Bibliographic data

anonym: Seconde moitié du XIXe-XXe siècle. L'Afrique et le monde. Histoire. Paris: Groupe Hatier International, Nachdruck der Auflage von 1995 ed., 2010 (1995), 66–67.

Africa in the War

[p. 66]


1. The call to Africa

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the colonial powers had been addressing the question of the use of colonial troops consisting of African soldiers in Europe in the case of conflict. It was a lively debate . Certain politicians and certain military men confirmed that in the case of war these troops would be very useful. Others thought that these black soldiers would risk turning out to be undisciplined or even rebellious towards the authority of the Whites.

France, Great Britain and, to a minor extent, Germany, Belgium and Portugal enrolled hundreds of thousands of men in their colonies, as soldiers or as porters . The Europeans often resorted to force: In certain regions, such as Ivory Coast, enrolment took on the form of a veritable manhunt.

The troops thus recruited went through intensive training in which they learned military discipline, the handling of arms and techniques of European combat. While numerous soldiers were involved in battles on African soil, more than 180,000 were sent to Europe. Their living conditions were difficult: they were subjected to cold, the wearing of shoes and diseases unknown to them, such as pneumonia. Their courage and loyalty were everywhere admired by their officers.

The colonies were also used in terms of economic .contributions. The Europeans seized food with which to nourish the soldiers. They demanded raw materials required for the war effort, especially food. From 1916, the naval blockade prevented the export of African products to Europe; African products were thus robbed of their markets and the war was a period of crisis for the African economies.

2. Africa: A Land of Combat

The German colonies in Africa found themselves in a vice between French, British, Belgian and Portuguese territories. In Togo the war did not last more than a few weeks: the colony was small and badly defended. On 25 August 1914, Togo surrendered after the radio station of Kamina was destroyed.

Despite Germany’s support of many Africans (Boers), South Africa was on the side of Great Britain. Their marine attacked the African South West at the coast while their troops penetrated the south. The Germans capitulated in July 1915. In South Africa, as in the German colonies, the Whites refused to employ black soldiers because they feared betrayal.

As of 1914, the British and the Belgians attacked Cameroon which resisted step by step. But in February 1916, the German troops sought refuge in Rio Muni, a Spanish colony. The war in this region of Africa was over.

Considering the power of its French, British, Belgian and South African adversaries, German East Africa (Tanganyika) opted for guerilla tactics. The strategy proved rewarding when, at the moment of the armistice of Rethondes, the colony remained undefeated.

For the African fighters the war was a “Whites’ affair” that did not concern them directly; many had only a poor understanding of what was at stake. But the loyalty of the black soldiers bears witness to the trust of some Africans in the colonial powers: they hoped that in return they might be rewarded with some relief from the colonial regime.

[p. 67]

[A wide arrow as timeline from 1914 to 1919. In August 1914 the defeat of Togo is visible, in February 1916 of Cameroon, in July 1917 the defeat of South West Africa and within the whole period up to November 1918 the battle in Tanganyika.]

[p. 67, left column]

[textual source]

1 The role of the porters

The question of transport caused the most serious problems. […] We were […] forced to employ thousands upon thousands of natives. Between the end of the railway and the basis of supply were often around thirty stages, so that in the case of the 70 mm shells, for example, as one man was able to carry only four, one hundred porters were required to walk for one month in order to replenish a single battery of projectiles necessary for a single shot. Even the canons had to be transported in a similar manner. For the march, each canon was dissembled into charges of 90 kilograms, an enormous weight for men who had to carry out the transportation on bad roads or via marches by the force of their muscles. It was the same for the food […] and also the ambulances including everything what was necessary.

Pierre Daye, L’empire colonial belge , Bruxelles, Paris, Editions du Soir – Berger – Levrault, 1923.

3 War in Black Africa

[Map of Africa showing the countries as neutral, colonies of the entente and German territories. In the German areas, movements of the allied troops and the Germans are represented by arrows.]

[p. 67, right column]

2 In the war

This soldier wears on his head the helmets of German soldiers whom he had killed.

[Black and White photograph of an African soldier who put two German helmets on top of his headgear. He is wearing a simple linen uniform and a backpack and holds a gun in his folded arms.]

[Text in the picture, below] Glory to the greatest France


4 The black soldiers in Europe

No, the Blacks were not happy! The autumn had come. The rain did not stop falling, the wind raged in the forests, and the mud weighed down the vast boots which fit the thin legs badly. In the cold north wind and the rain showers the tallest bodies were huddled up, made small in their coats, and it was as if their tongues were frozen in their mouths. No more conversations, no more jokes. Everybody was hacking away in silence at the quarry stones. […] All they wanted all day long in this desert of cold and mud was the fire, the warm food, the shelter of the hut. In the evenings, pressed up against each other, they gathered on their clothes and blankets and fell into a feverish sleep against the sound of all those whose chests were shaken by coughs, their minds empty and ice-cold, their bodies stiffened by the lamentations of the wind and the noise of the water with its gloomy tam-tam on the tin roof.

Jerôme and Jean Tharaud, La randonnée de Samba Diout , Paris, Plon, 1922.

Recommended citation: