Tirailleurs Senegalais (1857-1960) is French for “Senegalese sharpshooters”. It was the name for the French Empire’s black army from West Africa. You do not hear about them much, but about 200,000 of them fought in both world wars of the 1900s. They were at Gallipolli and the Somme, for example. They also fought for the empire in Morocco, Vietnam, Syria and Algeria. Despite the name, most were not from Senegal. Many came from what is now Mali and Burkina Faso.
Two-thirds of the French troops who fought to free France from Nazi Germany in 1944 were in fact black, mainly from the Tirailleurs Senegalais. The Americans, however, kept them from entering Paris. They thought it would be “more desirable” if Paris was freed by an all-white army division. They got their way.
Unlike the French and the British, the Americans still had an army separated by race. De Gaulle had to take his mixed army divisions and create an all-white division out of them to suit White American ideas about history. As it was, many of the soldiers who marched into Paris and seemed to be white Frenchmen were in fact Spanish and Middle Eastern.
The Tirailleurs Senegalais were not just robbed of their hero’s welcome: after they got back to Africa they protested about back pay. That led to a massacre by the French on December 1st 1944 at three in the morning at Camp de Thiaroye (there is a film by that name about it).
And there is more: most of the soldiers sank into poverty. After 1959 the French would no longer increase their pension to keep up with rising prices as they did for those in France.
The Tirailleurs Senegalais were formed in 1857. Most were slaves at first. France did not have enough men to keep and hold its empire. It forced its foreign subjects to fight for the empire too. About half the Tirailleurs Senegalais stayed in West Africa while the rest were sent abroad to extend the empire and keep its peace.
In 1910 the book “La Force Noire” by Charles Mangin came out. Mangin argued that West Africa had a nearly bottomless supply of young men who could fight for France. Not only could blacks be trained to be good soliders, he said, but unlike white people blacks were not as worn out by work nor did they feel pain as much.
None of it was true, but the French jumped on it: they were in fear of the Germans who outnumbered them. So conscription became common in French West Africa. In Senegal about a third of the young men were forced to join the army.
When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 the Tirailleurs Senegalais suffered huge losses, about 17,000, because after the Germans won they killed many of them as savages while letting the white Frenchmen live.
Many of the soldiers were Muslim. The language of command was pidgin French and Bambara.
At least 47,000 died for France and its empire, but to this day no monument stands in Paris to honour them.
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