Category Archives: Colonial Troops

Vietnamese Troops in France

Vietnamese Colonial TroopsThe French drew on their colonial empire to defend their homeland. Troops from the far corners of the French empire were recruited and shipped to France to fight and die for their colonial masters. Troops from Africa as well as French Indochina (present day Cambodia and Vietnam) fought for France.

In this picture a contingent of Vietnamese troops is getting off a transport train en route for the Western Front. About 90,00 Vietnamese men fought in the French army during World War 1 and of these about 30,000 were killed, representing a far higher rate of fatal casualties than experienced by French and British troops. This may have been due to a number of factors, including inferior training afforded to colonial troops, or to the French tendency to use their colonial Vietnamese troops as cannon fodder, in order to spare their own men.

The casualty figures suffered by the Vietnamese are even more appalling when one considers that the majority of the Vietnamese troops were not actually combat troops. Only about 4,500 were actual combat soldiers, the rest served in labour and support battalions, which theoretically ought to have kept them out of the main fighting.To put the casualties in perspective, look closely at the picture above and then realize that every third man in that picture died, so far from home.At the end of the war, the allies adopted a policy of granting ethnic groups the right of self determination. They applied this policy with rigour in dismembering the Austrian Empire and even parts of Germany. But what was good for the goose was not good for the gander. There was never any thought given to granting Indochina self determination or independence and any dissent or nationalist activities were ruthlessly suppressed by the French authorities. A young Ho Chi Minh journeyed to the Versaille Peace Conference hoping to gain concessions for his people but he was rebuffed.Later the French would wage a costly and losing war against their Vietnamese subjects in an effort to keep their overseas empire. The French defeat in the 1950s would lead to the partition of Vietnam and eventually America’s painful experience with the Vietnam war.

British and Indian Troops Going to the Front


British and Indian Troops

Colonial Troops Deploying to the Front

1914: the war has just begun and these men do not yet realize the horrors that await them at the front. Here a British soldier and two colonial Indian troops pose on a train headed to the front lines.

At the start of the war, Germany, Britain and France all had large overseas colonial possessions. But the German overseas colonies were not as well developed or integrated into the German empire as those of Britain and France. In addition, French and British control of the seas made it impossible for the Germans to defend their possessions in Africa and the Pacific so that these colonies never contributed to the German war effort in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, the French and British were able to draw on vast manpower reserves from their colonies and dominions. The British especially benefited from the contributions made by their Indian troops who were well disciplined and trained.




French Colonial Troops

French Propaganda Poster

Poster Celebrating the Contribution of French Colonial Troops During the War

During World War 1, the French and British were able to draw on extensive manpower resources from their vast colonial empire. The British relied heavily on soldiers from their Indian colonial possessions, particularly the Sikhs, who fought for the British in all of the theatres of war, and mainly in the Middle East and on the Eastern front.


The French drew colonial troop levies from its African possessions. Algerian and Senegalese troops fought alongside their colonial overlords in a war which they had no part of and to maintain an imperial system that many despised. Nevertheless it is true that the contribution made by the French colonial soldiers was appreciated by the French.


The poster at the top advertises the Day of the Army of Africa and the Colonial Troops. It depicts a number of soldiers from various parts of the empire, likely from North Africa, fighting under the banner of France.

Below is a photograph of French citizens showing their gratitude to the French colonial troops by offering wine to some Algerian soldiers as their train stops at a railway station on the way to the front.

Algerian Troops The Algerians must not have been offended by the offer of wine, nominally against their religion, as they are obviously glad for the offer. Such scenes of goodwill were genuine. The French realized the great debt that they owed their colonial empire and in addition to spontaneous gestures like these, the government also made sure to acknowledge the contribution made. The posters were not so much for the benefit of the colonial troops as for the morale of the French civilians; they were meant to convey the fact that the French were not alone and they had great and vast reserves of soldiers with which to win the war.


The poster below is devoted to extolling the contribution of the African troops, which are portrayed somewhat stereotypically and in a way that would be considered offensive today. However the mere fact that Africans were being portrayed as brave warriors fighting for the motherland of France was a step forward in race relations and understanding.


Propaganda Poster Showing French African Colonial TroopsThe hardships faced by the colonial troops were particularly severe, even compared to the generally hellish conditions of world war 1. Far from home, in an alien environment, fighting for an empire which gave them few rights or benefits, they were forced to fight with second rate equipment in a cold climate that was foreign to them. They were often used as expendable troops even in the context of the general callousness with which the allied generals sacrificed their men.