« You are not honourless paupers
with empty pockets »
Léopold Sédar Senghor, Hosties noires, Seuil 1948.
The school books are there to prove it. The complex adventure of the French Empire’s swarthy soldiers has been relegated to the distant corners of a History which deserves to be re-written. Speculations have been made about these forces of nature, about their heroic attacks against the enemies of France, about the generosity with which they agreed to serve the country. It has, above all, been specified that, at the outset, this was a convenient ‘trade’ that imperialist, colonizing France managed to keep going to its advantage. What general wouldn’t dream of armies that cost little, and which were plentiful enough to avoid the good people being used as cannon fodder? It has often been said that the Tirailleurs experienced the same harsh reality as the rural populations mobilized in the French heartlands. Perhaps. But, did anyone ask what these people, considered to be sub-human, thought?
Traditions are at times hard to efface. The Senegalese Tirailleurs, an army bringing together men from a range countries, who were erroneously given this name, are part of a spiral of French and Western military history, in which the negative image of these black soldiers (barbarians, savages, creatures of the devil, capable of anything) was counted upon to weaken the enemy. We mustn’t forget that Cesar had his blacks. All organized their recruitment around the tendentious myths and racial prejudices developed by ‘the great civilization vis-à-vis the primitives’. The more the skin veered towards black, the closer the man (when people deigned to consider him as such) was to beast. It was, clearly, thought at the time that these ‘sub-humans’ were capable of carrying out the ignoble acts of a war that was evidently going to be ‘inhuman’. It was on this basis that the first company of Tirailleurs was founded in 1823. (*)
A certain Captain Obissier later wrote in 1905, reinforcing the convictions which had led to the creation of this black army hailed by Napoleon III in a decree in 1857, « Properly trained, even summarily, the Sudanese is an incomparable instrument of conquest and domination in our hands » (Sudanese/Senegalese, the difference hardly matters, as long as they continued to be as ferocious as we wanted). The first men to serve in the « black force » were former slaves. They were bought at prices ranging from 300 to 400 FF. It was a man by the name of Schmaltz, a colonel by trade, who, at the height of the abolitionist period, had the idea of thus replacing the French soldiers who couldn’t take the tropics.
The Tirailleurs served against the populations subjugated by the Empire. Madagascar, Indochina, Algeria… Certain deputies, such as Hamani Diori or Jean Felix Tchicaya, protested about the Madagascan case in 1947. The former said: « They are using blacks for this nasty work unworthy of our race ». The latter added: « They are combatants who have been turned into killers ». Of course! They had become the guardians of colonial « order », whilst, at the same time, remaining subaltern, badly paid, and despised (« natives »). A situation which didn’t stop France from sending corps of Tirailleurs to the front during the two world wars. A army in which many found themselves against their will. Conscription was sometimes carried out by putting pressure on the village chiefs, or via raids, just like during the slave trade era. It even became ‘the blood tax’ paid by the subjugated regions, at times with the backing of certain African personalities (the deputy Blaise Diagne from Senegal was in charge of one recruitment campaign). The First and Second World Wars broke out. These soldiers were present. With their moments of glory. But, at the end of the day, the sacrifices made were enormous. And the losses heavy. Straight after these wars, however, they were forced to go back to their place, not as citizens who had served the Republic, but as ‘subjects of the empire’. A modern version of the game of master and slave, which took on all its symbolic force at the Thiaroye camp in a tragedy of the ‘less-than-nothings’, whom the Republic wanted to teach a good lesson (cf. the film by Ousmane Sembène).
In the majority, these « poilu », even though they had proven their bravery and their loyalty before the enemy. And, because certain joined the independence struggles, they would be hated even more by the French. But, worse still was the « crystallization » (freezing) of their meagre pensions: a way of refusing them the same rights as their French brothers-in-arms because of their ‘new’ nationalities. The French Secretary of State for Ex-servicemen, a man by the name of Maurice Mazeaud, made this ungrateful declaration in 1979: « The African countries wanted their independence. They did so in full knowledge, and their war veterans thus officially lost all right to a pension. Any French person renouncing his nationality also renounces his pension. All that we give them is a gift ». To which Africa’s ex-servicemen, such as Sekou Diabakhaté of Mali, immediately replied: « They inform us we are entitled to nothing because we are no longer French. But we never were! They called us ‘the natives’ After all, France pays members of the Foreign Legion the same pensions as the French. So why not us? » This cry of indignation could already be heard in March 1927 in ‘La voix des Nègres’, an organ founded by an ex-serviceman: « When they need us, to make us kill, we are French. But when it’s a question of giving us our rights, we are no longer French, we are Negroes ». A situation condemned by the United Nations’ Committee for Human Rights, which, in 1989, asked France to treat all its ex-servicemen « equally ». A meagre consolation for soldiers who, in spite of Thiaroye or the independence struggles, have not always been respected by their African compatriots either. Thanks to the lack of knowledge of history.
* According to the historian Myron Echenberg of the University Mc Gil of Montreal, who, furthermore, indicates that the origins of the regiment go back to Senegambia in the seventeenth century, at the time when the British and French military recruiting officer’s enlisted Africans as sailors and soldiers in order to reinforce the European military units. The official decree testifying to the creation of a corps of Senegalese Tirailleurs dates back to 1857. An article in the Dakar newspaper Le Soleil, dated 9/12/97, suggests, however, that a battalion of Blacks was founded on 11 May 1803, which took part in the battle of Russia.///Article N° : 5430