France Confers Citizenship, Conscription

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. 

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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. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best of the best manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.

Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—fan should add to their Must Watch list.

1. WHAT’S HAPPENING! THE BEATLES IN THE U.S.A. (1964)

A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.

2. DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.

3. GIMME SHELTER (1970)

The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. WOODSTOCK (1970)

The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)

Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.

6. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)

Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)

It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.

9. RHYME & REASON (1997)

An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.

10. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.

11. AWESOME; I F*CKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006)

Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.

12. THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.

20 Memorable Elvis Presley Quotes

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a rock ‘n' roll icon and has yet to be ousted from his position as “The King.” Yet the Tupelo, Mississippi-born, Memphis, Tennessee-raised superstar never took his fame for granted, nor did he forget his roots. Here are 20 memorable quotes about Elvis’s life and legacy.

ON AMBITION

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

ON MAINTAINING YOUR VALUES

“It's not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it's who you are.”

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.”

ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend.”

“I've never written a song in my life. It's all a big hoax.”

“I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

ON THE ARMY

“After a hard day of basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake.”

“The army teaches boys to think like men.”

ON TRUTH

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.”

ON THOSE LEGENDARY DANCE MOVES

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it.”

“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess.”

ON KEEPING POSITIVE

“When things go wrong, don't go with them.”

ON STARDOM

“If you let your head get too big, it'll break your neck.”

“I have no use for bodyguards, but I have very specific use for two highly trained certified public accountants.”

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It's very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

ON LOVE

“Sad thing is, you can still love someone and be wrong for them.”

ON THE PITFALLS OF HOLLYWOOD

“I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood. My songs were the same conveyer belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”

ON GETTING OLDER

“Every time I think that I'm getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”

ON LEAVING A LEGACY

“Do something worth remembering.”

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