It is now 100 years since the Armistice that marked the end of the World War 1, but not much has been said about the role of Africa in the devastating war. Africa's part towards World War 1 seems to have been forgotten, but the story of how almost 2 million Africans were sucked into the war as soldiers, workers and personnel both in Europe and Africa needs to be told.
In the wake of intense battles for colonial territories, African lands were turned into battlefields for European conquests. Thousands of Africans were deployed in both continents to fight the war of the Europeans. "All colonial powers promoted the idea of a 'European civilizing mission'—that is, bringing the rule of law, order, stability, and peace to Africa," writes Daniel Steinbach for the British Council. "Yet, in August 1914, they showed little hesitation before turning … Africa into a theatre of war."
Colonial battles over the colonies were settled on the African continent, and from Algeria to South Africa, Africans served in these wars as soldiers, workers and porters. These were matters unbeknownst to Africans, but ones they were forced to partake in. The ramifications were at an unprecedented scale. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, borders were redefined, economies transformed and people displaced.
The war in Africa took place over long stretches of land, a scenario different from Europe where trench warfare took centre stage. The poor development of African infrastructure - roads, railway lines - combined with the deadly effect of the Tsetse fly for the European horses saw the need for African porters. They were four to every soldier, and they carried supplies and machinery parts. An estimated 300,000 porters died along the way, according to historian Kathleen Bomani.
Some of the fighters fought willingly, but others resisted deployment, and such acts were met with crude brutality and harsh treatment. After the war, what the Africans had done to the war was completely discarded away. Africans were denied their request to be represented at the Treaty of Versailles. Germany’s African colonies were divided up between European powers, making Britain and France dominating forces on the continent.
As the world leaders are commemorating the Centenary of the Armistice that led to the end of the war, the African narrative is wiped from history and not talked about. The role of the Africans was just rewarded with more colonization.
Header Image: Quartz Africa