USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Africa and the First World War

1914. War, as we know, has broken out in Europe between England, France and Russia on one side and Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire on the other. What did this mean for Africa? The most immediate consequence was that Britain and France, with much greater operations in Africa, attacked Germany’s African holdings and quickly overtook the German forces in German Southwest Africa, Cameroon, and Togoland. German East Africa proved much more difficult as the German General Paul Emil von Lettow‐Vorbeck fought what eventually amounted to a guerilla campaign. In the Battle of Tanga, for example, von Lettow‐Vorbeck defeated a British army eight times its size. British forces consisted mostly of untrained Indian conscripts – brought by ship to the eastern coast of Africa.

The first result of the war, then, was German’s removal from the African map and the expansion of French and British control on the continent. The second major direct effect stems from the first. In order to fight wars in Africa, British and French authorities had to lean heavily on African labor power, which meant a policy of voluntary and forced recruitment of Africans into colonial armies. African participation, primarily as carriers, swelled in combat areas like German East Africa. In West Africa, the French recruited some 50,000 Africans for its 1915‐1916 campaigns. In total, the French enlisted 483,000 colonial soldiers – most of whom ended up on the European western front. The British also recruited massive numbers of African military support. The combined number of Africans who served directly on indirectly in the entente war effort numbered around 2.5 million – or about 1% of the African population. Most Africans served as carriers, the allied combatants wary to let advanced weaponry into the hands of the masses. Though few Africans served in combat in the African wars during WWI, huge numbers of them died as a result of disease. The misery only increased at war’s end as the deadly influenza pandemic that cost a worldwide 40 million lives also took hold in Africa – especially in war torn parts of Tanzania where some 10% of the population perished.

The war also caused many indirect effects – mostly hardships – for Africans. As Africa became increasingly incorporated into the European market economy, its peoples were increasingly dependent on an exchange of commodities for manufactured goods and even for basic foodstuffs. When Europe was for all intents and purposes cut off from trade, the ripple effects in Africa were devastating. Cash crops like cocoa, for example, in the Gold Coast no longer had mass appeal. At the same time, the price of imports spiked dramatically. Other products like palm oil, increased in price – but never as fast as the increasing cost of living caused by the war’s inflationary pressures. The result was that most Africans witnessed a decline in their standard of living during the war – even as they were being asked to shoulder an increasingly heavy burden labor and economic burden. The burden was made even more severe when we consider the tax increases the European powers enacted in order to help raise money for their war efforts. Africans’ reaction to these conditions was quite mixed.

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