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Forgotten Soldiers

Written by David Olusoga

When Europe went to war the so-called ‘great powers’ took their colonial subjects with them. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Africa and the Pacific were dragged into the conflict with no say in the matter. France mobilized her colonial armies immediately and men from West Africa and North Africa were thrust into in action within days of the start of the war.

French recruitment of West Africans was governed by racial theories that suggested that some Africans were naturally warlike and naturally violent and should, therefore, be used as shock troops, units that took part in the most dangerous aspects of offensive operations and suffered the highest casualty rates.

Even before the Western front had emerged Britain’s Indian army had been shipped across the world and thrown into battle, around a quarter of the British front line was defended by men from India by the end of 1914. But in an age when rule in Europe’s empires was built upon ideas of white racial supremacy the British were always uncomfortable with the idea of Asian men fighting against Europeans, and in 1915, once Britain had recruited and trained a new volunteer army, most of the Indian troops were sent to the Middle East where they fought against the army of the Ottoman Empire.

Some people in the colonies enthusiastically supported the war. The colonies of the British Caribbean raised money for the war effort and West Indian men stowed away on ships bound for Britain in hope of being allowed to join the army and fight for ‘King and Empire’. In India, there was a similar outburst of enthusiasm for the war. What they and colonial peoples everywhere hoped was that by serving their colonial mastering in the war, and sending men to Europe to fight and die, they would be rewarded with new freedoms and better treatment after the conflict.

Everywhere people who thought that way were to be bitterly disappointed. Similar hopes encouraged thousands of African Americans to join the US Army. But the military authorities preferred to use them as labourers rather than combat soldiers. Those who were permitted to fight did so as part of the French army, wearing French uniforms and in units led by French officers.

At the end of the conflict, the subjects of Europe’s empires and the African-American soldiers who had fought in the war discovered that rather than receiving better treatment racial hierarchies were reestablished and their part in the war forgotten. Black men who had fought for the United States were refused permission to march in the Victory Parade in Paris, Black British soldiers and men from Africa Will likewise not permitted to march in the victory parade held in London.

On their return to the US 13 black soldiers were lynched, some because they wore their army uniforms in public, as white veterans did. West Indian soldiers who had fought for Britain were denied equal pay and bonuses and after the war, the regiment in which they had fought was disbanded. Black people living in Britain in 1919 were also subjected to a wave of racial violence that culminated in nine so-called race riots that year during which black people were driven from their homes. In some men were killed by white mobs. Postwar France set about not rewarding her colonies for their loyalty during the war but seeking to use them and their raw materials to rebuild her economy, dissent was brutally repressed. Everywhere the racial barriers that had been temporarily lowered during the war raised again when peace came. 


White Feather

Uniquely in Britain, the government allowed possible exemption from conscription for those who objected to military service on grounds of conscience.

The Spoils of War

Although Britain and France had not gone to war to win new colonies, once fighting began they were willing to seize the colonies of their enemies.

The right kind of woman?

In 1918 only one-third of women gained the vote. They were the more comfortably off. Is it still easier for middle-class women to involve themselves in feminist campaigns?

Maisons Tolérées

Dotted across the towns of northern France were maisons tolérées, or legalised brothels. Visits to French brothels by British soldiers were officially allowed.


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