France stands out as the only European country to include black African soldiers in their armies that fought in Europe. Richard S Fogarty of the University at Albany, State University of New York explores the resulting issues of identity for Africans and French people.
In April of this year, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, 90 year-old Claude Mademba Sy died in a small village in southwestern France. He was, in fact, a French-African veteran of the Second World War. But his father, Abdel Kader Mademba Sy, was a Senegalese veteran of the Great War of 1914-1918, and the son’s memories of his father encapsulate some of the complex ways that war affected the people living in France’s African colonies.
As Claude Mademba Sy remembered, his father “let himself die” when ill with pneumonia in 1932. And this assimilated African living in France, a career soldier and officer in the French army, refused to speak French during the last few months of his life. According to his son, this was the result of his tortured conscience, since he had helped recruit thousands of Africans to fight for France, many of whom died. What, then, did the Great War mean for Africans, for French people, for ideas about identity among both groups?
This centenary year of 2014 has been the occasion for a great deal of remembering and commemoration activity, particularly in Europe. But increasing recognition that the Great War was a genuinely global event has focused attention on Africa as well. France, one of the war’s major combatants and scene of the devastated and decisive Western Front, as well as a major colonial power in Africa, brought Africans into the heart of the war experience in Europe. Nearly 450,000 Africans lived, worked, and fought in France during the war. The presence of large numbers of Africans on French soil for the first time rendered African, French, and colonial culture very visible and placed them in the forefront of political, military, and colonial policy. Continue reading