From their founding in 1857 to their dissolution in 1960, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais (Senegalese Riflemen) fought for the French Empire during many of the country’s military struggles. These black African soldiers did not come just from Senegal, but from all over Western Africa. They played significant roles in the French Colonial Army, particularly during World War I and World War II.
Pre-World War I (1815-1914)
France began its conquest and colonization in Africa fifteen years after Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The origins of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais can be traced to this period when the French military purchased West African slaves on the open market to serve in the armed forces. This system, known as rachat, allowed slave owners to receive a premium in exchange for their slaves’ military service.
In 1854, Louis Faidherbe (1818-1889), a French general, became the colonial governor of Senegal. He focused on the volunteer recruitment of free black African soldiers, believing in their effectiveness as a combat unit. By July 1857, under decree from Napoleon III, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais were officially formed. Under Faidherbe’s system the men who volunteered for the unit followed the same rules and regulations of the regular French troops and received elaborate new uniforms that emphasized professionalism. Although Faidherbe’s reformation increased the volunteer numbers, despite his efforts rachat continued as the primary form of recruitment up to the 1880s.
France’s conquest of Africa continued through the first decade of the twentieth century. Along with these conquests, recruitment of black African soldiers to fight for France rapidly increased. By this time military leaders in French West Africa, especially colonial officer Charles Mangin (1866-1925), hoped to have a large, professional Tirailleurs Sénégalais comprised primarily of volunteers. However, labor shortages and economic downturn in the African colonies prevented men from coming forward to serve in the numbers hoped. Also, colonial administrators were reluctant to allow so many men to serve in the military due to economic need. In response, France launched a partial conscription law, and drafting of black African soldiers began in 1912.
World War I (1914-1918)
Tirailleurs Sénégalais exploits of the First World War received mixed reviews. Early in the war, the German army dismissed black African soldiers’ value on the battlefield and crafted propaganda techniques that degraded them to savages. In his book covering the unique history of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, Myron Echenberg that even France’s British and Canadian allies were not too keen on the idea of a black African army serving alongside them in the trenches. Nevertheless, France brought several battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais to fight on the Western Front where they saw major action and suffered heavy losses. They received full conscription once war broke out, totaling near 137 battalions by war’s end. A statistic taken after the war established that over 170,000 black African soldiers served France in WWI. From that number roughly seventeen percent, or 30,000, were killed in action.
Note on WWI Uniform:
At the beginning of WWI, it appears that the Tirailleurs Sénégalais wore a collarless jacket in the dark blue colonial colors with the initials “TS” near the neckline. Accompanied with the jacket was a fez of the same color. By 1915, they were issued a Model 1914 jacket with collar and colonial anchor insignia. During combat operations the Tirailleurs Sénégalais wore the Model 1915 Adrian helmet with Colonial Infantry flaming grenade and anchor badge. Furthermore, by 1918, the French supplied colonial troops with a khaki uniform.
Conscription of thousands of West African men continued throughout the Interwar period. World War I brought the ranks of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais to numbers never before reached and supporters of the unit moved to further the advancement. Most hoped to have the peacetime strength up to 110,000 men by 1925. This number brought fear to colonial administrators who recognized the economic need that French West Africa had for their young men. Therefore, in 1919 a new conscription law was passed that placed an annual levy of drafted men between 12,000 to 14,000, an appeasement to both military leaders and colonial administrators. Mobile draft boards were set up throughout the African colonies to perform medical examinations and handle conscripts paperwork. To reach the annual quota, the draft boards held a lottery that produced two groups: army conscripts and reserves. The system created in 1919 lasted through the entire Interwar period.
World War II (1939-1945)
Threat of war with Germany during the late 1930s mobilized the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. The Conscription Law of 1919 effectively established black African soldiers among the French military ranks, although they were still led mainly by white officers. By 1939, service in the army became “a universal male obligation” for young black Africans and some even found themselves integrated into the regular French army.
France sent a large portion of their colonial African soldiers to help defend the Maginot Line in May and June of 1940. A superior, overwhelming German army, spearheaded by Panzers, swiftly overran the unprepared French troops. Many Tirailleurs Sénégalais were killed or taken prisoner and suffered greatly as POWs in northern France under the German racial ideologies. Those black Africans lucky enough to escape the German onslaught saw service with the Free French forces in Africa, Italy, and later again in France during the liberation in 1944. In total, some 200,000 black Africans served France during WWII.
Note on WWII Uniform:
During the months of the German invasion in 1940, colonial black African troops wore a khaki uniform and a garrison cap or fez. Some black troops are seen wearing the Model 1926 Adrian helmet with anchor or Colonial Infantry anchor and grenade badges. Photographs in the German Federal Archive (Das Bundesarchiv) of captured colonial troops support this. Also, colonial troops received a mixture of uniforms from France, Great Britain, and the United States for the French liberation in 1944. This included American Model 1 (M-1) helmets with colonial anchor insignia.
Post-World War II (1945-1960)
The post-WWII period greatly changed the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Soon after the Paris liberation, black African soldiers felt slighted by French administrators that reverted back to old colonial rule. This resentment sparked soldier uprisings and led to the establishment of several veteran organizations in French West Africa that struggled for equality among their mainland France cohorts. As a result black African assimilation into the regular French army increased greatly in the late 1940s and 1950s as the Tirailleurs Sénégalais finally shed its mercenary type role to become a unit where volunteers outnumbered the conscripts and members reached officer ranks. This period of professionalism did not last long, however.
The 1950s birthed nationalist and independence movements throughout the French colonies. These movements were developing since the beginning of French colonial rule, but reached a peak under the new French Fourth Republic and French Union. The conflict in Indochina made matters worse, and soon after France began losing the majority of its overseas territories in western Africa. By 1960, all former colonies of French West Africa were independent.
Courtesy of Jordan Winter