Richard S. Fogarty, Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918

By Hanna, Martha | French Politics, Culture and Society, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Richard S. Fogarty, Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918


Hanna, Martha, French Politics, Culture and Society


Richard S. Fogarty, Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914-1918 (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

To secure victory in the First World War the French Army needed as many men as it could muster. And although more than eight million Frenchmen (in a nation of less than forty million) were mobilized between 1914 and 1918, losses were so severe that French strategists feared that these numbers alone would not suffice: France would also have to tap into the vast "reservoirs of men" that the empire represented. Ultimately, almost half a million colonial troops (troupes indigenes) served in the French Army during the Great War, either in combat units or in support positions behind the lines. Yet it is not clear that these men, recruited from West and North Africa, Madagascar, and Indo-China, were deployed to the best strategic effect because racial prejudice so deeply permeated French military thinking as to limit how and where colonial troops were used. This is the fascinating story that Richard S. Fogarty explores in Race and War in France. Based on extensive research in the archives of the French Army and of colonial authorities, he argues that a fundamental tension pervaded French military attitudes towards the deployment of colonial troops during the First World War. On the one hand, republican egalitarianism held that all men were equal; and yet facial (and religious) prejudice prompted military commanders to doubt the loyalty, intelligence, reliability, and martial resolve of many colonial troops. As Fogarty remarks, "commitment to the ideals of universalism and egalitarianism pushed French officials to include troupes indigenes in both national defense and the national community, while racism pulled these same officers back from measures that would make the full integration of colonial subjects into national life a reality" (12).

Racial prejudice and preconceptions influenced almost every aspect of French military thinking. The belief that some colonies were populated by "martial races" and others by less manly types doomed West African troops--praised as fearsome, albeit primitive, warriors--to serve as shock troops on the Western Front, while men from Madagascar and Indo-China, deemed "non-martial races," usually served in support positions behind the lines. Loyalty to Islam made Algerian and Moroccan recruits suspect, for commanders feared that they would be more likely to desert to the enemy in order to wage "holy war" against the Entente. This meant that North African troops were not used in the campaign against Turkey, and although they were thus spared the particular horror of storming the heights at Gallipoli, they deeply resented the clear implication that their commanders thought them untrustworthy. Senegalese troops, admired for their martial valor, were nonetheless demeaned as intellectual primitives who lacked the capacity (or so it was thought) to learn proper French: in 1916 the French Army created a language primer that taught the tirailleurs senegalais a grammatically rudimentary version of French in which all nouns were masculine and all syntax followed a simplified, but laughable, prescribed form (156). The French High Command also thought colonial troops, including those of the "martial races," insufficiently stoical, and thus less prepared than white, French troops for the stalemate of the Western Front. Yet the guiding principle of French military planning until at least October 1914 had been that of the offensive a outrance on the grounds that all troops needed the allure of offense to maintain their morale. Stoicism, it seems, was something that even Frenchmen had to acquire the hard way, in the mud of northern France. French commanders, quick to praise the French troops for their stoicism, seem to have forgotten this in their disparagement of colonial troops' resolve.

Fogarty acknowledges that racist attitudes alone did not determine military policy towards colonial troops.

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