One Indian soldier in a cold trench in France replied bitterly to a letter that advised him to be prepared to die for the Empire.
“No one stands up to fight us,” he wrote. “Everyone sits in a burrow underground. They fight in the sky, on the sea in battleships, under the earth in mines.
“My friend, a man who fights upon the ground can hardly escape. You tell me to fight face to the foe. Die we must—but alas, not facing the foe!”
This year’s commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War have underplayed the role played of colonial troops. Indian, Chinese and African soldiers participated in the colonial empires and in the battlefields of Europe.
This was a world war, not between individual nations but of global empires and their peoples in a struggle for territorial and economic domination.
The first shot of the war was fired not in Europe, but in Togoland in August 1914 by an African soldier. He was fighting for the British against Africans who were fighting for the Germans.
In Europe, Indian troops were rushed to the Western Front in September 1914 to support the British Expeditionary Force.
One wounded Indian soldier wrote home, “This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata (the ancient Indian epic) about our forefathers.”
The Indian Army—a force for colonial control—was the largest in the empire at the outbreak of war. Indians were the only non-white colonial troops to be allowed into combat by the British in Europe.
Historian Santanu Das argued, “If a ‘coloured’ man was trained to raise arms against another European, what guarantee was there, so the thinking went, that he would not one day attack his own white master?”
The scale of black colonial involvement is often overlooked in histories of the war. Over 1.5 million Indians served as combatants and non-combatants—more than the contributions from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa combined.
The British and French empires brought half a million people to Europe as a vital part of the civilian war effort. As many as 650,000 black colonial soldiers served in Europe. If the black US soldiers who joined the war in 1917 are included, the figure for black combatants and non-combatants on the Allied side rises to four million.
The colonial enterprise was underpinned by racist attitudes. These promoted the idea that blacks were “uncivilised” and therefore could only thrive under the control of white settlers.
The North China Herald, aimed at English colonialists, said of Chinese recruits, “Whatever their age may be they are none of them older than ten years in character…very amenable, easily managed with kindness and firmness and loyal to the core…a dog is the same.”
The radical black US historian WEB Du Bois saw the war as an attempt to gain control of Africa’s vast resources.
Neither the French nor the British intended to use black troops in the war. But the vast distances between the different theatres, the industrial-scale slaughter on the Western Front and the need for labour to out-produce and out-manufacture the other side meant the empires turned to their colonies for manpower in what was supposed to be a “white man’s war”.
This led to shortages, hardship and, in response, strikes and rebellions.
Colonial volunteers hoped to gain respect and an improved role in their home societies. Many were shocked to see Europeans fighting each other. They also saw that the military planners had not become enlightened on issues of race.
Wounded Indian soldiers were treated at the Pavilion and Dome Hospital in Brighton. Barbed wire surrounded the grounds so that they couldn’t go into the town.
They were only allowed outside of the hospital under strict observation and for propaganda purposes. Military and colonial officials were terrified at the prospect of Indian soldiers associating with white women.
Records show they were terrified of race mixing and the deterioration of the “white racial stock”.
The same restrictions on movement were applied to the “natives” of the South African Native Labour Corps when they were stationed in Britain.
Officers made it clear that any association of black soldiers with white soldiers or women would be to the detriment of white racial rule in South Africa.
Many inhabitants of the Caribbean islands were desperate to prove their loyalty to the British Empire. Their patriotism was tested when, at first, military officials said that their service was not required and then, later, when a British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was finally sanctioned.
Despite their training they were only employed as labourers digging trenches and lines of communication, and as ammunition carriers.
A small detachment was allowed to fight against the Turks in Mesopotamia. At the end of the war, the regiment mutinied against the humiliating and demeaning duties they were asked to perform, and their racist treatment at the hands of white officers. A BWIR sergeant wrote that black soldiers were “treated neither as Christians nor British citizens, but as West Indian ‘Niggers’.”
In Africa, black African soldiers from British colonies were involved in the major campaigns there from 1914-18.
The troops they fought were other Africans under the command of a handful of white German officers.
One such “German soldier” who was captured by the British recalled how the British then demanded that the prisoners join their forces.
“We did not want to enlist for them but the colonel forced us to enlist,” he said. “We asked them how much they would pay us if we enlisted. They said one pound, one shilling and four pence. We told them that we would not accept that.
“We told them that when we were on the German side we used to receive three pounds and ten shillings…When they saw we were not willing to give way they decided not to give us food…As a result we ended up by enlisting.”
Casualty figures show that 11,000 black Africans died in the fighting. But this does not include the figures for African carriers and porters, needed to carry equipment and supplies through the bush.
Historians suggest that as many as 250,000 Africans died in the conflict with a further two million deaths due to the influenza pandemic introduced by returning soldiers and labourers.
French politicians were open that African soldiers had been used as “cannon fodder”. Prime minster Georges Clemenceau said in a speech in February 1918, “I would prefer ten blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman—although I immensely respect those brave blacks.”
Many black participants volunteered to help the Empire. But they didn’t get any gratitude or see an improvement in their position. So involvement in the war led to a rise in nationalism, the growth of trade union militancy and socialist ideas.
In the Caribbean, veterans formed the Caribbean League and called for independence from Britain. Demobbed soldiers were involved in violent confrontations with the colonial authorities there on their return. In West Africa there were riots in Sierra Leone caused by food shortages.
In Britain West African seamen who joined the merchant navy to cover the shortages of manpower caused by war services found themselves the target of racial violence in the port cities of Britain in 1919.
Rather than defend the black colonial seamen, the government to deported as many black Africans as it could despite loyal service in the war. This decision made many formerly loyal inhabitants of the colonies determined not to resume the colonial status quo and fight for a better future.
The experience of the war had taught African and Caribbean peoples a number of things. Not all white people were racist—friendly relations between the troops and the ordinary populations in Britain and France had shown that there was an alternative to their inferior position in colonial society.
A final insult was the deliberate decision not to invite African and Caribbean troops to march in the victory parade in London in July 1919. All the Allies, apart from Bolshevik Russia, were invited alongside British, Dominion and Indian troops.
Victor Allen of Lagos wrote of the exclusion of West Africans from the 1919 victory celebration. He said, “They were fit to assist in breaking the aggression of Germany but they were not fit to be in the victory march…We live and learn.”
African, Caribbean and Asian peoples had learned, crucially, that without resistance, rebellion and organisation their position would not improve. And the horrors of war were likely to be repeated by their rulers, who had proved that they were not so “civilised” after all.
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