Impact of World War I on European Colonies

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  • 0:03 World War I
  • 1:13 Colonies Before World War I
  • 2:10 Colonies During World War I
  • 3:31 Colonies After World War I
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the impact World War I had upon European colonies. We'll examine the role European colonies played in the war and see how the conclusion of the war altered European colonial holdings.

World War I

World War I was a war unlike any other. Never before had industrial and technological advances been put to such deadly ends. World War I took place between 1914 and 1918. It was the first war in which the aircraft, tank, machine gun, and poison gas saw widespread use. In many ways, World War I was a 'war of firsts.' It was also called the 'War to End All Wars' because it was commonly held that such a horrific, tragic war would cause the world to recognize the horror of war and refrain from ever having a war like it again. Of course, we know some twenty years later an even deadlier war broke out (World War II).

World War I had profound affects worldwide. It dramatically altered the map of the world, in the sense that following the war national boundaries looked much different. World War I brought about the death of empires and the rise of new nation-states. Colonialism had thrived in the late 19th century, and World War I had a profound impact on European colonies worldwide. In this lesson we will explore how World War I affected European colonial holdings.

Colonies Before World War I

Let's begin with a bit of context. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalism caused numerous European powers to engage in what historians have called New Imperialism. Basically, New Imperialism involved each European power trying to acquire colonies and expand its empire. This grew into an intense competition where each country tried to out-do its neighbors. Holding vast, far-flung colonies thus became a sort of status symbol. New Imperialism thrived between the 1870s and 1914.

For the European powers, Africa was the chief area of interest for empire-building, although sections of Asia were appealing as well. In what has been called the Scramble for Africa, 90% of Africa was conquered and colonized by European powers between 1881 and 1914. Countries such as Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, and Germany were leading colony-holders.

Colonies During World War I

When World War I broke out in 1914, African colonies, as well as others, became a source for raw materials, manpower, and bases of operation. Remember that World War I was a world war. We tend to think that it was just fought in Europe, but the reality is, it was fought all throughout the world. For example, in Africa, French colonies fought German colonies.

France had substantial colonial holdings in North Africa. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were French colonies at this time, and these colonies provided France with thousands of troops. Tunisia alone provided France with some 60,000 men. The French Foreign Legion is a well-known branch of the French military composed of foreign troops. During World War I, many Foreign Legion troops came from French colonies.

Okay, let's now look at Great Britain. The King's African Rifles (KAR) was a British colonial military in British East Africa. By the end of the war, some 30,000 men were enlisted in the KAR. India also proved to be fertile soil for supplying manpower. Similarly, the German Army had their own branch of colonial soldiers, called the Schutztruppe. The bottom line we need to understand here is that European colonies were not passive bystanders while war raged in Europe, but that they were actively involved in the fight.

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