifested itself in bloody civil wars from Congo to Rwanda, just as the same map altering helped set the stage for the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.
Africa was not spared the horrors of World War I. Both the soldiers and civilians of the continent suffered greatly, and their part in the war should not be forgotten, ignored, or revised by historians today. One hundred years on, Africa’s role in the Great War deserves to be remembered.
First published on Medium.com.