World War I

During the World War I: 1st Battalion, The Nigeria Regiment entrain at Kaduna for Lagos.
During the World War I: 1st Battalion, The Nigeria Regiment entrain at Kaduna for Lagos. Source: Imperial War Museum

World War I was the worldwide conflict in which Nigeria’s colonial overlord, Britain, formed part of a triad that constituted the Allied powers in its military campaign against the Central powers headed by Germany. Over sixteen million people died in this war that was started over the Austria-Hungarian ultimatum to the kingdom of Serbia on the killing of the former’s heir to the throne. Soon, old alliances were resuscitated, the British on the side of the Western European countries that Germany, in its fraternity with Austria-Hungaria invaded.

When war broke out on 14 August 1914, it was necessary for imperial Britain to reposition Nigeria’s trade to remove any advantages enjoyed by the enemy. German and Austro-Hungarian firms were at this time nineteen in number, some of who dominated the export, and even the import trade. From 1865 they had occupied the vantage position in Lagos’s commercial life and G.L. Gaiser had much goodwill especially in the south west. The introduction of anti-German policies therefore came not without attendant economic consequences. The colonial government had to undergo the tortious process of finding alternatives for German imports. Other sources of revenue to duties levied on trade spirits had to be discovered, and a new market for Nigeria’s main staple. Thus, the importance of the German traders was painfully accentuated, and a commentary had to be published by the Nigerian Pioneer of 28 August 1914, making supplication on behalf of Germans traders “who have lived for many years in Nigeria, engaged to the benefit of the population in missionary, medical and mercantile work. ‘They are,’ said the local commentator, ‘entitled to more than our chivalry.”

Although it was a generally felt obligation among Nigerians to double their patriotism to their British overlord in time of war, Lugard’s abysmal approval level especially among educated elites mitigated the strength of support which colonial government ought to get. The people had seen better days under other governors, and Lugard was accused of having retrogressed them. The vilification of government officials by the press only simmered because of the war, but the need to see British victory did not erase the contempt that was, before the war. This, however did not mean that the people heaped Lugard’s sins on the entire colonial machinery. They understood him and his government to be a temporary vessel, an aberration of a benevolent system described in a 1915 Nigerian Pioneer editorial as “more beneficial to the subject races than that of any other power.” The press therefore stirred competition between the Northern and the Southern provinces in the donation of money to various organizations connected to the war.

German Religious propaganda in Nigeria

By October, the theatre of war had expanded with the entry of the Turkish Caliphate in hostility by the bombing of Russian black sea port. The turks, anxious about the preservation of their Ottoman empire in the face of the worldwide war had aligned with Germany who appeared at this time to be winning. In Nigeria, the British administration was gripped with fear of possible pan-Islamic revolt. Lugard quickly met with muslim representatives in Lagos, reminding them of how their brethren in Tunisia and Senegal were fighting on the side of the allied French army, and how millions of Indian Muslims were also fighting under the British flag. There were similar meetings in Ijebu-Ode but none in the Northern Province where the cause of the war was believed to be well understood by Emirs, who in turn would keep their subjects informed.  Muslim hierarchy would prove consistent in their support for the British even against Turkey, and when the Germans promised deposed emirs of reinstatement in the event of German victory, the support of reigning emirs for the British became even fiercer. As expected, the Germans tried to exploit their connection with the Caliph to foment trouble in Nigeria, but failed in this cause. The Grand Sheriff of Mecca’s pronouncement against Turkey was well circulated by the British in areas where German propaganda had reached.

War starts

When warning telegram of a war with Germans in the Cameroons reached the Nigerian army headquarters, precautionary measures were quickly employed. Mails designated for Cameroon were censured, and instructions were passed to civil officers in charge of districts along the eastern frontier to report any German activity. Pre-empted sea attack was monitored by a marine contingent in Lagos, Calabar, Forcados and Bonny, actually composing of the entire Marine department of the Nigerian force. The land contingent was recruited from volunteering officials and businessmen. Educated Lagosians were called on to enlist as special constables so that the police could be released for military duties.

In war, the first Nigerian causalities at home were recorded in 26th August 1914, when a small party of British troops, joined by red fezzes-wearing French fell into German ambush at the Hill of Mora, near Maiduguri. Military doctor P.T. Frazer and others had strayed while withdrawing, at the order of Captain Fox, after an ineffective attack on the Germans from the hill. The red feezes worn by approaching African soldiers had been mistaken for the friendly French, but the German-African troop, having taken advantage of the mist covering the hill that morning had done a left flanking against their target. The Germans were successful in the counter-attack of this early confrontation in the World War I.

Around the same week in the Nigerian district of Yola, there was recorded another upset for the British as a party sent in advance by Lt. Col. P.R. Maclear encountered Germans at Tepe, the German custom station on the Benue. The rest of the Yola column charged from the night till dawn, meeting heavy firing which left Maclear dead. In the south there was even greater disaster for the Nigerian troops who after capturing Nsanakang was faced with a counter-offensive which left them with heavy loses. Further engagement was stopped by Lugard, who arrived Lagos in 3rd September. British troops were to await the arrival of General Dobell.

Even the common goal of defeating Germany proved incapable of dissolving prejudice that was long existing between the British and the French. The British General, Dobell in his report cast doubt on French capability and the French ridiculed the British African troops peopled mostly by Nigerians, who marched on bare feet, compared to their own Senegalese troop who wore combat boots. Their internal discord notwithstanding, Allies strength over Central power of Germany became more pronounced for they were superior in number and in the quality of their ammunition. Soon, the Germans were defeated and they withdrew into Spanish African territories.

Nigerian Regiment in East Africa


Nigerian Brigade soldiers-disembarking at Lindi, German East Africa in December 1917.
Nigerian Brigade soldiers-disembarking at Lindi, German East Africa in December 1917. Source: Imperial War Museum


The war in the Eastern African territory under Germany was disaster for imperial white and Indian combatants, whose rank by the end of 1916 had been depleted with the scourge of malaria and dysentery. Military situation for the British imperial force required that Nigeria should contribute men. South Africa, for the sake of the preservation of its domestic racist policies had refused to cooperate. Sierra Leoneans had shown themselves unsuitable. Although some success was achieved in recruiting from Gold Coast, Nigeria was the only British territory where a sufficient number of recruits could be obtained. In November 1916, the first batch of Nigerians was sailed to the front of the East African campaign. Nigerians spent some fourteen months in East Africa, half the time effectively on battlefield. In spite of the incidence at Rufiji Valley when soldiers died or became ineffective because of the failure in the channel of food supply, it could be said in all that they made for themselves a reputation second to none in eliminating German flag throughout the continent.

Two days after Armistice had been signed in Europe, General Lettow-Vorbeck of Germany who had been pursued down to Portuguese East Africa by a force in which Nigeria formed a part, surrendered in Northern Rhodesia.

War heritage and partitioning of Cameroon


The British Cameroons are subsumed into Nigeria in this 1960 map by George Cram. British Cameroons boundaries are marked with darker pink lines in eastern Nigeria.
The British Cameroons are subsumed into Nigeria in this 1960 map by George Cram. British Cameroons boundaries are marked with darker pink lines in eastern Nigeria. Source: University of Illinois Map Library


It was assumed that the German strive at world hegemony would not end with its defeat in the World War I, therefore, return of occupied German territories to Germany had been foreclosed from the onset. Duala in the estimation of the British would be turned a strong naval base where South Africa and South American trade routes would be threatened. Justification for the British seizure of the Mandara emirate was found in its historical connection to Borno, which was part of Nigeria. The entire dominion of Yola that had been cut away by Anglo-German treaty of 1893 too was eyed. The British conceded however that the French had better argument in the retention of most Cameroonian territories. The partition of the Cameroons, signaling the end to a process which began in the 1880s was much in French favours.

Experience of the World War I boosted the confidence of educated Africans who now require to be treated humanely and consulted in matters concerning them. Ironically, the war had given them even greater freedom to express their displeasure with the colonial government. After the war, they called for establishment of representative government and the eschewment of racism in the Civil Service. Also, the introduction of compulsory education and the establishment of a university made their wish list. It was within this context that the career of Herbert Macaulay, Nigeria’s most acknowledged nationalist of the era started.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer