Was the Western Front the most multi-racial place on Earth?

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1. The world at war

When the major powers of Europe went to war in 1914, so too did half the globe. France and Britain controlled the world’s two largest colonial empires and were quick to draw upon their resources – and their people.

More than four million non-European, non-white soldiers and auxiliaries would serve in WW1. Over a quarter of these soldiers would end up in the battlefields of northern France and Belgium, braving a new type of industrial warfare for which they were often ill-equipped and inadequately trained. They would prove vital in holding the front lines. But the fascinating story of what played out behind the trenches is rarely told. For four years, the tented cities of the Western Front would be the setting for a world in miniature. Against the backdrop of war, soldiers also navigated the cultural battlegrounds and the no-man’s land of race relations at the dawn of the 20th Century.

2. The colonies get called up

In all, men from over 50 countries served on the Western Front. France recruited nearly 500,000 colonial troops during the war, assimilating these soldiers into the army to fight alongside the native French soldiers.

For the British, using non-white colonial soldiers to fight white Europeans was a controversial idea. But after the British Expeditionary Force suffered heavy casualties in August 1914, Indian troops destined for Egypt were re-routed to France to serve in Europe. The British didn't follow the French 'assimilationist model' and the two Indian divisions were usually kept separate from the British troops, both in terms of their living quarters and on the battlefield. The British would also look to the Caribbean, South Africa and First Nations Canadians to bolster resources on the Western Front.

3. Five continents in the trenches

Professional colonial soldiers, conscripts and mercenaries from across the globe served on the Western Front. They were joined by non-combatants, including doctors, labourers and cooks.

Senegalese Tirailleurs: with more French soldiers dying in 1914 than any other year of the war, the French army turned to their African colonies for urgent assistance. Senegalese riflemen were used as shock troops, often first to attack the enemy.

Moroccan Spahis: the French recruited 24,300 Moroccan troops. Many of them served on the Western Front, as part of a mounted cavalry unit. They were deployed early in the war, helping to win the Battle of the Marne for the Allies.

Canadian Indians: after suffering high casualties on the Western Front the Canadian government expanded its recruitment. They invited indigenous people to enlist, including members of the 'File Hills Indian Colony' from the state of Saskatchewan.

Indian Army: 1914 was the first time that Indians were to fight on European soil. With the long-range rifle often ineffective in trench conditions, the Indians’ close-combat fighting skills proved crucial in a hard-fought battle with the Germans.

The Gurkhas served within the Indian Army. Their resolve in battle meant that the number of battalions grew to significantly. Their weapon of choice was the kukri, a fish-shaped knife which was said to have terrorised the Germans at Neuve Chapelle.

South African Native Labour Contingent: by 1916 Britain was facing a labour shortage. Over 10,000 black South Africans were deployed. They were segregated in compounds.

Chinese Labour Corps: many came from remote villages and by the time they reached Shanghai many thought they were in Europe. It was just the start of a brutal journey. About 140,000 served for the British, French and American armies.

New Zealand Maoris: the Pioneer Battalion, also known as the Native Contingent, was formed in 1917 as the country had a troop shortage. Maori soldiers are pictured performing the haka for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime minister in 1918.

Harlem Hellfighters: nicknamed 'hellfighters' by the Germans, they saw more front line action than any other American regiment. The musicians in the regiment were also said to have performed the first jazz on French soil.

4. Working together?

The assumed superiority of the white race was enshrined in laws and mindsets of many. But the reliance on colonial forces challenged this order by asking the same of colonial troops as of its native soldiers. For the French there was nervousness about having so many African soldiers on native soil.

To allay fears, the French promoted the idea of the soldiers as loyal simpletons, or 'Bon Enfants', and ensured that the ability of these soldiers to communicate was restricted by teaching them only a simple form of pidgin French. For the British, the Indian army had a long established officer class who spoke the native languages and had long-standing familiarity with their men. Problems would arise when the British officers were killed because they were difficult to replace. Indians were not allowed to become officers and lead the men .

5. Life in a makeshift metropolis

With armies from all over the world on the Western Front, life in the tented cities behind the lines brought new experiences – both for the men engaged in the fighting and the locals who remained.

This photograph of captured Allied soldiers provides a snapshot of the nationalities serving in WW1: here stand soldiers from Amanite (now Vietnam), Tunistan (Tunisia), Senegal, Sudan, Russia, America, Portugal and Britain.

When Sikh soldiers first set foot in France, locals offered to help shave their beards which they assumed had grown long because of the long journey from home. When they realised beards were part of the Sikh religion, they were astonished.

Soldiers in the Indian Army were fed in adherence to their own beliefs and customs. For Muslim soldiers, all meat was halal. For the Hindu soldiers, the regular supplies of beef tins were replaced with lamb.

Unfamiliar with the exotic cuisine his Indian counterparts were eating, a Belgian priest exclaimed in surprise that “they bake what look like pancakes and they also eat a very strong tasting seed.”

Labourers from China entertained troops by performing traditional Chinese opera. The instruments looked and sounded different to anything most of the audience had ever seen before.

But racism and prejudice was also rife. Racial segregation in the US meant the Harlem Hellfighters were barred from fighting alongside their countrymen, instead winning plaudits for their bravery with French forces.

6. Writing home

The white European experience of the Western Front is well documented – from the letters and poetry of the soldiers who lived it to the views and analysis of historians throughout the century. But we know far less about the experiences of this war from the position of the colonial soldiers and labourers visiting Europe for the first time.

Many of the colonial soldiers wrote to their loved ones thousands of miles away. In the Indian camp in 1915, sometimes thousands of letters were sent every week. They often described their experiences at the front, couching them in the imagery and landscape of home. One Indian Sepoy, describing a battle, wrote of 'shells falling like rain in monsoon'.

In 1919, a Native Canadian soldier depicted each of his battles of WW1 – from August 1917 to the Battle of Amiens in August 1918 – on a calf skin, reflecting the tradition of the 'story robe'. One hundred years on, for many of us the experiences of non-white soldiers provide new perspectives on a war we think we know.

7. The echoes of WW1 encounters

The soldiers of 100 years created or popularised words that are still being used today. But which language is at the root?


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From the Hindi for easy or safe

This word was in use by the Indian army before the First World War but during the conflict its usage spread beyond the trenches and into mainstream English.


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From the Urdu for 'foreign'

The Urdu word 'bilayati' – meaning 'foreign' – had been used to refer to British troops in India, During the war it was anglicised to 'Blighty' to mean Britain.


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From the German for 'broken'

The word 'kaput' means broken or not working, and is derived from the German 'kaputt'. It is still commonly used today.