African soldiers in training in the Central African Republic in 1941; photo credit.
Africains et Français
The Great War really marked the emergence of the African soldier as a reliable (and likable) figure within the French military and the French popular culture. The tirailleurs proved to be courageous warriors, and the French population was enthralled by these men, as is suggested the success of colonial expositions after 1918. However grateful, the French also had a racist and paternalist attitude toward the Africans, illustrated by the iconic tirailleur sénégalais figures on the boxes of cocoa of the brand Banania.
During World War II these relations became more complex in the sense that for the first time the tirailleurs really lived amongst the French population either as POWs or as soldiers liberating the country. On the other hand, relations with the French military grew tenser as the prestige of France got tarnished by its defeat in 1940, its ensuing fratricidal conflict and by its rather rigid and discriminatory treatment of African troops.
The incorporation of African troops into the French military was both a necessity and a cause for concern for the French high command. The relations of the troops and the European populations were always under scrutiny as the tirailleurs were considered rather naive and easy prey to communist, Muslim or German propaganda. The question of loyalty to the French empire was thus often brought up in the reports filed by officers on the moral of their troops. Such prejudices certainly explain the relative small number of African officers in the French military.
Having the status of “indigènes,” an African could only hope to become sub-lieutenant or lieutenant. Only a rare few were eligible, after 25 years of service, to reach the rank of captain. Captain Charles N’Tchoréré was the exception that confirms the rule. Being “indigène” also meant that a French officer of a rank equal to that of an African would always be considered as a superior officer. Most African regiments were actually staffed with a majority of white European officers and non commissioned officers, a few African officers were relegated to the role of intermediary between French officers and African troops.
Nevertheless, the French government attempted to open officer training schools for Africans in 1916 and 1942. The goal of these establishments was more political though, as it was conceived as a way to provide a French education to the sons of the African elite known for its loyalty to France and also to maintain the aristocratic features of African society within the French military. Furthermore, the access to these schools was aimed at North Africans who were deemed higher on the evolution ladder than other Africans.
On the personal level, though, combat experience created bonds between men and forced the respect of many as can be witnessed by the white French officers who courageously tried to protect their African troops from the massacres perpetrated by the German military in the summer of 1940. However, in the several cases of mutiny or protest, it appears that tirailleurs complained about the attitude of their officers who, unlike American ones, never invited them to their table and were generally less personable. Still, French officers who fought alongside the tirailleurs developed a deep respect for the valiance of these men. Personal experience assuredly contributed to the abatement of prejudices even though some comments still hint at paternalism.
Ignorance being the root of prejudice, it was not surprising that personal experiences also explained the nature of the relations between French people and tirailleurs. At first, little or no contact between Africans and civilians was mentioned in the reports made by officers on the moral of their troops. The defeat of 1940 and the creation of frontstalag all over France put two different worlds in contact. African POWs were tasked to do public works or to work in factories or farms. The proximity with the French population led to the emergence of friendly relations and even in some cases to marital unions. To the dismay of French and later American authorities, who adopted a purely racist attitude, such relations between white women and Africans were to be avoided and marriages to be made very difficult if not impossible.
The tradition of “marraines” (godmothers), establishing direct ties between a prisoner and his “marraine” has on occasion led to the marriage of French women and African males. The nature of most relationships were however amicable but often very deep as can be found in the correspondence between French families and prisoners. Historians have also found records of many inquiries made to the French authorities by French families seriously concerned about the well-being of African POWs that had been transferred to different camps or repatriated. In some instances, French families or even communities courageously supported and protected Africans in their struggle against unfair treatment, such as in Morlaix or Trévé in 1944.
The situation of the tirailleurs of the French army of liberation was obviously different but nonetheless very positive. The memoirs of Joseph Conombo make it clear that African soldiers were welcomed as liberators. Conombo certainly mentions the curiosity of children and the reserve of adults upon first contacts but also the rapid development of sincere and durable friendship between Africans and French. Conombo’s experience also reveals the importance of religion as a way to overcome cultural differences. Joseph Conombo tells the story of Mrs. Nuninger, a seventy year-old widow who welcomed him in her farm and who on the news of a possible German counter-attack hid him in a stack of hay with her pair of slippers to keep him warm. He would eventually keep these sleepers as a “relique” (relic) until 1956.
As much as the French government and military command grew increasingly suspicious of the tirailleurs, the French population and soldiers or officers who got to live or fight alongside these men developed a profound respect and very amicable relations. The contrast between the attitude of institutions and individuals has been, to this day, very pronounced as demonstrated by the treatment of the question of the pensions of African veterans.
1. Fargettas, Julien. Les Tirailleurs sénégalais : Les soldats noirs entre légendes et réalités 1939-1945. Ed. Tallandier. Paris. 2012.
2. Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims. The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge. 2006.
3. Conombo, Joseph Issoufou. Souvernirs de guerre d’un « tirailleur sénégalais ». Paris: L’Harmattan. 1989.
4. Sainte-Marie, Alain. Écoles d’élèves-officiers « indigènes » en Algérie (1912-1946). Cahiers de la Méditerranée. 2010. Retrieved on November 16, 2012 from: http://cdlm.revues.org/index5279.html
5. Recham, Belkacem. Les militaires nord-africains pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Session du colloque du 20-22 juin 2006 « Pour une histoire critique et citoyenne Le cas de l’histoire franco-algérienne ». Retrieved on November 16, 2012 from : http://colloque-algerie.ens-lyon.fr/communication.php3?id_article=262
6. Marbon, Armelle. Discours prononcé à Trévé lors de l’inauguration de la stèle en l’honneur des tirailleurs sénégalais. Retrieved on November 16, 2012 from http://www.ldh-france.org/section/loudeac/category/oublies-dhier/