6 Major World War I Battles Fought in Africa

6 Major World War I Battles Fought in Africa

Battles in Africa were fought between colonial powers, but the majority of those forced to fight were conscripted Africans. World War I is often associated with scenes of fighting in Europe, such as the first Battle of the Marne, the siege of Verdun, the terrible battle of The Somme, and the brutal grind of trench warfare on the Western Front.

However, the first bullet of the war, fired in late July 1914, did not come from Europe. Instead, as Byron Farwell observes in his book The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, it was a shot taken by an African soldier in a British uniform at German colonial forces in what is now Togo in West Africa, which was once a part of Germany’s huge empire in Africa.

Africans Compelled to Fight

Between 1914 and 1918, the British and their allies fought to take Africa’s massive colonial empire, which the Germans had established. However, Africans, whose lands had been taken from them by Europeans in the mid to late 1800s, bore the brunt of the battle.

“The fighting in Africa was between the colonial powers, but most of the soldiers were Africans,” explains Padraic Kennedy, an associate professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania. About two million Africans were compelled to fight in the war, and more than 150,000 African soldiers and bearers lost their lives, with many more wounded and disabled.

In addition, many African civilians succumbed to starvation, due to food shortages created by the war’s disruption of agriculture, including armies’ seizure of food supplies and cattle, and the shortage of farmers, hunters and fishermen due to the Europeans’ conscription of African males.

“The conflict in one way or another affected almost every African group and family,” according to Derek Frisby, an associate professor in the Global Studies program at Middle Tennessee State University and an expert in military history.

The war in Africa also was very different from the conflict in Europe, where new technologies such as tanks and aircraft revolutionized warfare.

“The African Great War battles lack much of the industrialization inherent in Europe,” Frisby says. In particular, the artillery used so effectively in European fighting was mostly a non-factor in Africa, according to Frisby. None of the colonial powers had the necessary infrastructure, such as communications for observation and logistics for transporting artillery pieces and keeping them supplied with ammo and maintenance, and it was harder to find suitable terrain. And the forces there often had to make due with older weapons. As a result, Frisby says their greatest effect was in terrifying the native populations, rather than creating devastating barrages.
“Infantry remained the primary combat arm in Great War Africa, not surprisingly taking advantage of the machine gun,” Frisby explains.

In contrast to the often massive battlefield clashes in Europe, African World War I battles tended to be smaller in scale and drawn out over longer time spans. “They were fighting over so much land in Africa, that the fighting was very spread out,” explains Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Indeed, the crucial German East Africa campaign between 1916 and 1918, which pitted 165,000 troops from Britain, South Africa, Belgium and Portugal against a German colonial force of 25,000, took place over an area of 750,000 square miles—three times the size of Imperial Germany itself.

Many Africans wanted no part of the war at all. “The French encountered widespread rebellions as they attempted to conscript soldiers in various parts of west Africa,” says Etana Dinka, a history professor at James Madison University.