The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 206th installment in the series.
October 19, 1915: France Confers Citizenship, Conscription
Following Napoleon’s abortive invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801, the French conquest of Algeria from 1830-1847 marked the beginning of a long-term expansion in North and Central Africa, creating a trans-Saharan empire that eventually encompassed the modern countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, French Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Benin, (acquired from Germany in the First World War), Gabon and the Republic of Congo. These African possessions were the centerpiece of a global empire extending to include Indochina, Madagascar, Pondicherry in India, French Guiana, Syria, and island territories in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Like other European colonial empires during this period, the French Empire was justified by an essentially racist ideology, holding the non-European inhabitants of Africa and Asia inferior to their white rulers, but also with frequent references to France’s “civilizing” mission and the need to spread (Catholic) Christianity. These apparently complementary justifications actually hid a basic contradiction: if the non-white subjects embraced “civilization” and succeeded in becoming fully French in language and culture, did they also become equals entitled to French citizenship and legal rights?
For most of the empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries the question was moot, either because the subject peoples in question failed to assimilate French language and culture, as in Indochina, or because they were engaged in active resistance to French rule, like the Berber tribes of Morocco (or both). However there was one region where the latent contradiction became a real dilemma: Senegal.
The French presence in Senegal dated back to the early days of the colonial project: the first French colony in Senegal, the trading port of Saint-Louis, was established in 1659, followed by the conquest of the nearby island of Gorée from the Dutch in 1677. French control was limited to the coastal areas of Senegal until the mid-19th century, when French merchants and colonists began pushing inland along the Senegal River, establishing trading outposts and plantations, soon followed by a French military presence.
As the colonial administration expanded inwards, French educators and missionaries established schools serving the native inhabitants of the four original European settlements on the coast—the “Four Communes” of Saint-Louis, Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque—who subsequently assimilated many elements of French culture, including French language, literature, clothing and food (and to a lesser degree Catholicism, as a large number remained Muslim and lived under Islamic law, rather than the French civil code).
These Francophone coastal populations, known as the “originaires” (originals or natives), in effect became the Senegalese native elite, dominating trade and political relations with the less acculturated ethnic and tribal groups of the interior, principally the Wolof, Fula, and Serer. This was probably no mistake: like the British, the French were close observers of ethnic and regional dynamics and made adroit use of “divide and conquer” tactics to exploit historical differences between their colonial subjects.
Following the liberal revolution of 1848, when the new Second Republic replaced the monarchy of Louis Philippe I, the new French Parliament conferred French citizenship on the originaires in recognition of their acculturation, with the right to elect a representative to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. But the legal rights were contingent on various factors, including whether they choose to keep their personal status under Islamic law or submitted to the French civil code, leaving it ambiguous whether they had full citizenship or some kind of second-class version. Meanwhile the extension of voting rights proved fleeting: just four years later, prince Louis Napoleon overthrew the Second Republic, established the Second Empire, and revoked the Africans’ right to elect a representative.
The right to elect a representative was restored after the fall of Louis Napoleon and the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871. Unsurprisingly a succession of Senegalese representatives pushed for clarification of the originaires’ citizenship status—but in the decades to come this inconvenient issue was mostly ignored by fellow legislators distracted by much more pressing concerns closer to home, including the upheavals of the Dreyfus Affair and the bitter anti-clerical campaign waged by Republican secularists against the Catholic Church.
The outbreak of war, and the resulting need for new sources of manpower, offered a golden opportunity to finally obtain full citizenship. Leading the push was the Senegalese representative, Blaise Diagne (below), who offered his colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies a deal: if they conferred full citizenship on all originaires—including those who chose to retain their personal status under Islamic law—the originaires would submit to conscription into the French Army, as required of all male citizens.
On October 19, 1915 the Chamber of Deputies passed the first of the “Blaise Diagne Laws,” confirming the military obligations of the originaires, followed shortly afterwards by a second law conferring full French citizenship. Diagne was later appointed governor general of military recruitment in French West Africa, and eventually enlisted around 60,000 Senegalese troops in the French Army, mostly for service on the Western Front. Altogether over 160,000 African troops served on the Western Front during the war, with thousands more serving in Salonika and the Middle East.
Needless to say, not all originaires were enthusiastic about the idea of serving in the French Army—and this was even more true for the inhabitants of the interior, who didn’t receive citizenship but were often coerced into joining the army “voluntarily” anyway, where they received less pay, lived in rudimentary lodgings, and had no chance of promotion above non-commissioned rank. Either way, as Yorow Diaw, a Senegalese enlistee put it, it was “never good for someone to tell you to ‘come and die.’”
Another Senegalese soldier, Biram Mbodji Tine, described the coercive measures used by recruiters who visited his rural village: “Many of the young men fled from the village… [But] they used to arrest their fathers [if] they [did not] come back… And often they used to go and enter the army [so that] their fathers [would be] released.” Similarly another conscript, Souan Gor Diatta, recalled:
When the Tubabs [whites] first came… there was resistance. But the people of the village only had very old rifles—you had to put powder in them and a ball—“muskets.” But they took their muskets to fight with the Tubabs. But when they began to fight—when… they saw that the Tubabs had very modern rifles—they decided to run away. But some of them were killed before they ran.
As this memory of armed resistance suggests, coercion extended to physical violence in many cases. According to another recruit, if conscripts tried to escape the whites or their native assistants would “beat you so severely that you would never try to escape again.”
However as in every other population affected by the war, there was a range of opinion, and some young West African men went willingly, hoping to secure their social status at home, expand their horizons, or simply have an adventure. Of course, this could bring them into conflict with parents and family members who distrusted Europeans and feared, with ample justification, that they would never see them again. Another soldier from nearby French Guinea, Kande Kamara, remembered his disagreement with his father over his decision to join up:
When I arrived home, no one was to be found there, only old people and women. Everybody was in the bush, in the valleys and in the mountains. The only time they would come into town was in the middle of a dark night. I secretly packed all my clothes except for what I was wearing and sneakily brought them to my father’s house, because I had already made up my mind to go into the army, even though all of my family was against it. My father told me to go into hiding in the bush… I disobeyed my father, for he thought it was stupid and ridiculous to go to a war I didn’t understand and to fight in another country… I felt that, as one of the elder children of a chief, it was one of my responsibilities to go to war, if [the white people] needed us… He knew he couldn’t be angry, since he’d be angry at the white man.
As this comment indicates, many of the Africans soldiers had no idea what the war was about—which put them in the same boat as many of the rank and file white soldiers fighting alongside them. Kamara recalled the attitudes of colonial troops serving on the Western Front:
We black Africans were very sorrowful about the white man’s war. There was never any soldier in the camp who knew why we were fighting. There was no time to think about it. I didn’t really care who was right—whether it was the French or the Germans—I went to fight with the French army and that was all I knew. The reason for war was never disclosed to any soldier. They didn’t tell us how they got into the war. We just fought and fought until we got exhausted and died.
In the same vein another Senegalese recruit remarked: “The men who took us to France to fight knew the reasons they were fighting, but we only knew that we had to fight for them. That was the only thing I knew. Personally I was never told the reasons [for the war].”
Even before they arrived at the front, African soldiers underwent a huge transition simply by traveling to Europe. As their elders feared, exposure to new ways of life often loosened their connections with their own culture. Another Senegalese soldier, Demba Mboup, described the culture shock experienced by young men who found themselves suddenly removed from a traditional tribal system based on strict hierarchical divisions, and immersed in a modern, urban, and (at least formally) egalitarian society:
We all joined the same army—the French army… So we did not think about our [previous] way of living, our behavior, our [former] kingdoms. We were bound to follow the French regulations and their way of thinking about all things… There wasn’t any [social] differentiation [with regard to slaves] because we were following another system—another [way of] life—which was the French one.
Unsurprisingly in an era of endemic racism, the African recruits encountered prejudice and bigotry on a daily basis, beginning in some cases on the long, frightening ocean journey to France, when some white officers and sailors abused their passengers. Here Mboup remembered:
We [sailed from Dakar] on a boat called L’Afrique on May 9, 1916. There was a French soldier with us… [who] was a very very bad man… this French officer said that all the soldiers had to go downstairs—deep inside the ship. And we [were confined for] the [next] six days in the bottom [of the boat near] the keel. [And] we suffered a lot in the bottom of the ship because there was no air.
However, unlike the Jim Crow regime in the United States, in metropolitan France racism wasn’t enshrined at the institutional level and there were at least some avenues for official redress, as Mboup discovered on arrival. When the ship arrived in France Blaise Diagne greeted the recruits and, hearing about the abuse, had the officer arrested—amazing the Senegalese soldiers, who had never seen a black man assert authority over a white man.
As this story indicates the recruits definitely faced personal racism, but didn’t necessarily find the situation hopeless, as the authorities—aware that educated recruits would talk about their treatment in letters home, possibly affecting future recruiting efforts—did their best to curb the more egregious outbursts. Meanwhile at least some prejudiced attitudes were simply the result of unfamiliarity with foreigners on the part of ordinary French people, which could change over time. The story told by the Senegalese soldier Ndiaga Niang showed that bigotry was by no means entrenched (and also gives some idea of the rough and tumble life at the front):
So on this day, I took my cup and I wanted to make “cheers” with a French soldier who was sitting next to me. So I made the “cheers,” [but] the soldier said to me, “don’t touch my cup, you are too dirty!” And [this made] me very angry. [So] I punched him and we began to fight. And when they went to get the captain, the captain told me that I was right, and he told the French soldier that he would be punished. But afterwards, I became very friendly with this same soldier.
Other African soldiers described receiving a warm welcome from French people who were grateful for their service and sympathetic to the psychological impact of leaving their homeland to fight in a strange, faraway country. As with other soldiers suffering from social isolation, friendly families would often “adopt” soldiers, who for their part were very grateful for the taste of home life, helping alleviate homesickness to at least some degree. On that note Mamadou Djigo recalled:
I had a very good [French] friend—his name was Perout… I was his only African friend, [but] we spent a lot of time together. [And] I often went to his house [when on leave]. He invited me… for lunch, or dinner, and sometimes I spent the night… And when his [family] came to visit him, they kissed me before they kissed him—his father, his mother, and his sisters.
Again like many of their European comrades, some Senegalese recruits formed connections with “marraines de guerre,” or “war godmothers”—Frenchwomen of various ages who took responsibility for the wellbeing of a soldier at the front, sending food, clothing, tobacco, candy, and other necessities along with letters and photos of themselves. Human nature being what it is, inevitably some of these relationships went further, despite efforts by the French authorities to prevent African troops from sleeping with French women (and indeed to keep all troops, regardless of color, separate from “good” civilian women, directing them to official brothels instead). According to Kamara,
There were some white women who had mattresses and beds and invited you to their bedrooms. In fact they tried to keep you there. They gave you clothes, money and everything. When the inspector came, he never saw you, because you were hiding under the bed or under the bed covers of that beautiful lady. That’s how some soldiers got left behind. None of them went back to Africa.
Another Senegalese soldier, Mbaye Khary Diagne, provided a somewhat less sensational perspective:
The African soldiers in France had their marraines de guerre too. They were not prostitutes. They were girls of good families who saw us and knew that we were [far from] our countries. [And they realized] we needed some affection and some money… to buy cigarettes with, to go to the movies, and so on. [And we met them] on the streets or in cafes. A French girl saw you and felt very pleased by [your appearance]. And she said to you that she wanted to take you to her house to present you to her parents. And you got [an adopted] French family in that way. [But] it wasn’t necessary to have love affairs [with them]. From time to time some marraines de guerre fell in love with the soldiers they invited home. But generally, they were only friendly relations.