Forgotten Soldiers. African troops and the Liberation of France in the Second World War

African troops in French memory of the War

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African troops in French memory of the War


In 1939, as in the First World War, France’s African empire was again called upon to come to the aid of France in its hour of need. Africans answered the call in large numbers and it has been estimated that some 120,000 men in total were mobilised from French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. This was in fact a considerably higher proportion of the French army than in the First World War - some 9 per cent in 1939-40 compared to only 3 per cent in the First World War. 

Moreover, it was from African territory that Gaullists launched their four-year campaign for the liberation of France and, among the populations colonised by France, it was African troops who made the largest contribution to the liberation campaign. Yet their role has until recently been largely ‘forgotten’ in both France and Africa.  This official amnesia was finally broken in the French case, partly as a result of the Diop ruling but also partly thanks to renewed media interest in France’s colonial past following the publication of memoirs by former army officers who sought to justify the use of torture in Algeria. This then expanded into a wider debate about whether or not French colonial rule did more harm than good, culminating in 2005 in the extraordinary decision to pass a law obliging teachers to include the positive benefits of French colonial rule in their teaching about empire. Shortly before this, on 15 August 2004 at the celebrations to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied landings in Provence and in the presence of representatives from most of France’s former African colonies, President Chirac paid special tribute to the role played by France’s African troops in the Liberation of France: ‘These valiant soldiers from the metropole and from every corner of Overseas France, young men from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, sons of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa, Madagascar and the Indian Ocean. . . all distinguished themselves in the struggles for our Liberation. They paid a heavy price for victory’. Their role was indeed central to the success of the Provence campaign, with Africans representing possibly as much as half of the French forces of liberation. This contrasted with the situation ten years earlier, when African war veterans had been notable for their invisibility at the celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation of France. This belated official recognition of the role of African troops in the Second World War was further fuelled in 2006 with the release of two films about the role of African soldiers in the Second World War: ‘Les enfants du pays’, directed by Pierre Javaux, and ‘Indigènes’.2 The latter film in particular provoked much public debate because of the way in scraped away at Gaullist amnesia, which, in the interests of decolonisation, relegated the contribution of the colonised to the war effort to the margins. Directed by the French Algerian Rachid Bouchareb, it was presented in competition at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and won the ‘Best Male Actor’ award.  

However, much less has been written about how the experiences of African soldiers have contributed to the complex, and still unresolved, question of colonial memory in France's former African colonies. 

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