An Imperial War in Africa, 1914-1918

Sunday, 11 November 2018
Nicholas Westcott

On 11 November this year, we celebrate the Centenary of the end of the First World War. It is essential in these commemorations that we remember the impact the war had on Africa and Africans, and the impact they had on the war. This story reveals much about the state of Africa and the nature of Imperialism at the time.

This was a war which Africans had no hand, act nor part in starting, but in which their continent became a playground - albeit a lethal one - for quarrels between distant countries of which they knew little and cared less. The global nature of the European imperial enterprise was brought home brutally to Africans who, as subjects of the rival imperial powers, were mobilised and set to work or to war in support of the imperial metropolis.

For many, particularly in French African colonies, this meant being trained and transported to fight for the ‘Motherland’ in the trenches on the Western Front. They fought valiantly and loyally for their imperial overlord, and in many cases were recognised - for a short time at least - as the equal of any fighting unit of Europeans. Around 135,000 African troops, mainly known as the tirailleurs Sénégalais, served in the French Army in France during the war, plus another 65,000 who remained in Africa.

But the war itself took root in Africa as well. Following the Congress of Berlin in 1884, Germany had established itself in Namibia, Togo, Cameroon and German East Africa. Joint action by the British and French colonial troops drove them out of the first three relatively swiftly. By the end of 1915, they were firmly under the control of Germany’s rivals. For the African forces of the British West African Frontier Force, this was the first action they had seen, and they impressed their (all white) officers .

But the war in East Africa was a different thing altogether. It has captured the imagination of those who have written about it, whether historians such as Edward Paice in Tip and Run: the Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa (2007), or novelists like William Boyd in An Ice Cream War (1982), for a number of reasons. The scale of the war effort there was immense: 750,000 combattants and civilian support - mainly porters in the Carrier Corps - were involved on the two sides. On the allied side, the official death toll was counted at 105,000, but the real toll may be more than double that number.

Secondly, though vastly outnumbered by the British forces of the King’s African Rifles and contingents from the WAFF brought in from 2016, the small German force of Askaris with a very few German commanders led the British a merry dance through the bush in the Battle of the Bundu (to use the title of Charles Miller’s 1972 book), back and forth across the country now known as Tanzania. Little now remains of the skirmishes and pitched battles that lasted throughout the four years of war - from the disastrous failure of the British assault on Tanga in 1914 to the final battle of Lioma in August 1918 - except the legend of the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s genius and the memory of the appalling scale of the casualties. 

But should you visit Dar es Salaam, you will find that the main market is still called Kariakoo - pronounced “Carrier Corps” and named after the place where the the British military encamped outside the town .

At last, however, the traumatic African experience of the war is being recognised in art, as well as in official form. Earlier this year, the South African artist Sidney Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’ was performed at the Tate Modern to rave reviews (from the few able to see it). It is fortunately still not too late to see the multi-media installation by British-Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah - Mimesis: African Soldier - at the Imperial War Museum in London (until March next year) which again highlights the experience of Africans caught up in this war of imperial imposition.

So finally we recognise that, though the war was not theirs, they too shall not grow old; and they too shall not be forgotten. 

Nicholas Westcott is the director of RAS.