Home Non-Fiction History Imperial Fatigue and the Disruption of African Colonialism during WW1

Imperial Fatigue and the Disruption of African Colonialism during WW1



Despite British and European colonialism only truly dissipating after World War 2, the Great War did see European colonialism and empire weaken dramatically on the African continent. This is due to a concept called Imperial fatigue, whereby the war cost the European belligerents in terms of the finances needed to maintain Empire and the relative tolerance that its subjects had for their coloniser. This paper sets out to specify the factors that contribute to Imperial fatigue, and how they all added up to form the foundation of the end of colonialism in Africa.


The First World War (WW1) cannot be seen in a vacuum. It began in 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the forthcoming political chaos that ensued, and ended in 1918, leaving approximately 16.5 million dead.[1] But the effects of WW1 lingered on, culminating in the Second World War and, arguably, the vast majority of conflicts in the 20th century.

The scale of WW1 can be attributed to its nature as an Imperial war and, as such, a war of global proportions.[2] This is what German Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz feared, when he wrote:

“…the present war is most emphatically only the beginning of a long historical development, at whose end will stand the defeat of England’s world position…[and] the revolution of the coloured races against the colonial imperialism of Europe.”[3]

Despite this fear, the Germans were the first to see the war as one of global proportions, calling it ‘der Weltkrieg’ and attempting to pre-empt British Imperial involvement by undermining British influence in its main colonies.[4] This would prove to be a fatal error, as Britain proved to be more than capable of exerting what this essay shall term ‘the tools of Imperialism.’

Goltz’s fears may not have been completely unfounded, as the 20th century did indeed result in the end of European colonialism and domination. Prior to and even shortly after WW1, British and French colonialism seemed dominant – as their Central Power competitors had been defeated, but this may have been an illusion.[5]

Through the use of the tools of Imperialism, the European empires began suffering from what this essay will term ‘Imperial fatigue.’ Imperial fatigue is the cumulative costs of utilising the resources of an Empire (economic, social, military and political costs). While the utilisation of these tools (such as increased manpower or resources) can benefit an empire, they will incur costs. These costs destroyed the empires of the Central Powers and Russia, which may have led to France and Britain seeming powerful by contrast, but ultimately proved to affect them as well.

This essay will be examining how the utilisation of African Imperial tools, economic costs, ideological changes and political actions all contributed, and prove how WW1 contributed greatly to the Imperial fatigue of European Imperialism

It will ultimately find that the utilisation of Imperial resources for the use of total war caused colonial powers to suffer Imperial fatigue, ultimately weakening colonialism in Africa.

Role of Africa in Imperialism

African colonies acted as vital sources of troops and resources, eventually winning the war for the Entente Powers. The ability to utilise resources on a global scale would ultimately put the war in favour of the Allies. By August 1914, Britain only had a total continental force of over 733,514.[6] By contrast, the German Schlieffen Plan alone had approximately 1,500,000 German troops involved.[7] If Britain hoped to win the war, it would need to utilise its vast empire for both resources and manpower.[8] Colonial troops were highly important to the British war effort, making up a third of its land force.[9] Most of these were from so-called ‘white dominions’ (New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South Africa) and India. Britain did not station African troops in Europe, but black African troops would prove integral to fighting in Africa and the Middle East and for managing logistics on the Western Front as carriers.[10]

To symbolise the importance of Africa in the war, it is pertinent to point out that the first shots of WW1 were, in fact, fired in Togoland.[11] Africa may not be a central part of WW1 consciousness, but it was one of the main theatres of war and a prime goal of the victors. Colonial troops were not only important for Britain, but also for Germany, who used indigenous troops to attempt to defend their cut-off colonies.

It can be said that France relied on its African colonies the most in order to address the short-fall of its declining population.[12] France mobilised 545,240 colonial troops throughout the war, many of which fought on the Western Front in significant battles such as Verdun.[13] If anything, WW1 assured France that it needed its empire.[14]

James E. Kitchen (1914) is fitting in saying that: “The East African campaign was fought on the backs of African labour.”[15] In total, approximately 2 million Africans were involved in WW1.[16] With their small continental forces, it can be said that without global support, Britain and France may have lost the war. What the Empires would find is that the utilisation of such a large force cost them dearly in terms of both economic costs, as they paid for the vast mobilisation of colonial troops, and the ideological entitlement that their colonial subjects had now gained.[17]

Economic Costs

As a total war, the direct and indirect costs of the war were great, not only in terms of finance but also in terms of the ‘human cost’. This cost, coupled with the costs of maintaining Empire, would contribute most strongly to Imperial fatigue.

WW1 ended an economic Golden Age, plunging the world (with the exception of the USA) into deep depression in 1920. Debt, war deaths, unemployment and inflation affected much of Europe and Britain.[18]

Britain wasn’t ready for the impact that the war would have on its economy. Anticipation of the war caused a market panic, further adding to the difficulty of raising the necessary funds to wage a total war. Britain eventually had to raise money through: higher taxation, heavy debt and printing money. It even utilised coercion to maintain control of colonial gold supplies in South Africa, in order to fund the war.[19] This all culminated in a total cost of £3,251,000,000 for Britain (some predict more).[20]

Territory acquired from Germany after the war did not relieve the financial burden and, in fact, contributed even more to British expenditure.[21] Niall Ferguson put it quite succinctly:

“Before 1914, the benefits of Empire had seemed…to outweigh the cost. After the war the costs suddenly, inescapably, outweighed the benefits.”[22]

It became apparent that Empire was costing too much. This is a huge factor in the growth of Imperial fatigue: the development of financial burden as a result of Empire. After WW2, cost would become a prime motivator for decolonisation.

Shifting Ideology

US President, Woodrow Wilson’s “14th Point” speech of January 9th, 1918, despite not being legally or universally followed, remains a benchmark of self-determination worldwide.[23] The 14th point follows:

“A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”[24]

This point, and the speech itself, has been cited as an integral step in decolonisation.[25] The speech itself did not aid in decolonisation, however. Colonies may have been renamed to mandates, but these, as Kitchen put it, were mere “façade[s] for Imperial rule.”[26]

What WW1 truly brought about was a mobilisation of ideas.[27] As dealt with earlier in this paper, Imperial powers utilised colonial troops to fight WW1. The end of the war posed two difficulties, logistical and ideological. The ideological difficulty is one of the first mounting steps in the ensuing ‘crisis of empire,’ as colonial troops firstly, grew justly entitled by their serving in the war, secondly, realised the instability of the Imperial system, and finally, no longer recognised Europe as a moral high-ground.[28]

It is argued that French strategists primarily used colonial troops as cannon fodder, an idea that did not endear them to their colonial troops.[29] French recruiting, earlier in the war, had also culminated in uprisings in Algeria, an event which showed that colonial subjects were beginning to no longer recognise the legitimacy of colonial rule.[30] Colonies were unprepared for the arrival of veterans, especially those who felt entitled due to their serving in the war.[31] The way that these veterans affected the politics of the colonies will be dealt with in the next section, but suffice to say, Imperial fatigue also affected the subjects of Empire, who had grown tired of Imperial servitude without reward.

The fall of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires during WW1 showed that Empires could fall. While this climaxed most poignantly in Europe, where nationalist and Communist movements took advantage of the power vacuum, the ideological importance of showing the vulnerability of Empire would have resonated even in Africa.[32]

The justification of white rule in Africa was the bringing of civilisation, but the violent conflicts which erupted on the continent during the war showed that Europe was just as capable of destroying civilisation as bringing it.[33] Ludwig Deppe, a German doctor in East Africa, lamented that: “We are no longer the agents of culture; our tracks are marked by death…”[34] Colonial rule was held up as virtuous, even by Gandhi, who said:

“We are, above all, British citizens of the Great British Empire, fighting as the British are at present in a righteous cause for the good and glory of human dignity and civilisation.”[35]

This faith in Empire was used up as a result of WW1. Not only did the Imperial powers feel the burden of Empire, but their subjects started to realise that it was not worth subjugation for apparent civilisation. This contributed to the idea of Imperial fatigue, not only in Empire itself but also in the minds of its subjects.

Repression and Appeasement

In order to maintain control of their colonies, France sought to appease disgruntled populaces with reform while Britain utilised harsher means to repress their subjects. Despite being seemingly dominant, the readiness to use brutality or to embrace reform showed that French and British power was a mere illusion.[36]

French reforms were primarily motivated to appease veterans and to retain some semblance of legitimacy after the loss during the Algerian uprisings.[37] In Algeria specifically, despite settler opposition, 400,000 Muslims were given suffrage in 1919. This was limited to municipal issues, however.[38] French colonial rule was still characterised by racism and subjugation, but this small capitulation did show that France found it necessary to compromise to retain legitimacy. Even though colonial costs were great, France still believed that it needed its Empire. The Imperial fatigue showed itself most pertinently in the fact that French subjects no longer respected France for its authority alone.

Britain also found it necessary to compromise, as it gave self-government to its white dominions (South Africa was the first one to accept in the 1920s) and even gave each their own separate mandates.[39] It can be argued that this ‘delegation of Empire’ was an enforcement of the Imperial system, but this goes against the concept of Empire itself. South Africa, especially, only remained prudentially loyal to Britain, but acted as its own territory with its own colony in South West Africa. This capitulation to a dominion shows abject weakness in Britain’s Imperial control, or just ultimate fatigue in having to enforce Imperial domination.

All Empires inevitably fall. It is the nature of such a large political entity that it will over-extend and crumble under the weight of its own decayed authority. The Empires of the 20th century were no different. What separates the fall of 20th century Empire when compared to, let’s say, Rome, is that the nature of Empire in the 20th century was multipolar. It was conflict between these empires which ultimately led to the culmination of their Imperial fatigue and their eventual fall.

WW1 did see the destabilisation of colonialism in Africa. The economic costs of the war made colonialism an overly expensive enterprise; the mobilisation of colonial troops led to ideologies of entitlement and anti-colonialism, and the politics of Empire became too costly, requiring too much compromise and capitulation.

The end of Empire may be attributed to World War 2, but it is appropriate to say that it all started with WW1, a war that shook the empires of the world and, as Goltz feared, ended in the conclusion of white domination of the world.


  • Aftermath: Counting the costs. National Archives. Accessed September 17, 2015. shttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/aftermath/counting_cost.htm.
  • Aldrich, Robert and Hilliard, Christopher. “The French and British Empires.” In A Companion to World War I, edited by John Horne (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 524-537.
  • Did World War One nearly bankrupt Britain?. Accessed September 17, 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zqhxvcw.
  • Ferguson, Niall. “Empire for Sale.” in Empire: How Britain made the Modern world. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
  • Ferguson, Niall. The War of the World. London: Penguin Books, 2007.
  • Kitchen, James E. “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonisation.” International Encyclopaedia of the First World War edited by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin, 2014. http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/pdf/1914-1918-Online-colonial_empires_after_the_wardecolonization-2014-10-08.pdf.
  • Koller, Christian. “The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War.” Immigrants & Minorities 26, no. 1/2, (2008): 111-133.
  • Russel Ally, “War and Gold-The Bank of England, the London Gold Market and South Africa’s Gold, 1914-19,” Journal of Southern African Studies 17, no. 2 (1991): 228.
  • Some British Army statistics of the Great War. The Long, Long Trail. Accessed September 17, 2015. http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm.
  • War on the Western Front. HSC Online. Accessed September 17, 2015. http://hsc.csu.edu.au/modern_history/core_study/ww1/overview1914_18/page137.htm.
  • Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” Speech, 8 January 1918. FirstWorldWar.com. Accessed September 15, 2015. http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/fourteenpoints.htm.
  • WW1 Casualties. WW1 Facts. Accessed September 15, 2015. http://ww1facts.net/quick-reference/ww1-casualties.


[1] WW1 Casualties, WW1 Facts, accessed September 15, 2015, http://ww1facts.net/quick-reference/ww1-casualties.

[2] Niall Ferguson, The War of the World (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 117.

[3] Ibid., 114.

[4] Niall Ferguson, “Empire for Sale,” in Empire: How Britain made the Modern world (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 300.

[5] James E. Kitchen, “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonisation,” International Encyclopaedia of the First World War ed. Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson (Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin, 2014), 17. http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/pdf/1914-1918-Online-colonial_empires_after_the_wardecolonization-2014-10-08.pdf

[6] Some British Army statistics of the Great War, The Long, Long Trail, accessed September 17, 2015. http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm.

[7] War on the Western Front, HSC Online, accessed September 17, 2015, http://hsc.csu.edu.au/modern_history/core_study/ww1/overview1914_18/page137.htm.

[8] Ferguson. “Empire for Sale,” 303.

[9] Ibid., 305.

[10] Christian Koller, “The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War,” Immigrants & Minorities 26, no. 1/2, (2008): 113.

[11] Ferguson. “Empire for Sale,” 303.

[12] Robert Aldrich and Christopher Hilliard, “The French and British Empires,” in A Companion to World War I, ed. John Horne (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 525.

[13] Ibid., 526.

[14] James E. Kitchen, “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonisation,” 9.

[15] Ibid., 8.

[16] Ferguson. “Empire for Sale,” 303.

[17] While Imperial powers could rely on cheap resources and troops from Africa, the scale of the conflict did result in huge costs due to the mobilisation of troops and resources as well as the payment to the troops and carriers.

[18] Aftermath: Counting the costs, National Archives, accessed September 17, 2015, shttp://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/aftermath/counting_cost.htm.

[19] Russel Ally, “War and Gold-The Bank of England, the London Gold Market and South Africa’s Gold, 1914-19,” Journal of Southern African Studies 17, no. 2 (1991): 228.

[20] Did World War One nearly bankrupt Britain?, BBC, accessed September 17, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zqhxvcw.

[21] Ferguson. “Empire for Sale,” 317. To use the example given by Ferguson, the cost of maintaining Iraq averaged in 1921 to around £23 million, outweighing the total UK health budget. The prime motivation for Empire was meant to be the well-being of the home nation but, as can be seen, most of the funds were being put into foreign interests, leaving citizens at home without as many financial resources or government aid as they may have desired, ultimately causing a degree of discontent towards the system of colonialism at home.

[22] Ibid., 317.

[23] Ferguson, The War of the World, 227.

[24] Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” Speech, 8 January 1918, FirstWorldWar.com, accessed September 15, 2015, http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/fourteenpoints.htm.

[25] James E. Kitchen, “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonisation,” 5.

[26] Ibid., 13.

[27] Ibid., 17.

[28] Ibid., 18.

[29] Robert Aldrich and Christopher Hilliard, “The French and British Empires,” 527.

[30] James E. Kitchen, “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonisation,” 7.

[31] Ibid., 9.

[32] Ibid,. 6.

[33] Ferguson. “Empire for Sale,” 303.

[34] Ibid., 304.

[35] Ibid., 305.

[36] James E. Kitchen, “Colonial Empires after the War/Decolonisation,” 17.

[37] Ibid., 10.

[38] Ibid., 11.

[39] Robert Aldrich and Christopher Hilliard, “The French and British Empires,” 532.

(This article was originally a History essay written in first year at the University of Cape Town)