The Forgotten Ones
BRUSSELS, Belgium An exhibit in a Belgian museum seeks to clarify the role of colonial troops during the 1914-1918 conflict known initially as the Great War, then as World War I (WWI). The exhibit spotlights the contributions of these forgotten soldiers. It also examines the unfair treatment they received, including empty promises of freedom.
Recently, on the 90th anniversary of the end of WWI, the BELvue Museum in Brussels, Belgium, opened an exhibit called "Man, Culture and War." The display surveys the efforts of the colonial soldiers who assisted the ultimately victorious Allied powers. The Allied powers consisted of troops from France, Britain, Belgium, Australia, Canada, and the United States.
During WWI, many European countries still ruled colonies in Africa and Asia. More than one million African and Asian volunteers answered the call to aid the Allied infantry. Many of the colonial soldiers fought along the Western Front. This battle line zigzagged primarily across France and Belgium, from the North Sea to Switzerland. The colonial soldiers served as auxiliaries. Often, they dug trenches along the front. They also cleared unexploded bombs. Others fought alongside Allied troops. The French, for example, armed 140 battalions from West Africa and Madagascar and sent them into warfare. Entire divisions of North Africans also took part in combat. The North Africans were mainly Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians.
Nearly 100,000 colonial soldiers died on the Western Front. Their sacrifice, however, was long overlooked by the governments that sent them into battle. Even history textbooks have done little to remember their efforts.
"Asian and African units played an immensely important role on the Allied side throughout the war," said Piet Chielens. Chielens is head of the In Flanders Fields Museum, which assisted the BELvue Museum in assembling its exhibit. "But very quickly after the war their contribution was reduced to a footnote in history."
The exhibit doesn't only highlight the colonial troops' contributions. It also details the discrimination suffered by these soldiers. The French, the exhibit shows, allowed colonial soldiers to rise at best to the rank of captain. In the British and Belgian armies, non-Europeans could rise no higher than sergeant.
The colonial soldiers were also treated extremely poorly. They were inadequately trained and equipped. Discipline was harsh. According to exhibition captions, the ruling countries were reluctant to arm and train black African troops. The countries were afraid that the troops would turn their skills against their colonial masters once they returned home.
In return for their voluntary participation in the war, the exhibit explains, the colonial soldiers had been promised freedom for their homelands in Africa and Asia. Like their contributions to the war, however, these promises were soon forgotten. After the war, a young Vietnamese man named Ho Chi Minh, for example, petitioned the leaders of the victorious Allied powers. He asked them to support independence for his country. The appeal went unheeded. A South African writer named Solomon Plaatje experienced similar defeat of his attempts to gain freedom for his people.
The anger and resentment created by the discrimination and poor treatment of colonial soldiers were compounded by the betrayal of promises of freedom that were not honored. All these fueled liberation movements that ultimately brought an end to the colonial empires. Many colonial soldiers were the very people who went on to lead the fight for decolonization, although several years-and another world war-would pass before they would succeed. The movement led by Ho Chi Minh, for example, eventually led to Vietnam's liberation from French colonial rule. Plaatje became one of the founders of the African National Congress. In the 1990s, this group successfully brought an end to apartheid rule in South Africa.
"The worldwide surge of decolonization which came after World War II had its origins in the disappointments and humiliations suffered by colonial troops during and after the Great War," said Piet Chielens.