In the First World War thousands of men from French West Africa served in France as well as participating in the conquest of the German West African colonies of Togo and Cameroon. British forces included Africans in those two campaigns, as well as in German East Africa (now Tanzania). Well over 130,000 French West Africans were enlisted – they were incorrectly known as Senegalese. The deputy for Senegal in Paris, Blaise Diagne, headed the recruitment of his fellow Africans. 60,000 died and many were wounded. African soldiers were in the French forces that occupied the Rhineland into the 1920s.
Black troops in Britain’s forces in Europe included the Native Labour Corps from South Africa (the loss of 596 on the transport ship Mendi in the English Channel was widely mourned), Nova Scotian (Canada) foresters, the British West Indies Regiment, the West India Regiment and individuals in “white” regiments. West Indians and West Africans served, with locally-recruited soldiers and countless porters, in the East African campaign which ended one week after the Armistice.
In Dar es Salaam, once the capital of German East Africa, the war memorial shows an askari or infantryman of the East Africa campaign. The capital of French West Africa, Dakar in Senegal, has a memorial showing a French white soldier and a “Senegalese” soldier. The reality – that blacks had seen whites die, whites in inferior roles, whites who were cowards – was different. The South African Stimela Jason Jingoes, who worked with Sotho labourers in Dieppe and Rouen, recalled “I had met a fellow called William Johnstone of Folkestone on the docks at Dieppe, where he was also working. We hit it off at once and we spent our breaks drinking tea and talking about our two countries, until at last we were close friends. After the war we corresponded for many years” (A Chief is a Chief by the People Oxford UP, 1975 p 93).
Africans in German prisoner of war camps had their language recorded by anthropologists. Black troops were photographed. The Hollybrook Memorial to the missing at sea, Southampton, names all the 596 Mendi victims. There are 1764 graves in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Dar es Salaam, including men from British India, South Africa, Mauritius and China. The Nigeria and Gold Coast Regiments (the West African Frontier Force), British West Indies Regiment, the West India Regiment, and African service and medical personnel are buried there.
There is a cenotaph in Kumasi, Ghana, to the men of the West African Frontier Force who served in this war, one of several other memorials to black participation in the First World War. That in Mombasa (Kenya) has four statues of African soldiers, Banjul (Gambia) lists 37 men, and that in Freetown commemorates 1109 men – neither have statues. The memorial in Calabar (Nigeria) names 407 men and has two machine guns captured from the Germans in 1917, and Ibadan (Nigeria) is a clock tower with 360 names, and outlines of African soldiers on a panel.
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