First World War
How did World War I impact the colonial soldiers ?
Experiences of colonial troops

Even by conservative estimates well over four million non-white men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the First World War, in combatant and non-combatant roles.

Among the various colonies of the British empire, India contributed the largest number of men, with approximately 1.5 million recruited during the war up to December 1919.

The 1st battalion of the 4th Ghurkha Rifles lined up for kit inspection, in Flanders, Belgium, 1915.

In addition to the 90,000 troupes indigènes already under arms when the war started, France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans. Most of these French colonial troops served in Europe. However, the majority of the Africans served as labourers or carriers in Africa.
Cavalry patrol of Moroccan Spahis fighting for the French army near Furnes, Belgium, 1914

With the entry of the United States into the war, nearly 400,000 African-American troops were inducted into the US forces, of whom 200,000 served in Europe.
Harlem Hellfighters 1917
Indian soldiers in the war
Indian cavalry await the order to advance on the Somme, 14 July 1916

The Commonwealth and the First World War
Over 3 million soldiers and labourers from across the Empire and Commonwealth served alongside the British Army in the First World War.
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Race and military policy

According to one native South African labourer, the most remarkable part of his war experience was ‘to see the different kinds of human races from all parts of the world’. This racial diversity on European soil was largely the result of French and British decisions to employ colonial non-white troops against Germany on the Western Front. Yet this decision was not straight forward in societies embedded with colour prejudices and doctrines of racial hierarchy - colour largely determined the life of the combatant and non-combatant in Europe. While France, with its assimilationist model, deployed these troops in Europe, a similar decision for Great Britain caused more soul-searching. The Times History of the World revealed contemporary thinking on the issue when in 1914 it wrote, ‘The instinct which made us such sticklers for propriety in all our dealings made us more reluctant than other nations would feel to employ coloured troops against a white enemy.’ The British had regularly used colonial troops for imperial defence, but not in Europe or against other white races. Indian troops were not allowed to fight in the Boer War in South Africa (1899 – 1902). If a ‘coloured’ man were trained to raise arms against another European, what guarantee was there, so the racial thinking went, that he would not one day attack his own white master? However, after heavy casualties were suffered by the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, two Indian divisions were diverted to France. Among the colonial non-white troops of the British empire, only Indians were allowed to fight in Europe. This was predominantly due to racial categorisation in British military policy.
Horace Pippin's account of the war
A page from Horace Pippin’s notebook detailing his experiences in World War I, 1921

Like many veterans of the killing fields of World War I, Horace Pippin had a tough time shaking off the memories. So in the decade after the war he captured them, and tamed them, inside sketch-filled journals.Pippin poured out his war memories into a few small composition books, filling page after page with his tidy handwriting


Life on the front, in what Pippin called “them lonely, cooty, muddy trenches,” was a miserable, terror-filled slog, where one day blurred into the next. “We were all in the dugout when…the shells were dropeing all around our trench,” he wrote. “Soon as we came out of our dugout I could smell gas… I looked around me and I seen that they all had their gas mass on… Every step we took a shell would land somewhere near the trench.”

He described one afternoon in summer 1918 when virtually all of his platoon had been felled by heavy machine-gun crossfire. “It only left four unhirt in that pit,” he wrote. After one friend got killed right behind him while peeking up to spot the enemy position, Pippen creeped away. “The bullets were hitening in front of me and would throw dirt in my face. I knew that if I stayed there I would get it. So I said to my budy, when I say go be ready and make it for the little bridge and cross the swamp if we can. I said go and we made the bridge.” The whole way, he wrote, “the Germans were shelling the swamp with gas and scrapnel.”
The African American soldiers in WWI
African American troops arriving in France. 1917

Before the 1st world war, Blacks serving alongside white soldiers on the front lines in Europe was inconceivable to the U.S. military. Instead, the first African American troops sent overseas served in segregated labor battalions, restricted to menial roles in the Army and Navy, and shutout of the Marines, entirely.

Facing criticism from the Black community and civil rights organizations for its quotas and treatment of African American soldiers in the war effort, the military formed two Black combat units in 1917, the 92nd and 93rd Divisions.

With dwindling armies, France asked America for reinforcements, and General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, sent regiments in the 93 Division to over, since France had experience fighting alongside Black soldiers from their Senegalese French Colonial army. The 93 Division’s, 369 regiment, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters , fought so gallantly, with a total of 191 days on the front lines, longer than any AEF regiment, that France awarded them the Croix de Guerre for their heroism. More than 350,000 African American soldiers would serve in World War I in various capacities