By Khaled Diab
It is time European countries acknowledged the part soldiers from their former colonies played in the First World War.
Ninety years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Great War that was supposed to end all wars finally ended, leaving some 20 million dead and another 20 million wounded. The horrendousness of the conflict is well summed up by Wilfred Owen in Anthem for doomed youth.
Rightly, the memory of the ‘lost generation' who perished so pointlessly should be kept alive. Sadly, amid the carnage, a proverbial army has gone missing in action from the theatre of history, unrecognised and unmourned in the official narrative.
It is estimated that well over 600,000 soldiers from British and French colonies fought on the Western Front: 270,000 from the Maghreb in North Africa, 153,000 from the Indian subcontinent and 134,000 from West Africa. Colonial soldiers were also mobilised throughout the two empires, including more than 1.5 million from the Indian subcontinent.
Add to that, the smaller numbers from more than 50 different cultures who landed in Flanders Fields, even from such unexpected provenances as American Indians, the Inuit of Canada, the Maori of New Zealand and a smattering of Aborigines from Australia, even though they were not officially allowed to serve. That's not to mention the enormous and shockingly treated Chinese Labour Corp.
Of course, we should not overlook the fact that the forces of the Central Powers were also hardly homogenous: Slavs, Danes, Francophones, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Jews and even Armenians who were simultaneously being butchered.
Despite the fascinating multiethnic and multicultural reality of the trenches, it is still conventional wisdom that the First World War was largely a European war fought by Europeans, with the aid of their western allies.
“This Eurocentric view of writing the history of the two world wars has excluded… colonised peoples as major participants,” writes Driss Maghraoui of the University of California in a study of Moroccan colonial soldiers.
A recent exhibition at Belgium's In Flanders Fields Museum sought to set the record straight by shining a spotlight on the history and composition of these unknown and largely forgotten colonial forces.
Looking at some of the photos from the time, it seems almost surreal to see Sikhs sitting cross-legged praying in a wet and sodden field, kefiya-clad Algerian Spehis mounted on white steeds marching alongside an old industrial canal, or drinking tea on the ground outside a converted stable with Arabic script on the doors. The scenes are certainly outlandish to our eyes, but how depressing and alien must it have felt for the poor fellows who had to endure it?
In addition to the alien surroundings and hardships, soldiers from the colonies often had to endure massive prejudice. They were largely recruited from so-called ‘martial races' – ethnicities believed to be warrior-like but lacking in intelligence and civilisation. Top of the heap, in British eyes at least, were the Sikhs.
In justifying his attempts to assemble an “armée noire”, the French general Charles Mangin, claimed that: “Africans are primitive and belligerent… they are exceptionally suited to becoming storm troopers at the front.”
The upshot of these racist theories was that colonial soldiers, especially black Africans, often provoked fear and mistrust among local populations, and this was not helped by bloodthirsty caricatures in the media.
The Germans took full advantage of this angst in their fear-mongering propaganda, but it backfired when some of their own fighters started to flee their positions when they heard that African soldiers were approaching.
Some saw through this prejudice and propaganda. A Belgian military doctor, Maurice Duwez described, in 1915, a unit that marched past him: “Arabs and Jews with bronzed skin… marching as nobly and erectly as cats.”
There was also resistance on racial grounds, with critics fearing that the mixing of races on the battlefield could lead to the weakening and even downfall of western civilisation. These concerns eventually led, in the latter years of the war, to France and Britain deploying most of their colonial troops outside the European theatre.
Then there was the fear that fighting shoulder to shoulder with their colonial masters might give ‘subject races' ideas above their station, and lead them to revolt against colonial rule. In fact, many colonial soldiers regarded serving in the army as a good start on their own quest for independence and national development. Blaise Diagne, the first black parliamentarian in Europe, was fond of referring to the “school of the army”.
War-ravaged as Europe was, the soldiers' experiences opened their minds to possibilities for their own countries. Dafadar Ranji Lal wrote in a letter: “When I look at Europe, I lament India's lot. In Europe, everyone is educated.” He urged his family “to educate the girls as well as the boys for a better future”.
Chanda Singh, a Sikh lance dafadar, wrote to his wife: “Here, it is truly a free land… A man and a woman can go outside arm in arm and no one will say anything.”
Some of Singh and Lal's words have survived. But little record remains of the thoughts and lives of other colonial soldiers, who were conveniently whitewashed out of European history and did not fit comfortably into the post-independence narrative of their native lands. Nine decades on, it is time for Europe to acknowledge the many debts it owes to its colonies, and for immigrant minorities to take pride in the achievements of their forebears.
A shorter version of this column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 11 November 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest