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The 'Black Army' that marched in from Africa

Benita van Eyssen
November 10, 2018

Two million Africans were killed when the continent was drawn into the conflagration of World War I. The war and its aftermath wrought seismic changes in Africa that remain at the root of conflicts in many countries.

A British colonial battalion boarding a train for Cameroon, west central Africa, during the First World War
Nigerian soldiers fought on the side of Britain in World War IImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

With World War I raging in Europe, African soldiers were forced to fight for their colonial masters between 1914 and 1918. France recruited more Africans than any other colonial power, sending 450,000 troops from West and North Africa to fight against the Germans on the front lines.

As part of its events to mark the centenary of WWI on Sunday, the presidents of France and Mali inaugurated a new monument in the city of Reims, northeast of Paris, to the so-called "Black Army" — West African soldiers from France's former colonies.

Read more:  Listen to the battlefield as World War I guns fell silent

Young Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan men were part of France's colonial-era armyImage: picture-alliance/Gusman/Leemage

200,000 African soldiers fell

During the war, around 30,000 Africans died fighting on the side of France alone. As France and Mali remembered those African troops on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute on Twitter to the "200,000 African soldiers from the colonies" who were among "the youth of the whole world who fell 100 years ago in villages whose names they did not know."

"Today, we honor our heroes," said Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, speaking at the inauguration of the monument. Keita's great-grandfather reportedly died in 1916 at the Battle of Verdun in northeast France.

Read more: Witness to history: A POW in France 

Clemence Kouame, an African student at the ceremony, told DW that "it hurts" to think about Africa's involvement in the war.

"People from Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali died for France. It's true that France colonized them, but it wasn't their choice. You could almost say they died for nothing, at least not for their countries," she said.

The original monument to the "Black Army," set up in Reims in the 1920s, was removed by the Nazis during World War II and never resurfaced.

Unforgotten victims and memorial places

100 years ago, the First World War ended on November 11, 1918 with the Compiègne Armistice. In Europe, numerous museums and memorials commemorate the victims of cruel and senseless battles.

Image: picture-alliance/PHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPP/O. Boitet

Douaumont Ossuary

The Douaumont charnel house is a burial site for the bones of soldiers killed on the western front near Verdun, who could not be identified. In 1984, on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl stood here hand in hand and declared: "We have reconciled. We have come to an understanding. We have become friends".

Image: picture-alliance/PHOTOPQR/LE PARISIEN/MAXPPP/O. Boitet

Verdun Memorial

The Battle of Verdun, in the north-east of France, is a symbol of the horror of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died between February and December 1916. The museum, founded in 1967, was reopened in the presence of the French President François Hollande and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the 100th anniversary of the commemoration of this battle.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

Memorial Notre-Dame-de-Lorette

The Memorial Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, completed in 2014, lists in the "Ring of Remembrance" (L’Anneau de la Mémoire ) the names of around 600,000 soldiers killed in the northern French region during the First World War. These include soldiers from the British Empire, Germany, France and French colonies in Africa.

Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Spingler

The German-French memorial at Hartmannswillerkopf

This German-French memorial was opened in November 2017 by French President Emmanuel Macron and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It complements a national cemetery and a crypt which, since the end of the First World War, have commemorated the victims of a senseless battle of trench warfare over the mountain of the same name in French Alsace.

Image: picture-alliance/AP Images/P. Seeger

In Flanders Fields Museum

One of the main war sites of the First World War is the region around the Belgian city of Ypres. The war museum "In Flanders Fields" is located in the Gothic textile halls building, which was rebuilt after the devastating destruction. The name of the museum is the title of a poem by the Canadian military doctor John McCrae, whose friend died in 1915 at Ypres shortly before he wrote it.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schumann

Mons Memorial Museum

Opened in 2005, the museum in Mons, Belgium, does not focus on war equipment or strategies, but on the human being. The display cases contain many personal objects of soldiers and civilians, which give an impression of life during the war and occupation. The region in the northwest of Belgium was a hotly contested site during both world wars.

Image: picture-alliance/epa/O. Hoslet

Ossuary of Castel Dante

In the northern Italian town of Rovereto, a war museum, the Castel Dante ossuary and the peace bell commemorate the victims of the First World War. The bell was cast in 1924 from molten cannons of the war opponents Italy and Austria-Hungary. With 100 chimes every evening it recalls the dead of all wars.

Image: picture-alliance/CTK/C. Karel

Kobarid Museum

The region of Kobarid in present-day Slovenia was also the scene of several battles between Austria-Hungary and Italy during the First World War. The Kobarid Museum (Kobariški Muzej documents the battles on the Isonzo front as well as the everyday warfare of the soldiers on both sides.

Image: picture-alliance/Arco Images/G. Lenz

Çanakkale Martyrs' Memorial

Like many others on the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli, the Çanakkale monument commemorates the battle of the same name between soldiers of the Ottoman Empire and troops from Great Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand. Engraved in stone is a quote attributed to President Atatürk: "There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets. Therefore rest in peace."

Image: picture-alliance/AA/E. Aydin

Neue Wache

In Germany, remembrance of the First World War is mainly decentralized. In almost every community there are monuments for those who died. The "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Tyranny" has been the Neue Wache in Berlin since 1993. Inside, the bronze sculpture "Mother with Dead Son" was designed by the artist Käthe Kollwitz.

Image: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/J. Woodhouse
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Battles, mass starvation in Africa

During the war, African troops were also deployed in Africa itself. A Senegalese infantry helped France seize the German colony of Togo, and the British also fought alongside African troops against the Germans until 1918. Africans served as scouts, porters and cooks.

Germany also exploited Africa, forcing thousands of Africans into military service in Tanzania — the former German East Africa. That meant labor shortages in the fields, which led to widespread starvation. The economy ultimately collapsed and around 1 million people died in East Africa as a result.

WWI would ultimately redraw Africa's borders. Germany's defeat meant the loss of its colonies, with German East Africa, German Cameroon, Togo and German South West Africa all taken over by the victors.

In Cameroon, the former colony was divided between Britain and France, with the French getting more than four-fifths of the land. After the end of colonial rule in 1960, the divided country was reunified, but by no means peacefully. The country's English-speaking minority, which felt abandoned by the central government, is still fighting for its own homeland today.

Read more: Cameroon's English speakers living rough to avoid bullets, machetes

100 years after World War I


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A second war before decolonization

Namibia, once German South West Africa, was not divided but placed under the control of the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. An independent country was supposed to emerge with the help of South Africa.

But the South African government had other ideas and seized control just two years after the end of the war. South Africa imposed its apartheid regime and oppressed the black population until Namibia's independence in 1990.

Read more: After Namibia, could other former German colonies demand reparations?

WWI resulted in seismic changes that are still at the root of conflicts in many African countries today. For many Africans, the end of WWI did not bring hope for liberation. Decades would pass and another world war would be fought before the decolonization of Africa could finally be celebrated.

This article is based on a DW TV report by Max Hofmann.

Every day, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. Sign up to receive it here.

Benita van Eyssen is a digital content planner, producer and editor@benita_v_eyssen
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