The forgotten victories – and victors – of the Allies in Africa
The British military in World War I quickly realized that it needed more manpower for the Great War than it had ever rallied for a single conflict before. That led to Britain deciding to recruit more deeply from its colonies than it ever had. But Britain still felt it needed to enforce a racial hierarchy, and so it deliberately glossed over battles where commonwealth troops did the bulk of the fighting, including commonwealth troops' hard-fought victories of Allies in Africa.
The roles of Black and commonwealth troops
While Black and other commonwealth troops served worldwide during World War I, Britain limited their roles in Europe. Modern historians at the Imperial War Museum point to the potentially disruptive nature of Black troops fighting white Europeans on the Western Front. For an empire built on racial dominance, having Black units kill Germans was an obvious step toward them potentially killing Britons.
So, in Europe, most commonwealth troops served in logistics or engineering. They dug trenches, manned ammo dumps, or buried bodies, often with little equipment and no respect.
There were some exceptions, like the mechanic and driver William Robinson "Robbie" Clarke. He traveled from Jamaica to Britain hoping to use his technical skills, rare in 1914, to get a role in aviation. He succeeded and is the first known Black fighter pilot, getting his license a few weeks before Georgian Eugene Bullard.
But in Africa, the story was different. Since commonwealth troops fought against troops from other the colonies of other European nations, racial hierarchy was not at risk. And so Black troops fought in full combat units in pitched battles. But those battles were, according to British historians, deliberately forgotten to protect the racial hierarchy at home.
Black British troops in Africa
In Africa, many troops remained relegated to non-combat roles. In the South African Native Labour Corps, for instance, over 25,000 Black troops served as laborers, couriers, and more, but never in combat roles.
But other units, like the British West India Regiment, eventually received orders to engage in direct combat. This was often against other native units but occasionally against ethnic Germans. The 2nd Battalion BWIR fought at Palestine and cleared enemy posts, fighting through miles of open land under fire. Nine men were killed and 43 wounded, and many were decorated for valor.
The West India Regiment, separate from the BWIR, also fought in Africa. British leaders deployed it against the then-German colonies of Togoland and Cameroon, attacking wireless stations. And a multi-national force of West Indians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Indians eventually captured the two colonies from Germany.
Black troops were routinely undersupplied and sometimes even faced "prisoner of war"-like conditions in the camp. But they also reported better relations with their white counterparts on a personal basis than they would ever have received before.
But as the conflict drew to a close, Britain re-established the racial hierarchy. As Black soldiers reported to demobilization locations across the empire, the hierarchy got stronger the closer they got to British power centers like Australia, Canada, or England itself. The tension reached a boiling point in Taranto, Italy. Soldiers of the 9th Battalion BWIR mutinied against their officers for four days.
The British Empire quickly forgot the contributions of its commonwealth troops to its victory, but that is changing today. In 2018, then-Prince Harry met with Zambian military veterans. And then-Prime Minister Theresa May presented the ship's bell of a vessel on which 607 South Africans died to the government of South Africa.