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.
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 .
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?