Kamerun-Kompanie in Deutsch-Südwestafrika.
The First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, which brought Britain, France, and Russia into open conflict with Germany and Austria-Hungary until 1918. Still in the early years of European rule, African countries were drawn into the war by their colonial masters, who required African resources of men, money, and raw materials. The struggle between the European powers over control in Africa was also one of the causes of the war, with rivalry over African possessions complicating longstanding conflicts in Europe.
Each Allied power took steps to protect its colonies, strengthening defenses against possible German attack. When victories over the Germans in their African colonies became certain, these security measures were relaxed. It then became necessary to ensure the loyalty of African subjects, if only to prevent them from supporting Germany, and by and large propaganda was used successfully to this end. Even so, troops had to be withdrawn from many areas for war service, opening the colonial authorities up to attack from many quarters. The Ottoman Caliph, for example, had called on all Muslims to revolt against the colonial powers. To meet these challenges, the colonial authorities either collaborated with or coerced local chiefs into serving as agents who would police their own people.
As might be expected, the European armies were reinforced by Africans, who were recruited to serve as soldiers, porters, and servants. Various methods of recruitment were used, including conscription. Many Africans were drawn into war service by the promise of wages and other benefits from the army, while a greater number were compelled to enlist by their chiefs – the chiefs having been ordered by the colonial authorities to supply men for the colonial armies. It soon became clear that the existing colonial armies were grossly inadequate, and the colonial powers resorted to draconian measures in conscripting Africans. The French recruited about 40,000 men from Madagascar, 270,000 from North Africa, and 211,000 from their equatorial and west African colonies. In East Africa the British likewise enlisted large numbers of Africans, including almost a million porters, as well as 30,000 troops and twice as many service personnel from West Africa alone. The German, Belgian, and Portuguese colonial authorities also conscripted tens of thousands of Africans.
Resistance to conscription became integral to the early history of African nationalism. Thousands went into hiding or relocated to avoid service. In many parts of French West Africa, where large numbers of people had crossed to British territories, resistance took the form of armed protest. There was a major call for jihad in the Niger and from the Tuareg in the Sahara. In areas where colonial control was still weak, as in the hinterlands of French West Africa, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco, Africans were able to use the diversion created by the war as an opportunity for further anti-colonial resistance struggles. For a short time, the French lost power in a number of areas. Although fewer in number, there were also protests in British colonies, including unrest in northern Ghana, and rebellion among the Kwale Igbo in Nigeria. These resistance movements were not necessarily reacting to the war itself, but rather to the introduction of new or higher taxes and the imposition of new administrative systems.
The colonial governments embarked upon measures to obtain the loyalty of Africans, especially the chiefs who were needed for the successful recruitment or conscription of their people. The French paid some chiefs to recruit young men, and forced others to send their subjects into the army. Propaganda in support of the war effort was intense, and many among the African elite were convinced that the British and French were pursuing a just war against the Germans. African loyalty to and cooperation with the colonial powers, especially rulers and other members of the elite, was based on a number of factors. Where European powers had avoided excessively repressive rule, and indigenous chiefs been allowed to exercise power and even draw wages from the government, the war was not used as a rallying point for protests. This was the case, for example, with the British in Nigeria.
Africans saw service in different places, but the majority remained in Africa to confront the Germans in the colonies of Tanganyika, Kamerun, Namibia, and Togo. Africans who did not see active military service were also mobilized, but for war production of both established export crops and foodstuffs.
Africa was affected by the war in many spheres: military, political, economic, and social. The results were not the same everywhere. In areas where there had been actual fighting, notably in the German colonies, the people suffered greatly. In the French colonies, where the burden of conscription had been heavy, there were anti-colonial protests and widespread resentment. Indeed, in many areas the colonial authorities’ hold on power was weakened: their military were redirected to the war effort; markets and trade routes were disrupted; and the economic recession and growing unemployment that followed the war generated their own tensions.
Military recruitment had temporarily strengthened existing colonial armies, but many of the newly recruited troops perished. The actual number of casualties will never be known exactly, but it was undoubtedly large: of those recruited by the French almost 200,000 lost their lives, while nearly 100,000 lost their lives in the British campaign in East Africa. For the soldiers who survived the war, the experience broadened their view of both African affairs and world politics. They understood the causes of the war and the nature of imperialism, and could begin to consider the impact of colonialism on their own countries. Many acquired practical skills and a degree of technical education that they were able to put to good use after the war. For many the experience of Europeans in combat that they acquired during the war comprehensively undermined notions of white superiority.
Germany lost its African colonies, which were shared out as ‘‘mandated territories’’ by the newly created League of Nations. The Belgians took over Ruanda-Urundi, South Africa received Namibia, the British obtained Tanganyika and northern Cameroon (added to their Nigerian colony), the French took the rest of Cameroon, and the British and French divided Togo. The expectation was that the European powers would serve only as guardians; in practice, this meant little or nothing to the African population, who were still treated as colonial subjects. When the League of Nations was dissolved in 1940, the status of these mandated territories was left unclear. The expectation that these ‘‘guardians’’ would prepare the countries for self-government was largely ignored.
There were other notable changes to the pattern of colonial rule. In January 1914, for example, the British Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria were amalgamated. In 1917 a large part of western Egypt was transferred to Italian Libya, and was then administered as three units (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzān). The triangle of land to the northwest of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was transferred to Italy, also in 1917. In 1920 the French created the colony of Upper Volta from parts of the Niger, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire. Upper Volta was subsequently divided in 1932. Thus the modern map of Africa began to acquire its current shape.