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More than a million African soldiers were engaged in this war, some as volunteers while most of them were forcibly conscripted. They fought in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Far East. But there contribution remains unacknowledged

The forgotten African soldiers in WWII celebrations

Gary K. Busch

The recent celebration of the D-Day landing and the multiple recollections of the ageing participants in the battles of that war issued in a period of recollection of the horrors of that war and the bravery of the participants; particularly by the survivors. Celebrities from both the Axis and the Allied Powers were there; even the French, Russians and Italians who fought on both sides of the war. The only ones missing were the valiant African soldiers who fought and died in these same battles, served at the front and perished in the prisoner-of war camps. Their heroism and dedication went unnoticed and unregarded. This is a pity and a great shame for the hosts of these celebrations. It should have been no surprise to the Africans, however, as their treatment after the war was a triumph of racist and discriminatory behaviour towards them by those whose homelands the Africans had fought to save.

These African soldiers were many and ubiquitous. They fought in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Far East, especially Burma, Ceylon, and India. There were over a million African soldiers engaged in this war. For them the war started at its very beginning; not the attack on Poland which triggered the European response in 1939, but even earlier in 1935 when the Italian Fascist troops, backed by African soldiers from Eritrea attacked Ethiopia. African troops were engaged in this war as a result of the colonial occupation of their countries and the compulsion of the colonial powers on the colonies to provide manpower for the war effort. Some were volunteers but most were compelled to become soldiers.

Each colonial power had a different method of conscription but the end result was the same. In his book, ‘Fighting For Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War’, historian David Killingray says more than half a million African troops served with the British forces between 1939 and 1945 -- 289,530 of them with the King's African Rifles from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi. He describes it as the largest single movement of African men overseas since the slave trade. Most of the Africans were told that they had no choice. They were told that they must fight and were picked up by Army trucks from their home villages and sent for basic training, often with the complicity of the native chiefs and district supervisors. The Belgians just rounded up whomever they saw and dropped them off at a local army base; usually after some initial brutality.

The French had created a body of African soldiers earlier. Since 1857 the French colonialists created a surrogate army of African soldiers from the Africans living in the several states composing the AOF (French West Africa) and the AEF (French Equatorial Africa). They called these soldiers the Tirailleurs Senegalais although they weren't limited to inhabitants of Senegal. The Tirailleurs Senegalais were created as the first permanent units of black African soldiers under French rule in 1857. These were not professional soldiers; they were drawn from the ranks of the ex-slaves and social outcasts who were sold to the French by the local African chiefs. From 1857 to 1905 the main recruiting of these soldiers was the rachat (repurchase) system in which slaves were purchased from their local owners by the French and turned into mercenary soldiers. The practice of buying slaves by the army was ended officially in 1882 but it was observed more in the breach than the observance.

In 1905 the French colonies in Africa were put under civilian rather than military rule. However, this removal of French military rule over the region meant that ever more African proxies were needed for policing, fighting resistance forces, and as garrison troops. These surrogate troops were used to put down local uprisings and expand French rule. The Tirailleurs Senegalais participated in the conquest of Morocco in the early 1900s. In 1912 a new partial-conscription law was passed, making it easier for the French to recruit surrogates.

With the French entry into World War I these Tirailleurs Senegalais were sent to Europe to defend France. The number of West African troops serving under French command in World War I comprised about 170,891 men, and approximately 30,000 of them were killed. In Senegal alone more than a third of all males of military age were mobilized and sent to France to fight. After the war the French colonial authorities passed the Conscription Law of 1919, which called for universal male conscription in peacetime as well as wartime. Hundreds of thousands of the Tirailleurs Senegalais were compelled to fight in France's colonial wars and to provide labour brigades for the colonial authorities.

During World War II these African troops played an important role. The Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were used in even greater numbers, initially by Vichy France and later by the Free French. In 1940, African troops comprised roughly 9 percent of the French army. The French recruited more than 200,000 black Africans during the war. Approximately 25,000 were killed in battle. Many were also interned in German labour camps and thousands of black African Prisoners of War (POWs) were murdered by the Wehrmacht in 1940. One of those who escaped execution was later President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor. Despite his high level of education and acquisition of French citizenship in 1932, Senghor was enrolled as a French army enlisted man (2me Classe) in 1939 with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division. A year later, during the German occupation of France, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and kept in several internment camps. He ended up in Front Stalag 230 at Poitiers, which was reserved for colonial troops. It was there that the Germans engaged in mass executions of African prisoners-of war. The main sport of the German guards at that camp was to randomly pick out their African prisoners almost daily and take them out to a field for target practice. Literally thousands were killed that way. Senghor escaped “by the skin of his teeth”. Senghor was lucky to avoid the daily executions. He was released for medical reasons in 1942 and went back to Senegal and his unit. He was then sent with his unit to Algeria as part of the French war against Algerian nationalists.

He has recounted some of his experiences in the famous book of poetry “Hosties Noire”, Black Hosts, published in 1948. It is the second collection of Senghor. The poet recounts his painful experience of war and labour camps, painful because of the physical violence and also the contempt shown by friend and foe to black men.

His first verse sums up the struggle:


Vous Tirailleurs Sénégalais, mes frères noirs à la main chaude sous la glace et la mort

Qui pourra vous chanter si ce n’est votre frère d’armes, votre frère de sang ?

Je ne laisserai pas la parole aux ministres, et pas aux généraux

Je ne laisserai pas – non ! - les louanges de mépris vous enterrer furtivement.

Vous n’êtes pas des pauvres aux poches vides sans honneur

Mais je déchirerai les rires banania sur tous les murs de France.”

(Note: a Banania is a child’s cocoa drink sold in France with cartoons of a black soldier on its label)

Not only was it difficult to be taken far away from home and placed in great danger on the front lines, but the French were divided between Vichy and the Free French. Both sides had large contingents of African troops. The French were happy to use African troops against other African troops. Perhaps the best example was in Operation Explorer.

During the Second World War the Germans concentrated their Central Asian policies on supporting the regime of Rashid Ali and the colonels of the "Golden Square" in Iraq. They were trying to block British access to India and to the oil supplies of Iraq, then under British influence. In the spring of 1941 the French Government (Vichy) granted permission for German and Italian aircraft to refuel in the Levant en route to Iraq. The French were still the ‘Mandated’ rulers of Syria and Lebanon. The British were urged by the ‘Free French’ under de Gaulle to intervene against the Vichy French.

British forces in the Middle East under Wavell invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine and Transjordan on Sunday, 8 June 1941 (with columns arriving from Iraq later in the campaign) under the codenamed "Operation Exporter". At that time the ‘Allies’ were only the members of the British Commonwealth. The Soviet Union had not yet been invaded and the Japanese had yet to bomb Pearl Harbor.

These Allies anticipated a quick knockout followed by immediate rallying of Vichy forces to the Free French. This did not happen, although the Vichy forces were small and without sufficient reserves or supplies. Their ground forces were tough and well-trained, and their small air force actually maintained air superiority for much of the campaign.

Instead of a quick victory, the Australian, Indian, British, and Free French forces slugged it out with the Vichy defenders and suffered several serious setbacks before the ceasefire on 12 July. The reason that the Free French and the Vichy French showed such valour was that they were both made up of Senegalese troops and Foreign Legionnaires. There were very few French actually involved, Free or otherwise. By July most of the Free French forces and the Vichy forces (especially the Senegalese), had enough of killing their countrymen, and refused to continue. When the campaign ended, with an Allied victory only some 5,700 (out of about 26,000) Vichy troops elected to join de Gaulle. The remainder were evacuated by sea to French North Africa under Allied supervision. The Senegalese were tired of fighting other Senegalese and went home. The War in the Lebanon was much quicker as the French soldiers quit after six days because they had run out of Senegalese. An armistice was signed in Acre on July 14, 1941.

The war in Europe continued and large numbers of African soldiers continued to die. By late 1944 it became clear that an Axis victory was unlikely. It was a matter of time before the invasion of the German heartland would end with a German defeat. The Italians had already changed sides and DeGaulle was installed as the leader of the Free French. Vichy had disappeared. DeGaulle and his generals decided that it was time to “whiten” the French Army. They extended their gratitude to the African soldiers who were returning to West Africa in 1944 after the Liberation of France. De Gaulle, when he saw that the Allies had pushed the Germans out of France decided that it was too dangerous to continue to use these African troops. He ordered a “whitening” of the troops by replacing 20,000 Africans which were in battle at the front with white French soldiers. This event caused hatred and dislike between the white and the blacks at war. These Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were segregated in French demobilising centres waiting to go back home. While at the centres these African soldiers faced discriminatory treatment. They barely got the food and resources they needed and did not have any kind of shelter. The French refused to pay them the money they owed them and informed them that, as they weren’t French, they would not be entitled to any pensions or benefits from their contribution to the Liberation of France. They were then transported out of France to holding caps in Africa, bear Dakar in Senegal.

In December 1944, humiliated and without having been given what they were promised, the soldiers at the camp at Thiaroye protested for the back pay that to which they were entitled. The protest was seen by the French as defiance against the French military and the general in charge, with the help of the gendarmerie, ordered the "white" French military to deploy machine guns and opened fire on the African soldiers which resulted in thirty-five Africans killed, hundreds wounded and many sent to jail.

It was known as the Thiaroye Massacre . It is not in any French history books but it isn’t forgotten among African soldiers. There is a good film on the subject by Ousmane Sembene, Camp de Thiaroye made in 1988. Despite this, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were compelled by the French to participate in the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria in the 1950s, fighting Algerian nationalists.

The French felt obliged to use African troops in Algeria because the large numbers of Algerian troops who had fought for France were outraged at the behaviour of the French on VE day in 1945, where forty-five thousands of their relatives and countrymen were massacred in one weekend. On May 8, 1945, a day chosen by the allies to celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany, thousands of Algerians gathered near the Abou Dher El-Ghafari mosque in Setif for a peaceful march - for which the sous-prefet had given permission. It was a market day. At 9am, led by a young scout Saal Bouzid, whose name had been drawn for the honour of carrying the national flag, the demonstrators set off.

A few minutes later the crowd, chanting ‘vive l’independance’ and other nationalist slogans, came under fire from troops commanded by General Duval and brought in from Constantine. Saal Bouzid fell dead, becoming a national martyr. The scene soon turned into a massacre - the streets and houses being littered with dead bodies. Witnesses claim terrible scenes, that legionnaires seized babies by their feet and dashed their heads against rocks, that pregnant mothers were disembowelled, that soldiers dropped grenades down chimneys to kill the occupants of homes, that mourners were machine gunned while taking the dead to the cemetery. A public record states that the European inhabitants were so frightened by the events that they asked that all those responsible for the protest movement should be shot. The carnage spread and, during the days that followed, some 45,000 Algerians were killed. Villages were shelled by artillery and remote hamlets were bombed with aircraft. A Colonel in charge of burials being criticized for slowness told another officer ‘You are killing them faster than I can bury them.’ These incidents led to the upsurge of the PPA and ultimately, 17 years later, to the country’s independence. In the retaliatory violence that immediately followed 104 Europeans were assassinated, but by the end several thousands were to die. These incidents were particularly hard for the Algerian Tirailleurs who had fought the Nazis alongside the French forces, some of whom came home to find that their families had been decimated by the troops of General de Gaulle.

Perhaps it is these memories of French barbarism which have prevented the access of African troops to the ceremonies celebrating the 70th anniversary. The troops fared a bit better under British rule, but they too returned to a colonial system in which they found it hard to rejoin their former lives. The British, too, were not forthcoming with the pensions they thought they had earned and occasionally, as in Ghana in 1948 the British responded to a protest by African soldiers that they had not received their back pay by instructing the police force to open fire on the protestors.

The Africans, wrenched from their homes by colonial conscription laws, the rachat and kidnapping fought bravely and well during the Second World War. It was a pity and a shame that their contribution to the war effort, marked in lives lost, injuries suffered, and harsh conditions should have been allowed to go unrecognised at the ceremonies. Not one African country was invited to participate. It is an insult to the memory of these brave African soldiers.



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