French West Africa – an introduction

Reading Colonialism in Africa I came across mention of the French Governor General Clozel during the 1914-18 war. As with all things Africa and war related, one search led to another and it soon becoming apparent that West Africa had numerous governors during the war – 4 to be precise including François Joseph Clozel who was Acting Governor General for part of his term between June 1915 and June 1917. The others were William Merlaud-Ponty (March 1908 – June 1915), Joost van Vollenhoven (June 1917 – January 1918) and Gabriel Louis Angoulvant (Acting January 1918 – July 1919).

After a long period of stability under Ponty and a little under Clozel who by all accounts was sensitive to the people he was governing, the short terms of service could only have been disruptive. However, it’s said that van Vollenhoven’s appointment was positive for sorting out recruitment issues during the war – no doubt a matter of opinion depending on which side of the recruitment practice one was on.

French West Africa is not an area I know much about and as far as its war-time experience goes, it was a source of manpower for the Western Front. My focus tends to be British-linked territories. So it was with some interest that I discovered an article by Christopher Zambaraki who put the French Imperial project into context. David Watson comments on the governors in his review of Alice Conklin’s A mission to civilize (1978).

Concerning the war itself (overview by National Army Museum), there are various articles – no doubt details becoming clearer in more recent years as seen with the war in East Africa. The Encyclopedia 1914/18 has a number of articles: George Njung on the general position, Christian Koller on African involvement in Europe. Older articles include CM Andrew and AS Kanya-Forstner (1978) and J Hargreaves (1983) amongst others. Richard Fogarty has also written a fair bit on the region and its involvement in the war.

I’m not sure I’ll be doing too much on French West Africa but it’s always good to be reminded of involvement outside of British-linked territories – seeing the similarities and differences; again reinforcing the diversity of Africa.

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