tue 23/07/2024

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, BBC Two

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, BBC Two

How colonial troops were thrown into the blood and horror of the Western Front

Presenter David Olusoga with sculpture commemorating 'the Black Heroes of Reims'

We call it the First World War, but in Western Europe at least, most of the scrutiny is confined to what happened to Britain, France and Germany (with a side order of Russia) from 1914-18.

The writer and presenter of this two-part series, David Olusoga, seized the opportunity to emphasise the full global scope of the conflict by throwing fascinating light on the contributions made by troops from the French and British colonies, uncomprehendingly transported from India and Africa to the mud, blood and horror of the Western Front.

Beginning with the revelation that the first shot fired by the British Army after the declaration of war in August 1914 was from an African soldier of the British West African Frontier Force in an attack on German forces in Togoland, Olusoga swept across the battlefields of France and Belgium, but also probed skilfully into the mysteries of the imperial mindset. This was crammed with weird notions about race and fighting spirit (it was a place where "the madness of war is overlaid with the craziness of racial prejudice," as Olusoga put it).

We learned how the British Army in India was keen on the "Theory of the Martial Races", and such experts as Lt Col JWB Merewether enumerated the attributes of the various Indian peoples in the way he might have assessed racehorses or bloodhounds. The Jats (from the Punjab) were a tough and durable "thoroughbred race", the Pathans were "handsome" and "athletic", and the Gurkhas were cheery, adaptable and friendly. Naturally all of them would need the firm guiding hand of white British officers (colonial prisoners held by the Germans at Zossen, pictured above).

At the start of the war, the British were desperately short of professional fighting men, and the contribution of the Indian corps proved critical in stemming the German onslaught at Ypres, though photographs of the Indians enduring the freakishly cold winter of 1914 were pitiful to behold. They also came close to achieving a potentially war-winning breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle. Olusoga had unearthed a cache of letters written by the troops, in which they used imagery of their former faraway rural life to describe this hideous technological carnage - "men are dying like maggots... none can count them", "the corpses cover the country like sheaves of harvested corn." By the end of 1915, they'd suffered so many casualties and lost so many officers that they were transferred to the Middle East.

Meanwhile the French were somewhat schizophrenic about their own colonial troops (many of them from West Africa, grouped under the collective heading of "tirailleurs Sénégalais"). Though the so-called "Force Noire" performed such feats as helping to recapture the Douaumont fort at Verdun, and were fêted with jingoistic fervour by the French press ("un Noir vaut deux Boches"), the French establishment was disturbed by lingering folk myths depicting the Africans as priapic savages liable to run amok in the jardins of the bourgeoisie. The soldiers were therefore taught only a minimalist, baby-talk French, and were groomed to behave like "the loyal simpleton soldier", as historian Alison Fell put it (a Senegalese tirailleur, pictured above).

As for the Germans, they were deeply pissed off that the Anglo-French navies had cut off access to their own overseas colonies, and responded with brutish propaganda about how their enemies were employing ape-men to win the war. German cartoons portrayed John Bull as a grotesque Negroid caricature with a ring through his nose, while the Africans fighting for the French were turned into half-naked cannibals. And this was long before anybody had heard of Joseph Goebbels. It was extraordinary stuff, rendered even more powerful by the gently regretful tone of Olusoga's delivery.

The Germans responded with brutish propaganda about how their enemies were employing ape-men to win the war


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article


Don’t we just get a little tired of revisionist historians banging on about Africans and Indians in the great war 1914-18 most of my family on my father’s side were in the Army as regular soldiers during this period, one , my uncle was killed by mustard gas , but all never mentioned once an encounter with the limited amount of Indians and Africans on the western front . Yet in out Diversity obsessed society White British people some whose relatives fought in this conflict have to bear this insufferable nonsense. 20,000 white Brits were killed on the first day of the Somme , yet we are supposed to cry over the inclusion of 35,000 sepoys , thousands upon thousands of white French were killed at Verdun yet he attributes the taking of the occupied fort to a bunch of Africans, the story of which at the time was probably French propaganda. He illustrates how the Germans used racist posters to depict Africans as savages at a time when by and large they were One must not forget that the Zulu wars had only been some 35 years before and the Zulus that attacked Rourkes Drift were not in uniforms but basically naked with grass skirts and hide shields . It is any wonder that Europeans formed this view of black Africans. Indians were greatly respected by the British as they had a long standing and sophisticated civilization and even invented the "0" zero in mathematics ( something even the Greeks and Romans failed to do) they built temples and wrote the karma sutra . as far as we know, even in today's enlightened times, Sub Saharan black Africans have contributed very little to human progress apart from music and athletics, so again is it any wonder that 1914 white euro-man regarded these people with some trepidation. These black historians with chips on their shoulders should ask themselves why their ancestors did so little, and why it was so easy for other races to enslave them, instead of blaming white Europeans for their past condition. Also does this man realise that by making these absurd programmes he is actually fuelling racialism as those who know history better are outraged and racists who watch just laugh at them. It is time people of African descent started living in Britain as British people and patriots, instead of constantly crying about their past which even their ancestors would find contemptible , had their ancestors made more of their time on earth, then white , Arab , roman and Egyptian civilisations would not have been able to exploit them . As they didn’t then human nature which like nature proper, abhors a vacuum found an unpleasant use for them , as the Romans found a use for the many tribes of white so called barbarians existing in western Europe at the time of their empire.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters