Charles De Gaulle reviewing colonial troops 1941; photo credit
The question of the “blanchiment” [whitening] of the African colonial troops in 1944.
After the defeat of 1940, the French liberation army, mainly comprised of Africans and Europeans from the colonies, under the leadership of the generals Henri Giraud and Charles De Gaulle fought alongside its British and American allies. “Les Africains”, as they were called, distinguished themselves in Tunisia (1942), in Corsica and Italy (1943) before participating in the liberation of France (1944). In the fall of 1944, General De Gaulle took the controversial decision to replace 20 000 black African troops with French European soldiers, hence the appellation of “blanchiment” or whitening to refer to this process. What prompted De Gaulle to take this decision is still the object of debate between historians.
The most obvious reason given in justification of this decision is given by De Gaulle himself in his memoirs : « Comme l'hiver dans les Vosges comportait des risques pour l'état de sanitaire des noirs, nous envoyâmes dans le Midi les 20 000 soldats originaires d'Afrique centrale et d'Afrique occidentale qui servaient à la 1ère DFL et à la 9ème Division coloniale. Ils y furent remplacées par autant de maquisards qui se trouvèrent équipés du coup » (note 1) [As winter in the Vosges [mountainous region of eastern France] bore risks for the sanitary condition of the blacks [sic.], we sent in the Midi [south of France] the 20 000 soldiers originating from central and western Africa who served in the 1st DFL and the 9th Colonial Division. They were replaced in these units by as many members of the resistance who thus found themselves properly equipped.]
De Gaulle thus mentions two factors justifying his decision: the adverse effect of cold climate on Africans and the difficulty to equip the French army. The first reason refers to a practice of the French military inherited from the Great War. Obviously based on old prejudices, this practice consisted in withdrawing the African troops from northern France to southern France during the winter months. The second point brings up the fact that the American military had not been able to provide the French enough equipment to accommodate the enrollment in the French military of members of the resistance and other French citizens from the liberated territories. In support of De Gaulle’s explanation, Joseph Conombo, serving as a tirailleur sénégalais in 1944, mentions in his memoirs that while stationed in Alsace (northeastern France) on a winter evening “on doit me frotter le visage, car j’ai perdu la mobilité des muscles et les larmes coulent d’elles-mêmes devenant immédiatement des glaçons suspendus ! “ (note 2) [people had to rub my face as I lost mobility of my muscles and tears uncontrollably run down on my face becoming instantly icicles !]
However, it may be good to remind ourselves that modern human beings are tropical mammals, a condition that renders resistance to cold difficult whether the color of your skin is black or white. Historian Aidara also mentions that the French military did not always have such considerations and mentions the use of tirailleurs in the coldest region of France (Isère) during the month of February. (note 3) Furthermore, Conombo seem to contradict himself when stating that « Mais, bien emmitouflés dans nos tenues américaines de combat et bien protégés des pieds à la tête, nous supportons ce climat qui exige du mouvement, toujours du mouvement ! » (note 4) [However, well muffled in our American combat outfits and well protected from head to toe, we can bear this climate that requires movement, always some movement!] Nevertheless, historians generally agree to the fact that the process of providing equipment to the French army by the American military proved increasingly difficult as the Allies progressed in France. (note 5) If de Gaulle’s explanation cannot be fully contradicted one may look for other factors that may have influenced his judgment.
Being a general and also the representative of free France, De Gaulle had to take into consideration the militaristic and political implications of his decisions. Benjamin Stora, points out that the “blanchiment” may have been supported by strategic reasons, as the tirailleurs were used mostly in operations that required violent and sudden attacks on the front. The military command expecting traditional position warfare would thus have no immediate need for the tirailleurs. (note 6) Other considerations mentioned by Stora and linked to matters dealing with national security and international prestige seem more pertinent, though. France had been divided since the summer of 1940 between collaborationists and résistants. At a time when France was liberated, it became important to gather all the different groups of the Résistance under the same banner and thus incorporate them in the army of liberation.
The French authorities had also always wondered about the loyalty of the colonial troops. One has to keep in mind that thousands of black African troops had become prisoners in 1940 and thus subjected to German propaganda aimed at undermining their loyalty to France. The military also feared the influence of communist propaganda facilitated by the presence of African troops on the French soil. Stora also mentions that loyalty to France might have been undermined also by the simple proximity with African-American troops who were entrusted with driving tanks and flying airplanes and seemed to enjoy greater consideration and opportunities in the American military.
Finally, by incorporating French metropolitans in the Army of liberation France would hope to regain some of its prestige. The future of France on the international scene may have well been linked to its ability to fully participate in the war effort on its soil and in Europe. However, most of the Africans serving in the French army were not black Africans but northern Africans from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. France still had to rely heavily on its colonial troops for its campaigns of Germany and Austria.
Whether De Gaulle’s decision was motivated by militaristic and political factors or by mere prejudice, his decision certainly heightened the tensions between France and its African colonies. The contrast between the sacrifice asked from the colonies and the gratitude shown by the French authorities opened the way to the movement of emancipation in the French colonies.
1. Quote taken from AIDARA Moulaye (2000). 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 http://www.memoireonline.com/11/08/1632/Lhistoire-oubliee-des-Tirailleurs-senegalais-de-la-Seconde-Guerre-mondiale.html
2. Conombo, Joseph Issoufou (1989). Souvernirs de guerre d’un « tirailleur sénégalais ». Paris: L’Harmattan. p. 73.
3. See note 1.
4. Conombo, Joseph Issoufou (1989). Souvernirs de guerre d’un « tirailleur sénégalais ». Paris: L’Harmattan. p. 76.
5. See notes from the debate organized by the Institut de Stratégie Comparée in 2005 under the direction of Général Docteur Günter ROTH. Available at: http://www.stratisc.org/ihcc_44prov_Q15.html#Note1
6. Stora, Benjamin (2006). c’est eux, les Africains qui venaient de loin ...,. Article retreived on November 9th from http://www.ldh-toulon.net/spip.php?article1353