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The Spoils of War

Written by David Olusoga

The First World War was a clash of empires. Within days of the outbreak of hostilities, the violence began to spill out of Europe and into nations that were then colonies of the European powers.

On 12thAugust 1914, eight days after Britain had entered the war and ten days before British troops clashed, for the first time, with the German army in Belgium and France, a British force made up of white officers and African soldiers launched an invasion of the German colony of Togoland in West Africa. It was during this invasion that the very first shot was fired by a member of the British forces in the First World War.

The man who took that historic shot was Regimental Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi; a Muslim African who was part of the British West African Frontier Force. Britain’s land war had begun in Africa and the last shots of the war would also be fought on the African continent.

Although the British and the French had not gone to war in order to win new colonies once the fighting had begun they had been willing to seize the colonies of their enemies. By 1915 Germans colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific had been invaded and largely conquered, although the German force from the colony of East Africa would keep fighting until 1918, spreading war and famine across parts of Central and Eastern Africa. In the Middle East, Britain and France fought to take control of lands controlled by the Ottoman empire, persuading local Arab peoples to revolt. In 1916 the British and French governments secretly signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which drew ‘lines in the sand’ that divided up the former Ottoman lands between them. This agreement and later treaties created many of the borders and some of the tensions of the modern Middle East.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, named after the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, offered official British support for the creation of a ’national home for the Jewish people’ in what was then the Ottoman region of Palestine. The declaration was a critical step towards the creation of the modern state of Israel.

On 14thNovember when the last German units in Africa surrendered – having not heard of the armistice of November 11th.

The final defeat of German and her allies meant that not only did Germany lose her colonial empire, but that the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire all collapsed. For the Tsarist Russian empire, the conflict ended in revolution. Germany herself was also consumed by revolution in the months after the armistice. But for Britain and France victory in the First World War allowed them to expand their empire.

The British Empire reached its largest size in 1922. It would take another conflict, twenty years later, for the age of the European empires to finally begin to draw to a close.



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