In 1857, France began recruiting men from her West African colonies to use in military campaigns. During World War I, and even more so for World War II, there was a significant expansion of this pool of men through conscription, as France became aware that their so-called tirailleurs sénégalais (soldiers from all over French West Africa, and not just Senegal), would be an important resource in their struggle against Germany.
During World War II, France recruited over 200,000 West Africans. Those who survived the fighting and escaped imprisonment returned home with a fresh perspective and a new attitude towards France and towards each other. The involvement of men from all over French West Africa meant that participants had contact with others from their region. Together, they fought and suffered the hardships of war, homesickness and fear. And even more significantly, they received the same degrading treatment at the hands of the French army.
Thus, the experience of the tirailleurs sénégalais during World War II firmly established France as the ‘other’ in the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ opposition necessary for a common sense of identity.
In 1944, at the camp in Thiaroye on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, returning soldiers waiting to be repatriated to their homes declined to leave until they had been paid the pensions they were promised. They refused orders and took one commander hostage. The French Administration panicked and shot and killed at least 35, injuring many more. Despite French attempts to cover up the atrocity, the massacre at Thiaroye acted as a unifying symbol throughout French West Africa.
Common opposition to France had created the conditions necessary for the mutiny at Thiaroye, and the suppression of this mutiny by the French confirmed France as the oppressor. Subsequent African portrayals of the event – such as Ousmane Sembène’s film Camp de Thiaroye and the play by Boubacar Boris Diop Thiaroye terre rouge – pay little attention to the fact that it was other tirailleurs sénégalais who eventually put down the revolt. This absence of blame attributed to other tirailleurs suggests that the most important consequence of Thiaroye was that it became a symbol of unity among the tirailleurs sénégalais in the face of French abuse and ingratitude.
Hamani Diori of Niger, spokesman for veterans’ affairs for the political party Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), said that after the war, “Belonging to different races, natives of different countries, one thing alone unites them: the state of inferiority in which they are placed within the ranks of the French Army.”
This position of inferiority was confirmed by an operation dubbed blanchiment (whitening). As France was about to be liberated, Charles de Gaulle had all black soldiers sent to the south of the country so that victory could be won by the ‘real French’. Before the war, French rhetoric in her West African colonies had been of a unified fight against Nazism. Now, the tirailleurs sénégalais were being denied the shared victory they had been led to believe would be theirs as part of the French army. This also meant that receiving payment for the work they had done became even more important. Returning home with a shared sense of betrayal, they unified behind this cause.
In January of 1947, a decree was passed which stated that African military pensions be paid in CFA francs (the currency used in French West Africa) rather than metropolitan francs (used in mainland France), making them just 50 % of those received by European French troops.
After the war then, the tirailleurs sénégalais battled against unfair pensions, fuelled by their sense of betrayal and frustration. And recognising the potential of the anciens combatants (war veterans), emerging African politicians prioritised the pensions issue in an attempt to harness the veterans’ fresh sense of national consciousness and pro-equality energy.
The colonial relationship had to change, but a break from France was inconceivable at this time. Though labelled the oppressor, it was only from France that veteran pensions (they hoped) would arrive, and it was France that would grant more and more liberties to the African politicians who had taken up the cause in order to gain local popularity.
When independence did loom on the horizon in the late 1950s, it was a time of apprehension for many involved. Veterans feared that without France they would never receive their pensions at all. African politicians intended to stay close to that which had granted them what they wanted so far. And for France, the Empire had proved invaluable in time of war, was a guarantee of security, and an expression of France’s status in the world.
Later, when independence for French West African colonies was seen to be inevitable, veterans would be seen by their compatriots as tied too closely to France. Even as recently as 1999, a monument erected in memory of African war veterans who had fought for France was removed from Dakar city centre.
For West Africa, remembering the tirailleurs sénégalais and their role in World War II has proven complicated. However, although not fighters for independence, their involvement in war and their consequent association with France did lead to a sense of national consciousness that has played a crucial part in the creation of the West Africa of today.
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