The world has marked the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the peace treaty that ended the bloodshed of World War I. In Paris, world leaders gathered to commemorate the day the guns fell silent. At Vimy Ridge and Mons, wreaths were laid at sombre cemeteries and memorials by presidents and prime ministers. Amongst all these dignitary-studded commemorations, a quiet ceremony in Reims passed largely unnoticed. It deserves our attention.
On November 6th at Parc de Champagne in Reims, President Emmanuel Macron of France and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali together laid a wreath at a new monument paying tribute to the African soldiers who fought for France in the Great War. President Keita’s great-grandfather fought and died in the Battle of Verdun. His body was never found. He was not alone. About 30,000 of the 200,000 Africans recruited into the French Army were killed.
Today these soldiers are largely forgotten, left out of the history books and rarely mentioned among the heroes of France. The same applies to the Africans who fought and died for the British Empire. In 2013 when the British Council carried out a UK survey about the First World War, only 21% of people thought that there was any African involvement in the war. Yet, some two million people from across Africa were actively involved in the military confrontations, as soldiers and bearers, in both Europe and Africa.
One explanation for this collective memory loss is that the involvement of Africans in the war effort is a particularly shameful and painful part of colonial history. While some Africans joined voluntarily, most were forcibly recruited. Thousands of young men from West Africa, often referred to as “Senegalese tirailleurs” or riflemen, perished in the trenches fighting their colonizer’s distant war. Many more died from the freezing cold and disease. Those who returned — to what is today Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Morocco, and Côte d’Ivoire — received little by way of war pension, compensation, and recognition.
The World War I battlefields also extended to the African continent, as Imperial France, Britain, and Belgium were eager to seize Germany’s four colonies: German East Africa, German South-West Africa, Togoland, and Cameroon. These battles were fought — and won — largely by African soldiers. As the website of the National Army Museum in Britain approvingly puts it, “Europeans and Indians struggled in the harsh African climate, but the local inhabitants had the skills to survive and prosper.” “Prosper” is a strange choice of word to describe a war between colonizers — fought and suffered by the colonized.
The British campaign against Germany in East Africa (today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) was particularly fierce. Most of the 250,000 soldiers involved on the British side were Africans, some from nearby Kenya and Uganda, others from distant colonial possessions in West Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana. In both East and West Africa, Africans fought Africans as members of opposing colonial armies. The small German army in East Africa, which held back and evaded the more numerous “British” troops until the war’s end, comprised only about 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris, or African soldiers.
The number of actual soldiers were dwarfed by the bearers or porters recruited by both sides. In East Africa, more than one million were forced to leave their homes to carry provisions, military equipment, or soldiers, in hazardous circumstances for minimal or no pay. About 100,000 porters died in East Africa from illness, exhaustion, or mal- and under-nutrition. There is no exact number of how many civilians died as a direct result of the war in East Africa, but the best estimates set the figure at one million. The area of Dodoma in today’s Tanzania lost 20 percent of its population in 1917–1918, indicating the depth of deprivation and misery brought by the war.
Yet, in much of Africa, as in Europe and North America, the sacrifices and contributions of Africans in World War I are largely forgotten, rarely mentioned in history books and almost unknown by the general public.
That’s one reason why President Macron’s attendance at Reims was so important. The President did not speak during the ceremony, but on Twitter he paid tribute to the “200,000 African soldiers from the colonies” who were among “the youth of the whole world who fell 100 years ago in villages whose names they did not know.” The statement marks the beginning of a long-overdue recognition of Africa’s (and other colonies’) role in the war. Hopefully, it will also mark the beginning of an equally long-overdue process of facing the colonial past and addressing the injustices of colonial oppression.
Earlier this year, Macron — the first French President to be born in the post-imperial era — made an unprecedented acknowledgement of French torture in Algeria and offered honours and financial assistance to families of Algerians who fought on the French side in the war of independence.
A similar process of coming to terms with the colonial past is required in Britain, and arguably last year’s unveiling of a memorial for African and Caribbean service personnel in the First and Second World Wars is a step in this direction.
But the importance of remembering Africans’ contributions to World War I goes beyond honouring their sacrifices and addressing past injustices. It is also important because the centenary commemorations take place against a backdrop of rising nationalism and ethnic chauvinism, fuelled in large part by the arrival of African immigrants. In the face of such hostility, it bears repeating that the forbearers of today’s immigrants and migrants fought and died for the European countries where nationalists now try so hard to exclude them.
Slaying what President Macron referred to in his Armistice Day speech as “the old demons” of nationalism will require multiple efforts. Remembering Africa’s sacrifices and contributions to World War I is but one such effort. “Lest we forget.”