Toward a Racial Genealogy of the Great War

dusan-bjelic-portretA second guest post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18 from Dušan I. Bjelić. Dušan received both his B.A. (1976) and M.A. (1981) in Sociology from the University of Belgrade and then earned his Ph.D in Sociology from Boston University in 1989, joining the University of Southern Maine Department of Sociology and Criminology in 1990. His area of interest is the colonizing application of psychoanalysis and psychiatry to the Balkans. Professor Bjelić co-edited Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation with Obrad Savić (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002). He has also published two books of his own: Galileo’s Pendulum: Science, Sexuality and the Body-Instrument Link, (SUNY Press, 2003) and Normalizing the Balkans: Geopolitics of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Ashgate, 2011). His published works can be accessed at

“Just as there is no wedding dinner without meat so there is no war without slaves.”

Serb soldier on the Balkan Front.[1]

A man was looking for something he had lost under the street lights; another man, the joke goes, approached and asked him what he was looking for. “I am looking for my lost keys,” “Did you lose them here?” “No,” the first man responded, “I lost them on the dark side of the street.” “But, why are you looking here?” “Because this is where the light is.” This joke illustrates well the paradox of the national paradigm in European historiography of the Great War. The assumption that the European sovereign nation is the sole agent of modern history naturally motivates European historiography to frame the Great War within a national paradigm and foreclose its colonial dimension. A related trope to the above joke pertains to race and its relation to the national histories of Europe; the black face of a slave, according to Frantz Fanon, can be seen during the night only under the porch light of the master, but when the slave goes into the dark his face becomes invisible. The deployment of colonial soldiers in the Great War as “warrior races” or, “martial races” to fight on behalf of their masters, and the absence of the Black history of slavery from the history of the Great War is in fact the history written from the master’s porch. While the invisibility of the black face foreclosed Black history from the national paradigm of the Great War, it was nonetheless useful as a racial weapon in the war.

By deploying almost a million non-white troops in the European theater of war—France’s 500,000 Africans and Asians, Britain’s 200,000 Indians and Africans, America 200,000 black soldiers, Germany’s 11,000 Africans (only in East Africa)—race was used as a “weapon of war” to advance an unprecedented slaughter among the white nations. [2] R. J. Vincent socked it to the revisionist historians when he wrote, “not only were the whites laying to rest the notion of their instinctive comity by butchering each other in such unprecedented numbers, but they were also showing their neglect of race in favour of nation in using non-white troops to advance the slaughter.”[3] Those historians committed to the national paradigm acknowledge the contribution of colonial solders in the Great War only as an auxillary force rather than as the point of the return of race as the constitutive violence of European Modernity. Many of the former slaves forcefully recruited and disciplined as racial instruments of forced labour, punishment and extermination became the site of colonial violence and operated as a microcosm for the War. The colonial soldier was the cause and the consequence of the Great War.

Disciplining race: constitutive terror of global capitalism

The history of slavery was embryonic of the Great War. For the Great War to enter modern history it had to first pass through the checkpoint of racial terror. Adam Smith’s discoveries of America and the water route to India were the two greatest and most important events in modern history, and yet these discoveries had only opened the world to a potential global system of trade; it was the singularity of black slave labour, as Eric Williams made clear in his classic study Capitalism and Slavery, that had made global system of trade possible.[4] Neither could white or Indian slaves make the colonial plantation profitable; facts such as “one Negro was worth four Indians”[5] or Negro labour “on the sugar plantation was 130 times more valuable to England than one at home”[6] had changed the calculus in the direction of trade to Africa.

When Eric Williams claims that racism did not invent slavery but rather the other way around, he is only partially correct. What is missing from his claim is the disciplinary force in ‘co-producing’ wealth – actually capturing the black subject and forcing him/her to hyper-productivity. This disciplinary component of slavery is a pure political act of terror. Thus the formula capturing the social physics of global capitalism can be written as follows:

Disciplinary terror

—————————  =  Hyper-productivity

Slave labour

Body-archive of disciplinary apparatuses

Body-archive of disciplinary apparatuses

To keep the live energy of the black body at arduous work, required (in addition to legislation) a whole set of disciplinary apparatuses to assure the security of the new sovereign authority of commerce. It was not only the hyper-productivity of the black labour source of hyper-profit but also the hyper-disciplining of the black body that had co-produced wealth and had increased the plantation’s market competitiveness. It was this unity of discipline and labour that had established the measure of creative force for building the global system of trade and industry. As Fernando Ortiz put it: “To subject the Indian to the mines, to their monotonous, insane and severe labour, without tribal sense, without religious ritual, … was like taking away from him the meaning of his life… It was to enslave not only his muscles but also his collective spirit.”[7]

To say it differently, the Indian subjectivity more than his physical being stood in the way of profit since he could not be disciplined into profitable labour. What the system of colonial plantations needed was a different kind of body with more physical energy released; reduced to its bio-mechanics the body was fueled by fear and terror. In order to become profitable the colonial plantation system denied, as an economic imperative, African subjectivity and demanded a total instrumentalization of the body to operate as a hyper-productive bio-machine. Given that the emerging global system of commerce was in fact a war of economic interests, the black body was displaced and instrumentalized into a weapon of economic warfare. But the flip side of this de-subjectivization was the simultaneous weaponization of the denied black subjectivity. Proportional to the terror that it had to absorb, black subjectivity became a hyper-productive weapon of rebellion.[8]

Now, someone may say that this was just one component out of many, but I would argue that whatever was built out of this terror, it was not a simple sum of things, but rather a complex form of disciplinary techniques grown out of a single cell of terror, which became an industrial complex and the existence of which was/is sustained by disciplining race by way of laws, punishment and security. Industrial capitalism and abolitionism did not end racism but rather by the end of the nineteenth century in the conquest of the American West and of Africa, slavery became state owned.

In the United States after the abolition of slavery Jim Crow Laws and the formation of the prison industrial complex permitted the southern states to use incarceration as a means of forced labour. Today the prison industrial complex, the war on drugs, the war on terror, private prisons, the death penalty, etc. are grown disciplinary techniques out of slavery. In the nineteenth century Africa, the French colonial military in the course of the conquest of Africa used forced recruitment to build its colonial armies in order to protect commerce and later to create military colonies. Both disciplinary apparatuses of incarceration and forced labour now in the service of industrial capitalism developed security apparatuses based on race.

France more than any other nation during the conquest of Africa and in the Great War used “race as a weapon of war.” [9] Referring to the roots of slavery in the French colonial military, Martin A. Klein points to the perverse fact that France in 1918 had wiped out the West African slave system, “because a largely slave army was conscripted to fight [the war].”[10] France’s effort of robbing West Africa “of its youngest and most vigorous men” behind the official white nations’ frontlines, must be understood as a colonial and racial supplement to the First World War.[11]


Disciplinary military apparatuses and the production of race as a “weapon of war”:

Because the French African colonies were run by the French military, the military became the largest utilizer of slavery. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade had stopped by 1848, African slavery and forced labor did not. Slavery was either absorbed through buying slaves for military service or through recruiting them indirectly from the local slaveholders. French Governor Leon Findherbe of Senegal created the first permanent units of black African soldiers under French rule in West Africa naming them the tirailleurs sénégalais in 1857, but the origin of French black soldiers goes back as far as the early years of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade when British and French traders took on local African slaves to serve as the core of their small company armed detachments.[12] Throughout this time the French military became the largest purchaser of slaves in West Africa. As Echenberg put it:

French military conscription in West Africa was indeed a tax in blood and sweat. Hundreds of thousands of young Africans were conscripted to serve overseas in European and colonial wars during the first half of this century. Still thousands more were drafted into what was called the “second portion,” a reservoir of potential soldiers who were also obliged, in some cases, to serve a three-year term in dreaded labor brigades.[13]

Throughout the nineteenth and into the beginning of the twentieth century, the French used various methods of coercive recruitments. Military historians differentiate three distinct recruiting periods.[14] The first period covers the post-Napoleonic period, numbering only several hundreds of black soldiers; the second period covers the conquest of Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century until World War I and includes the official establishment of the African forces–during this period the numbers increased from 500 to 18,000 soldiers by 1914. For this period, Echenberg writes, “A dramatic growth then took place during the years of military occupation from 1890-1904, and especially after the introduction of civil rule after 1904, until, by the beginning of 1914, the tirailleurs sénégalais had come to include almost 18,000 men organized in six regiments.”[15] The third period begins with 1918. To these three periods correspond the four coercive administrative recruiting methods; repurchasing slaves from their masters or rachat, the bonus method, the market-based method, and finally, universal obligatory conscription.



Conquered, occupied, and depersonalized as a warrior race, the African subject once again became the wheel of development, extension, and dominance for its colonial master. Race in colonial military discourse figured as a tactical rather than biological category. While on the plantation the black produced wealth, in colonial military it produced war.

The French saw themselves as la race supérieure, and their colonial subjects as “warrior races.” French colonial officers, much as the British military officers in India, had invented the category “warrior race” or “martial race” as they were encountering, observing and recruiting their former foes.[16] The most prominent colonial officer articulating this military discourse came from the author of Black Force (1910), colonial officer Charles Mangin.[17] Fighting with and against Africans, Mangin held their warrior qualities in a high regard with an eye toward using them in future European wars; he explained their qualities in racial terms:

Mangin asserted that Africans were endowed with a series of natural attributes that made them outstanding soldiers, including: (1) an ability to live in harsher climates than other races; (2) the capacity (owing to centuries of portage and migration) to carry heavy loads great distances; (3) a nervous system that was less developed than that of ‘whites’, which gave them greater resistance to pain and hence more willingness to shed blood in battle; (4) the patriarchal nature of African societies, which endowed them with a sense of discipline and hierarchy that was readily transferable to military life; and, finally, (5) the ‘selectionist’ argument that Africans were naturally suited to be excellent soldiers, since Africa had for centuries been a ‘vast battlefield’.[18]

“Warrior races” of West Africa

“Warrior races” of West Africa

All these enlisted qualities of endurance and mental simplicity, and the killing instinct combined with the lack of nervousness “rendered them especially valuable to be used as ‘shock troops’” in a European type of prolonged warfare in trenches.”[19] Mangin further differentiates tactical values within the African race itself; although Africans are born warriors they do not all have superior qualities. He goes so far as to provide a racial hierarchy according to the tactical values of Africans for the French military. While the coastal, less civilized population he placed at the lower end of the hierarchy, he reserved the upper end for West African tribesmen, ‘Toucouleurs’ and the ‘Mandingue’ as well as the Senegalese tribes such as the Wolof, the Serer and the Lebu.[20] “In future battles,” he argued while keeping his eye on Europe, “these primitives, for whom life counts so little and whose young blood flows so ardently, as if avid to be shed, will certainly attain the old ‘French fury’, and will reinvigorate it if necessary.”[21] The French military adopted and codified “warrior races” into a field command manual, Notice sur les senegalais et leur emploi au combat.[22]

At first, the metropolitan military showed deep skepticism about the usefulness of primitive warriors in modern, industrialized warfare. However, the prolonged war with high French casualties forged a change in thinking. As a result of the change, Charles Mangin become a member of the High Command in 1917 and with him, the colonial doctrine of offensive à outrance prevailed and Senegalese “shock attack” units became an integral part of the new tactical strategy of “savage war.”

To pierce through the German defenses by force of shock attack and sustain the counterattack, Balesi writes, “On August 30, 1918, the Direction of Colonial Troops had completed the project of organization of shock troops which was submitted to the general staff. Ten divisions mixtes sénégalaise were to be created with … regiments each including 1,485 Europeans and 1,341 Africans.”[23] Joe Lunn provides an analysis of the French Army’s tactical schematization of the mixed “shock troops.”[24]

Tact2This tactical chart with racial squares accompanied the French catalogue of “warrior races” and illustrates the extent to which race was reduced to a weapon for a specific tactical operation with high casualty rates. Lunn insists that both types of tactical deployments of racially mixed shock troops panaché (variegated) and accolé (attached) exposed the Senegalese troops to equally high risk. Even when a Senegalese company was assigned to the second echelon of attack they were often expected to move forward “to provide added support for the assault units in the front line.”[25] The function of the white troops in the mixed divisions was to give direction to the attacking black soldiers, to command them, to explain them what is going on, but also to shoot them if inclined to run away.

Lunn offers this chart measuring the correlation between the change in tactics and the death rates among the Senegalese.[26]

GrafThe broken line stands for the overall French death rates during the war, while the full line stands for the Senegalese. The chart clearly shows that by 1917, the large disparity between the French and Senegalese casualty rates was significant. While overall more French soldiers died during the war than black soldiers, considering the fact that black soldiers “seldom served in cavalry, artillery, engineering, and aviation units,” but due to their racially allotted task they served as shock troops, their risk of being killed overall was higher than that of the French.[27] In other words, while the French died of various causes, the Senegalese mostly died in combat. If only infantry casualties during the war were to be compared, the French and the Senegalese came to the same 22%; at the beginning of the war the Senegalese rates were less than 10% while the French combat deaths were 60%.[28] This radically changed with the change in war doctrine and with the massive forced recruitments toward the end of the war. As more Senegalese were recruited and sent to attack troops, more were killed in a short period of time, thus, taking into account the combat rates between the French and the Senegalese within the time period of the new war doctrine, the Senegalese death rates amount to 40%, while French drop below 20%.[29]

Beyond the global and national

There are two ways to talk about colonialism as a historic fact, as a discursive definition, for instance,  “imperialism as the last state of capitalism”, and as a description of colonialism as a disciplinary process; these two ways of considering colonialism operate on two different epistemological levels, reflective and productive. Michel-Rolph Trouillot made it clear in the opening poem of his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History:

I am well aware

that by no means

equal repute

attends the narrator

and the doer of deeds.

– Sallust[30]

Imperialism (the narrator’s concept) as a definition is powerful concept because it allows all sorts of generalizations and deductions, but the process of colonialism was produced by a different set of concepts, practical and disciplinary (the doers’). If a lake stands for a kind of water totality, then rivers, streams and creeks from all sides are the process of the making of the lake. The lake is not the doer but a collector. “Imperialism”–global colonial–is the collector of the dissemination and growth of numerous disciplinary processes.

The Great War as a process was neither national nor global but racial. It represented the moment of a great return to the total institution of race and slavery as the constitutive terror of European Modernity. What were global about the War were not the space of the War, but its internal disciplinary organization of war as a total institution in which all humans involved became hyper- producers of killing.

‘The Devil doesn’t ware shoes; if you see human looking figure with hooves, you have seen the Devil,’ Goethe instructed Dr. Faust in his quest for truth. Like metaphysical concept of Evil, the Great War, in the great scheme of things, is not to be explained but recognized for what it was: a crime against humanity. The real question is not who or what caused the War but rather how could this crime pass unpunished?

[1] In Vladeta R. Košutić, Dok su Solunci još Govorili., (Beograd, 2011), p. 39.

[2] Frank Furedi, The Silent War. Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race, (New Brunswick, 1998), p. 38.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, (Chapel Hill, 1994); Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, 2001).

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid., p. 53.

[7] Williams, (2001), p. 8.

[8] Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, (New York, 2014).

[9] Keith L. Nelson, “’Black Horror on the Rhine’: race as a Factor in Post-World War I Diplomacy,” in The Journal of Modern History, 42, no. 4, (1970): 606.

[10] Martin A. Klein, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa, (Cambridge, 1998), p. 216.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960, (London, 1991), p. 7.

[13] Ibid., 47.

[14] Shelby Cullom Davis, Reservoirs of Men: A History of the Black Troops of French West Africa, (Westport, CT, 1970); Echenberg (1991); Joe Lunn, Memoirs of the Maelstrom. A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War, (Portsmouth, NH, 1999a); Charles John Belasi, From Adversaries to Comrades-In-Arms: West Africans and the French Military, 1885-1918, (Waltham, MA, 1979), pp. 79-96.

[15] Echenberg, (1991), p. 8.

[16] Sir George MacMuun, The Martial Races in India, (London, 19123); Byron Farwell, The Gurkhas, (New York, 1984); Heather Streets, Martial Races. The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914, (Manchester, 2004); J. Bayo Adekson, “Ethnicity and Army recruitment in colonial plural societies,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies Volume 2 No. 2 (April 1979): 151-165.; Anthony H. M. Kirk-Green, “’Damonosa Heriditas’: ethnic ranking and the martial races imperative in Africa,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 2, No. 4, (October, 1980): 393-414.

[17] Leland Barrows, “The Impact of Empire on the French Armed Forces, 1830-1920,” in G. Wesley Johnson, Double Impact: France and Africa in the Age of Imperialism, (London, 1985), p. 98.

[18] Joe Lunn, “’Les Races Guerrieres’: Racial Preconceptions in the French Military about West African Soldiers during the First World War,” in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 34. No. 4 (Oct. 1999b): 521.

[19] Lunn, (1999b): 521.

[20] Lunn, (1999b): 523.

[21] Lunn, (1999b): 523.

[22] Lunn, (1999b): 529n; 333n28; Richard S. Fogarty, Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1014-1918, (Baltimore, 2008), 177n26.

[23] Balesi, (1979), 122.

[24] Lunn, (1999b): 530.

[25] Lunn, (1999b): 531.

[26] Lunn, (1999b): 533.

[27] Lunn, (1999b): 532.

[28] Lunn, (1999b): 533-4.

[29] Lunn, (1999b): 534n39

[30] Michel-Rolph Troullot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston, 1995), p. ix.

One thought on “Toward a Racial Genealogy of the Great War

  1. Streets’ Martial Races is illuminating about the Anglo side of this sordid story (that of course begins with the Picts & Scottish Highlanders), but Ive always wondered what a transnational history on this subject would look like. Hope you’ll write it! Allow me to add a few points. First, the conceit of martial races emerged as at once ‘local’ and European. In the case of the British Raj, this means that Roberts, Creagh, MacMunn and other marital race theorists carefully build upon existing discourses on social divisions, including caste and class. This underlines the need to go ‘beyond the global and national,’ as you say.

    Second, I wonder when and where were the ideas about les races guerrieres first ‘publicly’ rejected. I think you will agree that it behooves genealogists of race to uncover the relevant counterdiscourses. In the above context, I am thinking of Nirad C Chaudhury’s The Martial Race of India in Monthly Review in 1930 (?) but surely there are earlier works in print, to say nothing of other types of historical documents.

    Last: martial race-ism remains alive, doesn’t it? No military organization will today designate Rajputs as more martial than Tamils on its website, but looking at them from an ‘armed forces & society’ perspective– their regimental systems, composition, promotion patterns, etc — one can see many unhappy continuities going back to the era of colonial conscripts.

    In short, your post gave me a lot of food for thought this morning; hvala Dušane!


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