Africa’s first World War (Part 1)

Ramsay
Ramsay

“Looking up, we saw the British soldiers racing to the trenches, and our Captain ordered us to do the same.

At that instant the sound of planes was heard, and five German aircraft came into view. Everyone froze. The planes started dropping bombs on us. Beside bombs, they also dropped a message from ‘Mkiza’ (their ‘Kaiser’) which said – ‘I hate you Uncle Sam, because I do not know what caused you to come and enter this war. I hate Belgium and will crush it, because I have already taken most of it. I hate France. I hate England the most, because it takes other countries into its empire. But in this war, I hate black people the most. I do not know what they want in this European War. Where I find them I will smash them.’” – World War One veteran Stimela Jingoes recalling a 1917 air raid targeting the 5th Battalion (Basutoland-Bechuanaland Protectorate) camp at Dieppe in France.

This coming Wednesday will mark the centenary of an event that has come to be identified with the dawn of the modern era of weapons of mass destruction.  At just after 1700 hours on the April 22, 1915 a yellow-green cloud drifted towards trenches that were then occupied by the 45th and 78th divisions of the French army, located in the vicinity of the Belgium town of Ypres.

Across the frontline, their German opponents had launched what history records as the world’s first effective, large scale, use of chemical weapons. Some six thousand were killed as a consequence of the chlorine gas attack, which left many more incapacitated. The deadly effectiveness of this initial assault surprised its perpetrators as well as their victims.


With the French line temporarily broken, it fell upon Canadian and Indian troops of the adjacent British Empire divisions to help fill the breach, rapidly drawing them into the scene of panic and confusion. For those at ground zero the nature of the deadly cloud was then a mystery. With the benefit of hindsight, a subsequent British assessment noted:

“It was impossible to understand what the Africans said, but from the way they coughed and pointed to their throats, it was evident, if not suffering from the effects of gas, they were thoroughly scared. Teams and wagons of the French field artillery next appeared retiring, and the throng of fugitives soon became thicker and more disordered, some individuals running.”

After the initial shock, however, the North Africans, along with other French, including West African, units were able to regroup and push back the German offensive, assisted by the Canadian and Indian reinforcements.

The diverse origins of the allied combatants engaged at the onset of the infamous 1915 Battle of Ypres underscores the broader fact that the First World War in Europe was a multi-racial battleground, in which the Anglo-French alliance drew upon troops from across their vast, geographically diverse empires.  A 100 years later the popular image of the allied forces on the Western Front, however, rarely reflects this diversity.

While some half a million Africans ultimately served in the battle zones of Europe and the Middle East between 1914 and 1918, millions more were involved in military action on their own continent. The popular image of the war in Europe, however, rarely takes into account the large scale presence of Africans on the Western Front, while the massive horror of the conflict in Africa itself still tends to be dismissed as a mere sideshow.

A century later it is, nonetheless, clear that no single war before or since has had a greater impact on Africa as a whole than the 1914-18 armed conflict, which was accompanied by fighting across virtually every corner of the continent, including Botswana.

Up to three quarter of a million African combatants perished, about half of whom were from what is now the SADC region. While there is no reliable aggregate count for civilian deaths, population declines of up to 10% were recorded in some of the worst affected areas of East Africa.

Quite beyond the body count, there can now be little doubt, that the very nature and course of the entire war would have been different without the participation of millions of Africans, who were also joined by some 200,000 African Americans and tens of thousands of black Caribbean troops. Among this Pan-African mix were 555 members of the South African Native Contingent 5th Battalion, who had been drawn from Southern and North East Botswana to serve in France.

Without the contributions of this ‘La Force Noire’, as the then unprecedented presence of black troops was dubbed by the French, the final allied victory over the German led Central Powers is very much open to doubt (to be continued). “Africa’s First World War” will be the subject of an illustrated Botswana Society sponsored presentation by this author, to be delivered at the new Livingstone Kolobeng College Hall on the 29th April 2015 from 6 pm. Admission is free.

Editor's Comment
Escalating fuel prices cause panic

Nowadays it is not uncommon to purchase an item for a certain commodity and return to the shops in a week, to find the same item has gone up by a significant amount of money.Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority (BERA) last week announced yet another fuel price increase, which follows yet another increase that came into effect on March 29. Hardly two months later on May 12 boom, BERA announced yet another increase, which came into effect at a...

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