World War I's Black veterans 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 World War I, 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.
African soldiers fought in four major campaigns, for both sides, on the continent. Entente armies seized German colonies in Togo, Cameroon, German Southwest Africa (today, Namibia) and German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania). On the other hand, German forces, also composed mainly of African troops, tried to defend the German empire in Africa. But by 1916, all but German East Africa had been defeated and occupied by British, French, Belgian and South African forces.
Even so, in Africa, the war didn't end on Nov. 11, 1918. In German East Africa, soldiers led by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck carried out a destructive campaign that extended past Armistice Day. While on the march with his last column of troops in Portuguese East Africa and Northern Rhodesia, von Lettow-Vorbeck finally received word of the armistice, two weeks after it had been negotiated in Europe. On Nov. 25, 1918, African soldiers who had fought for the German Empire surrendered to their King's African Rifles counterparts, ending the last African campaign of the war.
The African soldiers who surrendered alongside Lettow-Vorbeck had survived one of the war's longest campaigns. When it ended, British Colonial officials interned them in a POW camp, where many died, the death toll increased by the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. The veterans, guarded by troops who weeks earlier had been their enemies, experienced humiliating defeat while enduring harsh conditions in detention. After their release, many experienced poverty, illness and isolation exacerbated by local memories of violent depredations against East African communities before the war. Disabled soldiers had to manage their disabilities on their own, or through care administered by their families. Support from Colonial administrations for African soldiers was, at best, scant.
And this condition wasn't simply a byproduct of defeat. African soldiers in the victorious Colonial armies shared similar experiences. Troops who had fought in the King's African Rifles and other British-led units, such as the Gold Coast Regiment or the Nigerian Regiment of the West African Frontier Force, began their long journeys home to places that had often changed significantly in their absence. African troops in the French Colonial armies (tirailleurs sénégalais and tirailleurs algériens), who had served on the western front, in the Dardanelles and the Balkans, many of whom expected a modicum of citizenship rights in return for their service, found that promises were easily broken by racist and indifferent Colonial administrators, and a lack of political will in France.
Yet African soldiers' wartime labors were both visible and important to the overall war effort. U.S. artist C. Leroy Baldridge, an American ambulance driver for the French who later became editor of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, sketched soldiers, laborers and others he encountered during his time in France from 1917 to 1918. Baldridge's keen eye for difference among the many soldier "types" he observed reveals a western front with a far more diverse soldiery than the mostly white doughboys so often credited with saving the day.
Veterans who'd fought for the British and the French, like their counterparts who fought for the Germans, formed veterans' associations to advocate for basic needs and political power within European-ruled colonies after the war. Changed forever by their experiences, they nonetheless typically returned home with modest expectations that they and their families would be cared for through pensions and other benefits due to them as veterans who had risked their lives for empire. Some were able to chart paths of upward mobility through the 1920s and 1930s, in some cases remaining in Colonial armies, or by becoming local Colonial administrators. Some formed mutual aid societies to advocate for their collective interests, solidify social ties or simply to be in each other's company.
For most though, hopes of securing upward mobility after the war were dashed by racist and unsympathetic Colonial administrations with limited budgets.
These African histories can also help us to reflect on what Veterans Day forgets. In U.S. culture and memory, a singular focus on how U.S. troops saved the world from tyranny conveys an important kernel of truth: U.S. troops arrived late in the war, infusing new energy and resources into the front lines in western Europe.
Yet even as the AEF under Gen. John Pershing moved into combat in 1918, it excluded large numbers of able-bodied troops from combat roles because of racist ideologies and practices that permeated U.S. society. These came from the top down, and ensured that African American troops were, at first, largely consigned to support roles, including working as stevedores at ports. When African American troops eventually went into combat, they did so not under Pershing, but under French command, reinforcing U.S. segregation even outside of U.S. borders.
After the war, racist violence in the United States specifically targeted Black veterans as visible threats to White supremacy, amid a larger racist war against African Americans. Like their counterparts in Africa, Black veterans in the United States participated in organizations to advocate for what was due them as citizens who had heeded W.E.B. Du Bois's call to "close ranks" for the nation. Both within and outside of the U.S. Army, the war experience shaped African American political work in the struggle against White supremacy. Their work fed into and reinforced the long-standing, ongoing fight for African American civil rights.
While some memorials in the United States recognize the roles played by African American troops in the First World War, the roles played by Black troops globally remain submerged within national or imperial narratives. Vivid film representations of violence against Black World War I veterans in places like Tulsa have made these histories available to new publics. In remembering the many sacrifices borne by people who had little chance of realizing full citizenship, the costs of war become all the more apparent. These soldiers' experiences illustrate how easily racist ideologies undermine any easy claims to righteousness in struggles against tyranny, past and present.
Michelle Moyd is Ruth N. Halls associate professor of history at Indiana University, Bloomington.