5 Little-Known Facts About World War I and Non-White People

Rare images of Sikh soldiers who fought in World War I. One soldier in every six in the British Army was Indian, with Sikhs comprising one-fifth of the Indian contingent when the war began.

A group of captured Allied soldiers of eight nationalities: Vietnamese, Tunisian, Senegalese, Sudanese, Russian, American, Portuguese, and English.
Despite the name many, continue to think of World War I as an exclusively European and Western war between the world’s empires at the time. One of the most devastating conflicts in history, the war did however exact a painful toll on lands and people far beyond the West, mainly Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia.

teleSUR takes a look at a few interesting and little-known facts about how this most destructive of imperialist wars impacted on non-white people and nations in the years between 1914 and 1918.

1. Millions of Africans and Indians Served in the British Army

In 1914, Britain and France had the world’s two largest empires, spread across Asia and Africa, resulting in the imperial powers exploiting and using their colonized peoples to fight their war.

Two million Africans served as soldiers or laborers in the British army while 1.3 million came from the British “white” dominions which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State.

Over a million Indians and 140,000 Chinese also served in the U.K.’s army during the war.

2. Native Americans, Who Were Not US Citizens at the Time, Fought in US Army

Despite the fact they weren’t granted citizenship in America until 1924, nearly 13,000 Native Americans fought during the war. Around 200,000 African Americans also served, with 11 percent in combat but segregated in different divisions from their white counterparts.

The main reason the U.S. decided to use Native Americans in the war is because of their language. The Germans used to break the Allied Forces codes and therefore the U.S. proposed they use Native languages to communicate messages between Allied forces on different fronts.

3. 900,000 Muslims Fought for the Allied Powers, 400,000 for British Empire Alone

New research conducted in March by the British Muslim Heritage Centre revealed that twice as many Muslims fought alongside Britain, France and the Russian Empire during World War I than was previously thought.

At least 885,000 Muslims fought for the Allies against Germany and the Ottoman Empire and at least 89,000 are known to have died during the war. More than 280,000 Muslims from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia fought along the Allies. The rest of the Muslims came from India.

However, a survey found that only 2 percent of the British population today knows of the Muslim role in the war.

4. India Was Drained of Billions in Resources to Aid the British Empire

The British Empire used up far more than human resources from its colonies.

India made the biggest contribution at what would today be more than US$20 billion. Almost 3.7 million tons of supplies were also shipped out of India to Europe during the whole period of the war.

India also contributed most of the Muslim soldiers to the Allies at more than 400,000, which amounts to almost half of all the Muslims who fought for the Allies.

5. Europe Imperial War’s First Shot Was Fired in … Africa

The first battle of World War I took place in Africa when Allied forces invaded the German colony of Togoland in August 1914.

This little-know fact is further testimony to how societies and nations colonized by Britain and Germany were massively affected by the imperialist onslaught.

The French and British invaded Togoland, which had been colonized by the Germans in the 1880s but was surrounded by territories controlled by both invading powers as well as Belgium and the Portuguese.

Togoland was eventually partitioned in 1916 into British and French Togoland, which were established under the League of Nations.