Despite the collective efforts of the allied powers in the first world war, there was an often neglected major role played by African Soldiers. In the first world war, more than 1 million African soldiers were recruited some served as laborers and porters.
Alan Wakefield, head of First World War and Early 20th century conflicts at the Imperial War Museums in London stated that “African troops played a vital role fighting for the French on the Western Front in Europe because French troops suffered very heavy casualties early in the war.” Britain is said to have relied heavily on Africans for labor on the western front and during the Egypt and Palestine Campaigns. Their roles included carrying ammunition, digging trenches and setting up camps, it is stated that the African campaigns could not have been as successful without Africans and their contributions.
Although each country had its conscription method, most of the African soldiers were forcibly conscripted. In his book Fighting for Britain David Killingray says more than half a million African troops served with the British forces between 1939-1945 – 289,530 of them with the King’s African Rifles from Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi. He describes it as the largest single movement of African men overseas since the slave trade. The French are documented to have had a permanent army set up in their African colonies they were called the Tirailleurs Senegalais although mostly from Senegal they came from various French colonies.
They served as a surrogate French army this army was set up in as early as 1857. The conscripted people were mainly social outcasts and ex-slaves sold by the local chiefs. The Belgians just rounded up whomever they saw and dropped them off at a local army base; usually after some initial brutality. In the first world war, the African troops serving under the French were approximately 170,891 and about 30 000 were killed. In Senegal alone, more than one-third of men in all military ages were sent to fight.
The African soldiers contributed a great deal to the successes of the allied powers. Where there were failures it is quite unfortunate they paid with their lives, in wars they had no set interest in. Africans were merely victims of being colonized people thus they were exploited both within their countries and also out. Typical racial stereotypes were also present during these campaigns some of the French recruits like those of Tukulor, Wolof, Serer, and Bambara, were described by French General Charles Mangine as to have been naturally warlike unlike the others which led to their conscription into his “force Noire”.
David Olusoga of the Guardian reported that the French were so dedicated to these theories that they convinced themselves that west Africans being supposedly more primitive than Europeans could better withstand the shock of battle and experience physical pain less acutely. This logic justified deploying Africans as shock troops in the first line of battle.
African soldiers despite their impressive although forced contributions in the wars, whenever the guns fell silent they were always the enemies. In Germany, they were accused of violence and rape and were dehumanized in newspapers by the term, “vertierte Neger”-“animal niggers”. It is funny that what enabled the German campaign against the black soldiers of the French army to become a global phenomenon was support and assistance from its former enemies.
The African contribution in the World Wars always faces an insurmountable mountain that the Africans were short-changed after being dragged into a war that had nothing to do with them. They were just thrown in front of the battlefield and made to fight. They might have not been actively fighting for their colonizers but when you are fighting for your life in war it is hard to tell the two apart. Although efforts are being made to recognize the loss in Africa as a result of the war as seen by Prince Harry’s visit to Zambia in 2018 at the celebrations of 100 years since world war 1. More can be done and more needs to be done to acknowledge the lives that were risked and those that died senselessly in battles they had no reason to be a part of.