So much beauty out there

January 3, 2009


Filed under: History — Josh @ 12:05 pm

For France’s colonial subjects the war had the least impact on how they were viewed by the metropolitan population. Every attempt was made to minimise contact between colonial soldiers and workers and French civilians. The recruitment and utilisation of non-white peoples, as well as the summary way they were sent home at the end of the conflict were informed by popular and scientific views of their essential nature that were maintained consistently throughout the war. Colonial women were almost entirely absent from France during the war, and appeared primarily in discourses highlighting the erotic or backward nature of the countries in France’s empire.The descriptions of Black Africans took two primary forms, firstly emphasising their childish nature, generous but also credulous, irrational and impulsive and secondly emphasising their fearless, fearsome nature in combat. These views were expressed by those both hostile and favourable to the empire and to the utilisation of colonial soldiers. Pierre Mille was a journalist described by Alphonse Séché as one of the writers with the most understanding of the psychology of Blacks in France, and also a self-professed “indigénophile convaincu” who would go on to become President of the Société des Auteurs Coloniaux after the war. Given these credentials, then Mille’s opinions must have carried some weight. 

He argued that, out of combat, the African was a chatterbox, impulsive, easily offended, and subject to blind rages. Not only that but he was a scatterbrain, a daydreamer, and naïve as well. Like a thick-headed schoolboy, he would try unsuccessfully to retain the most simple orders, only to return two hours later desperate and contrite saying “My lieutenant, what you say? … Me forget all.” He was also puerile in his games, his songs, his dances and his arguments. But he was brave, brave to the point of folly. The motif of infantilism recurs repeatedly, with the comparison to a schoolboy, with references to the puerility of African culture as well as the immature characteristics and use of language. 

If Mille’s portrayal of Africans offers a relatively benign perspective on the backwardness of African society, others placed more emphasis on its perceived brutality. While this brutality was generally considered acceptable, and even desirable, when it could be utilised against the enemy, it was the subject of great disquiet internally. This led to stringent attempts to keep non-white soldiers and workers under surveillance, and in particular to keep them away from French women. The idea of non-whites as savages was largely unchanged by the war, and was often mentioned in contexts far removed from the debates over the empire, or its populations. For example, Fénelon Gibon, the secretary of L’Association pour le repos et la sanctification du Dimanche arguing in favour of Sunday rest spoke in passing of savages as ferocious as those from Australia.1 Similarly, among a list of maxims designed to encourage French soldiers to swim was one that demanded “L’homme sauvage sait NAGER et toi homme civilisé sais-tu?”

The perceived savagery of French African troops in combat was repeated throughout the war. While it only took a few months of the war before newspapers abandoned the descriptions of French troops joyfully charging towards the Germans, brandishing their bayonets; similar descriptions of colonial soldiers were still common in 1918. The belief that African troops were incomparable in the assault due to their love of battle, their reckless bravery and their preference for hand-to-hand combat was shared by military strategists and popular opinion alike. While North Africans were generally regarded as somewhat more developed as a race than sub-Saharan Africans, in terms of military performance, there was little difference.

By contrast, the Indochinese were regarded very differently, being seen as having much more feminine qualities than Africans. They were believed to have less physical strength and less courage, but were defter with their hands. Nonetheless, they were also regarded as being more like children than (white) adults.

Just as French writers emphasised the childlike nature of non-white individuals, so they referred to other races as in a state of infancy. Just as experts on assimilation argued that certain races required little time to blend in with the French, but other less developed races needed much longer, so other races were also seen to be at different stages of progress towards civilisation. Azan talked about the French and the North Africans and “all the difference which separates the two races in their different stages of civilization.” In a typical example, Albert Lebrun quoted the senator Henry Berenger approvingly.

La France en armes a compté parmi ses meilleures troupes de choc les formations indigènes et les contingents coloniaux. Le sang nouveau des races jeunes a coulé à flot lorsqu’il lui a fallu tout à coup s’offrir avec le vieux sang gaulois pour la défense et le maintien de la patrie menacée. Aussi la même sépulture abrite-t-elle aujourd’hui depuis la capitale jusqu’à la frontière, nos fils de la métropole et nos enfants des colonies.

The customary references are made to the shock value of the colonial troops, but the stress is on the “new blood” of the “enfants” from the colonies compared to the “old blood” of France. Another common adjective used to describe non-whites and to emphasise their backwardness was “fruste”, unsophisticated or coarse. Gaillet said of Coulibaly that “L’extérieur est fruste, mais le cœur est bon.” Augustin Bernard argued that:

Les musulmans de l’Afrique du Nord se rendent compte que leurs intérêts économiques sont liés aux nôtres et, si frustes que soient leurs cerveaux, ils nous sont reconnaissants d’un certain nombre de bienfaits que nous leur avons apportés.

The conception of nations and races on a road towards maturity and civilisation recurred in various different contexts. It could work in reverse: civilisations could also regress, and this was often suggested in respect of Germany. It provided a liberal justification for France’s colonial expansion; as the colonial textbook Moussa and Gi-gla argued, the more civilised French could offer instruction and example to the Africans and hasten their path to progress.  William Ponty, the Governor General of Senegal wrote in May 1914 in a circular

Even if Africans quickly forgot the French words they had learned at school, they would not forget the ideas they conveyed, […] ideas that are our own and whose use endows us with our moral, social and economic superiority. [That] will little by little transform these barbarians of yesterday into disciples and agents.

The prime example of progress through imitating the West was held to be Japan. For Giraud:

le Japon s’est, depuis 1868, mis résolument à l’école des grandes puissances européennes. Jamais aucun peuple, en un aussi bref espace de temps, n’a aussi complètement transformé sa vie matérielle, politique et sociale.

Yet this transformation still left Japan a long way from being seen as on a par with Western civilisation. When the Germans criticised Britain for the dangerous step of bringing Japan into the war, the Dépêche did not respond by arguing of Japan’s right to enter the war but by pointing out the Germans own failure in allying with the degenerate Turks. In the years after the war French pronatalists raised the spectre of the “yellow peril”, the risk that the high birth rates in the Far East might disturb the “equilibrium of the races”.

The length of time it took to achieve civilisation was measured in centuries rather than decades. The Petit Marseillais argued that the ability to learn and to apply acquired knowledge was retarded in Russia compared to the West because Russia had only joined the civilised world in the 18th century. L’Eclair du Midi dismissed two centuries of civilised behaviour in the Ottoman Empire as only a cloak for their true nature. Y.-E. Norvès argued this explicitly in L’Ouest-Éclair. “Rien n’est plus immuable que l’Islam. Il faut des siècles pour transformer les races et aucune race n’est moins ‘assimiable’ que le sont les races nord-africaines.” Just as L’Eclair du Midi warned that the appearance of civilised behaviour amongst the Turks could not be relied upon, so Norvès cautioned on the wily ways of the North Africans.

Mais il n’y a pas d’individus dans d’autres peuples (si ce n’est chez les Israëlites) qui prennent avec plus de facilité, avec un sens plus précis de l’imitation, l’apparence, la manière d’agir – toute extérieure et superficielle – habituelles aux peuples auxquels ils se trouvent mêlés hors de leur pays.”

Guignard, commenting on Western reactions to the dancing they encountered in Africa, pointed out that the waltz and the polka appeared scandalous to the savages of the interior, although they were now familiar to the “educated natives” of the ports. This clearly equates the term savages with unfamiliarity with Western civilization. However, the fact that Guignard wrote the phrase “educated natives” in English highlights the implication that these educated natives are still primitive compared to the genuinely educated whites or even that the entire concept of educated natives was a foreign concept, alien to French thought.

Maurice Violette, a socialist deputy spoke in ringing terms of how France would appear in Africa

as a great liberating power [to] peoples still immersed in barbarism [who would] draw on our reasoning, our methods and our tastes, and, steeped in our genius without dreaming of an impossible assimilation, they would continue magnificently France overseas … to produce men in the economic and moral sense of the word … capable … of integrating themselves into the movement of universal exchanges, this is the task.

For all this progress though, assimilation was impossible.

The time it was believed necessary to allow the backward races to develop allowed the French to elide differences between assimilation and association.. If the progress of these races was going to take centuries and their assimilation many generations then in practical terms it was irrelevant.

Responding to suggestions that some political rights should be given to France’s colonial subjects, Bernard argued that the French spirit naturally sought to regard all the inhabitants of all France’s possessions as equals but that this was premature. Although he only argued for a postponement of this equality, it was clear that he thought that it should be a long time before it happened.

Héritiers de la Rome antique, nous voulons que les peuples de notre empire colonial puissent dire un jour: Cuncti gens una sumus (Nous sommes tous un même peuple). Cette généreuse pensée est si profondément ancrée dans l’esprit français que rien ne l’en déracinera. Mais ce jour, Messieurs, n’est pas encore venu.

The generous inclusiveness that Bernard spoke of was not greatly evident at the end of the war. As Schor argues

En effet, pendant les années de conflit, ils s’étaient habitués à une vision quasi manichéenne de non-Français: les uns étaient des ennemis, des traîtres ou des espions qui minaient le pays par l’intérieur – les neutres, souvent assimilés à des mercantis qui avaient profité de la guerre pour s’enrichir, n’étaient pas beaucoup plus estimés -, les autres étaient les courageux alliés qui avaient volé au secours d’une France injustement assaillie. Accessoirement, dans certaines régions, les Français avaient fait connaissance d’une main-d’œuvre immigrée, coloniale souvent, appelée pour pallier le manque des bras et généralement très critiquée pour sa médiocrité. Le rétablissement de la paix entraîna le départ progressif des soldats alliés. Les Français se retrouvèrent donc en tête à tête forcé avec des étrangers qu’ils redoutaient ou méprisaient.

The same theme recurred. Moral worth was based upon behaviour during the war, filtered through pre-war preconceptions. The only true claim to approval was if you had contributed to the victory, or been harmed by the scourge of war. This applied to white Europeans working or fighting in France just as much as it did to non-whites, and French views of other European nations as well as the United States were strongly affected by the roles performed by those nations during the war.

However, although each country’s decision to ally with France, oppose it or remain neutral was the primary factor in determining how they’d be described, the views the French expressed on the characteristics of each nation continued to show significant consistency with the prewar period. The Germans had been considered efficient, organised and industrious as well as callous, uncultured and militaristic before the war, and those judgements informed how their actions were understood throughout the conflict. Thus the atrocities that were perpetrated by German soldiers, and the many more that were rumoured to have occurred, were consistently attributed to an orchestrated policy, rather than undisciplined breaches of conduct. The bitterness of the war did lead to a great increase in the vituperation levelled at the Germans, but most of the themes had been presaged in the French response to the Franco-Prussian war and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine.

Similarly the motivations of Allied governments and the performances of their armies were also understood within the context of prewar relations. Allied soldiers was generally welcomed onto French soil, but in order to maintain their popularity they also needed to demonstrate they were contributing to France’s victory, and without exploiting the local populace, either financially or sexually.

Though there were some similarities in the ways in which white and non-white foreigners could be portrayed, there were also major differences. White peoples, even the hated Germans or the despised Russians, were never considered as uncivilised or as backward as non-white people. White foreigners were also considered to be ultimately capable of assimilating into French society, in a way in which non-whites were not. This was part of a broader discourse that saw racial differences between peoples of the same colour as based on both historical and racial factors, where historical and cultural factors could mitigate racial difference. By contrast, racial differences based on colour were seen as well-nigh insurmountable.

As for the insurmountable divide that Barbusse posited between the trenches and the home front, while such a divide certainly did exist, it was not the primary fissure that separated France. The most important division was based on suffering and sacrifice and both men and women could fall on either side of that divide. While the intensity of feelings aroused by the war did add extra bitterness to male critiques of female behaviour, the criticisms they made were generally of faults that had traditionally been seen as feminine, such as being too frivolous or overly concerned with their appearance. Women were more often praised for their heroism in hospitals, factories and the fields than they were criticised for failing to perform their allotted role. Sexual unease was a significant factor, but again it was one that was usually understood within a well-established discourse that featured predatory males exploiting weak women. Sexual misbehaviour was also believed to be much more common in the major cities, and Paris in particular, than in the country as a whole.
One issue in which the war did make a big impact on was that of France’s demographic situation. The massive loss of French life did provide the impetus for a huge debate as to how to improve the nation’s birth-rate. Some observers did suggest that the problem was linked to aberrant behaviour by women, who were refusing to follow their true maternal calling. However, much more common were explanations that focused on practical obstacles towards having children, such as the expense involved, and the necessity of working for many women. Despite much discussion and some legislation in the aftermath of the war, French population growth remained stubbornly sluggish, which suggests that the problem may not have been the priority for the mass of the population as it was for the elite.
The war did not represent a turning point, because gender relations are always changing, some people always fear the disappearance of traditional ideas and some people are always attempting to re-establish what they believe to be the norm. This was the case before, during and after the war. In that sense the war represents not a ‘turning point’, merely an episode in an ongoing series of changes and struggles that people made sense of in the framework of some beliefs they believed to be fixed.
In the workplace, colonial labour was undervalued, partly because the individual qualities of colonial workers were not highly regarded, and partly because social concerns led to them primarily being employed in large, unwieldy groups. Though national authorities made regular attempts to bolster the foreign workforce in an attempt to counter France’s shortages of manpower, they were often frustrated by unwillingness by local authorities and employers to request that labour, stating their preference for French soldiers or prisoners of war as employees. When the acute shortage of workers did persuade local authorities to utilise colonial labour, it was generally badly received and considered a poor substitute for French labour. The example of the employment of foreign, and particularly Chinese, workers in the maritime ports shows that issues over language, morality, productivity and race could all combine to create an atmosphere of hostility between French workers and employers and colonial workers. Immigrant labour was utilised slightly more in regions close to the French border, particularly in the South and South East.
Colonial labour, along with white immigrants and women workers tended to be grouped together as non-skilled labour. This was crucial as the French economy mechanised, in a process which privileged skill as a primary factor in determining suitability for employment. All three groups, but particularly colonial men and white women were seen as lacking the adaptability and the technical ability to undertake specialised, professional work, but were seen as competent at routine, generic work.
Throughout the war, both in industry and in agriculture, although women were lauded for their attempts to substitute for male labour, there were also concerns over their capacity to undertake the work, and the possible deleterious effect that overwork might have on their health and their maternal role. The positions which women were seen to be fulfilling admirably tended to be jobs which could be seen as traditionally women’s work, such as nursing and sewing.

Throughout the war, cartoon advertising depicted traditional stereotypes. One of the most common examples is the dental product Dentol, whose commercials portrayed the merits of their product in the trenches and at the rear. Soldiers of various nationalities were depicted in familiar terms. The English used Dentol to maintain their immaculate appearance, while the French fought still better aided by its magic. The Russians, then still on the allied side, were portrayed as brave, but savage when they ran out of ammunition and launched an attack with their teeth. Lest any of its potential customers should doubt the veracity of this episode, Dentol referred to news reports of this happening in their advert. Dentol also portrayed the popular image of the captured Prussian at the mercy of a French colonial soldier, by contrasting the black figure with teeth gleaming in a huge smile and the German whose near-toothless mouth he was holding open.

Dentol also used traditionalist images of the home front. One cartoon was captioned “Les deux grands amours d’une bonne mère: son enfant et son DENTOL”. Others depicted a pretty young woman knitting and a teething baby wanting Dentol. When men and women interacted, it was also in a very conventional manner. A female nurse was portrayed as offering Dentol as an example of her caring role, while a mother offered it as a present to her grateful son as he left for the front. Dentol’s advertisements show the importance of both race and gender, but betray little modification of traditional concepts.

Both women and foreigners gained credit for where they were seen as contributing to the war effort, and were criticised harshly when they did not. But both were seen to be contributing most significantly when they fulfilled roles that were in keeping with prewar ideas. Thus women gained most credit for their stoic support for their husbands and children at the front, for their efforts in nursing and charity and for raising the next generation of soldiers. Colonial subjects achieved their acclaim by unleashing the uncivilised and ferocious side of their character on the Germans, while humbly submitting to the guidance of their French superiors the rest of the time. The magnitude of the effort made by French soldiers during the war was such that for contemporaries any other effort was likely to pale in comparison. As Noiriel states, “In the interwar period, virtually every xenophobic text made some mention to the French sacrifice during the First World War.” At the same time though, the conservative and nationalistic Union Nationale des Combattants called for a reduction in the formalities involved in gaining naturalisation for foreign subjects who had served in the French army.


[1]From the context, it is clear that Gibon was referring to the aboriginal population of Australia.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Conclusion […]

    Pingback by French attitudes to Race and Gender during World War 1 « So much beauty out there — January 11, 2009 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

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