Many black troops were mobilised in World War I. In the autumn of 1914, the tirailleurs sénégalais, a black French colonial infantry corps, took part in the conflict. After a period of adjustment, they fought in most of the major offensives, including Verdun and the battle of the Chemin des Dames.
Unlike Germany, which depicted them as cannibal fighters unfairly deployed by the enemy, France moved away from the colonial iconography of the “Savage” and attempted to communicate the image of loyal and valiant soldiers, culminating in the famous laughing black figure used in Banania chocolate drink advertising, which was denounced by proponents of Négritude in the 1930s.
When the United States joined the war in 1917, contingents of African-American soldiers entered the trenches, bringing with them a new style of music – jazz. In 1918, the famous Harlem Hellfighters’ regiment band and their leader James Reese Europe captivated audiences. In the 1920s, this new black community transformed Paris, which was viewed as a cosmopolitan haven for people fleeing racial segregation.
The world of entertainment was given a new lease of life by artists from the United States and the French West Indies, of whom the most famous was the dancer Josephine Baker. A number of venues, films and magazines celebrated performances by black artists.