The Story of Africa


- World War I


- The aftermath


- Nationalism and vision


- Socialism


- Newspapers


- Radio and writing


- Air and road


- Women


- World War II

World War I


Support for the war effort

African men on the march
African men on the march
Many people in Africa had only the vaguest understanding of what the First World War was about. Certainly the reasons for it were not easy to understand. It was triggered by the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand of Serbia, and in Europe, people thought it would be all over by Christmas of 1914.

Without the cooperation of local leaders and chiefs, European powers would not have been able to raise the troops and carriers they needed, and some chiefs were very willing to help.

"This is one of the most important services that I have done for the peace of the protecting government and for the peace of the whole world. A war against Britain was a war against Buganda, and so, when I was appointed to lead some soldiers, I at once left for Kampala with 5,000 men. There I was told not to go to the battlefield at once, but to wait in my country and do as I was directed. While waiting, these are some of the things I did:

a) I did all I could to recruit men for the armies.
b) I sent in a lot of carriers.
c) I very much encouraged the growing of food.
d) I encouraged further the growing of cotton.
e) Because I very much wanted peace I tried my best to get into contact with the British armies for I did not want the enemy to get to our city London."

- The Record of My Service by Buganda chief Samwiri Mukasa.

In Nigeria, there was a general rallying round among urban educated Nigerians. Speeches were made and money collected.

"Our kith and kin have gone to fight in our stead, and it is only right that we should give them all the support necessary... Ingratitude is the greatest reproach that could be flung at a native, and I therefore urge upon all to contribute their quota to this national fund so that it might not be said we are ungrateful to the British Government for many benefits conferred." - Dr. Obasa, described in West Africa magazine as the "well-known Lagos public man," speaking at a meeting of chiefs at Glover Memorial Hall, Lagos.


People were recruited in a number of ways. One was through a direct appeal for volunteers. This happened first in Egypt, where peasants were attracted by the wages offered.

Another was recruitment through chiefs. The British enlisted the help of chiefs and left them to find the men however they could. Although officially nobody was supposed to be forced into signing up, inevitably they were.

"We came back one night from our yam farm. The chief called us and handed us over to a government messenger. I didn't know where we were going, but the chief and the messenger said that the white man had sent for us and we must go. After three days we reached the white man's compound.

Plenty of others had arrived from other villages far away. And the white man wrote our names in a book. And tied a brass numbered ticket round our necks and gave each man a blanket and food.

Then he told us we were going to the Great War to help the king's soldiers who were preventing the Germans coming to our country and burning it. We left and marched far into the bush. The government police led the way and allowed no man to stop behind."
- A first-hand account of what it was like to be recruited. As told by No.1475, a carrier who was recruited in 1914. Quoted in The African Contribution to the Second World War.

There was also forced recruitment. This happened under the British in northern Rhodesia. In the Congo, the Belgians forced 260,000 men to be porters carrying soldiers, equipment and provisions.



Men were also conscripted. In 1912, the French set about creating a permanent black army. There was compulsory military service for all African males. After the outbreak of the war, 14,785 troops were signed up in West Africa. Then in 1915-16, 50,000 more were recruited through chiefs.

African troops under French command were combatant. The 'tirailleurs' in charge of artillery, with their distinctive red fezes, were famous. In 1918, Blaise Diagne, the Senegalese politician and the first African Deputy in the French Chamber of Deputies, was appointed High Commissioner of Recruitment of black troops.

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.

The First World War: in action


The First World War gave rise to a crucial change in the relationship between Europe and Africa. Over two million people in Africa made huge sacrifices for the European Allies. 100,000 men died in East Africa and 65,000 men from French North Africa and French West Africa lost their lives.

Not since the American War of Independence, when 14,000 slaves and freemen fought as black loyalists alongside the British, had such a huge number of people of African descent been involved in fighting for Europeans. Very few were combatant, most of them were used as porters. They were recruited to carry heavy weapons and supplies. They were badly paid and given food which was either of poor quality or entirely foreign to them. While travelling through new territories for them, they often fell sick and were affected by different types of malaria.

Theatres of war

On the continent of Africa, there was action along the coast. In the West and South the Allies attacked Germany's African ports. They attacked Lome (in Togo), Douala (in Cameroun), Swakopmund and Luderitz Bay (in South West Africa).

In the East, German-held Dar Es Salaam was bombarded. In the North, the main concern of the British was to safeguard the Suez Canal.

German South West Africa was brought under allied control in the first few months. Cameroon took longer to capture. The East Africa campaign took even longer, with the Germans led by brilliant German General von Lettow-Vorbeck. African troops from French West Africa saw action in Western Europe, but the British never took African soldiers out of the continent.

Mutinies and uprisings

Where there were political tensions and frustrations the war only made them worse. In Nysaland (now modern Malawi), the American-trained missionary John Chilembwe led an uprising. It was religious as well as anti-colonial in character. Importantly, it was triggered by the high level of forced military recruitment of Nysas, many of whom were subsequently killed in large numbers in the first few weeks of fighting.

Further south, a number of Afrikaners, sympathetic to Germany and hostile to the Allies, tried to raise an armed rebellion. This was put down by the British educated Afrikaner leader General Smuts, who went on to play a key military role against the Germans in the First World War and in the settlement afterwards.

In the Niger Delta, Farrick Braide, also known as Elijah II, preached that the beginning of the First World War marked the end of British rule.

In Kenya, the Mumbo cult rejected Christianity and predicted Europeans would disappear from the African continent. Resistance to taxation also continued throughout the war, as in Yorubaland where there were riots in 1916.
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