Words on Teaching – “The Great War in Africa”

Africa in Words Guest Anne Samson:

Ready packaged resources for those who want to explore the Great War in Africa are scarce. However, that shouldn’t put teachers and other educators off doing so as the amount of useful material on the web is increasing daily.

Campaigns were fought across Africa while troops and auxiliary forces from Africa were used in Europe and elsewhere. My interest is in the action which took place on the African continent, and a good place to start understanding the African campaigns is with the East African campaign which was fought from 8 August 1914 until 25 November 1918. Contrasting why fighting started here on the 8th whilst in Togoland it started a day earlier and in Europe a few days later will give some of the varied reasons for countries going to war.

The war in East Africa is often regarded as ‘the forgotten campaign’ and this statement provides a starting point for discussion – why was it forgotten? Is it still forgotten? What evidence is there? Are there other African conflicts (eg Togoland) which are even ‘more forgotten’?

To assist with answers to these questions, a list of known published texts (books and articles) and websites on the Great War in Africa can be found on the Great War in Africa Association (GWAA) site. The lists cover all the African campaigns of World War 1 in all languages thereby allowing comparisons between different belligerent nations, and where freely obtainable texts are available the relevant link is provided.

Numerous autobiographies and regimental histories are mentioned on the lists and analysis of these in terms of who the authors are, when they published and what groups of people haven’t published provide some interesting points for debate. What does it mean for historians today as they try to write a history which is far more inclusive when significant accounts of the time remain unrecorded in written format?0141009845

For teachers of media, culture and literature, there are lists of novels and films of the campaigns in Africa. A quick perusal will indicate that these are almost exclusively on the East Africa campaign. These, in particular the fictional accounts, provide a good introduction and basis for exploring myths and perceptions of the Great War in Africa, especially when considered against some strategically selected documents. The BBC iWonder Guide on The African Queen is an excellent place to start as it touches on some of the issues in the film. For background reading on the real story behind The African Queen, there is Giles Foden’s Mimi and Toutou go forth: The bizarre battle for Lake Tanganyika. And, although not currently available, there should be a primary source text available on the expedition sometime during 2015 from the GWAA.

Poster, The African Queen (open source image)

My continuing interest in the African theatres derives from the hidden stories. For me, it is important to look at what is missing or what different media of the same event tells us. Consider the photographs on the BBC iWonder Guide with Giles Foden’s story or even the first book on the expedition, Peter Shankland’s The Phantom Flotilla. Similarly, compare these four videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57O78OCtVzY ; http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/6218 ; http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0257hvf and http://www.enca.com/africa/battlefield-tourism-takes-kenya

The Great War in Africa provides something of interest for everyone: the development of weapons, how the war in Africa (all theatres) differed to that on the Western Front , the effectiveness of blockades, the use of aeroplanes, how attitudes changed with regards the arming of indigenous peoples, how nationality and identity differed in Africa to that in Europe as seen in the ease with which soldiers changed sides, the use of truces and parole by the military forces; the impact of the war on Africa politically and economically, the causes and effects of rebellions during war, the rise of nationalism, the impact of settler initiatives and the role of women.

As seen above, for those looking for an ‘easy’ entry into the First World War in Africa, the East Africa campaign is a good place to start.

World War 1 in East Africa, open source image.

At least 23 different ethnic groupings were involved in the campaign, fighting occurred in seven different territories, on the seas, lakes, in the air and on the ground. Around a million carriers were used to transport food and equipment as oxen and horses suffered from tsetse fly. After subjugating the German territories in West and South Africa, troops from there were sent to East Africa and many, having been sent home to recuperate where then sent to Egypt, to Mesopotamia and Palestine to continue the struggle. Information and links to these aspects can be found on www.gweaa.com. It’s worth keeping an eye on the GWAA for updates and material to support the teaching of the Great War in Africa.


Anne Samson has been studying aspects of the Great War in Africa since 1997. anne2014 imageHer doctorate, which she obtained in 2004, was published under the title Britain, South Africa and the East Africa campaign 1914-1918: the Union comes of age. She works as an independent historian and runs the Great War in Africa Association (gweaa.com) which aims to bring enthusiasts and academics across the world together. She continues to explore different aspects of the campaigns in Africa (thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com)


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