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First World War: A Nigerian perspective


First World War

We often remember anniversaries, but not so often do we mark centenaries.  November 11 marked the centenary of the end of the First World War, and it is being celebrated with greater or lesser fervour in different parts of the world.

It was on that day that the army of Germany on the one hand and on the other the armies of France, Britain, the USA, and other powers  – ‘the Allies’ – signed the Armistice marking the end of more than four years of fighting on ‘the Western front’, i.e. the battlefields of France.  Germany had invaded Belgium and France at the beginning of the war in the hope of defeating France in six weeks before turning her attention to the much bigger quantity of Russia.  Now, on November 11, 2018, Germany acknowledged that that bid – for mastery of Europe, for mastery of the world – had failed.  Her own allies, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, had given up the fight shortly before.

This was the most terrible war waged up to that time in the history of the world (although in certain ways the Second World War, which broke out a little more than twenty years later than the end of the First, was still more terrible).  It is a huge irony that great advances in technology made it so.  Mustard-gas was for the first time used at the battlefront to blind enemy soldiers; torpedoes destroyed enemy shipping at sea; huge new airships carried out bombing raids on civilians – I learned from my father, then a boy, that he had gone to witness the wreckage of one that came down in fields north of London.  Shrill, nationalistic propaganda filled the newspapers on each side.


But most frightful of all was the slaughter on the battlefronts, especially those in northeastern France, through the use of heavy artillery and machine-guns.  It is estimated that nearly ten million military personnel altogether perished, and that on the first day of just one particular battle, that of the river Somme, over 19,000 British soldiers died.  A war poet, Wilfrid Owen (who himself was a soldier and died not long before the Armistice) expressed his horror in these lines:
What passing bell for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

(Traditionally – for those families who could afford it – a dead body would be conveyed to a cemetery in a cortège and a bell would be sounded to mark its ‘passing’.)  Efforts were made by neutral observers, notably Pope Benedict XV, to bring the belligerents to the negotiating table and stop the carnage; but they were in vain.  Christians fought on either side of the conflict, as did Muslims.

It has often been argued that this was not truly a world war.  Most of the belligerents were European powers, the USA came in on the side of the Allies only towards the end, and Japan, also on the Allied side, played a very marginal role.  Most of the fighting was done in Europe, and what was done in Africa was an extension of the conflict in Europe, since nearly all of Africa – Ethiopia being the principal heroic exception – lay under the colonial rule of various European powers.

Yet, in one way or another, the whole world did get caught up in the war.  Britain was supported by its virtually independent ‘Dominions’ – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  International trade was disrupted because each side sought to blockade the other, and Nigeria immediately suffered because before the War began fifty per cent of her palm products went to Germany.  Secret agents of European powers were active in countries far from Europe, hoping to enlist those countries on the side of their respective governments, or to prevent them from joining the other side.  In the African and Asian colonies of the European powers, enemy agents tried to foment rebellion against the colonial power.  Michael Crowder in his book The Story of Nigeria records that in the Delta region of Nigeria a Christian ‘prophet’ who called himself ‘Elijah II’ won a number of followers who believed that, because of the war, Britain was leaving Nigeria.  He ‘claimed to be helping the Germans and promised the Delta independence’.  In Northern Nigeria, Britain feared that Muslims would rise in support of the leading Muslim power in the world, Germany’s ally Turkey.  Ironically, Britain’s reason for entering the War was to defend the independence of Belgium, which Germany had violated; yet it was just recently, during the previous thirty years, that Britain, like other European powers, had used largely forceful means to acquire various parts of hitherto independent Africa.  When the War began in 1914 it was only eleven years since British troops had entered Kano.  Nevertheless, although they had other reasons for challenging the colonial government, Nigeria’s newly developing educated elite, based mainly in Lagos and composed of journalists, lawyers and other professionals, did not oppose Nigeria’s participation in the War, and expressed loyalty to Britain.  They hardly had any choice, because there was censorship – as there was in Britain itself.

The colonies participated in the War chiefly because men enlisted in – or were conscripted into – the respective colonial armies and went to fight in lands distant from their homes.  As is well known, Nigerian soldiers were formed into a Nigeria Regiment as part of the British Army which fought the Germans, first in Cameroon and later in Tanganyika.  There is some controversy going on at present as to whether the services of these soldiers have ever been adequately rewarded.  One of their officers, Brigadier-General Cunliffe, is quoted by Crowder as saying of Nigerian soldiers: ‘Their rations have been scanty, their barefoot marches long and trying, and their fighting at times extremely arduous, yet they have not been found wanting either in discipline, devotion to their officers, or personal courage’.  Governor-General Lugard, however, was alarmed at the possible consequences of Nigerian soldiers learning to use modern weapons.

It can be plausibly argued that the First World War did not have the same momentous consequences for Nigeria as did the Second.  The latter was followed by the rapid growth of the nationalist movement, culminating in the attainment of independence in 1960.  Akinjide Osuntokun, in his Nigeria in the First World War, tentatively says that the first War was ‘an important phase in the country’s history, its events illuminating the past and foreshadowing the future’.  It can in fact surely be said that the War had some very important consequences for Nigeria.  One is that the 17,000 combatants and the much greater number of Nigerians who served as ‘carriers’ in the colonial army had travelled outside Nigeria and returned with their mental horizons extended and their self-confidence deepened, and they shared their experiences with the people they returned to; hence the outlook and expectations of large sectors of the population began to be transformed.  It is also surely significant that, as early as 1920, just two years after the Armistice, a ‘National Congress of British West Africa’ was established in Accra to campaign for African rights, and that two years later the government in Lagos, reacting to it, introduced a new Constitution which for the first time provided for elected Nigerian representatives to sit in the Governor-General’s Legislative Council.  So it was then, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, that the modern nationalist movement can be said to have begun.

In its aftermath, too, one of the great lessons that the First World War seemed to have taught is that war is an evil to be avoided, never something to rejoice over.  The lesson has continued to have special point because in the past hundred years technology has made it even more likely that in a war huge numbers of both combatants and civilians will be killed or wounded.  The Second World War spectacularly served to confirm the fact, especially where civilians were concerned, but it has been underlined by the several wars that have taken place since then, most recently in Syria and Yemen.

After the First World War, many high-minded people became pacifists, arguing not just that war must be avoided, but it must be avoided at all costs – that, in short, if your country is invaded you should not resist the perceived aggressor with armed force.  In the 1930s, this attitude was widespread, and it increased the difficulties of Britain and France when they were confronted by Adolf Hitler, leader of the newly resurgent Germany.  Then and more recently it has caused pacifists and other idealists to support disarmament, ultimately meaning that a country should not possess any armed forces or weaponry with which to defend itself.  But during the era of Cold-War confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union, the idea of deterrence – the threat to use superior force in retaliation against a first-strike aggressor – served to keep conflict between the two armed camps at bay.

Now we live in more uncertain times again.  It therefore remains imperative for each new human generation to be reminded of all the horror that war brings with it.

Professor David Jowitt wrote from English Department, University of Jos.

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