How ‘Europe’s Great War’ became the First World War
2015-11-01 16:52:32 -
World News

Michael McGowan


I recall when my granddad, Richard McGowan, gave me his First World War medals shortly before he died. At the time I was unaware that the conflict involved so many people from across the world.


The experience came to mind recently when I met David Olusoga, the Anglo-Nigerian author of The World’s War, which explores the experiences and sacrifices of four million non-European, non white soldiers whose stories are almost unknown. In his book, accompanying a new television programme, he says: “In the reporting of the history of the First World War, the veterans of Africa were largely ignored.”


Olusoga is currently working as a BBC producer on programmes about colonialism, slavery, and racism. Before he joined the BBC, he studied history and journalism. He was born in Lagos – his mother English, his father Nigerian – and he spent much of his early life in the north-east of England, where he says at school he was taught nothing of the participation of non-white, non-European peoples in the so-called Great War.


In his book, Olusoga writes: “My mother was a resident of Lagos in the late 1960s and the parent of mixed race children and was amazed to discover in Lagos a memorial to thousands of Nigerians who had fought and laboured in the First World War. My mother was well read, multi-lingual and a product of a fine British grammar school; but her education had taught her nothing of the participation of non-white, non-European peoples in that war.”


The war was originally known as the ‘Great European War’ and was often called such during the first 18 months of conflict, but it was in fact entirely global from the beginning. There had been other so-called ‘world wars’ such as the Seven Years War, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and England’s earlier confrontation with Hapsburg Spain. But this was the first truly world-wide war.


As such, it involved people from every corner of the earth, not just white westerners. Olusoga explores how Europe’s Great War became the ‘World’s War’ – a multi-racial, multi-national struggle fought in Africa and Asia as well as in Europe, which pulled in men and resources from across the globe.



Across the globe

The French and British mobilised their empires. The French brought in French Africans, and King George V spoke of “the [British] Empire at war”. Labourers from across the world fed the war; 16,000 Indians left their prisons to take part; Australians met Aborigines for the first time; the image of “savage Africa” was exploded. The Western Front was a meeting of troops from across the globe, many in traditional dress, the sight of which “amazed” Belgian and French journalists.


It was indeed a conflict that changed the face of war on many fronts. It involved the early use of poison gas; the dead were buried in mass graves. The majority who perished on the Western Front were from across the globe and have been largely airbrushed from reports of the war; more was written about a few poets than the masses of black troops. Olusoga comments: “The service and the suffering of the veterans of Africa wrought by the war upon the continent of my birth had already been marginalised and forgotten.”


When my granddad gave me his medals when I was a child, I was of course unaware of the extraordinary story of how Europe’s Great War became The World’s War. But as we mark the centenary of that terrible conflict, it’s important to see people like David Olusoga give voice to those whose contributions have long been ignored.



Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.

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