Part 5 of a 5-part series.
On behalf of France, La Coloniale and the Armée d’Afrique performed admirably in both combat and occupation duties during World War I.
The French Africans who served in Europe came from all across the empire—Tirailleurs from Senegal, spahis from Tunisia and Algeria, and goums from Morocco, 175,000 in all. Other local regiments of Tirailleurs from equatorial French Africa were in turn deployed to the French colonial possessions in North Africa, and many others (about 160,000 in total) joined the Armée Métropolitaine in France on an ad hoc basis.
In combat, the colonial troops proved themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt. Many succumbed to the illnesses brought on by the radical change of climate, and for the most part, the harsh European winters meant that the African units would winter in the south of France. To some, this was reason enough to doubt the effectiveness of Africans in combat, but it was always ignored that these ‘deficiencies’ had nothing to do with the fighting skill of men from the tropics.
La Coloniale was as professional as it could ever hope to be. Despite the press at home, German propaganda, and constant rumblings from soldiers on either side of no-man’s-land, the African troops were in no way inferior to their white equivalents. They acquired a reputation for ruthlessness, and the French public was delighted by reports of savage treatment of the Germans. From then until this day, the Tirailleurs have enjoyed a near-mythos of “headcutters” and barbarians, “who could almost single-handedly scare le boche all the way back to Berlin.” Contemporary tales describe how “against the endless, disciplined, grey columns of the Germans, [the Africans] fought with a desperate fury that the most eloquent panegyrist could hardly exaggerate.”
It often seemed that opinion was more forgiving of poor African performance when it would have permanently damaged the martial reputation of a different unit. The experience of the French 45th and 78th Divisions at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 is illustrative of this. Those divisions, along with the Canadian 1st Division were holding the line near east of Ypres itself.
On April 22, the Germans launched the first gas attack on the Western front against the French colonial troops. Within an hour hundreds lay dying in the chlorine-filled trenches, and the others soon broke and retreated from the line. The part of the story that particularly incensed those who were critical of the French was that after the Africans fled the field, the Canadian Division that had arrived in-theater only two months earlier was able to close the gap and continue to hold the line. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, was one of those able to recognize the severity of the gassings at Ypres and the low probability of any division holding:
After all the examples our gallant Allies have shown of dogged and tenacious courage in the many trying situations in which they have been placed … I would only express my firm conviction that, if any troops in the world had been able to hold their trenches in the face of such a treacherous and altogether unexpected onslaught, the French Division would have stood firm.
During the occupation of Germany, in which more than 35,000 African soldiers took part, their behavior was of a “very high standard,” despite the efforts of German propaganda to portray them otherwise. Berlin went to great lengths to portray the presence of African soldiers as intentionally offensive to delicate sensibilities, suggesting that African troops would rape German women. The German press referred to the occupiers as die schwarze Schwande—the “Black Shame.” The penalties set by French authorities and the severe discipline under which the African troops were kept helped keep tensions as low as possible, but in most cases were not even needed. As Anthony Clayton writes, “They were free of any thirst for revenge that motivated some French personnel. The Malagasies, a number of whom were or became Roman Catholics, were notably popular. The North African units…by their presence more than their doings, provided fuel for propagandists.”
Nevertheless, the manpower requirements of France dictated that North African troops serve in the occupying force, and so they did, until the last were withdrawn in 1926. Occupation duties of the Indian Army were limited to Mesopotamia, where four infantry divisions and one mounted division formed the Palestine Occupation Force. The last of these was disbanded by 1928.
In the years following the Armistice, the Empires of Britain and France managed to spite the global depression by continuing to expand. Both reached their loftiest heights on the eve of World War II in 1938. The two nations had divided Togo and Cameroon between them, and in the Middle East, Britain gained Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq (the dominions receiving their own territorial prizes), with France obtaining League of Nations mandates over Syria and Lebanon. British India had already reached its greatest extent, as was the case with British colonies in Asia. The Middle East had been elevated to a status as a major strategic theater, and the relative proximity of Indian troops made them more valuable than ever.
From the beginning, the great global empires of Britain and France were founded on the backs of the natives. Between slavery, conscription, and volunteer manpower, the contributions of overseas colonies were what allowed these empires to thrive. The native troops of the British and French Empires expanded, preserved, and perhaps most curiously, were the undoing of both countries as imperial powers.
It is perhaps not so suspicious as it once was that many of the leaders of the nationalist and independence-minded parties throughout the postcolonial world spent their formative years in Paris or London. Consider Ho Chi Minh or Mohandas Gandhi, who were best able to develop their intellectual skills in their respective metropoles. It seems almost a foregone conclusion that the empires should have collapsed.
That outcome, though, was never a surety. Charles de Gaulle’s “French Union” lasted as a reality only until the end of the Fourth Republic, and the dream itself died for good after the Rwandan Genocide. The stopper in the bottle, as it were, was always dependent on an individual colony’s political self-awareness, as well as first-hand knowledge of the imperial core. France and Britain, to a larger extent than any other empires, incorporated their native troops in their respective armies to a point where, ironically enough, the best-suited men to lead future revolutions were graduates of their enemy’s schools. Thus it can be said that the native troops were both the foundation and downfall of their respective empires.
One of the most useful ways to truly comprehend the ways in which a single entity can impact history is to imagine a world without it. To that end, the British Empire owed its very existence to the Indian Army in the same way that the French Empire depended on La Coloniale for its survival. That is to say, without the inhabitants of the colonies, they would not have been colonies. More credit than that is due, though, for not just the periphery, but the metropoles themselves can thank colonial contributions for staving off German domination and maintaining ‘Great Power’ status. Without the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, metropolitan France would surely have been defeated within months, just as the Ottoman gateway to the Middle East would not have been held in check without the Indian Army. This would have allowed the battlecruiser SMS Goeben to leave port—forcing the Royal Navy to detach precious ships and men in pursuit.
The “British Expeditionary Force,” says Niall Ferguson, was “a thoroughly multinational enterprise which…somehow endured despite profound ethnic divisions and frequently lamentable leadership.” The same could be said for any of France or Britain’s colonial troops. Willing and eager to defend their land and that of their rulers, they came together by choice to protect an empire. The same men would go on to dismantle it in Algeria, in Indochina, in Japan and across the world. But as long as they turned a blind eye to the depravities of various colonial regimes, they would obey orders.
It would not be long before an obscure Austrian corporal would bring the dominated together with the dominators to fend him off, which proved to be the final blossoming of Indian nationalists, North African Communists, and the end of imperialism. Without native armies to protect them, the days of empire were over.