Remembering the sacrifice of African Soldiers in World War 1
Two million Africans were killed when the continent was drawn into the conflagration of World War I. The war and its aftermath wrought seismic changes in Africa that remain at the root of conflicts in many countries.
London, November 13, 2018 (AltAfrica)-Some 70 world leaders gathered under rainy skies at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Sunday for a solemn ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One.
German chancellor Angela Merkel, US president Donald Trump, Russian president Vladimir Putin and dozens of monarchs, presidents and prime ministers from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and beyond joined French president Emmanuel Macron to mark the moment guns fell silent across Europe a century ago.
The commemoration is the centrepiece of global tributes to honour the about 10 million soldiers including Africans who were killed during the 1914-18 war and the moment the Armistice, signed in northeastern France, came into effect at 11am on November 11 1918.
Like their counterparts in every part of the globe, African soldiers paid ultimate sacrifice in the war.
How Africa was dragged into the war
With World War I raging in Europe, African soldiers were forced to fight for their colonial masters between 1914 and 1918. France recruited more Africans than any other colonial power, sending 450,000 troops from West and North Africa to fight against the Germans on the front lines.
As part of its events to mark the centenary of WWI, the presidents of France and Mali inaugurated a new monument in the city of Reims, northeast of Paris, to the so-called “Black Army” — West African soldiers from France’s former colonies.
200,000 African soldiers fell
During the war, around 30,000 Africans died fighting on the side of France alone. As France and Mali remembered those African troops on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute on Twitter to the “200,000 African soldiers from the colonies” who were among “the youth of the whole world who fell 100 years ago in villages whose names they did not know.”
Clemence Kouame, an African student at the ceremony, told DW that “it hurts” to think about Africa’s involvement in the war.
“People from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali died for France. It’s true that France colonised them, but it wasn’t their choice. You could almost say they died for nothing, at least not for their countries,” she said.
The original monument to the “Black Army,” set up in Reims in the 1920s, was removed by the Nazis during World War II and never resurfaced.
During the war, African troops were also deployed in Africa itself. A Senegalese infantry helped France seize the German colony of Togo, and the British also fought alongside African troops against the Germans until 1918. Africans served as scouts, porters and cooks.
Germany also exploited Africa, forcing thousands of Africans into military service in Tanzania — the former German East Africa. That meant labour shortages in the fields, which led to widespread starvation. The economy ultimately collapsed and around 1 million people died in East Africa as a result.
WWI would ultimately redraw Africa’s borders. Germany’s defeat meant the loss of its colonies, with German East Africa, German Cameroon, Togo and German South West Africa all taken over by the victors.
In Cameroon, the former colony was divided between Britain and France, with the French getting more than four-fifths of the land. After the end of colonial rule in 1960, the divided country was reunified, but by no means peacefully. The country’s English-speaking minority, which felt abandoned by the central government, is still fighting for its own homeland today.
A second war before decolonisation
Namibia, once German South West Africa, was not divided but placed under the control of the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. An independent country was supposed to emerge with the help of South Africa.
But the South African government had other ideas and seized control just two years after the end of the war. South Africa imposed its apartheid regime and oppressed the black population until Namibia’s independence in 1990.
WWI resulted in seismic changes that are still at the root of conflicts in many African countries today. For many Africans, the end of WWI did not bring hope for liberation. Decades would pass and another world war would be fought before the decolonization of Africa could finally be celebrated
This modified piece was first published by DW under the tittle “World War I: The ‘Black Army’ that marched in from Africa”