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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
French West Africa


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During the 19th century, France established a number of colonies in Africa. Eight of them, Cote dÕIvoire, Dahomey, French Guinea, French Sudan Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Upper Volta began being consolidated by the military into a federation for administrative purposes in 1895. By 1905 French West Africa (Afrique occidentale fran¨aise) was under civilian control as an official entity though it was ruled directly from France.

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The Senegalese towns of Dakar, Gorée, Rufisque, and St. Louis were the oldest colonial settlements, and they all enjoyed special status as the Four Communes. When French West Africa was formed, they were the only Africans allowed to elect a Deputy to the French Parliament. While all the residents of these four towns had been granted the rights of French citizenship, it did not play out in practice due to discriminatory practices. Most of the African population was deemed originaires, who remained ingrained in the traditional social framework of the region. Those who educated themselves in European ways were considered Evolue, and granted French citizenship. After greater demands were placed on the population during World War One, the originaires were granted full voting rights in 1916.

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French West Africa was a huge expanse, and although little was done to develop the region beyond the coast, a large garrison force was still needed to deal with constant resistance to colonization. Beginning in 1857 black African mercenaries recruited from the lower classes along with slaves were set up as units of the Tirailleurs Senegalais to protect French interests. Though the bulk of these troops were from Senegal, they were recruited from all parts of French West Africa. In 1912 new conscription laws were adopted to keep their ranks full. While the French made use of colonial troops from all their colonies, it was the Senegalese that were most often pictured on postcards. They are often referred to as Turks as it was a common European description of any Muslim. This practice slowed during the Great War so not to confuse them with actual Turks who they fought against.

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At the start of World War One, many Tirailleurs Senegalais were shipped to the West Front where they became part of the Armeée Coloniale. Their presence greatly increased the size of the French army, which enabled them to embark on a number of large offensives. While some have claimed their high rate of casualties three times that of white solders, was due to the indifference of generals it is most likely based in another form of racism. The Senegalese were perceived by many whites as having a naturally savage nature that made them the perfect for the role of shock troops. First in line in battle, they took the brunt of German resistance. While they remained loyal and hard fighting troops, morale among them was usually low due to an unaccustomed diet and a disagreeable climate. The only Senegalese to fight in Africa took part in the brief invasion of German Togoland from Dahomey in August 1914.

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While the Senegalese soldiers that served in the European theater of war were very loyal, the population of French West Africa at large despised the French presence. Evasion from conscription was a constant problem, and French authorities had to invest a great deal of effort to enforce it. In November 1915, the tribes of the Volta and Bani regions thought the Great War in Europe gave them an opportunity to seek independence and they revolted against French rule. As the rebels raised a large army, the French dispatched a large expeditionary force to the region and a bloody war ensued. The war against colonial rule was one of the largest in Africa’s history, and was only suppressed after heavy fighting. Although the Volta-Bani War officially ended in September 1916, some insurgents fought on into 1917. The French suppressed news of this revolt in fear that it might inspire others. The battleground would be transformed into the new state of Haute Volta in 1919 so that the French cold more easily control the region.

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Senegalese soldiers appear in great numbers on both French and German cards, perhaps more than there actual presence might dictate. This may be due to them being perceived as curiosities, and their colorful uniforms also enlivened the appearance of the card. Their presentation however is quite different on French and German cards. While most French cards show them in camp or as brave soldiers, they tend to be mowed down in great numbers on German cards. Despite these different approaches to the same subject, both depictions are probably quite accurate.

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Sitting out on the westernmost point of Africa, geography had turned Dakar into an important port. This Senegalese town had long been an outpost for trade, and by 1914 it housed a strategically important French naval base and coaling station. It also became the transit hub for shipping colonial troops off to the Western Front. Toward the end of the War a number of Brazilian ships on anti-submarine duty in the South Atlantic were quarantined here due to an outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Edmond Fortier was a photographer who set up a studio in Dakar in 1905. He was the principal photographer of the region, producing over 8,000 postcards of views and types from all over West Africa, many of these capturing the Tirailleurs Senegalais. Though he gave up photography around 1910, he continued to publish postcards from his extensive negatives throughout the Great War.




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