My experience conducting research in French archives as an undergraduate student
This trip was part of my first year of research back in 2019. Let me know your thoughts and feel free to message !
In August 2019 , I had the privilege of travelling to France to conduct research for my Laidlaw project with fellow Laidlaw scholar, Pippa (@PhilippaHumphr2). My research project is titled: Identifying West Africans in the French Resistance. This research aims to identify and tell the stories of West Africans who have been omitted from mainstream historical narratives surrounding World War Two (WW2). This is despite the fact they fought and played significant roles within the French Internal Resistance. Therefore, the bulk of the trip for me was spent looking at archival material relating to West African Résistant.e.s during the Second World War. We visited both the French state military archives on the outskirts of Paris in Vincennes and the “Archives Nationales d’Outre- Mer” (ANOM) in Aix en Provence which contain documents on France’s overseas territories produced in Paris and repatriated documents from French colonies. The prospect of going to France to conduct research as an undergraduate was both exciting and daunting. Not only was this my first time conducting independent research, it was also my first visit to an archive. Whilst I was honoured to be given this opportunity, I was worried about feeling out of place and not knowing what to do. In this post I will focus on my experience using the state military archives in Paris, which houses a large catalogue of personal (GR16P) files of individual Résistant.e.s fighters.
French state military archives (Vincennes)
On our first day, we had to register for readers card before we could consult any of the original documents. I mention this seemingly mundane point because it proved to be a great opportunity to practice my French communication skills. Filling out forms in French and getting a chance to have a conversation with the office staff about our research and the military archive was invaluable. Having already reserved our documents, the process of collecting the files themselves was surprisingly straightforward. We were only allowed to look at one document at a time, so had to keep going up to the desk to request a new one. As with the registration process, this allowed us to interact and talk to the staff each time we went up to the desk. The interactions with the archivists and other researchers dispelled a common misconception I, and I am sure many students have that: archives are spaces reserved only for esteemed academics or historians. On the surface this may have seemed to be the case. Nonetheless, as undergraduates, Pippa and I were made to feel that we belonged in this space too. More often than not, both the archivists and researchers were interested in hearing about our work and were more than happy to offer any assistance. For example, upon finding out that Sunday would be our last day, one of the archivists kindly took time out of their work (over an hour) to hear all about our research and time in Paris thus far.
I was pleasantly surprised at the breadth of information contained within the files. Although the amount did vary, the information I found gave me a deeper and more well-rounded insight into the war time experience of individual Résistant.e.s. Important pieces of information I found was the occupations of the Résistant.e.s. These ranged from farmers, a journalist and traders. I was also able to find details about the resistance activities of individuals, where they took place and whether they continued to serve in their formation after the liberation. Additionally, there were details of Résistant.e.s who had been imprisoned or killed by occupying forces both in France and West Africa. A common thread amongst the cases was the sheer amount of effort and time the Résistant.e.s themselves or in some cases their relatives put in to getting the accreditation and recognition of their service. It could take up to ten years to collate enough evidence in order for this to happen. Unfortunately, this process was a necessary evil as it was the only way for West African Résistant.e.s to reap tangible benefits such as rights and pensions.
As well as being long and cumbersome the process of getting this accreditation had several barriers that prevented a lot of Résistant.e.s from acquiring it in the first place. Résistant.e.s who died during the war, didn’t have family, returned to West Africa or did not have a good enough level of French to write back and forth to the military authorities were unable to go through the process. This demonstrates the inaccessibility of the system put in place for West African soldiers. Therefore, we can argue that there are many more West African who fell through the cracks and were unable to get the recognition they deserved. In some ways the Résistant.e.s. who were able to get their GR16P files represent the lucky ones. That said, the Résistant.e.s who were able to get their accreditation still faced problems in relation to their white counterparts. An example of this was the Ivorian Résistant.e.s Maurice Guede Logbo (GR16P273490) who had his pensions capped at 40% despite achieving the grade of sergeant and serving in his formation after the liberation. These pensions were calculated according to the estimated living cost of the Résistant.e.s. and it was standard for Résistant.e.s who went back to west Africa to receive a lower pension as it was thought that living outside the metropole would be cheaper. However, Logbo continued to live in Paris yet was potentially getting a pension as if he was living in Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, Logbo’s case is not a one-off example, as the pensions of West African veterans were “frozen” at the levels of 1959. Legislation was finally passed by the French Parliament in 2011 to of these veterans.
Close up image of Maurice Guede Logbo’s file (GR16P273490)
My visit to the archives really allowed me to hit the ground running when it came to my research. The depth of information contained within the archives is unparalleled and has enabled me to delve deeper into individual stories (and in some cases pictures) behind the names in my database. With all this information, I plan to continue filling the gaps of information in my database and put the locations of activity of the Résistant.e.s onto a map . Finally, I will create profiles of some of the Résistant.e.s which will contain information on their activity during the war, their post war life and their motivations behind joining the Free French forces. If I was to offer one piece of advice to any undergraduate going to conduct archival research, it would be: don’t not be afraid to ask questions and engage with the people in the archives. Discovering the plethora of voices and stories that contributed to WW2 has allowed me to realise just how rich and diverse French history truly is. My twitter handle is , for those interested in following my research and please look out for another blog post to follow.
Screenshot of my database of West Africans in the French Resistance.