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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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1 A global war

Please be aware that some of the sources in Session 3 contain racially offensive language. If you are concerned that you might find this content distressing, you might like to skip this section.

In Britain, the First World War has for a long time been seen as a primarily European and largely white endeavour – in fact, from a British vantage point one might have been excused for thinking it was fought on the Western Front only. In recent years, much more emphasis has been put on the fact that this was a global war with combatants from all around the world and with theatres of war far beyond the Western Front. This has resulted in a better understanding of the nature of fighting in these different theatres of war, in examining the war’s effect on communities in different countries and in understanding the different experiences of diverse soldiers.

Because the major combatants were also global empires, non-European troops from Asia and Africa served in all theatres of war. In total, some 65 million soldiers were mobilised in the First World War. More than six million of them came from outside Europe. (Fogarty and Tait, 2021) Their experiences have long been marginalised, but historians no longer exclude them from their studies of the war.

Major combatants like Britain and France were able to draw on their imperial ‘reserves’ and draft troops from their empires and dominions. This meant, for example, that more than one million Indians served overseas as part of the British war effort; more than 53,000 of them were killed and more than 64,000 were wounded. Canada, Australia and New Zealand recruited indigenous people for the fight in Europe – we will encounter an example of this later. The French used what they called ‘troupes indigènes’ throughout the war; around 500,000 such soldiers fought for France during the war (Fogarty and Tait, 2021). The Tirailleurs Sénégalais or Senegalese riflemen, for example, had a long tradition of fighting for the French and were recruited in large numbers during the First World War 30,000 lost their lives (Fogarty, 2016).

The war experiences of colonial troops were different and arguably worse than those of their white comrades, as they found themselves often fighting far from home in climates they were unused to, exposed to different customs and cultures, and facing not just the wrath of the enemy but often also racism from within the armies in which they served. That their experiences were marginalised for so long after the war was perhaps just one final insult among many.

Did you know?

A good starting point for considering the war as a global endeavour is David Olusoga’s The World’s War. Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, which helps us to reframe our understanding of the war. It is easily accessible in paperback and could be read (in excerpts, at least) by students.

The encyclopedia 1914–1918 Online [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] has some relevant articles that are freely accessible, including: ‘African American Soldiers’ which outlines experiences from the USA and their impact on the Civil Rights Movement.

Further freely available secondary sources that can be accessed online are listed throughout this session.

In the next section, you will explore the role of African-American soldiers in the war.