Did you know that a black man was the first of the British Services to fire a shot in world war I? Alhaji Grunshi of the Gold Coast Regiment fired the first shot on 12 August 1914 in the German colony of Togoland.
At the start of the First World War, Germany’s West African colony of Togoland was isolated from the rest of the German Empire. Togoland had borders with the British Gold Coast to the west, French Dahomey to the east, and French West Africa to the north. Following the declaration of war by the British Empire on 4 August 1914, the colony was completely cut off from reinforcement. With no German military presence in Togoland in 1914, the colony was defenceless other than a police force of 660 Togolese police officers serving under 10 German sergeants.
Although containing few resources of value to Germany, Togoland was strategically vital to the defence of Germany’s overseas empire, with the powerful Kamina radio transmitters near Atakpamé the only radio link between Germany and its colonies of German Southwest Africa and German East Africa, as well as the only means of radio communication between Germany and shipping in the South Atlantic.
Following the declaration of war, troops of the Gold Coast Regiment entered Togoland from the British Gold Coast and advanced on the capital, Lomé. An advance patrol of the Gold Coast Regiment encountered the German-led police force on 7 August 1914 at a factory in Nuatja, near Lomé, and the police force opened fire on the patrol. Alhaji Grunshi returned fire, the first soldier in British service to fire a shot in the war.
A reasonable amount is known about Alhaji Grunshi because of his decorations. Grunshi survived the war to become a regimental sergeant major decorated with the Military Medal, Distinguished Conduct Medal and a Mention in Despatches.
The first confirmed Commonwealth casualty under fire was his comrade Private Bai, who was killed on 15 August 1914, probably at Agbeluvoe, 50 miles north of the city of Lomé, capital of Togo. Virtually nothing is known of Bai – only one of his names is given – although his name is recorded on paper and online by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Bai’s name does not appear on any memorial, however, for no African names were engraved on the memorial to the Gold Coast Regiment’s fallen at Kumasi in Ghana.