By Daniel Steinbach

09 April 2015 - 20:30

The war in East Africa cost the lives of more than 300,000 people. Image (c) Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA3056 / Walther Dobbertin licensed under CC-BY-SA and adapted from the original.
The war in East Africa cost the lives of more than 300,000 people. Image ©

Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA3056 / Walther Dobbertin licensed under CC-BY-SA and adapted from the original.

The First World War had a seismic impact around the world, including Africa, as the British Council report Remember the World as well as the War reveals. Ahead of the BBC World Service's broadcast of a debate on the war's legacy in East Africa this Sunday, Dr Daniel Steinbach of King's College London explains how the campaign in East Africa has been misremembered.

There are misconceptions about how the First World War affected East Africa

The 'East African Campaign' holds a peculiar position in the public memory of the First World War. Dozens of novels and one of Hollywood’s most famous films – 'African Queen', starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – keep the cliché of an adventurous and somewhat unimportant side-show to the real war alive. The reality of four years of total warfare, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and affected many millions more, is largely forgotten.

Why was the war fought in East Africa?

Nearly all belligerent nations involved in the First World War were also imperial powers that possessed colonies across the globe - especially in Africa, which was formally divided into separate colonies in the 1880s. At the centre of the East African coast lay the German colony of German East Africa, which corresponds to modern Tanzania, excluding Zanzibar (which was ruled by the British), but including Rwanda and Burundi. This territory was surrounded by British East Africa (modern Kenya) to the north, the Belgian Congo to the west and Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique) and the two British colonies of Nyasaland (modern Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) in the south.

All colonial powers promoted the idea of a 'European civilising mission' – that is, bringing the rule of law, order, stability, and peace to Africa. Yet, in August 1914, they showed little hesitation before turning this part of Africa into a theatre of war. The reasons for this are manifold: Britain was initially concerned with the destruction of naval and communication infrastructure that could allow German boats to attack Allied ships in the Indian Ocean, while Germany wanted to prevent an attack or conquest of its African colony by attacking its neighbours itself. Quickly, the patriotic desire to support the war by fighting their nation’s enemy in Africa, combined with the prospect of conquering 'new territory', became powerful sentiments among many Europeans living in these colonies. The war rapidly developed from localised bombardments and skirmishes into a full campaign that lasted for more than four years and cost the lives of more than 300,000 people.

Who fought the war in East Africa?

The decision to turn East Africa into a warzone was taken by the colonisers. The main burden of fighting the war was carried by the colonised. The majority of the about 250,000 soldiers involved in this campaign were either Africans – from East Africa, but also Nigeria and the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) – or Indians. In the beginning of the war, the majority of combatants were professional soldiers who served in the respective colonial armies. But very quickly, all colonial administrations began recruiting Africans who were either persuaded, or more often pressed, into military service. While many African soldiers took pride in their service and military professionalism, many others resented the fact of fighting in a war which they felt 'wasn’t theirs'. It was not uncommon for soldiers to change sides from the German to the Allied army or vice versa.

Why were so many African civilians affected by the war?

The campaign in East Africa can be symbolised by the contrast between the machine gun, one of the most modern weapons, and the fact that this technology was carried by African porters. The lack of sufficient railroads in East Africa, or roads that could be used by motorcars, meant that the moving armies relied on the most basic form of transport: human carriers. An established system of African porter transport existed in the region prior to the war. But, the enormous demand for carriers by all armies resulted in an unprecedented number of ordinary people – men, women and even children – being persuaded or forced into porter services. Throughout the war, more than one million Africans carried provisions, military equipment, or soldiers in hazardous circumstances, for minimal or no pay. The porters were forced to leave their homes to march with the armies in areas foreign in climate, language and customs. About 100,000 porters died through illness, exhaustion, or mal- and under-nutrition.

Those civilians who could remain in their villages often saw their property and livelihood destroyed, as passing soldiers demanded food from them or burnt their houses and fields. In the resulting severe famines, several hundred thousand civilians perished. These were largely unrecorded by the colonial authorities, and unnoticed by the world.

What was the political impact of the war in East Africa?

The immediate political result of the First World War was the transition of control of German East Africa from the defeated Germany to Britain and Belgium. Neither were able to annex the territories (modern Tanzania for Britain, and Burundi and Rwanda for Belgium) outright, but the newly established League of Nations (the predecessor to the UN) awarded them as 'mandates'. This meant that the mandate powers had to report annually to the League of Nations on the development of the territories and its inhabitants.

While this system was set up to stop the most exploitative aspects of colonialism through external control, for most Africans, life in a mandate territory was no different to life in a colony. The war had a huge impact on the social and economic fabric of East Africa, but the political changes for Africans were insignificant, as their contribution to the war did not result in any gain in political power.

How is the war remembered in East Africa and Europe?

In popular European culture, the devastating war in East Africa is mainly remembered as a militarily insignificant 'side-show' to the main events on the Western Front. Most films and novels concerned with the campaign focus on the experience of white men, or use the war as backdrop for an adventure or even love story, as in the famous films 'African Queen' or 'Out of Africa'. The contribution of African and Indian soldiers, and the tremendous impact of the war on millions of Africans, is mostly overlooked. After the East African colonies gained independence in the 1960s, the new nation states had little interest in promoting remembrance of the First World War. Other military conflicts were used to build and foster collective memories that could unite each new nation, but these were wars between colonisers and colonised. The First World War was ultimately not only a conflict in which Europeans fought against Europeans, but also a conflict which forced Africans to fight against Africans.

Listen to the broadcast of the British Council and BBC World Service debate on Saturday, 11 April at 18.00 GMT and Sunday 12 April at 11.00 GMT.

Read the British Council report, Remember the World as well as the War (also available in French and German).

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