Map of East Africa showing Lake Tanganyika

The First World War in East Africa

The First World War was fought out in Africa as well as on the battlefields of Europe. Edward Paice explains how European colonialism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries determined African involvement in the war, and with a focus on the East Africa campaign describes how the fighting affected African populations.

In Britain, mention of the First World War usually brings to mind trench warfare in France or Belgium, and the names of battles like Mons, the Somme and Passchendaele. This reflects national experience, but it is selective memory. The participation of African populations in the war is barely a peripheral part of the public consciousness anywhere, even in Africa itself. Given the colossal scale of mobilisation and casualties in the East Africa campaign, and the number of Africans employed in the European war efforts of France and Britain, this oversight is perplexing.

Africa was involved in the war from first to last. The very first shot fired in the conflict by a British soldier was from the rifle of Regimental Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) Regiment. The incident occurred on 7 August 1914, not in France, but as an Anglo-French force invaded the German colony of Togoland, today’s Togo. Four years later, the fighting between German and British troops in East Africa did not formally end until two weeks after the Armistice in Europe. How could this have been so? After all, was the First World War not a ‘white man’s war’ fought on battlefields in Europe?

Photographs taken during the East Africa campaign

Photograph of East African Campaign

These African men, photographed in a camp, served for the British during the East Africa campaign.

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Before the First World War: European colonial expansion in Africa

In the final decades of the 19th century, certain European countries had laid claim to most of Africa during a process of colonial expansion referred to as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The motives of Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany were various, and varied at different times and in different parts of the continent. To some degree, expansion in Africa was an extension of the competition between nations that was playing out ‘at home’ in Europe. Africa seemed to promise untold riches in the form of precious metals and minerals, vast tracts of pristine agricultural land lying unused, and ample space for the settlement of surplus populations from parts of Europe. No one wanted to miss out. In short, Africa mattered a great deal to European imperial powers. Africa was the future, and pursuit of its rewards was driven by opportunism, greed and racial arrogance.

In Darkest Africa by explorer Henry M Stanley

Map taken from Henry Stanley’s In Darkest Africa (1890). A broken red line is drawn around the Congo Free State and marks the boundary of the Free Trade Area. In the late 19th century, the area was privately controlled by Belgium's King Leopold II who brutally exploited the region’s people and resources.

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By the mid-1890s, the prospect of war between European countries in Africa seemed a more likely prospect than a war in Europe. In May 1896, Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for Colonies, warned the House of Commons that such a conflict would be ‘one of the most serious wars that could possibly be waged… It would be a long war, a bitter war and a costly war… it would leave behind it the embers of a strife which I believe generations would hardly be long enough to extinguish’.

Three years after Chamberlain’s warning war did break out in Africa, and although it pitted Britain against the Boer republics of South Africa rather than against a European rival, it was unmistakably imperial in character: the war was for control of South Africa’s vast resources of gold and diamonds. A simultaneous war between Britain and France, over an incursion by the latter into the upper reaches of the Nile, thousands of miles to the north in today’s South Sudan, was only averted by the narrowest of margins. Meanwhile Germany planned to establish naval bases in its African colonies so that the rapidly expanding Kaiserliche Marine could rival the Royal Navy. As for Belgium and Portugal, both were rightly suspicious that Britain, France and Germany meant to dispossess them of their African colonies. As the 20th century began, there was clear and widespread recognition that if rivalry in Africa was not checked it would become a threat to decades of peace in Europe.

Outbreak of the First World War in Africa

In 1914, European rivalries persisted in Africa but a common desire to ‘pacify’ (trample any African resistance) and ‘develop’ (exploit) colonial possessions, rather than fight, had fostered a degree of entente. The British government thought that Germany’s escalating global ambitions could be appeased by handing over certain Belgian and Portuguese possessions in Africa. Even as RSM Alhaji Grunshi fired his famous shot, and Britain moved swiftly after the outbreak of war in Europe to eliminate the threat to its shipping from wireless stations in Germany’s four African colonies, an escalation of hostilities in Africa seemed implausible. For one thing, most thought that the war in Europe would be a short, sharp affair concluded by the end of the year. For another, no African colony had a standing army large enough to fight a war, and although each had an armed police force in order to maintain internal peace, none of these forces included more than a few thousand men.

Letters detailing Nigerian leaders financial contribution to the British war effort

War finances documents from Nigeria

During the First World War, local leaders from colonised regions were expected to divert money intended for public works to invest in security. Within these letters, 36 North Nigerian rulers offer to contribute £42,000 in 1914.

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Togoland fell to the Anglo-French force within two weeks, South African troops secured the surrender of German South-West Africa in mid-1915, and German resistance in Cameroon to British, French and Belgian colonial units finally ended in March 1916. But the impact of the European war on Africa was only just beginning. In West Africa, France was stepping up recruitment of African troops known as tirailleurs sénégalais. By the end of the war, more than 130,000 had been deployed in France’s so-called ‘Force Noire’ in Europe, of whom no fewer than 35,000 were killed. Hundreds of thousands from French West Africa were also co-opted for essential war work in ports, factories and supply lines. Although Britain was unwilling to bring Africans to Europe in a combatant capacity, 20,000 South Africans were shipped over as labourers. Meanwhile, the determined resistance of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the military commander in German East Africa, despite being cut off from supplies from Europe and surrounded by British, Belgian and Portuguese territories, would have devastating consequences.

Bamum script noting the history of the Cameroon campaign

Script telling history of war between Germans and British 1916

This manuscript is a record of the Cameroon campaign, as told by an anonymous scribe from the Kingdom of Bamum.

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Photograph of colonial troops from the French Congo

Photograph from 1917 showing the landing of colonial troops from the Congo.

Photograph showing African men in the so-called ‘Force Noire’ landing in the harbour of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.

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What was the East Africa campaign?

Between 1916 and 1918, the East Africa campaign engulfed 750,000 square miles, an area three times the size of Imperial Germany. More than 125,000 troops from the British Empire and South Africa were deployed to try and bring to heel a German colonial force whose maximum strength did not exceed 25,000 men. Belgium and Portugal contributed a further 40,000 troops to the Allied war effort: Portuguese troops attempted unsuccessfully to block the enemy’s path into today’s Mozambique while the military Force Publique initially opposed incursions into the Belgian Congo, today’s Democratic Republic of Congo, and then sent a detachment to assist the British in pursuit of German detachments.

War maps showing Africa, Asia and Europe

Stanfords war maps showing German East Afric

Neighbouring the area of German East Africa was Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), and Belgian, Portuguese and British colonies.

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The huge area over which fighting occurred and the relatively small number of troops involved determined the type of warfare. The East Africa campaign was as mobile as the war in Europe was static, and it involved, in the words of one combatant, ‘having to fight Nature in a mood that very few have experienced’. Wild animals, although ubiquitous, were the least of the problem: torrential rains, scorching sun and ever-present disease, combined with a permanent shortage of rations, made for conditions of almost unimaginable hardship. Despite this, extraordinary feats of endurance were common on both sides. In 1918, a column of the King’s African Rifles (a regiment composed of locally-recruited African rank-and-file soldiers, led by white British officers) marched 1600 miles through Portuguese East Africa in just four months, crossing 29 large rivers and fighting no fewer than 32 engagements. ‘What wouldn’t one give for the food alone in France, for the clothing and equipment. For the climate, wet or fine,’ one officer with the 40th Pathans, who had fought on the Western Front earlier in the war, wrote in a letter home.

Photographs taken during the East Africa campaign

Photograph of East African Campaign

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Casualties and conditions in the East Africa campaign

There were no set-piece battles on the scale witnessed in Europe, but plenty that matched the ferocity. At the four-day battle of Mahiwa-Nyangao in October 1917, casualties among a 5,000-strong British detachment – which included three battalions from the Nigeria Brigade, three from the King’s African Rifles, and the Bharatpur Infantry and 30th Punjabis from India – were estimated at between one third and a half. But disease was much the biggest killer throughout the war, especially among the hundreds of thousands of men employed or conscripted to perform carrier duty on supply lines because motor vehicles could not manage the terrain and pack animals could not withstand tsetse fly.

Photographs taken during the East Africa campaign

Photograph of East African Campaign

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The official death toll in East Africa of British troops and military carriers exceeded 105,000. More than 45,000 men from British East Africa (today’s Kenya) lost their lives – about one in eight of the country’s adult male population. The true figure is undoubtedly much higher: it was recognised after the war that ‘the full tale of mortality among native carriers will never be told’. Even 105,000 deaths is a sobering figure, equalling the number of British soldiers killed in the carnage of the Somme between July and November 1916. It is more than 50% higher than the number of Australian or Canadian or Indian troops who gave their lives in the First World War, and whose sacrifice is much more widely recognised. Indeed the death toll alone in East Africa is comparable to the combined casualties – the dead and wounded – sustained by Indian troops in the war.

On the German side, no fewer than 350,000 African men, women and children were pressed into unpaid carrier service. Official records have not survived, but it is inconceivable that the death rate among these carriers was lower than one in seven. In German East Africa, newly harvested crops were routinely requisitioned by German colonial troops without payment, causing famine. In one district affected in this way, a fifth of the population died in 1916. An estimated 300,000 civilians perished in German East Africa as a direct consequence of the war, excluding the casualties among carriers. Throughout Africa, civilians bore the greatest brunt of the First World War. Both sides dislocated communities and caused famines, by uprooting thousands of men into service and by seizing or destroying civilian property, land and food before the enemy could.

Resistance and rebellion

The damaging impact of the war – conscription, forced labour, high prices, tax increases and the commandeering of food, among many grievances – exacerbated existing tensions between local populations and colonial authorities throughout Africa. Acts of opposition, resistance and rebellion were frequent, as they had been before 1914 and would continue to be after the war. There were numerous strikes, particularly by workers in ports. In east Africa, the Giriama rose up in revolt on the first day of the war. From today’s Libya, 5,000 Sanusi men advanced into British-controlled Egypt in early 1916. More lethally, the challenge in 1915–16 to French rule in the Volta-Bani region (today’s Burkina Faso) by an army numbering 15–20,000 at its peak, and drawn from a population of about a million, was by some margin the largest and most serious uprising. In southern Africa, in today’s Malawi, antagonism manifested itself in a rebellion by followers of Baptist pastor John Chilembwe that seriously unnerved the colonial authorities.

Impact of post-war settlements

The longer the war dragged on, the more important the fighting in Africa became to the belligerents. Germany declared the creation of Mittelafrika – a vast ‘second Fatherland’ in Africa – to be one of its fundamental war aims. France eyed the possibility of further extending its colonial possessions in West Africa. Britain knew that victory would secure an uninterrupted swathe of British territory all the way from Cape Town to Cairo. Belgium and Portugal grew ever more determined not to be robbed of any territory in a post-war settlement.

War maps showing Africa, Asia and Europe

Stanfords war maps showing German East Afric

With thick red lines, this map illustrates whole swathes of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires absorbed into ‘Mittel-Europa’, while central Africa – areas colonised by Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium, as well as the small independent states – has been occupied as a ‘Mittel-Afrika’ zone.

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‘Colonial questions’ featured prominently in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, but the agenda was the division of spoils rather than the welfare or wishes of Africans. No African leaders were invited to represent the interests of their people at the conference. Instead, the views of some of them were collected and condensed by missionaries, who had their own expansionist agenda.

The South African National Native Congress and other similar organisations expressed great disappointment that loyalty and war service was not rewarded with political, labour and other rights. It would take another world war for African nationalism and agitation for self-rule to become widespread and ultimately irresistible. In the meantime, German colonies were transferred to the victors at Versailles, with Britain and South Africa the main beneficiaries in eastern and southern Africa, and France in West Africa. The First World War represented a devastating new chapter in the ‘Scramble for Africa’, while exposing the so-called and self-declared ‘civilising mission’ of the European powers in Africa as a sham.

Letter to King Njoya of Bamum, from Captain J W H D Tyndall (30 January 1916)

Letter from engineer in West African Frontier Force to King Njoya

This letter highlights the continuation of a colonial presence in Cameroon, with the author wishing the King of Bamum ‘a long life to enjoy the benefits and security of British rule in this country’.

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Usage terms Access is for research purposes only. Captain J W H D Tyndall: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for J W H DTyndall . Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item.

To call the East Africa campaign a ‘sideshow’ to the war in Europe may be correct, in the sense that the outcome was of the First World War was decided in Europe, but it is demeaning. The scale and impact of the campaign were gargantuan. The troops, military carriers and millions of civilians caught up in the fighting should not be forgotten; nor should the shorter, less destructive campaigns in the German colonies of Togoland, South West Africa and Cameroon. Furthermore, there were many people at the time who, like the British explorer and colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston, believed that ‘the Great War was more occasioned by conflicting colonial ambitions in Africa’ than by German and Austro-Hungarian schemes in the Balkans.

  • Edward Paice
  • Edward Paice is a historian whose published works include Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of 'Cape-to-Cairo' Grogan, Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and Tip & Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa. He is a former Visiting Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and has been Director of Africa Research Institute, an independent think-tank, since 2010.

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