‘Tirailleurs’: France’s forgotten colonial soldiers step out of the shadows

The last surviving African soldiers who fought for colonial-era France will be able to live out their final days in their home countries following the French government’s U-turn on their pension rights. The decision coincides with the cinema release of a film highlighting the untold sacrifices made by African “tirailleurs” on France’s battlefields during World War I.

In November 1998, just months after France’s multiracial football team lifted its first World Cup title, another legacy of the country’s colonial history passed away quietly in a faraway village north of Dakar, Senegal. 

Abdoulaye Ndiaye, who died aged 104, was the last of the tirailleurs, the African riflemen who fought for their colonial masters in the trenches of northern France during World War I. He died just one day before France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, was due to decorate him with the Legion of Honour in belated recognition of his services. 

The failure to acknowledge Ndiaye’s sacrifice during his lifetime has stuck with French director Mathieu Vadepied ever since, inspiring a long-gestating project that has come to completion this week with the release in France and Senegal of his film “Tirailleurs” – whose English version is titled “Father & Soldier”. 

“It felt like a symbol of France’s failure to recognise the tirailleurs and tell their story,” said the director following his film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year. 

Vadepied, who has travelled and worked in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa, said he felt a duty to exhume the history of the tirailleurs. His film is a tribute to the young men of Senegal and other French colonies who were snatched from their homes and forced to fight in a war that meant nothing to them for a “motherland” whose language most didn’t speak. 


 

While the film’s original title, “Tirailleurs”, or “riflemen”, has evocative power in French, its English version highlights the director’s concern to approach war through an intimate focus on a father’s relationship with the son he is desperate to protect. “Lupin” star Omar Sy plays a weary village farmer who enrols in the army to watch over his son after he is forcefully conscripted by the French. 

Vadepied stressed the importance of rooting his story in Senegal and keeping an intimate gaze on the film’s protagonists while giving war itself a distinctly unspectacular treatment. 

“We know the history of the war, but not that of the tirailleurs,” he said, highlighting cinema’s “mission to educate, to pass on stories and historical memories, while also interrogating the society we live in.” He added: “The story of France’s colonial troops needs to be recognised and told, to allow subsequent generations to identify with this history too.” 

As Sy, himself a son of Senegalese immigrants, told the audience at the Cannes premiere, “We don’t have the same (historical) memory, but we share the same history.” 

A decision long overdue 

In one of the film’s rare battle scenes, moments before the tirailleurs leap out of the trenches and charge into muddy no-man’s land, a French officer is pictured yelling: “After this battle, you will no longer be indigenous, you will be French!”  

It would take a full century for France to deliver on that promise. 

In April 2017, then-president François Hollande granted French citizenship to a first group of 28 former tirailleurs in a ceremony at the Élysée Palace, following a petition signed by more than 60,000 people, including Sy. The event was timed to coincide with the centennial of the Chemin des Dames, a gruesome battle in which more than 7,000 African soldiers perished in the fields of northern France. 

Six years on, the last surviving tirailleurs have won another battle in their decades-long quest for recognition, securing the right to live out their final days in their home countries – while continuing to receive their French pensions. 

>> France’s forgotten African war heroes finally given full pension rights

France’s former colonial troops were previously required to spend at least six months of the year living in France in order to qualify for a monthly payment of 950 euros ($1,000). The rule separated ageing former combatants from their families in Africa, leaving some to die alone, often in cramped quarters, away from their loved ones. 

The change of rule will apply to 37 former soldiers known to be living in France, said Aïssata Seck, a campaigner for the rights of the tirailleurs. She said news of the breakthrough might inspire more veterans to come forward, estimating the total number of surviving tirailleurs in France at “around 80”.  


FOCUS © FRANCE 24

 

Seck, whose grandfather was a tirailleur, expressed relief that the last of his comrades would “finally be able to return home and live out their lives with their wives, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren”.

France’s decision was long overdue, said the head of Senegal’s National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, in an interview with AP.  

“For a long time veterans have asked to return with their pensions but were not successful. This decision will relieve them. These veterans live alone in their homes, they are not accompanied, they live in extremely difficult conditions,” said Capt. Ngor Sarr, 85, who fought for the French military in Algeria and Mauritania and then moved to France in 1993 so he could receive his pension. He said he then lost it when he returned to Senegal 20 years later. 

‘Repair the injustice’ 

A product of France’s 19th-century colonial expansion in Africa, the tirailleurs were initially designed as a lightly-armed infantry corps deployed to harass enemy lines. The corps was expanded during World War I to bolster French troops on the Western Front, and eventually disbanded in the early 1960s.  

Over the two World Wars, some 700,000 soldiers from France’s African colonies fought for the colonial power. While some volunteered, others – like the son’s character in Vadepied’s film – were captured and forcibly enlisted. 

Historians estimate that around 30,000 African soldiers died in the trenches fighting for France during World War I. But their names never featured on the war memorials that grace towns and villages across the country, daily reminders of the cost of the conflict. 

The tirailleurs were a vastly enlarged force by the time Nazi Germany invaded France. They fought for Free French forces in sub-Saharan and North Africa and took part in the Allies’ landings in southern France in August 1944, precipitating the Nazis’ retreat.  

Months later, however, French troops at a barracks near Dakar opened fire on mutinous tirailleurs demanding back pay for years spent in prisoner-of-war camps. Dozens were killed in a massacre that was hushed for decades but is bitterly remembered in Senegal.

REPORTERS
REPORTERS © FRANCE 24

 

Hollande promised to “repair the injustice” on a trip to Dakar in 2014 – in line with tentative steps to acknowledge France’s debt towards its former colonial troops. Their sacrifice was honoured on Armistice Day last year during a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe attended by Aïssata Tall Sall, Senegal’s minister for foreign affairs and Senegalese abroad. 

Despite such gestures, more needs to be done to “give the tirailleurs visibility in the public space”, said Seck, whose campaign group has appealed to French mayors to name streets after France’s African soldiers.  

“The history of the tirailleurs is still insufficiently known,” she explained. “But things are starting to go in the right direction – slowly but surely.” 

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