Race, empire and colonial troops

When the great powers went to war in 1914, they didn’t start a European war, but a world war. At the start of World War One, 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 for both human and material sources. Even by conservative estimates, well over 4 million non-white men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the War, in both combat and non-combat roles. This section gives a small glimpse into their experiences.

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

Experiences of colonial troops

Article by:
Santanu Das

Dr Santanu Das gives an overview of the numbers and roles of colonial troops in World War One. Where did colonial troops serve and how was 'race' used as a factor in military policy?

Read more
Men from Congo (detail)

Race, racism and military strategy

Article by:
Richard Fogarty

Associate Professor Richard Fogarty looks at how World War One was influenced by different races fighting together in a global war.

Read more
An Indian Cavalry horse hospital in a French factory [Estrée Blanche] (detail)

The Indian sepoy in the First World War

Article by:
Santanu Das

Dr Santanu Das reveals the role of the Indian sepoy in World War One and explores the fragments of historical sources that shed light on the experiences of the one million Indians who served.

Read more
Photograph, June 1915, showing men from the 26th Battalion and Ammunition Column leaving for overseas service.

Fighting for the Empire: Canada’s Great War in photographs

Article by:
Philip Hatfield

Curator Dr Philip Hatfield draws on photographs taken in Canada during World War One, including scenes of enlistment and arms manufacturing, to consider the range of contributions made by Canadian citizens.

Read more
Turning cast-iron shells (detail)

Contract workers in World War One

Article by:
Richard Fogarty

Associate Professor Richard Fogarty considers the role of migrating contract workers, especially in France and Great Britain, whose work away from the battlefields helped the war effort.

Read more
The Dome Hospital  (detail)

Wounding in World War One

Article by:
Julie Anderson

World War One created thousands of casualties from physical wounds, illness, and emotional trauma. Dr Julie Anderson reflects on the subsequent impact on the role of doctors and nurses, and the medical treatment, organisation and new technologies that they employed.

Read more
The Great Patriotic War of 1914

Combat and the soldier's experience in World War One

Article by:
Vanda Wilcox

In a war that saw new weaponry technology and great numbers of casualties, Assistant Professor Vanda Wilcox considers the common experiences of soldiers in active combat.

Read more
Alpine barber in the trenches of Cerna (detail)

The daily life of soldiers

Article by:
Paul Cornish

With focus on the routines of work, rest and recreation, Senior Curator Paul Cornish describes the typical daily life experienced by soldiers in World War One.

Read more

Further Themes

Origins, outbreak and conclusions

How did World War One begin? Why did it escalate and what was the impact of both war and peace on the countries involved?

The war machine

How were the 65 million men who fought in WWI recruited, armed and organised?

Life as a soldier

What was life like for the millions of professional, conscripted or recruited soldiers?

Civilians

What was life like for civilians, women, children and those displaced by the fighting?

Propaganda

How was propaganda used to inspire patriotism, dehumanise the enemy and change opinions?

Representation and memory

In addition to poetry, what were the other creative responses to the War? How have these affected our memory and understanding?

Historical debates

How have the views of historians and our understanding of World War One changed over time?