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

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Anticolonial Revolts During the Great War

Anti-French Rebels, West Africa, 1915

By Tammy M. Proctor

While those in Europe felt betrayed by their wartime leaders and expressed their rage in civil revolt, many living in colonial situations felt a much different sense of anger over their use by colonial authorities for war service with few promises in return for extension of citizenship or rights.

Imperial authorities often took for granted the notion that their subjects around the world would want to support their war efforts. When resistance occurred, officials within these empires often resorted to coercion to fulfill their labor and resource needs during the war. Inevitably, coercive practices and the drain of wartime requisitioning led to unrest and violence in colonial regions of empires.

One of the major sparks for localized rioting and broader rebellions was resistance to labor recruitment for the war and to conscription, especially in areas poorly integrated into multinational empires. Minority groups, often targeted for aggressive recruitment by officials, felt particularly aggrieved by exploitative strategies designed to use their labor, and they suspected government officials of trying to use their men as "cannon fodder" in the war effort. Such fears and suspicions led to attacks on recruitment offices and widespread rebellions around the world during the war. In South Africa, not only did more than eleven thousand Boers rise up in rebellion in 1914 to protest conscription for a British cause, but another thousand fled to German territory in order to enlist against the British.

Memorial to the 1916 Revolt in Kyrgyzstan

Perhaps the most serious and longest lasting revolts against conscription took place in the Russian Empire's Central Asian provinces (modern Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan). The rebellion featured several stages and a variety of peoples, both nomadic groups and agricultural laborers. Many of those involved were poorly integrated into the empire, with their own languages and cultural/political traditions. 

The French also experienced a violent rebellion as they attempted to impose conscription in some of their colonies. In the Haut-Senegal-Niger region (today, Mali and Burkina Faso), a group of villages revolted against France in 1915 in the face of conscription demands and perceived insults by French administrators toward Muslim leaders. The French raised an army to fight an estimated army of 10,000 but were repulsed several times by an armed federation of villages. It was not until the end of 1917 that France "pacified" the region at great cost; more than 30,000 locals died in the fighting as well as hundreds of soldiers from the French Empire. While their resistance was not as widespread or bloody, colonized peoples in British areas also rebelled against conscription, with uprisings in Nyasaland, Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Southern Rhodesia. "Coercive military recruitment of local labor" in Portuguese East Africa also led to rioting and rebellion.

Those in colonies who chose not to rebel often fled recruiters, "feigned illness," or went into hiding. Throughout European colonies, migration functioned as a further form of resistance to conscription into colonial armies, as men decided to flee rather than fight either in state uniforms or against them.

General resistance to the demands of the British wartime state and the possibility of conscription played some role in the mobilization of Irish resistance in 1916, but, more important, the leaders of the rising saw the war as an opportunity to re-initiate their demands for independence. Thwarted in earlier risings beginning in the 18th century and denied the peaceful moderation of Home Rule, Irish rebels in 1916 assumed that Britain's absorption with the war effort and German assistance with arms would provide the means for successful rebellion. Germany promised, through John Devoy (leader of the American Clan na Gael), to deliver rifles, machine guns, and explosives to the Irish rebels. Poor planning and communication led to the seizure of the ship carrying the German arms by the British navy, with a loss of all the arms. The revolutionaries decided to move forward with the rising anyway. A small group of revolutionaries took control of several buildings in Dublin for a week in April 1916 before British forces broke the rebellion. The rising disrupted life in Dublin but had little effect on Irish forces on the Western Front at the time, and it seemed destined to be forgotten quickly in Dublin until British mishandling of the aftermath.

Roscommon, Ireland, 1918

The memory of the Easter Rising, along with the anti-conscription riots in 1918 in Ireland, led to a protracted war between revolutionaries and British authorities from 1916 to 1923, in which more than 10,000 people were killed or wounded. The use of former World War I soldiers as forces of order in Ireland (Black and Tans), plus the availability of men on both sides with military training and possession of weapons, made the revolution and civil war an extension of wartime trauma. In one of the most publicized incidents of the Irish Civil War, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated in June 1922 in London on his way home from unveiling a war memorial to those who died between 1914 and 1918; the two Irish assassins had both served as British soldiers in the war.

As in Ireland, India experienced postwar violence, a sign perhaps that Britain's hold on its empire was weakening around the world. Just as Ireland had hoped for Home Rule on the eve of the war and then felt betrayed by Britain, India had pinned its hopes for independence on the 1917 Montagu Declaration and subsequent reforms, which pledged that Britain would help India develop self-government with an eye toward devolution of power. However, little real change was realized in the last years of the war, and severely repressive measures followed in 1919 to control Indian nationalism. By 1919, Indian "disaffection was widespread." It was in this charged postwar atmosphere that a well-known  example of colonial repression of a peaceful protest occurred—India's Amritsar massacre.

In April 1919, British troops fired into a peaceful gathering in the Punjab town of Amritsar, killing several hundred and wounding more than a thousand in what became known locally as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Amritsar, some scholars argue, radicalized Indian nationalist leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru. Perhaps more important, it allowed Mahatma Gandhi to move from being one of a group of prominent nationalist leaders to the unquestioned spokesman for the Indian nationalists by the early 1920s. Amritsar was clearly the turning point in this process.

Amritsar Massacre Depicted in the Film Gandhi

The war unleashed many protests and revolts in other dependencies and colonies as well, particularly in areas that had suffered physically because of the war or that felt cheated by the terms of the postwar peace treaties.

Although many of the revolts and civil disturbances of the late-war and postwar periods were later obscured by the negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference and by the treaties, the number of regions affected by civil violence remained astonishingly high, ranging through Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. In addition to the revolutions and revolts listed here, many other nations suffered waves of strikes, marches, and riots throughout the second half of the war, requiring the use of armies against civilians on the home front. For some soldiers, demobilization was postponed as they were posted to rebellion zones. Others made a postwar career out of violence, such as the Black and Tans in Ireland or the Freikorps of Germany and the Eastern Front. 

Source:  Originally presented in the Summer 2011 issue of Relevance: Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Tammy Proctor. Colonial unrest was so important, yet usually missing from WWI histories.