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The Black Army

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Two million Africans were killed when the continent was drawn into the World War 1. They marched from Africa when the continent was pulled into the raging war in Europe, African soldiers were forced to fight for their colonial masters between 1914 and 1918. France recruited more Africans than any other colonial power, sending 450,000 troops from West and North Africa to fight against the Germans on the front lines. Nigerian, Gambia, Gold Coast soldiers fought on the side of Britain. And they traveled to the ‘Mother Country’ from the Caribbean, at their own expense to take part in the fight against the Germans. Throughout the war, 60,000 Black South African and 120,000 other Africans also served in uniformed for Britain.

Even the Germans brought soldiers from their colonies as well, what is now Tanzania and Namibia. Few know these facts or overlook them. This was truly a world war, as millions died and the world changed forever.

When America got into the war in April 1917 the US Army had 126,000 troops, certainly not enough. Within one week of Wilson's declaration of war, the War Department had to stop accepting black volunteers because the quotas for African Americans were filled. Unfortunately, there was still segregation in the US so they formed four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. More than 350,000 African Americans served mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. The men in these units were considered heroes in their communities, but unfortunately not, in the general public upon coming home.

The French were open and appreciative of these black soldiers and treated them better than the Americans. Although experiencing some difficulties like language problems, the black soldiers were treated as equals. After being detached and seconded to the French, they wore the Adrian helmet, while retaining the rest of their U.S. uniform. From 18 July to 6 August 1918, the 369th Infantry, now proudly nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," proved their tenacity once again by helping the French 161st Division drive the Germans from their trenches during the Aisne-Marne counter-offensive.

An example the bravery of 15,000 Senegalese Tirailleurs launched the assault on the Dragon's Lair quarry under the pouring rain and snow and continuous fire of German machine guns on April 16, 1917. Today, the Dragon's Lair in the commune of Oulches-la Vallee-Foulon, converted into a space for exhibits on the First World War, the battles of the Chemin des Dames and the French soldiers' everyday life. My visit was after the installation of Swiss artist Christian Lapie’s Constellation de la Douleur (Constellation of Pain), which is seen as you approach the Dragon’s Lair. It is a set of nine arresting black sculptures made of oak wood tree trunks fashioned with a chainsaw and coated black. Powerful and silent the large statues are placed on the slope adjacent to the Museum, by the quarry's original entrance, where 1400 West African men fell during the attack.

The commissioned work was inaugurated for the 90th Anniversary of the Great War and pays a tribute to the Colonial Soldiers so that their sacrifices would not be forgotten. WWI resulted in seismic changes that are still at the root of conflicts. For many Africans, the end of WWI did not bring hope for liberation.

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