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WWI exhibit examines role of Asian, African troops

Slobodan Lekic
WWI exhibit examines role of Asian, African troops
This is one of the pictures displayed at the temporary exhibition “Man, Culture and War” at the Belgian BELvue Museum. The exhibition shows the contributions of colonial troops from various ethnic groups, nationalities and cultures, during World War I. (Photo: BELvue Museum)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — After the guns of World War I fell silent, a young Vietnamese kitchen worker petitioned the leaders of the victorious Allied powers at the 1919 Versailles peace conference to support independence for his country.

The appeal went unheeded, and Ho Chi Minh ended up leading the movement that decades later liberated Vietnam from French colonial rule.

There’s a connection, and it’s evident at a Belgian exhibition that coincides with Tuesday’s 90th anniversary of the end of World War I.

More than 1 million soldiers from Europe’s African and Asian colonies answered the call to arms, yet they were largely forgotten afterward, and promises of freedom were not fulfilled. The betrayal laid the foundations of the independence movements that ultimately brought an end to the colonial empires.

“Man, Culture and War,” an exhibit at Brussels’ BELvue Museum, seeks to set the record straight about the contribution of colonial troops during the 1914-1918 conflict that became known as the Great War.

The colonials fought alongside France, Britain, the U.S., Belgium, Canada, Australia and others on the Western Front. They accounted for more than 100,000 of the almost 4 million killed on that front, but their sacrifice was long overlooked by the history books and the governments that sent them into battle.

“Asian and African units played an immensely important role on the Allied side throughout the war,” said Piet Chielens, head of the In Flanders Fields Museum in the town of Ypres. “But very quickly after the war their contribution was reduced to a footnote in history.”

“The worldwide surge of decolonization which came after World War II had its origins in the disappointments and humiliations suffered by colonial troops during and after the Great War,” he said.

The soldiers — all volunteers, since there was no conscription in the colonies — were lured in part by promises of greater freedom for their homelands in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. But after returning home they saw the promises being broken, and the resentment fed their liberation movements.

The British apparently foresaw the problem. They were reluctant to arm and train black African troops lest they turn their know-how against their colonial masters once they got home, according to the exhibition captions.

They were used instead as auxiliaries along with tens of thousands of Chinese laborers for digging trenches and clearing unexploded ordnance.

The French had no such qualms. They armed 140 battalions from West Africa and Madagascar and sent them into the carnage of trench warfare. Whole divisions of North Africans — mainly Moroccan, Algerians and Tunisians — also took part in the fighting. More than 35,000 of them were killed.

Germany used local troops in its African colonies, but could not bring them to Europe because sea lanes were blocked.

Colonial troops were mobilized again by France and Britain in World War II.

North African units in France’s World War I army, such as Zouave infantrymen or Spahi cavalrymen, gained fame for their battlefield courage and for the splendor of their colorful uniforms. Although most of the rank and file were Arabs, the units included European settlers and North African Jews who rallied to the French cause.

The exhibit also details the discrimination the colonial soldiers suffered.

In the British and Belgian armies, non-Europeans could rise no higher than sergeant. Only the French allowed them to become officers — captains at best. The troops were inadequately trained and equipped, and discipline was harsh.

“Care should be taken to prevent all familiarity between Europeans and Natives as it is subversive of discipline and impairs their efficiency,” reads an order by the British commander of a South African labor battalion, which is part of the BELvue exhibit.

Solomon Plaatje, a South African writer, witnessed the treatment of his fellow blacks in the ranks. Plaatje, who also tried unsuccessfully to address the Versailles peace conference, became one of the founders of the African National Congress, which in the 1990s ended apartheid rule in his homeland.

(Associated Press)