Background Tirailleurs sénégalais

Monument in Frejus en Provence; credit, erected at the fiftieth anniversary of the landing of the Free French Forces in Provence in 1944.

The African troops, known as tirailleurs sénégalais (T.S.), have officially been incorporated in the French colonial army in 1857 by order of the General Louis Faidherbe. These troops have been used in a variety of missions on African, Asian and European soil.

At first, the tirailleurs sénégalais were used as a military force assisting the French in their colonial ambitions in Northern and Western Africa and in Madagascar. These first tirailleurs were usually captifs [domestic slaves] to whom the French offered emancipation in exchange for military service. 

Used also as a police force in the French colonies, the relations between the African populations and the tirailleurs were quite hostile. This feeling remained strong even at the eve of WWII as is illustrated by the reaction of Joseph Conombo and his comrades upon reception of their uniform of T.S. that they qualify as “habits d’esclaves” [slaves’ clothes] (note 1). Joseph, born in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), was part of an African elite, educated in French schools, that deeply resented being assimilated to these men considered mercenaries.

The participation of the T.S. in the Great War and the Second World War contributed to the betterment of their public image. First dubbed la Force Noire [the Black Force] in 1910 by Colonel Charles Mangin in his eponymous book, the African colonial troops were for the first time considered by the French military as a reserve that would compensate France’s demographic weakness and fight against the Germans. Mangin, praised the endurance, presumed docility and warrior-like qualities of various African populations. For instance, he wrote « La valeur guerrière des Lobis nous est prouvée par la longue résistance qu'ils nous ont jusqu'ici opposée. Plus apprivoisés, ils nous fourniront plus tard d'excellents soldats. » [the warlike quality of the Lobis has been proven by the long resistance that they have given us. More tamed, they will provide us with excellent soldiers.]  (note 2)

The conceptions of Mangin were tainted by the ambient racism as the word « tamed » suggests in the above excerpt. The novelty of Mangin’s idea can be best understood if one considers the characteristics of European racism, in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, as illustrated in this excerpt by Ernest Renan “une race de travailleurs de la terre, c’est le nègre : soyez pour lui bon et humain, et tout sera dans l’ordre; une race de maîtres et de soldats, c’est la race européenne. […] Que chacun fasse ce pour quoi il est fait et tout ira bien.» [A race of tillers of the soil, the Negro; treat him with kindness and humanity, and all will be as it should; a race of masters and soldiers, the European race.(…) Let each one do what he is made for, and all will be well] (note 3).

Colonel Mangin also considered that France had every right to ask its colonial subjects to pay a blood tax, l’impôt du sang, in exchange for the mission civilisatrice of France. In La Force Noire, Mangin states : « Le devoir de la France vis-à-vis de ses protégés d’outre-mer est égal envers tous ; elle le doit, […] de les faire progresser en les guidant vers un état toujours meilleur […] Mais partout existe la nécessité de percevoir des impôts qui déchargent peu à peu la métropole des dépenses consenties pour le développement de chaque colonie, et partout également la nécessité de la défense coloniale et métropolitaine peut amener à introduire aussi l’impôt du sang. » [the duty of France in regard to its overseas protégés is equal among all ; it has to make them evolve by guiding them towards ever improving conditions (… )But everywhere exists the necessity to collect taxes that would relieve the mainland from the expenses generated for the development of each colony, and also everywhere the necessity of colonial and homeland defense could bring upon the introduction of the blood tax] (note 4).

During the Great War, it is estimated that 161 000 African soldiers have been mobilized, and that 134 000 actually fought in Europe.  (note 5). Among those on the European front, historian Eric Deroo cites the figures of 30,000 dead and as many wounded during the conflict. (note 6) The valiance of the T.S. certainly contributed to their popularity in France even though it did not come with the expected gratitude of the French government which still considered them as colonial subjects or “indigenes” and not citizens (with the exception of the inhabitants of the Quatre Communes in Senegal who were French citizens). Historian Philippe Dewitte comments on the disillusion of the demobilized troops by referring to the words of Lamine Senghor who wrote in the journal La Voix Nègre in march 1927 « Lorsqu’on a besoin de nous, pour nous faire tuer ou pour nous faire travailler, nous sommes des Français; mais quand il s’agit de nous donner les droits, nous ne sommes plus des Français, nous sommes des Nègres! » [when they need us to get ourselves killed or to toil, we are French ; but when it is about giving us rights, we are no longer French, we are Negroes !] 

After World War I, the French government decided to make use of the colonial troops in its mandates in Syria and Lebanon and also for the occupation of the Rhineland in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles. This new role as army of occupation bestowed upon the African troops only strengthen the racist German propaganda that, during WWI, depicted “ the Black African soldiers as cruel and barbaric, as illegitimate warriors […]”  (note 7). Historian Raffael Scheck points out that the use of colonial among which only a minority were black Africans resulted into the a media campaign, in Europe, that labeled the French occupation as the “ Black Horror on the Rhine” or Schwarze Schmach in German. (note 8)  Black Africans were represented as “sex-crazed perverts performing outrages against German women, men and children,” and the author also reports “a widespread fear of epidemics and racial degeneration” in Germany. (note 9) This racist propaganda would later be recycled by the Nazis at the eve of their offensive against France in 1940 affecting the representation of African soldiers in the minds of German soldiers. (note 10)

At the beginning of World War II, about 150 000 tirailleurs (note 11) were engaged in the defense of the French empire among which “approximately 63,300 West Africans are estimated to have fought in France in 1940.” (note 12). During the German offensive of May and June 1940, the tirailleurs fought vigorously but became the victims of massacres perpetuated by the Werhmacht. Scheck estimated that about 1000 to 1500 murders of black African POWs can be identified in the French archives. (note 13) However, he considers this number as a low estimate, given the gaps in the French records and the fact that not all massacres have been witnessed. At the end of June 1940, between 11 000 and 16 000 tirailleurs were declared either dead or missing in action, while around 58,700 were prisoners of war in France. (note 14) Finally, about one percent of tirailleurs were able to join the French resistance, like Addi Bâ. (note 15) 

The troops remaining in the French African colonies were divided between those pledging allegiance to the collaborationist regime of Vichy and those who supported General De Gaulle. In 1942, the forces of De Gaulle were mainly composed of tirailleurs  and contributed to the war effort of the Allies, first in North Africa, then in Italy (1943) and finally in France (1944).
In October 1944, De Gaulle began to replace the 20,000 black African troops by white soldiers from metropolitan France . This questionable measure is known as le blanchiment des régiments de tirailleurs sénégalais [whitening of the regiments of tirailleurs sénégalais].

In 1944, the situation of the west and equatorial Africans, held in camps on the French territory and guarded by French soldiers, was a source of tension between the troops and the French authorities and to some extent with the French population too.  Whether former POWs or recently demobilized soldiers, the tirailleurs soon realize that in spite of their contribution to the liberation of France, they were still discriminated against and retrograded from the status of liberator to that of colonial subjects undesirable on French soil. The troubles at Morlaix in November 1944, the mutiny of Versailles and the massacre of Thiaroye in December were all illustrations of this new shift in the relations between colonized populations and French authorities.

While the lasts of the tirailleurs sénégalais became a part of history, France and its former colonies are still trying to reconsider the place that these men occupied in their collective memory. From the beginning, the status of the T.S. has been ambiguous. Used as an instrument of colonization by the French authorities, the tirailleurs have had an ill reputation in the history of west and equatorial Africans until a recent revalorization introduced by the Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade.  Since 2004, November 23rd is now declared  a « journée commémorative des soldats africains ayant combattu pour l'empire colonial français durant les deux guerres mondiales afin que les nouvelles générations se souviennent qu'à l'heure des rendez-vous des batailles pour la liberté, l'Afrique était présente » [day of commemoration for the African soldiers who fought for the French colonial empire during the two World wars so that the new generations remember  that  at the time when the battles for Liberty were fought, Africa was present.] (note16)

The French authorities also held these men in a similar contempt as can be gathered from the way they have been treated from 1857 to present times. In July 2010, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, publicly announced that the French government would allow for the alignment of African veteran’s pensions with those of French veterans. However, the law does not require the French authorities to actively rectify the discrimination but rather to wait for the veterans or their descendants to claim their due, prompting General Lang’s comments: “On a décristallisé pour se donner bonne conscience mais on n'a pas rendu suffisamment les choses possible” [we have decrystallized to have a clear conscience but we have not made things sufficiently possible.] (note 17)

[1]  Conombo, Joseph Issoufou (1989). Souvernirs de guerre d’un « tirailleur sénégalais ». Paris: L’Harmattan. p. 35.
2 Mangin, Charles. Races de l’Afrique Occidentale Française. Revue des Troupes Coloniales, N187. 1927. Retrieved November 2nd, 2012 from
3 Renan, Ernest. La Réforme Intellectuelle et Morale. Ed. Complexes. 1990. p. 94. (facsimile reprint of a 1872 edition by Michel Lévy frères, Paris.)
4 Mangin, Charles. La Force Noire. Hachette. Paris. 1910. p. 96. Retrieved on November 1st from
5 Philippe Dewitte. « La dette de sang », Revue Hommes et migrations. Article in N°1276, novembre-décembre 2008 : Soldats de France. Retrieved on November 1st, 2012 from
6 Eric Deroo, «L’histoire méconnue des tirailleurs africains ». Retrieved on November1st 2012  from
7 Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006. p. 95.
8 Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006. p. 98.
9 Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006. pp.98-99.
10 Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006. pp.102-103.
[1]1  Aidara, Moulaye. L’Histoire Oubliée des Tirailleurs Sénégalais de la Second Guerre Mondiale. IEP Aix-Marseille et UMR 5609 ESID CNRS ( Montpellier III) - DEA histoire militaire, sécurité et défense. 2000. Retrieved on November 4th, 2012 from
[1]2 Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006. p.17.
[1]3 Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006. p.53.
[1]4 See note 11.
[1]5 See note 11.
16. Bonnecaze, Marceau. (2012, August 27th). Journée du Souvenir pour les Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Sud-Ouest.  Retrieved November 8, 2012 from
17. Urban, Marion. (2010, November 4th). Revalorisation des pensions des anciens combattants de l'armée française : la clause qui fâche. RFI. Retrieved November 8th, 2012 from