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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

African Soldiers Remember the Great War | Melvin E. Page

Saturday 29 May 2021

Reviewed by Melvin E. Page (East Tennessee State University)

Bakary Diallo, Lamine Senghor. White War, Black Soldiers: Two African Accounts of World War I. Translated by Nancy Erber and William Peniston. Edited and introduction by George Robb. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2021. Illustrations. 200 pp. $17.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62466-951-4

White War, Black Soldiers is a welcome addition to the growing effort to bring African voices from World War I to an English-language reading public. Both Bakary Diallo and Lamine Senghor served in Triailleurs Sénéalais battalions sent to defend France during the conflict, although Diallo had voluntarily joined the force several years before while Senghor was conscripted in 1916. Originally published in French during the 1920s, their reflections are here translated into English for the first time. Perhaps because neither is strictly an account of their service during World War I, they have heretofore seldom featured in academic writing about the Great War. Despite George Robb’s suggestion in his introduction to this volume, Diallo’s Strength and Goodness is not truly comparable to “the many war books written by European and American veterans” during the 1920s. And while in 1926 it may have been “much celebrated as the first book in French by a black African author,” a year later Senghor’s The Rape of a Country “never circulated widely,” likely because it was “a propaganda pamphlet for the Communist Party” of France (p. 1).

Why, then, publish these two divergent “accounts,” especially as Strength and Goodness is five times longer than The Rape of a Country? Because—as editor Robb notes early on—they do offer such “a stark contrast” (p. 1). Strength and Goodness is almost a paean to the role this war played in bringing Africans and Frenchmen together. “You changed me,” Diallo confidently proclaimed to his French readers. “I was filled with false ideas about you,” he wrote, “but chance brought us together and this close contact led to understanding,” concluding with a plea, “let us try to find the purposes that will unite us forever!” (p. 162). Whereas in The Rape of a Country, Senghor described the same conflict as a clever way for the French “to risk their subjects’ necks, not their own,” yet reminding his fellow Senegalese that French war widows and “their orphan children are paid, while wives and children of your fallen comrades get nothing from the paymasters” (pp. 182, 186). But unlike Diallo’s call for unity, Senghor cried out for action: “you ought to be the first to rebel” (p. 186).

Such conflicting reactions from First World War African veterans have been noted many times before, in historical accounts as well as in novels. Robb does well to provide a considered introduction for these two excellent translations, carefully undertaken by Nancy Eber and William Peniston. Robb provides much useful background on the colonial project, its African armies and constabularies, as well as experiences and attitudes of Africans during the Great War and after. However, the rather selective bibliography and reference notes miss many—and not merely the most recent—sources that would illuminate those very topics. Perhaps because of its much greater length, Diallo’s Strength and Goodness does command more of Robb’s attention. Yet a careful—or even a second reading—of that nonetheless small book reveals some perhaps unexpected observations suggesting critical foregrounding for understanding the postwar radicalism evident in Senghor’s morality play.

As Diallo’s memoir covers much more than merely his Frist World War experiences, we are able to read his reflections on being a colonial soldier for France for several years prior to being sent into battle against German invaders in France. Many of these earlier adventures are revealed through conversations with Demba Sow, a fellow Fula; the two became “children of the government” by joining the army together (p. 59). During an early deployment to Morocco, they discussed the plight of two horses observed outside of Rabat harnessed to a mill, endlessly walking in a circle to serve their owner’s bidding “with no hope of ever stopping.” Bakary asked his friend, “Are we right to treat animals that way, creatures that are so useful for us?” To which Demba replied, “Every creature is destined by our Creator to play the part assigned to him,” concluding “one day these poor downtrodden beings that you pity will become our masters, and our superior status today will come to an end.” Though Diallo’s dialogue ends on that note, his final reflection on the scene is telling: “You poor devils, may new miracles of fate come to your aid! May your master appreciate your merits and fulfill your desires!,” an observation worthy of Senghor’s pen (pp. 82-83).

Alone, this dialogue may offer little existential insight. Yet it reveals a greater significance when counterposed with some of Diallo’s later observations. Shortly before finally realizing his aim to remain in France after recovering from his war wounds, Diallo contemplated what a forced repatriation to Senegal would mean. He seemed to acknowledge that French colonial settlers and officials in Africa did not have the same view of Africans as those he experienced in the metropole. Recalling his own experience of having initially learned only “petit nègre, the pidgin French taught” to army recruits, Diallo realized “the Frenchmen that are with you in Africa” were unlike those he met in France, “their colonial language, even when they’re speaking French, doesn’t have the same sound that your ears heard” there (pp. 102, 151). And almost in despair, he told himself that should he be forced back to his homeland “there is nothing that will bring you together in genuine unity, even with the best of intentions” (p. 151).

Despite no “new miracles of faith,” Diallo’s hopeful postwar vision nonetheless did not lead him to presage the more strident call of Senghor for revolution (p. 83). Thus, taken together, these two accounts match very well the reality of postwar experiences of African veterans of World War I, as contradictory as they might first appear. Indeed, I have suggested in Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi (2019) that African veterans situated as was Diallo faced not a Hobson’s choice—like that offered by Senghor—but rather a future of ambivalence. Robb puts it well in his introduction: such veterans might best “be seen as trying to negotiate between two cultures” (p. 37). In presenting these two complementary translations, White War, Black Soldiers succeeds in illustrating the totality of the altogether human reactions of Africans who experienced the First World War.

(This work from H-Africa (May, 2021) is reproduced here under a Creative Commons License)

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