Africans in the First World War

| September 14, 2013
Senegalese Tirailleurs are addressed by an armored French Cuirassier at a1913 Bastille Day parade.

Senegalese Tirailleurs are addressed by an armored French Cuirassier at a1913 Bastille Day parade.

Courtesy of John Aden, PhD and the Fort Wayne African/African American Historical Museum

An often ignored episode in African history involves the participation of Africans in the First World War (1914-1918). In many of the accounts of the First World War, there are no faces of color. But, more than 1.6 million Africans served admirably, if under duress, particularly in some of the more brutal campaigns of trench warfare, like the Battle of the Somme. In fact, there is a brief scene with Africans in it from the long famous novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the war, whose troubling and propagandistic account is one of the most well-known pieces of literature to be widely read in the Postwar era.

Africanist historian Myron Echenberg, professor emeritus of McGill University, writes extensively about the prominent role Africans played in several of his historical monographs. In Dr. Echenberg’s book “Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Senegalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960,” published by Heinemann Press in 1990, and similar treatments can be uncovered in Joe Lunn’s “Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War” (Heineman Press, 1999), where the prominent role of colonial Senegal is highlighted.

Colonial Senegal was an important source of military manpower for the French, who had begun to colonize West Africa aggressively beginning in the early 1850s. By the beginning of the Great War, the unique French approach to colonizing Africa embraced the conscription of Senegalese men into military service. The French, unlike the British who embraced Direct Rule as a way to govern their colonies, preferred a strategy called “Assimilation.” For parts of Senegal, including anyone with residency in the Four Communes (also known as the urban communities of Dakar, Rufisque, St. Louis, and Gorée), Africans were allowed deputy representation in the French Assemblée nationale, beginning in the early years of the second decade of the 20th century.

The French government interpreted right to representation and voting as a broad license to impress African men, and to a lesser extent, women, into military service against their wills. At the same time, an important figure, Blaise Diagne, a representative first elected to the French National Assembly in 1914, worked tirelessly to recruit Senegalese men to join the French military voluntarily. Though an ardent proponent of equal rights for all people, Diagne’s support would eventually earn him the ire of many Senegalese who were uncompensated by France for war injuries. Ironically, it was Senegal’s role in this conflict that sparked both the Negritude Movement and other efforts by Africans to win their liberation from colonial rule that spanned the entirety of the 20th century.

Brandishing belts of ears and noses, which Senegalese soldiers were sometimes required to wear by the French officers who led their segregated ranks, was reported to have terrified German infantry. Often sent to the hottest parts of the lines, especially as manpower dwindled in the third and fourth years of the war, Africans conscripts were made to charge across the feared ”No Man’s Land” repeatedly (so-called because “no man could survive there,” given the mines, dead bodies and constant artillery shelling that characterized it).

German officers instituted a”shoot on sight” order for desertion among the front line infantry, and this was possibly a response, in some localized areas of combat, to German race politics and the presence of African soldiers (although this desertion policy can also be explained by other factors, such as the horrific nature of trench warfare, fluctuations in troop levels and casualty rates, unrecognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and increasing disaffection with the war effort as articulated by front line soldiers).

In the colonial period (but also prior to it, during the subjugation of African societies by colonial expansion), Europeans crafted ideologies that depicted Africans as “savages and cannibals.” Historians of Africa surmise that, in order to maintain the underlying racial and gendered privilege enjoyed by Europeans in colonial Africa, the “African as savage cannibal” mythology formed an important, fundamental basis of colonial rule. Even though it had no basis in fact.

Africans leveraged what they learned about Europeans to serve as the basis for independence and cultural movements that were deeply significant, and even influenced the Harlem Renaissance from the other side of the Atlantic.

To be sure, Africans were not the only non-Europeans to serve in World War I. Asians also served, coming from places as far away as East Asia, as did soldiers from French colonial holdings in the Pacific Rim. Of course, African Americans also served in this conflict. For a unique video on this, see below.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 11 print edition.

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