The tragic fate of the Senegalese riflemen: An obscure story to share

From Amadou Coulibaly

This is a translated version.

Massacring soldiers for the colour of their skin or for their demand to be treated with the same dignity as their French comrades: this is what the massacres of Senegalese Tirailleurs at Chasselay (1940) in France and at Thiaroye (1944) in Senegal tell us. Today, the choice of certain intellectuals, historians or artists to revisit this very sensitive history while situating the responsibilities must serve to build spaces for dialogue and mutual understanding for a solid social cohesion – a comment.

Senegalese riflemen: this is what Louis Faidherbe, colonial administrator of French West Africa (AOF), decided to call the military corps he created in the French colonies of Africa, known as tirailleurs. This regiment, an armed unit, was created in 1857 with the aim of constituting a military corps composed solely of natives but led by a French commander. As a generic term, the expression ‘Senegalese riflemen’ deserves to be explained in order to remove confusion and to get away from simplistic visions. It is regrettable to see to what extent the lack of knowledge of the history of these soldiers leads certain political figures to make amalgams.

This is what happened to the President of the Republic of Senegal, for example. Indeed, to respond to the criticism of some opponents on the post-colonial relationship (the monetary issue of the CFA, the preference of French companies in the award of public contracts in Senegal, such as the example of TOTAL …) which still persists in French diplomacy in Africa, President Macky Sall has not found better than to sing aloud the “friendship” that binds France to its former colony, Senegal. Going further, he justified this “friendship” by saying: “The French are our friends because our riflemen were entitled to desserts, unlike other Africans…”. This statement by the Senegalese President – which caused controversy in 2018 – is not only shameful and unworthy of his status as Head of State, but above all reveals the ignorance or obscurity surrounding the term ‘Senegalese riflemen’.

Senegalese riflemen or African riflemen?

Contrary to what the Senegalese President says, the Senegalese riflemen are not only Senegalese. The expression refers to thousands of men who came from different African countries. In addition to Senegal, they came from Mali, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Gabon, Guinea and Mauritania. All former French colonies. Thus, continuing to use a colonialist expression that does not reflect the reality of things is an anomaly that must be repaired. It seems to me that it is necessary to move away from this simplistic way of naming things inherited from colonialism. Decolonising the expression Senegalese riflemen by that of Africain riflemen seems necessary and more accurate.

This work on the terminology used must be accompanied by a questioning of the conditions of recruitment of these men who went to fight far from their own country. Some riflemen, deprived of the freedom to choose, were forcibly enlisted. They were often recruited under constraining conditions. This is for instance evoked in the film “Combattants d’Outre-mer, la parole tiraillée” (eng. Overseas Combatants, the Torn Word) by Alexandre Bonche, in which Caporal chef Saloum Kanouté (regimental number 10707) and soldier (regimental number 27516), two “Senegalese Tirailleurs” from Mali (Kayes region).

According to a 9th November 2018 publication of the French newspaper L’Obs, hundreds of thousands of tirailleurs took part in the First and Second World Wars. It notes that “one month after the declaration of the war, on 17th September 1914, the colonial army began to send units of African riflemen to metropolitan France. Throughout the First World War, around 200,000 riflemen from French West Africa, known as AOF, fought under the French flag.” The result was that 15% of them, which means 30,000 soldiers, were killed. On 1st April 1940, 179,000 Senegalese riflemen were recruited for the Second World War according to official figures, 40,000 of whom were involved in the fighting in mainland France. “Nearly 17,000 soldiers were killed, disappeared or wounded in action during this year.” 

Among the soldiers killed during and after the war, some lost their lives in often terrible and inhuman conditions. This is what the massacres of Chasselay in June 1940 and later that of Thiaroye in December 1944 teach us.

The massacre of the 25th regiment of Senegalese Tirailleurs at Chasselay

It was the 19th June 1940 when the German army of the Third Reich invaded the Lyon region. One day later, on 20 June 1940, after a long resistance, the Senegalese riflemen were finally captured by the German army, which on the same day cruelly executed more than thirty African riflemen fighting in the French army. This massacre remains one of the most tragic events in the history of the town of Chasselay – not far from Lyon. Long unknown to specialists, this episode has recently been illuminated thanks to the work of the French historian Julien Fargettas. Having worked together with a private collector, Baptiste Garin, who held the photo album of one of the German soldiers present during this disastrous event, Julien Fargettas reveals in his latest book “Juin 1940. Combats et massacres en Lyonnais” (eng. June 1940. Fighting and massacres in Lyonnais), the terrible conditions of this massacre. Revisiting some of the scenes of this tragic day, Julien Fargettas reports in his book certain scenes such as this one: “In the convent, a wounded rifleman refused to surrender. Finally taken prisoner, he was dragged into the courtyard and bayoneted to death. Near the chapel of St Joseph, two wounded men lay on the ground. The French soldier was pushed aside while his African comrade was also finished off […] In 1942, in the convent enclosure, a mass grave containing the bodies of six riflemen was opened to extract their remains.”

According to the publication of L’Obs mentioned before, the number is indeed much higher. It notes that during these two days, nearly 200 prisoners of the 25th regiment of Senegalese riflemen were shot in the Lyon region by the Wehrmacht because they were from sub-Saharan Africa. The circumstances of the massacre reveal another face of the ignominy of war. Indeed, while they were captured with their fellow soldiers, the French soldiers, the Senegalese riflemen were selected and isolated before being massacred. That is what Baptiste Garin photos prove.

The Senegalese Tata at Chasselay, where the bodies of 188 riflemen are grouped together, is a reminder of this horrific massacre which can only be considered racist. Moreover, the choice to leave the French soldiers alive and to massacre the black soldiers says enough about the character of this gesture. As the French-Senegalese writer David Diop reminds us in his book “Frère d’âme” (eng. Soulbrothers), the presence of black soldiers in the army was seen by the German army as an infection of Europe by “barbarians”. Massacred at Chasselay for having been black soldiers daring to fight the Army of the Third Reich, the Senegalese Tirailleurs were also the object of a tragic repression by their French companions.

ONAC: Memorial of the massacre on the Senegalese riflemen

The massacre of Thiaroye by the French army

Among the 47,000 Tirailleurs who fell on the battlefields during the First and Second World Wars, we also must add those who were massacred after the war. After four years of war on different fronts in Europe, the Senegalese riflemen were repatriated to Senegal in 1944 at the end of the Second World War with a promise from the French army: to pay them their indemnity. Unfortunately, this promise was never kept by the French administration, which at the same time became the executioner of their former war companions. Indeed, while they were claiming their due as they had been promised at the time of their mobilisation, the Senegalese Tirailleurs were attacked by the French army during the morning of the 1st December 1944 on the orders of Commander General Dagnan.

This unjust and horrific massacre was denied by the French army, which then spoke of a rebellion by the riflemen. It was very early in the morning, around 5.30 a.m when the men of Commandant Dagnan opened fire on the Tirailleurs. In a first report of this despicable massacre, Commandant Dagnan gives a death toll of 30 men buried in a mass grave in the camp of Thiaroye. In a speech in 2014, the French President at that time, François Hollande, admitted up to 70 victims. This silence of the French authorities for over 70 years on the exact figure of this colonial massacre teaches us enough about the fact that colonialism was never a philanthropic enterprise – as the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire pointed out in his ‘Discourse on Colonialism’, published in 1950, six years after this massacre. 

Thus, some estimate that hundreds of victims were killed. Although it is not easy to give an exact figure for the number of people massacred at Thiaroye, it is clear that it is one of the most striking French colonial crimes of the 20th century.

Flickr: A fresc in Dakar representing the massacre of Thiaroye

Recalling this tragic history, as sensitive as it is, must not be used by those who strive daily to divide humanity, to exclude one from another. On the other hand, the history of these sons of Africa who came to defend France from the madness of Hitler’s regime must be made known and integrated into the school curricula of the countries concerned. Indeed, the reminder of what happened should serve to make us aware of what we have in common. The release of the film “Tirailleurs” in January 2023 with Omar Sy is an example to be encouraged. In an interview about the film, the French actor summarises the symbolic value of telling the story of the African Tirailleurs who died for France and for the defence of freedom and human dignity. He underlines that “we do not have the same memory, but we have the same history”. Thus, combating racism and all forms of discrimination must necessarily involve: recognizing the plurality of memories.

About the author:
Amadou Coulibaly

Amadou holds a Master’s degree in European Literary Cultures (CLE) and is currently in a professional Master’s degree in Information and Communication, with a focus on digital publishing. As the grandson of a former Senegalese rifleman, he is very interested in French colonial history in Africa and its repercussions on the evolution of the befalled societies. Having participated in this project is a privilege for him.

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