November 11, 2008
Only a week ago, Americans by the millions were lining up to elect Barack Obama President of the United States. It is natural that Europeans have been searching their souls ever since, asking if they too would be able to elect one of their millions of citizens of color to the highest office. So today, 11 November 2008, 90 years after the Armistice that ended the First World War, my focus is on the millions of Commonwealth, Congolese, and French African soldiers who fought for their respective British, Belgian, and French colonial powers.
In Brussels, with its large Congolese community, today's gathering at "Riga Square Afrique" was symbolic: there is no "monument to the unknown Congolese soldier," though there probably should be. Not only did soldiers from Belgium's largest African colony serve in both world wars, but Congo's huge mineral wealth (copper for shells and bullets, rubber for tires, etc.) served the Allied war effort.
Today we went to northern France, where hundreds of Muslim soldiers from regiments with romantic names like Tirailleurs Algériens and Régiment Mixte de Zouaves et Tirailleurs are buried in a hilltop cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, along with close to 40,000 of their Christian and Jewish comrades. Why Notre Dame de Lorette? We wanted to see this massive cemetery, where in April 2008 vandals had desecrated the Muslim soldiers' graves. Thankfully, they have been restored to their pristine simplicity. The inscription at right reads "Mohamed. Mort pour la France."
For years, the contributions of soldiers from Europe's colonies had been, if not forgotten, relegated to annual commemorations like 11 November, when dwindling numbers of citizens visited the monuments of wars fought by their fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers... the links are becoming more tenuous. For the Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian veterans of World War II, it took the Cannes success of French-Algerian film Indigènes ("Days of Glory") in 2006 to shame then-French President Jacques Chirac into extending benefits theretofore reserved for "Metropolitan" veterans.
It was always easier to honor the "colonials" (the "white" dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa) for their sacrifices for Mother Europe in the Great War and in World War II. Today we also took in Vimy Ridge, hallowed Canadian soil overlooking France's coal mining basin near Arras.
Vimy is an amazing site, and generations of Canadians have flocked there to pay homage to their fallen, each one of whom is honored with a tree planted in the pock-marked soil. There is also a discreet monument near the entrance to the Moroccan regiment's dead. As if a magnet for the disparate elements who came to France's defense, the Moroccan monument has plaques honoring Jewish, Armenian, Czech, Swedish volunteers.
Though their numbers were relatively small in the overall Great War scheme of things, France's black African troops - especially the Tirailleurs Senegalais - were considered shock troops, called by General Charles Mangin "la Force Noire." Francophones might enjoy listening to a special radio broadcast from earlier today on France Inter on General Mangin and the use of black troops in World War One (I suggest skipping the first 15 minutes on the MP3 link, but the rest of the hour-long program has a very good discussion between two historians).
In a way, it's unfortunate that the U.S. has transformed its commemoration of Armistice Day into Veterans Day, thereby losing the direct connection with the First World War (after all, we have Memorial Day in May for generic war remembrance). For many African-Americans, WW I was transformational too: some 350,000 served in uniform, and many stayed on in Europe after the war, escaping from the still-virulent racism back home.
But whether in the US or Europe, much has changed since the days when
"Negroes or people of colour must not exercise any actual command or power"
... according to British Army manuals. The BBC recently screened a documentary on Walter Tull, the first British officer of color, killed on the Somme in the Great War.
Today, "Force Noire" means much more than the capacity of black soldiers to scare the living daylights out of the Germans on the other side of No Man's Land. We already have a French junior minister, Rama Yade, toying with the notion of becoming a "French Obama." If black, Arab, Muslim soldiers could shed their blood for their colonial masters, then it's more than overdue for their great grandchildren to get the votes of their fellow citizens. Oui, on peut.