What roles did Senegalese fighters play during the Great War?

We don’t know for sure, but about 700 soldiers from the colonies who died during the First World War lie in three cemeteries in Bordeaux, Pins Francs, Chartreuse and Bordeaux Nord. These are fighters from Senegal, Indochina, Malagasy, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan. “Memories and Shares” association, together with veterans’ associations, will commemorate them on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. in the military square of the Pins Francs cemetery.

The African fighters who make up the Senegalese sniper corps will also be highlighted at the international historical film festival starting Monday in Pessac. On Thursday, November 17, there will be a screening of Mathieu Vadepied’s film with Omar Sy. WarriorsIt will be shown in theaters on January 4, 2023. A debate will be organized with the participation of the author of the book, director and historian Anthony Guyot. History of Senegalese fighters. 20 minutes questioned him.

Historian Antony Guyon, author of the book “History of the Senegalese Riflemen”. – Anthony Guyon

How was France brought to seek soldiers in Africa to fight in World War I?

There have always been intermediaries in European-colonized African ports. After the slave trade ended and slavery was abolished, we fell into various products like rubber, and peasants had to be protected on the spot. Thus, these mediators will have more and more military functions, and the basis for this is the creation of the corps of Senegalese warriors by imperial decree in 1857. It’s a battalion, so 500 people, two-thirds of them ex-slaves. Then, as the 19th century progressed, they took part in the occupation of various territories.

And is this body ever expanding?

There were 6,000 men in 1900, 15,000 on the eve of the First World War, or 200,000 fighters in Africa or Europe. During the war, everyone used African soldiers, the Belgians, the Germans, but only the French brought them to European soil. Among the reasons, it can be suggested that France was at a demographic deficit compared to Germany, and that French colonization was perhaps less radical than German colonization. Finally, the French argument is based on the assumption that African shooters would be excellent fighters who can adapt anywhere, which is false. There is a whole French propaganda around these African soldiers to instill fear among the Germans, and it works.

How do the French soldiers feel about these African warriors?

There is especially skepticism because we have to take them out of combat for six months: they hibernate. There is therefore a memory in Bordeaux, as they are then installed in the Gironde camps and many in the Var. They are seasonal soldiers and there is a form of jealousy when the troops see them leave the battle and go to the rear. But above all there is a lot of ignorance: we don’t understand each other. Most of the time the shooters don’t even understand each other because we Bambara, Peul…

How many of our victims in their ranks do we regret?

We have about 160,000, 170,000 African soldiers coming to fight on European soil and the casualties are about 20%. Many warriors died outside of combat: they died of diseases such as the Spanish flu. Reports from October 1914 show severe lung infections, frostbite in the legs… There is a rush, then from 1916 he is sent to Gironde.

How are they doing in the Gironde?

They are sent to the Courneau camp at La Teste-de-Buch, where the Natus necropolis, erected in memory of the 936 riflemen who died there, has been burned by large forest fires almost elsewhere this summer. This camp is very exposed to the wind, in prefabricated huts that get wet when it rains. Thus, there are many lung diseases and a significant number of deaths.

Where are they fighting in Europe?

They participate in major campaigns from 1914 to victory. In late 1916, they took part in the recapture of Fort Douaumont at Verdun, which exposed them. In 1917 they were used especially on the Chemin des Dames. This year is the most complicated year for them. In 1918, they are there to defend Reims. They are also sent to Dardanelles to fight with the Ottoman Empire.

It’s called Mathieu Vadepied’s film Warriorsno Senegalese fighters ยปimportant choice, right?

Yes, it’s interesting, because if we wanted to be fair, we would even call African fighters because they came from all over Africa, and the further we go in time, the less Senegalese from other places. In the interwar period, for example, fighters from further afield in French West Africa were preferred to suppress rebellion in Senegal.

How did this body of Senegalese fighters develop after the war?

Conscription was reduced in France in the context of growing pacifism after the war. On the contrary, it increases for Africans, because it goes up to three years with the lottery system in the villages. This corps of Senegalese men-of-war had proved itself during the war, and on the French side it was hoped that, with the added view that Africa would be an inexhaustible reservoir of men, it would lean more and more upon the Empire. The Tirailleurs corps then disappeared between 1958 and 1962 as sub-Saharan African countries gained independence.

Screening-discussion of Tirailleurs, Thursday, November 17, 7 p.m., at the Jean Eustache cinema in Pessac.

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