Colonial troops in the Great War

Colonial troops in the Great War

  • The lottery game. North African soldiers at rest, 1915.

    HERVE-MATHE Jules Alfred (1868 - 1953)

  • Colonials resting on the pier.

    ZO Henri Achille (1873 - 1933)

To close

Title: The lottery game. North African soldiers at rest, 1915.

Author : HERVE-MATHE Jules Alfred (1868 - 1953)

Creation date : 1915

Date shown: 1915

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage place: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © ADAGP © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrettes website

Picture reference: 08-527090 / 15320C; Eb 944

The lottery game. North African soldiers at rest, 1915.

© ADAGP Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

To close

Title: Colonials resting on the pier.

Author : ZO Henri Achille (1873 - 1933)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 24 - Width 33

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas, cardboard, mounted.

Storage place: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

Picture reference: 06-515305 / 1088 T; Ec 757; PA 44

Colonials resting on the pier.

© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

Publication date: May 2009

Historical context

Colonial troops in the Great War

"The colonial army" refers first to the soldiers tasked with conquering the colonies and then, quite quickly, to the troops recruited there. After reporting to the Ministry of the Navy, from 1900 they came under the Ministry of War and were reorganized into infantry and artillery under the name of “colonial troops”. The massive arrival of these men in the metropolis aroused both concern, interest and curiosity among the population: for many, it was the first opportunity to actually see Africans.

Image Analysis

The rest of the colonists

The first table, The Lottery Game. North African soldiers at rest, 1915, is the work of Jules-Alfred Hervé-Mathé, a landscape painter from the so-called "post-impressionist" school. Originally from Mayenne, he interrupted his paintings of Breton and Norman ports in 1914 to set up his easel on the front. The canvas represents North African infantrymen of colonial troops, recognizable by their mustard-colored uniform and red chechia, who found shelter in a barn with a gutted roof and damaged walls. A few play the lottery, sitting on stones or squatting around the game stand. Three others, one of whom has his arm in a sling, follow the standing game, in a way framing the former. A soldier, seated on the left, a piece of bread in his hand, loses interest in the game and stares, dejected and melancholy, at the one who, in the foreground, turns his back to the spectator. In the background, other soldiers standing in the dim light or at the entrance to the building look out. One of them, armed, appears to be on guard. In the background appear leafy trees (rendered in the Impressionist manner) as well as two soldiers who make a fire.

The second table, Colonials resting on the pier, was painted between 1914 and 1918 by Henri Achille Zo, a Basque artist famous for his Basque and Spanish scenes. The canvas depicts, in an impressionist style with imprecise lines and shades of color without nuance, four black soldiers dressed in the uniforms of colonial troops, who are resting on a jetty in a summer atmosphere. One of them, in shirt sleeves, washes clothes; the second, shirt sleeves and trouser legs up, is about to dip one foot in water; the third is lying on the wood, and the fourth, seated, looks at the water. In the background, a bridge spans the stream. In the background appear a boat, a tricolor and, in the background, buildings nestled in the greenery.


Soldiers and French

The war is closer, more visible in the first image than in the second: the uniforms, the rifle held by the soldier on guard in the background, the devastated barn, the soldier with his arm in a sling and, metaphorically, the fire recall it. . Everything gives the impression of a brief pause and the imminent return to combat. The men are certainly at rest, and some manage to concentrate on the game, but certain glances, half-black, half-lost, betray weariness and a certain distress. The light is also quite weak in the barn, contrasting with that outside. Perhaps it symbolizes the dark thoughts and mute sufferings of men. The “exotic” character of these soldiers, different from ordinary hairy men, is erased to make room for a more universal approach: what can “rest” and play mean for men in war? Perhaps it is because they fought "like the others" that these men are first seen here not as colonials, but as soldiers.

On the contrary, in the second image, the war is almost obscured. The bright colors of the separate uniforms (which therefore are more costumes than uniforms), the naked limbs, the summer light, the water that we guess pleasant, rather recall the countryside parts of the banks of the Marne . The specificity of the painting then lies in the fact that it is blacks who, like any "metropolitan", taste these simple pleasures. The artist finds a pattern rich in games of contrasts and colors (the blue of the uniform almost merging with the black of the skin of the soldier lying in a nuanced gradient). But the presence of the French flag can also open another avenue of interpretation: these soldiers fought for the motherland, and they are French people in their own right, enjoying a day by the water like everyone else.

  • War of 14-18
  • Game
  • colonial troops


Stéphane AUDOIN-ROUZEAU and Jean-Jacques BECKER (dir), Encyclopedia of the Great War 1914-1918, Paris, Bayard, 2004. Robert HURE, L'Armée d'Afrique: 1830-1962, Paris, Charles-Lavauzelle, 1977. Marc MICHEL, Africans and the Great War: The Appeal to Africa (1914-1918), Paris, Karthala, 2003. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Alban SUMPF, "Colonial troops in the Great War"

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