France's Colored Troops

By Stoddard Dewey

[The Nation; December 16, 1915]

Paris, November 28.

I wonder what natives of Boston think of the outcry against France that she is using colored soldiers. They used to be proud of St. Gaudens's monument to Col. Shaw and his regiment—the first colored regiment raised in our Civil War. Now there are colored men of the French colonies of Africa whose country is organized into settled communes and who can vote for members of Parliament—and yet they are not so far subject to military conscription. They who have the right to vote should surely have the right to fight.

These darker children of France have not shown themselves backward in offering themselves for military service in defence of what is also their country. They are not all colored in our American sense. There are Arabs of Tunis and Algiers and Kabyles or Berber's as well as Senegalese. All have shown their attachment to the country where they and theirs are well—ubi bene, ibi patria. An aged mountaineer on the Algerian frontier, at the beginning of war, brought his eighteen-year-old son to the recruiting office:

"I wish him to go and fight the Germans since they are your enemies. The French have done good to us—we are better fed and better clothed than we used to be. If I were not too old, I would go with my boy."

In Tunis certain classes of natives have already been subject to military service like the French themselves. Sharpshooter reserves, who were not long back from a Moroccan campaign, came trooping in at the first sign of mobilizing, with the Morocco medal and little military book which shows the civil status and military service of each soldier carefully wrapped up in their handkerchiefs. In their broken French all spoke of France as if she were a person well beloved: "To-morrow to France—to defend our France."

The day war began, on the 3d of August, a battalion of these African sharpshooters was ordered to France from Kenifra, a storm point of South Morocco. A few miles on their march they were attacked by thousands of Moorish marauders who must have been set on them—so the men thought—by some of the German emissaries abounding in Morocco. Many dressed their own wounds for fear the doctor might keep them from going on. One of the dying murmured: "Allah did not wish me to see France!" In a month's time they were at Compiègne, and within four hours were facing the German front in battle. At Lassigny one African, section held out twenty-four hours against a German battalion. A Mussulman lieutenant was asked how his men could stand up so long against enemies more numerous and violent. He said: "Our Arabs fight as if in a dream!"

In his picturesque language he explained that the bullets came at them like beans thrown against a wall—"we were the wall." He was shot through the hips and crawled into a little trench. There he found one of his men—a fellah of Kairouan, that closed city of Mohammedans on the desert's edge. The poor Arab was dying, and in life he had known only want and privation, but he found strength to murmur: "Lieutenant, you will see Paris again, where the pretty ladies gave us flowers and chocolate." There, for the first time, he had tasted such a luxury.

The lieutenant lay paralyzed nearly a day when he heard voices. Holding his revolver ready, he resolved to sell his life dearly. But it was the French stretcher-bearers looking for the wounded, and, he wound up in the Sisters' hospital at Rouen. He could not cease marvelling that German wounded should be cared for beside him. One of these Germans, a rough common soldier, in a fit of discontent threw his bowl at a Sister's head—and a swarthy Mussulman all but strangled him for disrespect for a "maraboute." No one need fear that African Mussulmans will recognize the German Emperor's "old God."

Here at Paris I pass daily the Hospital of the Mussulman's Friends under the sign of the Red Star. Shining black Senegalese, with bandages round noses or other impossible parts, show their white teeth and seem to enjoy treatment and convalescence. One, almost a giant, acts as general shepherd dog when the little French nurse takes her boyish charges out for a bit of walk in the neighboring park. These Senegalese are genuine blacks, and they have done themselves credit all through the war—good soldiers, good fellows. They, too merit the eulogy which an officer of twenty-five years' experience gives to the "Turcos" who fought with him in Madagascar and Indo-China, in Morocco and now on French soil against Germans: "When well commanded, the Tunisian and the Algerian, the Kabyle and the Moroccan, are admirable soldiers. We must cry it aloud—France owes a great debt to them."

The brilliant success of the French in handling such soldiers is largely due to something entirely wanting to Germans in their dealings with subordinate races. It is something which even the Englishman's fair play does not altogether supply. It is the hand-to-hand comradeship of officers and men.

A superior officer of the sharpshooters was lately back in Tunis on some military errand and was walking through the city with a chief civil official of the Regency. In the Arab crowd he suddenly espied one of his young soldiers who had been wounded by the Germans and was hobbling painfully along on crutches. He pushed forward and, regardless of the curious onlookers, put his arm around the man: "Abib! so this is what those savages have done to you. Tell me all about it." The Turco wept with joy and affection, and the officer, leaving the civilian led him off to lunch with himself. It is the same with the Senegalese. French discipline and, most of all, French officers treat them as human, and human relations start up between them. And in this war France is reaping the fruits of her humanity.

There is a curious mixture of antique races as well as shades of color among these African troops of France. The Kabyles have been thought by some to be the original Egyptian family which spread all along the North African coast. One thousand of these farming mountaineers were brought last July to the great grain region of the Beauce to help min the harvest, and, in spite of misgivings, they were a success. Next year, when the need of harvesters may be still greater, perhaps 50,000 of these strong, faithful workers will be at the haymaking, reaping, and vintage in France. They were paid a dollar a day, which was riches—and they were worth it. Like all the others, they take back with them a veritable education. They were cheered and managed by five old under-officers of their race from the African troops. Jews of extremely ancient settlement in Africa have also made their way in the army—though they remain less military than their neighbors.

If the war continues, next spring may see a determined effort to profit by these military resources of France, which should easily furnish 700,000 soldiers. The great difficulty is to find the under-officers, for on them will always depend the efficiency and contentment of the men. Four sons of former, African kings are now lieutenants in the field, one at the Dardanelles. There are already something more than 60,000 soldiers in the melée. Charleroi and the marshes of Saint-Gond, the cold, damp banks of the Yser and Soissons, and the fields of Artois have seen them, as the Duke of Wellington saw Irishmen whom Britons called "aliens," do their duty.

One of the First Senegalese Regiment— a student of a French college—writes from the hospital where he is healing his wounds: "Next Spring we blacks will give our lives again, and show we are worthy to fight beside our white brothers for the defence of France. If l have been able to be somebody in my country, it is owing to the lessons of my French masters."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury