The current military thrust by French troops, mostly Foreign Legionnaires, into Northern Mali is expected to be a successful start to the re-conquest and reunification of the Malian state through the introduction of large number of African troops from the ECOWAS armies who will take the place of the Legionnaires in patrolling the country. Large sums of money have been pledged to this ECOWAS force and detailed plans have been made for the training and capacity- building of these troops. This follows the many millions of dollars in U.S. military assistance and equipment already spent in the last eight years training and equipping these same African troops.
While there was a certain logic and direction to the efforts made by AFRICOM in this capacity-building of Malian and ECOWAS troops in their JCET and Operation Flintlock exercises the current effort by the French to engage these same African troops as proxy soldiers for the French is credible only if the analysis leaves out a history of French abuse, misuse and oppression of previous French African surrogate forces since 1857. The West may be ignorant and uninformed; the African armies are not.
Since 1857 the French colonialists created a surrogate army of African soldiers from the Africans living in the several states composing the AOF (French West Africa) and the AEF (French Equatorial Africa). They called these soldiers the Tirailleurs Senegalais although they weren’t limited to inhabitants of Senegal. In fact, the new ECOWAS troops they await today (plus Nigeria and Ghana) are essentially drawn from the same region as the Tirailleurs Senegalais. The Tirailleurs Senegalais were created as the first permanent units of black African soldiers under French rule in 1857. These were not professional soldiers; they were drawn from the ranks of the ex-slaves and social outcasts who were sold to the French by the local African chiefs. From 1857 to 1905 the main recruiting of these soldiers was the rachat (repurchase) system in which slaves were purchased from their local owners by the French and turned into mercenary soldiers. The practice of buying slaves by the army was ended officially in 1882 but it was observed more in the breach than the observance.
In 1905 the French colonies in Africa were put under civilian rather than military rule. However, this removal of a French military rule over the region meant that ever more African proxies were needed for policing, fighting resistance forces, and as garrison troops. Thee surrogate troops were used to put down local uprisings and expand French rule. The Tirailleurs Senegalais participated in the conquest of Morocco in the early 1900s. In 1912 a new partial conscription law was passed making it easier for the French to recruit surrogates.
With the French entry into World War I these Tirailleurs Senegalais were sent to Europe to defend France. The number of West African troops serving under French command in World War I comprised about 170,891 men, and approximately 30,000 of them were killed. In Senegal alone more than 1/3 of all males of military age were mobilized and sent to France to fight. After the war the French colonial authorities passed the Conscription Law of 1919 which called for universal male conscription in peacetime as well as wartime. Hundreds of thousands of the Tirailleurs Senegalais were compelled to fight in France’s colonial wars and to provide labour brigades for the colonial authorities.
During World War II these African troops played an important role. The Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were used in even greater numbers, initially by Vichy France and later by the Free French. In 1940, African troops comprised roughly 9% of the French army. The French recruited more than 200,000 black Africans during the war. Approximately 25,000 were killed in battle. Many were also interned in German labour camps and thousands of black African Prisoners of War (POWs) were murdered by the Wehrmacht in 1940. One of those who escaped execution was later President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor. Despite his high level of education and acquisition of French citizenship in 1932, Senghor was enrolled as a French army enlisted man (2ème Classe) in 1939 with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division. A year later, during the German occupation of France he was taken prisoner by the Germans and kept in several internment camps. He ended up in Front Stalag 230 at Poitiers which was reserved for colonial troops. It was there that the Germans engaged in mass executions of African prisoners-of war. Senghor was lucky to avoid the daily executions. He was released for medical reasons in 1942 and went back to Senegal and his unit. He was sent with his unit to Algeria as part of the French war against Algerian nationalists.
Conditions for the African soldiers serving under French rule were appalling. In some theatres, mainly the Middle East, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were used by both the Vichy French Army and the Free French Army. Perhaps the best example of this was Operation Exporter which had several unique and important outcomes and shed some light on the true character of De Gaulle.
The Allies had already had the experience of De Gaulle’s behaviour in the campaign in the Levant. During the Second World War the Germans concentrated their Central Asian policies on supporting the regime of Rashid Ali and the colonels of the "Golden Square" in Iraq. They were trying to block British access to India and to the oil supplies of Iraq, then under British influence. In the spring of 1941 the French Government (Vichy) granted permission for German and Italian aircraft to refuel in the Levant en route to Iraq. The French were still the ‘Mandated’ rulers of Syria and Lebanon. The British were urged by the ‘Free French’ under de Gaulle to intervene against the Vichy French.
British forces in the Middle East under Wavell invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine and Transjordan on Sunday, 8 June 1941 (with columns arriving from Iraq later in the campaign) under the code name "Operation Exporter".
Instead of a quick victory, the Australian, Indian, British, and Free French forces slugged it out with the Vichy defenders and suffered several serious setbacks before the ceasefire on 12 July, 1941. The reason that the Free French and the Vichy French showed such valour was that they were both made up of Tirailleurs Senegalais troops and Foreign Legionnaires. There were very few French actually involved, Free or otherwise. By July most of the Free French forces (especially the Tirailleurs Senegalais), had enough of killing their countrymen and decided to stop...
When the campaign ended, with an Allied victory only some 5,700 (out of about 26,000) Vichy troops elected to join de Gaulle. The remainder were evacuated by sea to French North Africa under Allied supervision. The Tirailleurs Senegalais were tired of fighting other Tirailleurs Senegalais and went home. The War in the Lebanon was much quicker as the French soldiers quit after six days because they had few Tirailleurs Senegalais and limited Legionnaires. An armistice was signed in Acre on July 14, 1941.
The French were still as devious and unprincipled as ever. After signing the Acre Armistice, General Charles de Gaulle visited Lebanon, officially ending Vichy control. Lebanese national leaders took the opportunity to ask de Gaulle to end the French Mandate and unconditionally recognize Lebanon's independence. As a result of national and international pressure, on November 26, 1941, General Georges Cat roux, delegate general under de Gaulle, proclaimed the independence of Lebanon in the name of his government. The United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, the Arab states, and certain Asian countries recognized this independence. Some of them exchanged ambassadors with Beirut. However, even though the French technically recognized Lebanon's independence, they continued to exercise authority.
General elections were held, and on September 21, 1943, the new Chamber of Deputies elected Bashar al Hour as president. He appointed Riyadh as Sol as prime minister and asked him to form the first government of independent Lebanon. On November 8, 1943, the Chamber of Deputies amended the Constitution, abolishing the articles that referred to the Mandate and modifying those that specified the powers of the high commissioner, thus unilaterally ending the Mandate. The French authorities responded by arresting a number of prominent Lebanese politicians, including the president, the prime minister, and other cabinet members, and exiling them to the Castle of Rashayya, located about sixty-five kilometres east of Sidon. This action united the Christian and Muslim leaders in their determination to get rid of the French. France, finally yielding to mounting internal pressure and to the influence of Britain, the United States, and the Arab countries, released the prisoners at Rashayya on November 22, 1943; since then, this day has been celebrated as Independence Day.
There was one positive effect of the French defeat by the British in the Syria-Lebanon Mandate; the creation of the Palmach. Throughout the Second World War many Palestinian Jews fought for Britain against the Axis. Many units were raised, including pioneer and transport companies. Some Jews served with the TJFF and an infantry brigade was raised and fought in the latter stages of the Italian campaign. Special, commando type units were also raised and played an important role in Operation Exporter, the British invasion of Vichy French Syria in 1941.
On 15th May 1941, the leadership of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine), in consultation with the British military command in Palestine, established nine pelugot machaz ("strike companies") and so the Palmach was born. Palmach is the Hebrew acronym for pelugot machaz. These nine companies were comprised of experienced guerrilla fighters, most of them veterans of the 1936-39 Arab rebellion and many of them had been trained by Captain Orde Wingate, later commander of the Chindits in Burma. These new units were trained and armed by the British Army in Palestine.
Six hundred Palmachniks participated in the invasion of Syria. Others also supported the invasion of Lebanon. Forty hand-picked men, including Yitzhak Rabin, went in to Vichy held territory on June 7th 1941, the day before the invasion proper, to reconnoitre the western approach from Palestine and to sabotage transportation and communications infrastructure. They blew up bridges and rail lines and cut telephone and electricity lines. This is where Moshe Dayan lost his eye. The Palmach became the first elements of the Haganah and later the Israeli Defence Force. Many of its earliest military commandos were participants in the War in Syria.
Although many of the Tirailleurs Senegalais were demobilised and sent back to West Africa they learned the lesson of French colonial behaviour towards African troops. The destruction of Setif was a good example. Despite the fact that most of the fighting against the Axis forces and Vichy France in North Africa had been conducted with honour and dispatch by Algerian troops the French decided to celebrate the victory of the Allies (a small part of whom were French) by committing an act of barbarism and genocide that echoes to this day. In one weekend of violence they murdered 45,000 Algerians.
On May 8, 1945, a day chosen by the allies to celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany, thousands of Algerians gathered near the Abou Dher El-Ghafari mosque in Setif for a peaceful march - for which the sous-prefet had given permission. It was a market day. At 9am, led by a young scout Saal Bouzid, whose name had been drawn for the honour of carrying the national flag, the demonstrators set off. A few minutes later the crowd, chanting ‘vive l’independance’ and other nationalist slogans, came under fire from troops commanded by General Duval and brought in from Constantine.
Saal Bouzid fell dead, becoming a national martyr. The scene soon turned into a massacre - the streets and houses being littered with dead bodies. Witnesses claim terrible scenes, that legionnaires seized babies by their feet and dashed their heads against rocks, that pregnant mothers were disembowelled, that soldiers dropped grenades down chimneys to kill the occupants of homes, that mourners were machine gunned while taking the dead to the cemetery.
A public record states that the European inhabitants were so frightened by the events that they asked that all those responsible for the protest movement should be shot. The carnage spread and, during the days that followed, some 45,000 Algerians were killed. Villages were shelled by artillery and remote hamlets were bombed with aircraft.
A Colonel in charge of burials being criticized for slowness told another officer ‘You are killing them faster than I can bury them.’ These incidents led to the upsurge of the PPA and ultimately, 17 years later, to the country’s independence. In the retaliatory violence that immediately followed 104 Europeans were assassinated, but by the end several thousands were to die.
These incidents were particularly hard for the Algerian Tirailleurs who had fought the Nazis alongside the French forces, some of whom came home to find that their families had been decimated by the troops of General de Gaulle.
The same kind of French gratitude had already been extended by the French to the Tirailleurs Senegalais who were returning to West Africa in 1944 after the Liberation of France. De Gaulle, when he saw that the Allies had pushed the Germans out of France decided that it was too dangerous to continue to use these African troops. He ordered a “whitening” of the troops by replacing 20,000 Africans which were at battle at the front with white French soldiers. This event caused hatred and dislike between the white and the blacks at war. These Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were grouped in French demobilising centres waiting to go back home. While at the centres these African soldiers faced discriminatory treatment. They barely got the food and resources they needed and basically did not have any kind of shelter. The French refused to pay them and informed them that, as they weren’t French, they would not be entitled to any pensions or benefits from their contribution to the Liberation of France. In December 1944, humiliated and without having been given what they were promised, the soldiers at the camp at Thiaroye protested for the back pay that they were entitled to. The protest was seen by the French as a defiance against the French military and the general in charge, with the help of the gendarmerie, ordered the "white" French military to open fire on the African soldiers which resulted in thirty-five Africans killed, hundreds wounded and many sent to jail; it was known as the Thiaroye Massacre. It is not in any French history books but it isn’t forgotten among African soldiers. There is a good film on the subject by Ousmane Sembene, Camp de Thiaroye made in 1988. Despite this, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were compelled by the French to participate in the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria in the 1950s, although some troops protested.
France’s relations with surrogate troops have not been a great success – Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Indo-China. Most African soldiers are not overwhelmed by joy to be told that they will, once again, be compelled to fight in another French colonial war. However, once again, they are being delivered to the French in an up-to-date version of the rachat where their presidents and generals are delivering them to the French for promises of money, equipment and glory. Anyone with a long memory of French behaviour will have good reason to doubt that this endeavour will be more successful than all the others which preceded it.