The colonial troops who fought the Allies' war

19th February 2014, Comments 0 comments

The skies above Flanders, 1917 -- Indian pilot Hardutt Singh Malik is guiding his single-seater biplane fighter up through thick cloud behind his Canadian flight commander, William 'Billy' Barker, in search of enemy aircraft.

Their dangerously blind ascent finally ends as they emerge into clear blue sky -- and into a formation of German planes, which immediately start firing. Malik's plane is hit, and pain rips through his right leg.

Amazingly both Barker and Malik survived to tell their stories, a testament to the courage and skill of the millions of colonial forces deployed by Britain, France and their allies during World War I.

The contribution of blood and riches from colonies from Algeria to Australia and Jamaica was critical to victory over Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire as the two sides waged a bloody, global fight between 1914 and 1918.

Subjected to blockades and having lost their few colonies at the beginning of the war, the Germans could draw on no such resources, giving the Allies a "major advantage", according to US historian Jay Winter.

As the first Indian to fly into combat with Britain's Royal Flying Corps, Oxford-educated Malik was a trailblazer, while Barker became the most decorated serviceman in the history of the Commonwealth.

But their service in the skies gave them privileges and respect not enjoyed by the vast majority of the largely ground-based colonial forces, particularly from Africa.

Many of these suffered racial prejudice and were sent into battle at the front, effectively as cannon fodder, or were consigned to menial duties because of a perception of mental inferiority.

After the dogfight above the clouds, Malik began his descent and headed for home, pursued first by three German fighters and then anti-aircraft guns which punctured more than 400 holes in his Sopwith Camel plane.

In his official report afterwards, he said he did not believe Barker would make it out alive. "He said exactly the same thing about me!", the Indian pilot recalled.

- 'A mass mobilisation never seen before' -

At the outbreak of war in 1914, almost half a billion people lived in the British Empire, while another 50 million lived in countries ruled by France, providing a rich source of manpower, particularly as the casualties swiftly mounted.

Within days of the declaration of war Britain called up the Indian army, with 1.5 million men mobilised over the four years, of whom about 90,000 were killed, according to Christian Koller, professor of history at Bangor University.

Most of the Indian troops were deployed in the Middle East against the Ottoman Empire -- a fight dictated as much by concerns about keeping and expanding the British empire as the demands of the European conflict.

Volunteer troops from New Zealand to Canada and Kenya to the West Indies were also deployed across the globe as the war played out in imperial theatres.

"The First World War showed the empire's capacity to mobilise people on a scale never before witnessed," said Ashley Jackson, professor of imperial and military history at King's College London.

For its part, France mobilised about 600,000 colonial soldiers, most of them from north Africa, although many were not volunteers but conscripts -- prompting stories of men fleeing into the bush to avoid French recruiting agents.

Many civilian workers also joined the war effort, including hundreds of thousands of Chinese, while colonies were called upon to contribute everything from sugar, cotton, rice to hard cash -- leaving some suffering considerable hardship.

The British and French rulers played on colonials' sense of empirical loyalty, with significant success, particularly in regions such as the West Indies.

But despite this professed sense of solidarity and the obvious need for more men, many of the non-white colonial troops were treated with at best paternalism and at worst a prejudice that cost them their lives.

The perceived savagery of many African soldiers saw them used as "shock troops" in the European battlefields, with some academics suggesting they suffered a much higher death toll.

After the war ended in 1918, Britain and France remembered their colonial dead in cemeteries around the world.

Many of these sites would later expand when millions more colonial troops would be called up for World War II -- although that conflict would prove the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

© 2014 AFP

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