France Confers Citizenship, Conscription

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 206th installment in the series.

October 19, 1915: France Confers Citizenship, Conscription 

Following Napoleon’s abortive invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801, the French conquest of Algeria from 1830-1847 marked the beginning of a long-term expansion in North and Central Africa, creating a trans-Saharan empire that eventually encompassed the modern countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, French Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Benin, (acquired from Germany in the First World War), Gabon and the Republic of Congo. These African possessions were the centerpiece of a global empire extending to include Indochina, Madagascar, Pondicherry in India, French Guiana, Syria, and island territories in the Caribbean Sea and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 

Student Handouts,Click to enlarge 

Like other European colonial empires during this period, the French Empire was justified by an essentially racist ideology, holding the non-European inhabitants of Africa and Asia inferior to their white rulers, but also with frequent references to France’s “civilizing” mission and the need to spread (Catholic) Christianity. These apparently complementary justifications actually hid a basic contradiction: if the non-white subjects embraced “civilization” and succeeded in becoming fully French in language and culture, did they also become equals entitled to French citizenship and legal rights? 

For most of the empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries the question was moot, either because the subject peoples in question failed to assimilate French language and culture, as in Indochina, or because they were engaged in active resistance to French rule, like the Berber tribes of Morocco (or both). However there was one region where the latent contradiction became a real dilemma: Senegal. 

The French presence in Senegal dated back to the early days of the colonial project: the first French colony in Senegal, the trading port of Saint-Louis, was established in 1659, followed by the conquest of the nearby island of Gorée from the Dutch in 1677. French control was limited to the coastal areas of Senegal until the mid-19th century, when French merchants and colonists began pushing inland along the Senegal River, establishing trading outposts and plantations, soon followed by a French military presence. 

As the colonial administration expanded inwards, French educators and missionaries established schools serving the native inhabitants of the four original European settlements on the coast—the “Four Communes” of Saint-Louis, Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque—who subsequently assimilated many elements of French culture, including French language, literature, clothing and food (and to a lesser degree Catholicism, as a large number remained Muslim and lived under Islamic law, rather than the French civil code). 

These Francophone coastal populations, known as the “originaires” (originals or natives), in effect became the Senegalese native elite, dominating trade and political relations with the less acculturated ethnic and tribal groups of the interior, principally the Wolof, Fula, and Serer. This was probably no mistake: like the British, the French were close observers of ethnic and regional dynamics and made adroit use of “divide and conquer” tactics to exploit historical differences between their colonial subjects.

Following the liberal revolution of 1848, when the new Second Republic replaced the monarchy of Louis Philippe I, the new French Parliament conferred French citizenship on the originaires in recognition of their acculturation, with the right to elect a representative to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. But the legal rights were contingent on various factors, including whether they choose to keep their personal status under Islamic law or submitted to the French civil code, leaving it ambiguous whether they had full citizenship or some kind of second-class version. Meanwhile the extension of voting rights proved fleeting: just four years later, prince Louis Napoleon overthrew the Second Republic, established the Second Empire, and revoked the Africans’ right to elect a representative. 

The right to elect a representative was restored after the fall of Louis Napoleon and the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871. Unsurprisingly a succession of Senegalese representatives pushed for clarification of the originaires’ citizenship status—but in the decades to come this inconvenient issue was mostly ignored by fellow legislators distracted by much more pressing concerns closer to home, including the upheavals of the Dreyfus Affair and the bitter anti-clerical campaign waged by Republican secularists against the Catholic Church. 

The outbreak of war, and the resulting need for new sources of manpower, offered a golden opportunity to finally obtain full citizenship. Leading the push was the Senegalese representative, Blaise Diagne (below), who offered his colleagues in the Chamber of Deputies a deal: if they conferred full citizenship on all originaires—including those who chose to retain their personal status under Islamic law—the originaires would submit to conscription into the French Army, as required of all male citizens. 

On October 19, 1915 the Chamber of Deputies passed the first of the “Blaise Diagne Laws,” confirming the military obligations of the originaires, followed shortly afterwards by a second law conferring full French citizenship. Diagne was later appointed governor general of military recruitment in French West Africa, and eventually enlisted around 60,000 Senegalese troops in the French Army, mostly for service on the Western Front. Altogether over 160,000 African troops served on the Western Front during the war, with thousands more serving in Salonika and the Middle East. 

Needless to say, not all originaires were enthusiastic about the idea of serving in the French Army—and this was even more true for the inhabitants of the interior, who didn’t receive citizenship but were often coerced into joining the army “voluntarily” anyway, where they received less pay, lived in rudimentary lodgings, and had no chance of promotion above non-commissioned rank. Either way, as Yorow Diaw, a Senegalese enlistee put it, it was “never good for someone to tell you to ‘come and die.’” 

Another Senegalese soldier, Biram Mbodji Tine, described the coercive measures used by recruiters who visited his rural village: “Many of the young men fled from the village… [But] they used to arrest their fathers [if] they [did not] come back… And often they used to go and enter the army [so that] their fathers [would be] released.” Similarly another conscript, Souan Gor Diatta, recalled: 

When the Tubabs [whites] first came… there was resistance. But the people of the village only had very old rifles—you had to put powder in them and a ball—“muskets.” But they took their muskets to fight with the Tubabs. But when they began to fight—when… they saw that the Tubabs had very modern rifles—they decided to run away. But some of them were killed before they ran. 

As this memory of armed resistance suggests, coercion extended to physical violence in many cases. According to another recruit, if conscripts tried to escape the whites or their native assistants would “beat you so severely that you would never try to escape again.”

However as in every other population affected by the war, there was a range of opinion, and some young West African men went willingly, hoping to secure their social status at home, expand their horizons, or simply have an adventure. Of course, this could bring them into conflict with parents and family members who distrusted Europeans and feared, with ample justification, that they would never see them again. Another soldier from nearby French Guinea, Kande Kamara, remembered his disagreement with his father over his decision to join up: 

When I arrived home, no one was to be found there, only old people and women. Everybody was in the bush, in the valleys and in the mountains. The only time they would come into town was in the middle of a dark night. I secretly packed all my clothes except for what I was wearing and sneakily brought them to my father’s house, because I had already made up my mind to go into the army, even though all of my family was against it. My father told me to go into hiding in the bush… I disobeyed my father, for he thought it was stupid and ridiculous to go to a war I didn’t understand and to fight in another country… I felt that, as one of the elder children of a chief, it was one of my responsibilities to go to war, if [the white people] needed us… He knew he couldn’t be angry, since he’d be angry at the white man.

As this comment indicates, many of the Africans soldiers had no idea what the war was about—which put them in the same boat as many of the rank and file white soldiers fighting alongside them. Kamara recalled the attitudes of colonial troops serving on the Western Front:

We black Africans were very sorrowful about the white man’s war. There was never any soldier in the camp who knew why we were fighting. There was no time to think about it. I didn’t really care who was right—whether it was the French or the Germans—I went to fight with the French army and that was all I knew. The reason for war was never disclosed to any soldier. They didn’t tell us how they got into the war. We just fought and fought until we got exhausted and died. 

In the same vein another Senegalese recruit remarked: “The men who took us to France to fight knew the reasons they were fighting, but we only knew that we had to fight for them. That was the only thing I knew. Personally I was never told the reasons [for the war].”

Even before they arrived at the front, African soldiers underwent a huge transition simply by traveling to Europe. As their elders feared, exposure to new ways of life often loosened their connections with their own culture. Another Senegalese soldier, Demba Mboup, described the culture shock experienced by young men who found themselves suddenly removed from a traditional tribal system based on strict hierarchical divisions, and immersed in a modern, urban, and (at least formally) egalitarian society:

We all joined the same army—the French army… So we did not think about our [previous] way of living, our behavior, our [former] kingdoms. We were bound to follow the French regulations and their way of thinking about all things… There wasn’t any [social] differentiation [with regard to slaves] because we were following another system—another [way of] life—which was the French one. 

Unsurprisingly in an era of endemic racism, the African recruits encountered prejudice and bigotry on a daily basis, beginning in some cases on the long, frightening ocean journey to France, when some white officers and sailors abused their passengers. Here Mboup remembered:

We [sailed from Dakar] on a boat called L’Afrique on May 9, 1916. There was a French soldier with us… [who] was a very very bad man… this French officer said that all the soldiers had to go downstairs—deep inside the ship. And we [were confined for] the [next] six days in the bottom [of the boat near] the keel. [And] we suffered a lot in the bottom of the ship because there was no air. 

However, unlike the Jim Crow regime in the United States, in metropolitan France racism wasn’t enshrined at the institutional level and there were at least some avenues for official redress, as Mboup discovered on arrival. When the ship arrived in France Blaise Diagne greeted the recruits and, hearing about the abuse, had the officer arrested—amazing the Senegalese soldiers, who had never seen a black man assert authority over a white man. 

As this story indicates the recruits definitely faced personal racism, but didn’t necessarily find the situation hopeless, as the authorities—aware that educated recruits would talk about their treatment in letters home, possibly affecting future recruiting efforts—did their best to curb the more egregious outbursts. Meanwhile at least some prejudiced attitudes were simply the result of unfamiliarity with foreigners on the part of ordinary French people, which could change over time. The story told by the Senegalese soldier Ndiaga Niang showed that bigotry was by no means entrenched (and also gives some idea of the rough and tumble life at the front): 

So on this day, I took my cup and I wanted to make “cheers” with a French soldier who was sitting next to me. So I made the “cheers,” [but] the soldier said to me, “don’t touch my cup, you are too dirty!” And [this made] me very angry. [So] I punched him and we began to fight. And when they went to get the captain, the captain told me that I was right, and he told the French soldier that he would be punished. But afterwards, I became very friendly with this same soldier.

Other African soldiers described receiving a warm welcome from French people who were grateful for their service and sympathetic to the psychological impact of leaving their homeland to fight in a strange, faraway country. As with other soldiers suffering from social isolation, friendly families would often “adopt” soldiers, who for their part were very grateful for the taste of home life, helping alleviate homesickness to at least some degree. On that note Mamadou Djigo recalled:

I had a very good [French] friend—his name was Perout… I was his only African friend, [but] we spent a lot of time together. [And] I often went to his house [when on leave]. He invited me… for lunch, or dinner, and sometimes I spent the night… And when his [family] came to visit him, they kissed me before they kissed him—his father, his mother, and his sisters. 

Again like many of their European comrades, some Senegalese recruits formed connections with “marraines de guerre,” or “war godmothers”—Frenchwomen of various ages who took responsibility for the wellbeing of a soldier at the front, sending food, clothing, tobacco, candy, and other necessities along with letters and photos of themselves. Human nature being what it is, inevitably some of these relationships went further, despite efforts by the French authorities to prevent African troops from sleeping with French women (and indeed to keep all troops, regardless of color, separate from “good” civilian women, directing them to official brothels instead). According to Kamara, 

There were some white women who had mattresses and beds and invited you to their bedrooms. In fact they tried to keep you there. They gave you clothes, money and everything. When the inspector came, he never saw you, because you were hiding under the bed or under the bed covers of that beautiful lady. That’s how some soldiers got left behind. None of them went back to Africa. 

Another Senegalese soldier, Mbaye Khary Diagne, provided a somewhat less sensational perspective:

The African soldiers in France had their marraines de guerre too. They were not prostitutes. They were girls of good families who saw us and knew that we were [far from] our countries. [And they realized] we needed some affection and some money… to buy cigarettes with, to go to the movies, and so on. [And we met them] on the streets or in cafes. A French girl saw you and felt very pleased by [your appearance]. And she said to you that she wanted to take you to her house to present you to her parents. And you got [an adopted] French family in that way. [But] it wasn’t necessary to have love affairs [with them]. From time to time some marraines de guerre fell in love with the soldiers they invited home. But generally, they were only friendly relations. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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