West Africans and the French in the World Wars

Campaign of 1887-1888. Children of the school for hostages, at Kayes, created by Colonel Galliéni
Source:  Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Société de Géographie, SGE SG WE-127.

Les Africains: African troops in the French army

As early as 1830 France recruited Africans to fill the ranks of its army. This trend began during the conquest of Algeria and was continued in West Africa in 1857 by the General Louis Léon César Faidherbe. At first considered as a mere complement to French troops, their role gradually acquired importance to become essential during World War II and the colonial wars.

At first colonial troops in West Africa consisted of African slaves bought by the French military and used as auxiliary troops. At the end of the nineteenth century, France even began a partial conscription of troops in Algeria and in “les quatres communes” in Senegal. Recruits were often swayed by the prospect of benefits received by conscripts upon retirement (positions within the French administration, allotment of land, etc.). These “tirailleurs sénégalais” (Senegalese riflemen) participated in the conquest of West Africa but were not considered for action outside of the continent. This attitude changed during the Great War.

General Charles Mangin was the first to really understand the potential of the colonies. One of France’s main concerns during the First World War was to have enough recruits to fill its ranks in case of a conflict with Germany. Mangin’s book La Force Noire (The Black Force) promoted the idea of using the youth of Africa in the French military. However, the head of the French army did not really take this idea seriously and reluctantly used African troops on French soil. On foreign territory, France did not have such hesitations.  About half of the troops engaged in the battle of the Dardanelles was composed of “tirailleurs sénégalais.”. In France, Africans were sent to the front ill-prepared, and many died because of the harsh climatic condition of northern France and disease. In spite of the prejudice of many, African troops nevertheless demonstrated their valor on the battlefield. It is estimated that Africa sent 450,000 soldiers to Europe during the war and that about 135,000 Africans were used as workers in French factories.

The involvement of so many African youth in the Great War contributed to the weakening of the French empire. During the war conscription met with resistance from about twenty percent of the African males throughout West Africa. The migration of so many African men affected the fabric of African society. The promises made by French authorities to encourage conscription did not usually materialize. Very few soldiers acquired French citizenship as a reward for their service in the military. The French government also made sure to repatriate as quickly as possible African troops to Africa, as the presence of such men on French soil was viewed unfavorably by most. Finally, for the first time Africans saw the French in their homeland and observed a society not unlike theirs with its strength and weaknesses. The myth of the all powerful France took its first blemish then.

At the beginning of the Second World War, colonial troops became an integral part of the French army. In 1940, about 430,000 troops from all French colonies were fighting in France, the vast majority being from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). During the “phony war” it is estimated that thirty-eight percent of the troops from West and Equatorial Africa perished. Many African prisoners were simply executed  by the German troops in violation of the war conventions.  At Montluzin, on 19 June1940, two hundred “tirailleurs” lost their lives because of their skin color.

After the invasion of North Africa, in November 1942, the African troops or “les Africains” (including African as well as European soldiers from Africa) made up the largest part of the French Liberation army. After the campaign in Tunisia, against Rommel, “les Africains”, represented France through their participation in the invasion of Sicily and the bloody campaign that followed in Italy. In Italy especially, “les Africains”, among which was my grandfather, revealed their valor at the terrible battle of Monte Cassino. During the campaign in the Abruzzi, “les Africains” fought in mountain terrain and helped to win decisive battles leading to the capture of Rome.

The largest amphibious operation ever undertaken in Europe by the allies did not happen in Normandy but in southern France where “les Africains” once again represented the French army. In August 1944, allied troops landed in Provence and liberated my hometown, Toulon, and Marseille (the second largest city of France). Colonial troops continued their advance on French soil, meeting the troops from Normandy in northern France, near Dijon. In spite of their exhaustion, the troops kept on fighting in Alsace and Germany until the end of the war.

In the end, as much as General Charles de Gaulle abhorred the fact, France owed much of its liberation to “les Africains” whose ranks included about seventy percent of Africans and about thirty percent of Europeans from the colonies. At the end of 1944, though, the troops from West and Central Africa got subjected to a policy that aimed at “whitening” the French army. These troops were disarmed and replaced by French Europeans. A lack of endurance to the climatic conditions of northern France and Germany was used to justify such policy. One should also consider the fact that de Gaulle wanted to restore the prestige of France which, according to him, meant that he had to increase the participation of French Europeans in the conflict. It has also been suggested that the French military command feared the influence of the African-American troops.

At the end of World War II, “les Africains”, whose valor had been justly appreciated and praised by their commanding officers, never really entered the collective memory of the French nation that was quick to amplify the role of the French forces from France instead. Veterans from Africa did not obtain French citizenship in spite of their sacrifice. African soldiers were still subjected to discrimination and even suspicion (prisoners-of-war were suspected to have been transformed into a seditious element by German propaganda). This distrust manifested clearly in 1944 at the camp of Thiaroye, Senegal, where former African prisoners of war were held in a camp waiting to be demobilized. The failure of the French government to pay those men provoked a protest which was repressed by the French soldiers guarding them. As a result, thirty-five war African veterans were killed. To make matters worse, when West African countries obtained their independence, the former “tirailleurs” were forced into oblivion by their own governments too. The “tirailleurs” had become an embarrassment to both the French and the new nations of West Africa. It is not until very recently that the sacrifice of those men is being recognized and honored in West Africa and to some extent in France.

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