Black Soldiers in WW1

It is often thought that World War One was a European War, fought exclusively by Europeans. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Despite this, the mainstream media makes little effort to acknowledge the contributions of Non-Europeans in WW1.  There were lots of Black and Asian soldiers in WW1.

How Black Soldiers Became Involved in WW1

Colonial Troops
Black & Asian Soldiers in WW1

Before to WW1 began, Britain & France had colonies in the Caribbean, Africa & Asia, as well as many other places around the world.  Germany also had colonies in Africa.  Turkey was involved in WW1 and the Turkish troops contained an African and a Muslim contingent.

The British Caribbean

After centuries of slavery people in the British Caribbean were relishing their freedom. Though many took pride in their loyalty to the “Mother Country”.

When WW1 began. West Indians donated large sums of money to aid the war effort.  They also volunteered to fight for Britain, joining The British West India Regiment.

British West Indies Regiment
British West India Regiment

By the end of the WW1 over 15,500 West Indians had joined the BWIR and had experienced military service in England, Italy, Egypt, India, France, Belgium, Palestine, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and East Africa.

Africans in The French Army

Like Britain, France was a major colonial power. France gathered troops from all over “Francophone Africa”, (French colonies in Africa).  France also had Colonies in South-East Asia. Some of the most decorated African soldiers serving in the French Army were the Tirailleurs Senegalais.

Africans in the French Army WW1
Africans in the French Army WW1

The German troops nicknamed the Tirailleurs Senegalais ‘Black devils’.  they earned this nickname, when fighting like demons, they had forced the Kaiser’s elite troops to retreat before them.

Tirailleurs Senegalais attack the German lines.
Tirailleurs Senegalais attack the German lines.

African American Troops

America was a racially segregated society. Yet African Americans still served in the U.S armed forces.
When the United States declared war against Germany in April 1917, The U.S War Department realised that they desperately needed more men to ensure victory. The decision was made to allow African Americans to sign up. In some states, African Americans were forced to sign up and even fraudulently arrested as draft dodgers.

By the end of World War I, African Americans served in Cavalry, Infantry, Signal, medical, engineer, and artillery units, as well as serving as Chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists, and intelligence officers.

African Americans also served in French units

The 369th Infantry – “THE HARLEM HELL FIGHTERS”,  became one of the most decorated units in WW1 W. Their unit was under the command of the French Military. Eugene Bullard was a highly decorated African-American Pilot in the French Flying corps. He was one of only two black combat pilots in the first world war.

African Americans in WW1
African Americans in WW1

Black Soldiers in The British Army

Although little is known of Black Britons in the British army. We do have some evidence to show that Black Britons served in WW1 in the Army and Navy.

Walter Tull - British Army
Walter Tull

Former Tottenham Hotspur Player Walter Tull , (Above) is the most celebrated black British soldier who achieved the rank of Lieutenant.

Black & Mixed Race Soldiers in the British Army
Black & Mixed Race Soldiers in the British Army in WW1

These photos show several black and mixed-race soldiers serving in the British Army in WW1.  Stephen Bourne’s book – ‘Black Poppies‘ provides valuable insight into the lives of black soldiers in the British forces.

A detailed look at the life of Arthur Roberts a Black Brit who served in the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers, during WW1, can be found in the book, ‘As good As Any Man‘,

Asian Troops in WW1

Asians in the British Army
Asian Soldiers in the British Army WW1

As well as Africans and Caribbean soldiers, there were also Asian soldiers fighting in WW1. India sent over 1 million men to aid the War effort. At that time, India included Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka. Soldiers were from many ethnic backgrounds such as Pathans, Sikhs, Muslims & Hindus all served. The photo here shows Gurkhas from Nepal.

Africans in The German Army

Little is known about how many of Germany’s Pre WW1 war black population served in the armed forces. Some Afro-German men did serve in WW1.

Black Germans in WW1
Black German Soldier in WW1

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farbiger Garde Trommler kl

Remember that WW1 was not just fought in Europe. There were theatres of war in Africa and Asia, as well as at Sea.

In East Africa, The Germans used Askari troops called “Schutztruppe“. They fought bravely and were never defeated even after Armistice.


black soldiers in ww1 Deutsch-Ostafrika, Longido, Reittiere für Askari

Askari -Schutztruppe
African Schutztruppe Serving in East African Campaign WW1

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See  photos of Black and Asian soldiers in WW1

Video – African Soldiers in the First World War


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12 thoughts on “Black Soldiers in WW1

  • 11th November 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Can I reccomend the book,Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War by Richard Smith.

    And for all readers to vist the Imperial War Museum as there is a small permanent exhibition for black volunteers in the first and second world wars.

  • 18th November 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Fascinating, Phil! Thank you for this timely essay.

  • 8th November 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Very informative. World War I and II changed the world so much. This new look at the faces in World War I provide a fresh perspective.

  • 7th July 2016 at 5:10 pm

    You made a mistake guys. That “Black German Soldier in WW1” with pickelhelm didn’t serve in WW1 in any way, he ain’t even a soldier at all actually. That guy’s name is Gustav Sabac el Cher and he was a music master of 1st Prussian Grenadiers, but what’s more important is that this photo of him was taken in 1908, while he himself retired from army in 1909, so he didn’t served in WW1 in any way. That black guy with long white hat is a musician also (but he did serve in WW1 unlike Gustav though).

  • 8th August 2016 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for the link Phil, if life spares, I hope to see you again !

  • 15th September 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Any idea what proportion of soldiers were black during WW1?

  • 21st September 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Please contact me regarding this black history information.
    I would like to invite / involve you in a black history event in white city October 7th – November 18th.

  • 23rd September 2016 at 1:04 pm

    What had really happened to the Black Service Men’ women and wives during WWI? I would be grateful if someone could tell me or us about their names and their roles, please.

  • 29th October 2016 at 9:10 am

    Informative. However, these records do, perhaps ironically, serve to disprove the “non white WW1 soldier” myth; in as much as in, the vast majority of those who served were indeed European “white” (perhaps with the exception of subcontinental Indians).

    For example, the controversy fomented by the WW1 themed, first-person shoot video game, 𝘉𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦𝘧𝘪𝘦𝘭𝘥 (2016), with its depiction on non white soldiers in near parity to whites (while omitting France and Russian participation entirely!), is clearly borne out to be skewed far more towards the ‘agenda’ end of the game design spectrum, than towards reality.

    Having said that, (𝘪𝘪) all races can and should be depicted, if a given product’s intention is to endear given audiences, (𝘪𝘪𝘪) WW1 is not an extensively covered theatre, especially outside of the strategy game genre, thus many will be ignorant of the goings-on of the time, and (𝘪𝘪), it’s a 𝘃𝗶𝗱𝗲𝗼 𝗴𝗮𝗺𝗲!

    So, in summation, historical accuracy is always preferable (for the obvious educational offshoots), but diversity should be the immediate second port of call. ‘Colour washing’, on the other hand, should always be eschewed ― whatever the hue ― as it only elicits and fuels prejudice from all affected sides.

  • 22nd March 2017 at 6:02 pm

    Missing Indochinese which was the Annam, Tonkin and Cambodia in the Asian Troops. Japanese Canadians also fought in the war (Not the Empire of Japan that taken care of German Tsingtao).

  • 18th February 2018 at 4:21 pm

    It is interesting that, during WWI, the Germans applied the appellation “Black Devils” to the all-Black 370th US infantry. I first came across that knowledge during the 60’s.

    Fascinating article. Well researched.

  • 19th February 2018 at 8:46 pm

    In the following publication dated November 28, 2015, Henry Smith says that the Germans applied the appellation “Black Devils” to Senegalese Soldiers, Moroccan soldiers and Black Americans in the 370th US Infantry.

    While Smith cites no authority this raises the interesting possibility that the Germans applied that identification to all three groups, which appeared to work in tandem with one another.

    See in this regard:


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