First World War: beyond the western front

Modern views of the First World War largely focus on the battles in western Europe. In this feature written for BBC World Histories ahead of the centenary of the conflict's end, David Olusoga shines a light on forgotten clashes in distant lands, and on the extensive contributions of Africans and Asians

A British officer stands alongside two of his Japanese counterparts in 1914 in Tsingtao (now Qingdao). Japanese troops played a key role in the capture of that strategic German concession in north-east China. (Photo by Getty Images)

In the early hours of 5 August 1914, the CS [cable ship] Alert arrived at the Varne Bank in the English Channel. Dropping grappling hooks, her British crew dredged up the five underwater telegraph cables umbilically linking Germany with France, Spain, the Azores and, ultimately, the United States. Having hauled up the cables, the men severed them with hatchets, one by one. During the operation the Alert was approached by a flotilla of French destroyers, one of which signalled: “What are you doing?” When the Alert’s captain replied: “Cutting German cables”, the cheers of the French sailors could be heard ringing across the water.


This was the first British offensive against Germany and her allies, undertaken just hours after Britain had declared war at 11pm on 4 August. Neither the army nor the navy were involved. Instead, the task was tackled by a rather less glamorous branch of the ‘services’: the Alert was owned and operated by the British General Post Office. That this almost mundane action was the first of the war might seem surprising. But it’s only one of many aspects of the conflict that have faded into the margins of general consciousness – not least the truly global scope of the war.

Seven days after the Alert’s endeavour, on 12 August, the first land engagement of the First World War took place, and the first shot was fired by a member of the British forces – but not in Europe. On the same day that forts surrounding the Belgian city of Liège were bombarded by the German 420mm super-heavy howitzer nicknamed ‘Big Bertha’, Regimental Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi – a Muslim African who served in the British West African Frontier Force – levelled his rifle and fired at the enemy. Far from the battlefields of Europe, Grunshi was part of the force then invading the German colony of Togoland (roughly speaking, modern Togo). It was not until ten days later, on 22 August 1914, that Edward Thomas of the 4th Irish Dragoon Guards became the first British-born soldier to fire his rifle in anger. Both Grunshi and Thomas survived the war.

In the weeks and months that followed, the conflict became ever more global. That was arguably inevitable in a war that pitted empires against one another. France, Germany, Britain and even ‘little’ Belgium had vast colonial holdings, while both Russia and Austria-Hungary were huge realms of a different sort – multi-ethnic continental empires. In the moment London declared war on Germany and her allies, the peoples of India, Nigeria, distant islands in the Pacific and countless other territories of the sprawling empire – their names obscure to the average Briton – also found themselves at war. The same was true for the millions of African and Asian subjects of the French colonial empire.

A camel trooper of the British Indian Army in Baghdad, 1915. At the time of the war, the volunteer army numbered 240,000 men. (Photo by Getty Images)
A camel trooper of the British Indian Army in Baghdad, 1915. At the time of the war, the volunteer army numbered 240,000 men. (Photo by Getty Images)

The British dubbed this conflict the ‘Great War’, and at first the French concurred, calling it La Grande Guerre. The term Weltkrieg (World War) was first coined in Germany in 1904, but wasn’t widely used to describe this specific conflict until long after the fighting was over. Yet with each passing month, that German phrase proved to be the most accurate and appropriate.

The First World War was global in a way that previous wars had not been. Not only were battles fought in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and naval engagements across the world’s oceans, but men (and some women) from every continent were drawn into Europe to fight in the trenches, to labour in the militarised zones behind the lines, and to populate the factories that fed the great war machine of the Entente Powers. The French led the way in this, but the British were not far behind.

Involving India in Europe

Just four days after Britain declared war, the cabinet at Downing Street made the decision to deploy units of the British Indian Army in the European theatre of operations. This move was without precedent in the history of the empire but was deemed essential, given the scale of the enemy force that had crossed the German border and surged into France. At 240,000 men, the British Indian Army was the largest volunteer army in the world – larger by far than the British Expeditionary Force, which numbered a mere 70,000 soldiers. By early October 1914, the first of those Indians had landed in France. By 22 October they were in combat in northern France and Belgium, plugging gaps in what was rapidly becoming the western front. In the ports and railway stations through which they had passed on their way north, they had met west Africans and north Africans – soldiers of the French empire – who by October were engaged in similarly desperate operations in other sectors of the line.

At 240,000 men, the British Indian Army was the largest volunteer army in the world – larger by far than the British Expeditionary Force

In geographic as well as demographic terms, the scope and scale of the conflict was breathtaking. As well as Brussels, Liège and Antwerp, Jerusalem and Baghdad fell to invading armies. At one point in 1918, it looked as if Venice might fall to the armies of Austria-Hungary.

The fighting had begun with Alhaji Grunshi in Africa, but after Ottoman Turkey declared not just war but holy Jihad in autumn 1914, it spilled over into the Middle East. In Asia, Britain’s ally Japan reasserted its place among world powers by playing a key role in the capture of the German territory of Tsingtao (Qingdao) in China. In the South Pacific, the scattered island colonies, coaling stations and strategic outposts assembled by Germany in the 19th century were invaded. German New Guinea was taken by Australian forces in September 1914, effectively snuffing out German dreams of a colonial empire and naval presence in the Pacific.

In Africa, all four of Germany’s colonies – German South-West Africa (modern Namibia), German East Africa (roughly modern Tanzania), Kamerun (roughly, Cameroon) and Togoland (roughly, Togo) – were invaded and captured by British, French, Belgian and South African forces, though the ‘British’ force included Indian troops and Africans from across the continent. After German troops in German East Africa repelled an invasion of British and Indian forces, a war of hit-and-run lasted until 1918, these soldiers living off the land (with deadly consequences for the Africans they encountered). In that protracted campaign, around millions of Africans served as soldiers or ‘carriers’ – carrying the supplies of the rival forces vast distances to remote battlefields.

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, leader of the German east African force, was the last German commander to surrender in November 1918. (Photo by Getty Images)
General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, leader of the German east African force, was the
last German commander to surrender in November 1918. (Photo by Getty Images)

Strangers in a strange land

In many of these conflicts, ‘native’ troops found themselves thousands of miles from home. To take on the rag-tag German East African force led by the famous General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the British gathered troops of the Gold Coast Regiment (from what’s now Ghana), four regiments of the West African Frontier Force from Nigeria, and the King’s African Rifles recruited in Sudan, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Ethiopia and Nyasaland (Malawi). These soldiers, drawn from the Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Ashanti, Fante and Grunshi ethnic groups, left their homelands to fight in east and south Africa. Though on the continent of their birth, they were as displaced and disorientated as any British soldier in the sands of Mesopotamia or the trenches of Gallipoli.

In many of these conflicts, ‘native’ troops found themselves thousands of miles from home

Even the list of combatant nations involved in the war fails to fully convey the range of peoples and ethnicities who took part. Consider the theatre of operations in eastern Europe, so often obscured by our focus on the western front; here, between 1914 and 1917, another complex and ethnically diverse conflict raged. The German army – and, even more so, the forces of their Austro-Hungarian allies – was, in a different way, as multi-ethnic as the armies of Britain and France.

Within the ranks of the Kaiser’s army were Poles, Serbs, Lithuanians, Danes from Schleswig, and Frenchmen from Alsace- Lorraine. The Austro-Hungarian army was led largely by German-speaking Austrians but among the rank and file were Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Czechs, ethnic Italians, Magyars, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. The Russian army they confronted was just as diverse. As well as ethnic Russians, there were Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Armenians, Finns, Poles, Jews and ethnic Germans, Muslims from the Caucasus and men of Mongol origin from the far east of the Tsar’s vast empire. In short, the conflict transplanted countless people from their home lands to fight and work in distant theatres. Last surrender General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, leader of the German east African force, was the last German commander to surrender in November 1918

Native ‘carriers’ at work in Togoland, c1914. In east Africa in particular, some two million Africans served as soldiers or ‘carriers’ during a protracted campaign that lasted until the very end of the war. (Photo by Getty Images)
Native ‘carriers’ at work in Togoland, c1914. In east Africa in particular, some two million Africans served as soldiers or ‘carriers’ during a protracted campaign that lasted until the very end of the war. (Photo by Getty Images)

On the margins of memory

The human impact of the conflict was, then, enormous. So how is it that, a century later, and even after four years of centenary remembrance, our image of the war often fails to take in the scale and the international nature of the conflict? In our historical imagination, the First World War has come to be remembered as an essentially European feud (at least until the entry of the United States) – a war dominated by the western front. The conflict in Africa is a footnote, at best. The costly struggle fought against Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia – in which three-quarters of a million Indians served as soldiers and labourers, fighting on battlefields to which British forces would return in our own times – is set firmly on the margins of popular memory.

As the historian David Reynolds has observed, the powerful poetry of a few dozen European officers has misshaped our understanding of a war in which more Britons died than in any other conflict. The work of those poets, for all their visceral language and illuminating observations, has had the effect of narrowing further the aperture through which we view this vast struggle.

Even events we understand as international, occurring beyond the western front, were often far more international than we have come to imagine them. The Gallipoli campaign was not simply a clash between the forces of Ottoman Turkey on one side and the Anzacs on the other. It was a struggle involving an Anglo-French force in which British troops outnumbered Anzacs. The French, for their part, fielded north Africans and units of Tirailleurs Sénégalais from the French colonies in west Africa. Within the ranks of the Anzacs were Māori, and in the British columns were volunteers of the Jewish Legion. Supporting the front line were men drawn from across the Middle East and beyond.

The truly panoramic scale of the war is revealed only when we look beyond familiar theatres at moments that have been almost completely forgotten rather than merely misremembered. One such was Britain’s campaign in Egypt’s Western Desert against the Senussi sect, a Sufi religious order in Libya. The Senussi were funded and armed by German and Ottoman agents who sought to inspire them to march against British interests under the authority of the Ottoman-issued Jihad. The campaign against the Senussi (1915–17) was well reported at the time, in part because of the exploits of Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster and commander of the Light Armoured Car Brigade, a unit equipped with six bulletproof Rolls-Royce vehicles armed with machine guns. Today, this campaign is obscure in the extreme. Equally forgotten are operations undertaken against the forces of Ali Dinar, sultan of Darfur, now in western Sudan.

German officers recruiting in c1914 in Togoland, where the first shot was fired by a British soldier in the First World War. (Photo by Getty Images)
German officers recruiting in c1914 in Togoland, where the first shot was fired by a British soldier in the First World War. (Photo by Getty Images)

Yet the idea of the war as a great panorama, spreading across the world and involving peoples of innumerable ethnicities and races, was apparent to many at the time – even celebrated. At the end of 1917, The Times of London dispatched one of its correspondents to the militarised zones behind the western front to report on the men. His account – what journalists today would call a ‘colour piece’ – ran under the headline ‘An Army of Labour, Workers from Distant Shores’.

“It is strange to drive for an hour or two along the winding roads past the quiet villages… and to come suddenly upon a scene that carries you half the world away from the clouded northern skies and the Channel mists. Perhaps it may be a group of Punjab coolies sitting on their heels round the thin smoke of a wood fire on which the chapattis are baking; perhaps a squad of Chinamen in blue or terra-cotta blouses and flat hats, hauling logs or loading trucks always with that inscrutable smile of the Far East upon their smooth yellow faces; perhaps a party of sturdy negroes or Kaffirs, singing and chattering as they march back from their work for the midday rest and meal: perhaps some squat and swarthy Nagas with their long black hair bunched fantastically above their bullet heads, gazing in childlike wonderment at a train of great Army lorries grinding by… It is like a cinema show for the village children, who will dream of it, one fancies when they are old, and remember how men came from Asia and Africa to work for France in her dire need under the English.”

The Times journalist believed that the people of northern France would remember the international, multiracial army of labourers and auxiliaries they had seen in their towns and villages as a brief and exotic aberration. Yet within the lifetime of those who were children in 1914–18, most of the great cities of western Europe thronged with populations that, in their ethnic make-up and diversity, more resembled the rear zones of the western front than they did Paris and London in 1914. After the deluge Arab men prepare a site for a camp for British Indian troops after flooding in Mesopotamia, January 1917. Three-quarters of a million Indians served as soldiers and labourers in the Middle East theatre Home cooking Indian troops in Marseilles in the early weeks of the war. A journalist for The Times reported seeing “Punjab coolies sitting on their heels round the thin smoke of a wood fire on which the chapattis are baking”

The art of war

The global nature of the conflict was also recognised by French artists Pierre Carrier-Belleuse and Auguste François-Marie Gorguet who, in the aftermath of the first battle of the Marne in September 1914, embarked upon one of the most ambitious artistic projects of all time. Working throughout the war, they produced the monumental circular panorama Panthéon de la Guerre – believed at the time to be the largest painting ever created, now largely lost. At nearly 14 metres high and with a 122.5-metre circumference, it featured 6,000 life-size portraits of the heroes of the war. Although it inevitably focused on French involvement, the artists made a determined effort to depict the war as a global conflict, including images of political leaders, generals, combatants and auxiliaries from across the globe.

The vast painting showed a contingent of north African Goumiers, among the more exotic of the French colonial units. Often favouring political leaders over ordinary soldiers, within the British section of the painting it depicted Indian maharajas who had helped recruit soldiers and labourers from their principalities. The leaders of Republican China also appeared, alongside the now-defunct flag of that disappeared state. The Panthéon would have been even more representative had it not been for the decision made in 1917 to make space to record American participation. Lamentably, this meant painting over the section featuring people from Asia, including Chinese labourers – 130,000 of whom worked for the Allies in France and Belgium. Among the Asian figures that did survive this purge were representatives of the Siamese Expeditionary Force. The tiny contingent sent by the King of Thailand included a number of trained pilots and surgeons – evidence of the technological leaps his nation was attempting to make.

Fittingly for a global conflict, the First World War came to an end on one of its more remote battlefields, thousands of miles away from the western front. On 14 November 1918, a local magistrate approached German forces gathered by the Chambeshi river (now in north-east Zambia). He was carrying both a white flag and news that an armistice had been signed. General Lettow-Vorbeck became the last German commander of that war to surrender – but not before he had led his men on a four-year-long ‘dark safari’ that had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Africans.

David Olusoga is an award-winning historian, BBC broadcaster and author of Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016). The BBC is showing a raft of programmes commemorating the end of the First World War. For details, see


This article was first published in issue 12 of BBC World Histories Magazine