2019 - 2020 Modern Uncategorised Volume 13

The Relationship between Race and Rank During the First World War

By Steph Ritson

The First World War is celebrated as the first globalised war, however, the experience and contributions of non-Europeans remain sidelined. The First World War saw the increased use of colonial troops, as well as the implementation of Charles Mangin’s ‘martial hierarchy’. This advocated an ideology of difference through the segregation and subordination of all those who were not white. This also created a racialised hierarchy whereby the treatment, experience and rank of colonial troops were determined by their race.

The twentieth century saw the growth of biological connections of race. These new racial classifications saw colonial troops stereotyped as possessing more ‘warlike qualities’. For example, colonial soldiers were seen as being less developed emotionally and thereby more able to shed blood in battle. This was especially relevant for Senegalese soldiers who were used as ‘shock troops’ because of their apparent callous nature and capacity to act irrationally. These troops had the power to shock and bewilder their opponents because of this uncivilised nature and barbarism.

Consequently, these colonial troops posed a concern for their superiors. Many believed colonial soldiers had a greater capacity to turn on their imperial masters, meaning encounters with Europeans were reduced. This allowed wartime propaganda to perpetuate radicalised ideas, unchallenged due to the lack of real encounters with colonial troops.

Wartime propaganda sustained ideas of colonial lust and brutality, depicting colonial troops in a highly sexualised way. These fanatical ideas saw colonial soldiers presented as ‘others’ rejecting European codes of conduct, morality and religion. Soldiers were illustrated violating European women and plaguing the European countries with diseases, such as syphilis. The dichotomy between innocent blonde European women and black colonial soldiers emphasised the possible menace of employing colonial troops and the fatal consequences of failing to sustain a radicalised hierarchy.

Military policy further reflects the relationship between race and rank. The enforcement of colour bars saw colonial troops systematically trampled within the radicalised hierarchy. Colonial soldiers saw their efforts for promotion thwarted by their white counterparts. Colonial theory defined these soldiers as infantile and uneducated, needing to rely on the guidance and instruction from white officers. Colonial soldiers were seen to be unable to command authority themselves, ultimately barring them from leadership roles. This was founded on a colonial rationale that recognised the indigenous people as primitive and in need of European intervention [and colonisation] to progress to modernity and civilisation. When promotions did occur, this was simply an effort to transfer the existing social order from the colonies into wartime environments. Here, the sons of tribal chiefs and elites were raised to the highest position whilst more talented soldiers were disallowed promotion. Wartime efforts at meritocracy and brotherhood thereby failed colonial soldiers.

The disparity of experience between European and colonial troops extended even further, with the lives of colonial soldiers seen as more expendable than their white counterparts. The inherent inequality between colonial and white troops saw the colonial troops lives more swiftly put on the line in an effort to ‘spare’ European lives. Colonial troops were therefore reduced to cannon fodder. deployed in the most bloody battles and counter offences and simply used as objects of European strategy. Highlighted by colonial losses being up to twenty percent higher than European armies, and proving the justification for this as purely European self-interest.

The inequality between European and colonial troops extended even in death. Following the tremendous losses of colonial soldiers, their bodies were often disregarded, failing to be offered the luxury of individually commissioned graves. This was supported by the principle that the colonial troops would not appreciate individual graves due to their lack of civilisation.

The greatest difference perhaps existed between European and colonial workers. The First World War saw the importation of colonial workers, specifically Chinese labourers. These workers took on roles such as munition production and burying the dead. The transportation of these workers in chains and their placing in isolated accommodation reflects the purposeful segregation from their European counterparts. Their experience rested on their difference, more reminiscent of prisoners of war or slaves than worker fundamental to the war effort. Colonial workers were also threatened with violent attacks by Europeans, seeing them as competitors in terms of work, and also women. This ultra-nationalism proves that in the many different theatres of battle the experience of colonial troops was determined by their race.

Ultimately, race was the key factor determining the position and experience of colonial troops. Colonial soldiers were never granted the same treatment as their European counterparts, despite their contributions and merits. Instead, soldiers were dictated to by a martial theory that characterised them as both barbaric and infantile. Eventually, this discontent was mobilised and the entitlement felt by colonial troops resulted in a transformation of the colonial system, however today we must still reflect on the permanence and durability of these racial inequalities.


Das, S. ‘The Experiences of Colonial Troops’, The British Library (29 January 2014),  https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops 

Fogarty, R.S., Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914–1918 (Baltimore, 2008), pp. 96-132.

Fogarty, R.S., Race, racism and military strategy (2014)

Hill, K. ‘Sex, Sacrifices, Race: Vietnamese Experiences in the First World War’, in Santanu Das (ed.), Race, Empire and First World War Writing (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 53-69.

Hill, K. ‘Strangers in a Foreign Land: Vietnamese Soldiers and Workers in France During World War I’, in Nhung Tuyet Tran and Anthony Reid (eds), Vietnam: Borderless Histories (Madison, 2006), pp. 256-89.

Koller, C, ‘Enemy Images: Race and Gender Stereotypes in the Discussion on Colonial Troops – A Franco-German Comparison, 1914-1923’, in Karen Hagemann and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum (eds), Home/Front: The Military, War and Gender in Twentieth-Century Germany (Oxford, 2002), pp. 139-57.

Lunn, J. ‘“Les Races Guerrieres”: Racial Preconceptions in the French Military about West African Soldiers during the First World War’, Journal of Contemporary History 34 (1999), pp. 517-36.

Marks, S. ‘Black Watch on the Rhine: A Study in Propaganda, Prejudice and Prurience’, European History Quarterly 13 (1983), pp. 297-333.

Morrow, J. ‘The Imperial Framework’, in Jay Winter (ed.), The Cambridge History of the First World War, vol. 2, The State (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 405-32.

Omissi, David. “Europe through Indian eyes: Indian soldiers encounter England and France, 1914–1918.” The English Historical Review 122.496 (2007): 371-396

Stovall, T, ‘Colour-Blind France?: Colonial Workers During the First World War’, Race and Class 35 (1993), pp. 35-55.

Stovall, T. ’The Color Line Behind the Lines: Racial Violence in France During the Great War’, American Historical Review 103 (1998), pp. 737-69.