Contract workers in World War One
Photograph 'Turning cast-iron shells'View images from this item (1)
France and its colonial workersThe global reach of European nations’ colonial empires ensured that the conflict was a ‘World War’. France was the most aggressive in drawing on the human resources of its huge empire, second in size only to that of Great Britain, to sustain the war effort in Europe. Nearly 200,000 workers recruited throughout France’s colonies staffed wartime industries. More than half of these men (over 130,000) came from the North African possessions of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, another 50,000 from Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), and 5,000 from Madagascar. In addition, many of the 500,000 soldiers France recruited in its colonies to serve on the Western Front had as their primary duties war-related labour. This was especially true of men whom the racial prejudices of the day identified as ‘non-warlike’, such as Indochinese and Madagascans. But even allegedly ‘warlike’ West and North Africans often performed labour such as repairing trenches and roads, manning transport services, or even working in factories or on farms.
Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis in Belgium
Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis fighting for the French army near Furnes, Belgium, 1914.View images from this item (1)
Great BritainOther than France, Great Britain made the most widespread use of its colonial manpower resources during the war, especially outside Europe. Some one million Indians served in the armed forces, but tens of thousands of Indians also served as workers, most of them in East Africa and the Middle East. Some 100,000 Egyptians worked in the latter theatre as well. The Union of South Africa, a British Dominion, deployed over 80,000 black Africans as labourers. Racism made the deployment of these men outside Africa controversial, but eventually 21,000 black South Africans worked in France as part of the South African Native Labour Contingent.
'Are we afraid? No!' A propaganda postcard depicting the British Empire
'Are we afraid? No!' - British propaganda showing the British Bulldog, with five others representing Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand.View images from this item (1)
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Beyond colonial workersNot all contract workers had a ‘colonial’ relationship with their employers. Although not formally colonized by any European nation, China’s relationship with Western nations at this time was largely dependent and in many ways ‘colonial’. France recruited some 37,000 Chinese workers, who served in much the same capacity and in the same circumstances as labour from the French empire. Great Britain also recruited labourers in China, signing up some 100,000 before the war was finished. The US army employed some of these Chinese workers, as well as North Africans, toward the end of the war and immediately following the Armistice.
Contract labour – dangerous and deadlyAny consideration of the role of contract, especially colonial, labour during World War One must take into account the many ways in which racism and colonial policies shaped the experiences of these men. It is also important to remember the risks of their jobs and the dangers they faced. They performed their work in strenuous wartime circumstances, sometimes close enough to the Front to be injured or killed in the fighting. And even the journey from their homes to their new places of work could be dangerous, since the world’s oceans were battlegrounds too. In February 1917, the Germans sank the SS Mendi, killing over 600 black Africans of the South African Native Labour Contingent. And, finally, it is worth recalling that by far the largest number of labourers served with no contract at all. European colonial powers all forcibly employed hundreds of thousands of Africans to serve as carriers of supplies in military campaigns in Africa. Of the one million Africans who served the British in this capacity in East Africa, some 100,000 died from disease, exhaustion, and enemy action.
Ultimately, then, the global story of World War One is not merely one of soldiers and battles, but also of workers and workplaces. We must also remember that like soldiering, working could be, in its own way, dangerous and deadly.
The condition of the Belgian workmen now refugees in England
The condition of the Belgian workmen now refugees in England (detail)View images from this item (6)
Stovall, Tyler, “Love, Labor, and Race: Colonial Men and White Women in France during the Great War,” in Tyler Stovall and Georges Van den Abeele, eds., French Civilization and Its Discontents: Nationalism, Colonialism, Race (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2003), 297-321