Wednesday, November 2, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Africa and the Second World War

Senegalese Riflemen who fought with the French

     This week, we're embarking into uncharted territory with WWW's first foray into a non-western perspective. I'll admit that my primary interest in Canadian and German history has dominated the narrative for the past two years, but a lack of knowledge of other sides of the story has also prevented me from expanding the horizons. Naturally, I have been interested in reading about the North African campaign of the Second World War and the legendary figure of Erwin Rommel, but that was the extent of my knowledge of the wartime conditions on that continent. Even during my in-depth Second World War course with Dr. Serge Durflinger, there wasn't too much discussion of Africa's role. Given that we call it the Second World War, I knew there had to be a connection, but never learned of it until very recently. I mentioned a few posts ago that I am taking a course on African history, which is part of my non-Western credit requirement. Since this is not my area of interest, I'll be honest and say that I wasn't overly excited about taking the class, and it's definitely been a challenge so far, but I did learn something completely new about the war and wanted to share it with you this week. I think a lot of us would say that our lack of knowledge on this topic does not come from an unwillingness to learn, but more from a lack of exposure to these stories. My hope is that you'll take away even a little information in order to acknowledge the African experience, and keep it in mind as we prepare to recognize that period in our history.

     All information comes from a lecture delivered by Dr. Meredith Teretta on 11 October 2016.

     My professor began by asserting that the Second World War actually began in Africa, which obviously took me by surprise. She said that the first expansion of fascism took place not in Europe, but in Ethiopia, with Mussolini's 1935 invasion. This was related to both strategic and economic reasons, was a symbol of the birth of Italian power (Italy had controlled parts of that territory until they were defeated and expelled by the Ethiopians after the 1896 Battle of Adwa), and was a way of proving that the nation had been reborn. A hundred thousand Italian troops invaded from neighboring Somaliland and Eritrea, using superior technology including poison gas, and ultimately occupied the nation until 1941. Since Ethipoia was a member of the League of Nations, Emperor Haile Selassi made an appeal after the invasion which led to his honour as Time Man of the Year for 1935, but no action was taken by the League. The appeal did create a great deal of press, especially among members of the African diaspora in the West, where it established anti-colonialist, black solidarity sentiments.
Haile Selassi on the cover of Time 
     In June 1940, as Paris was occupied by the Germans and France fell, a hundred thousand African soldiers were mobilized to defend their colonial mother country, and seventy-five thousand were already on their way. African casualties in France already totaled twenty-four thousand, and there were between fifteen and sixteen thousand French African Prisoners of War in Germany. However, not all of French Africa was fighting for the same cause. You'll remember that when France fell, it was divided into two zones: Vichy France, which was a puppet of Nazi Germany under Philippe Pétain, and Free France, which supported the Allied cause under Charles de Gaulle. French West African territories aligned with Vichy France, as did North Africa. On the other hand, French Equatorial Africa under Félix Eboué pledged allegiance to de Gaulle and Free France, becoming a secondary seat of government with Brazzaville as the capital of Free France from 1940 to 1943.
Senegalese Tirailleurs prisoners in 1940
     The French African troops were called Tirailleurs, as they had also been called in the First World War, and played an important role in putting French West Africa under Free French control. Battlefronts included the late 1940 Allied invasion of North Africa (Operation Compass), where French West Africa joined the Free French troops in support of the Allies. Between 1943 and 1945, over a hundred thousand troops were drafted from French West Africa, and soldiers from both French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa made up over half of the total of the French Free Army.
British African soldiers in Burma
     In terms of British Africa, five hundred thousand African soldiers fought for the British, and fifteen thousand in total were killed.

     Overall, one million African men contributed to the war effort, and an estimated fifty thousand were killed in active duty.

     After the war, three hundred thousand African soldiers returned home in 1945. Africa experienced a much slower process in returning to civilian life, as troops remained in Africa until 1947 because preference was given to European soldiers to return home. In addition, the continent shouldered an economic burden as a result of its natural resource exploitation during the war. African minerals played a significant role in the Allied war effort, with an estimated ninety-nine percent of the Allied uranium coming from the continent, and those extractions during the peak years of the war were crucial for armament supply. Major mineral-producing countries included South Africa, the Belgian Congo, both Rodesias, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Angola, Sierra Leone, Morocco, and Southwest Africa. As a result, the colonies were used as a means of shoring up the economies of their mother countries and the war accelerated the entry of Africa's mineral extraction into multinational corporate capitalism, a system that still plagues those countries to this day.

African veterans
     During the war, African soldiers had been exposed to the pro-democracy and anti-fascist ideas of their European and North American comrades. They came home from service, back into the rural areas of the continent, and began spreading those ideas and proliferating political parties. This, combined with the minimal compensation and recognition they received from the colonizing nations for their wartime contributions, prompted them to use their dissatisfaction to achieve political influence. Between the end of the war and 1960, their political opinions ranged from the search for retribution to outright revolution in regard to colonial independence.

     Overall, I think that Africa's story of the Second World War is one of many unfortunate and upsetting narratives from that period, and should be discussed and recognized by a wider audience. I'd like to thank you for expanding your historical horizons this week!

     I'd also like to mention that the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Campaign is underway, and I encourage you all to look for your nearest poppy box and make a donation. One hundred percent of the proceeds go towards supporting our veterans, so it is our duty to repay them in such a small capacity. Please remember the regulations for poppy wearing: do not attach any pins or emblems into the center, wear the poppy only on a lapel or shirtfront, and be sure to purchase a new one every year. It's also not too early to begin thinking about how you will spend this Remembrance Day. If you are in the Elgin County area, I would highly recommend attending this year's ceremony held by the Township of Southold. It's on Sunday, November 6th at the Shedden Keystone Complex, with author and historian Ted Barris as the guest speaker. Mr. Barris is an excellent scholar of Canadian history, and I've worked with some of his material when writing about the No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School in Fingal. I'm very sad that I can't be at the ceremony to meet him, so please be sure to attend on my behalf and hear him speak about Vimy Ridge. More details here:
     That's everything for this week! Thanks for reading,
     Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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