Bibliographic data

Alazard, Joëlle; Lécureuil, Delphine: Le monde, l'Europe, la France (1850 - 1945). Histoire 1, L/ES/S. Paris: Nathan, 2007, 228–229.

"The French Colonies and the Great War"

[p. 228]


The French Colonies and the Great War

  • How has the First World War changed relations between France and its Empire?

During the First World War, the French Empire offered a contingent of more than 600,000 men to the “motherland”. The contribution of the colonies also consisted of providing labour and raw materials. Should the war events engender a certain solidarity with the motherland on the part of its colonised subjects, the war would also nourish aspirations for more dignity and equality. At the same time, contact between the colonial troops, other mobilised groups, and civilians served to fuel certain prejudices.

[p. 228, left column]

[Black and white poster: A galloping rider who waves a flag wearing a robe which flutters in the wind. On the sides are two high palm trees and along the bottom cacti]

[Text in the picture] THIS IS WHAT WE OWE our to COLONIES

Before the war, the necessity of colonies or protectorates for France was not understood anywhere in the world.

Now we all know what we owe to thousands of native volunteers who fought for their beloved France with as much courage as the French themselves, or who carried out the most valuable services in the background.

We all know now the enormous quantities of their products which our African , Asian , American and Oceanic possessions sent to us: without them, ensuring our supply would have been much more difficult.

Mutual efforts give rise to mutual affection.

[Caption] 1 “This is what we owe to our colonies”

Poster by Victor Prouvé, 1918.

[p. 228, right column]

[Postcard: black and white photograph of an Asian in work cloths, standing in front of a workbench.]

[Text in the picture] Tho Kháeh tieén trái phá (Lyon)

[Text in Asiatic letters]

[Caption] 2 Indochinese worker pretending to operate a machine for weapons in Lyon

Postcard, approximately 1917.

[p. 229, left column]

[Caption] 3 The “savage” and the “good infantryman”

[Title in the picture] a. The prejudices in the encounter with Senegalese soldiers

Drawing extracted form Bécassine by J. Pinchon, 1919.

[Black and white caricature: A man with dark skin, wearing pantaloons, boots and a hat on his head, stands in front of a woman wearing a dress with apron and bonnet. His body is bent, he is holding his stomach and his finger is pointing to his open mouth. She falls backwards slightly, leaning on a table from which a bottle is falling down. She looks at him. In the background, we can observe men watching the scene.]

[Text in the picture] “We entered the dining room where I had set his table. And suddenly he cries: Boubouf , rolling his eyes, rattling his jaw with a wild look! … The others appeared to be horrified: they said to me: “He would like to eat; serve him fast; he is having a seizure …

[Caption] 4 Between two feelings

[Textual source]

a. From hope…

Blaise Diagne 1 appeared (…) In Dakar, as in other places, this great black leader of the Parliament spoke French. The people listened to them religiously. Their lively accents reawakened their hearts and inspired courage. They knew how to appeal to the Africans’ sense of honour by showing them that France, attacked to the core by barbarians, needed their help – magic words and pronounced by someone who had even been honoured by the Whites! They also talked about obtaining French citizenship. Nothing else was necessary. Masses of young people liberated themselves from everything in order to become enlisted beneath the flags. The objective leading to the involvement of the Senegalese Member of Parliament in this mission was well on the way to becoming reality: promoting intensive recruitment by avoiding troubles and the revolts that usually precede them. (…)

b. … to disappointment

When these infantrymen came home to their countries they would recount, over the course of an evening, all they had seen. No, the white man was not a superhuman, beneficiary of whatever divine or diabolic protection; he was a man like them, with the same mix of qualities and faults, of power and weakness. And when they discovered that their medals and their veteran titles gave them a pension which was half of that of their white comrades with whom they had shared the battles and suffering, some of them dared to make demands and speak of equality. It was then, in 1919, that for the first time a spirit of emancipation and demands was in the air, which, with time, would ultimately develop further in other sectors of the population.

Amadou Hampâté Bâ1, Amkoullel, l'enfant peul, Actes Sud, Paris, 2001.

1. Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991), writer from Mali.

[p. 229, right column]

[Postcard: Black and white photograph of a smiling African soldier in a French uniform, who holds a Pickelhaube in his right hand beside his breast and another in his left hand on top of his headgear.

[Text in the picture] Glory to the Greatest France

93A7 J.K.

[Caption] b. “Glory to the Greatest France”

Postcard, approximately 1915.

[Questions] Questions

Analyse documents

Documents 1 and 2: 1. Which form did the participation of the colonies in the conflict take? 2. What is the aim of document 1?

Document 3: 3. How did the First World War partially alter public opinion regarding the colonised population?

Document 4: 4. How can the success of the recruitment carried out by Blaise Diagne in Senegal in 1917 be explained? Had mobilising colonial troops always been so easy? 5. Which are, according to Hampâté Bâ, the effects of the war on the African population?


Organised commentaries on the subject

With the help of the documents and your knowledge, write an organised commentary on the subject: “How has the First World War changed relations between France and its Empire?”

[1] The Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne (1872-1934) was the first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1914 as a representative of the French colony Senegal. See (20.08.2018).

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