Thiaroye Massacre 1944: The killing of 300 African soldiers by the French Army

On the morning of the first day of December 1944, an unforgettable tragedy took place at the military camp of Thiaroye, a small community on the outskirts of Dakar, 300 African soldiers known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais (‘’Senegalese sharpshooters’’ from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, and Togo) were murdered in cold blood by French colonial troops after demanding payment for their military service in the second world war. This horrific event was hidden by the public until 1988 when a Senegalese writer and filmmaker Sembene Ousmane made a movie called “Camp de Thiaroye”, which was banned in France for 17 years before it became available on DVD in 2005.

Jean Degoutte and Paul Tirard with Senegalese Tirailleurs, L’Illustration, April 1920

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

The history of Africa and Africans is often whitewashed and neglected by imperialists. Many people today know little or nothing the role African soldiers played in the second world war. Many African soldiers fought for their colonial masters. For France, the majority of General De Gaulle’s Free French Forces were not ‘’white Frenchmen’’ as known by many, but were predominantly troops from French colonies in Africa. In French West Africa, those from West Africa are known as ‘’Tirailleurs Senegalais’’. The Tirailleurs Senegalais or French West African soldiers were African soldiers from Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Togo, and the Central African Republic. During French colonial, French colonies in Africa were forced against their will to join the French Army against Hitler’s Nazis. The Tirailleurs Senegalaise or ‘’Senegalese Sharpshooters’’ soldiers coming from all over French West Africa submerged in Thiaroye, Dakar, French West Africa for their military trip to France. 1,280 African soldiers, who had been recruited by force and against their will, were told by the French that France is their motherland and they must defend it, were at the forefront of the second world war defending the French against the Nazis. They fought, even with low pay, atrocious living conditions, traumatic war experience, the loss of their colleagues, and not to mention the high level of discrimination at their military camps – for four long years.

Tirailleurs Senegalais at Camp de Thiaroye

During and after the second world war, as per colonial law, the tirailleurs were not awarded the same pay that had been promised to them as their European fellow soldiers. Hundreds of tirailleurs were captured by the Nazis and held in captivity with poor living conditions, which hundreds suffered terribly in the racist ‘German prisoner of war camps. 17,000 African soldiers died in defence of France fighting against the Nazis.

Following the liberation of France from the Nazis, in which the tirailleurs were racially excluded by Allied High Command, the tirailleurs were excluded and with no iota of respect stripped off their uniforms and, without their pay, sent back to Africa. They were told they would receive back-pay upon their arrival. But some of the West African troops or tirailleurs were becoming suspicious of the French authorities, so they refused to board ships set to sail to Africa. They remained till they received their wages. The tirailleurs demanded to be paid for their time, efforts and contribution, but their request had been refused.

The tirailleurs were repatriated and taken to a holding point at Camp Thiaroye, Dakar, Senegal. The tirailleurs were given poor and inhuman treatment by the French colonial authorities, after what they went through for France and experiencing unforgettable, terrible experiences in Nazi Prisoners of War camps.

On 30 November 1944, around 1300 tirailleurs mutinied and began protesting against poor treatment and for equal pay with French soldiers, taking a French general hostage. In the early hours of December 1, 1944, French troops attacked the tirailleurs despite the mutineers being unarmed. The French soldiers came in shooting, with armoured cars, mounted machine guns and even a US Army tank.

The French government gave their official death toll of the repression which they said was 35, which was disputed by veterans and locals in Thiaroye – that gave a much higher number of victims around 300 to 400. The French government tried to undermine the contribution of the tirailleurs soldiers in an effort to avoid paying what it owed them, before finally killing them.

The bodies of these African soldiers killed by the same people they gave their all against the Nazis were dumped in mass graves. It didn’t stop there. In March 1945, 34 of the survivors were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison by a military tribunal set by France.

In 1947, those imprisoned were amnestied, however, some had already died in prison. In 2014, President Francois Hollande paid homage to the victims of this crime, but to date the French government is yet to apologized for its atrocities.

Like much of France’s violent and oppressive colonial history, the Thiaroye massacre is not taught in schools until 1988 when a film about the event, Camp de Thiaroye directed by Ousmane Sembène was released. The film was banned in France for 17 years, and also in Senegal.

In a 2014 letter and petition addressed to French President François Hollande, the Vigilance Committee on the Public Use of History (Comité de Vigilance face aux usages publics de l’histoire), an advocacy organization that aims to rectify the historical recollection of the French colonial period, broke down the lies of the state and denounced the attitude of the French authorities in this affair:

Stripped of their rights.

These men had fought for France and demanded to be paid for their time as POWs. Their request had been refused by the Dakar military authorities, which was a transgression of the regulations at the time. This despoliation was covered up by the then Ministry of War. It falsely stated in a circular dated December 4, 1944 — thus after the massacre — that the repatriated soldiers had received the totality of their compensation before their departure from France.

A massacre premeditated and concealed.

Aiming to silence the legitimate claims of these men, an operation of the armed forces was mounted to crush/diminish the rebels. To conceal the massacre, certain officers produced damning reports and fabricated an official account of a mutiny. In these reports, the ex-prisoners of war are described as being paid by the Germans and heavily armed. In order to justify the heavy response, they were accused of being the first to shoot.”

Extract from the letter

A Facebook page named “Massacre du 1er Décembre 1944 CAMP DE THIAROYE” in English; Massacre of December 1, 1944: CAMP THIAROYE was created to honor the victims, killed by their metropolitan army comrades with whom they had fought the Nazi enemy. A post by the page reads:

“On December 1, 1944, African soldiers, liberators of France, were massacred by… France itself. These African servicemen, commonly known as the Senegalese Tirailleurs, had committed one crime: that of being African.

Indeed, how else could the assassination they suffered be explained? These African Tirailleurs, who mostly had been recruited by force and who had repeatedly been told that France is the motherland, fought the Nazi enemy with conviction and finally triumphed. They were proud of that victory and were afterwards demobilized, arriving at Camp Thiaroye in Senegal on November 21, 1944. In spite of four long years of absence, the trauma of war, and the loss of their many comrades who perished in combat or were shot by the Nazis, their faces shone with happiness to finally be reunited with their families. They did not suspect that they would never again see their loved ones or home countries, for those originating from other parts of the continent. There were 1,280 of them, coming from all over French West Africa.

On November 30, 1944, however, there was a revolt at Camp Thiaroye. It came about after they demanded to be paid their salary arrears and demobilization allowance, which had already been denied to them in France before they returned to Africa. They thus took General Damian as hostage. The night of December 1, 1944, the battalion of Saint-Louis stormed the unarmed camp without warning. There were about 30 survivors who were condemned to one to 10-year prison terms, fined, and denied their mobilization pay. They were only released in 1947, by France’s then-President Vincent Auriol. They were not restored their rights and were not entitled to a retirement pension.”

Facebook: Massacre du 1er Décembre 1944 CAMP DE THIAROYE

The only crime of these African soldiers was protesting against the non-payment of wages they were rightfully entitled to. The Thiaroye massacre is a shameful episode of the French Colonial Period in Africa.

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