Who were the Senegalese fighters who fought in the two world wars?
This Wednesday, January 4, 2023, “Tirailleurs” by Mathieu Vadepied was released in French cinemas. Omar Sy stars as Bakari Diallo, who enlists in the French army to join his son, who is forcibly recruited into Senegalese fighters. The speech comes as France’s Solidarity Ministry said on Wednesday that the last Senegalese fighters would be able to return to their countries of origin while continuing to receive minimum retirement. The Secretary of State for Family Benefit Funds and Veterans Affairs identified 22 cases.
Who were these soldiers? What was their role in the two world wars? Two historians respond Western France.
200,000 Senegalese fighters during the Great War
This military corps was created by General Faidherbe in 1857 during the reign of Napoleon III. “We have just abolished slavery, and there is a call to use ex-slaves and their military functions. We would like them to replace military authorities in Africa.”, comments Anthony Guyon, historian, teacher and author of Les tirailleurs sénégalais – From native to soldier 1857 to the present day (Perrin, 2022). At the time of its creation, this body consisted of 500 people. It grows throughout the century. Soldiers were mobilized in Madagascar during the Moroccan campaign at the end of the 19th century or from 1908.
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“At the end of the 19th century, it had 6,000 men, and on the eve of the First World War, about 15,000. »
200,000 fought during World War I, including 150,000 on French soil, as described in Mathieu Vadepied’s film. They are no longer just coming from Senegal, but from all of French-occupied West Africa, adds Jean-Yves Le Naur, historian and author of the documentary Son Tirailleurs.
“Real volunteers”, “fake volunteers”
Did these men have a choice to go to fight in France? “It is necessary to distinguish between real volunteers and fake volunteers”Jean-Yves Le Naour explains. Some choose to fight under the French flag. Others won’t really have a choice. Because if the state has enough volunteers in times of peace, it is no longer the case during conflicts. Later, the French authorities approached the village leaders of the colonies to send people. After that, forms of resistance appear. The Historian summons the leaders of the cantons, sends the required number of men, but selects those who must necessarily be reformed because of their age or physical condition. He continues: “Many future employers in Guinea are fleeing, especially to neighboring colonies. »
These men very often people from low social backgrounds”, comments Anthony Guyon. African military elites are retained as interpreters, “to maintain a certain level of influence over other men. »
“They did Verdun, they did the Somme, they defended Reims, they did the Chemin des Dames”
From the fall of 1914, fighters were sent to the front, especially to Isere. “It was very difficult because they were not used to the harshness of the climate”Jean-Yves Le Naur says. Some have their fingers so frozen that they can’t even load their guns. After that, the command decides and prepares that these men will not fight between October and April “troop wintering” in camps in the south, especially in Fréjus, as well as in southwestern France. Many fighters will still die from chest ailments.
The fighters will be at the front until the last battle in 1918. About 30 thousand fighters will die during the war. “They did Verdun, they did the Somme, they defended Reims, they did the Chemin des Dames”Anthony supports Guyon.
This last episode will be particularly disastrous. The first fighters, led by General Mang, are composed entirely of African fighters. More than 7,000 of them fell during this episode and were mowed down by enemy fire. In the National Assembly, Senegalese MP Blaise Diagne accused Mangini of using snipers as “cannon fodder” during the fighting. The idea that warriors were on the front line during all the conflicts of the Great War later spread. Jean-Yves Le Naour, who shows that the regiments are mixed, explains that it is a lie. “Blacks were no more cannon fodder than whites. Everyone was cannon fodder. »
“France has not kept its promise”
At the end of the First World War, there was no France that ensured equality and fraternity “He kept his promise”Jean-Yves Le Naur says. “He still did not grant French citizenship to the remaining soldiers who were waiting for him”. Some fighters also face non-recognition of their countries. They are sometimes considered a “Transmission Belt of Colonialism” : “They also got used to French culture, French language and colonial power. Thus, they compete with the traditional elite. »
In the interwar period, many fighters remained in the French ranks. the great war” shed blood for the army”, says Anthony Guyon, who has to fill the ranks. Pacifism takes root in society. We are reducing conscription for the French “Increases for Indochinese, Malagasy and Africans”.
France is confident with its colonialism. As World War II loomed, on July 14, 1939, Senegalese riflemen marched on the Champs-Élysées. For Jean-Yves Le Naour, “This is a way of saying, ‘We are stronger than Germany.’ Behind France is a huge empire of 10 million people and 10 million square kilometers. »
Lack of recognition
More than 100,000 people fought in World War II. Thousands of them were killed by enemy soldiers guided by racist ideology, especially during the Battle of France in 1940. Unlike French soldiers who were taken prisoner in Germany to take part in the war after being captured, fighters who fought in Enemy Hands are kept in camps in France, protected by the French authorities, says Jean-Yves Le Naur.
It will follow the massacre of Thiaroye, the name of the military camp near Dakar, with some of these fighters returning to their countries. 1er In December 1944, the colonial authorities opened fire on protesters who demanded payment of their wages during the years of captivity. Dozens of men were shot.
Under the command of the Gaullists, the colonial army also took part in the liberation of France, especially Provence. But fighters don’t get the price they deserve, continues Jean-Yves Le Naour: “ Some of these soldiers, who may return with a crown of glory, feel as though they have not been invited to the victor’s buffet. They were there when the dirty work had to be done, but they didn’t parade during the liberation of Paris, for the good and simple reason that the French armies were under American command and the US was segregationist at the time. »
“The memory of these soldiers was hidden and repressed”
After mobilization in Algeria or Indochina, the military corps was finally disbanded in the early 1960s as decolonization progressed.
What place do shooters have in the memory of the French? Jean-Yves Le Naur believes so “Black soldiers have been largely forgotten since the 1960s when they were introduced as an imperial force in France. » And not only in the opinion of the historian, they were also forgotten “Independent states themselves, states that are not proud to see the participation of citizens in the colonial order, which participated in the conquest of Africa and colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria. The memory of these soldiers was hidden and repressed. » According to him, it is necessary to wait until the 90s for the opposite to happen. “There is no doubt that France is becoming increasingly multicultural. So we rediscovered our history, not the history of the Africans or the French. »
This is particularly evident with the unveiling of monuments such as the nine-sculpture Constellation of Pain installation on the Chemin des Dames in 2007 to commemorate the Senegalese snipers killed in action. In 2013, the reconstruction of the monument to the heroes of the black army in Reims, erected in 1924 and demolished during the occupation. It will be inaugurated again in 2018 by Emmanuel Macron and Malian President Keita. The monument to Demba and Dupont, depicting a soldier and a soldier returning victorious from the battle in Dakar, was re-erected in the city center on August 23, 2004. Tirailleur Day, after being relocated in 1983.
But this rehabilitation also manifests itself through speeches and political decisions. In 2017, then-President Francois Hollande naturalized 28 ex-combatants during a ceremony. Elisey then explains this ceremony “It is part of the desire of the President of the Republic to recognize the commitment and courage of the Senegalese riflemen from sub-Saharan Africa who fought for France in various military operations between 1857 and 1960”. “You are the history of France”then announces a socialist president.
On January 4, 2022, the government announced that nearly forty ex-combatants of Senegalese, Mali, or Mauritanian origin could live in their countries while reaching the minimum retirement age. Until then, they had to spend at least half the year in France to qualify.