Experiences of colonial troops
The 1st battalion of the 4th Ghurkha Rifles lined up for kit inspection, in Flanders, Belgium, 1915.Open Government Licence
A 'world' war
In 1906, in a fictional narrative, the German writer F.H. Grautoff warned that ‘a war in Europe… must necessarily set the whole world ablaze’. This was no Eurocentric boast. In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires. They would draw on them extensively during the war for both human and material resources.
'Are we afraid? No!' - British propaganda showing the British Bulldog, with five others representing Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand.
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Indian troops at a signal station, 1915.
Fighting Australia, a souvenir record about the contribution of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) to the conflict, published 1917.Free from known copyright restrictions
In addition to the 90,000 troupes indigènes already under arms when the war started, France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans. Most of these French colonial troops served in Europe. However, the majority of the Africans served as labourers or carriers in Africa. In total, as Hew Strachan has noted, over 2 million Africans were involved in the conflict as soldiers or labourers; 10 percent of them died, and among the labourers serving in Africa, the death rates may have been as high as 20 percent. Additionally, nearly 140,000 Chinese contract labourers were hired by the British and French governments, forming a substantial part of the immigrant labour force working in France during the war.
With the entry of the United States into the war, nearly 400,000 African-American troops were inducted into the US forces, of whom 200,000 served in Europe.
Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis fighting for the French army near Furnes, Belgium, 1914.Free from known copyright restrictions
Race and military policyAccording to one native South African labourer, the most remarkable part of his war experience was ‘to see the different kinds of human races from all parts of the world’. This racial diversity on European soil was largely the result of French and British decisions to employ colonial non-white troops against Germany on the Western Front. Yet this decision was not straight forward in societies embedded with colour prejudices and doctrines of racial hierarchy - colour largely determined the life of the combatant and non-combatant in Europe. While France, with its assimilationist model, deployed these troops in Europe, a similar decision for Great Britain caused more soul-searching. The Times History of the World revealed contemporary thinking on the issue when in 1914 it wrote, ‘The instinct which made us such sticklers for propriety in all our dealings made us more reluctant than other nations would feel to employ coloured troops against a white enemy.’
The British had regularly used colonial troops for imperial defence, but not in Europe or against other white races. Indian troops were not allowed to fight in the Boer War in South Africa (1899 – 1902). If a ‘coloured’ man were trained to raise arms against another European, what guarantee was there, so the racial thinking went, that he would not one day attack his own white master? However, after heavy casualties were suffered by the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, two Indian divisions were diverted to France. Among the colonial non-white troops of the British empire, only Indians were allowed to fight in Europe. This was predominantly due to racial categorisation in British military policy.
German publication, Our Enemies. Striking heads in the Prisoner of War camps in Germany, 1916.Free from known copyright restrictions
Bal Bahadur of the 59th Sinde Rifles, promoted for gallantry at Neuve Chapelle for carrying out a rescue mission, 1915.Open Government Licence
While in popular memory, the perception of the First World War remains narrowly confined to the Western Front, First World War fighting took place in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, with brief excursions into Central Asia and the Far East. The litany of the names of different theatres of battle often becomes the marker for the ‘world’ nature of the First World War. The colonial homefront – the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children in villages across Asia and Africa who lost their husbands, brothers or fathers, and faced different kinds of hardships – remains one of the most silent and under-researched areas in First World War history. Part of the problem is one of sources: many of these people were non-literate and have not left us with the diaries and memoirs that we have in Europe. However, the global reverberations of this ‘world war’ become apparent when we consider the experiences of people, both men and women, combatants and non-combatants, from around the world who fought or laboured or whose lives were changed forever because of the war.
Adapted from the ‘Introduction’ to Race, Empire and First World War Writing edited by Santanu Das (Cambridge, 2011).