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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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1.3 Colonial soldiers in the French Army

African-American soldiers were not the only Black troops to remain far from home after the war had ended. Many French colonial troops were also in Europe long after the Armistice. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, the German Rhineland was occupied by French troops. The French chose soldiers from various colonies of their empire for this purpose. Around 200,000 troops from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Madagascar were used to occupy the territory. Cynically, the French believed ‘in the strategic psychological effect of these troops’ on Germans (Campts, 2004, p. 32). As Tina Campts shows, the French and the Germans had the same stereotypical views of Black soldiers who were believed to possess ‘robustness, endurance, tenacity and instinct for combat, an absence of nerves, and incomparable power to shock [intimidate] their enemies’ (cited in 2004, p. 32). The French chose these troops to intimidate and humiliate the Germans.

At the beginning of the war, the French had conducted a concerted propaganda campaign in which they painted their African soldiers as brutal and bloodthirsty barbarians, with the intention of intimidating the Germans. As Kenneth J. Orosz describes:

During the first few months of the war, the French press worked to boost morale at home and terrify the enemy by popularizing the myth that their African soldiers (Tirailleurs) were ruthless, savage barbarians armed with bush knives intent on beheading Germans. For example, in an August 1914 article, La Dépêche Coloniale described Tirailleurs as black demons who would retaliate against German barbarism. The Marseille-based journal

Midi colonial ran a cartoon of a Muslim soldier wearing a necklace made of ears, with a caption cautioning that the enemy was listening. Similarly, a French postcard entitled Nos bons Sénégalais depicted a Tirailleur seeking praise from his captain for delivering a row of severed German heads. Other illustrations hinted at cannibalism by showing a grinning Tirailleur cooking dinner in a German Picklehaube helmet, referring to it as a treat from the “Boche”.

(Orosz, 2021)

Many French soldiers seem to have believed this propaganda, too. For example, Henri Barbusse felt that the presence of Moroccans among his comrades lent the war an exotic air. They were ‘intimidating and even a little frightening’, ‘devils … made for attacking… (Fogarty and Jarboe, 2021).

The occupation of the Rhineland continued until 1930 (which means that, for many of the occupying forces, their war did not end in 1918 but carried on for more than a decade!) and was referred to as the Black Shame (‘die schwarze Schande’) by Germans. The anti-Black propaganda in Figure 5, taken from the front cover of a German satirical magazine in 1916, gives a flavour of the views of the time.

Described image
Figure 5 Front page of the magazine Kladderadatsch, 23 July 1916, entitled ‘The Civilising of Europe’

Did you know?

The satirical magazine Kladderadatsch started life in 1848 and had then been critical of the government and in favour of moderate reform, but a critic of socialism. At the outbreak of war, the journal supported the war effort and, after the war, it became increasingly right wing. For a short account of the history of this important source, see Kladderadatsch [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

It is interesting to note that this kind of propaganda was also used elsewhere, for example in the USA. The cartoon in Figure 6, which is aimed at pro-German Americans, uses very similar imagery

Described image
Figure 6 Front page of the US-American publication The Fatherland, 14 September 1914
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Figure 7 From The Fatherland entitled ‘Germany: Defender of Civilisation. Against the Barbarian Host’

The next section is the first of two case studies in which we look in detail at the war-time experiences of two members of the so-called ‘Harlem Hellfighters’.