Lest We Forget: Colonial Contributions to WWI

This article is the eleventh of an ongoing series from EUROCLIO providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

The First World War remains a cornerstone of many history curricula today. Students across Europe and around the globe engage with a variety of sources, old and new, in an effort to understand a conflict of unprecedented scale and with impacts that continue to resonate in our world today. There are certain perspectives, however, which are often missing from these discussions. We refer to this as a World War, and yet approaches to the teaching and learning of the period often remain highly Eurocentric. The contributions of the peoples of the colonies to the war efforts of the European powers – particularly France, Britain, and Germany – are typically sidelined or, indeed, forgotten altogether. We know, however, that theirs was not a negligible contribution. Over four million colonial peoples participated in the war effort and countless others were impacted by conflicts unfolding in their own backyards. As part of our pursuit of greater multiperspectivity in history education, EUROCLIO has assembled a source collection and eLearning Activity to help students investigate this often unexplored set of experiences. The Colonial Contributions to WWI source collection contains images and information on colonial peoples from Senegal, Madagascar, India, Egypt, German East Africa, Indochina, and many other territories who contributed to the war effort. Their stories allow students to compare and contrast the treatment of different colonial peoples by the various European powers and to consider the consequences of the war for the colonies and their inhabitants.

The Bikaner Camel Corps, also known as the Ganga Risala, were formed by Maharaja Ganga Singh in the Indian state of Bikaner. They played a key role in defending the Suez Canal in 1915.

Ideas to consider when exploring colonial contributions to WWI

The source collection can provide students with opportunities to explore a number of aspects of colonial involvement in the First World War. Teachers should note significant points, such as:

  • The ways in which European powers strategically placed their colonial troops in certain theatres of war (such as the Middle East) for fear of the possible repercussions of allowing colonial soldiers to get used to fighting Europeans
  • The racial hierarchies and stereotyping employed by the colonial powers when assigning combatant or non-combatant roles, or allowing certain freedoms to off-duty servicemen
  • The manner in which colonial peoples were recruited into the war effort from different territories
  • The recognition (or lack thereof) that colonial contributions received during and after the war
  • The implications for independence movements after the end of the war

There are a wide variety of possibilities for developing students’ historical thinking skills with this source collection, also. For instance:

  • Historical significance: Why are colonial contributions seldom mentioned when discussing WWI?
  • Cause and consequence: How and why were colonial peoples involved in the war? What were the consequences for them and the colonising powers?
  • Historical perspective-taking: How did colonial peoples’ experience of the war effort differ to those of Europeans? How did different colonised groups experience the war in different ways?

Comparison: What was similar and different in the way in which colonial peoples were treated by the various European powers? What was similar and different in the way different colonised groups were treated by their colonial power?

A poster from a campaign by the French government surrounding the ‘Day of the Army of Africa and Colonial Troops’ which was organised on 10 June, 1917. The subtitle, which is in Arabic, reads: “On the way to glory with a Frenchman.”

Teaching about colonial contributions to WWI

The eLearning Activity, Different Experiences of WWI, on Historiana provides a variety of ideas to help students engage with this topic. This is a particularly long learning activity with several components; it could be used for a lesson of up to two hours. As with all eLearning Activities, however, you are able to edit the task to suit the needs of your classroom: remove sections of the activity, change questions or instructions, even rewrite tasks in your own language.

To introduce the topic, the eLearning Activity begins by asking students to picture a soldier in WWI fighting on the side of Britain or France. It then (hopefully) surprises them with images of colonial troops. The activity makes use of an informative video from the Facing History and Ourselves website to provide further background information. Students then use the sorting tool to read about various colonial groups and divide them into the camp of either the British of the French before making judgements about how they were treated by their colonial rulers in relation to other groups. Next, they summarise their findings in a written response comparing and contrasting the experiences of troops fighting for the British and the French. Finally, students are invited to research one group in greater depth with a focus on the causes and consequences of their involvement in the war. After sharing with their classmates, they are asked to reach a conclusion in relation to the inquiry question: How was World War I experienced by colonial peoples?


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.