Academic journal article The Historian

The French Colonial Army and the Great War

Academic journal article The Historian

The French Colonial Army and the Great War

Article excerpt

Most scholarly historical works that discuss the French Army in the First World War principally examine the role of metropolitan units, while neglecting the role of colonial forces. (1) This is a significant omission and fails to demonstrate the complexity of French forces in this war. Deploying and engaging men from all over the French colonial empire created severe problems from recruitment to morale. Teaching men from the two colonial armies, the Armee d'Afrique and the Armee Coloniale, to shift from irregular warfare to the industrial slaughter of the Western Front was a monumental task. Even so, political and military elites in Paris believed that over 650,000 colonial soldiers were absolutely necessary for the conduct of war in Europe because of France's demographic shortfall vis a vis Germany. This article will discuss the recruitment, deployment, combat effectiveness, and morale of French colonial troops. In doing this, I hope to illustrate this neglected chapter of French military history.

By 1914, France had the second largest colonial empire in the world after Great Britain. At the outbreak of the Great War, France had been fighting colonial wars in North-Africa, West-Africa, Madagascar, and Indochina since 1830. While fighting these campaigns, France created two colonial armies: the Armee D'Afrique and the Armee Coloniale.

Initially, the Armee d'Afrique was created during the French conquest of Algeria (1830-57) and later expanded to Tunisia and Morocco, recruited from residents across the Maghrib. (2) The soldiers were drawn from European settlers known as pieds-noirs and indigenous peoples. (3) European infantry units were known as Zouaves and dragoons as Chasseurs d'Afrique. Other European troops of this army included the famous Foreign Legion, Battalion d'Afrique (Bat d'Af), and the discipline companies. Indigenous infantry were known as tirailleurs (sharpshooters), such as the Tirailleurs Algeriens (together with the Tirallieurs Tunisiens often known as Turcos), while indigenous cavalry carried the name of Spahis (horsemen, from the Ottoman Turkish Sipahi).

French marines (initially part of the French Navy) participated in the conquest of West-Africa (from the 1850s to the 1890s), Madagascar (in 1895 and 1896), and Indochina (during the 1880s and 1890s). In 1900 the French government transferred the marines from the Ministry of Marine to the Ministry of War, when they became known as the Armee Coloniale. Additional indigenous units included the West African Tirailleurs Senegalais (abbreviated as B.T.S.), the Madagascan Tirailleurs Malgache, and the Southeast-Asian Tirailleurs Tonkinois. These indigenous units played an important role in the conquest of empire and they were quickly thrown into the crucible of the Western Front, along with the men of North Africa.

Over 600,000 African, Asian, and other indigenous peoples of the French colonial empire served in the French Army in World War I. (4) At the outbreak of the war, there were only 88,108 indigenous troops in the French Army. (5) After the war began, then, over 500,000 indigenous soldiers were recruited from all of France's colonies. One reason that most of the recruiting took place after the opening months of war was that the indigenous colonial troops who were initially deployed suffered enormous casualties (over 60 percent were wounded or killed). Heavy losses of metropolitan soldiers also forced the military authorities in Paris to look for more cannon fodder to fill the gaps in general combat personnel. A not inconsiderable role was played by the constant lobbying of General Charles Mangin (1866-1925) for indigenous colonial troops, which clearly influenced the French High Command's decision to draft more men.

On the eve of the Great War, the French Army created and implemented a formal apparatus and bureaucracy to draft colonial troops. In the opening months of the war, units of West- and North-African men served as both volunteers and draftees. …

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