Africa and the First World War

by Simon Collings

Soldiers from Britain’s overseas colonies played a major role in World War One, an aspect of the war which has received growing attention in recent years. The extent to which Africa was a major theater of the war is also being increasingly acknowledged. The first and last shots of the war were fired in Africa not Europe.

In August the BBC ran a news report on Kenya’s ‘forgotten heroes’. Two million Africans are believed to have fought in the conflicts with Germany’s colonies in the east, west and south west of the continent. The stories of those who took part are poorly documented. Many were recruited as fighting troops but the majority were employed as porters. While some joined voluntarily many were press ganged by local chiefs. The conditions were harsh, the food poor, and large numbers died of malaria, dysentery and exhaustion. In east Africa around 100,000 are believed to have perished in what was the longest running campaign of the entire conflict. After the war many returned to their homes only to find their land being annexed by white settlers – some of them former British officers.

Indian troops played a critical role in the early stages of the war in Europe. Britain had a large professional army in India, made up largely of Indians. These soldiers were deployed to bolster Britain’s inadequate military resources while more men in the UK were conscripted and trained.

Young men from the Caribbean also volunteered in large numbers to fight for Britain, though they found themselves debarred from combat roles. They were used instead for support operations, transporting munitions, digging trenches, laying communications cables. This was dangerous work, often performed under fire, and thousands died.

North African troops played a crucial role on the French side and last year President Hollande made a public point of acknowledging the contribution of these fighters to the French cause.

Despite recent erroneous claims in the British media, the first shot of the war was fired in west Africa. Following the declaration of war at the beginning of August 1914, troops of the Gold Coast Regiment entered Togoland from the British Gold Coast (now Ghana) and advanced on the capital, Lomé. An advance patrol encountered German-led police on 7 August 1914 and the police force opened fire. Alhaji Grunshi, who returned fire, became the first soldier in British service to fire a shot in the war.

The last military activities took place in east Africa. The German army continued to make advances in east Africa after the peace was signed in France – German commander Lt-Col Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck only received a telegram with news of the German defeat on 14 November 1918. He took another nine days to march his troops to meet British troops and formally surrender himself.

Recruiting Africans to provide support to fighting troops continues today. In the issue of Kwani which I reviewed in a previous post there is an article by Alain Vicky about the experiences of a group of Ugandans recruited by a US private military company for non-combat roles in Iraq. Third-country nationals perform many of the menial tasks required to sustain a military operation. They are badly paid and often mistreated, and those who are wounded can find themselves simply shipped home – no compensation or medical care provided. Plus ça change.