France’s Black Defenders
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the spring of 1940, the French Army fielded 101 divisions of varying quality. Among the very best of these were the elite formations of the Armée d’Afrique and La Coloniale, the two branches of France’s overseas forces.
By the time of the Armistice, the elite 1st Moroccan Division, seven other North African divisions, three African divisions, and eight Colonial divisions had arrived at the front plus three cavalry brigades. In addition, a number of regiments had been attached to Metropolitan French divisions; manpower from outside France made up about one-fifth of the French Army.
In our Strange Defeat game, the two corps made up solely of colonial units are among the best the French player fields. These are the only strictly colonial pieces in the game; most of the colonial divisions are part of the “French” corps.
White cadres came from French volunteers; these served five-year commitments and included all-white units known as Coloniale Blanche. Most were recruited in economically-depressed areas like Brittany or the Paris slums. Black soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa, some volunteers and some conscripts, formed Tirailleurs Sénégalais regiments. “Sénégalais” referred to all black peoples of Africa, not just those from Sénégal itself where the units had first been formed. The French did not administer a European-style draft: Village chiefs were assigned recruiting quotas, and received cash bonuses for exceeding them.
Vietnamese and Laotian soldiers did not serve in France in the 1940 campaign in any great numbers, but several thousand Malagasy did, chiefly in Maginot Line machine-gun battalions.
The “white” and “black” distinction was more cultural than racial; black soldiers from Martinique or Guadeloupe serving as cadre in Sénégalais regiments were classed as “blanche” and assigned white barracks and pay scales. Most troops had experience serving alongside one another in “mixed” regiments in the colonies, and the Coloniale’s officer corps consciously fostered comradeship between the races. And thanks to their Great War heroism, Tirailleurs Sénégalais had a very positive reputation among the French civilian population; in the 1920s and 1930s images of balck soldiers became very prominent in advertising campaigns. French breakfast cereal boxes even exhorted French children to eat their flakes like a brave Tirailleur. And at a time when the United States Army still practiced intense racial segregation, Africans could and did rise to officer rank in La Coloniale.
The elite 3rd Division d’Infanterie Coloniale, an all-blanche unit, fought extremely well at Chiers in May and June, where Sgt. François Mitterand was wounded. The other Colonial divisions fought mostly on the Meuse in May and along the Somme River in June; Sénégalais shouting the traditional “Allah Akbar!” war cry at one point overran tanks of the 7th Panzer Division. Most Coloniale units did not have anti-tank guns, and those that did received them only at the start of the campaign. Yet they still managed to mount a very effective defense.
German directives warned their troops that African soldiers routinely mutilated their prisoners, a charge not supported by any evidence but widely believed. Black French soldiers taken captive were to be treated “severely.” Nazi ideology held the Africans to be sub-human, and many Germans resented the French Army’s deployment of Sénégalais regiments on occupation duty in the Rhineland after the First World War. The troops gleefully complied: at Montluzin on 19 June 1940, German soldiers machine-gunned 200 unarmed prisoners of the 25th Tirailleurs Sénégalais. At Aubigny in May an unknown number of Africans of the 24th Tirailleurs Sénégalais including all of their black officers were murdered, and between 16 and 25 June in Cote d’Or over 250 Sénégalais prisoners were massacred.
By late 1944, with Free French units moving into France itself, the Gaullist movement replaced the black soldiers with young metropolitan white recruits of the FFI, in a movement called blanchiment. Officially, the stated reason was that the Africans would not stand up to the cold winter weather then approaching. But the Sénégalais suspected outright racism on the part of both DeGaulle and his American allies, who had demanded that no Sénégalais have contact with black U.S. troops. The Africans were sent to camps and in many cases treated as prisoners; at Morlaix seven veterans were shot and wounded by white French guards.
After the war, La Coloniale’s own officer corps was surprisingly able to repair most of the damage done by the regular Army in 1944. Black regiments fought in Indochina willingly and very capably. By the early 1960s, the experiment of France in Africa was over and the former colonies began to claim their independence.
This piece originally appeared in June 2006.