This year marks the beginning of the international centennial commemoration of the First World War (1914-1918) - - the war to end all wars. Standard history books tell us that the cause of the war was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, the start of a seemingly inexorable chain of circumstances that plunged the major nations of Europe into a cataclysmic conflict in which Black folk had no part and Africa had no role.
This first of the 20th century's two global clashes ushered in the age of high-tech slaughter. In the bloodiest contest the world had ever known up to that time, there were over 5,700,000 Allied military deaths of which the troops of Great Britain and its empire amounted to over 1,000,000. Civilian deaths from all causes among the Allies were more than 3,500,000.
Deaths suffered by the opposing Central Powers were 7,000,000. Total deaths among the warring nations were over 16,500,000. In addition there were over 21,000,000 military wounded. And the dead and wounded were not all European.
Africa: Men and Resources
W.E.B. DuBois observed that "Competition for colonies among Britain, France, and Germany deserve a share of the blame for World War 1. Germany's four African colonies comprised three on the west and one on the east: Togolands, Cameroons, German Southwest Africa, now part of Namibia, and German East Africa."
Historian James Ciment in his historical atlas also noted that "Among the many causes of the war was the imperial scramble for African colonies in the last two decades of the 19th century.
At various points in that period, England, France, and Germany nearly came to blows over African territory, creating tensions that would play themselves out in European politics of the early 20th century."
European nations raced against each other in Africa to assert their national and racial pride, pursue exploitative commercial policies, and secure military and naval bases for strategic purposes. For example, French bases in the Horn of Africa enabled the French flag to wave over its colonial possessions in southeast Asia. Added to the rape of the continent's minerals, metals, wood, and rubber, was superadded the forced conscription of its soldiers and civilians in a colossal and vicious conflict that straddled the planet and pitted Africans fighting each other under opposing European flags.
France employed the largest number of African troops. By August, 1914, there were 14,000 soldiers from Senegal (Tirailluers Senegalese
) in France. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Kenyans, Namibians, Congolese, Moroccans, South Africans and many others served as soldiers, laborers, or carriers. An estimated 2,000,000 people in Africa made huge sacrifices for the European Allies. Approximately 100,000 men died in East Africa, and 65,000 from French North Africa and French West Africa lost their lives. The last troops to surrender after the war were East African soldiers serving under the German flag.
The U.S. and The Caribbean
Black men outside Africa saw the war as an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and equality. The first Bermudian killed in the war was William E. Smith who died when his Royal Navy cruiser sank in the North Sea. Eighty-nine more Bermudians died during the war. The U.S. entered the war in 1917 and over 350,000 African American men and women served before the end of hostilities in November, 1918.
CR Gibbs 2014 - 2015 African History and Culture Lecture Series (Free)