With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Black Veterans of the First World War are Often Overlooked

Veterans Day commemorates the millions of soldiers who have belonged to the military. In the United States, the federal holiday has existed since 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated Nov. 11 — the day the fighting stopped on Europe’s western front in World War I in 1918 — as a day to honor all U.S. troops’ sacrifices, in all wars.

In France and Belgium, Remembrance Day does the same work, and in Britain, it’s Armistice Day. All are tied to the cataclysm of WWI, and they occur within national frames that sometimes acknowledge, but don’t adequately incorporate, the stories of colonial troops and empire in the war. Leaving these stories out is a missed opportunity to more fully understand the complex bargains made in building armies.

World War I is often framed as a righteous struggle against tyranny, pitting the Entente against Germany and its allies. But the victories that led to the armistice in November 1918 were not just won by Britain, France and the United States. Popular understandings and memories of the war tend to ignore its global scale, which ensnared people from far beyond U.S. and European borders, many of whom were Black colonial subjects from Africa and the Caribbean. At best, the experiences and contributions of troops from Africa and elsewhere who fought in European colonial armies emerge as mere side notes to general understandings of the war.

Yet the history of African involvement in the war exposes how recruitment and conscription of African troops and workers emerged from established patterns of colonial labor, which in turn were underpinned by racist logics and practices. European and U.S. officers judged some men suitable for combat, and others not. Decisions about war labor rested on the enforcement of global color lines. While the French had no problem deploying African troops for combat in Europe, other colonial powers thought it best that they only in fight in campaigns on the African continent. Remembrance of these soldiers and workers recalls both the war’s global scope and the limits of its righteousness.

Between August 1914 and November 1918, African soldiers from different parts of the continent joined the millions of others who went to war around the world. They fought in the name of European empires that had subjugated much of the continent. Many were simply forced into soldiering or laboring for the colonizers. Soldiers also fought for their own complex reasons, hoping to secure socio-economic status, to access pensions or to gain more political rights.

Nearly 638,000 African men fought in campaigns in Africa and Europe, and over 86,000 of them died. In addition, over 1.7 million African laborers worked for colonial armies, the majority as porters during the East African campaign. They suffered catastrophic death rates, though definitive figures remain elusive. Recruitment and conscription campaigns for soldiers and laborers wreaked havoc on many African societies, in some instances provoking violent opposition or mass flight.

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post