Men at War, 1914-1923: “Colonial Discourse” and Mobilized Masculinities in the First World War


The First World War was a global conflict that brought the resources – both material and human – of colonial powers to bear on the battlefields of the world’s most destructive conflict to date.  Nearly 135,000 Indian men served in France under the banner of the British Empire from 1914-15 while the French Army deployed another 500,000 colonial men along the western front over the duration of the war.  Despite a growing historiography incorporating issues of gender and empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the historiography of the First World War has only begun to explore the ways in the war mobilized the masculinities of global empires.  This paper holds that the “colonial discourse” of the prewar decades remained alive-and-well during the war and explores the ways in which this discourse transcended the “boundaries” of the western front and gave shape to the troglodyte world.  I argue that European soldiers on both sides of no-man’s-land appropriated this “colonial discourse” and used it to affirm their own masculinity against the African and Indian men they encountered at the front.  By integrating the oft-segregated testimony of colonial and European soldiers in addition to their respective historiographies, this paper contributes to a growing appreciation for the First World War as the pivotal event at the dawn of the twentieth century.



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