Chapter X

The Negro Soldiers of France and England


French Colored Colonials the First Black Soldiers to Take Part in the War---The Story of These Senegalese Fighters---Their Important Part from the Beginning of the War---The Fight for the African Colonies---German Employment of Negro Troops in the Early Part of the War.


From the very beginning of the European war, in 1914, soldiers of the Negro race had a great and growing share in the fighting. For nearly three years before America's entry into the conflict these colored "Colonials" from the French and British Colonies in Africa and Asia, had been taking part in the warfare on European soil, while in the fierce but little heard of campaign that resulted in the crushing of German authority in East Africa, it was the Negro troops who bore the chief burden and brunt of the fighting.

At my request, Colonel Edouard Réquin of the French Military Commission to the United States, has prepared the following statement of the participation of French Negro troops in the Great War:

"France has had colored troops ever since it has had colonies. These troops have participated in all our expeditions overseas; they have been the best instrument of our colonial expansion. Algerian troops (Arabs and Kabyles) fought in France in 1870-71 against Germany.

"But it was for the first time, in 1914, that black troops (Senegalese and Soudanese) took part in the European war against an enemy as redoubtable as Germany. If it is asked what have been the results of this experience there is only one answer: they have been excellent.

"The black troops of Africa are grouped either by battalions or by regiments with our colonial French troops. The reason is that the colonial officers understand them thoroughly, and that the men themselves, in fighting together in the colonies, have acquired a mutual confidence in each other.

"Recruited among the warrior tribes of Senegal and the Soudan these troops have great combatant qualities. They are particularly apt for attack and counter-attack, but they are primitive men without civilization---men who cannot be compared from this point of view with colored Americans. The black French soldiers are excellent grenadiers, but they are less prepared in the use of the machine gun and the automatic rifle, which demand a certain mechanical aptitude. They receive the same instructions as the French soldiers; these instructions are given to them by white officers and non-commissioned officers who understand them well, and who for this reason ought to be changed as little as possible.

"The characteristic of the black soldier is an entire devotion to these officers who have merited it and whom they will never abandon. In other words, the valor of the colored unit depends essentially on grouping and leadership.

"Colored troops won distinction for themselves at Dixmude in 1914; at Verdun; on the Somme in 1917; on the Aisne, and more recently still in the counter-attack which forced back the Germans north of Compiegne.

Salute Their Flag and Die

"These troops are not only devoted to their officers, they are equally devoted to France, whom they serve most loyally, and to the flag which represents France. The following example may be cited as an illustration: One day in 1916, on the Mediterranean, a transport carrying a battalion of Senegalese was torpedoed by a Boche submarine. It was impossible to save everybody. The last who remained on board lined the deck, saluted the flag, and went to the bottom with a discipline and a self-abnegation which must remain an example to all the world.

"It is because these soldiers are just as brave and just as devoted as white soldiers that they receive exactly the same treatment, every man being equal before the death which all soldiers face. In the French Army white and black wounded soldiers are cared for in the same hospital by the same personnel, so that just as we have delivered these black men from African barbarism so we have given them civilization and justice; it is their duty in turn to defend among us that justice and that civilization against Prussian barbarism,

"I recall a design in the Parisian magazine 'L'Illustration' which represents a Senegalese guarding some German prisoners. This black soldier said with a smile to a visitor who approached to see the Boche: 'I suppose you have come to see the savages, is it not so?' There was in this irony which the artist placed in the black man's mouth an infinitude of truth.

"There is one difficulty which presents itself in connection with colored French troops---a difficulty which results from the climate. The blacks of Senegal are accustomed to a very hot climate and stand our winters very badly, so the French Command, anxious to conserve their health, sends them during the winter to the camps in the south of France, or to Algeria. This inconvenience, however, is only relative; for the black soldiers perfect their instructions in the southern camp and in spring once more take their place in combat beside the white soldiers.

"To sum up, it may be said that, contrary to the opinion so often stated in times of peace by the adversaries of the colonial French expansion necessary to every modern state, the French colonies, far from enfeebling the military effort of the metropolis in face of the common enemy, have on the contrary augmented that power. Not a single territory which we occupied in Africa or in Asia has been abandoned. No serious revolt has been produced outside. of a few local agitations provoked by German agents. All those colonies have given us volunteers---Arab, Kabyles, Moroccans, Tunisians, by hundreds of thousands, Senegalese, Madagascans, Somalis, and even Indo-Chinese, have come to fight on French soil, in order to defend the liberty of which they have learned under our aegis to appreciate all the benefits.

"The fact that certain countries like Morocco, not yet pacified, furnish us with soldiers taken from the faithful tribes---and tribes that we ourselves fought only yesterday---is one of the most extraordinary illustrations that could be cited.

"All this honors those men who are in charge of the organization of these colonies and the methods which they apply there. It, shows equally what prodigious faculty of assimilation the French possess. If one considers that in North Africa the Mohammedan group has been essentially refractory to all foreign intervention, the voluntary participation of colored men in the defense of French soil consecrates definitely the motivating principles of our colonial expansion.

"It is wholly apart from every question of national interest, and solely from the point of view of humanity and morals that the role played by France outside of France itself received its noblest justification. "

The Negro Forces of Britain

Less has been heard of the part played in the war by British Colonials of the Negro race. Before going into further detail about the French Colonials, let me quote here an article from the London Spectator, one of the most influential British journals, which gives an excellent summary of the way in which the Negro served under "the meteor flag of England."

"Sir Auckland Geddes said the other day that, for every man in the Army who was actively engaged in fighting at a given moment, twenty-four men were hard at work in connection with the war. The statement illustrated the complexity of modern warfare and the importance of the unarmed laborer as an assistant to the fighting man. In the present war this is generally understood, but it was not always so. When we invaded Crimea we had no labor corps. The troops on the plateau above Balaclava through the winter of 1854-55 starved within a few miles of abundant supplies because there was no proper means of transport and no road along which vehicles could move rapidly. The General declared that be could not spare soldiers from the trenches for roadmaking; the trenches were indeed very thinly held. No one at the War Office had foreseen the necessity of enlisting large gangs of laborers to keep the troops properly fed and equipped, and it was not till after months of hardship that a corps of navvies was sent out to the Crimea. Nowadays this would be done as a matter of course.

"It is a common knowledge that there are in France many thousands of British workers who never hear a shot fired, but are nevertheless indispensable to the comfort and efficiency of the army. The problem of finding labor for the manifold tasks that have to be performed---not merely in constructing fortifications, but in making new roads and railways, in unloading ships, and in transporting the stupendous quantities of food, munitions and stores of every kind that a modern army requires---is as important and difficult as any problem of the war. The Germans have tried to solve it by compelling the people of the occupied territories to work for them, but this forced labor is probably inefficient as a rule because the poor slaves are ill fed and harshly treated. We have done better because we have called on the immense reserves of colored labor in the empire to supply voluntary workers, who are well fed and well paid, and cheerfully assist us in the struggle for liberty.

"Sir Harry Johnston's little book on the part that the colored races are playing in the war is interesting and informing, especially from this point of view. He begins by reminding us that:

"'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland rules more or less directly some 44,700,000 Africans, about 1,700,000 Aframericans in the West Indies, Honduras and Guiana, and about 138,000 Oceanic Negroes, Melanesians and Polynesians in the Pacific archipelagoes. And in addition the Daughter Nation of the South African Union governs another 4,000,000 of Bantu Negroes, Hottentots and half breeds; lastly, the Commonwealth of Australia and the Dominion of New Zealand are responsible for the safe keeping and welfare of about 400,000 Papuans, 150,000 Australoids and 100,000 Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians.'

"Our Asiatic subjects are more than six times as numerous, but our fifty-one million Negroes are not greatly inferior in numbers to the sixty-one million white people within the Empire, and their help, freely and loyally tendered, has been most valuable. The author proves his case by taking each Negro country in turn, describing its races and showing what they have done in the war. British West Africa naturally comes first. Nigeria alone contains over sixteen million Negroes, some of whom are among the best native troops that we have. The French Senegalese battalions have done magnificent service on the Western front, and their southern neighbors under our rule have an equally fine record in the African campaigns. The Hausa of Nigeria and the Mandingoes of Gambia and Sierra Leone make first-rate soldiers, and have faced German troops and their machine-gun fire without flinching.

"Ebrima Jalu, a Mandingo sergeant-major in the West African Frontier Force, received the D. C. M. in 1916 for his gallantry in a severe action in the Cameroons. When his white officer had been killed, be took command of his sector and directed the guns for several hours until another officer could reach him. Sergt.-Maj. Ebrima Jalu is not the only hero of his race. It is good to know that all these West African troops, perhaps thirty thousand in number, are volunteers, and that they enlist with the warm approval of their people. We could hardly have better testimony to the popularity of British rule in West Africa than the anecdote which Sir Henry Johnston cites from Southern Nigeria early in the war:

" 'The people of New Calabar and their hereditary enemies, the people of Okrika, had now sworn blood brotherhood (lest their intertribal quarrels should embarrass us), and had brought in £1,000---each tribe contributing' £500---which they begged the local Political Officer to forward as a token of personal loyalty to the King. They wrote letters in broken English saying that they wanted to help in the Great War because they were grateful for having such good and kind rulers. This means a great deal when one realizes what keen, hard-headed traders are the few headmen with money, and how comparatively poor (except in foodstuffs) are the masses of the people.'

"Attempts were made by Turkish agents to rouse the Mohammedans of Nigeria against us, but not even the ruling Fula caste, whom we had to fight when we took over Nigeria, would pay any attention to these sedition-mongers.

"Incidentally the author tells us that the Negroes of German East Africa are akin to those of British East Africa and Nyasaland, and like them use Swahili as a lingua franca. They were well treated by Major von Wissmann and other early administrators, but in recent years their interests have been completely subordinated to German greed:

" 'The general cry of the natives in German East Africa since victories of the Allied troops has been, "Watu wa kumina-tano wametoka; wasirudi." ("The people of '15' have departed; may they never return.") The "15" refers to the lowest number of lashes with hippopotamus hide which were administered by the Germans for minor offenses. The natives would regard with terror any possibility of the return of the Germans. In one district where a small British column temporarily occupied the country and were welcomed by the natives, the latter were massacred when the Germans returned.'"

The loyalty and devotion of the British and French Negro colonials to the flags and governments of the British Empire and the French Republic, respectively, is in sharp contrast to the feeling toward the German government and the German flag among the Negro population of those sections of Africa which were held as German colonies, but which under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles have been taken away from that country. While other considerations than the rights of the Negroes themselves may have and doubtless did enter into the considerations that led to the decision of the Peace Conference to take her colonies away from Germany forever, this decision can nevertheless be properly regarded as a fulfillment of the wish and desire of every American citizen of the Negro race.

German Atrocities in Africa

The record of German duplicity and cruelty in Southwest Africa as disclosed in the official reports of the British administrator embodies many of the stories of these atrocities. Between 1904 and 1911 the numbers of three native races were reduced from 130,000 to 37,742. The decrease was brought about by a war of extermination undertaken by the Germans against tribes with whom they had made agreements---the "scrap of paper" over again. The Kaiser undertook by the treaties "to give his All-Highest protection to the chief and his people." As soon as the Germans bad sufficient force on the spot they tore up the treaties, goaded the natives into rebellion, and then massacred them. The German Governor Leutwein avows the crime as cynically as Bethmann-Hollweg admitted the crime against Belgium. He simply says:

"The specific provisions of the agreement did not matter; the fact of their conclusion was sufficient. The manner of the carrying out of those agreements thus depended entirely on the power which stood behind the German makers of the agreements. So long as the German Government in the protectorate had no means of enforcing its power the agreements were of small significance. After this state of affairs had been changed the agreements were, in practice, dealt with uniformly without regard to their stipulated details. So the native tribes were all in the same way, as a whole, whether it was. arranged or not, made subject to German laws and German jurisdiction and received German garrisons." That was how the Kaiser's "Protection" was given. Then came the slaughter.

All the records in the report are from the archives at Windhoek, from sworn statements made by Europeans familiar with the country, by native chiefs, and from the writings of Leutwein, who was governor from 1894 to 1905, and other German authorities. Every injustice and atrocity dealt with is a substantial fact.

The death of a native from a thrashing was not regarded by the German courts as murder. Leutwein says: "The natives could not understand such subtle distinctions. To them murder and beating to death were one and the same thing."

Government of this kind impelled the Herrero rebellion. Samuel Kariko, son of Under-Chief Daniel Kariko, stated on oath: "Our people were shot and murdered; our women were ill-treated; and those who did this were- not punished. Our chiefs consulted and we decided that war could not be worse than what we were undergoing. We all knew what risks we ran, yet we decided on war, as the chiefs said we would be better off even if we were all dead."

Johannes Kruger, appointed by Leutwein as chief of the Bushmen and Berg-Damaras of the Grootfontein area, stated on oath with regard to the campaign. of Gen. von Trotha: "I went with the German troops right through the Herrero rebellion. The Afrikander Hottentots of my werft were with me. We refused to kill Herrero women and children,---but the Germans spared none. Two of my Hottentots, Jan Wint and David Swartbooi, were invited by the German soldiers to join them in violating Herrero girls. The two Hottentots refused to do so."

Hendrik Fraser of Keetinanshoop stated on oath: "On one occasion I saw about 25 prisoners placed in a small inclosure of thorn bushes. They were confined in a very small space, and the soldiers cut dry branches and piled dry logs all around them---men, women, and children and little girls were there. The prisoners were all alive and unwounded, but half starved. Having piled up the branches, lamp oil was sprinkled on the heap and it was set on fire. The prisoners were burnt to a cinder. I saw this personally."

The official photographs of natives hanged by Germans are pitiful. Capt. L. Fourie, S. A. M. C., district surgeon at Windhoek, states: "Executions were carried out in a very crude and cruel manner. The prisoner was conducted to the nearest tree and placed on an ammunition, biscuit, soap, or other box or convenient object, and the rope, after being run around his neck and through a fork of the tree, was fixed to the trunk. The box was removed and death resulted from asphyxiation. In other instances the condemned prisoner was strangled by merely hoisting him off his feet by utilizing the fork or branch of a tree. When the rope was not available, telegraph or telephone wire or other convenient material was used. Very rarely could death have resulted instantaneously."

Such had been the history of German East Africa which was completely captured and taken over by the British early in the World War. Here the Germans sought to resist the British forces, consisting of native and Boer regiments from the British South African colonies, under the command of Boer officers, by compelling Negroes to fight them against the invaders. Their resistance was half-hearted; even the least intelligent African native could feel neither loyalty nor respect for the brutal and tyrannical German officers and Colonial officials, and the Germans were left practically to conduct their resistance unaided. The extension of the British protectorate over German East Africa was hailed with joy by all the natives.

If the author has digressed from his theme of the Negro Soldiers of France, it is because lie has wished to draw a picture of the contrast between the loyalty of the French and British Colonials on the one hand and the hatred and terror inspired by Germany wherever that nation has attempted to establish colonies and rule the natives. To the French, who draw no color line, there is nothing startling or worthy of special comment in the fact that in the armies of France in the Great War, two colored soldiers reached the rank of General, and four the rank of Colonel. And the French ,as a race are proud of the exploits of "Les Joyeux" (the happy ones), the Negro soldiers of the special corps called officially "Bataillons d'Afrique."

It was "Les Joyeux" who electrified the entire sector when on May 27, 1918, the Germans attempted to storm their defenses. Although the enemy attacked in superior numbers, the Joyeux, fighting desperately, with entire disregard to numbers, held their ground and every yard of the line of barbed-wire entanglement fronting the French trenches was ornamented with dead Germans. Some of the enemy elements which succeeded in penetrating the trenches were slaughtered with bayonets and grenades. Supreme abnegation was shown by the war-hardened "Joyeux," who checked the powerful German assaults. The line of trenches was firmly held and communication was kept open between the various defending elements.

On the night of May 28 the First Battalion of the Chasseurs d'Afrique fell back in an orderly manner, having fulfilled the mission intrusted to it and picking up the equally weary elements of the Third Battalion, which had struggled no less gloriously. After an all-night march of twenty kilometers (twelve miles) they arrived at their destination without abandoning any material, the machine gunners carrying their pieces on their backs. Several of the "Joyeux" spoke of this moving night march with heroic simplicity.

"We were counted and reconstituted," said one of them. "About midnight of May 29, 1918, without taking a rest, we again went to the front. On June 1 we launched an attack, making a formidable charge, which caused the boches to renounce their attempt to advance."

Many Deeds of Heroism

Many deeds of heroism were performed by these men. One of the battalions taking part in the action was composed of very young men and had arrived on the French battlefields as late as January 3, 1918, after distinguishing itself in Morocco by its ardor and endurance. The esprit de corps animating this battalion was most chivalrous.

Four "Joyeux" in the night of May 28th, saw their company commander, Lieutenant Marechal, fall in a boyau. pierced by enemy bullets. Not wishing to lose the body of their chief, the valiant four resisted the Germans with grenades, holding them at bay. After they had recovered the body the same four "Joyeux" carried it all the way during the terrible back-breaking twenty kilometer retreat. On the morning of May 29, although harassed by fatigue and lack of sleep, they organized a short funeral service, glorifying the officer who had fallen at their head. On June 1 the same battalion, supported by two companies of other battalions, being almost submerged by the German waves, threw itself, the officers leading with drawn revolvers, into a hand-to-hand encounter with the Germans, who fell back in disorder, abandoning their field and machine guns.

The Germans applied the common name of "Frenchmen from Africa" to the soldiers of all the French regiments which in time of peace served in Africa, including legionnaires, zouaves, "Joyeux," colonials, mitrailleurs---Arab and black sharpshooters recruited in northern Africa---Spahis and African chasseurs. These corps were especially feared by the enemy and formed one of the firmest bulwarks of the allied defense.

The annals of the French Army in the Great War are filled with records of individual heroism on the part of the French Colonial troops. Here is the official record of Fako Doumbia of the Fifty-first Senegalese Battalion, serving at the observation post of the trench. He was three times buried by projectiles, three times released himself, resumed his post with the greatest calmness, and continued on duty until relieved by the commandant of his company.

Fort Douaumont, which had gained renown for its obstinate and prolonged defense by the French during the German rush at Verdun in 1916, was defended by the Huns with equal obstinacy when the French began their counter-attack in 1918, but was recaptured at last. in the course of the attack a battalion of the "Tirailleurs," together with one of the "poilus," was held up by an artillery barrage in front and machine-gun fire on the flanks. A veteran lieutenant of the Tirailleurs cautiously raising his head shouted to his men: "How now, Tirailleurs, are we going to stick here? Forward!" The Tirailleurs immediately bounded forward, carrying the "poilus" with them in their rush. They passed the barrage and captured the fort and raised the tricolor once more upon its walls.

On March 1, 1916, a battalion was organized at St. Raphael from the veterans of the previous campaign and recruits recently arrived from Africa. After three months' training, to give the necessary cohesion, the battalion was sent to the front on June 1, and went into the, trenches on the Oise, and then on the Somme, taking its part in all the battles. At the end of October the battalion went into winter quarters near Arachon, where it was put under "intense" training, and on March 19, 1917, joined the armies of the North and Northeast on the line of the Aisne, where it was attached to a regiment of Colonial infantry with which it took part in the spring offensive. On April 16 and 17 it distinguished itself greatly at the farm of Noisy, the men dying at their posts rather than abandon the position which they had taken. In May it served at the Mill of Lafaux, and in June and July was in the trenches in the reconquered part of Alsace. During July-August it took part in the defense of the plateaux of Craonne and California and fought on the Chemin des Dames.

These places are mentioned to show that the battalion was always at the seat of the hottest fighting, and wherever it was called upon to serve, whether in attack or in defense, it attracted attention by its courage, devotion and self-sacrifice. The quality of these gallant soldiers will be shown by a few quotations from the "citations à l'ordre" for a single day:

"Kofi Alla, private: Cool and collected; courageously led his comrades on April 16, 1917, to an assault of the enemy positions. Although wounded, continued to throw his bombs on a hostile machine gun and only left his post when his strength gave out."

"Moderi Comba, private: Very devoted and courageous; on April 16, 1917, dressed, under fire, the wounds of his lieutenant and returned to his post in the line."

"Demba N'Daigne, private: Very courageous. On April 16, 1917, taking the quick firing gun of one of his wounded comrades, stopped by his fire an attempted bombing attack by the enemy."

"Namadon N'Daigne, sergeant: On April 1, 1917, distinguished himself among the bravest of those who advanced against a German counter-attack and formed a first line of defense behind the barbed wire. "

"Donga Thiam, private: On April 16, 1917, being with a group of bombers and all his comrades having become casualties continued alone to cast his bombs into the enemy's trench."

"Eli Diot, corporal: Showed remarkable courage in the attack on the enemy's lines on April 16, remained at his post, although seriously wounded and never ceased to encourage his comrades."

It was with records like these, made by men of their own race though under different flags, that the Negro soldiers of America had to compete. That they did compete, and nobly upheld the tradition of valor established by these French soldiers of their own color, is a source of much satisfaction.

Chapter XI. The Negro Combat Division

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