Sunday, 23 March 2014



                                                                                                                                                                                                              THE BLACK FACE OF THE GREAT WAR

In Memoirs of the Maelstrom: A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War Joe Lunn reveals a side of the “Great War” that is commonly neglected. He explores in detail the participation of Black Senegalese recruits on the European frontlines under the French banner, and the politics that surrounded their recruitment, thereby giving them the attention they deserve and clarifying their role in the war as a whole. Basing his work in part on interviews with Senegalese veterans, Lunn offers a perspective that is at once an investigative and personalized exploration of veteran memories.

It must be admitted that it is often hard for North-Americans of any race, as the cultural progeny of European cultural expansionism fueled by Hollywood’s entertainment historio-filmography, and possibly even harder for Europeans themselves, to escape the dominant depictions of the First World War as being starred by whites, affecting whites, and being, in racial terms, almost purely a white affair. Yes, we do neglect the way India was affected by the event; yes, we would rarely remember that the Middle East was involved too if it wasn’t for that war-movie classic, “Galipoli;” and yes, we have no idea that a contingent of almost thirty thousand Senegalese were drafted to, mostly never to return from, the muddy trenches that scarred the frontiers and backyards of European empires from 1914 to 1918. It is exactly that, the story of the Senegalese recruits, that Joe Lunn tells in this book; and it is an important story, for it allows us to glimpse a different side of the war, a side that movie screens did not capture, that was considered uninteresting by the factories of popular history.
As the title suggests, the theme of this book is the ‘maelstrom’ or, as my Webster-Merriam dictionary has it, “a powerful, often violent, whirlpool sucking in objects within a given radius,” of the First World War (hereafter WWI) as it affected the subjects of the French colonial government in the region of what is today the Republic of Senegal. His research being mainly based on series of interviews with the Senegalese veterans conducted in 1982-3, Joe Lunn argues that this maelstrom carries great significance in shaping the region and its society to its present-day state. The WWI wartime demands, Lunn explains, had an unprecedented impact on Africans and were the most direct and exploitative colonial demands ever. Yet, these demands represented an ironic turn of the events for the French, since they directly affected the African mentality and strengthened its political maturity – an essential ingredient for nationalist movements of wide proportions that later harnessed African independence.
The evidence Lunn emphasizes the most throughout his work are the sound-recordings of oral interviews he conducted in person with 57 Senegalese veterans, 17 witnesses, and 2 French veterans, and 11 unrecorded interviews. He also consulted archives in Senegal and France, a dozen of official publications, about the same amount of periodicals, one pamphlet, and an abundant amount of professional secondary sources. Quoted testimonies are seamlessly incorporated into the text, contributing in an intense and personalized way to the overall picture author is trying to create, which is, however, still not as personalized to the voices of Senegalese veterans as I expected (1). Nevertheless, I maintain that as a work of history this book is personal just about enough. The fact that the author successfully refrained from personalizing the book to these oral histories at the expense of the more significant historical points should be viewed as its strength; this I consider especially praiseworthy when the tragic, pitiful, and emotionally perturbing nature of these accounts is understood.
One of the criticisms that I repeatedly considered while reading the book, concerning the sources Lunn uses, is of statistical nature. Lunn’s sample of 57 soldiers out of the 29,000 that were drafted in Senegal seems small and inadequate for the advancement of some of the stronger conclusions he offers. Yet, I think that Lunn is the last person to blame for this statistical weakness. Moreover, I think he deserves nothing but praise. There were not many soldiers left to be interviewed in 1918, let alone in 1982. Thus, it can be said that Lunn’s was the last train for these invaluable testimonies to reach the world outside Senegal. Whatever the number of veterans he was able to locate and interview, we have to recognize the importance of his work.
Even so, the probable presence of bias and prejudice in these testimonies is not to be neglected. Many suffered because of the French and are therefore more inclined to demonize them; on the other hand, some profited from their ‘French experience,’ and thus tend to argue in favor of the French. Nonetheless, these testimonies combined form an excellent portrait of the Senegalese perspective on the First World War.
One of Lunn’s main arguments concerned the changes produced by the French recruitment policies in Senegal. In part, the developments these changes set in motion reach all the way to the end of colonialism. He does a good job encompassing the different levels at which these changes operated: political, social, economic, and educational. Lunn rightly emphasizes the role of Blaise Diagne, the Deputy of Senegal at the time, who personally embodies these tumultuous times. The French colonial government, in an effort to appear less authoritarian in its self-proclaimed mission civilisatrice, made a few seats in the National Assembly in Paris available to the representatives elected by the colonies, and Diagne sat for Senegal. The role this man had in the execution of French recruitment plans and in raising popular support for Senegalese participation in the war is crucial for an understanding of the many unsettled issues: the attitude of Senegalese soldiers towards the war, their motivation and rationalization of fighting, and the ways in which these factors influenced the future of the region. It was Diagne who popularized the view of African, and especially Senegalese, participation in ‘tubab’s war’ as a means of fighting for their own rights; they believed that their sacrifices for France would let them lay a stronger claim to desired political changes. Following this line of thought, Lunn goes as far as to pronounce Diagne the indirect founder of African independence movements; he advances this certainly controversial claim obliquely, but with several clear suggestions, avoiding controversy by leaving it to us to connect the dots (2).
The change Africans hoped for, Lunn argues, was only partly realized through their combat contributions. Africans were indeed viewed positively, both by the government, which institutionalized annual military recruitment in West Africa, and by the French people, whose image of Africans significantly changed from that of the prewar times. The change of the image of the French in the eyes of Senegalese, on the other hand, was much more dramatic, calling euro-centric racial theories into serious question. However, the changes did not extend as far as Africans expected. Lunn says that, paradoxically, the political changes—decrease of abuses, limited self-representation, and increased political negotiation—actually helped the French to strengthen their colonial grip, realizing that it was easier to govern through the political manipulation of the elites than through simple force.
In what is probably the best presented and supported argument in the book, Lunn enters into open conflict with the mainstream scholarly opinion and concludes that on the battlefield French troops were intentionally spared on the expense of Africans. Through an excellent interpretation and comparison of WWI casualty statistics, he entrenches this conclusion in pure fact, confirming it further with the bitter testimonies of veterans (3). It is futile to deny these conclusions, Lunn reminds us, since the sparing of lives at the expense of others is as old as warfare itself. One question remains unsettled: is Diagne, as key recruiter for the French government, to be blamed for this injustice?
If he is, then only partly; the rest of the blame is upon French policy makers. Lunn gives a well-supported account of French colonialism and the changes it experienced during and after the WWI. He presents the face of this institution as selfish, racist, and imperial, promoting egalitarian and libertarian spirit only as far as its interest required. In the case of the governmental propaganda intended to facilitate the acceptance of African soldiers in France and change the popular French perception of Africans, for example, it is clear that the motivation for this move stems from French war interests. The limited language education and intentional seclusion of African soldiers from the civilian population in France supports Lunn’s view: the basic motivation for most of French policies during (and also after) the war was exploitation.
The book follows a chronological order, thus revealing the subtleties of changes that occurred in Senegal and putting them in a comprehensible historical context. In places the attention shifts from Senegal to include other places and groups, trying to show how the mentioned changes affected West Africa as a whole. Yet, I think these occasional shifts to greater geographical perspectives were not sufficient; since many issues raised in the book concern related historical developments in Africa, Europe, and around the world, the focus on such relevant implications could have been integrated better, with more detail, and within larger perimeters.
However, I want to point out that the above criticisms are inconsequential. This work stands as an essential read for those who desire a better understanding of the relationship between colonialism, West Africa, and the WWI. With its sharp, fresh conclusions, it upsets the ‘mainstream’ historical narrative by its insightful ‘upstream’ argumentation and gives long deserved justice to the Senegalese perspective of the events in question.
In many ways Memoirs of the Maelstrom is a typical history book, with its moments of dryness and unexciting argumentation, but it is also a book that awakens, a book whose ideas shake common-held historical understandings. In a way, it is also a book of adventure, since it heroically rescues its protagonists from oblivion and picks up a piece of history that should not be forgotten, returning it to where it belongs in the multifaceted puzzle of history. It also shows that historical issues or events are very often tied together and that the WWI and the later African Independence movements can be viewed not only in the same frame of reference but also as significantly connected to each other. It reminds us that many things we do today—invent democracies, moralities, countries, commercial products, or revisiting histories and prodding our environment—can, like many times before, lead to unforeseen and serious consequences in unexpected places.
In conclusion, let me say that the intensity contributed to this work by the personal perspective of the old soldiers cannot be emphasized enough. This book is at the same time involving, putting us right in the middle of action with the quotations from testimonies, and historically professional, since Lunn takes great care not to fall prey to the emotional temptations that follow its humane face. For several hours after reading the last page of the book, I was left with the sad, yet elevating air of melancholy, compassion, and illuminating revelation. If only for this exceptional feeling, I would recommend reading Memoirs of the Maelstrom to anyone.