The French writer David Diop manages to recount a war he never experienced with the intimacy of a witness. A historian at the University of Pau, in southwest France, Diop studies European depictions of Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and his slim novel At Night All Blood Is Black, which won the International Booker Prize last year, turns what little is known about African soldiers’ involvement in World War I into a potent testimony on violence and guilt.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, African soldiers under French colonial rule were deemed unfit for regular combat. They were merely captifs-hommes-de-corvée—indentured military laborers who were purchased as slaves and exported to fight wars of conquest in other parts of the French empire. But in the 1850s, Louis Faidherbe, a newly appointed governor of Senegal who sought to expand France’s territorial control, decided to raise the social standing of the Senegalese soldier. At Faidherbe’s urging, Napoleon III signed a decree on July 21, 1857, establishing the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, a regiment in the French armed forces of Black Africans originally recruited from the area around the Senegal River. As Myron Echenberg writes in Colonial Conscripts (1991), his excellent study of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, “The decree brought local troops in Senegal to battalion strength by doubling the existing companies from two to four and by segregating the Africans into their own units, with their own distinctive uniforms.” The terms of service for African soldiers were almost identical to those of their European counterparts.
During World War I, an estimated 140,000 men fought in the Tirailleurs Sénégalais on the western front. (The name of the troop, however, was something of a misnomer by that time: a good number of the Black men who served came from Mali, Chad, and Gabon.) Approximately 30,000 of the fighters died.
While reading wartime letters by French soldiers, Diop wondered if there were similar letters written by Senegalese infantrymen. As African soldiers convalesced in military hospitals, older Frenchwomen, encouraged by their government, went to visit them, giving gifts of food and tobacco and writing letters on their behalf. (These women were known as marraines de guerre, wartime godmothers.) The letters do not survive in any significant quantity, and those Diop did find were, as he told The Guardian last year, “impersonal, administrative.” It’s unclear why so few remain. “You have to remember,” Diop said, “that letters were monitored to keep up the morale of the troops and the country. It’s also possible there was a form of self-censorship among the African riflemen.” He decided to try to fill this gap in the record through fiction, “to burst into the character’s thoughts—no filter, no intermediaries.”
At Night All Blood Is Black, translated by Anna Moschovakis, begins with an ellipsis, as if the main character is already in the middle of a thought: “…I know, I understand, I shouldn’t have done it. I, Alfa Ndiaye, son of the old, old man, I understand, I shouldn’t have. God’s truth, now I know.” With this opening admission of guilt, the narrator establishes his commitment to candor and reflection, despite, as we later learn, speaking from a military hospital to which he has been admitted for insanity.
Alfa is haunted by the death of his adopted brother and fellow soldier, Mademba Diop, whose final moments are described in vivid detail: as Mademba lies dying on the battlefield at the hands of a “blue-eyed enemy,” he cries, “like a small child…pissing himself, his right hand groping at the ground to gather his scattered guts, slimy as freshwater snakes.” All the while, he’s asking to be finished off: “By the grace of God and of our marabout, if you are my brother, Alfa, if you are really who I think you are, slit my throat like a sacrificial sheep, don’t let the scavengers of death devour my body!”
But Alfa does no such thing, feeling constrained by the bond between them and the imagined judgment of Mademba’s parents. He hears a voice commanding him, “Do not kill your best friend, your more-than-brother. It isn’t for you to take his life. Don’t mistake yourself for the hand of God. Don’t mistake yourself for the hand of the Devil.” After Mademba’s slow death, Alfa is racked with guilt for prolonging his suffering. The rest of the novel is a confessional account of how he turned to brutal revenge to redeem this moment of failure. It culminates in his and Mademba’s reunion in a possibly hallucinated, possibly spiritual meeting.
Alfa was born to Bassirou Coumba Ndiaye, an elderly peasant farmer, and Penndo Ba, the beautiful daughter of a nomadic herdsman. After Bassirou let Penndo’s father’s cows drink from his wells, her father offered her in marriage. “A Fula who has been given a gift he can’t return may die of shame,” she later told Alfa. Penndo came to love her husband, but she was always restless. When Alfa was nine, she went in search of her father, brothers, and their herd, after they failed to show up in the village, as was their yearly practice. She never returned to Gandiol, a village near the provincial capital, Saint-Louis, and the consensus was that she was kidnapped by a roving band of Moors, who kept Black people as slaves.
Mademba, whose family lived in a neighboring compound, asked his mother to adopt Alfa, with his grieving father’s unhesitant blessing. It was Mademba who, when they both turned twenty, planted in Alfa’s mind the idea of going to war:
School had put it in his head that he should save the motherland, France. Mademba wanted to become a somebody in Saint-Louis, a French citizen: “Alfa, the world is big, I want to see it. The war is a chance to leave Gandiol. God willing, we will return safe and sound. When we become French citizens, we’ll move to Saint-Louis. We’ll start a business…. Once we’re rich, we’ll look for and find your mother, and we’ll buy her back from the Moorish horsemen who took her.”
Alfa agreed, but he imagined that, in the event of an encounter with the marauding Moors, his approach wouldn’t be as benign as Mademba suggests:
I bought into his dream…. And yet I said to myself that if I also became a somebody, a Senegalese rifleman for life, it could be that in the company of my detail I might one day visit the tribes of the northern Moors with my regulation rifle in my left hand and my savage machete in my right.
The two are an unlikely pair. Mademba’s magnanimity makes them brothers, though in adolescence Alfa physically outstripped him: “I became tall and strong and Mademba remained short and frail.” People in the village took note of their differences, telling Mademba:
You see how Alfa Ndiaye is blooming with beauty and how you are skinny and ugly. It’s because he’s absorbing all of your power and vitality to your loss and his gain, for he is a dëmm, a devourer of souls who has no pity for you.
They remained inseparable, even after a girl they both loved chose Alfa. Yet a certain amount of envy had entered their relationship.
This friction was compounded by a far more consequential conflict: a long-standing rivalry between their families. Both men, while at war, routinely joke about their family totems, “cleansing old insults with laughter and mockery.” Still, they can’t fully overcome their shared history. “The Ndiayes’ totem is the lion, it’s nobler than the totem of the Diops,” says Alfa to Mademba of his family’s peacock totem. “The Diops are shortsighted egotists, like peacocks. They act proud, but their totem is just an arrogant fowl.” (Diop, the author’s last name, is fairly common in Senegal.) One morning on the western front, after Alfa again brings up the supposedly ignoble fowl totem, Mademba is eager to prove his courage and rushes out of the trench before the captain whistles for the attack. He ends up disemboweled by an enemy soldier, leading to his agonizing death. Alfa blames himself:
Mademba had the rib cage of a runt, but he was brave. Mademba had absurdly narrow hips, but he was a real warrior. I know, I understand that I should not have pushed him with my words to demonstrate a kind of courage I knew he already possessed.
One of the few members of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais with a robust historical record, described in Echenberg’s book, shares a name with one of Diop’s characters and might have informed the novel: Abdel-Kader Mademba. Stationed in France after World War I, Mademba rose through the ranks of the French military to become a major, the only African to do so before World War II. The two sides of his family had starkly different experiences of colonialism. His maternal grandfather, Al-Hajj Umar Tal, was an Islamic religious leader who opposed French expansion in Senegambia; his paternal grandfather, M’Baye Sy, took the opportunities offered by the French, putting his entire family at the disposal of the colonizer. His oldest son, Mademba’s father, sent all seven of his sons to a lycée in Algeria. When Mademba turned twenty-one, in 1914, he volunteered for the army. He was wounded in the Verdun campaign, the longest battle of the war, awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, and promoted to lieutenant. Sixteen years later, in 1932, Mademba died in a military hospital in Briançon of a respiratory disease, and his funeral was attended by the African deputy to Paris.
Although the fictional Mademba dies on the battlefield without having earned as many decorations as his historical namesake, the two Madembas share the fate of colonial subjects who died far from home, fighting on behalf of their colonizer. I wonder if some of these soldiers felt torn by their decision—I do not presume that all Senegalese men were naive about the political implications of going into battle. In Diop’s novel, Alfa is clearly aware of the complexity of his position. “The captain’s France needs for us to play the savage when it suits them,” he says.
They need for us to be savage because the enemy is afraid of our machetes. I know, I understand, it’s no more complicated than that. The captain’s France needs our savagery, and because we are obedient, myself and the others, we play the savage.
In 1910 Charles Mangin—a lieutenant-colonel in the French Colonial Army, later promoted to general—published La force noire, making the case for establishing a large unit of Black soldiers in service to France. He based his argument on two propositions: that Black Africa was full of serviceable men, and that these men were natural soldiers. In a 1911 issue of the French ethnographic journal La Revue anthropologique, he made his position clearer: “The nervous system of the black man is much less developed than that of the white. All the surgeons have observed how impassive the black is under the knife.”
A poster by the French artist Lucien-Hector Jonas depicted an African soldier charging into battle, unfazed by German gunfire. “Propaganda lay behind both French efforts to strike fear in the enemy and German efforts to project Africans as savages so as to discredit the French for having used these troops,” Echenberg writes. “Both sides seem to have succeeded.” Mangin succeeded in his campaign to create an expanded unit of Black soldiers. In 1912 the French government set up a system of partial conscription in its colonies, requiring men aged twenty to twenty-eight to serve four years in the army. When war broke out in 1914 Blaise Diagne, Senegal’s first African deputy, argued that willing recruits from Senegal should be offered a path to French citizenship. His policy was enacted and resulted in an increase of men voluntarily signing up. They were sent off to fight the war in inhospitable, wintry terrains, with most seeing combat for the first time.
Thinking of the Black soldier as incapable of pain may have informed Mangin’s military strategies: several thousand African soldiers lost their lives in his all-out offensives. Yet his belief in the ferocious capability of Black bodies was shared on both sides of World War I. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais on the western front were considered to be headhunters, fighting with desperate fury and brandishing big combat knives.
For their part, what image did the African recruits form of the blue-eyed men for whom, and with whom, they fought? How did they cope? In the novel, after Mademba’s horrible end, Alfa attempts to alleviate his guilt by becoming a more violent and unconventional fighter, embracing the inescapable violence and accepting savagery as his lot:
The only difference between my friends the Toucouleurs and the Sérères, the Bambaras and the Malinkés, the Soussous, the Haoussas, the Mossis, the Markas, the Soninkés, the Senoufos, the Bobos, and the other Wolofs, the only difference between them and me is that I became savage intentionally.
On several occasions, he is the last man to return to the trench after a retreat is called, waiting to kill one of the enemy soldiers. When he does so, he brings back “the spoils of a savage war,” “an enemy rifle, along with the hand that went with it.” He repeatedly reenacts his friend’s death by disemboweling German soldiers before giving them the mercy blow he denied Mademba. He describes his method as follows:
The enemy from the other side gasps and screams, now in stark silence because of the gag I’ve cinched around his mouth. He screams in stark silence when I take all the insides of his belly and put them outside in the rain, in the wind, in the snow, or in the bright moonlight. If at this moment his blue eyes don’t dim forever, then I lie down next to him, I turn his face toward mine and I watch him die a little, then I slit his throat, cleanly, humanely. At night, all blood is black.
When he returns with his first three hands, his captain and trench-mates are pleased. But by the fourth hand, they begin to find him strange.
There is now a marked difference between his bravery—unregulated, self-directed—and that of other “Chocolats of black Africa,” as the French call them. “Don’t tell me that we don’t need madness on the battlefield,” Alfa says. “Temporary madness, in war, is bravery’s sister. But when you seem crazy all the time, continuously, without stopping, that’s when you make people afraid, even your war brothers.” Rumors begin to circulate that he is something other than a soldier: a soldier-sorcerer, a man who has become death. After he returns with a seventh hand, he is sent to a mental institution.
As far as we know, of all the hundreds of nonfiction books published in the decade after World War I, only one was written by an African about his wartime experiences: Bakary Diallo’s Force-Bonté (Strength and Goodness, 1926). Last year, Diallo’s book was reissued together with one of the few other works by a Senegalese World War I veteran, Lamine Senghor’s 1927 propaganda pamphlet La violation d’un pays (The Rape of a Country), under the joint title White War, Black Soldiers.
Diallo and Senghor were both wounded during the war, Diallo in 1914 (a shattered jaw, reconstructed afterward by surgery) and Senghor in 1917 (permanent damage to his lungs from a mustard gas attack, from which he later died). They had very different views about the empire for which they fought. Diallo believed in France’s civilizing mission. “France’s power is so vast that it could protect all of Africa,” he wrote, recalling his time in Morocco, where he had been posted to quell a rebellion. “France has a noble heart and a spirit of absolute fairness. That’s why it’s been given a mission of utmost importance, to ensure good relations and understanding among people.” Senghor’s pamphlet, on the other hand, written during his time as a member of the French Communist Party, is a dystopian fable about the twin evils of French imperialism and World War I. At the end of the story he describes a revolution in which “King Colonialism was delivered to the tender mercies of the angel of death.”
David Diop scarcely allows Alfa’s mind to linger on the magnitude of colonialism’s disruption of Senegalese society. The novel is focused on war, on the human mind in extremis. But like roads converging at a junction, Alfa’s derangement is caused no less by Mademba’s death than by multiple indignities—his mother’s enslavement by Moors; the mandatory labor, mentioned only glancingly, that his father and the other villagers were subjected to by the colonial government—that preceded his journey to Europe.
Diallo, just like Mademba and Alfa, did not leave for war resenting the French or understanding himself as a passive victim. Enlistment is an opportunity for the men to make something of their lives and to satisfy the restlessness of youth. “The God of nature is calling me. He wants me to know the wide expanse of the universe. I’ll answer his call,” writes Diallo in Strength and Goodness, sounding much like Mademba: “Alfa, the world is big, I want to see it. The war is a chance to leave Gandiol.” Mademba imagines that after the war ends and he and Alfa become French citizens, they would run a successful business as wholesalers distributing food to shops in northern Senegal, including Gandiol.
Senghor, writing after the war, points to a different outcome: the French government, the queen in his fable, was bankrupted by the costs of the war, yet her former allies wanted to be compensated for their wartime contributions. Since she “wasn’t inclined to pay the indemnity required,” she decided that “all her subjects, whether they were dark-skinned, white, or yellow, would have to be penalized.” In effect, France failed to keep the promises made during the recruitment drive, asked its colonial subjects to pay higher taxes, and paid African veterans far less than their white French counterparts.
Alfa survives the war, but in terribly altered form: by the end of the book he has become schizophrenic, or, possibly, spiritually inhabited by Mademba. “Alfa left me a place in his wrestler’s body out of friendship, out of compassion,” says the chilling voice of his dead friend. The same voice recounts using Alfa’s body to enter the room of one of the nurses, Mademoiselle François, to sexually assault her: “I plunged into her the way one plunges into the powerful current of a river one wants to cross, swimming furiously.”
How does a novel like At Night All Blood Is Black—with its harrowing triangulation of horrific murders, mental illness, and, at the end, rape—negotiate the legacy of West Africans fighting for France in World War I? It confronts the historical image of Black soldiers by stretching barbarism to its ironic limits; Alfa, self-consciously embracing the role of executioner, is not the noble savage he is expected to be.
What seems most pointed in Diop’s novel is its exploration of what it meant for West African men to fight side by side, and to grieve one another. The war breached the companionship Alfa Ndiaye shared with Mademba Diop, but says the narrator as he concludes: “God’s truth, I swear to you that now, whenever I think of us, he is me and I am him.”