Part 4 of a 5-part series.
World War I was more global in scope than is often realized.
The colonial forces of both Britain and France were tried and tested in theaters throughout the globe, perhaps most surprisingly in India itself. Thanks to the Anglo-Japanese Pact of 1902 there was no direct threat across the frontier – as the Japanese would pose in World War II – but the fighting in the Middle Eastern theater often spilled over in the Punjab, and nationalist revolts there and in Bengal threatened to destabilize the Raj. In Mesopotamia, there were three mutinies by Muslim soldiers unwilling to fight their fellow believers, but for the most part native troops remained unwaveringly loyal. Even the horrific casualties in the various African campaigns did not dissuade colonial troops from fighting alongside their occupiers and preserving their own subjugation.
On August 4, 1914, France’s armed forces fell into three distinct groups. The Armée d’Afrique (Army of Africa) and the Troupes Coloniale (colonial troops, usually referred to as just La Coloniale) consisted of both all-white units from Europe and local recruits from the colonies. The Armée d’Afrique was the garrison force for the North African colonies of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, and La Coloniale troops were dispatched to the rest of France’s colonies around the world. The native troops in these armies, though, were mere colonial subjects and not full citizens.
The other major army grouping was the Armée Métropolitaine (Metropolitan Army), which was charged with garrison duty in Metropolitan France, and was in essence the first local line of defense. Largely composed of conscripts, the army nevertheless consisted entirely of citizen soldiers. Regardless of their proposed theaters of war, the limits of French manpower led to colonial troops being used in France itself and in theaters such as the Crimea, where the Armée Métropolitaine was insufficient to carry the fight by itself. Despite their defense of French soil, the soldiers of the colonial armies were not granted the full rights of a French citizen.
The colonial system of France took care to distinguish between originaires, who had recourse to the local court systems but were not granted the full rights of citizenship, and the évolué (literally the “evolved”), who were full citizens of France and enjoyed all the rights and privileges therein. The conditions of this citizenship, however, were very strict, and included literacy and “high recommendations of personal character.” By 1922, fewer than 100 people in French West Africa had qualified.
One of the first and most prominent Africans to not only gain évolué status, but be elected as a representative to the National Assembly was Blaise Diagne. Hailing from Senegal, Diagne called for a mass enlistment of originaires when World War I broke out. By promising (or at least suggesting) citizenship rights through service in the Armée Métropolitaine, Diagne convinced more than 63,000 West African originaires to enlist, even coming from areas that had just recently been in revolt. Unlike the British, though, the French imposed a system of conscription on other parts of their empire.
It was actually the Tirailleurs Sénégalais that were the most affected by French conscription laws. The Conscription Law of 1912 allowed for a partial draft, and changed the nature of the unit. Prior to the law, the Tirailleurs were all-volunteer, which was a far more logical choice given the political status of the originaires. When service became mandatory after French manpower deficiencies began to show themselves, the character and relationship of the Tirailleurs was forever altered.
Conscription was enforced using “coercive methods reminiscent of the repudiated era of the slave trade,” and at times not so much reminiscent as exactly alike. The situation improved none it was decided to maintain conscription despite the conclusion of the war. While at first there was never any intention of deploying the colonial forces to Europe, the manpower discrepancy between France and Germany was such that France was forced to utilize its overseas troops on the Western Front.
The French managed to take Togo and Cameroon in short time thanks to the help of some 5,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Togo fell less than a month after the war began, and while isolated pockets of German resistance continued to hold in Cameroon until April 1916, the country was effectively under French control by the fall of 1915. British forces occupied most of the continent, particularly focusing on Germany’s main colony in Southeast Africa, Namibia. The cost of fighting in East Africa for the British was estimated at £70 million, which roughly translates to £2.8 billion in today’s money. But that was only London’s share.
Edward Paice estimates that the total imperial contributions from Britain, India, and the African colonies that went towards fighting in sub-Saharan Africa approached £300 million – a staggering £12 billion today. In addition, combat in East Africa alone resulted in the loss of 45,000 men recruited from British Africa. Undoubtedly, it was only the efforts of the colonized that allowed the colonial powers to remain. Without the pool of native manpower to draw upon vast stretches of the French and British Empires would have been granted de facto independence, or fallen into the hands of the Wilhemine Reich. Perhaps even more importantly, had that manpower chosen to actively resist the colonial powers, the suffering on all sides would have been unimaginable.
At first, French Africa rallied to the colors. Aside from Diagne’s recruitment drive, other volunteers poured in from all across the continent. In most cases, those requesting to join the Armée Métropolitaine were denied and instead assigned to the Armée d’Afrique. Schoolchildren in Dahomey petitioned the government, calling for their own enlistment, which stated:
Monsieur le Governeur,
France is at war with Germany. Our place as her adopted CHILDREN is at her side, under her FLAG. The glorious call which has sounded is a call to filial devotion for us as well. We respond to it by putting ourselves at the disposition of the Mother Country. We offer to France all the vital force of our ardent youth, even its sacrifice. Would that SHE welcomes us in the ranks of her soldiers.
As Myron Echenberg points out though, enthusiasm was quickly dampened. Taxes, rationing, and conscription all conspired to conclusively force a drastic change in opinion. There were several rebellions north of Dahomey and, as a result, the French Governor Noufflard was dismissed from his post. Even despite appalling casualties at Ypres in 1915, Verdun in 1916, and Chemin-des-Dames in 1917, there was never a widespread disciplinary problem in either La Coloniale on the Western front or in the colonies overseas. Occasional crises were an accepted part of French colonial governance at the time and were dealt with expediently.
Without minimizing the important role of African participation in the colonies, even these incidents paled in comparison to the contributions of the Indian Army to the British cause in Europe. In the fall of 1914, already one-third of the soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force were Indian, and by the end of the war more than a million Indians had served in Europe. Their presence was indisputably one of the British Empire’s most valuable assets, and the skill and bravery displayed was at least equal to, if not even greater than that of the white dominions.
With that in mind, the proportion of Indian soldiers to those from the dominions was roughly equal, and the magnitude of their efforts cannot be overstressed. From the start, the Indian troops were perhaps even better prepared for the peculiarities of Western front trench warfare than the British (or at least, than those Britons who had not served in India). As the closest troops in the Empire to the Russo-Japanese War, they were better positioned than any others to absorb the lessons of that war. Bruce Gudmundsson writes:
At a time when the British battalions in the United Kingdom were preparing to fight highly mobile battles in open terrain, British and Indian battalions in India were practicing trench warfare. In two cases, commanders of Indian Army infantry divisions went so far as to order the construction of elaborate trench systems so that their troops could execute mock assaults.
In the field, however, these ‘over-the-top’ trench assaults proved just as futile and deadly for the Indians as they did for their white, British counterparts.
One of the great triumphs of Great Britain’s role in World War I was the devotion and reverence that Indians demonstrated for the Empire. In addition to the already formidable standing Indian Army (numbering around 150,000 in August 1914), the ranks of frontline troops had swelled to more than 570,000 by the end of the war.
Each and every Indian soldier was a volunteer. It was a bold move on the part of British military officials, as by their own imperial justifications, Indian soldiers serving in Europe were a paradox in and of themselves. The British ruled India, as the logic went, because of the second-rate quality of the latter’s native armies. Yet, these ‘inferiors’ were, in fact, well qualified to fight alongside the British on the Western front. If they were of sufficient quality to successfully fight the Germans, how could they not be capable of throwing off British rule? This was certainly cause for skepticism and fear in the minds of the British officers serving with Indian battalions, but the speculation ultimately amounted to nothing. The Indians proved eager for the fight. An Indian Signaler serving on the western front wrote:
We shall never get another chance to exalt the name of race, country, ancestors, parents, village and brothers, and to prove our loyalty to the government … There will never be such a fierce fight … Food and clothing, all is of the best, there is no shortage. Motors convey the rations right up to the trenches … We go singing as we march and care nothing that we are going to die.
Even the man who was to embody the struggle for Indian independence gave his blessing to the war effort in the Raj. In a speech given not long after the outbreak of war, Mohandas Gandhi reminded his audience that, “We are, above all, British citizens of the Great British Empire.” The motives of war were just, and the British were “in a righteous cause for the good and glory of human dignity and civilization … Our duty is clear: to do our best to support the British, to fight with our life and our property.”
Of the various Commonwealth nations (with the exception of the British Isles), the largest numbers of those killed in action and prisoners-of-war belonged to India. Both Canada and Australia had more wounded soldiers, but in absolute numbers India made the largest contribution in lives. However, the statistics show that relatively, the Indian Army in fact suffered the lowest casualty rate of any nation in the British Empire. Among all forces (and not just combat troops), the Indian army suffered roughly 128,495 killed and wounded out of 1.44 million deployed, for a total casualty rate of nine percent. The closest Commonwealth nation to that rate was South Africa, with a similar proportion wounded or KIA, but only a fraction of their total troop contribution was deployed to France, with the rest serving in South Africa or Egypt. None of the black South Africans served in combat.
Clearly the Indian Army played the most efficient role in the war with regard to casualty rates. Even more telling as to the prowess of Indian troops in action are the eleven Victoria Crosses that were awarded to Indians, taking into account that this was the first military action during which they were eligible.
Those fighting for the French were no less heroic.
Concluded in part 5.