5m Africans, Carribeans and Asians who fought in WW1 and WW2: Spotlight on Force Publique

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When Europe first encountered the Kingdom of the Kongo, they were welcome with courtesy. The representatives of the Portuguese Crown were introduced to the King. Emissaries were sent to Portugal and missionaries were allowed to come to the Kongo to exchange ideas on religion. It is unlikely the royals of the Kongo expected in that three to four centuries later, part of the Kingdom of the Kongo forming the west of the Congo Free State would be part of a barter among Europeans; and that 2.3 million square kilometres of Central Africa would be acquired at the 14-nation Berlin conference of 1884 through a philanthropic non-government organisation Association Internationale Africaine owned by King Leopold II of Belgium for land confiscation and forced enslavement of the local population. Husbands were blackmailed under the threat their family – relatives, women and/or children – would be killed if they did not meet certain individual benchmark levels of production of rubber and timber. Building roads and railways were crucial to opening up mineral-rich and agricultural areas.

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Congo Free State, 1885
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East Africa Arab slave trade routes, 1890s. Source: public domain

King Leopold II promised the international community he would eliminate the slave trade in the Congo Free State. Yet it is estimated that after winning the Congo-Arab war between 1892 and 1894, he proceeded to enslave up to half the population of Congo Free State on plantations. Yet from these people, Belgium would forcefully conscript porters and receive military support during World War 1. Here we describe the contributions of the Force Publique to World War 1.

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Leopold II, King of the Belgians and de facto owner of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908


What did Europe find in the 16th to 17th Century?

The region of the Congo had been inhabited for 90,000 years. At the time Portugal landed, they found an organized state we today call the Kingdom of the Kongo.

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Emissary of the Kingdom of Kongo Dom Miguel de Castro, Albert Eckhout (c.1610–1665)
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Servant of Dom Miguel de Castro with a decorated box, Albert Eckhout (c.1610–1665)
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Servant of Dom Miguel de Castro with elephant tusk, Albert Eckhout (c.1610–1665)

For centuries independent Central Africa was inconquerable, not only due to resistance by Africans but sleeping sickness, swamps, malaria, rainforests and other diseases. The malaria problem was removed by the febrifuge developed by Warburg’s tincture in the mid-19th century based on free medical advice to Europeans by the Quechua of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador about how to treat malaria. This made anti-malarial drugs more easily deployed.

How bad was the loss of life and were the atrocities of King Leopold II?

These were exposed internationally by many opponents of the actions of King Leopold and the Belgian government:

Creation of Force Publique

The Force Publique was a militia, or a gendarmerie in other words, created on the orders of King Leopold II of Belgium in 1886 to enforce the Belgian opinion of “civil” law and colonial rule. Their role was to defend the Congo Free State against external threats, to use violence against locals that disagreed with new Belgian laws over the colony, and to use violence against locals that did not bend to the will of the owner of the Congo Free State, King Leopold II.

The unit was established by Captain Léon Roger, formerly from the Belgian Army’s Carabiniers, after which he was promoted to “Commandant of the Force Publique”.

During 1886 to 1908, officers for this private army came from Belgium (648), Italy (112), Denmark (53), Sweden (47) Norway, the British empire and the USA. The black African soldiers were recruited from other countries so that they would not feel conflicted in their actions towards the locals of the Congo Free State.

Officers were given better weapons and sometimes machine guns, while black African soldiers were given single shot guns. African troops were paid a lower salary. Guns provided to African troops were outdated to keep the cost of this private army low.

In the mind of the Belgians of the time, African troops would know the local ethos, topography and languages. In the callous mind of the Belgians of the time, they were also immune to many diseases in the field of operations. In the callous mind of the Belgians of the time, they did not need to be provided boots while supporting World War 1. In the callous mind of the Belgians of the time, they did not need as much food and water.

Force_publique - Two Force Publique soldiers at Fort Shinkakasa, 1915 bare foot
Two Force Publique soldiers at Fort Shinkakasa, 1915 bare foot

Organisation of the Force Publique

Force Publique organisation

By the end of world war 1, the 21 companies included: 2,800 men in six companies of the Troupes de Katanga (four de marche, two infantry), the Compagnie d’Artillerie et de Génie (Artillery and Engineers Company), Aruwimi, Bangala, Bas-Congo, Cateracts, Équateur, Ituri, Kasai, Kwango, Lac Léopold II, Lualaba, Lulongo, Makrakas, Makua-Bomokandi, Ponthiérville, Rubi, Ruzizi-Kivu, Stanley Falls, Stanley Pool, Ubangi, and Uele-Bili. There were six training camps with personnel numbering 2,400 men. By the end of world war 1, the Force Publique not only had fighting men, but the Belgians had also press-ganged about 250,000 civilians at one point or another into being carriers.

Subduing the Congo Free State

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Belgian prisoner in Congo Free State, date estimate of sometime between 1900 and 1915. Source: public domain

The program of such colonial regiments was to use both force and rules, as Belgian politicians used civil law to subdue the locals and align their way of life to the priorities of their Imperial master. Locals who rebelled and revolted were described as “insurgents” or “outlaws”. This militia were required to be “exceptionally brutal” in order to terrorize the population into producing enough quotas to export rubber as 77% of the Congo Free state exports. The insensitive term used for this process is called “pacification”.

The world’s largest supply of rubber was found at a time when bicycle and automobile tyres, and electrical insulation, had made it a vital commodity in the West.

The late Victorian bicycle craze was enabled by Congolese rubber collected by slave labourers.

To tap it, Congolese men were rounded up by a brutal Belgian-officered security force, their wives were interned to ensure compliance and were brutalised during their captivity. The men were then forced to go into the jungle and harvest the rubber.

Disobedience or resistance was met by immediate punishment – flogging, severing of hands, and death. Millions perished.

Tribal leaders capable of resisting were murdered, indigenous society decimated, proper education denied.” BBC, “DR Congo: Cursed by its natural wealth” Published 9 October 2013. Retrieved 2018-11-10

During the African rubber production boom of 1890 -1913, rubber was the most important export of the entire continent from five locations, with the Congo being the most important: the Gold Coast, French Guinea, Angola, French Congo and Belgian Congo.

The Congo-Arab War

The Force Publique fielded c. 10,000 men, mostly askari led by European officers (Belgians, adventurers and mercenaries) including c. 3,000 Belgian regulars to fight the forces of the Sultanate of Zanzibar and to oust the commercial interests of Arab traders in slaves, rubber and ivory.

The Sultanates of East Africa fielded c. 10,000 men – also mostly local africans who sided with the arabs – and were led by the son of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sefu bin Hamid, supported by Rumaliza and Gongo Lutete, a paid ex-slave turned military general.

force publique - Muhammad bin Khalfan bin Khamis al-Barwani alias Rumaliza, 1900
Muhammad bin Khalfan bin Khamis al-Barwani alias Rumaliza, 1900. (source)
force publique - Attack on Rumaliza's fort, 1893
Attack on Rumaliza’s fort, 1893

The African soldiers of Force Publique, fighting bare foot, led by European officers prevailed. This ushered in the rule of King Leopold II, then subsequently rule by the Belgian government after the scandal of King Leopold’s atrocities became internationally acknowledged.

World War 1

The campaigns in the Great War, as it is remembered, took place in Europe, North America, China, Middle East area and Africa. The war lasted from 28th July 1914 to 25th November 1918 (almost for 4 years and 3 months). During the war, Charles Tombeur was the Chief Commander of Force Publique.

In the initial weeks of First World, the Belgium troops didn’t seem so enthusiastic for military operations against Germans.  In the run up to war, investment in the military capabilities of the colony had been sparing. There were many security issues in the colony with neglected administration. This group was doubtful regarding its participation in the war, looking at its belligerent past. But after receiving constant pressure from British and France allies, it finally decided to participate along with its 600 soldiers in the Cameroon campaign.

In 1914, majority of Belgian Askari were grouped into Katangese units and were deployed in Northern area of Rhodesia. The Force Publique formed another battalion in small numbers.

In World War I, the Force Publique supported the allies against the Germans in the areas of Camerouns, Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda. This troop performed very well in the battleground, getting an admiration from the Allies.

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The Force Publique group in East Africa during World War I (back) (source)

From 1916, the Force Publique increased its strength forming total of 15 battalions (split into three brigades covering Kivu, Ruzizi, and Tanganyika). At the end of 1915, the troop had developed more defensive strategies to face German troops. In 1916, under the guidance of Lieutenant Charles Tombeur, the Allied group planned an attack on German ruled East Africa and headed towards Kigali. On 6th May, 1916, the Force Publique took over Kigali. Within a month, they took over Rwanda and Burundi as well.

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German East Africa before WW1. Source: public domain

After this, along with the help of British troop (Lake Force), the Force Publique initiated a drive to seize Tabora which was the executive Center for German’s activities in Africa. It was further captured and Charles Tombeur became the Governor of East Africa. After the further seizure of Mahenge, the Allies were successful in taking over almost 1/3rd part of German ruled East Africa. Force Publique finished the war with a size of 17,000 men.

In 1924, the areas of Rwanda and Burundi along with Usumbra became the capital for Belgians territory.

During WW1, the Force Publique had an unusual burden compared to European regiments. In addition to waging war on the Germans, they also had to respond to uprisings in the colony. Civilians who opposed Africa being drawn into the war took the opportunity to revolt against the Belgian government. Who responded? The Force Publique. The national economy was re-focused to restrict civilians to war-time rations and producing goods to support the war rather than essentials the country needed such as food, water and healthcare. This inspired revolts. Who responded? The Force Publique. German Southwest Africa bordered the Congo Free State to the west and German East Africa bordered the Congo Free State to the east. Who was sent to fight them along with the allies? The Force Publique.

World War 2

The World War II lasted from 1st September 1939 to 2nd September 1945 (almost 6 years). It took place in Europe, America, Australia, Africa and China. In 1940, the Belgium was surrendered to German, yet its Governor decided that they would support the Allies. The Force Publique gave groups to Allies to fight against the Italian armies in African Campaign and to serve as garrisons at military bases when needed. Different groups of the battalion were placed at different regions of British rule.

Force Publique in World War II
Force Publique in World War II (front) (source)


The Force Publique helped form a route from Sudan area to Cairo and Fort Lamy to Lagos. In 1941-1945, 20 Belgians along with Congolese men aided British Medical personnel in Abyssinia, Burma, Madagascar and Somalia.

Congo Criss

The Congo crisis was an era of political rising in Republic Congo from 1960 to ‘65. The Congo demanded the end of colonial rule, which resulted in its independence. On 4th January, 1959 a major demonstration killed 59 rioters and wounded 500 men. Lumumba was being supported by Soviet Union in terms on military aid and weapons.

Force Publique Soldiers in Congo Crisis
Force Publique Soldiers in Congo Crisis (front) (source)

In South Kasai, a major offensive revolt took place with the help of Soviet Union killing 3,000. In Congo’s first election, Lumumba’s party outpolled Kasavubu’s and its allies, but none of them was able to form a parliamentary association. For comprisal measures, both of them formed a partnership in which both dismissed each other and formed two legal governments.

On 11th July, the Katanga under the leadership of Moise Tshombe declared independence. There were various processes under which the Katanga was fragmented into four provinces and the army was ruled by respective governments.  On August 1961, a new government of Adoula came into existence. But within one and half year, it was defeated by UN army and Tshombe again emerged as a leader.

Final Years

After independence, the Force Publique attacked various European targets. After this immediate attack, the Belgian commander ordered that there won’t be any change in the status of soldiers even after the independence. This ruined the new government’s rule as it had failed to control its own military groups. To protect the citizens, there was an immediate intervention. After a chain of events, finally Prime Minister Lumumba remained in the power till 1997.

A medal was rewarded to the Force Publique in 1940-45 for African soldiers and officers for their service in Askari troop. This medal was rectangle-shaped, around 52mm high and 33 mm wide. The Air force personnel were also awarded with a medal featuring small bronze wings along with ribbons.

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5m Africans, Carribeans and Asians who fought in WW1 and WW2: Spotlight on Force Publique

by Editorial Team time to read: 10 min