The Black Soldier’s Lament

Amid the scores of concerns that clouded France’s Chamber of Deputies in the fall of 1915, the status of some of the empire’s colonial citizens would not have seemed a priority.  Despite decades of colonial demands to codify the citizenship status of France’s African subjects, in some cases stretching as far back as to the revolutions of 1848, the issue had been deflected by French government after government.  For the African subjects of the Fourth Republic, broadly known then as the Senegalese originaires (even though few of them were actually in French Senegal), their rights and ability to elect representation floated in a Schrödinger’s cat state of unrest – they were both citizens and not-citizens, sometimes the beneficiaries of French law, and sometimes bereft of it.

But for a war bleeding France white, black soldiers became one potential solution to the manpower shortage.  A mass conscription of Senegalese oringinaires could provide thousands of men at arms.  But conscription also conferred citizenship.  France could have her thousands of black soldiers, if colonial Africa could have a seat at the table in French political affairs.  The demands of the trenches outweighed the colonial fears of the French ruling class.  Black Africans were no longer broadly defined as Senegalese subjects – they were now French citizens.  Over 200,000 would fight for France; 30,000 would never return home.

The debate over the status of colonial subjects was occurring in all the capitals of the Entente.  The Great War was only just over a year old, but was already remaking European society.

French Senegalese troops – the term “Senegalese” was given to pretty much all central African French subjects, and the “oringinaires” only referred to the coastal population of those colonies

The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.

With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end…

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest

From trenches deep toward the sky.
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.

The Black Soldier’s Lament, George A. Borden


To the extent the Entente gave their colonies any considerations at the start of the Great War, it was in pursuit of German colonial possessions.  The rapid expansion of Europe’s colonial empires in the 19th century had left Britain and France in control of vast sections of the globe, with only a thin paste of shifting political allegiances and minimalist military power holding it all together.  Concerns over how the empires could consolidate their gains were secondary to the opportunity to once again enlarge their territories at Germany’s expense.   

The war’s broader implications were an afterthought for those living under imperial rule as well.  For most British or French colonial subjects, the war in Europe was a distant, confusing affair which had little to no impact on their daily lives.  But as manpower shortages began bedeviling the Entente, non-European units began to be called up and the search for “volunteers” increased.  Both Britain and France had previously held non-white units in their armies.  The Indian Army, an actual volunteer force, contributed over a million troops during the course of the Great War, serving on fronts ranging from China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Salonika and France.  The French volunteer Senegalese Tirailleurs (“skirmisher”, “rifleman” or “sharpshooter”) had existed since 1857 and had already contributed five battalions against the Germans in addition to their role in putting down a bloody rebellion in French Morocco.

Senegalese tiralleurs as portrayed in a 1914 Russian postcard

But army units such as these had largely existed as occupation forces in their own homelands.  In addition to lacking the training and armaments necessary to fight a European war, most of the units simply lacked in numbers.  Even the Indian Army in 1914 held only 240,000 men – and those were stretched perilously thin by their subcontinental commitments.

Few colonial subjects had the slightest interest in fighting and dying for far-off foreign governments.  While German colonial rule had been much more brutal – the 1904-08 genocide of the Herero tribes of Namibia showed how German authorities treated their African subjects – the threat of German conquest never appeared tangible, and thus was hardly effective when it came to colonial recruitment.  And the Entente often had a broad definition of recruits.  Unable to sway young African men into their ranks, the French held “raiding parties” into the interior of their African colonies, bringing back “volunteers” who had the misfortune of being captured.  Such efforts only increased hostilities and yielded few willing soldiers.

When it came to filling their ranks, the Entente had tried the stick.  Now they turned to the carrot.

South African Boer soldiers.  The war created opportunities for colonies to gain additional rights and powers, even in a recently rebellious colony like South Africa.  The Second Boer War had just ended in 1902 and killed over 57,000 between both sides

European colonial rule didn’t exist simply by force of arms.  Across the various colonial outposts of the Entente empires were thousands of local political allies who waged a constant balancing act between collaboration and resistance.

The war had not fostered a leniency among the Entente when it came to colonial rebellion.  The Maritz Rebellion of South African Boers in 1914 had been violently crushed, and became the rationale of invading and occupying German South West Africa as the rebels had retreated over the border.  Sensing the mood of the British government, and the opportunity for territory and power, the Boer South African government waged war against the Germans with gusto, contributing 130,000 troops – many of whom had been fighting against the British less than 15 years earlier.

The scenario was playing out across the various Entente empires – by embracing the war effort instead of resisting it (or siding with the Germans), the colonies could leverage their calls for greater autonomy and political power.  India’s Princely States formed the Imperial Service Brigades, an admittedly small force but one that reduced the strain on the Indian Army in return for less British authority in their principalities.  The Senegalese, led by their representative in the Chamber of Deputies Blaise Diagne, had successfully obtained their full citizenship in return for conscripted soldiers.  In the British West Indies, despite the objections by Secretary of War Lord Kitchener who wished to keep the British Army segregated, thousands of West Indians volunteered under the vague promises of greater equality within the empire.

Blaise Diagne – the first black African elected to the Chamber of Deputies.  He would be credited with gaining full citizenship for some French African subjects

Such actions greatly benefited those colonial figures who were willing to work for – or at least within – the colonial system.  Blaise Diagne, as an example, would go on to become the first black African to hold a cabinet-level post in the French government.  But for the average colonial volunteer or conscript, the implicit promise that service would lead to a better life would become a bitter lie.

For many colonial soldiers, the horrors of the trenches would pale to the suffering they encountered just getting to Europe.

French African troops would be confined to the bowels of their transport ships, where food and fresh air was limited.  British West Indian troops would encounter the exact opposite problem, being forced to stay outdoors on their vessels, and exposed to the elements.  In one such incident in early 1916, over 1,100 West Indian recruits were diverted to Halifax due to German U-boat patrols.  The recruits, lacking anything approaching winter gear, found themselves freezing in the harsh Canadian air.  Over 600 men were treated for frostbit and related injuries.  Five would die.

A French colonial recruitment poster.  Few colonial volunteers willing went to war for the Entente outside of India and Ireland

Upon arriving at the front, the colonial troops would realize how little fighting they were expected to actually do.  Their jobs would include loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches.  Some British West Indian units weren’t even given weapons.  Many would find themselves on tertiary fields, occupying a quiet sector of the front to free up fighting duties for white soldiers.  This in turn only added to strained racial relations within the Entente armies.  Even if African, Indian or West Indian troops didn’t stir racial animus among white regular troops, their arrival certainly was viewed as a harbinger of a transfer to the front.

When such colonial units did fight, they were rarely entrusted to fight on their own.  French African units in particular were commingled with white troops, or in some cases, the Zouave troops of French North Africa.  By 1916, the Zouaves, recruits from the Zouaoua (or Zwāwa) tribes of North African Berbers, were considered less African and more European as more and more Frenchmen had settled in the region.  Even the Indian Army – commanded by white British officers and extremely well-respected within the empire – rarely fought completely independently of the British Army.

Executed members of the Singapore mutiny.  Over 850 Indian soldiers rebelled in a revolt that took 8 days to bring down.  47 Indians were convicted and executed for their roles in the mutiny

The mistrust between the Entente empires and their colonial soldiers wasn’t simply a matter of racism, but legitimate European concerns about divided colonial loyalties.

As early as February of 1915, the Entente found themselves dealing with rebellious colonial units.  That month, members of the 5th Light Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army mutinied in Singapore, killing 47 British regulars and civilians.  The unit, among the oldest in the Indian Army with a tradition going back to the early 1800s, had been victim to a combination of internal and external political maneuvering.  One of the few all-Muslim units in the Indian Army, the 5th Light Infantry had been subjected to propaganda from the anti-British Ghadar party, and pro-Ottoman propaganda highlighting Sultan Mehmed V’s call to jihad against the Entente.  Coupled with the promotion of a hated British regular to their command, the 5th Light Infantry rebelled.  The mutiny lasted 8 days and required marines from the French, Russians and Japanese to eventually put the revolt down.  It could have been worse – the rebelling Indians freed over 300 German POWs, under the assumption the Germans would fight with them.  All but 35 Germans preferred to stay in the prison camp.

The mistrust wasn’t simply directed at colonies considering of black or brown subjects.  Perhaps the greatest colonial animosity within the Entente came between Britain and Ireland.  Despite over 200,000 Irishmen serving with the regular British Army during the Great War, the Irish push for home rule, if not total independence, was repeatedly brushed aside.  The Home Rule Act of 1914, intended to finally provide greater autonomy for Ireland, did manage to pass the British Parliament.  But Britain refused to implement the policy, citing the priority of the war.  The rising tensions eventually led to the Easter Uprising of 1916, which cost not only 466 lives, but any willingness on the part of the Irish population to participate as volunteers in the war.  The Irish turnabout can be neatly encapsulated by the poet, and Irish volunteer, Francis Ledwidge.  Calling Germany an “enemy of civilization” as part of his rationale for joining the British Army, Ledwidge would shift his opinion after the Easter Uprising.  “If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them,” Ledwidge said, echoing most of his fellow Irishmen.  “Let them come!”

The “lament” wasn’t reserved just for minority colonial soldiers.  Here, rebelling Irishmen take up positions during the Easter Rebellion of 1916

Incidents like the Singapore mutiny and the Easter Rebellion provided the contradictory recipe for the Entente’s colonial relations for most of the war – colonial troops were badly needed, but couldn’t be trusted.  Such mistrust only served to feed a cycle of dysfunction.  Colonial units, frustrated with their treatment (not unlike their European counterparts), would rebel, prompting even harsher treatment in response.  The near total collapse of Entente morale in 1916/17, particularly in the French lines, would initially be blamed in part by the poor morale of the colonial recruits.  More realistically, it was the other way around – the rebellion of white European units fed the willingness of colonial troops to join them in revolt.

The simmering mistrust between the Entente and their colonies would only be partially put aside to try and win the war.

British Sikh soldiers on the march in France

In some cases, the Entente would attempt to address the issue directly.  Following the Singapore mutiny, Britain’s Secretary of State for India Austen Chamberlain encouraged a military campaign into the heart of Mesopotamia in an effort to improve British prestige with Indian Muslims, in addition to securing the transportation of British oil.  Although the Mesopotamian campaign would be fought with few (if any) actual Indian Muslim troops, the British gladly capitalized on the propaganda of liberating Islamic holy lands from the Turks – portraying the Turks as Muslims compromised by their Germanic alliance.  This would only increase as the British actively encouraged the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans; publicizing the triumphs of T.E. Lawrence and his band of rebels.  While the military campaign in Mesopotamia was largely a disaster (which we’ll be covering soon), Indian troops, in particular Muslim Indian troops, didn’t significantly rebel again despite substantial German/Ottoman efforts to do so.

In other cases, the mistrust boiled under the surface; emerging only after the war was over.  A December 1918 mutiny of British West Indian troops had to be put down by force after they had killed their own black colonial officers (a concession the British had given in hopes of avoiding just such a mutiny).  The result was many of the surviving veterans returning home to organize the various West Indian colonies (St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Jamaica, British Guiana and British Honduras) into a political league that would argue for increased rights at home.

French Algerian troops awaiting a train.  French North African troops had already had a long and colorful history of service, but few were prepared for the sort of combat that awaited them on the Western Front

The war fundamentally altered the Entente’s relationships with their colonies – to the point of redefining what being a “colony” was in the eyes of the empires.

The fall of the German and Ottoman empires gave the Entente new colonies across the globe.  But with suspicion over imperialism as one of the root factors in the war, both the British and French redefined many of their new acquisitions as “mandates”, not colonies.  At first blush, the definition seemed to be a distinction without a difference – the military affairs of the mandates were most assuredly controlled by the Entente, and the governments therein little more than puppets.  But in many of the mandates, free elections were held and at least the facade of self-governance dictated Entente policy.  It was of little surprise then at some of the first countries to gain full independence were those under the “mandate” status, such as Iraq in 1932 and Syria in 1943.

Such relative political independence for the mandates further inspired calls for political autonomy across the Entente.  For the thousands of colonial subjects who had fought, the experience had provided them an opportunity to be treated as equals within their respective empires.  Now they demanded the same treatment in peace time.  For all the laments of the colonial soldier in the Great War, peace had brought an opportunity for new rights.

1 thought on “The Black Soldier’s Lament

  1. Very good piece, First Ringer.
    The wounds of Ireland are still close to the surface. It was brother-against-brother for some time in the 1920s.

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