The first world war: A Nigerian perspective
We often remember anniversaries; centenaries less often. November 11, 2018 was the centenary of the end of the First World War. It was on that day in 1918 that the armies of Germany on the one hand and those of France, Britain, and the USA - ‘the Allies’ - on the other signed the Armistice marking the end of more than four years of fighting. The war had begun when Germany invaded Belgium and France in the hope of quickly defeating France before turning her attention to the much bigger quantity of Russia. Now she acknowledged that that bid - for mastery of Europe, 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. It is a huge irony that great advances in technology made it so. Mustardgas 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. Each side imposed a blockade on the other, resulting in severe food shortages.
Most frightful of all, however, was the slaughter on the battlefronts through the use of heavy artillery and machineguns. Nearly ten million military personnel perished in the War, and on the first day of just one battle, that of the river Somme in northern France, over 19,000 British soldiers died.
It has often been argued that this was not truly a world war. Most of the belligerents were European powers. 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 lay under European colonial rule.
Yet in different ways the whole world did get caught up in the war. Nigeria suffered because before it began fifty per cent of her palm products had gone to Germany; now this trade was cut off. The British also feared that German agents were at work in Nigeria fomenting rebellion. In the North, the fear was that Muslims would rise in support of Germany’s ally Turkey; in the Delta region, to British alarm, a Christian ‘prophet’ calling himself ‘Elijah II’ attracted crowds of followers who believed that Britain was about to quit Nigeria.
Ironically, Britain’s reason for entering the War was to defend the independence of Belgium; yet it was just recently that Britain, like other European powers, had used largely forceful means to acquire various parts of hitherto independent Africa. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s newly developing educated elite, based mainly in Lagos, expressed loyalty to Britain. They hardly had any choice, because there was censorship - as there was in Britain itself.
European colonies participated in the War chiefly because men enlisted in - or were conscripted into - the respective colonial armies. As is well known, Nigerian soldiers under the British flag fought the Germans, first in Cameroon, later in Tanganyika. Their British officers paid tribute to their discipline, endurance and bravery. There is some controversy as to whether they have ever been adequately rewarded.
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, leading to independence in 1960. However, the First set the modern nationalist movement in train. For 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. They shared their experiences with the people they returned to; hence the outlook of large sectors of the population began to be transformed. Significantly, as early as 1920 a National Congress of British West Africa was established in Accra to campaign for African rights; and two years later the government in Lagos introduced a new Constitution under which for the first time elected Nigerian representatives began to sit in the Governor-General’s Legislative Council.
The First World War showed that modern war is an evil likely to attain monstrous proportions, since huge numbers of both combatants and civilians are likely to be killed or wounded. The Second World War spectacularly confirmed this truth, but it has been underlined by contemporary wars, such as those in Syria and Yemen.
After the First World War, many high-minded people became pacifists, arguing that war must be avoided at all costs - that if your country is invaded you should not resist the aggressor with force. To most people, the idea is unacceptable; and paradoxically, during the era of Cold-War confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union after 1945, the policy of deterrence (the threat of each side to use massive force against the other if the latter struck first) actually made conflict between the two sides unlikely.
Now we live in more uncertain times again; but whatever our view of war may be, each new human generation needs to be reminded of the horrors that war brings with it. Let us hope that commemoration of the end of the First World War has served this purpose.