Paris Honors African Soldiers Supporting France during WWI
France has launched the commemorations for next year’s 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I. In his solemn speech, French President François Hollande said that he wanted the program of commemorative events to unfold in a spirit of national unity, as well as friendship between all the countries involved in the conflict that wreak havoc on Europe from 1914 to 1918, causing nearly 1.7 million French deaths. However, the French leader also described the commemorations as an opportunity to express gratitude to all soldiers who fought for France, including those coming from the territories that were back then French colonies.
As a matter of fact, some historians and observers have repeatedly expressed their consternation at the fact that the role of such soldiers in the French collective memory of the war has been consistently downplayed. According to a French journalist, Charles Onana, although “African troops actively participated in World War I [and] their contribution was crucial, … the larger French public isn’t necessarily aware of that. I’ve often been faced with high school and university students who knew nothing about these men’s engagement.” This is why Onana has called – echoing the French President’s recent appeal to raise the French awareness of African soldiers’ immense contribution to France’s victory and freedom – for more rigorous teaching of World War I history in French class rooms.
As a major colonial power, France called on roughly 500,000 African men to take part in WWI fierce battles alongside the 8 million soldiers from mainland France. Participating in this so-called “colonial army” were 175,000 Algerians, 40,000 Moroccans, 80,000 Tunisians and 180,000 sub-Saharan Africans, or “Senegalese infantrymen”. Reflecting on why France had been so slow to address this controversial and divisive chapter of its past, Onan pointed to French sensitivities with respect to its colonial history: “It’s a part of the French story that is ignored, because it is linked to colonialism, a subject that elicits discomfort whenever it is raised.”