Is France guilty of “amnesia” when it comes to the role of African troops who fought in World War I? The organisers of an exhibition on colonial fighters near Paris think so.
A collection of photos has been shown since mid-October in the town hall of Bondy, a multiracial suburb of the French capital best known as the home of French football star Kylian Mbappé.
Many people in the area trace their roots back to the countries which provided hundreds of thousands of men for France’s wartime struggle: Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali or Morocco.
“We’re stunned by the reactions which are like, ‘We had no idea about this’,” Naima Yahi, a historian and director of Remembeur, the NGO behind the show whose name plays on the French slang for someone of North African descent.
“There’s a sort of amnesia” in France, she added. “We closed the book on colonisation at the end of the empire, but we also closed down the memorial dimension and we’ve barely transmitted this shared history.”
French president Emmanuel Macron addressed this perception at a ceremony on Tuesday that paid tribute to the African troops, often referred to as “Senegalese tirailleurs”, or riflemen, even though they were drawn from all over West Africa.
For the inauguration of a new monument in the city of Reims, he will be joined by Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, whose great-grandfather fought and died in the Battle of Verdun in eastern France and whose body was never found.
The role of the estimated 200,000 black troops used by France remains one of many painful aspects to the country’s colonial history, which left deep resentment in Africa.
Macron, the first French president born in the post-empire era, has continued efforts by his predecessors to gradually address the injustices of France’s colonial rule, which he once called “a crime against humanity”.
In September, he acknowledged abuses by French troops during Algeria’s fight for independence, and he has expressed hopes for new relationships between Paris and its former colonies, which are so often weighed down by the burden of history.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen a tribute at this level, what’s more with an African head of state,” said French historian Julien Fargettas, an author of several books on colonial troops.
The story of African troops in the Great War is mostly one of exploitation and suffering – much like their European counterparts who were sent to die in droves by commanders on the Western front.
But most Africans were forcibly recruited when French tactics turned coercive in 1915 and 1916 – provoking local riots – and then duplicitous from 1917 when men were promised benefits that never materialised.
Africans were also pressed into action on their own continent by France, Britain and Germany as the European powers fought over dominions carved out at a notorious 1885 conference in Berlin.
For those sent to France, once they had survived the journey by boat, they were then thrown into a war they neither understood nor were prepared for.
“You need to imagine the shock for men who had come from some of the most remote areas of Africa who were then thrown into a modern, industrial war in the West,” Fargettas said.
Combat mortality rates were a subject of controversy for years, but Fargettas says there is no evidence to confirm the idea that they were “cannon fodder”. Around 22 to 25 percent died, he says, comparable to the level for Europeans.
But off the battlefield, thousands more perished in the numbing cold of European winters or from a range of illnesses that their immune systems were unprepared for.
Mor Ndao, a history professor at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in the Senegalese capital Dakar, said he believes that France has never “recognised sufficiently the role and importance of the tirailleurs”.
“Their treatment has been unequal compared to their French and European brothers in arms,” he said.
What continues to rankle is the issue of military pensions – which were much lower for African fighters and unadjusted for decades – as well as passports which were often promised but rarely delivered.
Yahi from Remembeur thinks that more research in France is needed into the role of colonial troops, and that more should be taught in French schools at a time of rising tensions over race and immigration.
“It’s important for the children and grandchildren of immigrants, but also for French people in general,” she said. “We need to reinvent our national narrative.”