French President François Hollande has said France will not forget the African soldiers who died for it during World War I.
The President says the Centenary of World War I in 2014 will offer the chance to remember their sacrifice. ‘I would like no soldier who shed blood in battle to be forgotten,’ he said.
‘African troops actively participated in World War I. Their contribution was crucial,’ Charles Onana, a French journalist and essayist who has written widely on 20th century French and African history, told France 24. ‘But apart from the villages and rural regions where they were present on the ground, the larger French public isn’t necessarily aware of that. I’ve often been faced with high school and university students who knew nothing about these men’s engagement.’
France called on roughly 500,000 African men to fight alongside 8 million soldiers from mainland France. Present in what was referred to as the ‘colonial army‘ were 175,000 Algerians, 40,000 Moroccans, 80,000 Tunisians and 180,000 sub-Saharan Africans.
Onana has also called for more rigorous teaching of World War I history in French class rooms. ‘The duty of remembrance must have an academic component, which consists of including the African contribution [to France’s World War I effort] in history text books.
‘It’s important not just to mention, but to explain the history of these men in order to combat ignorance and reactionary behaviour. Young people would then know that during the war, there was solidarity between all soldiers and that no one paid attention to race differences.’
Onana believes France still lacks a willingness to acknowledge its colonial history. ‘It’s a part of the French story that is ignored, because it is linked to colonialism, a subject that elicits discomfort whenever it is raised.’