The Great War, From Beginning to End: The Forgotten Stories of WWI and Africa

Exactly one hundred years ago today was the first day in years that citizens across the globe awoke to a world no longer at war.   The war to end all wars officially ended with German surrender and the armistice that went into effect 11/11 at 11am, a date commemorated as Armistice Day or Veterans’ Day ever since. The Great War was in fact a world war, but the role that Africa and millions of Africans played in the conflict have largely been forgotten or ignored in the West.  One hundred years ago today, far away from the main fronts of the conflict, World War I continued, unofficially, in Africa, and its ramifications were felt on the continent for years after the last shot was fired.

Some scholars, such as writer Simon Collins, argue that WWI both began and ended in Africa. On August 4, 1914, Alhaji Grunshi, an African soldier operating in the British colony Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) under British command, participated in a British invasion of the neighboring German Togoland colony and fired the first shot of any British soldiers during the war.

Throughout the war, conflicts raged across Africa, which had decades earlier been divided between the major European powers.  Although Germany was a latecomer to colonialism (as the country itself was only unified in 1871, centuries after older European powers had established their presence in Africa and other regions of the world), Germany had managed to carve out several African territories: German West Africa (mainly present-day Cameroon and Togo), German South West Africa (present-day Namibia) and German East Africa (present-day Burundi, Rwanda, and mainland Tanzania).

These colonies became targets of allied forces (who occupied surrounding British, French and Portuguese colonies), and German soldiers in turn invaded neighboring territories. A separate theatre of the war developed in North Africa, as the Ottoman Empire challenged British, French and Italian rule and inspired uprisings, often in the name of Islam and encouraged by the Ottomans’ German allies.

These African campaigns led to hundreds of thousands of battle deaths, mostly Africans forced by their colonial rulers to serve as soldiers (approximately 200,000 African troops fought for France alone) or, more often, as porters (a job that forcibly employed many women and children as well as men). The casualties that occurred among local civilian populations as a result of the fighting put the Africa death toll of WWI well over 1 million.

Even after the armistice of November 11, 1918, the war continued in Africa.  The last German forces in East Africa, for example, had continued to take territory within the British colony of Zambia, initially unaware that the war had been ended in Europe; these forces surrendered in Zambia on November 25. (The commander of these German troops, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, has become somewhat of a folk hero due to his undefeated record on the battlefield, relatively good treatment of black soldiers under his command and, later, his opposition to Nazism and vulgar rejection of Hitler.)

Beyond the death and destruction brought by combat, war-related disasters and forced labor, WWI brought many major changes to Africa. Germany lost its colonies to Britain, France and Belgium.  Many African soldiers returned to their home countries and regions and became agents of change: traders, entrepreneurs, Christian evangelists, labor unionists, and so on.  These African veterans also returned with newfound ideas of nationalism and self-determination, layin the seeds for eventual independence (although it would take another World War to fatally weaken the European empires that held power in Africa).  In recent years, some efforts have been made to recognize the sacrifices made by African troops and other personnel in the Great War, but exactly one century after the conflict ended (except in Africa), the stories of Africa and World War I are in danger of fading from our collective memory.

138 thoughts on “The Great War, From Beginning to End: The Forgotten Stories of WWI and Africa”

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