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"Les Africains et la Grande Guerre": An Encyclopedic History of West Africa and the First World War

Ryan loves learning about lesser-known aspects of history by reading and reviewing the literary works of historians.

"Les Africains et la Grande Guerre" by Mare Michel

"Les Africains et la Grande Guerre" by Mare Michel

Les Africains et la Grande Guerre: L'appel à l'Afrique (1914–1918) is one of those impressively academic looking books that either sends a specialist on the subject into orgasmic joy or makes most people look away and shudder with cold chills. Appearances often are a good way to judge books, and Mare Michel's volume lives up exactly to this—it is a remarkably complete and very detailed history of French West Africa during the First World War, especially concerning economics and military service. It is densely written and most accessible to those who already have a good acquaintance with the period and region and a good grasp of French!

Tirailleurs Sénégalais in WWI

Tirailleurs Sénégalais in WWI


Organizationally, the book is split into four sections: recruitment in West Africa (L'Import du Sang, or the blood tax), combat (Combattre); war production (Produire Pour la Guerre), and the impact on Africa (Une Afrique Nouvelle?). Its introduction lays out the focus on West Africa and commemorates the memory of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais as well as giving the characteristics of West Africa and some of the principal actors involved in the story and what the book hopes to deliver—an examination of how the Great War changed West Africa.

Part 1: L'Impot du Sang (The Blood Tax)

"L'Impot du Sang," or The Blood Price, begins with the ideological origins and debates surrounding colonial recruitment and conscription in Subsaharan Africa. This revolves around the famous—or if one takes a poor view of it, infamous—book from the French general Charles Mangin, L'Armée Noire, laying out the proposal of recruiting black soldiers from Africa en masse for deployment in European conflicts. As the author Michel notes, there was only limited action taken to put this idea into place before WWI, but it would lay the basis for future usage.

Following this is the initial recruitments in the war, covering both the number of troops sent and their composition and demographics—and how they were recruited, with local chiefs conscripting men to go despite the grief of their families and the conviction that they left to die. The result was increasing resistance, with flight to foreign colonies, self-mutilation, and finally armed resistance. French administration tried to gain the loyalty of the Muslim religious leadership, and like in other colonies relied on an accord with the local elites and notables to gain cooperation: most of the time this seemed to work, although sometimes the French jumped on shadows in fear of enemy agitation in the colonies. The assimilated populations in the colonies aimed to fight to be able to gain equal rights and a path towards full inclusion in the French political sphere, which the government worried about for the post-war effects.

But for most of the population conscription and the burden of the war were felt heavily, with a massive revolt starting as military recruitment continued to escalate. Western Volta, now in Burkina Faso, saw a huge uprising, several French defeats, and 9 months to put down the rebellion, with the region heavily punished with a military occupation regime afterward. Temporarily the colonial government and the metropolitan French government abandoned their conscription program in West Africa—but this would quickly change.

1918, in fact, would see the largest military recruitment of any period in West Africa, with new French leadership from Georges Clemenceau and his West African deputy Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese man who had been elected to the French parliament in 1914 and would carry out a recruitment campaign promising better treatment and conditions for the recruited soldiers, and with cooperation with local chiefs and a highly effective campaign of propaganda to achieve much greater effects. Like previously this would be very unequal in different parts of West Africa, with disproportionate numbers of men being drawn from Senegal, although significant numbers were taken from the first time from Burkina Faso.

Part 2: Combattre (Combat)

The second part of the book, "Combattre" (Fighting) is devoted to the actions of the recruited Tirailleurs Senegalais when they were brought to combat itself. Its first chapter is about the combat experience of the Africans on the Western Front, who took heavy casualties at the beginning of the war. After this, the Dardanelles received significant black forces. The book notes the cold which heavily impacted these men from tropical climates in the winter in the Dardanelles, as well as the terrible conditions they faced there. 1916 would see the first truly massive numbers of Tirailleurs Senegalais, as 60,000 men were sent to Europe.

Worse was yet to come in 1917, where the Senegalese were utilized as assault troops in the Nivelle Offensive at the Chemin des Dames, suffering terrible casualties under the command of General Mangin. They would continue to take severe casualties throughout 1918 but consistently fought valiantly and in the later year effectively. In the Balkans, they were more often deployed as security forces and construction units. Generally, the French military command did not have a certain idea of what to do with them, but thinking of them purely as cannon fodder is inaccurate—everybody suffered extreme casualties during attacks in the Great War.

The third chapter in this section is devoted to their living conditions in France, which were generally mediocre, and training which was equally perfunctory and poor, as well as granting few skills for life after combat—notably the French only taught a simplified and pidgin French to the soldiers. Islam also made great advances with the soldiers removed from their animistic milieu and Muslim preachers among them, while the anticlericalism of the French government put a stop to government-backed programs proposed to mass recruit the soldiers to Catholicism. Despite poor conditions, the Senegalese troops generally proved loyal and disciplined. Life behind the lines also led to relationships between the tirailleurs and the French, such as relationships with female nurses and personnel, and they were generally well-liked in the villages they were quartered in, giving a favorable impression of themselves in France—as well as picking up some French social moeurs, such as the strike.

A good collection of photos completes the middle of the book, with combat photos, pictures of the men themselves, propaganda, key figures, and some of the soldiers after the war.

Part 3: Produire Pour la Guerre (War Production)

Part three, "Produire Pour la Guerre" (War Production) starts off with the initial economic crisis caused by the entry into the war, showing the position of West Africa's trade and some of its economic production by the colony, with Senegal's peanut production taking a starring role. The war brutally cut off imports and was combined with a general economic crisis caused by droughts and plague, while prices for export goods plunged. Over time imports and exports recovered, but many of the imports were not from France but rather Britain, less touched by the war. Managing the interests of the general economy and the commercial houses in the region was a tricky matter for French administrators, the latter forming important commercial pressure groups. A critical desire on their part was to prevent the conscription and outflux of men from both the native population and from their own ranks, starting a contradiction between aiming to have an economy of war production and military recruitment.

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This cry would be taken up by the new French governor Van Vollenhoven, who saw the war as an opportunity to develop West Africa to provide for raw materials for French industry, and he wishes to impose economic policies that would encourage production and open up transport links. This would center on stabilizing prices at a level that supposedly was very good, but which actually was essentially just pre-war levels once inflation was taken into account. Massive amounts of forced labor were utilized throughout the region for the war economy and infrastructure expansion. 1918 continued to see major economic efforts despite failures in 1917, but this was undermined by limited shipping which led to massive amounts of stocks simply rotting at the ports. The experiment in heavy state intervention in the economy would come to an end, albeit a slow one, after the war, with a return to the previous laissez-faire by 1920.

This was despite the dream of a major plan of economic development in West Africa, part of the broader Sarraut plan for broader French imperial economic development, stemming from the 1917 colonial conference. This envisioned particularly a major project of irrigation in Mali and Niger to produce cotton for the French textile industry. These projects never came about, and the economic changes in West Africa were limited—but the war did stoke the dream of a major basin of economic strength to enable continued French competitivity in the world.

Part 4: Une Afrique Nouvelle? (A New Africa?)

Part four, "Une Afrique Nouvelle ?" (A New Africa?) looks at the losses of war firstly, in their total numbers and how they were distributed across French West Africa. It then looks at the military after the war as the French demobilized some of their soldiers but also continued to conscript Africans for service in the Rhineland and new conquests, and proposing a huge host of different projects ranging from forces-of-order in France to a Trans-Saharan Railroad and to a massive colonial military reserve—none of which came to light, so that in 1939 the call to war in West Africa was similar to that of 1914.

Economic impacts are the next subject, with a picture of limited changes being pictured, as state interventionism had only reinforced Africa's dependency on France and its mono-economy. Taxes increased, and the economy was dealt a severe dislocation by the effects of the conflict. If the results were limited, they did place firmly myths into place which would be drawn on again in the future.

The final chapter devotes itself to war memory, starting with the official memory war between the French and the Germans, as the Germans drew a picture of a terroristic and horrifying African colonial soldier and terrible war crimes and atrocities committed by him. The French of course declared themselves the defenders of the rights of man and equality of peoples. France would also see a whole host of monuments to the colonial troops and to the colonial idea constructed during the Interwar, although many would be destroyed by the Germans during their occupation of France in the 1940s. Over time, independent African literature dealing with the war and taking a more critical view of the African role in it and of the French colonial myth would also be written.

The Conclusion

In the conclusion, the three principal themes of the economic and military involvement of West Africa in the war and their effects upon Africa are discussed. For the author, the greatest takeaway is that while the war cemented colonialism in West Africa, it also laid the seeds of contestation with a new generation that saw the sacrifices that West Africa made for the war no longer simply as simply something that needed to be recognized but something that deserved to be being repaid.

Blaise Diagne

Blaise Diagne

Review and Analysis

There are two main points that Les Africains et la Grande Guerre covers: the military role of West Africa and its economic changes over the course of the war. Above all else, these two are linked together to respond to the question of how the relationship between France and its West African colony changed over time. There are aspects beyond these military and economic aspects, including political and cultural ones, which are also the subject of the book, but at its heart, it is an economic-military text.

Military recruitment is the most dramatic aspect of the war for West Africa, and Les Africains et la Grande Guerre covers this extremely well, showing the history of the West Africain tirailleurs, how their pre-war recruitment happened, the transformations in recruitment over the course of the war, debates and the ideological context surrounding recruitment (both in France and in the colonies), the resistance which initial recruitment programs generated, and then what the life of troops overseas was, what their living and battle conditions were like, and how they were impacted by the experience. The coverage of the revolts against conscription is particularly interesting. While the book is not a cultural history, it includes enough references to literature and changes in mentality and ideals that it gives a good overview of how this military campaign was linked to changes in the intellectual climate of post-war West Africa.

Economics is a subject that is less famous for West Africa, although it does pop up again in the post-war era. This book I feel, gives a good understanding of some of the aspects of French Interwar economic planning, with the plans by Albert Sarraut to carry out an industrialization of the French colonies and a larger degree of state development planning, by showing how economics operated in the Great War. Here, instead of industrialization, the stress of war served to simplify and restrict economic diversity in the region, focusing on its production for its key commodities like oils, and perhaps not mentioned specifically as an economic term, but West Africa's greatest export—fighting men. Problems like shipping and economic competition from the English receive their place as well, which does much to help understand the limits of the Allied war economy and of imperial mobilization in the colonies.

The heavy reliance upon extensive statistics gives the book a respectable degree of legitimacy and enables it to back up its points, coming into effect particularly in its section on the military deployment of Tirailleurs sénégalais in Europe and the economic impact of the war. The Tirailleurs are probably West Africa's most famous contribution to the French war effort during WW1 and Les Africains et la Grande Guerre is a quite conclusive look at their deployment, recruitment, casualties, employment, the controversy surrounding them, and their impact back on the home country. It is extremely well provided with tables, statistics, charts, and maps, which makes it easy to understand many of its more statistical and mathematical points.

An exceptionally dense and broad work, Les Africains et la Grande Guerre is one of those volumes that should serve as the keystone of an academic's library on French West Africa, or as part of an extensive collection on the First World War. It makes no pretenses to be something other than a heavily academic book, and for most people, it is unnecessary reading. But for the specialized reader who really wants to know the details about West Africa's participation in WWI, there is definitively no better book.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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