The War in Africa

When war broke out between the Entente and the Central Powers, their colonies were immediately drawn in. 55,000 men from Africa fought for the British during the First World War and hundreds of thousands of others carried out the vital roles of carriers or auxiliaries. It is estimated that 10,000 Africans were killed and many more died of disease and malnutrition. African troops were awarded 166 decorations for bravery.

East Africa Campaign

The East Africa Campaign was one theatre of conflict where the Germans had not already surrendered by the time of the Armistice. The campaign began on 8th August 1914 and ended on 25th November 1918.

The East African Front included Indians, South Africans, Germans, Belgians and Portuguese, as well as Africans from across the continent. There were at least 177 “micro-nations” also involved. The fighting took place over 750,000 square miles and seven territories were directly involved in the fighting. They were Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo), British East Africa (Kenya), German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi), Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) and Uganda.

One important naval battle in East Africa was the sinking of the Königsberg ship in the Rufiji Delta. The British were determined to destroy the ship because it was such a threat to their sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, but found it difficult to locate. When the ship was finally found, the battle was slow but the British succeeded and the German’s ordered for the Königsberg to be scuttled.

West Africa

german claims in africa according to professional delbruck, 1917.

British West Africa included Nigeria, the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Gambia. The soldiers of the British colonies were divided into two military formations, the West African Regiment in Sierra Leone and the West African Frontier Force (WAFF). Both of these were led by British officers. At the beginning of the war the WAFF had over 8,000 soldiers of which less than 400 were British and over 5,000 of them were Nigerian.

Early on in the war the British decided to destroy all wireless stations in German colonies. The first station they destroyed was in Kamina, Togo, which had enough power to relay communications between all Germany’s African Colonies and its cruisers in adjacent waters to Berlin. The German force lacked local support and only had 300 German and 1,200 native troops. After capturing Lomé on 7th August 1914, the British and French advanced towards Kamina. By 25th August the Germans had surrendered and set fire to Kamina rather than letting it fall into the hands of the Allies.

Southern Africa

British Troops were stationed in the Union of South Africa prior to the start of the First World War. Just a few weeks after the outbreak of war, South Africa took over their defence and British Troops were re-stationed in European combat zones leaving a small number of officers behind.

Over 146,000 men served in South African units during the war. The most significant military campaign in Southern Africa was the South African invasion of German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia). South African units also fought on the Western Front and in the East Africa Campaign.

In 1915, the lack of water in the South West caused major problems for the South African forces.  For instance, after the South Africans took control of the port of Swakopmund they began to advance on Windhoek. When they arrived they found that the Germans had put sign up to say that they had poisoned the wells. German forces were keen to avoid large scale battles in order to prolong the campaign. 

The South African fighting contingent consisted of mainly white soldiers, with black auxiliaries acting in a supporting role. And about 2450 South Africans served in the Royal Flying Corp. 



The equivalent to trench foot on the African Front was the Jigger Flea. The fleas would lay eggs in soldiers’ toes!