The Mistreatment of Africans in the First World War

The First World War was one of the first truly global wars. Not only was Europe continually in flames for four horrific years, but the war spilled over into all parts of the world. This fighting around the world was particularly centred on Germany’s colonies in Africa. Most of these fell within the first few months of the war. But in German East Africa (modern day Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi) the fight continued for the duration of the war.
Though the fighting in Africa was an extension of what was essentially a European war, it was not Europeans fighting. Instead the war was fought mostly by Africans against Africans. There were significant numbers of troops from India, Europe and many white South Africans, but the majority of all men in service in Africa were black Africans. The war in Africa is commonly thought of as the most civil part of the First World War. This is frankly untrue. The First World War in Africa, specifically the long bush war in German East Africa, was one of the most horrific portions of the war, with more men dying of disease than in battle. 
Much of the works written of the First World War in Africa focus on the ‘bigger picture’, the broad strokes strategic view of the war. Most of the rest is romanticized depictions of the white Europeans who fought there. Relatively little is written about the engine that drove the war in Africa, the Africans. By examining four different sources, one a scholarly article (Beasts of Burden by David Killingray and James Matthews), one a monograph (Battle for the Bundu by Charles Miller), another a memoir (East African Campaigns by Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck) and one a fictional novel (An Ice Cream War by William Boyd) the rampant mistreatment and outright forgetting of the contributions of Africans can easily be seen. Through these four mediums, the institutional racism felt towards Africans is horrifically illustrated. 
Racism was sadly present throughout the First World War in East Africa. This is unsurprising given the time period, as the scramble for Africa was only a few years before. Social Darwinist thought abounded, and many of the European colonizers were ardent believers in the superiority of the white man. This racism seeps through the four sources being examined here. The most jarring example of this is An Ice Cream War. Though a portrayal of the war in East Africa, the book features exclusively white European main characters. The Africans, when they do appear, have few speaking lines. What they do speak is often cliche, with the first speaking line of a named African character being a working song1 , not entirely unreminiscent of slave working songs from the American South. Throughout the rest of the book, Africans are scarcely mentioned in any context that has any impact on the plot. Often they are just passing references to African labourers carrying supplies for the troops 2 . The book is in essence a story about Europeans who just happen to be in Africa, and tends to fit with the standard narrative that many ascribe to the war in Africa; that it was merely an extension of the war in Europe, with the contributions of Africans being glossed over or forgotten entirely to history. Events of the book, while convenient for the plot, show an inherently racist attitude, such as the establishment of an excellent hospital for injured white Europeans (so that two characters may meet and develop a nurse - patient relationship), while the Africans are relegated to an inferior one or left to die in the bush 3 . Racism and preference for whites abounds throughout the book, both in its premise and in its plot, while Africans are just a forgotten backdrop. 
The scholarly article Beasts of Burden portrays the inherent racism of the Europeans differently, showing the complete lack of regard Africans were held in by Europeans. It is unique among the sources, as it is the only one which owns up the the systemic injustice experienced by the Africans. The article focuses on West Africans, who served all over Africa and the Middle East. While some Africans became combat troops in the British King’s African Rifles (K. A. R.) and the German Schutztruppe, most would see service as carriers in the bush war in East Africa. But although they served the European powers, they would enjoy none of the status that combatants were given. Carriers ran the same risk as any soldier, suffering combat and disease “without any reward beyond his pay, not even a medal as a record of his service”4 . Carriers were not issued uniforms, shoes, cock pots or even blankets 5 . Carriers were simply not important, because after all, “who cares about the native carriers?”6
Beasts of Burden continually offers evidence of the absolute disdain European powers, particularly the British, had for the Africans in their service. The article is very critical of the British for their treatment of native carriers, and rightly so, as it was horrific, but it makes very little of the conditions that these Africans came from before the war. In passing the article makes reference to the fact that many of these men were “domestic slaves” of African chiefs lent to the government for the duration of the war7 . The article does not explore this further due to it’s relatively narrow scope. 
In voraciously trying to point out one injustice it fails to mention another that had been happening before and continued to happen after, the enslavement of Africans by Africans. This article can then be seen to be an extension of the systemic institutional racism which guided European involvement in Africa. This article was written in the post colonial era, an era where people sought to try and right wrongs of the past. Beasts of Burden tries very hard to show the inherent superiority the Europeans felt over Africans. But the activities of the Europeans in Africa are not the only bad thing that has ever happened there. The article neglects to explore the conditions of African society that allowed a culture of forced labour to abound without major social unrest. It sees the actions of the Europeans as the be all and end all. And while the actions of the Europeans were horrific and deserve to be remembered and the wrongs righted, the guilt does not lie solely at their feet, but rather at the various forces which have exploited Africans through history, including the Africans themselves. 
Battle for the Bundu, a monograph, tries to be more neutral. The author, Charles Miller, focuses on both sides of the conflict, taking a specific interest in the German treatment of their African subjects. The Germans were markedly better in their treatment of their African combat troops, men of the German Schutztruppe (the Askari8 ) earned more than twice the amount men of the K. A. R. made 9 . Miller is especially praiseful of the work the Germans had done to westernize the Africans of the colony through education10 . But he does not talk much ill about the German shortcomings, mainly their brutal repression of unrest. Miller refers to this as ‘taming’ 11 , as if the native Africans were animals. This horrendous naming aside, Miller does call out the general racist feelings of Europeans towards Africans as “horrendously wrong-headed”12
All in all though the book does continuously show some bias towards the Europeans, and throughout the book, most of the story is told exclusively through European eyes, and while Africans do feature prominently unlike in An Ice Cream War, they still occupy the background. The major players are Europeans, and the achievements of Africans rarely receive a mention. This is not entirely Miller’s fault. He drew upon primary sources: diaries, memoirs and official records. But these sources in themselves were what led to the contributions of Africans occupying the background. Rarely were these works produced by Africans due to the disparity of education levels at the time. This can be seen as a symptom of the of the racially superior attitude that the European’s held. Though efforts were made to teach many Africans how to read, they were often half hearted, as the Europeans were not in Africa to teach people how to read (save for a few missionaries). They were there to profit from the land of what they termed as the ‘savages’.  
Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck’s East African Campaigns offers another interesting viewpoint. The book is his personal memoir of the war in East Africa, a blow by blow account of his every move during the campaign. Lettow-Vorbeck exhibits an immense respect for the Africans that fight for him. He frequently commends the ability of his Askari soldiers and African carriers both in combat and in maneuvering around the difficult terrain of East Africa13 . He also criticizes Europeans for talking to much of the German plans, while commending the Africans for their discreetness14 , though this may have been more due to the fact that most Africans in German service were illiterate and unable to spread secrets far even if they wanted to. 
As much as Lettow-Vorbeck has respect for the Africans, he places more of an importance on the lives of his European troops. Lettow-Vorbeck talks extensively of the ways in which he managed to provide bread for the Europeans, and the lengths to which he went to be able to give the Europeans among his force replacement boots, while the Africans had no shoes to speak of and existed on rice15 . Lettow-Vorbeck is an excellent source for for an account of the war in East Africa, but he carries in his writings the legacy of social darwinist thought, the belief in the inmate superiority of the white man. As much as he respects the Africans in his service, he still believes a white life to be more important than a black one, which is what got Europeans involved in Africa in the first place.

These four sources raise interesting viewpoints on the war in Africa. One neglects to talk even of the Africans who fought so long and suffered so much in the European’s war. Another attempts to expose the egregious wrongs committed against African labourers, but in doing so fails to see the root social causes of that forced labour. The third takes a neutral path, both looking back on the horrific events of the past with disdain and at the same time embracing some of the inherent prejudice that caused those events. The fourth praises the Africans and at the same time belittles their lives. None of these sources offers a completely perfect interpretation of the events. But racism is a complex topic. It is not easy to write about events like these, horrific acts of barbarism, without one’s personal biases getting in the way. Some sources forget the Africans while others make too much of them, while still others take a middle ground. No one source can be perfect, and a wide variety must be searched out to find the truth of the story. Unfortunately it seems that with the First World War in Africa, the contributions of Africans are clouded in prejudice and racism wherever one looks. Then perhaps it is in this prejudice that the truth does arise. The truth that Africa has been ravaged, her people used and abused by those that think they are better for hundreds of years. And the shadow of that abuse still clouds a post colonial Africa, with its constant conflict that stems largely from colonial problems, and the African diaspora around the world who still meet prejudice and racism even today. 
1 “Bwana Smith is a great merchant … his farm boys will praise the day he gave them work” - Saleh, farm foreman Boyd, William. 1982. An ice-cream war. London: H. Hamilton., p. 25E
2 Ibid., p.139
3 Ibid., p. 292
4 Killingray, David, and James Matthews. 1979. “Beasts of Burden: British West African Carriers in the First World War”. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 13 (1/2). [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., Canadian Association of African Studies]: 5–23., p.17
5 Ibid., p. 13
6 Ibid., p. 13 The article is here quoting from a British Colonial Office official
7Ibid., p. 16
8 Soldiers termed as ‘Askari’ served in both armies, though the name is more prominent in relation to the Germans
9 Miller, Charles. 1974. Battle for the Bundu: the First World War in East Africa. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., p.16
10 Ibid., p. 21
11 Ibid., p. 12
12 Miller, Charles. 1974. Battle for the Bundu: the First World War in East Africa. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., p. 10
13Lettow-Vorbeck, Paul Emil von. 1957. East African campaigns. N.Y.: Speller., p. 193
14Ibid., p. 192
15 Ibid., p. 177 - 178