West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

East meets West on the Great War …

… in Africa on Africa.

Attending a World War 1 conference in Senegal, I got the opportunity to meet with colleagues working on West and North Africa – all except one I hadn’t met before. The attendees were mainly historians, sociologists and anthropologists of African origin, who if not still resident on the continent received their basic education there. The result: a completely different focus to the African conferences held in Europe. This meant I was able to draw comparisons between the experiences of the some of the different countries involved in the Great War in Africa.

Now I know a fair bit about (but definitely not everything) East, Central and South Africa’s involvement but very little of West Africa (unless it’s their involvement in East Africa) and even less of North Africa. Despite the conference mainly being conducted in French, I was able with my smattering of the language and the assistance of a young student doing her degree in English translation to glean a fair bit of what happened in West Africa.

What struck me during day one, and which continued throughout the remainder of the papers, was the experiences of the indigenous or local peoples. The emphasis on the experiences of those who lived in forest, on mountain and near the sea and how they used this knowledge either in their fighting or to avoid being caught up in the conflagration was not much different to East and Central African experiences.

The other strong influence in the war on both sides of the continent (mentioned more in German East African accounts as opposed to the British) was the role of the slave trade. We know of Mzee Ali who had been a slaver but many of the routes used, the use of porters and management of the troops with camp followers and discipline was grounded in the earlier experiences.

Africa (the West in particular) has made the Great War in Africa its own in a way I hadn’t thought of having had a strong, dare I say it, European-influenced education albeit in Africa. The Great War was just one of the many wars Africa experienced. This single statement explains the almost nonchalant regard of the Great War centenary across the continent.

What sets the Great War aside from all the other wars is its consequences – how the interactivity of the war broke down beliefs and stereotypes which eventually led to independence. The white man was no longer infallible. They died the same way and lost their moral ground as Albert Grundlingh quotes ‘white men should have better ways of solving their differences.’ (War and Society). Black men, Indians and others tasted the lure of cities and other work seeing its attractions when compared to farming. The value of organising, discipline and working together to achieve a goal was recognised. All this and more eventually gave rise to the independence struggles.