The Forgotten First World War


It is an unfairly Eurocentric reading of the First World War to dismiss the conflicts that took place, under imperial officers but predominantly involving men and women from the Middle East, South Pacific, Australia, North America, China, Japan, India, and across the African continent between 1914 and 1918, as mere ‘sideshows’ to a European War; in much the same way as in Europe, the First World War globally sowed the seeds of conflict and upheaval, and the post-war environment provided the conditions for what came after. The following sections contain just a few examples of its crucial importance to global history, and attempt to put the ‘world’ back into the First World War.

In Asia, the victory of Japan against a European power, Germany, in 1914 reinforced its ascendency as an imperial nation, which had begun with the Russo-Japanese war a decade earlier, while in India the huge cost in lives and revenue spent fighting a distant war fed anti-colonial and independence movements. In Africa, the deep scars riven across the land by war defined the boundaries, language and culture of many modern nations. Finally, in the Middle East, the outcome of the First World War on the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate in Palestine, and the Western involvement in Persia and the Arabian Peninsula echo down to the present state of the region. This topic seeks to look beyond the Western Front to provoke questions about the truly world-spanning nature of the First World War.

Forgotten Fronts: Mesopotamia, German Imperial Africa and the Far East

The British Council, in their 2014 report “Remember the World as well as the War”, notes that at a high-profile international conference in Tunisia on the effects of the Arab Spring, the key issue was the importance of greater understanding between Britain and the Arab world. The Tunisian minister opening the conference recalled the First World War, citing two documents which are almost forgotten in Britain: the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence, setting the borders of many of today’s Middle Eastern states including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British commitment to the eventual creation of the state of Israel. While these outcomes of the War are outside the usual Western Front-centred narrative of gas, trenches and futile charges over the top, they are no less relevant - indeed, perhaps more relevant - to world history.

The First World War in the popular imagination is still seen, in Britain at least, as a conflict in which all the important events took place in the European theatres of war. It is imagined as a contest for mastery between Britain and Germany, occasionally involving other, peripheral matters. Other belligerents, if they are remembered at all, are marginal to the main thrust of the Anglo-Germanic nature of the conflict: the Americans (late), the French (ineffectual) or the Russians (left early). The popular thinking about all of the significant events of the war – when it started and ended and the key turning points in the middle – revolves around this assumption. This is, however, an inaccurate view of the war which leaves one with the question: where exactly does the ‘world’ come into the ‘First World War’?

Let us take, for example, the question of the opening of hostilities. It is generally held that the first British shot of the war was fired by Corporal Ernest Edward Thomas, an Irishman, at the Battle of Mons. Leaving aside other potentially more significant starting points for the war, this was not even the first engagement between British and German troops; as Hew Strachan in his authoritative book The First World War in Africa notes, the first shots fired between Britain and Germany were in fact fired by Sergeant Alhaji Grunshi of the West African Frontier Force, in Togo on the 12 August 1914 – ten days before Thomas went into battle. Indeed, the African colonies were the location in which Britain and Germany were engaged in warfare for the longest time, as the commander in German East Africa, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, did not formally surrender until two weeks after the Armistice, on 25 November 1918. This is a single anecdotal example, but it is indicative of the persistent and insidious practice of looking at the First World War simply as a European conflict, a notion that this discussion intends to dispel.

Historians have noted that, despite the longstanding view of the campaigns in Africa, the Middle East, China and the Pacific being military irrelevances, the impact of the war on these vast territories was immensely important to world history – not only to the eventual decline of the European empires, but also for the hundreds and thousands of lives affected in the colonies. In Africa the impact of the war was vast, from the tens of thousands, some who volunteered, some who were conscripted or otherwise coerced, who served as askaris (soldiers) on all sides, to the effects of famine, theft, abduction and rape on the civilian population caught up in the war zones. Hugely significant if scarcely remembered is the appalling treatment of hundreds of thousands of men pressed into service as porters, who traversed precarious mountains, impenetrable bushland, searing deserts and swollen rivers while laden with soldiers’ baggage. In this land of few railroads and inadequate or non-existent roads, in which pack animals could not long survive (tripanosomiasis spread by the tsetse fly was rampant) the logistical challenge of campaigning was borne by manpower alone, and it is estimated that over 100,000 porters never returned. From India as well, over one million people were called upon to serve in the Empire’s hour of need, and the country was stifled with new customs and income taxes to pay for the war.

The West African Frontier Force, from the British colonies, and the French Tirailleurs Sénégalais, swept to victory in Togo on 27 August, after fifteen days of fighting. It was taken on the initiative of the commanders in the field, without explicit authoriszation from their superiors, and thus became the first of the many German colonies to be occupied by British colonial troops in the early days of the war. The objective was the powerful wireless station at Kamina, which had been relaying communications from Berlin to other German colonies, and passing information about enemy ship movements. Two days later, the colony of Samoa in the Pacific surrendered to troops from New Zealand. On 17 September, German New Guinea surrendered to Australia, along with Germany’s remaining island colonies in the South Pacific. Germany’s last Far Eastern possession was its naval fortress at Tsingtao, located roughly halfway between Peking and Shanghai, which fell after fierce fighting to Japanese, Indian and British troops. It had been, according to John Keegan, “a brave, if purely symbolic resistance”.

These early victories were contrasted by the more drawn-out nature of warfare in much of Africa, where the German Schutztruppe (colonial defence troops) proved more difficult to pin down. Fighting continued in South West Africa until 1915, Kamerun until 1916, and the vital colony of German East Africa (Tanzania) remained a war zone until the Armistice. It is important to remember that, aside from the British, French and Germans, forces from the Portuguese colonies and the Belgian Congo played an instrumental role too, as the Force Publique deployed tens of thousands of Congolese troops - and many more porters besides - to Kamerun and East Africa, and the Portuguese colonies bordering German East Africa saw sporadic raiding and combat throughout.

It is important to note that the colonial armies fighting in Africa were not all men - women and children accompanied the column on marches and in East Africa the maintenance of the askari's household on campaign was a significant component of his sense of honour.

The Middle East was a different beast altogether. The Ottoman Empire controlled vast territories across the region, from Turkey in the north down to Palestine – close to Egypt and the Suez Canal, control of which was vital for the British Empire – and as far east as present-day Iraq, bordering Britain's neutral ally Persia (Iran). British interests in the region revolved around protecting its routes to India, and to that end a large portion of the Indian Army was committed to fight the Ottomans, and to counteract potential German influence in Persia. Soldiers in this harsh environment not only had to deal with disease, flies, sandstorms and other extremes of weather, but unlike those in Africa, they were also engaged in industrial warfare with a large, well-equipped army fighting on their home ground. In these campaigns, the manpower of the Indian Army was crucial. Beginning the war manning garrison posts throughout the empire, and fighting on battlefields across Africa and Asia, Indian soldiers would be sent to fight all over the Middle East, from Gallipoli to Palestine to Persia, and also, crucially, to the Western Front - finally bringing to an end the colonial taboo of deploying non-white soldiers against a European enemy.

There is not enough space to cover every corner of the globe which was affected by the First World War, and further reading in this area is encouraged. The stories of, for example, the 15,600 volunteers from the West Indies who served, the 4,000 First Nation soldiers from Canada or the 580 Aboriginal Australian soldiers, deserve to be better recognised and remembered. The First World War, in its causes, course and consequences, was truly global in scale, and those affected by its reach - stretching from Canada to New Zealand, Russia to South Africa and most everywhere in between, deserve to be brought back into the historical narrative.

Resource activities

The Indian Army in Europe and the Middle East

For a century and a half before the First World War, the British Empire relied on the manpower of the Indian Army for keeping the peace all across its vast imperial possessions. Learn more about the role of the Indian army in this activity.


Germany's African Colonies

Germany was a relative newcomer to the 'scramble for Africa,' spreading into the few unclaimed parts of the continent via mercantile expansion and purchase of territory. How did these colonies affect Germany's strategy?


WWI in Asia: The Siege of Tsingtao

In Asia, all the German colonies except for Tsingtao were under Australian or New Zealander control by mid-September 1914. Learn about what happened in this siege. 


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Further reading

  • Remember the World as well as the War

    2014 report for a general audience, containing many of the ‘so what’ arguments about why the First World War is still important, and insight into people’s perceptions today.