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The First World War and its consequences in Africa


German East Africa campaign: troops of the Nigerian Brigade disembarking at Lindi, December 1917.
© Imperial War Museum

The First World War represented a turning-point in African history, not as dramatic as the Second World War, but nevertheless important in many 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 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. Many 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 Muhammad 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? What 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. For the French, invasion of Cameroon would retrieve the territory reluctantly ceded in 1911 to Germany in the aftermath of the Agadir crisis. 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 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 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.

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. 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.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. Some divisions in Northern Nigeria, like Borgu, were without any European administrator for much of the war. In Northern Rhodesia, as much as 40% of the adult European population was on active service. 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. 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.

The result of this exodus was a slowdown, if not a complete stoppage, of many essential services manned by Europeans. In certain instances Africans were specially trained, as in Senegal, to fill the vacancies thus created. In British West Africa, others jobs hitherto reserved for whites were filled by educated Africans which, as Richard Rathbone has pointed out, goes some way towards explaining the loyalty of the elites during the war. In French West Africa, the governor-general complained that the British, who were not subjected to general mobilization in their colonies, were taking advantage of the fact that their French allies were, by filling the trading vacuum left by the departure of French commercial agents to the front. Only in Egypt was there a net increase in the European presence, since there was an enormous influx of British troops using Egypt as a base for the Allied offensive in the Middle East.

From the African point of view, perhaps even more remarkable than the apparent exodus of Europeans was the spectacle of white people fighting each other, a thing they had never done during the colonial occupation. What is more they encouraged their subjects in uniform to kill the 'enemy' white man, who hitherto had belonged to a clan who, by virtue of trie colour of his skin, was held to be sacrosanct and desecration of whose person had hitherto been visited with the direst retribution.

The African involvement in the War 

Except in the German South West African campaign, African troops were a major factor in the Allied successes in their African campaigns. African troops were called on during the war not only to fight on African soil, but also to reinforce European armies on the Western and Middle Eastern fronts. Further, they were instrumental in putting down the various revolts against colonial authority, just as they had been instrumental in the European conquest of Africa.

Over a million troops were actually recruited during the war to supplement the generally small forces maintained by the colonial authorities. Only France had substantial armies on the ground in her various African colonies on the outbreak of war and though subsequently Germany was accused of militarizing her colonies, it was really France alone against whom this accusation could be levelled with accuracy. In addition to troops, carriers were recruited on a massive scale some three carriers were necessary to keep each fighting soldier in the field. Further, North Africans were recruited to work at factory benches vacated by Frenchmen conscripted into the army. The subsequent voluntary migration of Algerian labour to France has its origin in the First World War. All in all over 2.5 million Africans, or well over 1% of the population of the continent, were involved in war work of some kind.

Recruits for both fighting and carrier service were raised by three methods. The first was on a purely volunteer basis where Africans offered their services freely without any outside pressure. Thus, in the early stages of the war on the Palestine and Syrian fronts, large numbers of impoverished fallâhïn (peasants) in Egypt offered their services in return for what were comparatively attractive wages. There is no doubt that in most African countries there were volunteers for the army who knew exactly what enlistment entailed. The Senegalese citoyens of the Four Communes of Senegal were quite prepared to accept the full obligations of compulsory military service exacted from Metropolitan Frenchmen if it would guarantee their own status as citizens. And to this end their Deputy, Blaise Diagne, secured the passage of a Law of 29 September 1916 which stated that 'the natives of the communes de plein exercice of Senegal are and remain French citizens as provided for by the law of 15 October 1915. In Madagascar all 45000 recruits into the French army were said to have been volunteers, but the great majority of African recruits went into the various armies against their will, either as forced 'volunteers' or as conscripts.

A great deal of recruitment was undertaken through chiefs who were expected to deliver up the numbers required of them by the political officers. In some areas they had no difficulty in obtaining genuine volunteers; in others, men were impressed by the chiefs and presented to the political officers as volunteers. Much of the unpopularity of chiefs in Northern Rhodesia after the war can be attributed to their role in recruitment of soldiers and carriers.

Large numbers of soldiers and carriers, however, were formally conscripted. In French Black Africa, a Decree of 1912 aimed at creating a permanent black army made military service for four years compulsory for all African males between the ages of 20 and 28. The aim was to replace garrison troops in Algeria with black African troops so that the former would be available for service in Europe in the eventuality of war. If such a war were prolonged, General Mangin wrote, 'Our African forces would constitute an almost indefinite reserve, the source of which is beyond the reach of the adversary.' After the outbreak of war, with 14785 African troops in West Africa alone, it was decided to recruit 50000 more during the 1915-16 recruitment campaign. Thus began in French Africa an exercise called by Governor Angoulvant a véritable chasse à l'homme26 and recently described by Jide Osuntokun as a new slave trade.Chiefs were given quotas of men tof ill,a nd rounded up strangers and former slaves to avoid enlisting their immediate dependants or kinsmen. Since births were not registered, many men above and below military age were recruited. But, as we shall see, the recruitment campaign provoked widespread revolts and the insurgent areas were impossible to recruit in. Desperate for more men and in the hope that an African of high standing might succeed where Frenchmen had not, the French Government resorted to the appointment in 1918 of Blaise Diagne as High Commissioner for the Recruitment of Black Troops. Set the target of recruiting 40000 men, his teams actually enlisted 63378, few of whom, however, saw the front since the war ended in November 1918.

Compulsory recruitment was also used to raise troops and carriers in British East Africa, under the compulsory service order of 1915, which made all males aged between 18 and 45 liable for military service. This was extended to the Uganda Protectorate in April 1917. Forced recruitment of porters in all districts in Northern Rhodesia meant that for a large part of the war over a third of the adult males of the territory were involved in carrier service. After 1917, the heavy demands of the Syrian front forced the British Protectorate government in Egypt to introduce conscription and requisition of animals despite its earlier promise that it would bear the full burden of the war. Village 'umdas 'paid off old scores as they shepherded their enemies into the arms of the recruiting agents or swept animals into the insatiable Syrian caravan'. In Algeria, Tunisia and even Morocco, which was still being conquered, colonial subjects were pressed into the war. Over 483 000 colonial soldiers from all over Africa are estimated to have served in the French army during the war, most of them compulsorily recruited. The Belgians in the Congo impressed up to 260000 porters during the East African campaign.30 The sheer numbers involved are mind-boggling, especially as this was so soon after the European conquest. The slave trade at its height never reached a tenth of the numbers involved in any one year. 

While the war directly took an enormous toll in dead and wounded in Africa, it further accounted for innumerable indirect deaths in the Africawide influenza epidemic of 1918-19 whose spread was facilitated by the movement of troops and carriers returning home. 

The African challenge to European authority 

At a time when the Allied colonial regimes in Africa could least afford trouble in their own backyards, their authority ‒ still only tenuously established in places like southern Ivory Coast, much of Libya, or Karamoja in Uganda ‒ was widely challenged by armed risings and other forms of protest by their subjects. As a result the Allied powers had to divert scarce military resources, needed for fighting the Germans in Africa as well as on the Western Front, to dealing with local revolts. So scarce were these resources, and so widespread the revolts in certain areas such as French West Africa and Libya that the reimposition of European control over the revolted areas had to be delayed until troops became available. Large areas of Haut-Sénégal-Niger and Dahomey remained out of French control for as long as a year for lack of troops. Thus the French were initially unable to deal with the revolt of 1916 in Dahomeyan Borgu because neighbouring groups ‒ the Somba of Atacora, the Pila Pila of Semere and the Ohori among others ‒ were also in revolt. In Morocco Lyautey, its conquistador, feared that metropolitan instructions to return half his 70000 troops to France and withdraw to the Atlantic coast might lead to revolt. Though he had to release the men, he did not withdraw and managed to avert challenge to his authority. As it was, France had to keep the other 35 000 troops in Morocco throughout the war. In Portuguese East Africa the German invasion inspired Portuguese subjects to take the occasion to overthrow their hated overlords.

The causes of the widespread revolts and protest movements that took place during the war varied considerably and were not all directly connected with the war itself. In some cases what were described as revolts were, in effect, as in Libya, just the continuation of primary resistance to European occupation. In many cases the motives for revolt or protest were mixed. There can be no doubt that the visual evidence of the apparent weakening of European authority as represented by the exodus of Europeans encouraged those contemplating revolt just as the influx of Europeans, in particular British troops, discouraged it in Egypt.

A number of themes run through the wartime risings: the desire to regairi a lost independence; resentment against wartime measures, in particular compulsory recruitment and forced labour; religious, and in particular pan-Islamic, opposition to the war; reaction to economic hardships occasioned by the war; and discontent with particular aspects of the colonial dispensation, full realization of the nature of which in many areas coincided with the wartime years. There is a final theme, particularly significant in South Africa, that of pro-German sentiment among the subjects of the Allied powers.

The desire to return to a life independent of white rule, that is a return to the status quo ante, comes out clearly in the revolts of the Borgawa and Ohori-Ije in French Dahomey and of various Igbo groups in Owerri province of Nigeria. To a greater or lesser extent the desire to get rid of the white overlord runs through the majority of revolts against French authority in West Africa. Certainly one of the exacerbating factors in the rising of the Egba in 1918 in Southern Nigeria was the very recent loss of their semi-independent status at the outbreak of the war. In Egypt, the Wafd riots which took place immediately after the war were largely inspired by a desire to shake off the recently imposed British protectorate, which, in its short wartime life of four years, had proved itself excessively obnoxious to nationalists and fallähtn alike. In Madagascar 500 Malagasy, mainly intellectuals, were arrested at the end of 1915 and accused of 'forming a well-organised secret society with the aim of expelling the French and restoring a Malagasy government'.

A major concern of the Allied powers during the war was that Turkey's entry on the German side might encourage dissidence among their Muslim subjects. While Turkey's call to djihäd evoked less response among the subject Muslim populations of Africa than the Allied colonial authorities feared, they were constantly on the alert in case of disaffection among their Muslim subjects and were at great pains to reassure Muslim chiefs and leaders that the Allies were not hostile to Islam. The imposition of martial law and the imprisonment of nationalists in Egypt was partly inspired by fear of a sympathetic response to the Turkish call for djihäd among the Egyptians. The British in Northern Nigeria, which was predominantly Muslim, were very sensitive to the possible impact of Islamic propaganda there, but the community of interest established between the Sultan and emirs of the Sokoto Caliphate and the British ensured the loyalty of the bulk of Northern Nigerian Muslims. 

There were some nervous moments for the British when the Sanûsï Sufi brotherhood in Libya, still resisting the Italian occupation of its country, responded to the Turkish call to djihäd and invaded western Egypt in November 1915. The Sanûsï force took the Egyptian port of al-Sallüm with three-quarters of the Egyptian garrison going over to its side, while the British escaped by sea. It then advanced on Sïdï Barraní and Marsä Matrüh. Thereafter the British seized the initiative and drove the Sanûsïs back into Libya. Though defeated in Egypt, members of the brotherhood as well as other Libyans inflicted a decisive defeat on the Italians at the battle of al-Karadäbiyya, the worst defeat suffered by the Italians since Adowa in 1896. They then drove the Italians, who had to divert the bulk of their troops to the Austrian front, to the coast, so that by 1917 Italy was on the verge of losing Libya altogether. These victories led to the establishment of the Tripolitanian Republic (al-Djumhüriyya alTaräbulusiyya) on 16 November 1918 in western Libya and the Emirate of Cyrenaica in eastern Libya. Italy recognized these states in 1919 and granted each one its own parliament. Further rights were granted by Italy under the Treaty of al-Radjma in 1920. In January 1922, these two states agreed to form a political union and elected Idrîs al-Sanusï, the leader of the Sanüsiyya, as the head of the union and set up a central committee with its headquarters at Gharyän. 

The Libyan risings found a sympathetic response in southern Tunisia, where 15000 French troops were needed to suppress the revolt, and among the Tawärik and other Muslims in French Niger and Chad, where Islamic abhorrence of infidel rule, the drought of 1914 and intensive recruitment for the army had provoked considerable discontent. In December 1916 Sanüs^s forces invaded Niger, where they gained the support of Kaossen, leader of the Tarkï Tawärik, Firhün, chief of the Oullimiden Tawärik, and the Sultan of Agades. They took Agades and a combined French and British force was needed to defeat them.

Not only Islamic risings threatened the Allied powers in their colonies. John Chilembwe's rising in Nyasaland (now Malawi) of January 1915 had strong Christian undertones, while the Kitawala Watchtower movement in the Rhodesias preached the imminence of the end of the world and disobedience to constituted authority. It capitalized on the disruption caused in Northern Rhodesia by von Lettow-Vorbeck's invasion at the end of the war. Similarly apocalyptic was the widespread movement in the Niger delta area of Nigeria, led by Garrick Braide, otherwise known as Elijah II, who preached the imminent demise of the British administration. In Ivory Coast, the Prophet Harris was deported in December 1914 because 'the events in Europe demand more than ever the maintenance of tranquillity among the people of the Colony'. In Kenya, in Nyanza, the Mumbo cult which grew rapidly during the war years, rejected the Christian religion, and declared: 'All Europeans are your enemies, but the time is shortly coming when they will disappear from our country.

Perhaps the most important cause of revolt was the forced recruitment of men for service as soldiers and carriers. Such was the hatred of forced recruitment that it was a major inspiration for nearly all the revolts that took place in French Black Africa, and evoked some resistance in the otherwise peaceful Gold Coast colony. 

John Chilembwe's rising was precipitated by the enlistment of Nyasas and their large death toll in the firstw eeks of the war in battle with the Germans. In his memorable censored letter to the Nyasaland Times of 26 November 1914 he protested: 'We understand that we have been invited to shed our innocent blood in this world's war ... we are imposed upon more than any other nationality under the sun'.

Economic hardship caused by the war certainly underlay and even provoked resistance against the colonial authorities. The risings in the midwest of Nigeria and the Niger delta during the early stages of the war cannot be understood except in the context of falling prices for palm products, and the drop in trade due to the exclusion of the producers' main customers, the Germans. Indeed, pro-German sympathy among Allied subjects, where it was found, derived largely from the fact that Germans had in many parts of Africa been the principal traders; and their exclusion by the Allies was associated with the economic depression that attended the first year of the war.

In South Africa the Afrikaner revolt of late 1914 against the government's decision to support the Allies was due both to pro-German sympathy and hatred of Britain. The Germans themselves did their best to provoke disaffection among the African subjects of the Allies, being particularly active along the north-eastern border of Nigeria and in Libya. In Uganda, shortly after the commencement of hostilities, Nyindo, Paramount Chief of Kigezi, was persuaded by his half-brother, the Mwami of Ruanda, to revolt against the British on behalf of the Germans.

In many cases, and notably Nigeria, wartime revolts were not directly attributable to specific wartime measures. Rather they were directed against obnoxious features of colonial rule such as taxation, which was introduced into Yorubaland for the firstt ime in 1916 and together with the increased powers given to traditional rulers under the policy of 'indirect rule', provoked the Iseyin riots. In French West Africa the impositions of the indigénat (a discriminatory judicial code), the reorganization of administrative boundaries, the suppression of chiefs or the exactions of chiefs without traditional authority were all major causes of the revolts that broke out in every colony of the federation.

These revolts were, whatever their cause, put down ruthlessly by the colonial authorities. 'Rebels' were impressed into the army, flogged or even hanged, chiefs exiled or imprisoned, and villages razed to the ground to serve as a warning. But not all protests were violent in character. Many people tried to avoid the source of their grievances by emigration or other forms of evasive action. Thus large numbers of French subjects in Senegal, Guinea, Haut-Sénégal-Niger and Ivory Coast undertook what A. I. Asiwaju has termed 'protest migrations' to the neighbouring British territories. To avoid recruitment teams, inhabitants of whole villages fled to the bush. Young men mutilated themselves rather than serve in the colonial army. The protest migrations were of such magnitude that it was estimated that French West Africa lost some 62000 subjects as a result of them.46 In Zanzibar, too, men hid all day and slept in trees at night to avoid being impressed as carriers.

The economic consequences of the War 

The declaration of war brought considerable economic disruption to Africa. Generally there followed a depression in the prices paid for Africa's primary products, while knowledge that henceforth imported goods would be in short supply led to a rise in their prices. In Uganda there was an overnight increase of 50% in the price of imports.48 The pattern of African trade with Europe was radically changed by the exclusion of the Germans from the Allied territories, where in certain cases, like Sierra Leone, they had accounted for 80% of the import-export trade. Germany's own colonies, even before they were occupied by the Allies, were cut off from trade with the métropole because of Allied dominion over the seas. Germany, from being tropical Africa's major overseas trading partner, was now almost entirely excluded from trading activities in the continent, for once the Allies completed their occupation of the German colonies, all German nationals were interned and their plantations, commercial houses and industries were taken over by the occupying powers. Even in the case of the French African territories, where the French groundnut-milling industry would normally have been able to absorb the oil-seeds hitherto imported by the Germans, it was unable to do so, as it was located in the German-occupied part of north-east France. Thus where France had been the major importer of the Gambian groundnut crop, she was now replaced by Britain whose share of the crop rose from 4% in 1912 to 48% in 191o.49 Indeed the dramatic substitution of British for German traders would almost suggest that the war, as far as the African colonies were concerned, was seen by Britain, (like Germany, a free-trade nation) as an opportunity for economic aggrandizement. While generally the excluded German traders were replaced by nationals of the governing power of the colonies in which they had traded, in French West Africa, the British made headway against the French because of the mobilization of French traders.

The depression that followed the outbreak of war soon gave way to a boom in those products needed to boost the Allied war effort. Thus Egyptian cotton rose from £E$ a quintal in 1914 to £E8 in 1916-18. But increased demand was not always reflected by increased prices, for often the colonial governments controlled the prices paid to the producers. Certain countries suffered badly throughout the war. To take the example of the Gold Coast, its major export crop of cocoa was not nearly in such demand as, for instance, oil-seeds. Furthermore the buying capacity of the African-based import-export houses was severely hampered by the enlistment, voluntary or obligatory, of so many of the European personnel; in French West Africa some 75% of the European traders had left for the war by 1917.

While prices of exports did not always reflect the increased demand for them, because of controlled prices, and while demand for labour, too, was not always reflected in increased wages, the prices of imports, where they were obtainable, rose throughout the war. While the vast majority of Africans in the subsistence sector were not affected by this inflation, those in the wage-earning or export crop-producing sectors were. Thus the Egyptian peasant producing cotton found that the benefit he received from increased prices for his product did not offset the steep rise in the cost of fuel, clothing and cereals.

The war witnessed an increased level of state intervention in the economies of the African colonies, whether in the form of price control, requisition of food crops, compulsory cultivation of crops, recruitment of labour for essential projects or allocation of shipping space. Generally such intervention tended to favour the import-export houses of the colonial power controlling the colony concerned. Thus in Nigeria, companies like John Holt and the United Africa Company were used as buying agents and had both priority in shipping space and easier access to loans from the banks, with the result that smaller import-export companies, in particular Nigerian-controlled ones, suffered.

Demands for traditionally subsistence crops, including yams, manioc and beans, for the feeding of the Allies in Europe and for the armies in Africa or the Middle Eastern front, added to the hardship of those outside the subsistence sector. And where subsistence crops were requisitioned ‒ as they widely were ‒ or paid for at prices below the free-market price, the producers themselves suffered. Thus by the end of the war the Egyptian fallâhïn were hard put to keep body and soul together, what with inflation, and the requisition of their cereals and animals.55 In French West Africa the demands for men for the war conflicted with demands for sorghum, millet, maize, etc. which they would normally have produced. By 1916 France was in a desperate situation for food, for her crop in terms of wheat had suffered a shortfall of 30 million quintals, 60 million as against the 90 million required. The following year, with a world shortfall in the wheat crop, her own crop was only 40 million quintals. Thus in both these years wheat or substitutes had to be found overseas. North Africa, so close to France, was an obvious source of supply and even recently conquered Morocco was enlisted in her ravitaillement. But demands were made even as far afield as Madagascar. In addition to such demands, the subsistence farmer in territories in which campaigns were fought, particularly in East Africa, was subject to the exactions of armies which, because of supply problems, could not but live off the land. 

Demands for troops and carriers as well as for increased production of both export and subsistence crops resulted in shortages of labour in many parts of the continent during the war. Recruitment of carriers in Northern Rhodesia for the East Africa campaign cut off Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Katanga from their traditional source of labour and the Belgian administration in the Congo had to conduct forced recruitment of labour for the country's mines. The influenza epidemic at the end of the war in East and Central Africa particularly affected the returning carriers and created acute shortages of labour in Kenya and the Rhodesias. This shortage occurred among European as well as African personnel; and in Southern Rhodesia, where white railway workers had hitherto been laid off at will by their employers because of the availability of replacements, they were now at such a premium that they were able to form unions,58 previously resisted by employers and Government. 

The shortage of imports may have led to a fall in production where agriculture, as in Egypt, was dependent on imports of fertilizers, farm implements and irrigation machinery, but it also encouraged the development of import substitution industries in some countries, particularly South Africa where the potentialities of overseas markets for local products came to be realized at this time.In the Belgian Congo, cut off from the occupied metropolis, the war was a great stimulus to increased self-sufficiency, as it was in the early years of the war in German East Africa. The influx of British troops into Egypt and the injection of some £200 million into the economy during the war period was an important stimulus to industrial growth. 

The war introduced the internal combustion engine and, with it, motorable roads to many parts of Africa. In East Africa, the protracted campaign against the Germans and the problem of moving supplies led to the construction of a number of motorable roads, such as that from Dodoma in German East Africa to Tukuyu at the north end of Lake Nyasa, which reduced to two to three days a journey that hitherto had taken two to three weeks.60 In those areas where there was sustained military activity, or where transit facilities were required, ports developed rapidly. Mombasa, Bizerta, Port Harcourt and Dakar are cases in point. In Nigeria, the Enugu coal mines were opened up during the war to provide the railways with a local source of fuel.

Generally government revenues diminished during the war, since they were largely dependent on duties on imported goods. The colonies nevertheless bore a large part of the burden of the cost of local campaigns, apart from making grants to the metropolitan powers to help the war effort. Except where military exigencies necessitated them, public works came to a halt and development plans were shelved until after the war.

The socio-political consequences of the War 

The social consequences of the war for Africa varied considerably from territory to territory and depended on the extent of their involvement, in particular the degree of recruitment or military activity in them. Unfortunately, until recently relatively little attention has been given to the social impact of the war. This is somewhat surprising, since for some areas like eastern Africa, the First World War, as Ranger has put it, was 'the most awe-inspiring, destructive and capricious demonstration of European "absolute power" that eastern Africa ever experienced. The scale of the forces involved, the massiveness of the fire-power, the extent of devastation and disease, the number of African lives lost - all these dwarfed the original campaigns of colonial conquest, and even the suppression of the Majï Majï rising. Writing in the 1930s Dr H. R. A. Philip remarked that the 'experiences of the years from 1914 to 1918 were such as to effectively awaken the Kenya native from the sleep of the centuries'.62 Compared with the research conducted on the political consequences of the war for Africa, comparatively little has been undertaken on its social consequences. Yet its impact on soldiers, carriers and labourers who were uprooted from the circumscribed worlds of their villages and sent thousands of miles away and their impact on their societies on their return63 forms a major theme in colonial history. 

There is no doubt that the war opened up new windows for many Africans, particularly the educated elite groups. Margery Perham has written that it is 'difficult to overestimate the effect upon Africans, who had been largely enclosed within a bilateral relationship with their European rulers, of looking outside this enclosure and seeing themselves as part of a continent and of a world'.64 In many parts of Africa the war gave a boost, if not always to nationalist activity, at least to the development of a more critical approach by the educated elites towards their colonial masters. Bethwell Ogot has suggested that the shared wartime experience of African and European soldiers had a similar effect for the less-educated:

The African soldier soon discovered the weaknesses and the strength of the European, who up to that time had been regarded by the majority of Africans as a superman. In fact, the warrant and noncommissioned African officers were instructing European volunteers in the technique of modern warfare. It was becoming evident that the European did not know everything. The returning porters and soldiers spread the new views of the white man; and much of the self-confidence and assertiveness that the Africans in Kenya displayed in the 1920s had a lot to do with this new knowledge.

He also points out that, significantly, several African political leaders in Kenya had either fought or served in the East African campaign. In Guinea the return of the anciens combattants heralded strikes, riots in the demobilization camps and attacks on the authority of chiefs.

If the war saw an end of attempts by Africans to regain the lost sovereignty of their pre-colonial polities, it also saw a rise in demands for participation in the process of government of the new polities imposed on them by the Europeans. These demands - inspired by President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points which were made in reaction to the Soviet proposals put forward in October 1917 for the immediate conclusion of peace without annexation or indemnity - even extended to the right to self-determination. In the case of the Arab countries of North Africa the joint announcement by Britain and France in November 1918 that the Allies were contemplating the enfranchisement of peoples oppressed by the Turks presented the spectacle of one group of Arabs being offered independence, while another, ruled by those very powers who were offering freedom to the Turkish provinces, was denied it.

Sa'd Zaghlül's Wafd Party in Egypt took its name from the delegation {Wafd) he tried to send to the Versailles Peace Conference to negotiate Egypt's return to independence. Similarly in Tunisia, though the wartime Resident, Alapetite, had kept as firm a grip on the nationalists as the British had in Egypt, after the war their leaders sent a telegram to President Wilson of the United States to enlist his assistance in their demands for selfdetermination. 

While Wilson's Fourteen Points did not inspire demands for immediate independence in Africa south of the Sahara, his liberal sentiments encouraged West African nationalists to hope that they could influence the Versailles Peace Conference and also encouraged them to demand a greater say in their own affairs.69 As the Sierra Leonean, F. W. Dove, a delegate to the National Congress of British West Africa put it, the time had 'passed when the African peoples should be coerced against their will to do things that are not in accordance with their best interests'.70 In the Sudan, Wilson's Fourteen Points, coupled with the inspiration of the Arab revolt of 1916, proved a turning-point in Sudanese nationalism, informing the attitudes of a new generation of politically conscious young men who had passed through government schools and had acquired some modern, western skills.

In many territories where heavy contributions had been made in terms of men and material to the war effort, there was hope that these would be rewarded at least by social and political reform. In some cases the colonial governments specifically promised reform in return for increased assistance from their subject populations. Blaise Diagne was promised a package of post-war reforms in French Black Africa if he could recruit the additional men France required for the European front. This he did, but the reforms were never put into effect. The Algerian contribution to the war effort was rewarded by economic and political improvements in the status of Algerians which were, however, opposed by the settlers and perceived as too limited by the Emir Khâlid, grandson of 'Abd al-Kädir, who strongly criticized the French administration and was deported in 1924. He has justly been described as the founder of the Algerian nationalist movement. In Tunisia a delegation of thirty men representative of the Arab community called on the Bey to initiate political reform, reminding him of the sacrifices Tunisia had made in the war. Certainly much of the impetus behind the foundation of the Destiir or Constitution Party in 1920 came from returned soldiers and labourers who were dissatisfied with their subordinate position in their own country. In British West Africa, the press, while generally extremely loyal to the British and critical of the Germans, believed that the reward for this loyalty would be a more significant role for the educated elite in the colonial decision-making process.

The war acted not only as a stimulus to African nationalism but also to white nationalism, particularly in South Africa. There, though the Afrikaner rebellion was speedily put down, the spirit which informed it was not. As William Henry Vatcher has put it: 

The rebellion reconfirmed what the Boer War had taught, that force was not the answer, that battle must be pitched in the political arena. Thus, in a real sense, modern Afrikaner nationalism, conceived in the Boer War, was born in the 1914 rebellion. If the first world war had not taken place, the Boers might have been better able to adjust to the conciliatory policy of Botha and Smuts. The war forced on them the decision to organize, first covertly in the form of the Afrikaner Broederbond, then in the form of the 'purified' National Party.

In Kenya, the white settlers used the war to make major political advances vis-à-vis the colonial government. They secured the right of whites to elect representatives to the Legislative Council, where after 1918 they formed a majority. This, coupled with the Crown Lands Ordinance, which made racial segregation in the White Highlands possible, the Native Registration Ordinance, which introduced a pseudo-pass law for Africans, and the Soldier Settlement Scheme which allocated large portions of the Nandi reserve for settlement of white soldiers after the war, entrenched the white minority in a dominant position in Kenya up to the 1950s.

A major stimulus to Kenya nationalism was the reaction against such privileges gained by the white community, in particular with regard to land. Thus the Kikuyu Association, consisting mainly of chiefs, was founded in 1920 to defend Kikuyu land interests while Harry Thuku's Young Kikuyu Association, founded a year later, aimed at defence of both land and labour.

In South Africa, the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and Republican agitation during the war gave serious concern to African leaders in Swaziland and Basutoland (now Lesotho). They feared that their countries might be integrated into the Union, which with its increasingly racist policies, exemplified by the provisions of the Native Land Act of 1913, might, under Afrikaner pressure, gain independence, and that thereafter there would be no protection for their interests. As Simon Phamote of the Sotho National Council declared, his people feared 'the Union because we know that ... the Boers will one day get their independence from the British.'80 Within the Union, the South African Native National Congress (later to become the African National Congress) presented a memorandum after the war to King George V of Britain, citing the African contribution to the war in both the South West African and East African campaigns as well as in France, and recalling that the war had been fought to liberate oppressed peoples and to grant to every nation the right to determine its sovereign destiny.81 The Congress was informed by the British Colonial Office that Britain could not interfere in the internal affairs of South Africa and the Congress appeal was not presented to the Peace Conference. 


The war saw a major change in the climate of international opinion with regard to colonialism. Prior to the war, the European colonial powers had been accountable only to themselves. After the war, at the Versailles Peace Conference, the colonial record of one of them, Germany, was examined and found wanting, according to newly conceived standards of morality concerning the governance of colonial peoples.82 Undoubtedly, most of the other colonial powers would have been found equally wanting if their own record had been similarly scrutinized.83 The idea of administering so-called backward peoples as a 'sacred trust', though evident in the 1890s in the prohibition, for example, of the sale of alcohol to Africans, was now enshrined in the Mandates where the victorious Allies took over the administration of Germany's colonies on behalf of the League of Nations ‒  'responsible for the ... promotion to the utmost of the material and moral well-being and the social progress of [their] inhabitants'.84 Theoretically the principle of international accountability had been underlined, though, because of the weakness of the League of Nations, little could be done, for instance, about the deplorable conditions of the indigenous inhabitants of South West Africa administered under Mandate by the Union.85 The right of self-determination, firste nunciated at the Congress of the Socialist Second International held in London in 1896, had also been enunciated by the leader of a major world power, Woodrow Wilson, whilst the newly-emerged Soviet Union was to attack all forms of colonialism in Africa. 

Even if the lot of the subject peoples did not change much for the better in the years following the war, when even willing attempts at reform were aborted by the depression, searching questions about the morality of colonialism had begun to be asked. And it was in this climate that the nationalist movement gestated that was eventually to obtain independence for many African countries. For example, leaders of the National Congress of British West Africa like J. E. Casely Hayford and H. C. Bankole-Bright were able to gain an international hearing through the League of Nations Union, concerning themselves with the administration of Togoland and appealing to the Covenant of the League as a charter for 'just treatment towards our people'. And at long range, the idea of the Mandate evolved into the post-Second World War concept of Trusteeship, which incorporated the explicit goal of eventual independence for the Trust Territories which were to be visited by 'neutral' missions of inspection.

The First World War, then, represented a turning-point in African history, not as dramatic as the Second World War, but nevertheless important in many areas. One of its most important legacies was the reordering of the map of Africa roughly as it is today. Germany was eliminated as a colonial power, and replaced by France and Britain in the Cameroon and Togo, by the Union of South Africa in South West Africa and by Britain and Belgium in German East Africa, the latter gaining the small but densely populated provinces of Ruanda and Urundi (now Rwanda and Burundi).

The intricate negotiations that took place at Versailles over the reallocation of these territories to the Allied victors belongs properly to the history of Europe, though the way in which Cameroon and Togo were divided, with little reference to historical and ethnic considerations, was to create considerable bitterness among certain sections of the population in these territories and their immediate neighbours, in particular the Ewe of Togo and the Gold Coast. As far as the African inhabitants of the former German colonies were concerned, their lot was not noticeably improved by the change of masters. Indeed some Africans compared their former masters favourably with their new ones, and in Cameroon and Togo, a certain nostalgia for the earlier regime grew as the French introduced their forced labour and the British proved less energetic than their Teutonic cousins in developing their territories. Because France and Britain saw themselves as temporary stewards in the Mandate territories, the two Togolands remained less developed than say Ivory Coast and Gold Coast, and Tanganyika less developed than Kenya or Uganda. And if South West Africa developed spectacularly under South African 'stewardship', it was to the benefit of the fast-growing settler population; as far as the indigenous inhabitants were concerned, the brutal experience of German rule was exchanged for that of a government committed to racist policies and the settlement and exploitation of the country by and for whites. 

The First World War, though essentially a European war, involved Africa intimately. It marked both the end of the partition of Africa and of attempts by Africans to regain independence based on their pre-partition polities. Though it represented a period of immense social and economic upheaval for many African countries, it ushered in a twenty-year period of tranquillity for the European administrations, except in places like the French and Spanish Rïf, French Mauritania and Italian Libya. 

However, ideas concerning the self-determination of peoples and the accountability of colonial powers had been sown during this war. These ideas were to influence profoundly the development of the incipient nationalist movements during the ensuing period of peace. But it was to take a second world war to provide the cataclysm which translated the requests of the nationalists for greater participation in the process of government, into demands for full control of it. 


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

© UNESCO 1985