JOHANNESBURG — Thousands of miles from the battlefields of Europe, the armies of Britain and France clashed with imperial German forces in Africa’s deserts, cities and bush during World War I.
The 1914-18 war brought an end to German colonial rule in Africa, saw up to 2 million Africans sacrifice their lives for Europe and brought much social upheaval as cities grew to supply the war effort, hardening racial divisions.
The European conflict in Africa had been foreshadowed 15 years earlier in the Boer War, pitting Britain and its new Cape Colony in South Africa against the older Dutch-populated Transvaal and Orange Free State. British imperialists, who had fought and won 19th-century wars elsewhere on the continent and were plying the Suez Canal to and from India, dreamed of forging a chain of colonies “from the Cape to Cairo.”
“The First World War had a considerable impact on African colonies because European powers requisitioned their labor and their resources,” said historian Bill Nasson of the University of Cape Town.
In World War I, France more than any other European power used African troops, including Senegalese riflemen who fought in the victorious battle to take the German colony of Togo. France also sent Senegalese troops to fight at Gallipoli in what was to become Turkey.
Most Africans who participated in that war, however, were recruited or conscripted into labor units, as military service was considered risky — stoking fears that blacks “may get ideas beyond their station,” said World War I historian Albert Grundlingh of the University of Stellenbosch.
South African forces fighting under the British flag were key in the battle for German Southwest Africa, now called Namibia, where the first armistice of the war was signed in 1915, and for German East Africa, which included what are now the countries of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Africans also joined in the fighting in France, where a memorial to them stands at Delville Wood, near the town of Longueval, commemorating the Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916.
But it took close to 70 years for South Africa to pay homage to 700 black laborers who died when their ship, the Mendi, sank in the British Channel in 1917 on its way to France to help in the war effort.
“The black sacrifice in the war in Africa has been forgotten,” Mr. Nasson said.
Decades later, a memorial to the victims of the Mendi was erected in Johannesburg’s black township of Soweto and under a new democratic regime in 1994.
Britain, too, built up its forces with men from Nigeria, the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone, Gambia, Uganda, Nyasaland (Malawi), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Kenya, but unlike the case of France, these troops all served in the African theater.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Germany had four colonies: Togo, Kamerun (Cameroon), German Southwest Africa and German East Africa.
Germany’s army, led by the brilliant Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was undefeated in Africa. Gen. Von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered in Mozambique three weeks after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was signed, once word finally reached Africa that the war was over.
He returned to Germany a war hero.
Historians agree that pushing Germany out of the European “scramble for Africa” contributed to the humiliation that set the scene for World War II.
“Germany was punished and humiliated and lost its attempt to get a place in the sun,” Mr. Nasson said.
Amid the battles, African cities were taking shape in the first big wave of black urbanization, driven by the demand for labor.
“It was the biggest migration of the early 20th century,” said Mr. Grundlingh, adding that the mass exodus to the cities planted the seeds of segregation, and eventually, black consciousness.
In South Africa, urban growth led to the first segregationist law in 1923 — the Urban Segregation Act, which was “a bedrock act for what was to follow in the apartheid years” when white-minority rule gained a firmer footing, Mr. Grundlingh said.
The end of German colonization in Africa saw France take over Togo, while a French-British coalition ruled Cameroon. Belgium got Rwanda and Burundi, leaving Tanzania to the British, and Southwest Africa went to South Africa.
“African nationalists who supported the allied war effort were bitterly disappointed at the Versailles conference,” Mr. Nasson said.
“They thought that at the end of the First World War, there would be some dividend or benefit.”