World History 2 180 - 11.3.4 Colonies, Race, and the War

As the imperial powers went to war with one another, so too did their colonies in multiple ways. In some cases, colonial troops came to Europe to fight, such as those the French brought from Senegal or the British brought from India. In other cases, such as in Africa, fighting took place in the colonies themselves.

France had extensive colonial holdings throughout Africa and enlisted more than 600,000 soldiers there, most of them from the continent’s west and north. France also employed troops from French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). More than ninety thousand people from French Indochina were brought to Europe, about half of them as laborers for the French armies. Britain made great use of roughly 1.3 million soldiers from India (Figure 11.13). Many were brought to Europe where they fought in the trenches of France and Belgium. Others went to the other theaters of the war—Mesopotamia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. More than three million Africans participated in the war, either as soldiers or in a support capacity. While many fought in Europe, many others fought in French, British, and German colonies in Africa.

Troops march in a line. They carry rifles and wear military uniforms. They all wear turbans, and most soldiers have beards.
Figure 11.13 This photo shows troops from India marching in France during World War I. Colonial troops from all over the world served in various capacities in Europe. (credit: “Indian Troops in France” by The Great World War: A History edited by Frank A. Mumby/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Germany’s colonial forces in Africa were mainly located in East Africa. Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck commanded thousands of German troops, along with thousands of African porters who carried all the supplies. The plight of African porters underscores the effect racism had on the way the war was fought and who was considered expendable. Porters were given strict rations, in some locations only one thousand calories a day, and forced to march many miles while carrying sixty-pound loads. The death rate among porters was 20 percent over the course of the war, higher than the death rate for British soldiers.

In addition to colonial troops, the troops of British dominions fought in the war as well. From the very beginning of the conflict, soldiers were organized from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and sent to the Mediterranean and European theaters. Some of the battles in which they fought became key episodes in their growing national histories.

For example, the ANZAC forces representing Australia and New Zealand saw heavy action in the Mediterranean in 1915. The idea behind the British plan was to launch a ship-based artillery attack at the Dardanelles and then land troops on a peninsula called Gallipoli. This would allow the British to link up with Russian forces and coordinate a push against the Turks to isolate the Ottoman Empire and seize control of the important Turkish straits leading to the Sea of Marmara (Figure 11.14). The brainchild of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, the operation suffered problems from its start in February. The first ships took heavy fire and were crippled by mines. The Turks were prepared for a ground invasion and began firing on the Allied troops from secure positions. Those who made it ashore were unable to do more than establish beachheads and did not drive far into the interior. The situation continued through all of 1915 before the British decided to evacuate their troops. Casualties from both sides totaled approximately 900,000, losses commemorated in Australia and New Zealand each year on ANZAC Day, April 25. Churchill resigned over the debacle.

Two maps are shown. The map on the left shows Europe and bits of North Africa and West Asia. An area in Turkey is highlighted with a black square. The second map shows an enlarged drawing of that square section.  The Aegean Sea is labeled in the west and the Dardanelles Narrows is shown splitting two pieces of land, going from northeast to southwest. The northern end of the coast of Turkey on the Aegean Sea is labeled, from north to south, with Anzac Cove, Gaba Tepe, and Cape Helles. The cities of Maidos, Canakkale, Krithia, and Troy are labeled from north to south. In the Dardanelles Narrows blue straight lines going from shore to shore are drawn beginning at the city of Maidos in the north of the map, heading south toward the city of Canakkale, past the San Sighlar Bay and Kepez Burnu, and ending parallel with the city of Krithia, numbered from 1 to 10 indicating a “Minefield.” A blue line labeled “11” runs northeast to southwest in the Erin Keui Bay.  Between the blue “10” line and the blue “11” line a blue dotted line runs from north to south indicating “Anti-submarine net.” Another blue dotted line is shown at the north of the Dardanelles Narrows running shore to shore from Kilye Liman to Nara Burnu. Blue squares are shown along the coasts indicating “Forts.” These are, from north to south: Nagara, Anadolu (no. 24), Hamidieh II (No. 16), Medjidieh, Hamidieh I (No. 19), Yildiz, Messudieh, Dardanos (No. 8), Ertugrul (No. 1), Seddulbahir (No. 3), Kum Kale (No. 6), and Orhaniye Tepe (No. 4). Four blue squares are not labelled. A Scale for “Miles” is shown in the right bottom corner from 1 to 5.
Figure 11.14 A British plan to land troops in order to open up the Dardanelles (Strait of Gallipoli) and advance with Russian forces to isolate the Ottoman Empire met overwhelming resistance in Turkey and ultimately failed, costing Prime Minister Churchill his job. This map shows the Turkish defenses in February and March of 1915, including eleven lines of naval mines, two anti-submarine nets, and sixteen major forts. (credit left: modification of work "Italy — Details" by The World Factbook/CIA, Public Domain; credit right: modification of work "Dardanelles defences 1915" by "Gsl"/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

For Canadian forces, the fighting in 1917 at Vimy Ridge, south of Calais, became the key battle to memorialize as a nation. It was fought for a week in April, with Canadian forces charging the German line to take the ridge. More than 3,500 Canadian soldiers were killed and approximately 7,000 were wounded. Canada’s victory became a national rallying point and source of pride.

Prejudice and discrimination were widely evident within the major powers in the war. For example, the interplay between colonial and regular troops and policy decisions about who would be drafted were all reflected in the diversity of the armies engaged in the war. The multitude of nationalities that fought in this war meant that people were regularly engaging with allies from different backgrounds and ethnicities. The prospect of tension in these relationships was clear.

In the United States, the military was still officially segregated. All-Black units had been formed as early as the Civil War, but the military did not integrate any of its branches until after World War II. When the country entered World War I, African American men volunteered in substantial numbers, though the government soon set ceilings on the number it was willing to accept. Once the draft was enacted, southern draft boards were quick to select a disproportionately high number of African Americans in an effort to protect local White men from combat. While most African American soldiers from the United States worked in labor units in Europe, some did see combat, such as the infantry unit dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters.

The situation developing in the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire also reflected both diversity and prejudice. Turks dominated in Istanbul, the capital, and in the Anatolian Peninsula. However, large areas of the empire were inhabited by Muslims of other ethnicities, primarily Arabs. During the war, some of these Arab Muslim populations, led by the sharif (ruler) of Mecca, began to fight against the Ottoman overlords in the Arab Revolt of 1916. The British government seized this opportunity to further drive a wedge in the operations of the Ottoman Empire by offering support to the rebels and promising them an independent Arab state free of Turkish control. One British officer, T.E. Lawrence, began working with Faisal ibn Hussein, a son of the sharif. The Arab Revolt was successful in targeting railways and causing problems for the Ottoman forces, but it did not achieve the goal of independence for Arabia. However, when the war ended with the Ottoman Empire defeated and soon dissolved, Arabia was able to separate itself from Ottoman control.

European powers approached Arabia and the Middle East with the same colonial conventions under which they had operated in the nineteenth century. They believed that even after the war they would be the ones deciding the fate of these lands. In 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a covert deal made between Britain and France with the approval of Italy and Russia, divided the areas of the Middle East under two spheres of influence, with what are today Lebanon, Syria, and northern Iraq going to France and the areas of Jordan, Kuwait, and southern Iraq going to Britain. Britain, France, and Russia were to share control of Palestine (Figure 11.15). Britain and France understood that the world’s growing reliance on oil would make this region a major player in the future. The Sykes-Picot Agreement also supported the creation of an independent Arab state, but this did not come to pass.

This map shows the region between the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Black Sea. The central region that includes parts of the Tigris River and the Euphrates River is labeled A Zone (French influence). The T-shaped region that stretches from Egypt, around Arabia to the Persian Gulf, and northeast to Persia is labeled B Zone (British influence). The northern region labeled Blue Zone (French control) borders Anatolia and goes along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. A stretch of land northwest of the Persian Gulf and along its western coast is labeled Red Zone (British control). A small area on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is labeled International Zones. The unshaded regions of Egypt, Arabia, Persia, and Anatolia are labeled.
Figure 11.15 This map reflects the proposed boundaries of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. It shows how much territory the French and British were prepared to claim in the Middle East, and it helped set the stage for many of the tensions in the region over the next decades. (credit: modification of work “Fertile Crescent blank base map” by “NormanEinstein”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was kept secret at the time, and promises that contradicted it were explicitly made to some of those involved in the Arab Revolt, such as the British promise of Syria to Faisal ibn Hussein. News of the agreement leaked out by 1918, angering many throughout the region. The Balfour Declaration that soon followed also contributed to frustrations in Palestine by making it clear that Britain supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

For its part, Germany sought to appeal to Muslim troops, in part by making sure its Muslim prisoners of war were properly treated and pledging them its support for Islam. The Germans even built a mosque so their prisoners could properly pray. The aim was to persuade them to fight against the Allied powers instead of Germany. The Turkish sultan (a German ally) endorsed this view, calling for all Muslims to fight against their oppressors, the Allies. Few prisoners of war heeded the call, however.

One of the more violent examples of prejudice during this period affected the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians were a Christian minority and resided in both Ottoman lands and Russia. Due to their background, religion, and location, they were seen as potential collaborators with the Russians, who were also Christians. Believing that local Armenians had been working against the Ottoman army, in 1915 Ottoman troops began murdering them. The Armenians defended themselves, and the Ottoman government ordered their removal from the region, granting its officials permission to repress resistance. Over the next few months, approximately one million Armenians died from forced marches or were executed by the Ottoman government. The Ottomans did not acknowledge this genocide at the time, and to this day, the Turkish government does not admit it occurred.

The Past Meets the Present

The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian people continue to memorialize the genocide that occurred in 1915. They also fear similar actions today. The following account is by Jen Langley, a descendant of one of the survivors of 1915 who lives in the United States.

My great-uncle also came from Van and in 1915 saw his entire family murdered. I grew up with him and his stories. I knew that he had to sleep next to a wall—a way to keep him in his bed as he relived the events of 1915 in his dreams, even as an 85-year-old man.

We did not talk about recognition when I was growing up. Instead, I just experienced the culture that survived—I ate the food, sang the songs, and heard the stories of the “old country.” As a child, I did not understand yet that the sharing of survivor’s stories in my family was heavy with the need for acknowledgment. [. . .]

Every Armenian in America has experienced meeting someone who doesn’t even know that Armenia is actually a country, never mind that an unrecognized genocide was committed against their people in 1915. Along with those who are simply unaware, there is the denial that continues to this day. For all of the beauty and richness of my Armenian culture that survived, I’ve come to learn that it’s profoundly difficult to heal as a people and as individuals in the absence of recognition.

In 1996, eminent genocide scholar Gregory Stanton defined the eight states of genocide. And though “extermination” is one of the stages in his framework, it is not the final stage as one might expect. On the contrary, the final stage in Stanton’s framework is denial. This illustrates so well that without recognition of the incalculable violence and losses faced by Armenians, the physical process of extermination begun in 1915 continues in nonphysical forms.

Being told again and again that our losses have not been profound and that the violence done to us is not worthy of the label “genocide” denies our humanity as a people and pushes our chance for collective healing onto an ever-receding horizon.

— Jen Langley, “Why Genocide Recognition Matters”

  • What elements or aspects of the genocide affect Armenians today?
  • Why is the genocide still such a difficult topic for Armenians?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax