So much beauty out there

January 3, 2009

The Racial Other

Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:25 pm

Index

The First World War saw an unprecedented number of foreigners on French soil, and from a diverse background. There were German invaders in the North East and prisoners of war in the rest of the country, Belgian refugees, immigrant workers, colonial soldiers and allied armies. 

While only the Germans were actively and consistently loathed, all of the others provoked resentment or unease at some level amongst the French public. In some ways, they provided an acceptable outlet for discontent that could not be directed at the French. It was politically difficult to criticise the behaviour of the poilus, so instead the population could decry the conduct of the Allied troops. Other foreigners could be portrayed as profiteers at the expense of the French, seducers of their women, collaborators with the enemy, or even spies. A Bill presented in 1915 demanded that at the end of the war an identification card be required for all foreigners residing in France. This became official policy in April 1917. At the start of the war, the prefect of the Savoie felt impelled to criticise “Une campagne odieuse [qui] est menée par l’Allemagne, dans certains milieux de notre beau département: elle va jusqu’à prétendre ‘que les Suisses sont vendus à L’Allemagne'”. 

The return of demobilised troops, to find foreigners in their jobs led to some outbreaks of xenophobia. One of the more prominent reactions was that of unemployed workers in the hotel industry who organised themselves into the Union des combattants de l’industrie hôteliere and participated in street demonstrations. According to Schor, they argued that it was “dangereux d’abandonner le contrôle d’une activité importante à des métèques; ces derniers ne prendraient jamais en compte les intérêts de la France et risquaient de transformer les hôtels en officines d’espionnage. 

Foreigners had not, of course, been regarded favourably before the war. G. Dallier wrote in 1914 

Will we always be able to impose our customs, our civilization, in a word our label, on the invaders? Will assimilation go smoothly? Unmistakeable symptoms seem to indicate that we are reaching a point of saturation. … Our customs are becoming exotic, our language is becoming overcome by foreign terms, even our security is threatened by dangerous elements who are attracted by our wealth and whom our lenient laws do not frighten.

 Jean-Jacques Becker provides two examples of reports on the harvest of 1914. A schoolmaster in the Isère declared,

There were signs of remarkable dedication: young lads aged 15 to 20, young girls taking off their aprons and putting aside the needlework they had begun, resolutely took up their sickles and lent a hand to the women left alone with their young children. “There’s a war on!” people said. The job was not badly done, and, moreover, without the help of foreign labour which the prefecture had placed at the disposal of those who asked for it.

 The prefect of Lot boasted that “[…] several mayors assured me that the harvest will be brought in and the next prepared without the help of strangers.”  In both examples, and particularly in the first, the primary sentiment is pride that the community has managed on its own. However, both also make it clear that foreign labour was unwelcome, and would be avoided wherever possible. This was exacerbated during the war by the greater likelihood that the foreign presence would be from outside Europe. The negative feelings that the French may have felt towards Belgian, Italian or Spanish workers were very different to their suspicions of non-white immigrants.

The racial superiority of the white peoples was taken as practically a given in France at the start of the twentieth century. The Tour de la France par deux enfants is perhaps the most well known schoolbook from the Third Republic, read by children across France. It featured an illustration that depicted four races of man – white, red, yellow, and black. The white race is described as “la plus parfaite des races humaines.” This assertion took its lead from prominent scientific arguments. In his book La Sélecion humaine from 1919, the eminent physiologist Charles Richet dismissed the achievements of black people. “L’architecture nègre, ce sont les paillotes, la peintures nègre, ce sont les dessins informes dont ils ont bariolé leurs guitars… Les dimensions du crane et les formes du cerveaux les rapprochent des singes.”

colonial-soldiersRichet elaborated on his own scale of the human races:

Nous mettrons résolument tout au bas de l’échelle hiérarchique des races humaines la race noire, incapable de penser et d’innover, impuissante à se constituer en nation, puis au-dessus d’eux, et très loin d’eux, la race jaune, peu inventive, peu créatrice, mais brave, laborieuse, apte à une assimilation rapide; et enfin, tout à fait au-dessus des deux-races, la race blanche, qui a tout fait dans le monde actuel, qui a créé une organisation savante, inventé des milliers d’industries, asservi la matière et l’animal à ses volontés; conquérante, par la science, de tout notre planète.

In the medical debates which sought to set out racial hierarchies, the two primary manners in which racial inferiority was expressed were savagery and infantilism. These ideas were common currency throughout France, and many writers unquestioningly spoke of inferior races.

The racial scientist Dr Bérillon wrote a book Les Caractères Nationaux; Leurs facteurs biologiques et psychologiques that came out in 1920. It sought to systematise the presumed behavioural differences between people from different nations and of different colour into a scientific theory.

Ce qu’on désigne fréquemment sous le nom d’âme de la race, c’est la constitution d’un système très stable de sentiments, de besoins, d’aptitudes intellectuelles, d’instincts représentant l’héritage d’un long passé. Ces tendances d’ordinaire dissimulées sous la mince couche du vernis superficiel dont les décorent les régimes politiques et les conventions, se retrouvent chez tous les individus de même race. […] La race […] est l’ensemble des individus semblables, appartenant à une même espèce, ayant reçu et transmettant par voie de génération sexuelle, les caractères identiques.

For Bérillon, races were formed through biological inheritance rather than cultural ones.  He rejected the idea that nations were a product of a mixture of races, arguing that the war had provided ample evidence that each nation had its own innate racial characteristics. 

Une des opinions les plus communément admises c’est que la plupart des nations ne sont que des mélanges de races, les diverses races constituantes s’étant fondues en une race mixte ou métisse. Or, les événements liés à la guerre dont nous sommes les témoins, viennent justement nous apporter la démonstration du contraire. […] Elles proclament au nom de leurs différences ethniques, de leurs mœurs, de leurs besoins, de la pureté de leur sang, de leurs caractères spécifiques, qu’il leur serait désormais impossible de vivre dans une communauté de gouvernement et d’intérêts avec les races voisines.

The war had displayed then that not only were the characteristics of each individual nation different but that they were also incompatible. Whatever similarities might appear on the surface, Bérillon argued, the key element of the racial personality came from the “milieu intérieur”: “Car la personnalité des différentes races n’est pas seulement constituée par des caractères extérieurs, elle résulte surtout de la composition du milieu intérieur.” Bérillon assumed his readers would know of this difference between White and Black races but he stressed that it applied equally between the French and German races. 

Bérillon argued that it should not be assumed that years of immigrants entering France had undermined the purity of French blood or undermined the natural characteristics of the race. This was because

la conception de races humaines métissées est en contradiction avec les lois de la biologie. Après quelques générations, toute trace de métissage a disparu et les individus peuvent tous être envisagés comme étant de race pure ou tout au moins en voie de retour vers l’état de pureté.

Again he noted that this breeding out of “métissage” occurred in all instances. “Ces faits ne s’appliquent pas seulement aux croisements des races très différentes de coloration, mais à ceux des races blanches.”

By this formulation Bérillon managed to argue both for the purity of French blood and for the ability to assimilate limited numbers of foreigners without sacrificing it.[1] However, this did not mean that Bérillon was sanguine about the prospects of inter-racial sexual relations, which he considered to be unnatural. “Seule une dénaturation de l’instinct peut expliquer le fait d’une alliance entre deux individus de race différente.” Significantly, he believed that while men might be tempted by women from different races, the obstacle to such relationships came from women.

[L]es femmes normales répugnent à toute alliance avec un individu d’une autre race. C’est que la femme semble dotée à un degré plus élevé que l’homme de cette sorte d’intuition révélatrice du danger qu’on pourrait désigner sous le nom de sens de l’ennemi.

Once again, Bérillon argues that different races are inherently antagonistic, and places women as guardians of the purity of the race. When French women did have sexual encounters with foreigners then, they were not only performing an unnatural act, but also undermining their race and their nation. He is also evidently drawing on long-established ideas over sexual behaviour in which men were unable to control their sexual urges and society had to rely on the chastity of women to preserve order. Yet women’s restraint is ascribed to an instinctual sense of danger rather than rational thought.

It is an over-simplification; however, to assume that the scientific arguments of the period were what determined popular conceptions of race and ideas of French racial superiority. As Neil MacMaster argues, racism is not “a phenomenon derived from an autonomous and somehow ‘objective’ sphere of scientific investigation and theory.” Scientists were as much a product of the mores of their societies as anyone else.

The development of racial ideology did not stem from the impact of science and ideas, but rather the reverse: race science was invariably structured as an expression of underlying preoccupations, whether stemming from class position, nationalism, colonialism, economic crisis, or other considerations. 

Instead race science has to be seen as just one more way in which the French racial ideologies were expressed, with the scientists in turn reinforcing those ideologies with the “evidence” they produced of eternal racial hierarchies. One example of this is Dr Henri-Etienne Templier’s explanation for the high rate of pneumonia among Black soldiers. He notes that medical and anecdotal evidence confirms the laziness of West Africans, and then suggests that this made them incapable of performing the hard labour required of them. This unaccustomed overwork, along with differences in climate, then resulted in the outbreaks of pneumonia.

D’après les médecins et les officiers coloniaux, les noirs de l’Afrique Occidentale Française sont des êtres généralement paresseux et indolents. […] Recrutés peut-être un peu hâtivement, rassemblés en convois et souvent obligés de faire de très longues marches pour arriver au lieu d’embarquement, nos nouveaux tirailleurs furent sans doute vite surmenés; nous eûmes dès lors nos premiers cas de pneumonie en Afrique même. […] Puis vint l’embarquement, la traversée généralement pénible, ne serait-ce que par sa durée, et enfin l’arrivée dans notre pays dont le climat est tout différente de celui de l’Afrique Occidentale.

Racial science was also diverse and flexible enough to be used to support a variety of colonial ideologies. Ostensibly the two major theories of colonial practice, those of assimilation and association, were incompatible. Assimilation presumed that French policy towards her colonial subjects should be based upon the exportation of French customs and attitudes until those subjects could be reborn as French citizens, while association argued that it was better to respect indigenous traditions and seek to develop each colony according to its own individual character. In practice however the vast time that it was believed was required before non-white colonials could successfully assimilate, plus the practical desire for the colonies to contribute to the metropole as soon as possible, meant that the application of the two policies was well nigh indistinguishable. As Alec Hargreaves has argued on the emergence of the doctrine of association at the turn of the century to challenge the theory of assimilation:

Although association rapidly gained widespread support in colonial circles, it should not be imagined that this doctrinal change brought about a shift in colonial practice. On the contrary, it simply provided ideological confirmation of the non-assimilationist nature of existing policies, around which it wove a new set of myths in place of the old.

The pre-war ideas of other races were largely based on hearsay and reports back from those who had travelled abroad. Few non-whites had arrived in mainland France itself, except in a few major or coastal towns. How would the population respond to their first physical encounters with the racial other? This chapter seeks to address the question of how contact with people of different colour affected the racial thinking of ordinary French men and women. However, it also has to be recognised that, particularly outside the major cities, the everyday contact between the French and those of other races usually remained minimal, primarily because the French government made strenuous efforts to keep colonial contingents separate from the metropolitan population. French attitudes thus continued to be strongly influenced by books focusing on the French empire and its subjects. For this reason, this chapter also examines a variety of works that highlighted French racial thinking in respect to her colonies during the era of the war.

If foreign men were present in significant numbers on French soil and could be encountered on a regular basis by the domestic population, the same cannot be said of foreign women. They were unrepresented amongst prisoners of war, and hardly represented in the armies of France’s allies. Very few were recruited to work in the economy. Instead foreign women continued to appear to the French largely through their representation in print. The depiction of foreign women in the newspapers was used in two different, but not necessarily contradictory fashions. Most commonly, they were used as an example of what could befall French women should they lose sight of their true calling. The fact that the sole female US deputy burst into tears while casting her vote on the entry of the US into the war drew from La Petite Gironde the response… “Vous voyez bien que la femme est dominée par sa sensibilité et ses nerfs au point de ne pouvoir prendre une résolution…”. Camille Ferri-Pisani condemned American women for measuring men’s worth only in monetary terms. All that she sought was marriage, whereupon the man was forced to work all day to buy the woman cars, a fine house, a yacht and so forth. However, what made American women differ from “Latin” women was not racial factors but cultural ones “la girl n’éprouve jamais ce besoin d’être protégée et de se sacrificier, besoin qui crée la douceur et le dévouement de nos femmes latines.” In an article entitled “Elles vont parler!” the fact that British women had been granted the right to preach in Anglican churches was commented on, and linked to female suffrage.

Le droit de vote pour les femmes, ce sera le droit à la parole publique. Mais sur quels sujets?  Sur les intérêts de l’Etat, la défense du pays, la prospérité financière et industrielle. Sans doute ces questions ne sont pas négligeables. Mais elles n’ont pas pour les dames l’importance des questions morales. Sur ce domaine, la femme est bien chez elle, maintenant. En lui donnant les clés de l’église et la droit au prêche, les évêques anglaises réalisent les plus chers de ses désirs: faire la leçon aux autres, gourmander et condamner au nom du Ciel.

Here, the conduct of foreign women is seen as an example of what could happen in France. The behaviour of women in more “exotic” societies by contrast was not seen as having any relevance to the women of France. Instead, their actions were merely used to illustrate the exoticism of their society. Occasionally there were reports on the “amazones” serving in the Russian army.  The exploits of these women were recounted admiringly. They were considered heroic and worthwhile, but there was no suggestion that French women should act likewise. Indeed differing social norms that placed women in roles they did not have in French society were considered an indication of backwardness. According to General Puypéroux, the relationship between husband and wife amongst the Kabyles was akin to one between master and slave, albeit a sweet and courteous slavery. Likewise, Dr Templier spoke critically of the division of labour in French West Africa.

Du jour où l’occupation française leur apporta les bienfaits de la civilisation, supprima l’anthropophagie et l’esclavage et mit fin aux querelles de village à village ou de tribu à tribu, prétexte aux expéditions guerrières, les noirs vécurent dans une douce oisiveté, les femmes s’occupant, comme par le passé, des travaux pénibles.

Not only were criticisms aimed at African societies for this oppression of women, but they could be simultaneously condemned for giving too much influence to women. A report in 1915, by a committee of deputies on the Commission de l’Armée, on the possibility of recruiting an overseas army noted that “…en Afrique, l’opinion féminine joue un rôle plus grand peut-être encore qu’en Europe dans les décisions des populations.” 

While the threat that colonial men posed towards French women, either as seducers or as rapists, was a consistent subtext in French racial discourse, the reverse scenario of French men having sexual relations with colonial women was largely restricted to fiction and postcards. Partly this was because the likelihood of such encounters was slight outside the French metropolis and thus inevitably of peripheral interest in political terms. One of the few writers to address the subject in his account of being a soldier in Africa, Troupes noires, Premières cartouches, was Alfred Guignard, but he played down its incidence.

Car l’élément masculin de notre race blanche jouit, pour la sexe aimable des autres, d’une appétence singulière et sans réciprocité qui se manifeste dès le débarquement, chez les nouveaux venus, même d’âge certain, par une curiosité immédiate des femmes. Mais celles-ci, y eussent-elles trouvé intérêt, n’ignoraient pas de quelle bonne raclée leurs seigneurs et maîtres présents auraient puni tout écart public de conduite. En sorte que les convoitises restaient platoniques et nos gens sur leur faim.

The absence of a significant number of foreign women in France did not mean that the debates over nationality and race were not significantly gendered. The very absence of foreign women increased the perceived threat to the purity of French womanhood from the incoming men, while the language in which nations and races were described often contained similar themes to those that characterised the gender divisions within French society.

The Essential Nature of Non-Whites

Laurent Gervereau describes well the ways that material aimed at adults portrayed the non-white world in the years before the war

Mais, après ce trop court inventaire, nous voyons quel est l’axe principal de l’exotisme – de l’exotisme africain – à cette période: correspondant à une tendance générale des romans, des affiches, des imageries, des cartes postales, de la presse illustrée, à une “exotisation” des représentations, violence et érotisme s’implantent. Pourtant, c’est la violence souvent qui prévaut (presse). Elle nous montre une Afrique sauvage, dangereuse, qui valorise ainsi les conquêtes et la nécessité de la mission civilisatrice.2

 Nearly all illustrators focused on the same three aspects “la violence, l’érotisme, l’étrangeté.” Stora-Lamarre describes erotic literature set in the French colonies, which saw “l’ardent soleil qui provoque des scènes ‘pimentées’ et ‘orgiaques’. Chaudes saturnales (1893), Promenades en Alexandrie (1907), mettent en scène les raffinements de l’Orient, sa luxure, ses voluptés bizarre et cruelles, sa joie sanguinaire et ses instincts féroces.” Around the turn of the century, newspapers such as the Petit Journal, the Petit Parisien and L’Assiette au Beurre depicted the cruelty of the foreigner with depictions of Moroccans callously exhibiting the heads of prisoners on stakes or of a criminal being walled up in a cell to die. The extremely pro-colonial newspaper Le Petit Marseillais published several articles in 1914 highlighting peculiar behaviour in other civilisations. One light-hearted article mocked the Chinese for not only arranging marriages before those involved were old enough to marry but before they were even born: “les Chinois, toujours extraordinaires, ont imaginé le mariage avant la naissance des mariés.” Another, entitled “Justice Indigène”, commented on the primitive ways in which justice was done in indigenous communities in West Africa. 

Laure Barbizet-Namer argues that when African troops were depicted in the French imagery of the war, black Africans were used in much greater numbers than Arabic North Africans. Indeed in all the representations of non-whites in France during the war, blacks were the most common. This did not correlate with the absolute numbers of foreigners in France, so it seems more likely that they provided the most obvious signifier of the otherness of colonial men.

The picture of the black race that was painted in the newspapers of the period was a largely sympathetic one. If there was no mistaking the condescension and the natural assumption of superiority of the white authors, they generally depicted blacks as courageous and kind hearted. Censorship must have played some part in this. In December 1914, the War Ministry criticised a censor who had allowed the publication of an article in La Gazette du Haut-Jura detailing the “sauvagerie marocaine” of certain colonial troops. While newspapers still represent a useful source, it must be noted that the censor may have restricted some of the more potentially unfavourable opinions towards those foreigners brought into France.

In the Petite Gironde, a story narrated how, in a colonial outpost in Timbuktu, the white officers had been celebrating Christmas. The captain recounted to the tirailleurs the story of the Nativity, via an interpreter: “un gigantesque noir qui était décoré de la Légion d’honneur”. It was a largely conventional narrative, but with several interjections such as “Cette naissance eut lieu, il y a très longtemps, dans un village plus lointain que Gao, plus lointain que Zinder” because, presumably, the audience were considered unable to understand such complex concepts as great distance if they were not related to their own geography. The captain also recounted a selection of the miracles performed by Jesus, in addition suggesting “il aurait même retrouvé la petite fille du caporal Koulibali, quit fut enlevée cet été par les Béribaches.”  Later on this corporal goes off searching for Jesus in the expectation that he would be able to return his daughter. This story illustrates several of the recurring themes in portrayal of black colonials. They are often of exceptional physique – the interpreter is gigantic. In many respects they are like children – the life of Jesus is recounted as if it were a school class; the misunderstanding of Corporal Koulibali is childlike. Yet they are also heroic – the interpreter has the Légion d’honneur, and caring – the corporal is deeply concerned for his daughter.3 Similarly the tale of “Le Tirailleur Kaddour” portrays Kaddour as a model soldier, with the medaille militaire and the Croix de Guerre, who nevertheless is generally a figure of fun because of his inability to speak proper French.

This preconception is also present in more serious pieces of work. Alphonse Séché in his 1919 book Les Noirs argued that “les peuples jeunes ayant précisément ces traits propres à la jeunesse: naïveté, ignorance qui s’étonne, générosité, enthousiasme du cœur, crainte et bravoure conjuguées.” Léon Gaillet wrote a book about a Senegalese soldier called Coulibaly, implicitly portraying him as a representative Senegalese man, highlighted by the popularity of the name Coulibaly in Western Africa.4 Reviewed in La Petite Gironde, Gaillet’s analysis was accepted as an accurate one. The reviewer recommended the book “puisqu’il fait bien connaître une race qui est venue mêler son sang au notre sur les champs de bataille d’Europe”. This sentence underlines the fundamental point for the French in regard to foreign soldiers, that the act of fighting for France outweighed whatever defects their race or lack of civilisation entailed. The Petit Marseillais review of Gaillet’s book on “soldats à l’âme primitive” also viewed it favourably, saying it had the “saveur de la verité”. 

Gaillet described the evolution of the relationship between him and Coulibaly.

Avant de vivre avec Coulibaly, je ne me sentais guère attire vers lui que par un sentiment de curiosité. Quand je fus versé aux bataillions sénégalais, je manquais d’enthousiasme. Obligé d’être constamment en contact avec lui, j’éprouvais à son égard de la répugnance… Entre cette humanité à l’état d’enfance et notre civilisation beaucoup trop complexe pour elle, l’écart me semblait trop grand. Peu à peu, sans m’en rendre bien compte moi-même, j’ai commencé à connaître plus exactement Coulibaly et à éprouver pour lui quelque sympathie. Il me semblait aussi sentir la mienne… Parti avec lui sur la Somme, nous avons été exposés aux mêmes dangers… J’ai vu couleur son sang, (sic) et je me suis rendu compte qu’il savait mourir pour la France… Ma sympathie s’accroît chaque jour pour lui et me permet de mieux le comprendre. 

It is noticeable that Gaillet does not reverse his judgement that Coulibaly is a representative of humanity in a state of infancy, merely that his willingness to fight and possibly die for France demonstrated his positive qualities. The Petit Marseillais made a similar point, emphasising that contact with black soldiers merely was to find out the qualities that accompanied their defects. “Ces noirs lui paraissaient niais ou même stupides, maladifs, lents, geignards, ridiculement superstitieux. Mais à vivre avec eux, il revint de ses opinions préconçues; à côté de leurs défauts, il constata leurs qualités”. 

Gaillet also explicitly described Coulibaly as childlike. “Coulibaly pense, parle, agit comme un enfant.” In addition, “l’intelligence abstraite fait évidemment défaut à ce Sénégalais, qui est incapable d’isoler leurs rapports des choses elles-mêmes, et son intelligence pratique est assez limitée”. This lack of civilisation did not just imply innocence amongst the Senegalese; it could also have a darker side, when they were subject to malign influences. “Coulibaly est impressionnable. Il peut se décourager ou se dépraver facilement.” The argument that a people who rely on instinct rather than on abstract intelligence can be too easily swayed into error illustrates another way in which views of non-whites could parallell those of women. Because of the limited intelligence and gullibility of the Senegalese, Gaillet concluded with “un hommage aux officiers coloniaux qui ont su gagner les Sénégalais à notre cause.” Again, this phrasing places the Senegalese as childlike, their destinies in the hands of the white colonial officers. 

Similarly, when a group of colonial troops successfully defended their position under fire, they were praised by the Petite Gironde for their indomitable bravery. However, the account reserved most of the credit for the French sub-lieutenant who commanded them: “il manifesta, durant toute l’attaque, un admirable sang-froid et une maîtrise absolue de lui-même, dirigeant les opérations avec un flegme qui donnait confiance aux soldats.” The distinction between French cold-blooded, rational bravery and the instinctive, impetuous bravery of their colonial troops was a regular staple of the discourse on their relative performance.

naive-black-soldiers

Original caption: On se croirait au bord de l'Oubangui

The naivety and childlike nature of blacks was repeated time and time again. When the recruitment of black troops was being discussed, “Le caractère généralement gai, voire enfantin, des noirs…” was noted. General Puypéroux commented on how the colonial troops under his command were never upset by the regular movement that the unit was forced to undertake, because they were “grands enfants” who liked travel and change. The comte de Briey, describing a mission to Africa, noted the proverb… “‘Après le roi, rien n’est supérieur à la vache’ et disait que bien d’autres formulaires témoignent dans leur naïveté de la même estime des Ruandiens pour les bêtes à cornes.” William Ponty, the Governor General in Dakar from 1908 to 1914, saw the relationship between colonisers and colonised as that between tutor and ward, but put a less favourable spin on the relationship by characterising the ward as “a sometimes shifty, often crude and even cruel ward.” Nevertheless, Ponty believed that the Africans could be won over by ‘apprivoisement‘. Guignard in the foreword to his book claimed that “Le noir n’a point inventé cet instrument simple, la roue, ni, partant, la route qui l’utilise.”  Some of the ideas used in teaching Senegalese soldiers French were based on the assumption that the soldiers would not be able to come to terms with the complexities of proper French, and that it would have to be taught utilising the grammar and syntax of the “dialectes primitifs de notre A.O.F.” 

A still less positive association saw black people as savage. A journalist in La Bataille described “les Africains, grands, forts, qui ont un je ne sais quoi de sauvage, de candide, de bonasse et de terrible.” La Bataille also reviewed La race chamitique by Théodore Vibert. This book attempted a history of the black race and “conclut originalement à la nécessité de la domination de la race de Sem sur celle de Cham, celle-ci ‘vaste agglomération de bestiaux humains’ ne pouvant que gagner en dignité, en moralité et en liberté à être aux ordres de celle-là.” This view was dismissed out of hand by La Bataille, but nevertheless must have held some currency amongst white Frenchmen.

It was generally held that the act of fighting for la mère patrie absolved black newcomers from the defects of their race. Conversely this meant that when they were not seen as doing their duty in the trenches, that hostility towards them was much more overt. 

The Senegalese presence in Pau provoked this response:

 Quand nos braves soldats béarnais, dont la vaillance et l’endurance ont fait l’admiration de tous, viennent en permission, ils trouvent leur petite maison de paysan occupée par 20 ou 40 nègres, leur femme et leurs filles terrifiées n’osant plus quitter la maison, le vieux père obligé d’abandonner le travail des champs pour surveiller le ‘gynécée’. […] Tous les dimanches et jours de fête, Pau est encombré de Noirs qui mendient des tickets du pain. […] Je vois constamment de grands diables complètement ivres soliloquant en titubant, ou rentrant en groupes abrutis ou excités par l’alcool. Qu’on leur refuse un jour des tickets de pain, ils pilleront les boulangeries et Dieu sait à quels excès pourront se livrer ces hommes très doux quand ils sont sobres, mais redoutables dès qu’ils sont ivres. Les villes isolées aux environs du camp et de la ville ne sont plus sûres pour femmes et enfants et je redoute les incidents les plus graves. 

This account makes many important points. The reference to the French soldiers illustrates the true role of men in wartime, further stigmatising the blacks that are employed at the rear. It employs the traditional stereotyped idea of blacks as gentle men who are fearsome when drunk (when applied to black soldiers, their fearsomeness is demonstrated in combat). Most noticeable of all is the sexual unease that runs throughout the passage. This is all the more striking because there is no description of any actual sexual outrage having occurred; merely the presence of black men is enough to strike fear into the women of Pau.

The twin fears of drunkenness and sexual misconduct by black men in France were taken seriously by the authorities. This was set out explicitly in a (post-war) letter to Madagascans who wished to work in France:

Mais dés maintenant, je vous dis que je serai très content si vous étiez assez sages pour faire des économies avant votre retour dans votre pays: vous êtes bien nourris et vous n’avez pas de dépenses à faire: je vous défends donc de boire trop, surtout des liqueurs; je vous défends aussi de fréquenter des femmes dont la vie est mauvaise. Je serai très fâché contre celui qui serait ivre et fréquenterait les femmes en question: je le renverrai de suite et signalerai sa mauvaise conduite au Gouverneur général. 

In October, 1918, a circular from Louis Loucheur warning against alcoholism in factories warned directors of establishments with colonial workers to be particularly attentive towards drunkenness. 

In an article clearly designed to reassure its readership, L’Eclair de Midi began with the usual formulations about “Nos bons noirs” who have “des âmes d’enfant,” and fight bravely for France. Despite their loyalty towards France, their letters home reveal they are homesick. 

Mais à travers les combats […] ils gardent, indifférents à tout ce qu’ils voient, l’incurable nostalgie de leur beau pays […] Ils se préoccupent surtout de leurs femmes, car ils ont plusieurs, et se demandent ce qu’elles peuvent bien faire pendant cette longue absence du seigneur et maître. Et ils sont jaloux, connaissant la vertu un peu frêle des beautés noires. 

While this article does highlight the aberrant sexual morality of blacks, with polygamy and loose virtue, it asserts that all the soldiers care about is their women back home, and thus by implication the pure French women are safe from their attention. The focus on the homesickness amongst the soldiers also reassures the paper’s readers that the colonial contingent will have no permanent place in French society. When an alternative approach was taken, the authorities intervened. The Canard enchaîné was censored for a news snippet, ‘Chez les Nègres’, which noted that “on enregistre beaucoup de naissances de négrillons” in one French town. 

The prospect of miscegenation was not the only spectre that alarmed the French. In his medical thesis on the impact of the war on children in Toulouse, Dr Paul Vernédal commented that foreigners were particularly affected by syphilis. He pointed out that the war had brought numerous colonial peoples to the city, Annamites, Kabyles, and Madagascans and “s’ils ont su apprécier le charme de la Tolousaine, beaucoup de Toulousaines aussi n’ont pas dédaigné le physique de ces braves travailleurs.” 

At the end of 1915, Justin Godart, the under-secretary of state for military health, warned female healthcare employees that they should avoid dangerous correspondence or giving undue attention to black soldiers. In particular, photos should be avoided, as they would be passed around arousing “la joie et la dérision des indigènes”. In 1916 it was recommended by the Santé militaire that the Senegalese be treated in hospitals staffed only by men. Alphonse Séché talked indulgently of nurses and black patients using “tu”, but later on decided that this intimacy had a negative affect on the colonial population and called for French women to be withdrawn from hospitals where black troops were treated in order to “re-Senegalese” them, before they returned home. These debates reveal twin fears amongst the French authorities, not just of the corruption of French women by colonial soldiers but also that such relationships might disturb the racial hierarchies that applied both in France and her empire.

French attitudes towards Black soldiers are also illuminated by their response to the fears of sexual assault aired by the Germans, when French colonial troops were used in the occupation of the Rhineland. According to a booklet entitled La Campagne contre les troupes noires, German opposition focused on outrages committed against women by Africans; “puisque les nègres sont logés dans nos villes et violent les jeunes filles allemandes dont les cris emplissent les rues”. The author of the document, giving a French response, defended the troops as victims of a smear campaign. “D’autre part, les autorités militaires, pour éviter des incidents ont dû prendre de sévères mesures d’ordre aux abords des casernes, où certaines catégories de femmes allemandes venaient provoquer nos soldats indigènes pour lesquels elles paraissent avoir une prédilection marquée.” While this is ostensibly a defence of the colonial troops, there is no mistaking the author’s contempt towards the German women for their attraction to these black men. Albert de Pouvourville made a similar argument in the Dépêche Coloniale on German criticism of coloured troops.

 Je crois que leurs femmes et leurs filles, chastes ornements des foyers germains, ne partagent ni leur douleur ni leur appréhension. Je me souviens parfaitement comment ces douces âmes échangeaient portraits et serments avec les nègres le plus horrible, mais les mieux bâtis, que les expositions universelles envoyaient en Europe: je me souviens des unions libres et des mariages métis et des enlèvements bicolores, et des fureurs policières, et de l’engouement absolu que les hommes d’Afrique et d’Asie exerçaient, avec toutes conséquences, sur les sentimentales Gretchen. 

By sneering at the presumed attraction felt by German women towards black men, these authors are maintaining a discourse in which sexual relations between white women and black men is seen as deviant.

An interesting source is Moussa et Gi-gla, histoire de deux petits noirs by Sonolet and Pérès, which was published in 1916. Sonolet was a former chargé de mission in French West Africa, while Pérès was the director of a school there. Both therefore had personal experience of the French colonial empire. The stated aim of the book was to fulfil Waldeck-Rousseau’s dictum “Il faut faire évoluer le Noir dans sa propre mentalité.” Throughout, it aimed to educate black children, its target audience, into appreciating the French contribution to their country, and to become more civilised. The plot featured two small boys, one from Sudan, one from Dahomey, who were thrown together. “Ils deviennent amis, montrant ainsi que, malgré la différence de souche, de religion, de traditions, ils sont capables de s’élever à une idée de fraternité dans la grande famille noire.” Different origins and traditions were apparently no block to understanding and friendship, thus legitimising French intervention in Africa while at the same time drawing a boundary between the “famille noire” and its white counterpart. 

The story begins with the first boy, Moussa, who is engaged as a servant by a Frenchman, M. Richelot. Moussa, who is 13 years old, with intelligent eyes, has a limitless curiosity about the world, which is explained to him by the kindly, knowledgeable, paternal figure of Richelot. Moussa’s character can be seen to personify the potential for blacks under French colonial rule while Richelot embodies the benign tutelage of France itself. Also in Richelot’s crew is Baba who can be seen as an incarnation of the present state of development in Africa. Baba is “un grand gaillard presque aussi fort qu’un taureau”, always hungry and good humoured, and he tells Moussa that the Niger is so long it goes round the world. Richelot is there to correct him saying that Baba is “un brave garçon, mais c’est un ignorant.”

First they travel to Timbuktu where Moussa talks to Moktar, an interpreter working for the Administration there. Moussa praises the city, to which Moktar responds that it is only nice since the French arrived. Before then “La ville était alors la proie des féroces Touaregs. Ces pillards, coureurs du désert, étaient nos maîtres.” Moussa asks if all the improvements are due to the French?  “Oui, tandis qu’autrefois les Touaregs et, avant eux, les Marocains et tous nos autres maîtres nous pillaient, nous massacraient ou nous réduisaient en captivité.” In addition to displaying their superiority as governors, the French had ended the slave trade in the region carried out by “avides et cruels” men, who had been forced to go elsewhere. Later on, when they reach Dahomey, a similar point is made. It is remarked how much better things are now than under the kings of Dahomey, when human sacrifice was common. The message is transparent; at least at their present state of development, Africans are not capable of ruling themselves in a civilised manner.

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There's a marked similarity in this 1909 image, where even with the tigers claws in him and his rifle out of reach the white man retains the composure to shoot it, while the native bearers panic and run.

As they continue their travels by boat, the party encounters a hippopotamus. One of the black crew, Phillipe, impetuously tries to shoot it but can only wound it, whereupon he panics and runs. Fortunately, Richelot is on hand to pick up the gun and coolly kill the hippo with a single shot. Richelot explains to Moussa that the reckless bravery of Phillipe is useless unless moderated with sang-froid. The implication that black men have the former and white men the latter is one that appears regularly in the accounts and imagery of colonial soldiers fighting in France. 

Nonetheless, the book does praise black soldiers. A captain of a unit of tirailleurs tells Moussa that “De tous ces soldats indigènes, ce sont les Noirs les meilleurs. Ils se battent aussi bien que les Français.” More exotically, there is a tribe of Amazons, who are described as the bravest in combat in all the country. “Elles s’élançaient comme des folles dans la mêlée et ne pouvaient jamais se résigner à fuir.”

The message of the book was neatly summed up when Moussa encountered M Gilbert, an old teacher of his, who told him:

Il y a, au contraire, avantage pour un Noir à se trouver au service d’un Blanc, parce-que les Blancs sont plus instruits, plus avancés en civilisation que les Noirs et que, grâce à eux, ceux-ci peuvent faire des progrès plus rapides, apprendre mieux et plus vite, connaître plus de choses et devenir un jour des hommes vraiment utiles. De leur côté, les Noirs rendent service aux Blancs en leur apportant le secours de leurs bras pour l’exécution des travaux de tous genres qu’ils ont entrepris, en cultivant la terre qui permet d’alimenter le commerce, et aussi en combattant pour la France dans les rangs des troupes indigènes. Ainsi les deux races s’associent et travaillent en commun pour la prospérité et le bonheur de tous.5

Richelot made a similar point, describing science to Moussa, “c’est l’ensemble de tout ce que l’homme a appris depuis que le monde existe, de tout ce qu’il connaît. Elle est l’œuvre des Blancs, mais les Noirs peuvent l’étudier et en profiter comme eux.” The relationship between the two races can be mutually beneficial, but it’s the whites who provide the intelligence and the technology, while blacks can only offer their labour, with the hope of one day becoming “hommes vraiment utiles”.

If black people could not compete with Europeans in the realm of science and thinking, they were regarded as having great athletic power. Guignard described how

Ils nageaient avec une habilité et une rapidité surprenantes, menant grande bruit pour effrayer l’ennemi caché sous les eaux et leurs corps élastiques donnaient par leur aisance l’impression d’une vigueur souple que nos races n’ont plus au même degré.

Moussa expressed his admiration on witnessing an Amazon war dance

Avec des bonds de panthère, elles frappent la terre rouge de leurs pieds nus, et elles font tourbillonner leur sabre autour de leur visage qui semble animé par la fureur du combat. […] Quelle souplesse encore dans leurs mouvements!  Quelles étincelles dans leurs yeux! 

Making an analogy between black people and animals was a staple of white descriptions of colonial life. Moussa and Gi-gla encountered a fight between two powerful black men who “se jettent l’un contre l’autre, ainsi que deux bêtes furieuses.” In a letter home from his camp in Morocco, a French soldier, Auguste Calas wrote of the Senegalese troops that were stationed in his camp that they were “tout noirs comme des taupes”. Later he commented that black children prefer to “rester nus comme des chacals”.

The perceived characteristics of black Africans were not considered to be identical with those of other races. An article entitled “Poste Noire” in La Petite Gironde asserted that

le Public est aujourd’hui familier, surtout dans notre région, avec les différents types de l’armée noire. Il distingue le noir des Antilles, silencieux et doux, correctement habillé qui promène sa nostalgie dans les rues, du Marocain bruyant et agressif, prompt à l’aventure, de l’Algérien et du Tunisien en quête de gourmandises. Mais nous ne savons rien de la vie intérieure, de leur état d’âme, car ils en ont une, si primitive et simple soit-elle. 

E. L. Laffranque, a sous-intendant militaire, made a report on the manpower crisis in France during the conflict. He dismissed Spanish and Moroccans for being too expensive and offering poor productivity, in inverse relationship to their “ever-increasing pretensions”. The Indochinese were too frail to withstand the French climate. Laffranque believed that the Chinese were the best bet. Laffranque also noted the well-known phenomenon that colonists brought to France quickly lost the best of their qualities unless they were taken in hand by employers with sound knowledge of their temperament, their customs and, above all, their propensity to succumb to negative influences.

According to the employer testimonies recorded by Georges Mauco, the North-Africans were considered particularly poor agricultural workers, while Algerians and Madagascans were the most mediocre factory workers. The Moroccans and Indochinese fared best of the colonial employees. Jules Amar, quoted by Laura Frader, describing the working abilities of Kabyles and North African Muslims in 1923 argued that they were superior to Arab workers, due to the rapidity of their movements. “More nervously constituted, they instinctively tend to work rapidly, and it is difficult to moderate the swiftness of their [motions].” It is notable here that just as the bravery of colonial troops was ascribed to instinct beyond the control of reason, the working abilities of these colonial workers is similarly devalued. Michel notes that blacks were considered more suited to war, while the Indochinese immigrants were judged the most able at factory work. 

Indochinese

Jean Hennessy in L’Œuvre distinguished between “Les Annamites importés [qui] sont faibles, impropres à de rudes travaux, mais adroits, les Kabyles [qui] sont de nature plus robustes; leur arrivée a été fréquemment approuvée par ceux qui devraient les employer.” In this description it is noticeable how the two races are assigned the working attributes more commonly ascribed to women and men respectively. The attribution of feminine characteristics to Indochinese men was a common one. In 1919, Louis de Launay claimed that “Les Indochinois sont doux, adroits, mais petits, peu robustes et apathiques. On peut tout au plus les assimiler à de la main-d’œuvre féminine.” Similarly, the Comité Consultatif d’action économique of the Lyon region reported that the region had been short of workers for some time, with the war making the situation critical. They believed that colonial workers could prove useful in filling the gap, as long as they were not expected to do skilled work. However, an exception was made for the Annamites who “paraît-il, s’accoutument très vite à certains travaux techniques”. It is noticeable that it is certain specific techniques that the worker becomes “accustomed” to. This is very similar to the idea that women could learn some techniques by repetition, unlike a man, who would learn the craft.

Albert Lebrun, a former Minister of Colonies speaking at a Conference celebrating “L’Effort Colonial de la France” praised subjects from the Far East “excellent aux opérations délicates où l’adresse surtout importe, ayant la douceur nécessaire au maniement des blessés, réussiraient fort bien dans les services sanitaires.” Lebrun here encompasses the whole of the Far East, not just Indochina into this description, and the Indochinese were often bracketed together with the Chinese, the other major nationality from Asia present in France during the war.

The feminine delicacy of Asian workers was believed to go alongside an inability to handle heavy masculine labour. A winegrower in the Midi complained that his Indo-Chinese workers could only be occupied in tasks habitually confined to women “ne peuvent être occupés qu’a des travaux confiés habituellement à des femmes.” A similar complaint was made about Chinese dockers by the Chef du Transport Maritime, Dupuy, who argued that 

[L]es chinois dont nous disposons peuvent à mon avis être uniquement employés à travaux légers et peu variés. Ils sont en outre pour la plupart d’une résistance physique insuffisante pour être astreints aux travaux plutôt pénibles auxquels nous avons à faire face. Leur place serait mieux dans une usine ou le travail est toujours la même et où la surveillance est facile… 

Not only does Dupuy disparage their ability to do more than light, repetetive work, he also implies that they are unreliable workers by highlighting the need for surveillance of them. Dupuy’s comments also illustrate that factory work was being classified as light work, perhaps due to the recent prevalence of women working in them. L Chassevent, in his Appel à la main-d’œuvre étrangère pour l’agriculture française, written in 1919, claimed that “La main-d’œuvre annamite et indochinoise ne mérite pas d’être préconisée. Cette race est naturellement indolente et le rendement d’un Indochinois ne dépasse pas les deux tiers de celui d’un Français.”

The Petit Marseillais described the Indochinese as more “frileux” than other colonial workers. Another similarity appeared in an officers report from 1920 on the subject of Indochinese troops which argued that they “possèdent sous une frêle apparence une résistance à la fatigue insoupçonnée.” This was a description often used in analysis of women’s contribution to the war effort. It’s possible that the widespread view that Indochinese men had feminine characteristics arose from a wider discourse that saw Indochina itself as feminine. These similarities in the descriptions of European women and Indochinese men did not result in Indochinese women being seen as equally capable as their men folk. An advertising poster for war bond subscriptions that was targeted at the colonial population of Indochina portrayed a woman who “Knowing that her feminine arms are too weak to beat the enemy, [she] is arming other, more virile limbs by participating in the bond.” 

As soldiers, the Indochinese were not thought to have the same warlike tendencies as other colonial nations. One officer argued that the Indochinese were more intelligent than other colonial troops and “parfaitement susceptibles de servir dans les compagnies de mitrailleuses et d’utiliser le fusil mitrailleur”. They had “un tempérament peu impressionnable [et] leur caractère s’adapte parfaitement à la défensive” but by comparison “leur capacité offensive est moindre”. This was in marked contrast to ideas about North and West African troops. This belief was reflected in the very low casualty rate of Indochinese troop loss as a percentage of troops in the field, roughly 2.55. 

The deputy and former minister for war Maurice Rondet-Saint put out a third edition of his book Dans notre Empire Jaune in 1917. Although the book had originally been written before the war, in his introduction to the 1917 edition he made no indication that the war had resulted in any changes to his view of the people of French Indochina. He merely apologised for “l’apparition en leurs heures solennelles et parfois angoissantes que nous vivons, d’un ouvrage écrit avant la guerre, à une époque où rien ne la faisait prévoir, où tout était à la joie de vivre comme aux espérances de l’avenir.” From this it can be reasonably assumed that he generally maintained the opinions expressed in the book. 

The book was much concerned with the characteristics that racial difference bestowed upon the Indochinese, neatly illustrated by his discussion of children of mixed parentage, French fathers and native mothers, apparently a very common occurrence. The question was whether they should be left in the care of the mother and treated as any other child growing up in Indochina or whether the father should educate them into becoming members of French society with the right of citizenship.

 Those in favour of the first option, he said, argued that

 Le métis […] dans un esprit de généralisation à coup sûr excessif, a les défauts des deux races et aucune de leurs qualités. Incorporé à la société européenne, il est condamné à y faire figure d’éternel déraciné: sinon à sombrer, du moins à végéter. […] La société annamite, au contraire, est, elle, intégralement organisée pour accueillir les métis, l’assimiler et lui procurer finalement le sort le plus heureux. […] Or, le métis, élevé par se mère pendant les premières années de sa vie, reçoit d’elle une profonde et indélébile empreinte indigène, alors que celle du père saurait se faire sentir seulement beaucoup plus tard, et est, par là même, condamnée à demeurer secondaire, sinon nulle. 

Interestingly, although the ease of assimilation is ascribed to Annamite society as a whole, it seems to be more particularly the individual role of the mother that enables the son to grow up as an ordinary member of Annamite society. The profoundly gendered view of the issue of mixed race children is highlighted by the fact that it was only a cause of debate when the child was male, if a daughter was born “la question ne se pose même pas, et la retour à la famille indigène est une nécessité évidente.” The use of the word retour is noticeable here, signalling that the choice is clearly not one made by two equal parents, but that the child of a white father immediately becomes his responsibility, and it his choice whether to take care of it himself or to return it to the care of the mother. The possibility that both parents could raise the child is not even debated.

Rondet-Saint then went on to state the case for the children being kept by the father, an argument he claimed “n’est pas non plus sans force”. This argument was simply that “Le devoir du père est […] d’élever ses enfants métis comme il eût élevé ses enfants blancs. La chose ne se discute même pas.” Ultimately he is not able to choose between the two claims, believing both to be equally defensible. This is in some ways not surprising as the second view does not seek to challenge the assumptions that underpin the first argument (that mixed race children will not flourish in French society) but merely grants that consideration lower importance than the prime requirement that a father should treat all his children equally. 

That Rondet-Saint believed that racial characteristics were inherent rather than capable of being learnt was further illustrated by his reaction to a hospital for abandoned children. 

J’ai trouvé là, au milieu des bambins chinois et annamites, un pauvre petit Blanc de quatre ans […] Et comme je demandais si la pauvre gosse souffrait de se trouer ainsi perdu, seul de sa race, dans cet asile exotique: ‘Non, me dit-on, puisque cet enfant n’a jamais connu autre chose…’ Pauvre petit épave!  J’eus un serrement de cœur. 

Rondet-Saint is distressed on behalf of the lone white child despite being assured that the boy himself was untroubled by the situation. His language his equally revealing, characterising the child as the odd one out in an exotic asylum.

Understanding the racial characteristics that made up the Annamite personality was a preoccupation for Rondet-Saint, and something that he believed was possible, despite his stated opinion that “L’âme jaune est impénétrable”. He believed that they were generally competent to undertake most jobs that their colonial masters might require them to do, apart from financial tasks: “les seules fonctions auxquelles il convient-il d’affecter l’Annamite avec circonspection sont celles comportant des maniements de fonds; la notion du tien et du mien n’étant pas chez lui la qualité dominante, parait-il.” 

The general capability of the Indochinese to perform most jobs did not alter the essential otherness of their innate character. He talked to some of the Europeans who worked there, asking them if the Annamites appreciated the benefits of European civilization. A man “fort au courant des choses d’Extrême-Orient” told him “La reconnaissance n’entre pas dans le caractère du Jaune […] Pas plus que la pitié, sentiment que le Jaune ignore absolument.” After an anecdote illustrating the strange mentality of the yellow race, the author concluded by saying that the pretension of certain ideologues to “assimiler à nos façons de voir et de juger les choses, des hommes dont la cérébralité est si loin de la nôtre?  Risible utopie.” Moreover, “Le caractère de l’Annamite, si pusillanime devant le danger dans certains cas, est, à côté de cela et par une contradiction absolument inexplicable, d’une passivité, d’une indifférence extraordinaire devant la mort ou la douleur.” Not only that but, “cette insensibilité, cette méconnaissance de toute pitié, le Jaune l’entend aux animaux.” It is noticeable that while the Annamite as described by Rondet-Saint differs in several ways from the traditional image of black colonials, it also offers an explanation for any bravery shown in combat that differentiates it from that shown by French soldiers. While the French are portrayed as being aware of the risks of war, but heroically facing them anyway, blacks are often portrayed as being utterly reckless to the danger of war. The indifference to death of the Annamites as described by Rondet-Saint is similar to the latter as being based more on irrationality than reason, though the alleged pusillanimity of the Indochinese when faced with danger clearly separates them. The Indochinese attitude to death also made an impression on the French population during the war. In November 1915, one Laure L. wrote a letter to the front on the subject.

En Castres nous avons beaucoup d’annamites qui nous font bien rire surtout lorsque un de leurs meurt, ils portent sur la tombe un verre rempli de vin ou liqueur la bouteille pleine, des cigares, des gâteaux et des allumettes puis allument des bougies et ils croient que c’est le mort qui a pris tout ça…

North Africans

The largest numbers of non-white foreigners in France came from North Africa. While they were often regarded as sharing similar characteristics, sometimes distinctions were made between the character of Algerians, Kabyles, Moroccans and Tunisians. For Pradier and Besson: 

Chaque race a ses qualités propres et si l’Algérien est un peu plus près de notre civilisation, s’il connaît mieux notre langue, il offre moins de robustesse que le Marocain et est moins sérieux que lui au travail. Le Tunisien est plus faible que les autres travailleurs, mais, par contre, d’un esprit ouvert, et capable de se transformer en ouvrier conducteur d’auto, mécanicien, métallurgiste.

Attitudes towards the significant Algerian population in Marseille were generally hostile. Assessing the situation, a French magistrate condemned the Arabs who had come to France as “presque tout des hommes grossiers, cupides, insolents, n’ayant de notre civilisation qu’une notion des plus vagues.” They were irrevocably cut off from French civilization by “la langue qu’elle parle, ses mœurs et son genre de vie”. Algerians, stereotypically, were “crasseux et mal habillé”. This low regard was mirrored in Brest which had a large North African population. They were badly received, being seen as competition for the French workers. In addition, the sexual morality of North Africans was considered lacking. “D’autre part ils sont vite entrés en contact avec les prostituées les plus dégradées de la ville et leurs souteneurs.” There were regular instances of brawls on racial lines, usually from the starting point of quarrels over women. This antipathy was reflected in two news stories that appeared in L’Ouest-Éclair on 3 February 1918, focusing on unruly behaviour by colonial workers. The first item was entitled “Encore un Sidi” and the second “Toujours les Sidis” and both described brawls developing on racial lines. In both instances the fault was entirely apportioned to the Africans, with the latter also commenting that the Africans were “drunk as normal”. An article in the Petite Gironde entitled “Le Galant Marocain” described how a Moroccan had attempted to celebrate the New Year by kissing an unwilling Frenchwoman, resulting in a mêlée. Two Moroccans were arrested.  Contact between Algerians and female nursing staff caused considerable concern to the national authorities who, in June 1916, forbade female hospital personnel in infirmaries restricted to Maghrebians. Even this measure was not found to be sufficient to maintain proper behaviour between white women and colonial males. A report on the effects of the war on “Kabylie” in 1919 argued that they were “manque de réserve vis-à-vis des femmes françaises”. Another argued that they had “malheuresement trop souvent laisées aller à des entraînements pernicieux”. 

spahisJames Cooke’s study of Colonel Paul Azan and his advocacy of the development of a North African army also offers evidence of this. Cooke argues that “Azan’s concepts of the North African never really changed between his 1903 essay and the publication of L’Armèe indigène nord-africaine in 1925″. Azan advocated that this army should be stationed in North-Africa and the Levant to keep them away from European women of loose morals. 

Although French descriptions of North Africans did not tend to focus on their naivity and childlike behaviour to the same extent as descriptions of Sub-Saharan Africans, this theme was not totally absent. André Lichtenberg, speaking at a conference on Morocco, offered anecdotes of the credulity of the native population to amuse his audience, such as the sight of huge crowds of natives watching the cinema in delighted astonishment, even through storms of rain and hail. He claimed that, for the Moroccans, cinema was something miraculous that only Allah could have created. 

A pamphlet complaining about the treatment of Catholicism in the French governing of Algeria by Pierre Gael is also illustrative of attitudes towards French colonial subjects in North Africa. While Gael wrote as a Catholic, he argued that the degrading treatment (as he saw it) of Catholicism compared to Islam in Algeria was a matter for all right thinking Frenchmen, regardless of their religious conviction. “Je prie les hommes de bonne foi, croyants ou incroyants, mais ayant le sentiment de l’honneur national,” This was the case because “En abaissant leur culte devant celui des Arabes vous portez atteinte au prestige de la France.” He asserted that the freemasons (whom he held responsible for the law) knew that but would prefer to see France perish before they would relinquish their hatred for Catholicism. 

Not only did Gael lament the “désir de favoriser le peuple conquis et de le mettre, religieusement parlant, au-dessus du peuple conquérant,” he also extended his critique to architecture. He believed that public buildings consistently favoured Arabic architecture over a French style of building, particularly after Charles Jonnart became Governor of Algeria. “Depuis que M. Jonnart occupe les fonctions de Gouverneur général, on ne construit plus une seule école sans donner extérieurement la forme d’une medersa ou d’une zaouïa.” His grievances were regularly summed up by the cri de cœur: “on ne sait plus si on est dans une colonie française ou en Arabie.” 

Gael feared that these concessions would not warm the Arab population to French rule, but rather display to them the weakness of the French position and incite them to revolt. “Les indigènes, qui sont des êtres simples, mais logiques […] les Arabes ont la confiance indéracinable de nous jeter à la mer et de reconquérir leur indépendance. C’est pour eux une question de temps.” 

Gael sought to cloak his assumption of French racial superiority in a rhetoric of equality: “En admettant que les Arabes, quoique vaincu, soient autant que nous, ils ne doivent pas être plus que nous.” However, his disdain for the “simple” Arabs was clear, and his desire for French interest to retain primacy was displayed most vividly in his concluding sentence. “Mais n’est-il pas monstrueux de voir les croyants français traités dans leur pays comme des étrangers, alors que les Arabes sont favorisés comme s’ils étaient les vrais enfants de la maison!” Here he clearly argues that the French, by right of conquest, have the moral legitimacy to act as they wish. 

A. de Vichet made a similar assertion that Islam was favoured over Catholicism in an article on the French government’s decision to provide funds for hotels to be built to allow pilgrims to stay at Medina and Mecca. Although de Vichet thought that it was reasonable for “musulmans, qui donnent en ce moment leur sang pour la France, l’accomplissement d’un vœu pieux…” he questioned how this fitted in with the state’s declared policy of neutrality towards religion. He claimed that the government often used this to oppose the demands of Catholics, but that it was not the first time the government had given their support to Muslims. Examples of this favouritism included the building of a mosque in Nogent-sur-Seine, cooking pork free food for a hospital for North Africans and other Muslims, and releasing a circular detailing what rites were to be performed for a dying Muslim. It was claimed that these favours would never be offered towards Catholics. The main target of the article was anti-clericals and the government rather than Muslims though. 

Stovall notes that despite the “unprecedented presence of Muslims on French soil, however, religion does not seem to have played a role in the racial violence of World War I.” This does not mean that Muslims were necessarily seen as in any way equal. In the summer of 1916, J. de Morgan, the foreign expert of the L’Eclair du Midi wrote that Arabic Muslims were able to appreciate the enlightened methods of their colonial masters, but left to rule themselves then they would be unable to make commensurate progress. 

Aujourd’hui, dans les pays islamiques soumis aux puissances européennes, chrétiens, juifs, musulmans, païens, vivent sur le pied d’égalité, sans froissement pour leurs consciences et pour leur amour-propre. C’est un résultat qui jamais n’eût été obtenu si les musulmans avaient conservé leur autorité politique. 

This was the case despite the relatively benign judgement he made on the nature of the Arab.

De tous les musulmans, l’Arabe est celui qui possède au plus haut degré le respect de lui-même, l’amour pour les traditions, le sentiment de l’importance et de la valeur d’Islam. C’est un grand seigneur, réfléchi, conscient de sa noblesse et respectueux de celle des autres; c’est la moins barbare de tous les barbares. 

The development of the war did not affect his opinion, which he restated in similar terms 15 months later.

Certes, les Musulmans qui vivent sous la régime gouvernmental des Anglais, des Français, des Italiens, des Hollandais, comprenant les avantages d’une administration libérale et bienveillante, ont modifié leur manière de voire antan et se montrent loyalistes envers les gouvernments qui leur accordent plus même qu’aucun khalife ou sultan ne leur a jamais donné; mais les autres!  ceux qui sont demeurés, soit sous la joug de maitres de leur race… 

The Lyon Republicain did not denounce Islam directly, but in a news story on claims that the Austrians were arming Muslims in Albania, it implied a belief in the intrinsic barbarism of Muslims. “Ces éléments auraient été formés en bandes qui ont reçu le mandat de massacrer les populations chrétiennes au premier signe d’insoumission.” 

In Pradier and Besson’s book on North Africa and the war they argued in favour of association rather than assimilation on the basis that Islam had made to deep an impression on Africa to ever allow racial differences to be eliminated. They quoted Jonnart approvingly when he warned that the best policy “est celle qui se garde de dédaigner les différences profondes des mœurs et des races, qui a soin de faire état de l’empreinte ineffaçable de la loi coranique sur le sol africain,” but to have different races living side by side through their shared interests. 

La Dépêche claimed that Islam “est plus favorablement accueilli par des cerveaux sauvages ou barbares que le christianisme.” The newspaper then went on to make the customary link between savagery, barbarism and bravery by asserting that “la plupart des hommes convertis à l’islamisme sont braves.” Prominent examples of this included the Algerians and Moroccans as well as the black Muslim troops in France’s colonial army. So pervasive was the link between being brave and being primitive amongst non-whites that any commendations on the bravery of colonial troops act as a reminder of their barbarism.

One useful source for a French reaction to North Africans is the series of postcards sent back from Morocco by Auguste Calas, who was stationed there for the duration of the war. For the first few months they are largely illustrations of the picturesque nature of Moroccan society, without much evidence at all of a French presence there. There is no implication of the population being barbarous, merely showing some backwardness. There was only one instance of the erotic, a young Moroccan woman with her breasts exposed, simply titled “Jeune Marocaine” with the implication presumably that this is a normal outfit. As Calas was sending the postcards back to his wife, there may be a simple explanation as to why there were not more examples of the erotic portrayal of the colonial world. Calas seemed primarily concerned with the exoticism of Moroccan society. A depiction of some musicians was accompanied by the comment “C’est la gaité des Marocaines”. Another depicted Moroccan Spahis. Calas described them thus. “Ils sont de forts cavaliers. Il y a plaisir à les voir galoper à travers le bled sauvage, ils sont forts pour faire la fantasia…” 

As the duration of Calas’ posting increased, more hostility emerged in his comments. “La semaine dernière on a fusillé un marocain qui avait assassiné des marocains soumis. On ne rigole pas avec eux. On rend la justice séance tenante.” As we saw earlier French discourse condemned barbaric Moroccan methods of punishment, but it clearly allowed for the French themselves to dispense summary justice because it was the only way to deal with the native population.

Accompanying a card showing a Moroccan family with a large number of children, several mothers and the father of the family, Calas reflected critically upon them to his young son “Donc tu peux voir Olivier qu’il vaut mieux être à Prémian qu’ici dans ce pays de sauvages.” An encounter with the Zaïns, who had not been pacified by the French, provoked more criticism. “[N]ous sommes chez les Zaïns qui sont plus sauvages que les autres car ils sont dans les montagnes. Ils ne travaillent pas de tout, aussi leurs habitudes sont d’aller piller ceux de le plaine qui travaillent.” By contrast, those who had been subject to French influence in the towns were much better off: “On voit tout le tour des soubassements des murs garnis de briques vernies de toutes les couleurs. Leurs tables basses sont bien sculptées, les verres sont d’un pur cristal très beau.” 

Ultimately however, the base nature of the Arab population was the conclusion that Calas came away with. “[I]ls sont sauvages dans leur mœurs. Il faut le voir pour le croire.” 

These views clearly made an impact on his son, and he learnt from a letter from his wife that “le petit Olivier n’aimait pas voir les visages des Marocains sauvages,”. Calas responded that this card was different because “sur cette carte, ils ne sont pas les mêmes, on peut voir sur les poitrines les médailles qu’ils ont su gagner au service de la France.”  In another instance he sent a card where “tu peux voir ce beau cavalier marocain qui s’est bien battu contre les Boches”. Once again, service to France cloaked foreign inferiority, it did not remove it. 

The letters written home by Algerians resident in France tend to suggest that the response they received was dependent on factors beyond simply their race. Gilbert Meynier argues that “la plus grande partie des lettres en arabe provenant du Nord de la France sont très critiques sur les Français, les sentiments exprimés par celles écrites dans le Midi sont plus favorables ou nuanceés”. In her study of Algerians in Lyon Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud claims that postal censorship suggested that letters written home in French “tendent à présenter la France comme le pays de cocagne.” In contrast, those written in Arabic commented on “la vie dure, le mépris des Français, trahissent la nostalgie du pays et vont jusqu’à suggérer à leur compatriotes l’évasion en cas de réquisition”. This confirms the regional differences in French attitudes, where the North was more hostile towards immigrants of different races than the South. It also suggests that, unsurprisingly, those Algerians who were fluent in French were happier in French society.

The Ottoman Empire

The Turks, as both non-whites and enemies, were always likely to be portrayed unfavourably in France. Allegations about the sale of children by the Turks led the Dépêche to comment that “Les Turcs, on le voit, sont dignes des Boches. Leur âme bestiale, leurs instincts dépravés, tout concourt à faire des une et des autres des frères dans la crime et des alliés dans la destruction.” 

In L’Eclair du Midi, J de Morgan highlighted the shared mentality that linked France’s enemies.

Allemands, Hongrois, Bulgares et Turcs, malgré les différences de race, de langage, et de religion qui les séparent, possèdent tous les même mentalité, méprisant le droit d’autrui, basant ce qu’ils nomment la justice sur la force seule. […] Le Turc est un nomade, un cruel, un égoïste. Toujours il a été sanguinaire, même avant de se convertir à l’Islam. Le pillage et le meurtre sont dans l’essence même de sa race. 

For de Morgan, the inherent nature of the Turks was clearly unchanging and brutal. By pairing nomadism with cruelty and egotism he reinforced the popular link between savagery and lack of civilisation, as well as Islam. Revealingly, de Morgan was able to brush aside any trappings of civilisation that lengthy contact with Europe might have presented to the Turks as an elaborate façade. 

Depuis bientôt deux siècles, les dirigeantes ottomans se sont adoucis, civilisés, en apparence. Ils ont adopté superficiellement des usages européens, ont sacrifié les préceptes mêmes de leur religion, mangeant du porc, buvant du vin et de l’eau de vie, plaisantant des vieux usages, mais jamais n’attaquant leur religion, comme font les libre-penseurs de chez nous. C’est que, dans l’âme de ce peuple, la mahométisme est aussi vivace qu’aux premier jours, c’est que le Turc fait de ses croyances un instrument. […] J’ai connu dans ma vie beaucoup de Turcs, gens le plus souvent charmants, distingués et très fins, d’une habilité extrême dans la dissimulation; mais malgré le soin qu’ils mettaient à cacher le fond de leur pensée, il était cependant aisé de voir qu’ils étaient toujours demeurés les bandits d’Alp-Asian, et que le contact des Européens n’avait eu sur eux aucun effet profond. 

That two centuries of seemingly civilised behaviour with benign European influence was not enough to raise the Turks up from being savage bandits at heart, demonstrates the extent to which perceived racial characteristics were difficult to shift. If every European custom adopted by a non-European power could be seen as simply “superficial”, while civilised behaviour was merely evidence of dissimulation, then their backwardness was almost inescapable. In L’Ouest-Éclair, Eugène Le Breton acknowledged the historical achievements of the Ottomans by admitting that the Turks are “la seule race noble de l’Orient” but that did not prevent him from arguing that “Ils ne se sont pas adaptés à notre civilisation. Ils n’ont rien fait pour le développement de l’esprit humain.” 

Even amongst the enemies of civilisation, the natural rule of white racial pre-eminence over non-whites was held to be true. The Germans were portrayed as the dominant partner, with the Turks subservient. When Turkish atrocities were committed; the French press was quick to note that this must have been with the support of the Germans. A supposed Turkish massacre of Christians in Syria was claimed by the Petit Marseillais to be with the “consentment tacite et la complicité de l’Allemagne et de l’Autriche.” A few months later it argued “la barbarie turque obéissent à la barbarie allemande.” L’Ouest-Éclair described the Turkish emperor as nothing more than the humble vassal of his German counterpart while for the Paris-Centre, Enver Pacha was a “disciple effroyablement pittoresque de la kultur germanique, mêlée à la barbarie orientale.” La Dépêche Coloniale‘s analysis of the Turkish mentality gives an indication as to why the Turkish people could be easily led by the malign influence of the Germans, arguing that “le peuple turc est patient jusqu’a indolence, dénué de tout esprit critique, fataliste et volontiers fanatique”. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had closely interacted with Europe, but the last two quotations in particular sought to place it firmly into the non-European, uncivilized world. The Paris-Centre‘s description of Pacha as picturesque emphasised the Turks exoticism, while the Dépêche Coloniale‘s description could have been levelled at any non-white people of the time, so characteristic was it of French views of other races as lazy and irrational. 

The Petit Marseillais took this argument to its obvious conclusion in an article heralding the end of the Ottoman Empire and recommending that the Turks become the latest people to be brought towards civilisation by a Christian power. 

Au surplus, les Turcs de race, qui demeurent quelques millions, mais non la majorité dans l’Empire du Croissant, seront les premiers à se réjouir de la destruction de leur propre existence politique […] Ce sont des pacifiques, pour la plupart, des indolents qu’une doctrine néfaste a frappés de déchéance. Ils constituent une sorte de peuple-mineur, que les chrétiens n’auront pas de mal à conduire, pourvu qu’ils s’appliquent à respecter ses croyances. 

 

Colonial Soldiers

Some constants in attitudes to all the ethnic and racial groups were apparent, and are well illustrated in an article in the Petite Gironde on regiments made up of a range of nationalities including many colonial troops, but also volunteers from Poland, Holland and Switzerland amongst others. These foreign soldiers were of course heroic and fearless; “Ils vivent l’heure présente, ils blaguent la mort, les obus, la mitraille, et ils en ont le droit […] La mort c’est rien pour eux, la gloire est tout” but also exotic: “Le même de tirailleurs est aujourd’hui campé dans un décor de verdure, et nous donne le spectacle des danses arabes de mœurs marocaines et d’un mariage kabyle.” Most crucially of all, they were childlike. “Le général et les officiers sont pour les hommes non des chefs, mais des parents à qui l’on obéit aveuglément, et c’est véritablement pour tous la grande famille”[6] 

The same descriptions occurred time and time again in descriptions of colonial troops throughout the war. On the 6th of September 1914 the Petit Marseillais quoted Colonel Baratier offering an instructive story about an African soldier. Volunteers had been demanded for a reconnaissance trip and naturally several bravely came forward. The soldier chosen to undertake the task was Baba Touré. He had just declared that it was safe to advance, when he spotted an ambush. Faced with this, Touré chose to sacrifice himself to save his comrades. “Tout à l’heure, les ennemis s’empareront de lui, le mutileront: qu’importe! Son officier est averti.” Despite this warning, Touré’s lieutenant ordered an advance. Seeing this Touré summoned up his last energy to cry “Avancez pas, y en a sauvages!”[7] In 1915 the same newspaper printed a story in an article entitled “Nos Braves Sénégalais” which they argued “révèle tout entière l’âme à la fois naïve et fière de nos braves tirailleurs sénégalais.” In 1917 an article on a Moroccan division returned to the same themes, that death was nothing to them; glory was everything; that their officers were like their parents and were blindly obeyed while their letters illustrated their naivety. There is a remarkable consistency of language and theme throughout the years of the war.

 The inferiority of the inhabitants of the French colonies was not denied by those who advocated their participation in the French Army. Instead they argued that these limitations did not impair their martial value. Indeed, as has already been argued, being primitive and unsophisticated was seen as practically a guarantee of bravery. In 1911, Captain Marceau described troops from various tribes in Africa. The Toucouleur was “un guerrier d’essence”, “un soldat de vocation qui ne se plie malheuresement pas toujours de bonne grâce à notre discipline militaire.” The Bambara, who “n’éclaire malheureusement pas une très vive intelligence, limitée à la comprénsion d’idées simples et concrètes”, were neverthless highly regarded as warriors. 

Gustave Mercier wrote in the Revue de Paris about the Algerian who “est un soldat dans l’âme. Il a pu s’ignorer, paisible ouvrir, terrassier ou khammès (métayer): la guerre, en éclatant, a réveillé chez lui des instincts ataviques, des forces endormies.” The Petit Marseillais also believed that the atavism of African troops was the basis for their good performance, arguing in an article on Madagascans that recruited amongst the most robust sections of their population they are “par atavisme sans doute, des marcheurs infatigables”. 

According to Stovall, the widespread antagonism towards colonial workers contrasts sharply with the reception accorded colonial soldiers. Roughly 600,000 soldiers from the empire fought in France during the war. Like colonial workers, they were generally segregated from French civilians and sent home as soon after the war as possible. Yet the reaction of civilians to them was much more positive.

Certainly, the portrayal of colonial soldiers in the press tended to be positive. An article entitled “Pour les Troupes coloniales”, following the announcement of a day honouring the contribution of the colonial armies, noted the bravery shown by the troops. It also mentioned the work done on the home front positively. Images of the French army sometimes included colonial troops in a position of equality. Initially regarded very sceptically, by the end of the war troops from the Maghreb were highly praised. However these positive descriptions often were very similar to those from before the war. General Archinard, who had commanded colonial troops before the conflict and was a patron of General Mangin, claimed that “Les tirailleurs d’aujourd’hui sont bien les mêmes que ceux que j’ai connus autrefois: terrible dans la bataille, mais disciplinés et bien dans la main de leurs chefs.” In Eugène-Melchior de Vogue’s 1899 novel Les Morts qui parlent, One of the principal characters, Pierre, a colonial officer argued that the empire could provide a hundred, two hundred thousand incomparable soldiers, Senegalese and Sudanese; fighters with bayonets who cannot be reasoned with, who don’t retreat, offer no pardon; the sort of forces who are both malleable and cruel.  

According to Le Petit Marseillais in January 1914, the West African troops who were fighting valiantly in Morocco alongside white troops were “le plus précieux et le plus dévoué auxiliaire.” Similarly the Lyon Republicain described in June 1917 “troupes d’Afrique et des colonies qui, depuis le début de la guerre combattant avec autant de dévouement que d’intrépidité pour le défense de notre sol.” The crucial similarity is in the stress on the “devotion” of the African troops, as a servant to a master.

Audoin‑Rouzeau’s study of children’s wartime literature contends that “Ce mythe égalisateur, présent dans les publications les plus conservatrices, toucha même les préjugés raciaux”. He offers the example of La Semaine du Suzette, which described a girl who met a convalescent black soldier in Montsouris Park. They became friends, through exchanging presents, until ultimately her parents invited him to visit their house. “Le soldat africain est invité à dîner, la maison bourgeoise devient pour lui “une maison amie”: la dernière image le montre confortablement installé dans les fauteuils familiaux, largement ravitaillé en tabac …”. In Bécassine, the heroine, a nurse, has to treat a black soldier in her ambulance. She is somewhat nervous, but he turns out to be of princely origin, with perfect manners. Even more importantly, he is a hero, with the Croix de Guerre. 

The phenomenon was not restricted to children’s literature. Séché told of how 

Pas d’hôpital de petite ville qui n’ait eu son Sénégalais. L’arrivée d’un tirailleur faisait sensation; on en parlait dans toutes les salles et dans chaque maison. Après avoir été un objet de curiosité, il ne tardait pas à devenir l’enfant gâté. Il amusait par son langage, sa mimique, ses boutades.  

Of course in all these examples, the black soldiers have earned the right to French approval by serving in action; that they are wounded both proves their commitment and renders them less threatening. Depictions of colonial soldiers seemd to feature them wounded to a disproportionately large extent. Even then, the stereotyped attitude that the French had towards colonial men was not completely erased. As Anne Donadey has argued popular images of the Senegalese tirailleurs in France took two distinct forms “showcasing either their savage nature and warrior qualities against the German enemy, or their benevolent child-like nature in order to reassure the French people.”[8]  

 

Marie-Monique Huss’s book on postcards sent during the war contains four postcards based on playing cards, which offer a fascinating, and very subtly differentiated portrait of the degree of acceptance extended towards non-white soldiers. The three white soldiers and one black one are each shown receiving the animated interest of the French females, with the poilu figure making the most obvious progress. But for the black soldier, although the white woman is obviously enjoying his company, there are distinct differences from the other images. Firstly, she has her body turned slightly away from him, while all the other women are turned towards the soldiers. More importantly, the black soldier is the only one who is not receiving any form of physical contact from the women. The message is that French women appreciate the heroism and gallantry of the colonial soldier, but it is not sufficient to arouse the ardour that the French soldiers inspire in them. Laure Barbizet-Namer has highlighted another way in which the threat of non-white men to French women could be negated in images of the war. She argues that there were numerous popular images of “Infirmières, marraines de guerre, élégantes parisiennes,” recognising the appeal of colonial soldiers. “Mais par un hasard malheureux il a toujours le bras bandé, donc immobilisé, du côté de la tentation, rendue de ce fait caduque”. 

A much less subtle portrayal occurs in the poster highlighting the Journée de l’Armée d’Afrique et des Troupes Coloniales. The four French soldiers are in the background, two sheltering behind a tree, one standing still, another advancing purposefully. The poster is dominated by the single African soldier running forward fearlessly, arms and rifle aloft. This poster is clearly glorifying the heroic black warrior, but it also places him in an exotic context separate from the Frenchmen behind him. As the bravery and heroism of the French soldiery could not be questioned in a medium such as a poster, the aggressiveness of the black soldier once again emphasises black soldiers recklessness compared to the sang-froid, the measured courage of the white soldier. The presence of the poilus also no doubt served as a reminder for potential contributors that the Africans and the French were fighting together, and a donation towards the Armée d’Afrique was also one for the benefit of the French soldiery.

 That the heroism of the colonial troops was of a different nature from that of the French troops is made clear in another postcard from early in the war which depicted a grinning black soldier standing with his weapon behind his back, withstanding a hail of shells, while two poilus cowered behind him. The postcard was headed “Moi…pas peur!  Balles pas trouer peau noire“. Underneath was a poem by André Rosa, dated 1915 entitled La Bravoure du Soldat Noir:

Le noir est un soldat d’un courage exemplaire…

Regardez ce Turco comme il craint peu la mort?

Aussi, la France l’aime, et lui, qui veut lui plaire,

Se conduit en héros, constamment, sans effort. 

In both these instances the personal agency of the black soldier in choosing to be heroic is denied. In the postcard the perceived mystical powers of his black skin protect the soldier; the poem declares that heroism comes to blacks without effort. The contrast to the heroism of the French who are aware of the risks of war but take them anyway is transparent. This argument was advanced explicitly by Séché. 

Dans toute les actes des noirs, on retrouve ce mélange d’enfantillage et d’héroïsme, si bien que l’on est tenté de croire que leur courage est un effet de leur simplicité d’esprit. Nullement. Le Sénégalais est brave par nature; être primitif, il n’analyse pas. 

General Archinard was unsure whether the heroism of North African troops was inherent to their race or whether it was down to an endemic fatalism. “La bravoure de nos tirailleurs de l’Afrique du Nord est-elle une qualité purement de race ou est-elle due, en grande partie tout au moins, au fatalisme sous lequel ils sont tous courbés.” 

The bravery of colonial troops from both North and West Africa was typically associated with fearless attacking, rather than valiant defence. The Dépêche interviewed a captain who had just returned from Morocco and asked him how Moroccan troops could best be utilised. He said they were best as shock troops, imagining the reaction of the enemy at facing shouting and grimacing sons of the desert. “Je n’ai pas besoin de vous dire qu’ils sont incomparables a l’assaut. Qui n’a pas vu des tirailleurs charger a la baïonette, ne peut avoir aucune idée de leur bravoure et de la furia.” Maurice Maugars in his book on the Moroccans also argued that “l’extrordinaire mordant de nos bicots” made them better suited to offensive than defensive warfare. Barbusse described black African troops as characterised by “their ferocity in attack, their devouring passion to be in with the bayonet, and their predilection for ‘no quarter'” 

Similar accounts of the savage fury of colonial troops in the attack appeared in newspapers throughout the war. One referring to the “le mordant endiablé des Marocains” argued that 

Incomparables au jeu de la baïonnette, les phalanges d’Afrique couchèrent dans ce qui restait de tranchées quelques centaines de soldats aux yeux fous et qui recevaient la mort comme la délivrance d’un lourd et affreux cauchemar. 

Another description emphasises the unreal, even inhuman, nature of some of the attackers by using words such as “diables” and “fantasia”. 

En dépit des obus, deux grands diables de moricauds appelés Hassen et Brahim, en avant de la “vague” jetant leurs fusils en l’air, les rattrapant à la volée, faisant de leurs baïonnettes des moulinets étourdissants, pris de la fureur de la poudre, dans cette boue sans nom dansaient, faisaient la fantasia.

An Algerian Jew fighting in the French army claimed similarly “Nous ne sommes pas des démons comme ces Arabes, qui se ruent contre l’ennemi avec une sorte de folie mystique.” 

Alexandre Millerand managed to include almost all the stereotypes about colonial troops in a short comment on Moroccan troops serving in the first battle of the Marne.

Combattant avec une ardeur que leurs officiers ont dû souvent maîtriser pour éviter peurs, nos ennemis qui les redoutent ne peuvent résister à leurs attaques. Dans récents combats, ils ont enlevé à la baïonette nombreuses tranchées ennemies, sans se soucier feu violent artillerie, qui n’a pu les arrêter. 

Millerand’s description, along with that of Barbusse and the two articles in Le Petit Marseillais all stress the fondness of colonial troops to the bayonet. This partly mirrors the prevalence of descriptions of French soldiers using “Rosalie” in the early months of the war, but also suggests a common perception that backward races would be more proficient with blades rather than rifles.9

The belief in the unthinking bravery of Black and North African troops was not just restricted to popular opinion but was shared by their commanders and informed their utilisation during the war. For the generals Berdoulat and Blondlat who were commanders in the colonial army, the Senegalese troops were incontestably brave but were unable to fulfil specialist positions. General Puypéroux commented on how his troops had gained the admiration of their comrades from the metropole due to their drive and their gallantry in the assault and spoke of their “entrain endiablé”. Algerians were most likely to be used as shock troops while the deaths of tirailleurs were roughly similar in percentages to that of the French infantry, but they were more likely to be killed during assaults than in the trenches. 

When allocating divisions from French West Africa, certain tribes were considered to be more warlike than others. Those sent to the front line tended to be from Senegal, Haut-Sénégal, Niger and the Haute-Guinée while those kept back were from the Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey and Guinea. Colonel Mérienne-Lucas argued that to best utilise Senegalese troops that the more martial tribes should be cultivated at the expense of the rest. 

Il importera de conserver pour l’encadrement futur les Bambaras, les Toucouleurs et les Yolofs, et il faudra, au contraire, éliminer les Serères, les Sousous et d’une manière générale les tribus côtières où se recrutaient tous les esclaves. 

The French military consistently worked on the basis that the more warlike a tribe had been in Africa, the better a soldier they would produce. This complemented an ideology that denied black men the ability to transcend their origins. These distinctions did not just apply within French West Africa, they also applied to the Madagascan troops who, unlike the Senegalese, Chantal Valensky argues, were “[…] ne sont pas conçues pour une utilisation combattante mais plutôt comme un élément d’appoint et dans des activités plus proches de la logistique que de l’attaque…” 

One problem with the perceived offensive vigour of colonial troops was that it was difficult to control them. Puypéroux said of his troops that the only possible fault they had was “d’être trop braves, d’avoir trop d’allant et trop de modant.” A report by a sergeant in a colonial regiment for the Dépêche described how they would make a successful attack. “Mais il faut réfréner l’ardeur des coloniaux; des ordres impérieux limitent l’avance pour la journée.” Similarly it was said of a regiment of tirailleurs in December 1916 that

 les chefs de son section sont obligés de réfréner l’ardeur de leur hommes qui, ne se souciant pas de la ligne d’éclatement de notre artillerie dont on se rapprochait de plus en plus, n’avaient tous qu’une pensée: prendre le boche. 

Their belligerence was also believed to result in fighting outside the battlefield. 

On se rencontre en masse sur les routes et dans les ruelles étroites des localités, on se dévisage, on échange des propos puérils, souvent inintelligibles mais toujours interprétés dans un sens injurieux, on se défie, on vocifère, on gesticule, les camarades se groupent respectivement derrière leurs commettants et les hostilités commencent.10 

This description doesn’t merely highlight the belligerence of the Senegalese, but also their childishness, as evinced by their puerile and unintelligible comments. 

The focus on the attacking ability of non-white troops was also a way of glossing over their perceived deficiencies in defensive warfare, where they were believed to lack the discipline to consistently hold a position. The Ouest-Éclair quoted an English officer describing the capture of a fortress in German occupied Cameroon. 

Les troupes européennes auraient tenu longtemps derrière ces fortifications puissantes. Mais les troupes indigènes, qui formaient la majeure partie de la garnison, furent démoralisées par l’explosion des obus à mélinite et à lyddite. Elles lâchèrent pied. 

Even in 1918, it was still considered necessary to have 3 white batallions in reseve behind General Puypéroux’s Colonial division. 

The army itself does seem to have been reasonably egalitarian, although a debate in the Chamber of Deputies, in March 1916 saw M. Candace, the deputy from Guadeloupe, and some other deputies from the colonies complaining of discrimination against black troops by white officers, and also when medals were awarded. The white soldiers sent over to train prospective African soldiers were unaccustomed to dealing with Africans and provoked much resentment. At the end of 1916, the Senegalese deputy Blaise Diagne presented a dossier of complaints on this issue. These included insults such as “sale nègre”, “saligot” and “singe sauvage de la brousse” as well as assaults and injustices. Gilbert Meynier argues that Algerian soldiers were discriminated against in terms of leave and holidays. 

Despite this, the discrimination was less evident than in Algerian society, and letters written home from the front often referred to the French soldiers as brothers. A French sergeant in an Arab regiment wrote “les tirailleurs français s’entendaient bien avec les Arabes. Ils étaient, comme nous, les pauvres types. On était tous dans la même merde”. Black American soldiers also felt their treatment in France was far better than in their own country, and offered many compliments along the line of “These French people don’t bother with no color line business. They treat us so good that the only times I ever know I’m colored is when I look in the glass.” 

In the United States, the black politician Emmett J. Scott solicited the opinion of Colonel Edouard Réquin of the French Military Commission to the United States on the participation of French Negro troops in the Great War, in which he claimed the performance of the troops was “excellent” 

Recruited among the warrior tribes of Senegal and the Soudan these troops have great combatant qualities. They are particularly apt for attack and counter-attack, but they are primitive men without civilization—men who cannot be compared from this point of view with colored Americans. The black French soldiers are excellent grenadiers, but they are less prepared in the use of the machine gun and the automatic rifle, which demand a certain mechanical aptitude. They receive the same instructions as the French soldiers; these instructions are given to them by white officers and non-commissioned officers who understand them well, and who for this reason ought to be changed as little as possible 

Réquin’s arguments are entirely consistent with the other arguments made out before and during the war on the capabilities of black soldiers. They were brave, suited for attack, warriors by nature, but lacking civilisation and mechanical aptitude and needing the supervision of white officers. 

That indigenous colonial troops could perhaps be trained to take at least some officer positions was an idea posited before the war in a debate in the Chamber of Deputies by Lutaud, the governor-general of Algeria. Lutaud argued that “nous avons déjà d’excellent officiers. J’ai demandé aux ministre de la guerre que les officiers indigènes non naturalisés aient l’accés des grades de chef de bataillon on de chef d’escadron.” The deputy Messimy professed astonishment at the suggestion and responded “You find yourself in disagreement with l’état-major of the 19th corps. For the last year, he hasn’t been able to find a single indigenous lieutenant worthy of being a captain.” The conflict had little impact in advancing the case for the appointment of colonial officers from the positions held in this exchange. 

If foreign soldiers were generally better regarded than foreign workers amongst the public, it is nevertheless true that they could still generate plenty of hostility. Marc Michel quotes Lucie Cousturier from her book Inconnus chez moi written just after the war, where she describes the reaction of the inhabitants of Saint-Raphaël who “se refusèrent, dès le premier bonjour échangé avec les étrangers, à dire ‘ce sont des singes’ pour affirmer ‘ce sont des enfants'”. There were several rumours of colonial soldiers having fired on striking French workers such as the story that in June 1917 colonial soldiers had fired at women strikers in St Etienne after French soldiers had refused. The idea that non-white troops might be used against French workers had been raised before the war, notably by Jaurès. Although there was rarely any truth to these rumours they served to perpetuate suspicions amongst the French working class. 

The letters and journals of soldiers also displayed several instances where fighting together had not altered their ideas of disgust towards blacks. One French soldier writing home commented about American black troops: “c’est même dégoûtant de les voir manger, car ils mélangent le tout dans une affreuse mixture qu’ils arrosent de nombreux bidons de pinard.” Another spoke of the consumption of alcohol in the trenches  “on ivoyait comme dans le trou du cul d’un nègre.” 

Marc Michel has argued that

Du côté des Blancs de la métropole, le fait le plus notable paraît avoir résidé dans l’évolution des stéréotypes populaires, du ‘mauvais’ au ‘bon sauvage’, de la brute animale au naturel dévoué et encore enfant. Ces deux stéréotypes existaient avant la guerre, mais celui de ‘bon sauvage’ paraît être sorti des milieux étroits où il était confiné jusque-là grâce aux contacts réels, directs, entre Blancs et Noirs que permit la guerre.

However while the two stereotypes of the “good” and “bad savage” did exist, they did not seem to work in opposition to each other. Instead aspects of both could be applied depending on the situation. While black soldiers could be portrayed as gentle and childlike in their dealings with the French population, they were still consistently depicted as ferocious in combat. While the bravery of colonial troops was a near universal theme, this maintained its association with savagery. André Kahn visited a cemetery where various African soldiers were buried and mused on the “[B]raves sauvages civilisés qui sont morts pour la civilisation?” While Kahn was clearly glad that the “savages” were on the French side and welcomed their presence, it didn’t mitigate his beliefs in their brutality and primitivism. He recounted one episode that illustrated this. 

Une anecdote vécue. Un tirailleur sénégalais chargé de garder un prisonnier boche le force à se coucher au fond d’un boyau. Il lui fait fermer les yeux en lui disant: ‘Toi, camarade, toi plus souffrir de la guerre’, et d’un coup de couteau, il lui tranche le cou. Puis il continue à le veiller et un voisin de la scène le voit couvrir l’Allemand d’une couverture et lui dire encore: ‘toi, bon camarade, toi plus jamais souffrir! 

Another of Kahn’s anecdotes made a similar point, while also illustrating two other staples of the discourse that surrounded colonial troops, their incredible effectiveness in combat and the contrast between their savagery and that of the Germans. 

Anecdote amusant: la division marocaine, au mont Saint Éloi, a pris, à elle seule, deux regiments boches. Or les tirailleurs traitent leur captifs de ‘sauvages’ et veulent les exterminer pour éviter le carnage.

According to the Petit Marseillais,

Tandis qu’ils ouvraient la fusillade contre les tranchées allemandes, des Sénégalais se glissaient dans l’herbe, rampant sans bruit comme des fauves. […] A la vue des moricauds, les Allemands levèrent immédiatement les bras en criant: ‘Kamerad! kamerad! pas kapout!’. […] Les Sénégalais inspirent aux Allemands une frayeur terrible. 

The impression that black Africans were welcomed because of the savagery they were expected to unleash on the Germans is backed up by Bakary Diallo who reported that the shouts of “Bravo les tirailleurs sénégalais! Vive la France!” with which his tirailleurs were greeted were accompanied by shouts of “Couper têtes aux Allemands”. The soldiers were certainly not expected to interact with the crowds acclaiming them and Joe Lunn quotes a soldier from Guinea, Kamara, saying that if troops turned to look at the people cheering them from the side of the road, they would be slapped by their officers.11 

Black Americans were largely seen as more civilised, and one soldier was at pains to point this out in his letter. “Enfin cette fois, nous avons des Américains avec nous, ce sont des Noirs de New York, des coustauds et non des sauvages, loin de là; ils n’aiment pas les Anglais ni les Américains blancs.” Despite being “far from savage” they were still described as wanting to inflict brutal treatment on the enemy. “Ici tout nouveau tout beau, ils sont pleins d’entrain, ils veulent du Boche. ‘Moa prendre Boche, couper oreilles, le langue, crever les yeux” (sic); mais ils se refroidiront bien à la longue.” That black Americans had different characteristics to their white counterparts was made clear by Rosny in a description of Americans. “Ils causent moins que nous – si l’on en excepte les nègres, qui se servent infatigablement de la parole articulée”. An article in L’Information mentioned dockers at St-Nazaire being unemployed due to the utilisaton of German prisoners and American “dockers noirs”. The article declared that hiring the French should take priority over all foreign workers, including those from Allied countries. Race was not mentioned again in the article and it’s clear the writer would have opposed white Americans working in place of the French, but nonetheless the colour of the Americans was used to highlight the injustice. 

One issue which has received little attention so far is the regular instances of violence between different groups of foreigners in France. The camp of Dellys in Algeria had to separate the contingent from the Antilles from that of the Senegalese because of their antagonism. One particularly bloody confrontation at Sendets in November 1918 saw twenty nine Indochinese casualties (including nine fatalities) and three Senegalese though the cause of the dispute remained unknown. In January 1917 at the pouderie in Bassens there was a conflict between Chinese and “Arab” workers, after the Chinese attacked an engineer and the Algerians came to defend him. The military intervened, killing two Chinese. In October 1917, police reported on a quarrel at Creusot between Chinese and Portuguese workers in which several serious injuries were caused. 12 

A letter written from the front by Louis Bonnet to his parents in March 1917 described a dispute on the front between Somalis and Madagascans, which had escalated into two battles in which seven men died and 45 were wounded. Only the Madagascans being moved to a different section of the front finally defused the conflict. In this instance it is noticeable that such signs of division at the front escaped censorship. It is surely unlikely that an account of similar violence between French troops would have been allowed to pass. Without further study it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from these outbreaks of violence. 

Conclusion

In a debate in the chamber of deputies, on the 30th January 1919, a deputy from Oran spoke on the issue of granting political rights to indigenous Algerians. 

Il reconnaît la nécessité pour la France de payer la dette qu’elle a contractée vis-à-vis d’eux au course de ces quatre années, pendant lesquelles ils n’ont cessé de témoigner de leur entier dévouement à la mère-patrie. Mais le projet actuel, en certains de ses articles, aurait, selon lui, l’inconvénient de diminuer la prééminence légitimement acquise des citoyens français. 

In so doing, he summed up the general attitude that prevailed in France that they were glad of the contribution played by colonial subjects to France’s cause, and pleased with the loyalty displayed, but that it had done nothing to alter the superiority of white Frenchmen. In a conference in the summer of 1916 on the colonial contribution to France, Augustin Bernard outlined how he believed those North Africans who had served France should be rewarded. While lauding their efforts and sacrifices, Bernard believed that France’s colonial subjects were not ready for political equality and should be rewarded in other fashions. 

Ce n’est pas en conférant aux indigènes qui ont servi la France pendant la grande guerre des droits politique pour lesquels ils ne sont pas mûrs que nous les récompenserons comme il convient. En leur donnant des avantages pécuniaires et des pensions, en leur réservant certains emplois, nous témoignerons à ces héros qui ont versé leur sang sur les champs de bataille de l’Europe pour la noble cause de la France et de la civilisation, la reconnaissance à laquelle ils ont droit et que nous ne saurions leur marchander.  

F. Jourdier made a similar point regarding granting French citizenship to the electors of the four communes in Senegal. 

Gratifier les indigènes des Communes de plein exercice du Sénégal de la qualité de citoyens français, c’est faire, parmi nos populations noires, une véritable révolution-là, le moins qu’on puisse dire, c’est, on le voit, qu’elle serait prématurée 

In February 1919, Muslims in North Africa were granted the right to vote in local elections, but this was one of a very few tangible rewards. 

Most importantly of all, the French public was determined in its resolution to seek to exclude non-whites from France. The temporary nature of a colonial presence on French soil was regularly stressed, L’Ouest-Éclair talking of an opportune moment to examine the character of those from overseas who are “momentanément près de nous.”[228] In Troupes noires, Alfred Guignard had spoken positively of his experiences in Africa and of the value of black troops. Yet his book also contained a fascinating episode towards the end, when he describes returning to France with a black servant. 

Vous connaissez trop tard votre erreur de site et sa bonne face noire, là-bas si sympathique, se fait ici irritante et grotesque sans que le pauvre ait commis d’autre faute que les sottises suggérées à son ingénuité. Sérieusement, vous le voudriez ailleurs. Mais où?

 He also expressed irritation at the waiter addressing him and his black companion as equals and the black man eating with his hands. It is surely significant that Guignard, who had enjoyed his experiences with blacks in Africa, should find them so irritating in France. During the war, black troops were kept rigorously segregated from French society, and forbidden to leave camp. In the Dépêche Coloniale et Maritime a Dr M. wrote that West African troops were soon hospitalised separately from French troops because their different cultures made co-habitation unpleasant for all concerned. 

Les interminables palabres qu’aiment à tenir les indigènes à toute heure du jour et de la nuit, paraissent bientôt fastidieux à des Européens déprimés: ces derniers voient un manque d’égards prémédité dans un fait qui n’est qu’une habitude nègre invétérée et même une forme de la courtoisie chez les Noirs. D’autre part, l’indigène, le plus innocemment du monde, crache abondamment autour de lui et ne craint pas de souiller les murs et la literie de sa salive colorée en rouge par la kola. Je passe sous silence d’autres incongruités que réprouve notre éducation et que tolère la sienne… Les reproches mutuels font vite place aux injures; le ressentiment et le dégoût succèdent à la confiance et à la camaraderie du début.

Although the writer does not explicitly criticise the behaviour of the black troops, it is obvious from the examples and language he uses that he considers the mentality of the colonial soldiers the source of the antagonism, and not their metropolitan comrades. The impression that the writer offers is that while they could fight together with their white colleagues, the primitive habits of the West Africans meant they could not be expected to live in the same communities. The majority of colonial troops were despatched home as soon as possible after the armistice, even before peace was secured. Clemenceau was sending black troops home in January 1919, even as Foch was begging the United States to slow its own withdrawal. 

For most people who did not distrust non-whites, the tendency was to ignore them. Hans Lüsenbrink notes “La marginalisation des soldats coloniaux dans les bulletins militaires, mais aussi dans la presse des années 1914-1918 est frappante.” Dewitte argues that the war did nothing to alter the general opinion of the French towards their colonies – that of indifference. This viewpoint was expressed at the time by Diala, a member of the Girondine section of the Ligue coloniale française. 

General Puypéroux’s account of the 3rd Colonial Division during the war began with a poem entitled L’Ame Coloniale by the Abbé Miot, who had been the chaplain for the division. Written in August 1918, it is worth quoting in its entirety as it contains almost all the standard stereotypes about colonial soldiers, apparently intact despite Miot’s proximity to the soldiers. 

Comment la définir l’âme coloniale,

et dire, cher Docteur, la valeur sans égale

De ces braves soldats, ornés de maints chevrons,

Dont la guerre a semé les os sur tous les fronts?

 

A la Coloniale, on aime l’aventure

Et l’on a peu de goût pour la guerre d’usure.

On bout d’impatience au fond des noirs boyaux;

On voudrait toujours voir des horizons nouveaux.

Ah! vienne le grand jour! C’est alors qu’on s’élance,

Qu’on couvre les plateaux, comme une mer immense.

On bondit, on se cache, on rebondit encore;

On se moque des coups et l’on nargue la mort.

Il faut les avoir vus, ces invincibles diables,

Saisir le Boche en des corps à corps effroyables,

A Massiges, Flaucourt, à Moisy, Vauxaillon,

A la ferme Hurtebise, à Vauclerc, à Foulon,

Autour de Reims; enfin, lorsque la fourragère

Orna de son reflet leur épaule guerrière.

Tambours, un ban d’honneur! Car ces braves amis,

En tout secteur, ont bien mérité du pays.

 

Ici, je voudrais bien détruire la légende

Qui fait, de ces héros, une horde, une bande

De troupiers sans scruples, au pillages acharnés,

Répandant la terreur, au loin, de tous côtés.

J’ai perçu, maintes fois, ce cri parmi les foules:

“Les Coloniaux! Vite, cachez vos poules!”

C’est un reproche injuste et cruel à l’égard

De tous ces grands enfants au clair et doux regard.

 

Et toi, Coulibaly, que dis-tu? Sois sincère.

Et la noir de répondres: “Y en a bon la guerre

Avec Français!” Bravo! c’est bien, Coulibaly.

Je sais qu’on peu partout de toi l’on a médit.

C’était en mai dernier, à l’époque tragique

Où nos soldats pliaient sous l’effort germanique.

Le haut commandement lance Coulibaly

A l’assaut de Tinqueux, derrière Champfleury,

Face au Boche. Aussitôt, brandissant Rosalie,

Le noir se précipite, hurlant avec furie.

Pas un ne recula. Les noirs jusqu’aux derniers,

Aimèrent mieux mourir que d’être prisonniers.

Ce n’est pas moi, c’est le Vorwaerts qui le publie.

Vous voyez ce qu’on dit des noirs… en Germanie. 

The first verse emphasies the bravery and sacrifice of the colonial troops. The second verse starts by stressing that they fight for adventure not for money, and highlights their reckless courage that laughs at death, while the “invincible diables” hints that this bravery isn’t quite human. The third verse is still more revealing, displaying the fear and suspicion that continued to be directed at colonial troops by the French population. Of course Miot claims this is an unjustified slur on the overgrown children of France’s colonies. The last verse sees Miot’s idea of the childlike Black soldier personified by “Coulibaly” who in one sentence reveals himself to be straightforward, loyal and ignorant.  The end of the poem comes back to the primary image of the Black soldier throughout the war: charging headlong into battle, screaming, brandishing a bayonet, seeking death or glory and striking terror into the Germans. 

If the war itself did little to change attitudes, Lüsenbrink argues that significant change occurred with the occupation of the Rhineland and the German opposition to the presence of non-white soldiers. “Cette campagne allemande contre les soldats français de couleur, et en particulier les tirailleurs sénégalais, eut en France un immense retentissement public.” He concludes that

Plus que la guerre elle-même, ce furent ainsi les conséquences qui modifièrent profondément l’image du monde colonial et de ses habitants en France: la virulence de la campagne allemande contre les troupes de couleur eut pour résultat une attitude s’identification qui affecta, à travers la presse et les expositions coloniales, également la grande masse de la population française. Et l’émergence des premiers écrivains africains – parmi lesquels on compte avec Bakary Diallo et Lamine Senghor plusieurs anciens tirailleurs – finit par remettre en cause radicalement le paternalisme condescendant qui avait longtemps dominé les rapports entre métropolitains et populations des colonies. 

Dewitte also notes that the German campaign against the black troops in the Rhineland aroused French support for those troops. It is outside the scope of this study to examine these arguments, although Brett Berliner’s excellent study of racial attitudes in France between the wars demonstrates the continuing presence of contradictory discourses based on common assumptions of black inferiority and irrationality. He argues that notions of black savagery and cannibalism were very popular in the post-war period as the French sought to respond to the horrors of war by once again siting barbarism firmly outside of Europe in a black Other. This discourse existed alongside one that justified France’s colonial role by reference to the progress made by non-white colonial subjects under French tutelage. It can be noted that the fundamental idea of the strange and inferior colonial other still existed in 1929 when General Trentinian prefaced a book on France’s West African empire by Rondet-Saint, with the argument that it would be of interest to readers “curieux de connaître des pays […] où l’homme et la nature diffèrent, en effet, profondément de l’homme de la race blanche et des contrées qu’ils habitent.”

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

[1] This conception was also present in the debates over immigration.

[2] See also J. Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, New York: Yale University Press (1995) pp.159-163 for a more positive description of French attitudes, which puts a greater emphasis on eroticism.

[3]The kidnapping also highlights the barbarism of African society.

[4]Coulibaly was actually General Mangin’s personal bodyguard, and thus distinctly unrepresentative. 

[5] Emphasis in the original. 

[6]The description of the fearlessness and desire for glory is similar to that of the descriptions of French soldiers at the beginning of the war, but would have been a very unusual account by the summer of 1917.

[7]The description of France’s enemies as “savages” by France’s colonial soldiers is an issue we shall return to later.

[8]This position of regarding some black men were superior to others simply on the basis of their service in the French army was also projected on to the black soldiers themselves. “S’il (the Senegalese) reconnaît la supériorité des blancs, il n’hésite point à s’assigner la première place parmi les noirs, parmi ceux restés dans la brousse et qui ne portent pas l’uniforme.” Séché.

[9]“Rosalie” was supposedly the nickname given by the French infantry to their bayonettes, though it tended to be a term more popular amongst propagandists than soldiers.

[10]Michel, L’Appel à L’Afrique, (from an article on Senegalese camps in 1919, attributed by Michel to Guingard).

[11] Joe Harris Lunn, “Kande Kamara Speaks: An Oral History of the West African Experience in France 1914-18” in Melvin E. Page (ed.) Africa and the First World War. Basingstoke: McMillan (1987) The chosen method for punishing soldiers who stepped out of line – slapping them – is another reminder of the low regard the troops were held in.  Not only is it a humiliating and degrading punishment, but it carries strong echoes of the disciplining of children, as black men were often seen to be.

[12] Michel, L’Appel à L’Afrique, Michel states that confrontations between the West Africans and other colonial contingents were rare though. [227] Pedroncini, “Allocution introductive”  It should be noted that measures were already being taken in the Chamber in early 1914 to increase indigenous representation in Algerian government.

2 Comments »

  1. […] Chapter 1: The Racial Other […]

    Pingback by French attitudes to Race and Gender during World War 1 « So much beauty out there — January 3, 2009 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

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