Like Most Things, World War I Actually Started And Ended In Africa
Though often overlooked in history books, Africans and African Americans played huge roles in the first world war, from beginning to end.
November 11, 2021 at 9:33 pm
If you learned about WWI in school, the story that you learned of the first “World” War was probably very Euro-centric. The conflict began in 1914, so the story goes, when a white terrorist assassinated a white heir to the throne of an empire led by a white monarch. This kicked off a chain of events in which a bunch of European countries fought each other, often in bloody, death- and disease-filled trenches in countries such as France. Eventually, the Americans showed up to help turn the tide of the war and the Germans eventually surrendered and got blamed for starting the whole thing. The date of that surrender, Nov. 11, was enshrined in a bunch of national holidays, including our Veterans Day.
Non-white folks, to the extent that they show up in this story at all, are usually given minor supporting roles. Because the Europeans had colonized most of the world in the centuries leading up to the war, a lot of Black and brown folks wound up fighting in the war or otherwise supporting the war effort, but their roles are generally portrayed as happening off to the side of the real conflict.
It’s perhaps no surprise that reality played out a bit differently. Though rarely detailed in most historical accounts of World War I, some scholars, such as writer Simon Collings, argue that WWI both began and ended in Africa. Specifically, one of the first battles of the war occurred in Africa, not Europe. And contrary to the story that’s usually told, the war did not end in Europe on Nov. 11, but actually went on for another two weeks — in Africa.
Let’s start at the beginning. After days of tension building up between two rival coalitions of European countries, the initial fighting of World War I is usually noted to be the German invasion of Belgium — Germany was basically cutting through Belgium to get to its real target, France, in a sneak attack. This invasion began on Aug. 4, 1914, and the first real battle, in the Belgium town of Liège, started the next day. That city held out until Aug. 15, and once it was defeated, Germany marched on and hit France.
However, while tensions had been building up in Europe, they had also been growing between European-controlled colonies, particularly those in Africa. At roughly the same time that Germany was invading Belgium to get to France, fighting broke out in Africa. In August 1914, British soldiers in the Gold Coast colony — now Ghana — invaded the neighboring German-controlled colony of Togoland. The German capital there, Lomé, was captured on Aug. 7, a full week before Germany got its first victory in Europe. And it was an African soldier, Alhaji Grunshi, who fired the first shot for the British side.
For the next four years, the war raged, not only in Europe, but also in Africa, which had been carved up and occupied by the various European powers. Specifically, Britain and France, which were both members of the Allied Powers alliance in Europe and the two biggest colonial powers, targeted German-held colonies in Africa, which included the present-day countries of Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Togo. The British and French also fought the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany, in North Africa. Over 200,000 Black American soldiers fought on behalf of the U.S. in Europe, particularly against German soldiers in France. Fighting in mostly segregated units, several hundred Black soldiers became officers during the war, and 171 were honored with the French Legion of Honor.
In Africa, Europeans were calling the shots but African soldiers did most of the fighting, and suffered most of the casualties as well. The death toll in Africa, including both battlefield deaths and civilians who lost their lives due to food shortages and other wartime conditions, was roughly 2 million. The fighting that produced such conditions endured in Africa, even after the German surrender on Nov. 11, 1918, that officially ended the war. The last German soldiers to stop fighting were those in Zambia, at that time a British territory, who kept fighting until Nov. 25, and Zambia still recognizes itself as the place where WWI truly ended.
The long-term impact of these battles and sacrifices endured in Africa and in America. African populations launched multiple revolts against European rule during the war, and a number of WWI veterans became political leaders in Africa, starting the process that eventually led to independence. Black American veterans returned home to face race riots and lynchings.
Famed academic, activist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois chronicled these struggles in his 1919 article “Returning Soldiers.” He also helped connect the struggles of Africans fighting for independence and African Americans fighting for civil rights and freedoms by organizing the first Pan-African Congress in 1919 in Paris at the same time of, and parallel to, the Paris Peace Conference that was hammering out the details of the end of the war. This was the first of several such congresses, and included among the activists present at later meetings were African independence leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya. Thus, Black people played a major role in WWI, from beginning to end, and the legacy of the war, in turn, shaped the future for Black people in America, Africa and around the world.