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Reviewed by:
  • Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914–1918
  • Lorelle D. Semley
Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914–1918. By Richard S. Fogarty. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 400 pp. $60.00 (cloth).

In his clearly written and well-researched book, Richard Fogarty explains French notions of race and nation by examining French policies toward the half million African and Asian men deployed as troops in Europe during World War I. The core tension in the book between French republicanism and French racism provides a fruitful terrain to reveal French and World War I history. Fogarty hopes to provide a new perspective on these historical questions by engaging the realities of military practices and the experiences of African and Asian soldiers in the war and in French society, more broadly. The seven chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion) trace major themes that relate to both military experiences of colonial troops (troupes indigènes) and their exposure to French culture. Throughout the book, Fogarty repeatedly shows how racial prejudice either shaped or limited French policies toward soldiers coming from a variety of colonies in West Africa, North Africa, the island of Madagascar, and Indochina.

Following the introduction, the first chapter explores the idea of the "blood tax" that colonial subjects owed France for giving them access to civilization. The chapter introduces well the contradictory French rhetoric on republicanism and race; colonial troops would repay that [End Page 353] "debt" to the French by serving as racialized subjects in the French armed forces. Fogarty also describes the varied recruitment policies in West and North Africa, Madagascar, and Indochina based on French racial thinking about the "warlike" nature of specific groups, especially in West Africa. In the second chapter on the deployment of colonial troops, he shows that French assumptions about race affected how the French organized different regiments, often divided along regional and racial lines. For example, French commanders continued to doubt the physical strength of Malagasy and Indochinese soldiers, feminizing them, despite the Malagasy soldiers' performance in the artillery. The third chapter continues the idea of how race shaped the military ranking system during the war, showing how French officials resisted the use of African and Asian officers in positions of authority in the French army. With white officers at the top of the hierarchy, the military chain of command embodied and reinforced white supremacy.

The third chapter has the potential to intersect more broadly with French colonial history in West Africa by discussing the importance of French officers' knowledge of specific African societies and languages; by showing how French colonial policies engaged with African hierarchies, promoting the sons of high-ranking African men; and by suggesting how gendered imagery shaped the rhetoric used to describe the relationship between French officers and their African and Asian regiments. Fogarty, perhaps, misses an opportunity here by taking literally the idea that French officers knew the mentalité of their troops. When less experienced officers are forced to manage colonial troops, Fogarty then assumes that discipline problems reflected the incompetence of the white officers rather than pointed protest by African or Asian soldiers. The French military's penchant for promoting sons of African "royals" and "notables" mirrored similar policies in West Africa, demonstrating that French colonial history was part of French and military history. Finally, rich gendered imagery marking the relationship between officers and troops reflected the intersection of race, gender, and, perhaps, age or status. In evoking the image of "fathers," French officers knowingly or unwittingly played up a paternalistic image that may have had more depth of meaning for a colonial soldier who was declaring utter loyalty to an officer who was "a father and a mother" (p. 111). Such symbolism could play into colonial soldiers' ideas about their own dependent status back home (Fogarty notes that many West African soldiers, in particular, may have been slaves) or the role of the commanding officer as a "big man," with rights and responsibilities as an authority figure. Fogarty could read his sources from multiple perspectives here, including through the eyes of colonial soldiers. [End Page 354]

A multifaceted reading could be...


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pp. 353-356
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