Imperial Troops

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Imperial troops played a role in almost all the conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century. They fall into two distinct categories: the mainly white or mixed-race recruits who were citizens of the imperium, like the inhabitants of the British Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) or the French citizens with voting rights in Algeria and coastal Senegal, and those who were indigenous colonial subjects, the so-called native troops. The extensive use of native troops by the colonial powers became common with the rise of imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century. To guard and secure their new territories, the British made extensive use of their recruits from the North Indian plains, and the French of their Tirailleurs (riflemen) from North Africa and French West Africa. Enlistment in the armed forces was supposed to be voluntary, but a good deal of pressure was often exerted through local chiefs. The army offered paid employment, welfare services, regular food for the man and his family, clothing, status, and new loyalties not only to the army, but also an identification with the colonial authority. The vast majority of Asian and black imperial troops recruited in this way were illiterate, rural non-Christians, often with little idea of what their tasks might be. No longer the enemy of past colonial wars, they had become an arm of the imperium, loyally or pragmatically united in the great imperial cause. In fact it brought men into the army whose backgrounds made them a poor choice to fight a modern war in Europe. Contemporary assessments referred to savage ferocity and low intelligence as the defining characteristics of nonwhite soldiery. During both world wars few belligerent powers employed colored or black troops in combat roles on European soil. This was partly due to racial prejudice but also because most colonial powers considered Europe's wars as exclusively white men's wars. They were afraid to put the white men's prestige at stake.

All the colonial powers possessed a hierarchy of perceived "martial races." The perfect "martial race" was an ethnic group that produced men who were both martial and loyal. Thus for example, Gurkhas, Hausa, Toucouleur, and Bambara were believed to be better warriors than others. Until the 1940s the martial races doctrine also provided the ideological foundation for the Indian army, where caste was played off against caste and weapons were restricted to those groups least likely to use them against their masters. The goal was to foster group spirit through rivalry and competition among units and to avoid the kind of cultural homogeneity that was seen as in part responsible for the mutinies of the past. Companies of a battalion in the Indian army might be divided by ethnicity, but they would all share the same regimental identity.

Amadou HampatéBâ (1900–1991), a writer of Mali:

When the survivors returned home in 1918–19, they caused a new social phenomenon that would have long term consequences on the mentalities: I want to speak of the collapse of the myth of the white man as an invincible and exemplary human being. Indeed, up to that moment, the white man had been considered a different being.… But, since then, the black soldiers had made war in the trenches alongside their white comrades. They had seen heroes, courageous men, but they had also seen the ones who were crying, who screamed and who were afraid. They had discovered crooks and depraved, and even, something unthinkable, almost unbelievable, they had seen in the cities white thieves, white poor people, and even white beggars!

When these Tirailleurs returned home, they told, during the long evenings, everything they had seen. No, the white man was not a superman …

It's there, in 1919, that started to blow for the first time a spirit of emancipation and of claims, that would in the end develop in other layers of the population.

Source: Amadou Hampaté Bâ, Sur les traces d'Amkoullel, l'enfant peul. Paris, 1998. Author's translation.


World War I (1914–1918) brought changes. All the belligerent states suffered huge military manpower shortages. As a result more than 600,000 nonwhite soldiers from the French and British colonies were present in the European theater of war. Among them were 270,000 North Africans, 134,000 West Africans, and 153,000 Indians. Britain and France also recruited a large Asian and North African labor force for work in France. For almost the first time, the British employed Indian soldiers to fight a white enemy as regular troops under European command. Poorly motivated, ill-prepared, and suffering from the racist attitudes of their commanders, their small battalions were withdrawn in 1915, with a very high number of casualties. Despite growing pressure, the War Office refused to use black troops in combat roles because it was deemed undesirable to put them on a par with white men. To preserve established hierarchies of race and masculinity, black soldiers were mostly confined to labor battalions. From 1916 on, more colored recruits from British West Indies Regiments (BWIR) and South Africa (the Cape Coloured Labour Corps and the twenty-thousand-strong South African Native Labour Contingent) were sent to Europe, but they were used mainly in support roles and they were paid less than soldiers in British regiments. The South African authorities also feared arming black soldiers and allowing them to fight against Europeans. At the end of the war, mutinies occurred among colonial troops, occasioned by the slow process of demobilization resulting from shipping shortages and the priority given to white soldiers returning home.

Only the French used their North and West African soldiers as front-line troops in every corner of their empire, whether for the defense of the mother country, for conquest (Morocco and other African countries), for occupation (Rhineland, Middle East), or for counterinsurgency (North Africa, Vietnam). Unlike the British, the French saw their West African colonies as a vast reservoir of soldiers. In 1909 General Charles-Marie-Emmanuel Mangin (1866–1925) started the international discussion about the use of colored troops when he pleaded for the Force noire (black force) to help compensate for France's stagnant birthrate and the consequent military imbalance with Germany. He believed his Tirailleurs Sénégalais (soldiers from French sub-Saharan Africa) to be brave warriors for their strong physique and lack of a nervous system. Their first experiences on the front line in northern France were a disaster, but this did not result in their withdrawal. Statistics do not suggest that their casualty rates were significantly higher than those of their white counterparts, but in certain localities such as Chemin des Dames (1917) and Reims (1918), they did sustain substantial losses. Whether they were used as cannon fodder because of the racist attitudes of their commanders remains difficult to ascertain. More than 20 percent of the approximately 134,000 Tirailleurs Sénégalais thrown into the murderous battles of the western front did not return home, not least because of the diseases they caught in the inhospitable European climate. Although their contribution to the French army's effectives had been largely symbolic (1.6 percent) and their combat effectiveness questionable, it nevertheless represented a heavy burden on sparsely populated African peasant societies. More important was the contribution of French North Africa, which provided 270,000 combatants who, like the British Dominion troops, had the reputation of being among the best in the field. These French colonial troops were completed with more than 43,000 soldiers from French Indochina, 41,000 from Madagascar, and 22,000 from the West Indies.

Throughout French West Africa, a system of general military conscription had been in place. Troops were recruited with the aid of the first African deputy, Blaise Diagne (1872–1934), who thought that the French would grant political rights in exchange. Similar expectations were held by other colonial soldiers, such as the British West Indian Regiments. The success of Diagne as high commissioner of recruitment of black troops contributed significantly to the government's decision to maintain colonial conscription after the war. The General Conscription Act of 1919 guaranteed a continuing supply of men. In the French colonial army, which was less color-conscious than the British, about one in ten officers was black, either African or Caribbean.

From an official report (1918) of the French authorities:

Conditions of life in France will allow the native to develop an unaccustomed familiarity in his dealings with Whites. Having seen our weaknesses, he will seriously damage our prestige with the stories he tells when he gets home.

Source: Christopher M. Andrew and A. S. Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas: The Great War and the Climax of French Imperial Expansion (London, 1981), 141.

Spain also used recruits from its North African possessions in its armed forces. In 1934, on the advice of the then general Francisco Franco (1892–1975), the Spanish Republican government specifically employed Moroccan troops in the suppression of the Asturias rising. During the civil war, General Franco used between sixty and seventy thousand of these so-called Moors from North Africa as part of the nationalist army. As in the case of the French African soldiers, the much feared Moors were also used as a psychological weapon by their commanders. Other European colonial states, such as Portugal, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, also raised troops from indigenous populations before and after the First World War, but never used them in Europe.

In spite of the fact that the German armed forces had raised colonial troops in their African possessions, from the Second Moroccan Crisis (1911) onward, the German press had portrayed African soldiers as bloodthirsty barbarians. During the First World War, the novelist Thomas Mann (1875–1955) and the sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) spoke for many Germans and non-Germans when they expressed indignation that Western civilization would be betrayed if the white civilized nations made use of the inferior races. The horror stories about charcoal-black Africans cutting off ears, noses, and heads of German soldiers found a large German audience. After 1918 the propaganda campaign against what was called the "Black Shame" reached its climax when African soldiers, who were part of the French occupying forces in the Rhineland, were reported as roaming out of control across the Rhineland, raping German women at will, infecting the population with venereal diseases, and "polluting" German blood. During the overtly racist campaign against the "Black horror on the Rhine," the Germans not only mobilized world opinion against France but also shaped expectations of black troops' behavior. Colonial soldiers' alleged sexual attacks became the dominant subject of German propaganda; a propaganda war that was to be continued by the Nazis and that goes a long way to explaining the brutal way in which captured African soldiers were treated as prisoners of war.

As far as the white troops of the British Dominions are concerned, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa all possessed armed forces of their own. The New Zealand and Australian imperial forces were both volunteer services that were sent overseas in both world wars. During the preparations for the landings at Gallipoli in 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps became known as the ANZACs. Gallipoli was to become a focal point of Australian life, and Anzac Day on 25 April became Australia's true (though unofficial) national day and served to define the identity of the young country. The ANZACs lost more than eleven thousand men at Gallipoli, and a further sixty thousand were to die on Flanders fields, at the Somme, and at Verdun. At the beginning of World War I, the use of Canadian forces on behalf of the British Empire was complicated by the French minorities hostile to the war, and individual Canadians thus enlisted in British units. From January 1916 onward, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) fought on the western front, suffering approximately 10 percent casualties.


In World War II (1939–1945), Dominion forces played important roles in all theaters of war. South African, Canadian, and ANZAC troops were used in North Africa, Italy, and later in northwestern Europe. However, even more vigorously than in World War I, the nonwhite South African troops were restricted to noncombat roles. The Canadians lost about 14 percent of their troops in battle and through disease, the Australians 13 percent, and the New Zealanders 12.5 percent. ANZAC forces included some indigenous peoples. Maori participation was not accorded specific, separate, attention, unlike indigenous participation in Canada and Australia. These indigenous people had enlisted for various reasons, not the least being that their fathers and grandfathers had served in the First World War. The Australian Aborigines' enlistment was specifically linked to preexisting campaigns for citizenship rights.

In many ways this conflict mirrored that of World War I. Native troops fought again as well, in the Mediterranean, in Asia, and in Africa, releasing European forces for service in Europe. In World War II African troops constituted a much larger percentage of French total forces than in the First World War. Although the blacks were not excluded in the British services in either war, very few black men—or women—served in the British army, and none in the Royal Navy, although there were black and Indian seamen. In the United Kingdom, conscription was introduced in May 1939, and the globalization of war meant extensive use of non-European troops in other theaters like North Africa and Burma, where Indians and Africans made up over two-thirds of the "British" imperial forces. Most men in uniform had noncombatant roles as laborers, drivers, guards, and orderlies. Over two and a half million Indian citizens served during the war, most of them outside Europe, although the 8th and 10th Division participated in the taking of Monte Cassino. Italy became the most heterogeneous theater of war, and saw the contribution of many colonies and dominions: Canadians, West Indians, New Zealanders, Maoris, Indians, Gurkhas, Ceylonese, Seychellois, Mauritians, South Africans, Rhodesians, Basuto, Bechuana, and Swazi troops, Tirailleurs Sénégalais, North African goums, Zouaves, and Spahis fought side by side in the British and French armies. Not only in Italy but also during the second Rhineland occupation Moroccan soldiers were accused of sexual assaults.


Never before had so many colored men stayed so long in Europe's cities and villages. Colonial soldiers and workers were left with experiences that changed their lives, particularly their perceptions of themselves and of the colonizers—precisely what the colonial authorities feared most. Until then, the Europeans were supposed to protect the "primitive races," but now this situation was reversed and the idea of inherent white supremacy seemed under siege. In the Second World War the imperial troops serving in the Far East witnessed the destruction of the myth of European invincibility as the Japanese overran South East Asia. The European powers therefore feared that demobilized soldiers might act as catalysts for resistance against white rule on their return. This "moral panic" about the impact that large numbers of men with experience of military service might have on the social and political order of the colonies was not to become a reality, as most demobilized colonial soldiers were reabsorbed into postwar society with relative ease. Most veterans appropriated the imagery of heroism and military sacrifice to convince the often skeptical members of their community back home. African veterans occasionally claimed that their wartime military experiences had inspired them to anticolonial activity, but the overwhelming majority were preoccupied with economic concerns. Returning native soldiers could be more assertive in their attitude but remained for the most part loyal to their motherland despite the fact that they had every reason to feel resentment. The payment of wartime bonuses, large sums in prewar terms, proved shockingly parsimonious in the light of inflation. Also, many soldiers had not been granted their full pensions, a recurring grievance of almost all imperial veterans. This occasionally caused revolts like the one in Thiaroye (Senegal), where thirty-five returning African former-POWs were killed during a mutiny by the French authorities in December 1944. (Thiaroye was to become the national shrine of the West African struggle for independence.) However, only in Algeria did war veterans play significant roles in the political movements that led to decolonization. More important was the psychological and sociological transformation of the soldiers and workers who had left their traditional values in Europe. They had developed an alternative masculinity that combined local ideas with those derived from other African or Asian cultures and the culture from the motherland. They had learned linguistic and technological skills that they hoped would enable them to earn a better living once they returned home. Not all their political and economic hopes and aspirations were to be met in the postwar years, but, paradoxically, for many Africans, African Americans, and Asians the army had been the "school of equality."

See alsoArmies; British Empire; Colonialism; French Empire; Warfare.


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Dick Van Galen Last

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Imperial Troops

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