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West Africa and the First World War

The First World War had a great impact on West Africa, as Britain ordered the invasion of German colonies in Cameroon and Togoland, using its own colonies as base. The West African Frontier Force, drawn from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia played a key role in the campaign. War had also had a great impact on the civilian population, as the British drew off workers and resources. How did African soldiers experience the campaign, and what did the war mean for West African societies as a whole?


West Africa and the Great War

Slide 1: Introductory Slide
Slide 2: Map of British West Africa
At the advent of the First World War, British West Africa was comprised of four territories: the Gambia, Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.
Each of these territories were distinct but had similar administrations and were largely divided between indigenous Africans and a British oriented African elite.
These cultural distinctions Inhabitants of the Colony were British Subjects; Protectorate inhabitants were ‘British Protected Persons’.
Slide 3: The Gambia in 1914
Bathurst (now Banjul) was the capital of the Gambia Colony in 1914. There was an educated British oriented elite called the Aku or Creoles who were largely based in Banjul.
Wealthy Wolof merchants also formed part of distinct non-Westernized elite.
Slide 4: The Gold Coast in 1914
The Gold Coast was ruled concurrently and successively by the Dutch, Danish, and the British after it became a British Crown Colony in 1867.
Accra was the capital of the British administrated Gold Coast and was populated mainly by the Ga ethnic group.
Other principal cities such as Cape Coast and Elmina were mainly populated by the Fante ethnic group. Eurafrican families were also influential in Accra and Cape Coast and educated elites in these towns demanded further rights as British Subjects.
The Ashanti Protectorate was declared in 1896 after the Ashanti people fought several wars against the British and were finally defeated.
Slide 5: Nigeria in 1914
Nigeria was created following the amalgamation of the Lagos Colony with the Niger Protectorate and Northern Nigeria Protectorate in 1914.
There was a cultural divide between the Western-oriented elite in Abeokuta, Lagos, and Calabar and Northern Protectorate. Saros, descendants of Sierra Leonean emigrants, and Amaros, descendants of Brazilian returnees influential in Lagos and Abeokuta.
Educated elite fought for political rights and unified colonial policies throughout amalgamated Nigeria. The elite opposed Governor Frederick Lugard’s policy of indirect rule.
The educated elite were led by prominent nationalists such as Dr. John Randle and Herbert Macaulay.
Slide 6: Sierra Leone in 1914
Sierra Leone was founded as a private colony in 1792 and reconstituted as a Crown Colony in 1808.
Freetown was the principal settlement and capital of the Colony.
A Protectorate was declared over the hinterland of Sierra Leone in 1896 and incorporated various African kingdoms.
There was a cultural divide between the Colony of Sierra Leone and the Protectorate of Sierra Leone.
The British oriented elite in the Colony was largely comprised of Sierra Leone Creoles
Sierra Leonean Creoles were Christians and the descendants of ex-slaves and free people from across West Africa, the Americas and Europe.
Slide 7: Outbreak of War
The outbreak of World War One reverberated across West Africa.
Although Anglo-African tension existed between the British colonialists and British West African elite, Dr J.K. Randle of Lagos summarized the position of the British West African elite by stating a “truce” was in place in light of the War.
British oriented West African elite largely supported the War. However, traditional African societies in the Protectorates were sometimes unwilling to recruit on behalf of the British.
It is unclear the extent to which working-class West Africans and ethnic groups in the hinterland supported British efforts during the War
British colonialists were careful to appease and control Hausa-Fulani rulers and the Egba Revolts in Southwest Nigeria against British rule during the War reflected the precarious position of British colonial authorities in garnering support among West Africans outside the British oriented elite.
However, as early as 1914, the West African press espoused loyalty for Britain and disdain for Germany
German citizens were expelled from Nigeria and German captives in Sierra Leone were held in the Model School and Mount Aureol.
Even Sierra Leonean Muslims from the Colony and Protectorate denounced the Ottoman Empire
Slide 8: West Africans in the British military
Slide 9: Henry ‘Harry’ Clement Solomon
Henry Clement Solomon Jr. was one of a few West Africans to serve in the British military. Born in 1897 in Freetown, Sierra Leone to Sierra Leonean parents of African and Jewish descent, Harry as he was fondly known attended local schools before entering Colet Court School and completing his education at Saint Paul Preparatory School in 1916. Harry enlisted in the military in 1918 and served as Rifleman in the Rifle Brigade. He later served in the Labour Corps as a Private and received the Victory Medal and British War Medal for his service. He returned to West Africa as a clerk and engaged in mercantilist pursuits.
Slide 10: Francis Sydney Dove
Francis Sydney Dove was another mixed-race person of West African descent to serve in the British military. Francis Dove, who was nicknamed Frank, was born in Brighton in 1897 to a Sierra Leonean father and English mother. Frank was educated in England and it was as a teenage law student at Oxford University, Law student at Oxford University that he enlisted in the military.
Frank served as a driver in the Royal Tank Corps in the ‘E’ Battalion from 1916 to 1918. As a driver, Dove received the Military Medal for bravery at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Dove also received a commission in the Cadet Unit of the Royal Air Force.
After completing his service, he returned to his studies and represented Britain in boxing at the 1920 Olympics.
Slide 11: Dr Ernest Jenner Wright
But Harry Solomon and Frank Dove were not the norm. Although some blacks of West African descent served in the British military, many did not.
Ernest Jenner Wright, born in London to a West African father and English mother London, attempted to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Jenner was rejected for service and told to go ‘Back home’ to West Africa, even though he was a Londoner who had never been to Africa before.
Nonetheless Jenner Wright settled in West Africa and established flourishing medical practice and he received an MBE in 1938.
Slide 12: British West African Forces in the First World War (Pictorial Slide)
Slide 13: Strategic Advantages of British West Africa
British West Africa was of strategic importance to the War effort.
Nigeria borders German Cameroon and the former Gold Coast borders the former German Togoland
The West African Regiment, West African Frontier Force, and 1st Battalion of West India Regiment stationed in Freetown
Freetown’s coaling station of significant use during the War and its deep water port used to dispatch servicemen and supplies to war front
Slide 14: British Recruitment Policy in West Africa
The British had a small military presence in West Africa in comparison to French forces. This resulted in the British focusing heavily on the recruitment of West Africans during the campaigns.
West Africans were recruited mainly from ethnic groups in the colonial hinterlands or Protectorates. Educated elites were discouraged from enlistment and refused commissions as officers.
The British colonialists colluded with chiefs to recruit men for service.
Some West Africans were reluctant to serve.
British recruiters inaccurately recorded the names of servicemen and often recorded their first names and as a second name perhaps the name of their village or town.
Slide 15: West African Regiment
Established in 1896 as an Imperial Unit.
Administered by the War Office.
Recruited mainly from Sierra Leone.
Twelve companies of 1,500 West African soldiers.
West African Regiment formed to serve primarily in Sierra Leone Protectorate.
W.A.R. could be deployed in various areas in British West Africa.
Regiment served in the Cameroons Campaign.
Stationed at British garrisons in the Cameroons.
Eight Sierra Leoneans received mentions in Despatches during the Cameroons Campaign.
Sierra Leoneans serving in the West African Regiment not eligible for W.A.F.F. Distinguished Conduct Medal.
W.A.R. received Battle Honours for the Cameroons Campaign.
Slide 16: West African Frontier Force
The West African Frontier Force was one of the most important military units in the African Campaigns of the First World War. Established in 1900 from various constabularies in the British West African colonies
The West African Frontier Force comprised of 7,500 men at start of First World War including fitve Battalions of the Nigeria Regiment, a battalion of the Gold Coast Regiment (formerly the Gold Coast Battalion) and the Sierra Leone Battalion.
130 Gambians also served in Gambia Company as Signallers during Cameroons Campaign or attached to other battalions.
The West African Frontier Force were crucial for the Campaigns in Togoland and the Cameroons and also served in the East African Campaigns.
Slide 17: Regiment Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi
Perhaps the most well-known West African to serve in the West African Frontier Force was Lance Corporal Alhaji Grunshi.
Grunshi was reportedly the first British soldier to fire a shot in the First World War on 12 August, 1914, when he shot at a wireless German station
Grunshi, a Gold Coaster, possibly from the Northern region of the Gold Coast, served in the Gold Coast Regiment that was the first West African Frontier Force unit to engage German Forces in the War.
Grunshi served as Lance Corporal in the Gold Regiment of the West African Frontier Force and later as Regiment Sergeant-Major.
Grunshi was mentioned in despatches and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal for bravery.
Slide 18: West African Carrier Corps
Perhaps the tireless servicemen were those who served
14,200 Sierra Leoneans, Nigerians, and Gold Coasters were recruited as carriers in the West African Carrier Corps during the West African campaigns of the First World War.
West African carrier corps often recruited by forced labour and West Africans were reluctant to serve knowing they might not return home.
The Carriers were divided into three Carrier Corps comprised of Sierra Leone Carrier Corps, Southern Nigeria Carrier Corps, and Northern Nigeria Carrier Corps.
Companies of Carriers were attached to Battalions of the W.A.F.F.
Carriers initially served in specialised roles serving combatants but were later used as a general labour force.
Carriers often given meagre supplies and often barefoot.
Hundreds of Carriers died as a result of disease; Carriers in the Cameroons suffered from tropical ulcers and pneumonia during the wet season.
Slide 19: West African Medical Staff
The West African Medical Staff was formed in 1902 and was administered by the Colonial Office. However, service in the West African Medical Staff was restricted to medical doctors of European descent.
The West African Medical Staff were required to serve in the Cameroons Campaign and at least seventeen European medical staff served in Cameroons Campaign.
Medical Officers were attached to regiments in the West African Frontier Force or served at the base hospitals.
However, there was a dearth of medical personnel available for the Cameroons Campaign and African medical staff were required to serve in the Cameroons.
S.B. Palmer, a dispenser at the colonial hospital in the Gambia, was seconded to the Cameroons and Ebenezer George Luke, a Sierra Leonean dispenser, served as a storekeeper with the Medical Department of the Sierra Leone Battalion and the West African Frontier Force in the Cameroons.
Some African assistant-nurses also served in the Medical Department in the Cameroons.
Slide 20: Lieutenant M.C.F. Easmon
Macormack Charles Farrell Easmon was the first, if not the only black African to serve as an officer in the First World War.
M.C.F., or Charlie as he was known, was born in 1890 to Sierra Leonean parents in Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana). He was raised in London and educated at Colet Court School and Epsom College.
He completed his medical studies with stellar grades at St. Mary’s Hospital and the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Yet on the basis of his skin color he was refused entry into the West African Medical Staff and was relegated to the position of ‘Native Medical Officer’.
However, the need for medical officers in the Cameroons Campaign resulted in M.CF. being commissioned as an Acting Lieutenant in West African Medical Staff
He served in the Cameroons between November 1914 and July 1915 and was attached to the West African Carrier Corps
Easmon received the three campaign medals; the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal
He retained the rank of Lieutenant in 1920 and received an OBE for his contributions to medical services in 1954.
Slide 21: The African Theatre of the First World War (Pictorial Slide)
Slide 22: Campaign in Togoland
The Togoland Campaign was the first military campaign in West Africa. German Togoland, which bordered the Gold Coast and the French colony of Dahomey, had an important wireless station.
British captured Lome, capital of German Togoland on 8 August, 1914.
Captain F.C. Bryant Gold Coast Regiment crossed into Togoland from the Gold Coast and fought German forces after crossing the Monu River on 25 August, 1915.
Bryant and the Gold Coast Regiment captured Atakpame which had an important German wireless station.
As a consequence of the War, Togoland was divided into two territories administered by the British and French.
British Togoland merged with the Gold Coast in 1956 and formed the independent nation of Ghana in 1957. French Togoland became the independent Republic of Togo in 1960.
Slide 23: Cameroons Campaign
German Cameroons was at the centre of German telecommunications in West Africa.
It was for this reason that the Allied Forces formed the Cameroons Expeditionary Force to capture Cameroons although a partial motivation for the French forces was to regain territory previously lost to Germany.
Weather conditions and the terrain contributed to prolonged campaign and spread of disease and death from diseases such as dysentery and malaria more common than death in combat.
The Carriers suffered from disease, particularly tropical ulcers.
However, by the summer of 1915, German forces were in retreat and the Allied forces defeated German forces on 10 March 1916.
The Cameroons were divided into two territories administered by the British and French.
The bravery and service of West African servicemen in these campaigns is reflected in the statement of Brigadier-General C.M. Dobell who praised these West African servicemen: ‘to them no day seems to be too long, no task too difficult. With a natural aptitude for soldiering, they are endowed with a constitution which inures them to hardship; they share…an inexhaustible fund of good humour!’
Slide 24: East African Campaign
The East African Campaign was fought by Allied Forces to capture German East Africa between 1915 and 1918.
German East Africa is in modern-day Burundi, Rwanda and other parts of East Africa.
A battalion of the Gold Coast Regiment was the first West African unit to serve in the East African Campaign and four battalions of the Nigeria Regiment also served in East African Campaign.
West Africans such as Sergeant-Major Belo Akure D.C.M. M.M. served with distinction in the East African Campaign.
The outstanding service of Sierra Leoneans as carriers resulted in the Sierra Leone Carrier Corps being formed to serve in East African Campaign.
Sierra Leone Carriers served with distinction in the East African Campaign and also served in Mesopotamia.
Slide 25: Honours in Battle
The tremendous service of West Africans in the First World War is reflected in the battle honors that they received.
Musa Bauchi of the 1st Battalion of the Nigeria Regiment received theWest African Frontier Force Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bauchi was among 38 Nigerians who received honours.
Servicemen in the Nigeria Regiment received at least 30 Military Medals.
Lance-Corporal Palkuke Grumah and Sergeant Yessufu Mamprusi were among twenty Gold Coast Regiment soldiers who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and twenty three who received the Military Medal.
At least two Gold Coast Regiment Soldiers received the D.C.M. with a clasp.
Lance Corporal Sorie Kanu was among four Sierra Leoneans to receive Distinguished Conduct Medal for exceptional bravery.
Private Saljen Sidibi was among at least three Gambians to receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Constituent West African Frontier Force Regiments received Battle Honours in the Togoland Campaign and Cameroons Campaign.
Slide 26: The Aftermath of the War: Economic Impact on British West Africa
Beyond the battle front, British West Africa was adversely affected economically and the First World War had a severe impact on working-class West Africans
There were food shortages throughout British West African colonies and the price of food and basic commodities increased.
The British colonial expulsion of Germans in Nigeria contributed to economic hardship and by early August, 1914, rice and sugar were scarce in Lagos.
British West Africa had another setback after the War as some territories were affected by the Influenza Epidemic in August and September 1918.
Slide 27: Conclusion
Thousands of West Africans served in the First World War in West African Forces and in the regular British military.
Despite tense Anglo-African relations British West African elite largely supported Allied War effort.
However, the First World War had a long-term impact on West Africa.
Nationalist and political movements were established that formed the basis for African movements for decolonization and independence.
However, the West African contribution remains largely neglected even in the modern era.
For although memorials in Bathurst, Freetown, Kumasi, Lagos commemorate the service of these brave men, they are largely forgotten in West African and European history.
Slide 28: Bibliography