Robert Fisk: France's shamefully forgotten allies

 

Share
Related Topics

It took Indigènes to remind the French that they owed their liberation not only to De Gaulle's largely white Free French troops but also to 134,000 Algerian soldiers, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 92,000 "others" from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Indigènes means "natives" but the English version of the movie was called Days of Glory, which rather took the sting away. Yet the French have still largely ignored their massive empire armies of both world wars. And so have we. Where are the great films, the great novels about the Indians who fought for King and Empire at the Somme, and in North Africa and Italy?

Wandering the Great War cemetery at Chemin des Dames – the atrocious 1917 offensive, which won for General Charles Mangin the title "Butcher of the Blacks", and led to French mutiny – and the British Second World War graves at Sidon in southern Lebanon, I notice how the Muslim dead, mostly Senegalese and Algerians and Tunisians in the first graveyard, Indians in the second, are separated from their non-Muslim comrades-in-death. A few metres of grass keep infidel and believer apart (the definitions are interchangeable, of course) as if sharing the same cemetery is quite enough, without accepting that all were brothers in humanity.

It's the same today. A recent exhibition in Beirut showed archive footage of Australian troops in the 1941 invasion of Lebanon, fighting and dying and laying railroad tracks and manning gun positions on the Beirut Corniche. The Lebanese flocked to see the films, especially Lebanese Armenians who remembered how Australian troops of the Great War gave their food to the dying victims of the Armenian genocide 23 years earlier. But there were no pictures of the Indian soldiers who fought and died in Lebanon.

So it's worth a glance at how "we" Westerners regarded "our" soldiers over the past 100 years. All praise to Le Monde Diplomatique for drawing our attention to a sand dune beside a small forest road not far from the old Courneau camp in the Gironde which is bleakly decorated with two memorials. One shows African faces, sculpted in stone. The other says: "To the greatness of Allah." Yet in a war that for the first time commemorated the individual names of the fallen, all that is written here is a dedication "to the 940 Senegalese and 12 Russians who died for France 1914-1918". Anonymity was enough for blacks.

The French camp of Courneau was a training ground for newly arrived Senegalese troops en route to the Somme, but it was also a hospital base for the sick and wounded of the Somme and Fort Douaumont at Verdun. And when – after weeks under the snow and the rain of shells – they did not die of their wounds at Courneau, they died of disease. A government health inspector predicted in 1916 that the Senegalese, under the autumn rains and cold, would contract respiratory diseases. In a camp of 20,000 largely black troops, thousands fell ill each week. The first soldier died on 28 April 1916, 13 others in May, including a soldier called Dakpé of the 42nd Battalion, "son of a father and mother whose names are unknown". In the archives, the soldiers' names are recorded. Mory Bakilé, born at Lambatura, Moriba Keita from Manikoura. The first black French member of parliament, Blaise Diagne, raised his voice in protest. But the "cemetery of Negroes" continued to be filled with corpses.

At least 421 Senegalese riflemen died in 1916, mostly from pneumonia, then 12 Russians – recruited to fight in France by the pre-Bolshevik Tsarist government – and then 88 American soldiers died of the same infections at Courneau after May 1918. Sixty-six of their bodies were later reburied with military honours in the US, the rest transferred to the American military cemetery at Suresnes. Their names are on their gravestones. Not so the Senegalese. A local French architect's appeal for a memorial with their names was overruled.

In nearby Bordeaux, says Mar Fall, a sociologist of Senegalese origin, "they like to avoid topics which are unsettling. If we open the Pandora's box of First World War African soldiers, or those of the Second World War, we will arrive very quickly at the colonial history of the city." The city fathers promise a real memorial "after further study". The dead African soldiers, whose graves are clearly identified in the front-line cemeteries, all joined up on the promise of French citizenship. A further little indignity. Originally, the dead African soldiers did have their names inscribed on a wooden board above their individual graves. Then they were reburied in a mass grave and their names disappeared.

But wait. If we are not yet ready to confront the black Africans' sacrifice for us, do we dare – like the Franco-Ivorian journalist Serge Bilé in his new book Sombres Bourreaux ("Dark Executioners") – investigate the lives of those black soldiers who chose to fight for Hitler? For yes, incredibly, the Nazis let a few serve in the Légion des Volontaires Français. One was Norbert Désirée, a Guadeloupe docker who wanted to fight Bolshevism in opposition to his communist fellow countrymen who were demanding independence for their island. Then there was Louis-Joachim Eugène, also from Guadeloupe, who found German racism less painful than that of his fellow Frenchmen.

And the Cameroonian Werner Egiomue who loved Hitler but whose black skin created a scandal in the German High Command. Ahmed Fall from Senegal was used as a propagandist by the German army. How could these men – old enough to be our grandfathers – have collaborated with Vichy or the Nazis, asks Malika Groga-Bada, a journalist for Jeune Afrique, originally from the Ivory Coast. "Patriotism? A desire to be recognised?" Unforgivable, of course. But history is cruel and there is plenty of rusting barbed wire beneath the snow.

Why, I still have copies of Signal, the German propaganda magazine that remained on open sale in Paris until the 1980s, which show German troops throwing raw meat at Algerian prisoners-of-war in 1940, photographs which depict the indigènes as animals fighting for food. We forget that these poor men were also our Allies.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

 

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk