‘We did not speak a common language’

African Soldiers and Communication in the French Army, 1914–1918
  • Richard S. Fogarty
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Languages at War book series (PASLW)

Abstract

During the Great War, the French army deployed some 500,000 colonial subjects as soldiers on the Western Front. Known as troupes indigènes, these men came from across France’s worldwide empire, with North and West Africa, Indochina and Madagascar providing the largest contingents.1 Of course, these men did not speak French as their native language, and in fact the vast majority of them spoke little or no French upon their induction. This presented the army with a serious problem. Language barriers and misunderstandings could be inconvenient during training, and could be lethal in combat. Moreover, language had a tremendous importance in French culture, an importance that carried over into the colonial arena in a particular way. Republican colonial ideology held that educating indigènes, particularly in the use of the French language, was part of France’s ‘civilizing mission’ to uplift subject populations. As official French propaganda put it during the war, referring directly to soldiers from the colonies, ‘knowing better our language, the sentiments which unite us will only be strengthened’.2 Language, then, played a key role both in practical terms, communicating in the ranks, and on a broader ideological and cultural level, uniting France and its colonial subjects in a common national struggle for survival in the face of German aggression.

Keywords

Language Instruction French Language Racial Stereotype African Language French Colonial 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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© The Editor(s) 2016

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  • Richard S. Fogarty

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