Faces from the Past #1

Senegalese soldiers in North France, 1917

I came across this image amidst a host of colour photographs taken by pioneering shutterbug Jean Baptiste Tournassoud, an official photographer for the French army working with equipment and techniques developed by Les Freres Lumieres. This photo naturally stood out, perhaps by the incongruous thought of African soldiers fighting in Europe during the Great War (soldiers were recruited from many, if not all, French colonies, including Algeria and even South East Asia) and by the modern look of these men, unhindered by period hairstyles or facial hair, this photo could have been taken yesterday.

More of these photos can be found in this post on The World Armed Forces Forum or with additional commentary at The Heritage of the Great War.


Brent McKee said...

The photo is absolutely stunning, in no small part because it is in colour from a time that we experience almost exclusively in monochrome. This picture gives a real feel for what it must have been like, although it is clearly taken ina rear area (the wall behind them is plastered and those uniforms are far too clean).

The French have always used their nonwhite colonial troops more widely than the British - check out a history of Leclerc in the Second World War sometime and the story of his division which was mostly colonial until just before they landed in France. The Senegalese have always been there for the French, even sending troops to the Gulf War.

As for the British, well Kitchener didn't want Black troops in the line and the attitude carried on in the First World War, to the point where the British actually refused the loan of an American "Colored" regiments. The first Black officer in the British Empire was a Canadian with the 2nd Construction Battalion (raised in Nova Scotia) who was the unit's Chaplain.

I know, more than you want to know.

swac said...

Not necessarily more than I wanted to know, since I already knew about the black chaplain. And one of Canada's V.C. decorated soldiers was also a black soldier from Nova Scotia. In fact, a good friend of my family's wrote the book about Nova Scotia's Black Battalion, a stirring and emotional tale that most people are unaware of.

Soon we'll see the day when the last Second World War vet dies (I know there are none left here in N.S.), and I'll know how people felt about the last Civil War vets back in the '30s and '40s.

I find that war endlessly fascinating, and horrific in the nature of the slaughter. 20 years later they'd have to come up with grandiose schemes like the Holocaust and the A-Bomb to top it. A Very Long Engagement brought it home most recently, it's been ages since I've seen it depicted on the big screen. Hollywood seems to prefer the sequel.

Brent McKee said...

I assume you meant First World War vet. I only know about the 2nd Construction Battalion because I was looking for a doctoral thesis topic for my brother (he never did his thesis since the grade for his Masters was too low) and minority troops in the Canadian Army in the First World War seemed like an under-served subject.

As for the V.C. Winner, I recall that he was actually a sailor who served in the the relief of the Red Fort during the Indian Mutiny around the time of the Crimean War. On his death the medal (which has the comparatively rare blue ribbon for a naval winner, later eliminated) ws donated to the Nova Scotia Legislature - which promptly lost it.

Of course Hollywood prefers the sequel - more Americans in it. And yeah, I am serious.

Rob said...

Most European Armies used their minority or foreign volunteer troops as often as possible in WWI - the lists of VC winners is peppered with Indian ranks of all sorts, and the French trenches had plenty of minorities in the ranks. I daresay the Germans would've used their African Colonials, if they hadn't been cut-off from the general fighting. They all seemed glad to use new cannon fodder.