The First World War and its consequences in Africa

Africa

The First World War represented a turning-point in African history, not as dramatic as the Second World War, but nevertheless important in man y areas. One of its most important legacies was the reordering of the map of Africa roughly as it is today.

Michael Crowder

The First World War was essentially a quarrel between European powers which involved Africa, both directly and indirectly, because at the outbreak of hostilities the greater part of it was ruled by the European belligerents. Campaigns were fought on African soil which – though they only marginally affected the overall course of war —  had significant implications for Africa. Mor e than a million African soldiers were involved in these campaigns or campaigns in Europe. Even more men, as well as wome n and children, were recruited, often forcibly, as carriers to support armies whose supplies could not be moved by conventional methods such as road, rail or packanimal. Over 150000 soldiers and carriers lost their lives during the war. Man y more were wounded and disabled. By the time the war ended, every country in Africa, with the exception of the small Spanish territories —  which remained neutral — had been formally committed to one side or the other. Belgian, British, French, Italian and Portuguese administrations were allied — more or less actively —  against German colonies

Even the last remaining independent states on the continent —  Liberia, Ethiopia and Därfür — became involved. Liberia declared for the Allies on the entry of the United States into the war in 1917. The pro-Muslim boy-Emperor of Ethiopia, Lij Iyasu, proclaimed his country’s allegiance to Turkey, thereby causing considerable concern among the Allies that he would inspire a djihäd among the Muslims of the Horn of Africa where Sayyid Muhamma d Abdule Hasan’s forces were still giving trouble to the British. British, French and Italian troops moved to Berbera, Djibuti and Massawa, but the intervention proved unnecessary since shocked Christian nobles overthrew the Emperor in September 1916. Similarly, Sultan ‘All Dinar of Därfür, nominally tributary to, but effectively independent of, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, responded to the Turkish call to djihäd and raided French Chad, threatened British Borno (Northern Nigeria) and tried to stir up revolt in Kordof an (Sudan). Not until February 1916 was he defeated and killed in battle and Därfür fully incorporated into Sudan.

Whether directly involved in the fighting or not, nearly every African territory was affected by the exclusion of the Germans from the African trade, the wartime shortages of imports caused by scarcity of shipping space, or, on the brighter side, sudden booms in demands for strategic resources.

A great deal has been written about the European campaigns in Africa during the First World War, and the consequent distribution of German territory among the victorious Allied powers – the last chapter in the Scramble for Africa. Muc h less has been written about the impact of the war on Africans and on the administrative structures recently imposed on them by their European conquerors. How far did these fragile structures withstand the exodus of European administrative personnel, the spectacle of white conqueror fighting white conqueror, the exactions on recently subdued Africans in terms of me n and material, and the widespread revolts that took place on the occasion, though not always directly, or even indirectly as a result of the war? Wha t were the social, political and economic consequences of involving Africans in the European war? It is with these broad questions that this chapter will be principally concerned. However a brief account of the military campaigns is essential if we are fully to understand the implications of the war for Africa.

The War on African soil

The immediate consequence for Africa of the declaration of war in Europe was the invasion by the Allies of Germany’s colonies. Neither side had prepared for war in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed there was short-lived hope that it might be isolated from the war. Governor Doering of Togo suggested to his neighbours in British Gold Coast (now Ghana) and French Dahomey (now Benin) that Togo should be neutralized so that the spectacle of Europeans fighting each other would not be witnessed by their African subjects.4 In German East Africa (now Tanzania) the Governor, Dr Schnee, was intent on avoiding hostilities so he could pursue his energetic programme of development, and when the British bombarded Dar es Salaam shortly after the declaration of war, he subscribed to a short-lived truce that would neutralize German East Africa.5 There was even optimism in some quarters that the articles of the Berlin Act of 1885 covering the neutrality of the conventional basin of the Congo would avert war in eastcentral Africa.

The forces in favour of involving Germany’s African possessions in the war were, however, more pressing. From the point of view of Britain, given her naval supremacy, the strategy as laid down by the Committee for Imperial Defence was to carry war to her enemy’s colonies. To maintain this naval supremacy, Germany’s African communications system and principal ports had to be put out of action. For the Allies, successful campaigns in Germany’s colonial possessions might result in their being shared by the victors as spoils of war. This was certainly a major consideration in the decision of the Commandant-General of the South African forces, General Louis Botha, and the Minister of Defence, J. C. Smuts, in the face of real opposition from Afrikaner irreconcilables, to commit South African forces to the Allied side and invade German South West Africa (now Namibia), and later participate in the East African campaign.7 Not only did Botha and Smuts covet South West Africa as a potentialf ifthp rovince but they hoped that if they assisted a British victory in German East Africa, parts of conquered German territory might be offered to the Portuguese in exchange for Delagoa Bay – the natural port for the Transvaal – going to South Africa.8 In Britain, it was considered that the involvement of South Africa and her loyalty would be ensured by the prospect of South West Africa becoming hers.9 For the French, invasion of Cameroon would retrieve the territory reluctantly ceded in 1911 to Germany in the aftermath of the Agadir crisis (see Fig. 12.1b). Even Belgium, which had immediately invoked the perpetual neutrality of the Congo (now Zaire) under Article X of the Berlin Act, eagerly joined in the invasion of German African territory once her own neutrality had been violated by the Germans, in the hope that successful participation would give her a bargaining position in the eventual peace settlement.

Germany’s colonies were not easily defensible given Allied naval supremacy and her much smaller colonial forces. There was early optimism that the anticipated speedy German victory in Europe would avoid direct colonial involvement while achieving Germany’s ambition of a Mittelafrika linking Cameroon and German East Africa and thwarting once and for all Britain’s longed-for Cape to Cairo route.! ‘ But once it was clear that quick victory would not be achieved, it was perceived that protracted campaigns in Africa would tie down Allied colonial troops who might otherwise be sent to the European front. This strategy was brilliantly pursued by General P. E. von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander in East Africa who engaged a combined Allied force – at one time over ten times greater than his own – for the duration of the war.

The campaigns in Africa can be divided into two distinct phases. During the first, which lasted only a few weeks, the Allies were concerned to knock out Germany’s offensive capability and ensure that her fleetc ould not use her African ports. Thus Lomé in Togo, Duala in Cameroon, and Swakopmund and Lüderitz Bay in South West Africa were occupied soon after the outbreak of war. In German East Africa, British cruisers bombarded Dar es Salaam and Tanga in August, and though neither port was taken until later in the war, they could not be used by German warships. In Egypt, on the entry of Turkey into the war on Germany’s side, the British defences of the Suez Canal were strengthened and a Turkish expedition repulsed in February 1915. Thereafter Egypt served as the major base for Britain’s operations against Turkey and her Middle Eastern provinces, and became the fulcrum of British power in Africa and the Middle East for the next three decades.

The campaigns of the first phase of the war in Africa were vital to its global strategy. The campaigns of the second phase, with the exception of those mounted from Egypt against the Turkish empire, were of marginal significance to the outcome of the world struggle. Nevertheless the Allies were determined to conquer the German colonies both to prevent them being used as bases for the subversion of their often tenuous authority in their own colonies, and to share them among themselves in the event of an overall Allied victory. Thus once the South African government had put down the Afrikaner rebellion which had received support from the Germans in South West Africa, it mounted an invasion of the territory which took six months to complete. The South West Africa campaign (see Fig. 12.id) was the only one in which African troops were not involved, since the Union generals were reluctant to arm their African population, while the Germans dared not, after having so brutally put down the Herero and Nama risings.

The protracted Cameroon campaign (see Fig. 12.1b) was largely fought by African troops. Despite their superiority in numbers, the French, British and Belgian allies took over fifteen months to complete their conquest of the territory. ten to one, determined at least to tie them down as long as possible by resorting to guerrilla tactics. ‘2 Right up to the end of hostilities he remained undefeated, leading his bedraggled column through Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and then on its last march into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where he learnt of the armistice in Europe. At a conservative estimate, some 160000 Allied troops were engaged by von LettowVorbeck’s force which never exceeded a strength of 15 000. As in Cameroon, African troops proved vital to both sides, many of them fighting with great bravery, and proving much more effective fighterst han the white South African troops who were decimated by disease. At times the ration for Nigerian foot soldiers was half-a-pound of rice a day with nothing to go with it.13 The carriers suffered particular hardships and it was estimated that at least 45 000 died from disease in the campaign.

In East Africa von Lettow-Vorbeck, appreciating that he could not hope to win the battle against forces which outnumbered his own by more than ten to one, determined at least to tie them down as long as possible by resorting to guerrilla tactics. ‘2 Right up to the end of hostilities he remained undefeated, leading his bedraggled column through Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and then on its last march into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where he learnt of the armistice in Europe. At a conservative estimate, some 160000 Allied troops were engaged by von LettowVorbeck’s force which never exceeded a strength of 15 000. As in Cameroon, African troops proved vital to both sides, many of them fighting with great bravery, and proving much more effective fighterst han the white South African troops who were decimated by disease. At times the ration for Nigerian foot soldiers was half-a-pound of rice a day with nothing to go with it.13 The carriers suffered particular hardships and it was estimated that at least 45 000 died from disease in the campaign.

The European exodus 

The war saw a large-scale exodus of European administrative and commercial personnel from the Allied colonies in Africa, as they left for the Western Front or enlisted in locally based regiments for campaigns elsewhere in Africa. In some parts the European presence, already thinly spread, was diminished by more than half. In Northern Nigeria, many political officers on secondment from the army were recalled to their regiments while others voluntarily enlisted, with the result that Northern Nigeria was denuded of administrators. ‘5 Some divisions in Northern Nigeria, like Borgu, were without any European administrator for much of the war. ‘6 In Northern Rhodesia, as much as 40% of the adult European population was on active service. ‘7 In French Black Africa there was general mobilization of Europeans of military age, while in British East Africa, Europeans were registered for war work. In some parts, particularly the countryside, it was rumoured that the white man was leaving for ever.18 In Morocco, where the Resident-General, Louis Lyautey, had to withdraw so many of his troops for the European front, German prisoners of war were used on public works to persuade the Moroccans that the French were winning the war.

This text is a chapter of General History of Africa, Volume VII, HEINEMANN- CALIFORNIA – UNESCO Publishing

© UNESCO 1985