This was no sideshow, the world war casualties were colossal

Friday March 13 2015


Every year, but significantly last year, as Europe commemorated the centenary of the outbreak of the “war to end all wars” the First World War in August 1914, there was no mention of Africa, despite it having been an important theatre of war. 

Over two million Africans were conscripted into the war as soldiers or Carrier Corps by the European Allies and joined the war either in Europe or in Africa. A tenth of them died and among the labourers serving in Africa, the death rates have been put as high as 20 per cent.

For instance, at the end of the war in 1918, East Africa had lost 95,000 men, more than half of whom were Kenyans. French North Africa and French West Africa lost 65,000 men while 25,000 South Africans perished.

Although the contribution of Africans in this war has been overlooked by European countries, in Africa itself, the memories of WW1 are totally absent from the public consciousness. 

Dr Fred Tanga Odoi, a senior history lecturer at Makerere University, says; “We Africans tend to be borrowers of history written by Europeans. We tend to think or believe that Europeans tell the whole truth. This is our fault. We must write our own history.”

Dr Odoi is not surprised that African history has been overlooked by the West. “All Eurocentric writers have had a tendency to portray Africa as a continent without a history, or no positive impact on world history.” 

In an article, “The Story of Africa: Between World Wars (1914 – 1945)” the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) acknowledges that many people in Africa had only the vaguest understanding of what the First World War was all about.

 “…Many Africans also fought in Europe, defending the interests of their colonial masters. Today, their sacrifice has been largely forgotten,” acknowledges Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster in its article Africa and the First World War, adding.

“African troops actively participated in World War I. Their contribution was crucial,” writes Charles Onana, a French journalist and essayist who has written widely on 20th century French and African history.

He told France 24, “But apart from the villages and rural regions where they were present on the ground, the larger French public isn’t necessarily aware of that. I’ve often been faced with high school and university students who knew nothing about these men’s engagement.”

Deutsche Welle notes that another reason why WWI plays little or no role in the African view of history is the fact that the war is generally seen as just one episode in the long history of colonial conquests and acts of brutality inflicted on the people of Africa.

In East Africa, the British instituted a compulsory service order in 1915 covering all males aged 18-45. This was extended to the Uganda Protectorate in April 1917.

Edward Paice writing in his paper How The Great War Razed East Africa, says one of the most ferocious battles of the entire East African campaign of the Great War took place over four days in October 1917 at Mahiwa-Nyangao, on the B5 road, which runs inland from the southern Tanzanian port of Lindi to Masasi.

“Although the losses at Mahiwa-Nyangao, the costliest battle of the Great War in East Africa, do not compare with those of the battles at Verdun or the Somme, the campaign was neither minor nor insignificant. The death toll among combatants and civilians was colossal.”  

Casualties among the 5,000-strong British force — including three battalions from the Nigerian 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. The 16 companies of German Schutztruppen opposing them, about 2,000 men, sustained 25 per cent casualties.

No fewer than 95,000 African carriers for the British army died. Among African soldiers and military carriers recruited from British East Africa alone, from present day Kenya, more than 45,000 men lost their lives. This was about one in eight of the country’s total adult male population then.

It is estimated that 300,000 civilians perished in German East Africa, present day Rwanda and Burundi as a direct consequence of the authorities’ conduct of the war, excluding those conscripted for carrier service.

“To call the Great War in East Africa a sideshow to the war in Europe may be correct, but it is demeaning. The scale and impact of the campaign were gargantuan. The troops, carriers and millions of civilians caught up in the fighting in East Africa should not be forgotten,” Paice says.

Paice adds: “In East Africa, the memorials and graveyards of the fallen attract little attention. Elsewhere, Africa’s involvement in the Great War is all but forgotten. There is no askari or carrier monument in London. The best-known accounts of the war are fictional – C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, Wilbur Smith’s Shout at the Devil and William Boyd’s Booker Prize-nominated An Ice Cream War…”