A brief look back at a soldiers’ combat: colonization, mobilization, crystallization

Interview with retired-Colonel Maurice Rives, by Sylvie Chalaye

Paris, 27 November 1999
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For some years now, the Retired-Colonel Maurice Rives has denounced France’s ingratitude vis-à-vis its former brothers-in-arms from the colonies, and has taken political action to alert the authorities to the scandalous situation of the former colonial Empire’s ex-servicemen, whose pensions have been ‘crystallized’ since 1959, leaving them in growing destitution. He contributed to the famous white paper published by the Conseil national pour les Droits des Anciens Combattants et Militaires d’Outre-mer (National Council for the Rights of Overseas Ex-Servicemen and Soldiers) in 1999, a veritable plea for the recognition of the former Union Française’s war veterans’ rights and the unfreezing of their pensions. He also devotes his time to historic research. He has participated in television documentaries, and is the author of several historic works about the heroic enlisting of colonial soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars, notably Héros méconnus, which is devoted to the Senegalese Tirailleurs, published by the Fédération Nationale des Anciens d’Outre-mer. He is currently working on a military history of colonization in the twentieth century.

You have been fighting a difficult battle to upgrade the Tirailleurs’ pensions for several years. How did you become involved in this issue?
I have always been of service to the Senegalese Tirailleurs from 1944 until 1964 when they were disbanded. When I retired, my comrades-in-arms, my brothers-in-arms, drew my attention to the fact that their pensions were not the same as those given to French ex-servicemen. I thus looked into the question and indeed discovered that a law dating back to 1959 froze their pension rates at the level they were on the day their countries became independent.
The rates haven’t been re-evaluated since 1959!
No, or a little, depending on certain strategic and economic interests. For example, in Chad, which is represents a strategically central position in Africa, France has kept troops; troops are still also kept in Dakar, Port-Bouet in Côte d’Ivoire and in Gabon. And depending on economic interests, slight readjustments have been made, such as in Gabon, due to its oil. Moreover, Tirailleurs of Senegalese nationality are a lot better off today than their brothers-in-arms from Niger, or Mali, which do not represent a real strategic or economic interest for France. Which has lead to an utmost imbroglio, as each State has a different rate.
In short, as certain ex-servicemen only have 2.26 FF a day to survive on, we have taken political action, founding a committee for the defence of the rights of the Tirailleurs. We also founded a parliamentary group in 1996 to change this law.
Has the situation improved?
We met with a demurrer, as two arguments were made against us: firstly, that France’s finances were not very flourishing, secondly, that it was above all inadvisable to grant the African Tirailleurs the same rights as the French, as this would cause an imbalance in the local societies. For example, an amputated corporal would have earned more than a minister. I must nonetheless specify that it was the local governments who made this second argument against us. We nonetheless had to do something: so we then made some clever calculations to come to the intermediary option of raising all the pension rates to the level of those practiced in Djibouti, which was the last colonized nation to become independent. Which would enable the Tirailleurs to live relatively comfortably. We did the calculations… Quite minimal sums, in relation to the State budget, would in fact be needed. 120 or 140 million, I think. But, for the time being, nothing has been allocated in the year 2000’s budget. So, each year, we try to alert members of parliament to our friends’ unhappy situation.
For us, it is a matter of conscience, especially as this freezing of their pension rates bars the access to new rights. For example, if an ex-serviceman who’s blind in one eye goes completely blind, he has no new rights. There is a soldiers’ pension which you only get when you’re 65 which they are not entitled to either. Even worse, their widows have no rights at all anymore.
There is also the obstacle of ignorance: we are very poorly informed in France about the history of the Tirailleurs. It is spoken about very little at school, even though the Second World War is studied at length. Do you think this is the result of a clumsy oversight, or more a real desire to conceal?
I don’t think that it is concealed. Let’s say that it has got lost in the annuls of history. An anecdote: Mr Alain Juppé, the former Prime Minister, now also Mayor of Bordeaux, was came up against a problem in his town. The Moroccan ex-servicemen, who also have very meagre pensions, come there to get income support (as ex-servicemen, they are automatically entitled to a ten-year residency permit). When he was Prime Minister, he wrote a short book entitled Entre nous, in which, displaying great naivety, he describes the lot of the Moroccan Tirailleurs in Bordeaux, ending his little story with a « What is to be done? » If he, the Prime Minister, doesn’t know what to do, you can understand that your average citizen knows even less. I sincerely think that it is the result of a collective ignorance. That’s why I think that several exhibitions, articles, films and conferences would re-establish historic truth.
The White Paper is also a reflection of this concern to inform the French public.
More so the MPs and the government, as we have done the best part of the job for them: we sum up the situation today for them, and indicate what needs to be done to remedy this calamity.
You also carry out historic research, in conjunction with your political action.
Yes. My book Héros méconnus describes the epic of the Senegalese, Madagascan and Somalian infantrymen during the two World Wars. I have also written a second book on the combat of the Indochinese infantrymen, who have been completely forgotten, in the French army from 1859 to 1960. (1)
Was the situation very different for the Tirailleurs in the First and Second World Wars?
Ah yes, I think so. For them… excuse this expression, the First World War was absolutely limpid. In the Second World War, however, they were subjected to immense trials, if not only in Syria, where they had to fight one another, the Vichy Tirailleurs versus the Free France Tirailleurs. There were also the executions carried out by the Germans in 1940, and captivity, which was extremely harsh. We are also poorly informed about many of their participation in the Resistance. For example, the first French resistance fighter was a Guinean named Addi Ba, who took up the armed resistance in the Vittel region as early as the end of June 1940. Addi Ba was shot by the Germans in Epinal on 18 December 1943 shouting « Long live France! ».
People have also made reference to the fact that the Germans were outraged to see Africans in the French army in the First World War, and that this was exploited by the French propagandists: the image of the Tirailleur was used to mock the Germans…
An officer in the colonial forces, called Colonel Mangin, produced a pamphlet entitled La Force noire in 1910. In it, he developed the both inspired and simplistic idea that, given the falling French birth rate and the galloping one of the Germans, the Africans would replace the French at war, because he thought – wrongly, at that – that Africa harboured an inexhaustible reserve of humans. In 1909, a minister stated: « Africa cost us piles of gold, rivers of blood, and thousands of men, but it is now her duty to repay us the blood and the men ». This idea was minutely examined in over five thousand articles in five hundred newspapers… The French were convinced that the Africans were going to come to take their place in the event of a war. Even more so, as these Africans were less well-paid and given poorer food, and thus cost less than a French soldier: many were won over by this material argument at the time. But the Germans were not at all of this opinion. The High Command, which was made up of Prussians, thought it off that they, the splendid German army, should fight against Senegalese Tirailleurs. To this effect, a German newspaper stated on 13 September 1913: « Making German soldiers fight along the Rhine against barbarians from Africa is an insult. » One small detail: in August 1914, when Dahomey (a French colony) set out to attack Togo (then a German colony), the Governor of Togo said no, that Whites should not fight amongst themselves in front of the natives. He preferred a kind of status quo. Coming back to the point, when the Senegalese Tirailleurs arrived in France, they were given a warm welcome. Certain postcards show this well…
There were also patriotic songs about the courageous Tirailleurs as early as 1900.
The origin of this enthusiasm for the Senegalese Tirailleurs dates back to 14 July 1899, when the Marchand mission, which had marched from the banks of the Congo to the Red Sea via Fachoda, paraded in Paris. The atmosphere was electric: a little like the atmosphere after the World Cup a hundred years later when Zinedine Zidane arrived before the crowds. They were welcomed by a storm of applause on the Pont de Neuilly, they truly were heroes. Mind you, there were only 150 of them, but they had crossed African on foot! At their head was a young soldier boy, who was called Ali, carrying a huge French flag. They were taken everywhere: they went up the Eiffel Tower, visited the construction sites of the metro. At night, they were taken to the Folies-Bergère, they were given a silver watch, a cigar. They were heroes! France started to realize that it had the Senegalese Tirailleurs. And, during the First World War, they were a propaganda tool because, even though the Germans were numerous and well-armed, we had the Senegalese Tirailleurs who were, it was said, an inexhaustible resource!
But the enthusiasm petered out at the end of the war…
This enthusiasm lasted up until 1917. In April 1917, mutinies broke out due, amongst other things, to the presence of Indochinese infantrymen in the munitions factories, and other industries. And, rightly or wrongly, they were labelled with the reputation of seducing the wives of the soldiers away at war. In Fresenes, Indochinese infantrymen were attacked… They were also accused of strike-breaking, of being scabs. The Senegalese Tirailleurs were wrongly accused of having supported certain mutinous battalions in April 1917 after the disastrous Chemin des Dames offensive where, moreover, the Senegalese Tirailleurs found themselves in the front line. As a result of these events, a directive from the High Command ordered that the valiant actions of the « native » infantrymen, that is the Senegalese, Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Indochinese, no longer be highlighted. Indeed, they were only given a very slight part in the victory celebrations: only 80 of them paraded under the Arc de Triomphe, with 40 Madagascans and 40 Indochinese. They went home very annoyed, all the more so as the only Senegalese MP, Blaise Diagne, who was the Chief Administrator of the black troops, failed to get the idea accepted that at least the decorated and wounded soldiers be given French nationality. Furthermore, as early as 1919 they realized that their pensions were inferior to those of the French soldiers.
France did not show its gratitude?
France’s only significant gesture was to build a monument to the black army in Bamako, a copy of which was also built in Reims, and inaugurated in 1925 in great splendour. That is all.
The famous monument which the Germans blew up in 1940 at the beginning of the Occupation?
Yes. During the First World War, part of Germany was occupied. Senegalese Tirailleurs were sent to the Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. And the Germans never got over that. They called it « The black shame », and filed 150 complaints for crimes and rapes against the ‘native’ troops who occupied the Palatinate. In fact, only eight were recognized, and they were absolutely minor offences. As for the mixed-race offspring Hitler referred to, they were more often the children of Black Americans. In any case, that had an influence in 1940. All the more so, as the African’s methods of combat in the First World War were not the same as the German’s: the Germans fired with their guns, and the Africans above all fought with knives.
Ousmane Sembène’s film describes the tragic episode at the Thiaroye camp. Is it realistic?
I think that, like all films, it is a little romanticized. The people in the Thiaroye camp were former prisoners who had joined the Free French forces (FFI) in Brittany. They rapidly embarked on British ships, which took them back to Africa. The colonial authorities in Dakar, who had not participated in the war, were bewildered on the arrival of these Tirailleurs. They were not the same Tirailleurs who had left in 1939-40. They had served in the FFI, in the FTP, and they had another political culture. Furthermore, they had been used in the squads responsible for executing the collaborators. In short, they were men who came back with the conviction that they had saved France, and, above all, who were no longer ready to do their master’s bidding. At Thiaroye, several problems cropped up. First of all, the FFI and FTP had, on their own authority, given them ranks. And the Tirailleurs demanded the corresponding pay, but these ranks were not recognized by the army. On top of that was the complicated question of arrears. Finally, the Germans had given them fake marks when they were prisoners, which the French authorities refused to change. With one thing leading to the next, the camp was encircled one day. The French authorities claim that the Tirailleurs shot at the French troops who had surrounded them. When the French opened fire, thirty-five Tirailleurs were wounded and thirty-five killed. It is a lamentable event. And, I might add, in order to be completely truthful, that there was not a single French casualty.
What were the conditions of the African prisoners in the hands of the Germans? It is sometimes said that they were sent to concentration camps.
No. In the autumn of 1940, as they were anxious about the possible relations between Africans and German women, and to avoid the spreading of tropical diseases, the Germans brought the African prisoners back to France, in special camps, where some of them remained up until 1944.
They were separated from the French prisoners then?
Absolutely. In 1943, as they needed troops for the Russian front, the Germans made an agreement with the French government by which the imprisoned Tirailleurs were guarded by French soldiers on armistice leave from the colonial army. An absolutely paradoxical situation thus arose: Tirailleur prisoners were guarded by their former superiors… Amongst these Tirailleurs were Antillians, who were thus French citizens, career soldiers, guarded by other professional French soldiers…
You mentioned the German’s fear of seeing German women with Africans. It would seem that this anxiety also existed in France. How can this concern be accounted for?
I think it was a question of sheer fantasy. We mustn’t confuse the African in the year 2000 with the one in 1914-18, or in 1940: first of all the African in 1915 or 1940 didn’t have a nation, they were only seen to belong to tribes. And – this will seem shocking in the year 2000 – the Tirailleurs were only chosen from what were then called « the warrior races »: the Mossi, Bambara, Toucouleurs, Lobi… They seemed more brutal than now… In Indochina in 1952, only 5% of the Senegalese Tirailleurs knew how to read…
You have just mentioned Indochina… The Senegalese Tirailleur corps continued to exist after 1945?
Up until 1964. After the Second World War, they fought again in Indochina, Madagascar, and Algeria.
In African literature, the Tirailleurs are often portrayed as war veterans who bore their entourage with their war stories. They are shown to be harmless old nutters, old bores… (Laughing) In young people’s opinion… It’s the same thing in France too! My grandson tells me that I always go on about the Occupation… In fact, it depends on the country. For example, in Chad, which was the basis of General de Gaulle’s free forces, de Gaulle and the war veterans are venerated. Villages were founded which were called ‘fifteen year villages’ because ex-servicemen retired for fifteen years lived there. A long time after de Gaulle’s death, there was a kind of mythology of the resurrection of General de Gaulle in these villages. The Chadian government asked them to farm the land, and they refused, convinced that General de Gaulle was going to come back to give them tins of peas, carrots… In Dakar, there is a song for the ex-servicemen… because they were, after all, venerated. They incarnated bravery, and certain young African armies in need of roots identified with them. Having said that, there is a sense of tedium today, it’s quite understandable. And, after all, the tales are embroidered, that’s for sure… There are those who get the wrong side. I know one who claimed that he was with de Gaulle in Syria in 1941… no, he was on the other side, but it is not his fault; it was hard to understand this Franco-French imbroglio…
Confusion, and even madness, is a very common theme in the African works portraying the Tirailleurs…
Yes, I think that they saw it all as a tribal war in which the French tribe was fighting against the German tribe.

(1) Maurice Rives and Eric Deroo, » Les Linh Tâp : les militaires indochinois au service de la France (1859-1960) », Editions Lavauzelle, 1999.///Article N° : 5431


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