- the author, Genevieve Sagno
- role, BBC News Africa
- Reporting from London
Since the release of the film “Tirailleurs” by Mathieu Vadepied in January 2023 brought to the screen by Omar Sy and Alassane Diong, we talk a lot about Senegalese tirailleurs.
The story of these African soldiers sent to the front to fight the enemy is not unknown, but little told.
“I have no explanation, I don’t know why or for what reasons we still don’t know this part of the story, I just know we don’t hear about it often. But I tell myself that we waste time wondering why and that today it is essential to show it, that’s all. We made this film for that,” Omar Sy, the actor and co-producer of the film, underlined in an interview.
If “Tirailleurs” is a fiction set in 1917, the story of these men is very real.
Senegalese fighters were also mobilized in conflicts between France and its colonies in Indochina, Algeria and Madagascar.
In one of his poems dedicated to the Senegalese skirmishes, Léopold Sédar Senghor evokes the blooming tombs of the unknown soldiers of the “black-skinned skirmishes.”
“This history of fighting is important to me as I would not have wanted my father to be an anonymous person in a cemetery”, specifies the professor of history residing in France.
“From this war, he [mon père] never talked about it. All the elements I was able to draw come from his military notebook,” he says.
Gaspard Mbaye believes that “Tirailleurs is an educational tool to understand a complex history”.
The film questions France’s relationship with its former colonies.
“The challenge of the film was to pay tribute to the Senegalese fighters, and more broadly, to all the men from the former French colonies who fought, without having their sacrifice acknowledged,” the director said in an interview before the film’s release.
“To all the men from the former French colonies who fought, without having their sacrifice recognized.”
The film takes us back to a dark period in history.
It takes us back to a time when Africa was colonized, a time when men were forcibly conscripted into the hell of the trenches, and a time that imposed such a great sacrifice on these black soldiers from the former colonies. It is a collective and universal story.
The narrative beginning of the film is based on the historical and intimate epic of a Senegalese named Bakary Diallo. This Fulani-speaking character enlists in the French army to join his forcibly conscripted 17-year-old son.
We are in France, in 1917, while the First World War is raging.
In the background, trenches, death at arm’s length.
But then how did these men, Africans, get thrown into the Great War, a war between European powers? How were they recruited?
The first rifle battalion was created in 1857.
The Senegalese fighting force played a major role in the constitution of the French colonial Empire.
The film Tirailleurs returns to the fate of these men who came from Africa to fight for France, especially during the First World War.
These famous so-called ‘Senegalese’ fighters are African soldiers distinguished by their red chechia ‘recruited’ more or less by force to support the war effort and reinforce the regiments of mainland France which suffered heavy losses.
It is estimated that nearly 200,000 combatants went to the front, 30,000 died on the battlefield of the Great War and many returned wounded or disabled.
They were Senegalese, Guineans, Malians, Burkinabes, Ivorians, Mauritanians and many others.
When the war ended, many hoped to be compensated and rewarded for their service.
History would have it differently.
The principle of equality
Article 6 of the Declaration on Human and Citizen Rights states that “the law must be the same for everyone”.
However, the principle of equality has not been applied to the Senegalese riflemen, these veterans, holders of military pensions and nationals of countries formerly under French sovereignty – that is, French at the time of the fighting.
Despite their commitment to the French army, despite the fighting and trauma inflicted, skirmishers were not treated like their brothers in arms. They had to face unequal treatment and still suffer today from lack of recognition.
These inequalities, denounced for so many years by the families and associations of former soldiers, are experienced as discrimination and add to the feeling of injustice.
It will have to wait until 2010 for a decision by the Constitutional Council to partially censor the provisions dealing with ex-soldiers’ pensions from former colonies so that they are identical for French and resident foreign beneficiaries in the same place.
This decision coincided with the release of the film “Indigènes” by Rachid Bouchareb.
The release of the film Tirailleurs a few weeks ago was also marked with a symbolic gesture. The French Ministry of Solidarity has announced that the last Senegalese strikers will now be able to return to their country of origin while continuing to receive the minimum retirement age.
This measure, ‘too political’ for some, ‘too late’ for others, concerns only a small part of the files, men over 90 who had to spend at least six months in France to receive the compensation of of 950 euros.
Gaspard Mbaye considers for his part that “it is a good thing” for the people and families concerned, “even if there are many delays in this financial recognition”.
The Senegalese tire regiments were permanently abolished between 1960 and 1962, but reconnaissance work is generally a long-term job.
A historical approach
The Association Mémoire du Tirailleur Sénégalais (AMTS) was created in 2008 “to honor and emerge from the anonymity of the several hundred riflemen buried in the mass grave of the Trabuquet cemetery in Menton,” explains Mr. Mbaye.
Menton is a city located in the southeastern tip of France, about thirty kilometers from Nice.
During the First World War, several thousand Senegalese riflemen, among others, passed through the hotels of the city of Menton converted into military hospitals.
Many fighters were there recuperating and many succumbed to wounds and illnesses received at the front.
“Menton concentrates the largest number of buried pedestrians on the Côte d’Azur,” notes Mr. Mbaye.
“If it is true that the first skirmisher, NKY Dembélé, who died in Menton on December 11, 1914, was buried there with the town’s honors, it is also sad to note that there are hundreds of Skirmishers, who were buried. then he was buried in a mass grave, without any identification,” he said on the association’s website.
“We reported the name of the last soldier buried only when there were several bodies in the same grave, sometimes six or seven. Our task was to “exhume” all these names in the archives to get out of the anonymity of these buried people and put the names of the Senegalese riflemen buried in Menton on license plates”, he continues.
“We reached a final draw that identifies 1,137 riflemen buried at the Trabuquet site.”
“Today, we continue to preserve the memory of the clashes.”