In 1931, George Padmore explained how African soldiers were mobilized for European wars.
The history of World War II has been rewritten as a consequence of Cold War anti-Communism. Consider May 9, 1945, a day recognized as Victory Day. In North America, Victory Day is remembered as that valorous moment when US troops, practically acting alone, defeated Germany and liberated Europe from the shackles of Nazism and fascism. Erased from this story of US triumphalism is the crucial role of the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. In reality, and at great cost to the Russian people, May 9, 1945 was the day when the Soviet Union’s Workers and Peasants’ Red Army broke the back of the German military and shattered Hitler’s reign, leading to the end of World War II.
If the war has been re-written as a heroic tale of the United States, it has also been cast as a story that is solely white. The significant role of Africa and African soldiers in helping to liberate Europe from Nazis has been intentonially elided. In fact, during World War II, West African conscripts made up 65% of the “Free French'' army fighting against Germany. However, as the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was about to occur, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the French forces, ordered that Black soldiers be removed from the front lines to make the event an all-white affair. This, of course, proved almost impossible since white French soldiers were a minority. To fill the gap, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used to make the French victory white. By then thousands of African conscript soldiers had been killed by Hitler’s Nazi army.
Quiet as it’s kept, African conscripts also suffered the brunt of white folk’s first “world war,” World War I. It is reported that two million Africans were killed when the continent, under European colonial rule, was drawn into the war. This sacrifice, in defending the interest of their colonial masters, has been forgotten. From 1915, Europeans conscripted thousands of African men. The French, through its Conscription Law, sent almost half a million soldiers from their colonies to fight in the front lines in Europe. Significantly, during this first imperialist war, African troops were deployed not only in Europe, but also throughout the African continent in the service of the European colonial project. Germany forced thousands of Africans into military service in East Africa. France used a Senegalese infantry to seize Togo, Germany’s colony. Only Europe gained from the conflict, with the redrawing of the African continent’s border, the sharing of the looted territory among the imperialists, and the consolidation of its colonial rule of the continent.
In 1931, as European elites began their drive towards the second great war between the white imperialists, George Padmore argued that Europeans could not and would not fight each other without Africans. In “Black Soldiers of Imperialism,” a chapter from his essential monograph Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, Padmore discusses the indispensability of Africans as “shock troops” for white war. “These African troops,” laments Padmore, “are being freely used in suppressing colonial revolts both in Africa and in Asia, as well as strikes in France.” Moreover, Padmore describes “the extent to which the Negro Toilers have been mobilised and used by various imperialist powers.” African people, argues Padmore, are fodder for Europe’s cannons.
Black Soldiers of Imperialism
I. The War Danger
There is imminent danger of another imperialist war and an armed attack of the capitalist states upon the Soviet Union. Plans for these were glaringly revealed during the trial of the counter-revolutionists in Moscow in December, 1930, and March, 1931. The anti-Soviet plotters confessed that they were the agents of the French imperialists in preparing for the intervention and destruction of the first workers’ State. It is necessary to point out the economic and political reasons why war is being prepared, and the extent to which the imperialists are militarising their black colonial slaves for use when war begins.
In the first place, the present deep crisis of the world capitalist system signalises a renewed attack against the already miserable existence of the Negro masses.
The crisis finds its reflection in the acute rivalry among the imperialist nations in their struggle for the re-division of the world, which must inevitably culminate in an imperialist war.
While the capitalist world is on the decline, the Soviet Union is developing and successfully building a Socialist Society. The workers, and peasants of the Soviet Union, after the victorious overthrow of the capitalist system in their country in 1917, have since become the fortress of the revolutionary workers throughout the world. The Soviet Union is the only country that knows no oppression, knows no exploitation, has no imperialists aims and supports the revolutionary liberation movements of the workers and toiling peasants of all countries as well as the emancipatory struggles of the Negro toiling masses for self-determination.
To the capitalist world engulfed in crisis the Soviet Union, which is successfully constructing its socialist industry on the basis of the great Five Year Plan and raising the cultural level and the economic conditions of the more backward nationalities within its territory to higher level, has become the primary object of attack. Hence the bitter hatred of the imperialists to the Soviet Union which reveals itself in their campaigns of lies and slander about “religious persecution,” “Soviet dumping,” and “forced labour,” all of which is being done for the purpose of creating animosity among the more backward sections of the workers in the capitalist countries, so that they could be mobilized as cannon fodder against the Soviet Union.
It is also important for every Negro toiler to note the increasing armament race going on now between the imperialist nations, while at the same time the imperialists are organising “disarmament conferences” in order to give the workers the belief that they are striving for peace. It must be distinctly understood that the result of each such conference was the further increase in the war budgets of the imperialist nations. (London Disarmament Conference.)
In connection with the war preparations, the practice of dividing the black and white workers, of pitting one against the other on grounds of race – a policy which is the mainstay of imperialist oppression – is now being intensified. The Hertzog Native Bills in South Africa, the new wave of lynching and mob violence now taking place in the United States against the Negroes, and organised by the imperialists, is aimed towards widening the artificial barrier between the black and the white workers, as well as the international working class as a whole.
In order to carry out their war plans, the capitalists are also preparing reserve black armies. The reason for this is obvious, The imperialists, especially the French, the leaders of the anti-Soviet military campaign, are afraid that their European armies, which are made up of workers, peasants and toiling youth, will refuse to execute the orders of the bourgeoisie to attack the Soviet Union, fatherland of the working class. So, in order to guarantee the carrying out of their plans, the French imperialists are mobilising one of the largest black armies in Africa which could be brought to Europe and used as shock troops when the war begins. At the present moment these African troops are being freely used in suppressing colonial revolts both in Africa and in Asia, as well as strikes in France. Furthermore, in the event of a proletarian uprising in France or other European countries, black colonial troops will be utilised to crush the revolution instead of white soldiers.
During the period of the World War, over 200,000 African natives served in the French Army. The majority of these men were recruited under the direction of Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese Negro politician who was commissioned by Poincaré as the special representative of French imperialism in Africa during the war. Since then Diagne has been closely identified with the war plans of his imperialist masters, who in order to draw him still closer to them recently made him Assistant Minister for the Colonies in the Laval Government. This has been done to create the impression among the Negro petty-bourgeoisie and intellectuals that the French imperialists are liberal, while their true aim is to use Diagne’s prestige to carry on war preparations in the African colonies. Despite the fact that the policy of militarising Negroes is most developed in the French colonies, it must be stated that all imperialist powers are also training black soldiers for future wars. This applies especially to the United States, Great Britain and Belgium.
Although there is no compulsory military service in the United States, the Negro workers are nevertheless coerced by their employers to take up military training during the summer months in the Citizens’ Military Training Camps. Those who fail to attend these military courses are dismissed from their jobs. Through this method of industrial terrorism, thousands of Negro youths are being trained to take their place in the trenches to fight for their capitalist exploiters. The capitalists are now appealing to the unemployed to join the army as a solution for the unemployed problem. This applies especially to the young workers.
Furthermore, the United States Government also provides for the training of reserve officers among the sons of the Negro bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie who attend certain colleges and universities. For example, Howard University in Washington, D.C., as well as Hampton College, in Virginia, receive money grants from the Federal Government and instructors from the War Department for preparing the Negro youth to lead the workers and peasants of their race to slaughter. All students are compelled to study military science for two years. Those who refuse are either expelled or denied the right of receiving their diplomas.
The following facts briefly indicate the extent to which the Negro toilers have been mobilised and used by various imperialist powers.
II. Origin of the French African Army
(a) In the early part of the 19th century France began the militarisation of her black colonial natives by the sending of certain tribes on punitive expeditions to subjugate other recalcitrant tribes. This process of militarisation has been developed to such a degree that France may be taken as a classical example of the present day military policy of the imperialist nations in Africa.
The following is a chronological table showing the military policy of France prior to the World War.
In 1828 two companies of Ouolofs were sent to Madagascar to subjugate the natives there.
In 1838 one company of Senegalese was sent to the Guinea Coast. Troops were further used in the Crimean War and in the war with Mexico.
In 1870 African troops fought in the Franco-Prussian War. Senegalese troops were used to subjugate West and Equatorial Africa.
In 1912 Senegalese troops were utilised in the Moroccan War. They were also used in the Madagascar campaigns.
(b) War Decrees and Commissions Prior to the World War. – In 1904 a decree issued provided for the recruitment of native soldiers in West Africa, and in case sufficient soldiers could not be raised, conscription be resorted to.
In 1907, as a result of a Government commission appointed to study the recruitment of natives in West Africa, conscription was introduced. Senegal troops were later sent to North Africa as a garrison.
In 1910 another commission was appointed to investigate the question of conscription in West Africa. The commission concluded that it was possible to secure 40,000 men annually for a period of 5 years in West Africa, but that only a fifth of this number would be needed.
In 1912 a decree was enacted making possible the creation of a large black army. Under this decree, natives between the ages of 20 and 28 could be conscripted for a term of 4 years. Before the war the Government annually recruited between 8,000 and 10,000 men.
(c) During the World War and After – October, 1915 – 30,000 men (volunteers and conscripts) were recruited to be sent to Europe.
On October 9th, 1915, a decree was enacted which made provision for the enlistment of natives over 18 years old in the Senegalese Corps, to serve outside French West Africa for the period during the war. The time thus served was deducted from the compulsory service which these natives might later be called upon to perform in the colonies. Each native upon enlisting would receive 200 francs.
The Government recruited 51,000 more men in 1916, nearly one-half of whom came from Senegal and the Sudan.
In 1917 there were 31 Senegalese battalions on the Somme.
January, 1918. – A decree was issued which extended the age of recruits from 18 to 35 years, and the system which heretofore had been applied only to West Africa was extended to Equatorial Africa. This decree further authorised universal conscription.
Six additional decrees issued in 1918 gave native soldiers a number of privileges, such as exemption from certain forms of taxation, and granting them under certain circumstances citizenship. Provision was made for the payment of allowances to the families of soldiers. Agricultural and medical schools, and a sanatorium for invalid soldiers were authorised, to be established in each colony. Certain employments in the Government service were likewise reserved for ex-soldiers. All these gestures were made in order to facilitate recruitment and pacify the unrest which was taking place among the natives in the French colonies who were revolting against forced military service.
By granting the franchise and citizenship to the soldiers, thus raising their status above the other toiling masses, France created a buffer group which could be used as the direct tools of the imperialists to foster their sinister aims. These concessions tended to create artificial differentiations among the masses during the World War, and since then have accelerated the development of class lines.
A special decree enacted in 1919 fixed the term of military service for native “subjects” in French West Africa and Equatorial Africa for three years.
In 1923 the term of military service for “citizens” in France was reduced to 18 months, but the term for “subjects” remained the same. The black “citizens” spend their IS months in Senegal, but the “subjects” are sent to France, where the likelihood of death is much greater, due to climatic conditions. Natives physically unfit for regular military service are obliged to serve in labour battalions.
(d) Policy in the Mandated Territories. – In the Cameroons and Togoland there are no organised military forces except for local police purposes and for defence. But in case of war the troops raised for defence may be used outside of the local territory.
France may conscript the natives of those two mandated territories, notwithstanding the terms of the League of Nations mandate, for already as early as 1920 the natives of the Cameroons were subjected to the conscription laws of Equatorial Africa. Natives are still being enlisted in the battalions in the mandated territories. These troops are under the control of the commandants of the West and Equatorial African military forces.
A decree enacted on June 25th, 1925, gave Togo and the Cameroons complete autonomy from the military point of view. It provides that the military organisation of these two territories shall consist of units of native militia, who together with the native guard and the interior police arc responsible for the security of these territories. This decree specifically abrogates the decree of 1920 which attached the military forces of the Cameroons to West and Equatorial Africa.
Since January, 1925, the military organisation of the Cameroons has consisted of native militia (4 companies, z stationed in the North and 2 in the South, composed of 15 French officers, 36 non-commissioned officers, and 656 native soldiers).
The Native Guard consists of 894 native police. In Togo there is no native militia, but a native guard of 400 members.
(e) Present System of Conscription. – In 1919 the West African quota of soldiers was fixed at 23,000 annually. In West Africa 125,000 to 130,000 men annually come of recruiting age, but because of physical unfitness only 10,000 men are conscripted annually. In 1926, 10,000 natives were furnished for foreign military service.
(f) Contingents from the various French African Colonies:
The native soldiers receive about one dollar a month and serve a period of three years. They receive three months’ instruction, after which they are sent in detachments of 600 to France, accompanied by one doctor. After three months’ instruction in France they are then assigned to companies and sent to Morocco, Algeria, Syria or Indo-China.
At present there are 40,000 native soldiers. Of this number, 20,000 are stationed in West Africa, the remainder in France and various colonies. In addition, France maintains a local police force of about 15,000 men in her West African colonies. The West African troops are divided into 20 regiments of 2,000 men each.
In 1926, 14,000 men were sent to fight in Morocco against Abdul-Krim. Permanent black troops are stationed in the following French colonies
besides an additional 2,000 in each colony in the Federation. In the Sudan and Senegal several regiments are garrisoned. The West African Government contributes about 7,500,000 francs annually to the military budget.
(g) Mortality. – The mortality rate is very high among black troops, due to pulmonary affections, syphilis, malaria and other maladies. Nearly 82.32 per cent. of Senegalese stationed in Europe contracted tuberculosis. Thanks to the persistent opposition of the natives to conscription and the bad conditions under which the Negroes are forced to live, conscription is being applied only in Niger and Mauretania for the present. Furthermore, conscription in French West Africa has given rise to mass revolts and migrations of the natives to the surrounding territories, such as the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
In 1924, 17,000 out of 126,000 eligibles were “bons absents.”
In 1924, one-third of the natives in Upper Volta were “bons absents.”
In 1925, 4,668 Senegalese were “bons absents.”
In several instances martial law has been declared in order to conduct the recruitment, so widespread has been the opposition to militarisation.
Since the war, growing resistance of the Negroes to conscription and the whole militarist policy of the imperialists in the colonies in general, together with the inhuman French economic methods of exploitation, found its sharpest expression in the uprising of the natives in French Equatorial Africa in November, 1928, which lasted for several months.
III. British Colonial Troops
Anglo-Belgian Native Troops
These troops were used in joint action by the British and Belgian imperialists during the East African campaigns in 1914-1917.
The Uganda Transport Corps (Carrier Section):
Carriers and Stretcher Bearers
Ox Transport (Belgian)
" " (U.T.C.)
The E.A. Carrier Corps-Porters
" " Congo " "
Belgian Military Telegraph Construction
Carriers supplied for operations in German East Africa were 5,763.
South Africa maintains a police force with a few natives on the staff. In 1923 the total number of native, coloured and Indian police were 3,845.
In all four provinces of South Africa natives are excluded from military training. Because of the developing revolutionary movement in South Africa, led by the Communist Party, the bourgeoisie are afraid to teach the natives to use arms. The only way in which the capitalists have been able to maintain domination over the blacks is by disarming them, and arming the entire white bourgeois and petty-bourgeois sections of the population.
In January, 1927, a Bill was passed providing for the compulsory enrolment of all white residents between the ages of 18 and 50 both of whose parents must be European. This Bill excludes the Natives, who are thereby unable to defend themselves against fascist mobs which periodically attack their residential quarters in Durban and other towns.
East and West Africa
The King’s African Rifles is the military organisation of British East Africa. A similar army known as the West African Frontier Force exists in British West Africa. The King’s African Rifles now consists of four battalions of 4,000 men. One battalion is stationed in Uganda, one in Nyassaland, and two in Tanganyika. According to the terms of the League of Nations mandate, the Tanganyika Government may not “organise any native military forces in the territory except for local police purposes and for the defence of the territory.” Nevertheless, black troops are being maintained on regular army basis. A special battalion composed of natives is supported by the Tanganyika Government.
The West African Frontier Force was organised as early as 1900. They are stationed through the colonies of Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Nigeria. All of the officers in East and West Africa are British army men.
The West Indies and South America
(a) The Bahamas have no military force. There is a local force consisting of police whose duties are of a semi-military nature. It consists of two officers, 112 ranks, armed with S.M.L.E. rifles. The headquarters are at Nassau. The officers are Europeans, but the rank and file Negroes, 60 per cent. of whom are recruited from Barbados. Enlistment is for six years.
(b) Barbados. – The local force consists of the following units:
Barbados Volunteer Force.
Cadet Corps and Brigade.
Barbados Rifle Association.
Barbados police force liable to military service.
The Cadet Corps and Brigade are composed of boys over 12.
(c) Bermuda. The local force consists of:
Enlistment for six years.
Only whites admitted.
(d) British Guiana. The local force consists of:
Militia (Artillery, Infantry and Reserves).
British Guiana Police.
The police are liable for military service.
Every male person who is a British subject between 18 and 45 years old is also liable for war service.
The artillery is composed exclusively of European colonists.
In the infantry one platoon is composed of Europeans and Creoles (Mulattoes) and the other platoons, Creoles (Mulattoes) and Negroes. The men are enlisted for three years.
(e) British Honduras. The local force consists of a military force and police. The police are also liable for military service.
The men are principally natives of the colony and British West Indians. Enlistment is for three years. Men between 18 and 45 years are eligible for service. Police consist of natives of the colony who enlist for one year.
(f) Jamaica. Local force consists of a military force and police. The officers are Europeans, the ranks consist of natives.
(g) Leeward Island. Officers are Europeans. The ranks are composed of coloured and black West Indians.
(h) Trinidad. Military force and police (constabulary), which is liable for military service.
(i) Windward Islands. The military force consists of:
St. Lucia Volunteer Corps, liable for service within the colony only. Headquarters at Castries. Men who are natives of the West Indies (Negro or Mulatto) enlist for three years.
(j) St. Vincent. Volunteer Corps for military service within the colony only. Men who enlist for three years are either white, black or coloured West Indians.
Police are liable for military service.
During the last war a special West Indian Regiment was recruited for service in France, Palestine and the East African campaigns.
IV. Negro Troops of the United States of America
The following table shows the number of Negro troops used during past wars.
(a) Spanish-American War
(b) War with Philippines
(c) In 1910-War with Mexico
Two Negro Regiments.
World War – From June 5th, 1917 to Sept. 12th, 1918, about 2,290,527 Negroes were registered for military service in Europe. Of this number 72.60 per cent. were accepted.
The number inducted into service was 367,710. The number accepted for full military service was 342,277, including those in the regular army and national guard, which amounted to about 380,000. Approximately 200,000 were sent to France.
V. The Congo Army
The first native army in the Congo Free State was recruited as early as 1885. By means of this force, Leopold was able to compel the natives to collect rubber and to impose his rule on the blacks. Before 1900 the term of enlistment was five years, but in 1900 it was extended to seven years. The soldiers received 21 centimes per day.
At present the force consists of 13,000 men. The soldiers are paid 30 centimes a day, and this sum is increased to 45 centimes upon re-enlistment.
In 1926 the annual quota was fixed at 5,040. When there are not sufficient volunteers the Government resorts to conscription.
In the Belgian Congo the police and military forces are cornered, while in French and British territories these two forces are maintained separately. Furthermore, there are about 15 soldiers for every 10,000 inhabitants as compared with Tanganyika and Uganda, where the ratio is ten and twelve respectively.
George Padmore, “Black Soldiers of Imperialism,” from Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (London: Red International of Labour Unions Magazine for the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, 1931).