Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, December 17, 2020

African Troops Fighting in Europe

Moroccan Cavalry

From: "The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and Their Deployment in Europe During the First World War" by Christian Koller; Immigrants and Minorities, March/July 2008

The impact of the First World War on the colonies was profound and many-sided.  A conflict that began in the Balkans turned into a general European war in July and August 1914, and then took on extra-European dimensions, particularly as some of the belligerent states ranked as the most important colonial powers globally. . .The Entente powers deployed about 650,000 colonial soldiers on European battlefields. White European settlers from the colonies and dominions, who provided large contingents as well, are not included in this figure. The Central Powers, on the other hand, were not able to deploy any colonial troops in Europe.  [In the remainder of this entry we focus specifically on the contribution of soldiers from African colonies to the war in Europe.]

Britain, altogether, mobilized about 1.5 million Indian soldiers during the war, of which about 90,000 were killed. Some 150,000 Indian soldiers were deployed in Europe from September 1914 on. The overwhelming majority of Indian troops, however, fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman empire. 

On the other hand, Britain did not deploy any African troops on European battlefields, although there was a group of officers and politicians with a colonial background lobbying to do so.  Winston Churchill, for instance, claimed in a House of Commons speech in May 1916 that not only 10–12 Indian divisions but also African units should be trained for deployment in Europe. . . Plenty of British African troops, however, fought in the Middle East and in Africa itself. Some battalions of the black "British West Indies Regiment" were deployed in France, but only in ancillary functions, not as combatants.  Officially, this policy was justified with reference to logistical problems, but race probably played a role as well, for after the United States had joined the war, the British army also rejected the training of African-American soldiers, who were eventually incorporated into the French army. 

Unlike Britain, the French deployed large numbers of African troops in Europe, including 172,800 soldiers from Algeria, 134,300 from West Africa, 60,000 from Tunisia, 37,300 from Morocco, 34,400 from Madagascar and 2100 from the Somali Coast. Another colonial contingent of about 44,000 men came from Indochina.  Italy, who joined the Entente side in spring 1915, tried to deploy African colonial troops in Europe as well. In August 1915, some 2,700 soldiers from Libya were shipped to Sicily. However, they did not enter the front line, because many soldiers died from pneumonia immediately after their arrival, and so, the Libyans, who were designated for Alpine warfare, were shipped home again after a short time. In the African theaters of war, however, Italy deployed plenty of Eritrean, Libyan,  and Somali soldiers. 

Algerian Troops Gassed at Ypres, April 1916

. . . Autumn 1914 also witnessed the first actions of African troops on the Western Front. Although North African units had already fought in previous European wars—in the Crimean war from 1854 to 1856, in the Italian war in 1859, and in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870/71—this was the first time that troops from sub–Saharan Africa had entered the front line. In September 1914, West African units fought in Picardy. In October and November, Tirailleurs Senegalais were deployed at Ypres, where they suffered heavy losses.

Afterward, a new doctrine was applied: West African troops no longer fought as independent units, but they were "amalgamated" with European troops. Every regiment of the troupes coloniales, which were composed of Europeans, got a West African battalion after the historical model of amalgamation of old troops and volunteer corps during the French Revolution. The same doctrine was enacted for North African troops, who were often amalgamated into so-called regiments mixtes together with European settlers from North Africa. This doctrine was also aimed at preventing the desertion of Muslim soldiers to the Germans, who were using their alliance with the Ottoman Empire to pose as friends of Islam and even to recruit Muslim POWs to the Central Powers’ cause. 

In the following years, African troops participated in most of the principal battles on the western front, for instance at the Marne, at the Yser, at the Somme and at Verdun.  Furthermore, West African troops also participated in the Gallipoli operation and fought in the Balkans from 1916 onwards. Their number grew as the war continued. Thus while 17 West African battalions fought on the western front in 1916, there were already 41 in 1917 and even 92 in the war’s final year. The number of North African soldiers fighting in Europe increased considerably as well.

[Were] colonial troops were misused as canon fodder?  The cannon fodder theory also entered scholarly discussions after the war. On the Western Front, African troops were indeed often deployed as shock troops. Thus, French soldiers used to interpret the emergence of African troops as an unmistakable sign that an attack was imminent. . . Yet there is much confusion over the casualty rates of African troops.  For example, Joe Harris Lunn, analyzing annual casualty rates of West Africans, concludes that in the last two and-a-half years of the war, when their deployment in Europe reached its peak, the rate of killed and wounded West African soldiers was twice that of French infantrymen.

Men of the 43rd Senegalese Battalion

The deployment of more than half a million African and Asian soldiers in Europe had a strong cultural impact. Never before had so many Europeans been confronted with so many Africans and Asians—as comrades in arms, as enemies at the front, or as prisoners of war. This produced discourses about the colonial soldiers, which included exoticism, racism, and paternalism. On the other hand, never before had so many men from the colonies been directly exposed to the realities of European culture and society. The experience had an impact on their perceptions of their colonial masters and on the long-range, changed colonial relationships.

On balance, the deployment of colonial troops in Europe proved to be a dramatic experience for all contemporaries. Forced recruitment in the colonies met several forms of resistance, including even armed rebellions. Deployment in Europe would then change many Africans’ and Asians’ perceptions of their colonial masters and of Europeans in general. Europeans, on the other hand. . .became aware of the precariousness of their global dominance. However, the impact of colonial troops’ deployment in Europe in the First World War on the colonial system is still debated. In particular, the colonial veterans’ digestion of their European experience was far from uniform.


  1. In my research, all sources have agreed with Mr. Koller in stating that there were no African soldiers in the BEF. However, I saw a tantalizing photograph in Stand To! about eight years ago, which shows an African in a British uniform with a West African Regiment cap badge being guarded by two German soldiers. No one has ever explained this photograph to me.

  2. Walter Daniel John Tull (28 April 1888 – 25 March 1918) was an English professional footballer and British Army officer of Afro-Caribbean descent.
    During the First World War, Tull served in the Middlesex Regiment, including in the two Footballers' Battalions. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 30 May 1917 and killed in action on 25 March 1918.
    I found this information on Wikipedia, where you can find a picture and more information.

  3. Walter Tull, the only black officer to command white British troops in WW1, and only the second black footballer in a League team, was a British resident, so does not count among the colonial troops discussed in the article. The POW mentioned by James Patton was probably also not colonial as such.

    1. The West African Regiment was a colonial formation.