The First World War in Africa

Whilst many of the First World War’s highest profile events happened in Europe on the Western Front, Britain also fought campaigns in East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa and Egypt. There is little published regarding these campaigns, but for the people caught up in the conflict on the African continent, it was as real and horrifying as events on the Western Front.

A major difference was that a large number of those involved in Africa had no idea why the war between white people was being fought. But they had to participate. Either willingly for reasons of adventure, status and economic improvement, or through coercion because of manpower requirements.

In addition to men and women from Africa serving on the continent, men and women also travelled from Africa to participate in Europe and Mesopotamia.

Many Africans of all colours paid with their lives, but many more suffered debilitating illnesses and disabilities which impacted on their earning capacity and family relations long after the war ended.

Southern Africa

Bophutatswana (Botswana), Swaziland, Basutoland (Lesotho), Angola and South West Africa (Namibia). All were British except for South West Africa which was German and Angola which was Portuguese. Men from all the territories served in Africa while some served in Europe and a few in Palestine.

South Africa was one of the only Empire territories which experienced a civil war over its involvement in the First World War. This was not surprising given that the country was still divided following the 1899-1902 war between the Boers and British.

South Africa’s contribution to Britain’s 1914-1918 war effort was largely due to a sense of loyalty and duty felt by Prime Minister Louis Botha and his deputy Jan Smuts, both Boer leaders who had fought against the British in the earlier war. In the Great War, they both led campaigns in Africa. Botha against the rebels and South West Africa, Smuts in South West Africa and East Africa and then from 1917 participated in the British War Cabinet.

The campaign against German South West Africa was relatively clinical with a total loss of 288 from a force of 50,000, however, in East Africa there was an attrition rate of 75 per cent, mainly from disease.

South Africa’s biggest loss of life in the war on the African continent occurred at the Battle for Salaita Hill on 9 February 1916 when three South African Battalions lost a total of 140 (49 killed), including two Rhodesians, in four hours.

Similarly, on the Western Front, the South African Brigade serving under General Tim Lukin saw its greatest sacrifice at Delville Wood from 15 to 19 July 1916 when an estimated 2,500 lives, including 1,100 SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) were lost. The Labour Corps too suffered a huge tragedy when the SS Mendi went down near the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917, with the loss of 607 black, 9 white and 30 lives. A total of 21,000 black southern African labourers were to serve on the Western Front between 1916 and 1917.

An Indian Stretcher Bearer company of 250 men was raised in Durban. They served in East Africa during 1916.

Southern Rhodesia sent the 1st Rhodesian Regiment to South West Africa where it worked with the South Africans. A second regiment was sent to East Africa because it was not fair to send them to Europe before the first men recruited had the chance.

After the South West Africa campaign, the South African and Rhodesians were demobilised. Many then enlisted as Imperial troops. They served in Europe under Tim Lukin after diverting to Egypt. They arrived in Europe in time for the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Rhodesians who went across as a group served as a platoon of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Others found their own way to Europe to enlist in units associated with their family or school.

East and Central Africa

East and Central Africa consists of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi), German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi), British East Africa (Kenya), Uganda, Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). All the territories were directly involved in the war although German troops never entered Uganda or Congo.

On 8 August 1914, the port of Dar es Salaam was bombed by the British ship HMS Astrea and between 15 and 22 August 1914 soldiers engaged each other on each of the German colonial borders. On 15 August, the Germans entered British territory in today’s Kenya, occupying the town of Taveta for 18 months. This was the only British territory occupied by German forces during the war.

British East African settlers flooded to Nairobi to enlist as the news of the war filtered through. They were joined by two Indian Expeditionary Forces which arrived between September and November. The September force was to help protect the border between the two East African colonies while the November force was to attack the German colony. Indian Expeditionary Force B was severely defeated at the Battle of Tanga with 817 (360 killed) lost from a force of 7,972. British East Africa was ordered onto the defensive.

To supplement the forces, in 1915 the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen) arrived in East Africa as did a contingent from Southern Rhodesia. It was in late 1915 that the British War Office agreed to go on the offensive again in Africa. This was possible with the arrival of over 10,000 South Africans led by South African Deputy Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Conscription was locally approved for both black and white residents in 1915 and came into force in 1916, first amongst the local black population.

As 1916 progressed the conditions were found too harsh for the white South Africans in particular. They were replaced by troops from West Africa and the West Indies. Labour was brought from the Seychelles and China. The local black African force, the King’s African Rifles, were also expanded from 3 Regiments to 23 including a contingent which had fought for the Germans. Many South Africans later re-enlisted to fight in Europe and the Middle East. This included the Cape Corps, a mixed-race contingent allowed to carry arms.

1st Battalion, The Nigeria Regiment entrain at Kaduna © Q 45771

At the end of 1916, Jan Smuts was replaced as commander by Reginald Hoskins and three months later by South African Jaap van Deventer who had also fought against the British in the 1899-1902 war. Van Deventer was to see the war through to its end when the Germans surrendered on 25 November 1918.

Uganda supplied King’s African Rifles, medical support and carriers. It is estimated that across the campaign 1 million carriers were used to keep the armed forces in the field. The use of carriers was more reliable and cost effective than other forms of transport because of tsetse fly, black cotton soil and other local conditions. At least 21% of carriers lost their lives. The exact figure is unknown as many died outside of hospitals where records were not kept as efficiently.

Northern Rhodesia was the only British territory in Africa which had to protect two fronts – South West Africa and German East Africa. The need to protect the southern border ended in August 1915 after the surrender of German East Africa and the capture of South African rebel Manie Maritz.

Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were initially protected by their black and white police forces and white local volunteers. Northern and Southern Rhodesia, controlled by the British South Africa Company under Royal Charter, were not permitted to have a permanent military force so the police had a wider remit than would normally be expected of a police force. Many of the King’s African Rifles at the start of the war came from Nyasaland. Members of the Northern Rhodesia Police and 4 King’s African Rifles were present at the surrender of the Germans at Abercorn (Mbala) on 25 November 1918.

Many African countries experienced uprisings during the war. The one in Nyasaland led by John Chilembwe was the most concerning. Afterwards, 270 South Africans were sent to support the Nyasaland forces in protecting the country.

East Africa had three naval campaigns, the first of the war on Lake Nyasa in August 1914. The longest naval battle of the war was the second in East Africa against the German cruiser the Königsberg. The third on Lake Tanganyika regarded as the most ‘bizarre’. In the last two, planes were used. Planes were also used for observation and dropping propaganda leaflets as well as bombs. In all four DSMs, 10 DSCs and 4 DSOs awarded across the various flight units in Africa (acknowledgement: Peter Dye).

West Africa

The West African British territories involved in the 1914-1918 war included Nigeria, Gold Coast (Ghana), The Gambia and Sierra Leone. Together with French and Belgian Congo forces they invaded German Togoland and Kamerun (Cameroon).

Orderly and cook, Nigerian Brigade © IWM (Q 15411)

The main British force was the West African Frontier Force. It consisted of men from all the British territories, although they tended to stay in territorial regiments. The officers were British while the soldiers were local black Africans mainly from the interior. Sierra Leone supplied mainly labour in the form of Kroo Boys as they were known.

The first allied victory was achieved in West Africa when the German forces in Togoland surrendered on 28 August 1914. This allowed the force to focus on German Kamerun which took until March 1916 to surrender. The Royal Navy and local Marine services played a crucial part transporting troops along the main river routes. These connected the main centres. At the end of the fighting, the two territories were split and administered by France and Britain respectively pending agreement at the peace discussions.

The West African ports, especially Sierra Leone were important refuelling bases for ships travelling from Europe to Africa, India and Australasia via Cape Town.

When the fighting in West Africa had ended, a Gold Coast and Nigerian Regiment were sent to East Africa to support the campaign there. They returned to West Africa in stages during the first eight months of 1918.

North Africa

The 1914-1918 war in North Africa was different to that in sub-Sahara Africa. On 18 December 1914 Britain declared Egypt a protectorate to prevent the Ottoman Empire having access to the Suez Canal. The Ottoman Empire had allied with Germany. Control of the Suez would determine which ships could use the canal.

Egypt was used as a stop-over for ships on route to India and East Africa. During the Gallipoli Campaign it was used as a supply base. Many of the wounded found themselves in Egyptian Voluntary Aid Detachment hospitals. It was also used as a training base for ANZAC soldiers before they arrived in Europe.

On the outbreak of war, the British garrison left for service in Europe. Instead, the Egyptian Army was supported by the Indian Army and allied warships to protect the Suez Canal and Sudan. There was no intention that these troops would be used in local combat. However, conditions dictated otherwise.

In November 1915, attacks took place in Sinai against Ottoman troops. By 4 February 1916, the security of the Suez Canal had been assured and the enemy surrendered. British casualties amounted to 163 including ten naval, against 2,000 enemy casualties.

In 1916 troops destined for Europe were diverted to Egypt to deal with the Senussi uprising. The Senussi had sided with the Germans in November 1915. The Senussi held captive prisoners taken by German submarines. In addition, they attacked British bases. This led to Britain retaliating. By February 1917 the Senussi had withdrawn to Libya.

In Sudanese region of Darfur, the leader of the Tama tribe, Ali Dinar, sided with the Ottoman troops for nationalist reasons. Following the arrival of 250 rifles in the area, the Governor General of Sudan decided to mount a punitive expedition. The force of 2,000 Sudanese, Arab and Egyptian soldiers as well as four planes and 11 motor lorries. They faced roughly 4,000 regular army and spearmen of the Tama. On 21 May 1916 the Fur army as it was called was defeated although Ali Dinar escaped. On 1 January 1917 Darfur became a province of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan under civil administration.

Further south, but included in the North African theatre, was Somaliland. Somaliland was a British Protectorate. It had been the source of conflict for at least 15 years. Mahomed Bin Abdulla Hassan, also known as the ‘Mad Mullah’ took the opportunity of the greater war to fight for independence of his followers. In November 1914, a British force consisting of Indian and Somali sepoys, infantry and Camel Corps marched on the Shimba Berris where Bin Abdulla Hassan was based. By the end of February 1915, the area was under British control.

Somaliland was not considered a theatre of the First World War. Those who fought were not entitled to the British War and Victory Medal. A new Africa General Service Medal was created in 1916 which was awarded to those who had participated in Somaliland. The men who served in Somaliland ensured the area remained stable enough to allow others to serve in more prominent theatres.

Somaliland supplied crew for work on British and other allied ships during the 1914-1918 war.

Mixed Support

Support for the war from amongst the general populations was mixed. Some like Smuts and Botha in South Africa who had fought against the British 14 years before, now supported the British as did those who had fought on the side of the British. In Egypt, men preferred to support the British over the Ottomans despite the Ottomans having had greater control of the territory.

In East Africa, British King’s African Rifles who had been disbanded before the war joined the German army. When they were captured from 1916 onwards, many chose to change sides and fight on the side of Britain again. The 6 King’s African Rifles was a unit consisting of previous German askari (soldiers).  Allegiance in Africa was not to a country but to an individual.

In addition to the white population, support for the war came from other communities despite their limited say in the governance of the Union. In particular, the Cape Corps was eventually recruited to serve in the East Africa campaign and later the Middle East. The Cape Corps was initially a labour contingent which served in South West Africa and Europe. Following appeals by community leaders, the Cape Corps was eventually allowed to raise two armed corps for service outside of Europe.

Another group which felt it their duty to do their bit were South African Indians. Following in the steps of Gandhi, 250 volunteers from Durban served in East Africa. The two largest groups to serve were the white and black communities, the former in armed and auxiliary roles, the latter in a purely labour capacity.

South African labour included men from the Union, Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. Of the over 20,000 who served only 2,500 of them received medals. These men were not from the Union.

There are records of men, auxillary services and soldiers, mainly from southern Africa having served in four theatres of war: South West Africa, East Africa, Egypt, Europe and Palestine. Officers who served in West Africa at the start of the war later fought in France before returning to serve with their men in East Africa. Men of the West Indian Brigade saw service in both Egypt and East Africa. Indians who had served on the Western Front were sent to East Africa until they were returned to India where they continued to serve in Mesopotamia.

In East, West and North Africa, the forces were often a combination of different race groups. Rank and file were mainly Arab and Black African whilst officers were white. In addition to Indians from the Asian sub-continent, Indians resident in Africa, including Goans, served in various capacities. They were also managed by white officers.

The forces were a combination of Imperial and Local. The designation was determined by place of enlistment. There were variations in pay based on role, place and date of enlistment. Nyasaland King’s African Rifle recruits were the lowest paid all through the war. White South Africans who served in Europe received the highest pay. White South Africans who served in British East Africa were paid a different rate to those who served in Nyasaland.

Only two regiments from Britain were sent to Africa during the war. The 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment served with Indian Expeditionary Force B and the 25th Royal Fusiliers (Legion of Frontiersmen). Both served in East Africa. One other formation was sent to Egypt for training purposes. This was the Territorial Army East Lancashire Division. As the war progressed, volunteer reinforcements were sent as required from Europe. Many joined the King’s African Rifles.

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