Race, racism and military strategy

Associate Professor Richard Fogarty looks at how World War One was influenced by different races fighting together in a global war.
Race and racism were important aspects of World War One for two reasons. First, ideas about race had developed over the course of the 19th century to make the concept one of the most prominent preoccupations of modern Europeans. Second, several of the major belligerents at war between 1914 and 1918 possessed large colonial empires, where white Europeans ruled over Africans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders. These two factors came together because a large part of the justification for the possession of colonial territories was the supposed right of superior whites to rule over allegedly inferior non-whites. This in turn led several European combatant nations to make use of their colonial resources, both materials and men, to wage war. Thus, while purely military and political considerations often shaped strategy during the war, ideologies of race and racism also played a role, helping in particular to make the war a genuinely global one.

Race and nationalism

By the early 20th century, thinking about race was moving toward a more biological understanding of human difference and its significance, with an emphasis on physical features such as colour. But earlier conceptions of racial difference had not disappeared completely, and it was common during World War One for Europeans to speak of national or ethnic differences in terms of race. For instance, many believed that the war pitted the English and French ‘races’ against the Germanic, or Teutonic, ‘race’. Another area where this kind of national or ethnic understanding of race played a role was in the Balkans, where the war began. Despite numerous similarities and centuries of mixing that created many commonalities among the peoples of the region, ethnic differences loomed large in the self-understandings of many. Ethnic tension and nationalist aspirations helped ignite the war in 1914, when Serbian nationalists assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and these same factors were paramount in American President Woodrow Wilson’s calls for national self-determination during the war and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Race and colonialism

European colonial possessions, particularly in Africa and Asia, played the most important role in injecting race and racism into World War One strategy. The race factor was most visible in the use of millions of colonial subjects as workers and soldiers. Many Africans and Asians laboured and fought in their home territories, as they had done before the war. But hundreds of thousands travelled to new lands to contribute to the war efforts of their colonial masters. Some even travelled to Europe itself.   

France was the colonial power most enthusiastic about deploying its colonial populations, especially in Europe. Some 200,000 came to France to work in war industries, but even more, some 500,000, wore the uniform of the French army and manned the trenches of the Western Front. Even before the war, military officers like Charles Mangin (an important general during the war) advocated recruiting from the vast ‘reservoirs of men’ in Africa to strengthen the French army in the face of a larger and more populous Germany. When the war began in 1914, soldiers from North and West Africa began arriving in France and played an active role in the fighting. Eventually, soldiers from Indochina and Madagascar also served in France. These men were often very popular among the French people, although many in France regarded non-Europeans through a haze of racial stereotypes. For instance, black West Africans were popular and celebrated for their courage and loyalty, but also denigrated for their primitive savagery and mental inferiority.

Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis in Belgium

Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis fighting for the French army near Furnes, Belgium, 1914.

Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis fighting for the French army near Furnes, Belgium, 1914.

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The British army also deployed colonial soldiers. A force of nearly 140,000 Indians served on the Western Front in 1914, but they departed from the Front, and from Europe altogether, in 1915. British authorities were concerned about the effect of pitting non-whites against white Europeans in battle. Indians with such experience might be more difficult to rule after the war. So, in the end, the bulk of Indian soldiers who fought in World War One, some one million in all, fought in the Middle East against the Germans’ ally, the Ottoman Empire. West Indians also fought in the British army, in France and other theatres. Racial politics precluded arming South African blacks for combat in Europe, though more than 20,000 came to France as labourers. As was the case with France’s use of troops from its colonies, the participation of these men in the British war effort was visible to the public, reinforcing racial stereotypes in some cases, but also enhancing the awareness of the conflict as a world war.
Other combatant nations with extensive colonial possessions, such as Belgium and Portugal, did not make use of their colonial subjects in Europe, but they joined Great Britain and France in deploying indigenous people as both soldiers and workers within the colonies. Hundreds of thousands participated as porters carrying supplies and soldiers fighting to gain control over German colonies in Africa. The Germans did the same with their African subjects, though the Kaiser’s government complained loudly and publicly about the Allies’ introduction of ‘uncivilized’ warfare and racially inferior warriors into the conflict at home in Europe.

Race, religion, and global strategy

The most obvious case of colonial considerations helping to shape strategy in the war was the attempt of Germany to exploit the Muslim religious faith of some of its enemies’ colonial populations. This attempt took many forms, but one particularly active site of German activity was in prisoner of war camps. The German army made much of the ‘exotic’ soldiers it captured from among enemy troops, often subjecting Africans and Asians to anthropological study in the camps and using images of the prisoners in propaganda. The Germans also gathered together in one special camp, near Berlin, all the Muslim prisoners of war captured from the Russian, French, and British armies. This ‘Halfmoon Camp’, named for the Muslim symbol of the crescent moon, was the site of an aggressive propaganda campaign to convince these men to switch sides and fight against their colonial masters. After all, Germany was allied with the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the Sultan in Constantinople had declared jihad, calling all the faithful to fight the Ottomans’ enemies. These efforts mostly failed, as did other German attempts to encourage the Muslim populations of the Russian Caucasus, British India, and French North Africa to rise up en masse in the name of Islam. But the effort was a serious one, and demonstrated the important role non-European peoples and lands played in geostrategy during the conflict.

Conclusion

Race and racism helped shape both the approaches of combatant nations to waging World War One, and the experience of the war for millions of people among the European public and in European colonies in Africa and Asia. From the colour of their skins, to the content of their religious beliefs, colonized peoples’ attributes were of major concern to those making decisions about how and where to wage war. In fact, the very racial and cultural differences of non-European peoples gave European colonial powers a sense of entitlement to rule their colonial possessions in the first place. Then, during the war, these differences justified making use of Africans and Asians as workers, soldiers, and objects of European strategy.
  • Richard Fogarty
  • Richard S Fogarty is Associate Professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where he specialises in the history of modern France and Europe, the Great War, French colonialism, and race and racism. He is the author of Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918, and co-editor of Empires in World War I: Shifting Frontiers and Imperial Dynamics in a Global Conflict. He is now working on a study of North African prisoners of war during the Great War, with special attention to the place of Islam and Muslims in the wider military and ideological struggle between France and Germany.