Hi all, this article is written to explore and highlight the lack of recognition given to those black men and women who served the colonisers in The “Great War”, otherwise known as WWI. The war was prompted by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it lasted 4 years, and was supposedly largely fought between European powers. The war saw the death of over 16 million people, and ultimately lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler and eventually, World War II. This is a summary of everything that the history books in the school curriculums want us to know about that war. However, in this blog post I wanted to shed more light on the forgotten army, the black army - that were truly the unsung heroes of these European victories.
Over 100 years has passed since the first world war ended, and the experiences and perspectives of its non-European participants remain largely obscure. Most accounts of the war, for example what we are taught in school, the information we are given to read about it in history books, present it as an essentially European affair: a time where there was no peace in Europe. Though the black and ethnic soldiers of WWI have been commemorated more recently, I do not feel that enough has been done to acknowledge the more than four million non-white men, who were mobilised into European and American armies, and who fought to defend colonisers, in the most remote places in the world – "from Siberia and east Asia to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and even the South Pacific islands" (Pankrash Misraj, 2017).
In the early 20th century, the popularity of social Darwinism as an ideology, had created a consensus that nations should be seen similarly to biological organisms, which risked extinction or decay if they failed to expel alien bodies and achieve “living space” for their own citizens. Whiteness became “the new religion”, as Du Bois witnessed, "offering security amid disorienting economic and technological shifts, and a promise of power and authority over a majority of the human population" (Pankrash Misraj, 2017). This fundamental belief, was the defining character of colonialism and white supremacist systems. It is important to note before we go on that it was not only black soldiers from Africa who contributed in the Great War, there are also Indians, there are West-Indians and African-Americans also, though Africa may take prominence in this piece.
How Were Blacks and Non-Whites Used
As WWI was ongoing in Europe, African soldiers were recruited and coerced into defending their colonial masters between 1914 and 1918. France recruited the most, "more than any other colonial power, sending over 450,000 troops from West and North Africa to fight against the Germans on the front lines" (van Essyen, 2018). Knowing this gives me quite a gut-wrenching feeling, as I feel like black people had no place in that war - especially following the treatment that blacks received after the wars. Clemence Kouame, an African student who reflected on the participation of the black army described this feeling better than I could have:
"it hurts" to think about Africa's involvement in the war." People from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali died for France. It's true that France colonized them, but it wasn't their choice. You could almost say they died for nothing, at least not for their countries".
It's not like the contribution of the black army is paraded and celebrated; it has since been forgotten. Historians reported that there were many ways that black people were used to help during the war. An estimated "2 million Africans were pulled into the conflict as soldiers, workers, and personnel both in Europe and in Africa" (Jackie Bischof, 2018). When the European colonial powers being Britain and France Faced with manpower shortages, an array of non-white ethnic people were recruited, which did not only consist of Africans. Britain recruited up to 1.4 million Indian soldiers, and almost 200,000 black troops of West Indian and African descent. France enlisted almost 500,000 troops from its African colonies, and over 400,000 African-Americans were integrated into the US Army to defend against the Germans. The first world war’s truly unknown soldiers are these non-white combatants.
Now back to that idea of social Darwinism and imperialism, the ideologies behind recruiting non-whites for these battles, were deep-rooted in racism and this view that black people are worth-less than other humans. For example: The French recruited their armies in Africa "in the belief that some of Africa’s ethnic groups, like the Tukulor, Wolof, Serer and Bambara, were more naturally warlike than others" (Olusoga, 2018). Africans from these tribes were labelled by the French as "les races guerrières" translating to "warrior races", whom the infamous French general Charles Mangin forged into his “force noire” or "black army". The French were so dedicated to believing that their depictions were true, they convinced themselves that West Africans who were looked at as effectively second class citizens, "could better withstand the shock of battle and experienced physical pain less acutely"(Olusoga, 2018). Did you catch that? So the French basically said, "you guys can handle pain better than we can, go ahead and put your armour on, you're going to war!" - WOW. This supposedly justified Africans being deployed as shock troops in the first line of battle meaning they were at-least twice more likely to be killed in battle than white French infantrymen.
The British held similar views of the people of India and they only recruited from certain ethnic groups, the so-called “martial races” - this is a tactic that the British used throughout their empire to obtain control (Olusoga, 2018). I had read that Mahatmar Gandhi was keen on encouraging Indian soldiers to fight for Britain in this war, he helped to recruit soldiers for the Brits. Gandhi believed that fighting for them would increase India's military presence and power. However, this was not received by his white overlords as he expected. The deployment of Indian troops in Europe had been avoided for a long time, because the British "were concerned about upholding ‘white prestige’" (Kant, 2014). The idea of Indians killing white men in the battlefield could, after all, potentially upset the strict racial hierarchies and threaten the colonial machinery - this was the mindset of the British at first, but after a while the Britons had no choice but to welcome more ethnic soldiers to the line.
After Britain joined the war, this is when the use of black recruits in the global military expanded, as the amount of West Indian soldiers were said to have volunteered to travel to the ‘Mother Country’ and fight against the Germans, "their support was needed, and they gave it" (Bourne ,2014). They were followed by soldiers from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia and other African colonies, who helped to defend the borders of their own countries that may have been easily accessible to German forces. These African soldiers also later played a very important role in removing Germany's colonial hold in Africa. Obviously this did not benefit them in the slightest. We will explore the role that black soldiers played in Africa, in the next section.
The men of the countries who fought in WWI did not receive any recognition or respect, before or after the war. Instead, they were forced to take part in what was the re-dividing of African colonies - this took place once Germany lost the war. I will explain what I mean by this.
Firstly, the attitudes of Europeans (in Europe) towards Black people, especially African people was extremely one-sided; the only way to describe it was 'racist' and 'hateful'. Before 1914, there were strong restrictions on (sexual) relations between European women and African men, despite the reverse being totally fine. African women were always subject to sexual abuse and coercion by European men. "The presence of "dirty negroes" in Europe after 1914 seemed to be a violating taboo" (Mishra, 2017). So in short, there was a genuine distaste for any mixing with Africans by Europeans. Apart from when it benefitted them.
Germany by far held the strongest opinions; German women were warned in 1920 "these savages are a terrible danger,” relating to Africans. Adolf Hitler while writing Mein Kampf in 1920, described African soldiers on German soil as a Jewish conspiracy aimed to topple white people “from their cultural and political heights”. Can you imagine how twisted that sounds, that Hitler hated Jewish people along with Black people that much that he felt like one was using the other to "stop Germans from being great and achieving the ultimate white supremacy". The Nazis, who were committed to this ideology of 'racial hygiene', would forcibly sterilise hundreds of children fathered by African soldiers. For many Europeans, like Germany there was a fear and a hatred for black people, which made Europeans feel uncomfortable with the idea of "armed niggers” (as Weber called them) on European soil was unsettling. This hinderance and shuddering at seeing black people walk on European soil was not confined to Germany; the pope protested against their presence, and an editorial in the 'Daily Herald', which was a British socialist newspaper, in 1920 was titled “Black Scourge in Europe”.
To help build its case, Germany also set about fabricating a series of atrocity stories; everything from supposedly barbarous Indian solders drinking the blood of slain Germans, to French West African troops carrying garlands of severed ears around their necks. Citizens as well as some German soldiers, men whose only contact with Africans had been in the infamous human zoos of the early 20th century, believed the propaganda (David Olusoga 2018).
There was outrage when France deployed soldiers from one of their African colonial regions (then, what was known as Maghreb). Maghreb was the Northern region of Africa, comprised of Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and Algeria. To fight off the post-war occupation of German colonies, Germany had also called upon thousands of Africans as soldiers, to fight for the German reign in east Africa. But they were too ashamed to use them in the fight in Europe, because the imperialism was too strong and they worries that it would be judged badly by the population. So unlike the others, Germany did not use black soldiers in Europe, or indulge in what the German foreign minister Wilhelm Solf, referred to as the “racially shameful use of coloureds”. It is quite twisted in my view, to be such an imperialist that on one hand (France, Britain), you are using Africans to fight for you to win a European war, and to defend a coloniser against the threat of another coloniser, taking over their land. And on the other hand (Germany), you dislike black people so much, you can only deploy them to fight for your colonial interests IN Africa, because you are ashamed to even parade them as soldiers in front of the rest of the world. How sickening.
The fighting in Africa took place over long stretches of land. The lack of roads and railroads, combined with the fact that most horses passed away at the hands of the Tsetse fly, prompted German, French, and British forces to use African porters—four to every soldier—to carry supplies and machinery parts. An estimated 300,000 porters died along the way, according to historian Kathleen Bomani (Bischof, 2018).
Needless to say that this contribution deserves to be spoken about, and so in the next chapter we will analyse how all of these acts have been remembered, especially to those of us who have grown up in these European countries. Are our heroes truly represented?
One of the key things that bothered me about this subject was the lack of recognition shown towards black soldiers, for their participation in the war. Life and schooling in the UK does not really educate you about the participation of non-white and black soldiers in these world wars, similar things are reported on WWII also. I remember being back at school and constantly being taught about how Britain defeated its enemies, and how Britain was so great and a conqueror... there was barely any mention of any alliance with the 1,2,3,4,5,6 foreign countries that ran to their defence. When you look into the history books that were used to teach children on the school curriculum, there is no mention of any other country.
The November 11th Remembrance Day, marked by holding 2 minutes of silence and also wearing of poppies; none of these ceremonies pay attention to ethnic soldiers, and whether some people know the truth or not, the notion is that a group of brave white men, fought for the honour of this country, and THAT'S who is being remembered on that day, and through those ceremonies - not black people.
I read that only on the 6th November, 2018 - a piece of bronze that existed in a park in Reims, North-East of Paris was inaugurated as an official commemoration of the "black army" that fought for France during the Great War. To be more specific, this is in honour of the West African soldiers from France's former colonies. The statue had been there since 2013, but only in 2018 was it recognised as a proper tribute. An entire 100 years passed since the ending of that war; one must question why it took that long to recognise the sacrifices made by Africans...
What I found even more distasteful was the acknowledgment of those black soldiers by French president Emmanuel Macron, who paid tribute to them on Twitter. When I searched for the tweet in question, I could not actually locate it which is shady enough. But according to van Eyssen (2018) this is what he said:
"200,000 African soldiers from the colonies" who were among "the youth of the whole world who fell 100 years ago in villages whose names they did not know."
I'm sorry, but social media being the only acknowledgement or effort to commemorate black soldiers, and show appreciation publicly, is not good enough for me. As if it isn't woeful that I could not locate this tweet; the one I did find when I Searched for Macron alongside "soldats Africains" which is French for 'African soldiers', was the below tweet, commemorating the purely French veterans for their "fight against the resistance":
A national tribute compared to a statue in a park somewhere in Paris and a tweet which doesn't seem to be up anymore, you can't really compare.
That is the end of this article on the forgotten black army of the great war. I know a lot of this information actually crosses over to the second world war also. The focus of these wars in history has always been that Britain has defended herself and conquered the "evil Germans". Now we know that these wars represent a lot more. Reflecting on this piece, the one thing that has stuck in my mind is how the Europeans used Africans to fight to maintain colonial powers, that is so audacious, cruel and a clear disregard for black life. What stood out for you?
Thank you for reading, hope you enjoyed and learned something new. Don't forget to follow us on
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