The Senegalese Tirailleurs (French: Tirailleurs Sénégalais) were a corps of colonial infantry in the French Army recruited from Senegal, French West Africa and throughout west, central and east Africa, the main province of the French colonial empire. The noun tirailleur, which translates as "skirmisher", was a designation given by the French Army to indigenous infantry recruited in the various colonies and overseas possessions of the French Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Despite recruitment not being limited to Senegal, these infantry units took on the adjective "sénégalais" since that was where the first black African Tirailleur regiment had been formed. The first Senegalese Tirailleurs were formed in 1857 and served France in a number of wars, including World War I (providing around 200,000 troops, more than 135,000 of whom fought in Europe and 30,000 of whom were killed) and World War II. Other tirailleur regiments were raised in French North Africa from the Arab and Berber populations of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, collectively they were called tirailleurs nord-africains or Turcos. Tirailleur regiments were also raised in Indochina, they were called Vietnamese, Tonkinese or Annamites Tirailleurs.
The Senegalese Tirailleurs were formed in 1857 by Louis Faidherbe, governor general of French West Africa, because he lacked sufficient French troops to control the territory and meet other requirements of the first phase of colonisation. The formal decree for the formation of this force was signed on 21 July 1857 in Plombières-les-Bains by Napoleon III. Recruitment was later extended to other French colonies in Africa. During its early years the corps included some former slaves bought from West African slave-owners as well as prisoners of war. Subsequent recruitment was either by voluntary enlistment or on occasion by an arbitrary form of conscription.
In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War the Senegalese tirailleurs continued to provide the bulk of French garrisons in West and Central Africa. Their overall numbers remained limited. However, in anticipation of the First World War, Colonel Charles Mangin described in his 1910 book La force noire his conception of a greatly expanded French colonial army; whilst Jean Jaurès in his "L’armée nouvelle" expressed France's need to look elsewhere to recruit its armies due to a falling birthrate in mainland France.
A company-sized detachment of tirailleurs sénégalais took part in the conquest of Madagascar (1895), although the bulk of the non-European troops employed in this campaign were Algerian and Hausa tirailleurs. Regiments of tirailleurs malgache were subsequently recruited in Madagascar, using the Senegalese units as a model.
In 1896 a small expedition consisting mainly of 200 tirailleurs sénégalais was assembled in Loango (French Congo) under Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand. This "Marchand Mission" took two years to cross hundreds of miles of unexplored bush until they reached Fashoda on the Nile. Here they encountered British and Egyptian troops under Major-General Kitchener, who had just destroyed the Mahadi's Dervish army near Khartoum. While the "Fashoda Incident" raised the possibility of war between France and Britain, tribute was paid to the courage and endurance of Marchand and his Senegalese tirailleurs by both sides.
During the early 1900s the tirailleurs sénégalais saw active service in the French Congo and Chad, while continuing to provide garrisons for the French possessions in West and Central Africa. In 1908 two battalions of tirailleurs sénégalais landed at Casablanca to begin nearly twenty years of active service in Morocco by Senegalese units. On 14 July 1913 the 1e regiment de tirailleurs sénégalais paraded their standard at Longchamp, the first occasion upon which Senegalese troops had been seen in metropolitan France. New flags were presented to the 2e, 3e and 4e RTS at the same parade.
World War I
There were 21 battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais (BTS) in the French Army in August 1914, all serving in either West Africa or on active service in Morocco.
With the outbreak of war 37 battalions of French, North African and Senegalese infantry were transferred from Morocco to France. Five Senegalese battalions were soon serving on the Western Front, while others formed part of the reduced French garrison in Morocco. The 5th BTS formed part of a French column which was wiped out near Khenifra on 13 November 1914 with 646 dead. The 10th, 13th, 16th and 21st BTS subsequently saw heavy fighting in Morocco, reinforced by 9,000 additional Senegalese tirailleurs brought up from French West Africa.
On the Western Front the Tirailleurs Sénégalais served with distinction at Ypres and Dixmude during the Battle of Flanders in late 1914, at the capture of Fort de Douaumont in October 1916, during the battle of Chemin des Dames in April 1917 and at the Battle of Reims in 1918. Losses were particularly heavy in Flanders (estimated from 3,200 to 4,800) and Chemin des Mains (7,000 out of 15,500 tirailleurs engaged).
In 1915 seven battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais were amongst the 79,000 French troops sent to the Dardanelles. Total French casualties in this campaign reached 27,000 but the Senegalese and regular Colonial Infantry were noted for the high morale that they maintained in spite of losses that reached two out of three in some units. The Senegalese tirailleurs particularly distinguished themselves in the attack during the initial French landings on the southern shore of the Dardanelles.
New recruitment drive
French military policy towards the use of African troops in Europe changed in 1915. The French high command realized that the war would last far longer than they had originally imagined. They therefore authorized a major recruitment drive in West Africa As a result a further 93 Senegalese battalions were raised between 1915 and 1918, of which 42 saw service in France itself. The usual practice was to bring together battalions of white Colonial Infantry and African Tirailleurs into mixed regiments de marche. The harsh conditions of trench warfare were a particular source of suffering to the un-acclimatized African soldiers and after 1914/15 the practice was adopted of withdrawing them to the south of France for training and re-equipping each winter. In spite of their heavy losses in almost every major battle of the Western Front the discipline and morale of the "Colonial Corps" remained high throughout the War.
At the 90th anniversary commemorations for the battle of Verdun, the then president Jacques Chirac made a speech evoking the 72,000 colonial combatants killed during the war, mentioning the "Moroccan infantry, the tirailleurs from Senegal, Indochina, (Annam and Cochinchina) and the "marsouins" of the infanterie de marine".
Between the World Wars
During the War the much reduced French garrison in Morocco had consisted largely of battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais, who were not affected by the divided loyalties of locally recruited troops and who could be more readily spared from service on the Western Front than French troops. On 13 April 1925 the Rif War spilled over into French Morocco when eight thousand Berber fighters attacked a line of French outposts recently established in disputed territory north of the Ouerghala River. The majority of these posts were held by Senegalese and North African tirailleurs. By 27 April 1925 39 out of 66 posts had fallen and their garrisons massacred, or had been abandoned. Faced with what had become a major war the French increased their forces in Morocco to approximately 100,000 men. West African tirailleurs continued to play a major part in subsequent operations in both the Spanish Protectorate (until 1926) and Southern Morocco (until 1934). In one of many engagements, the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Regiment of Tirailleurs Sénégalais won 91 citations for bravery during fighting around Ain-Gatar on 22 June 1926.
Second World War
On the eve of World War II five regiments of Senegalese Tirailleurs were stationed in France and a Senegalese brigade in Algeria. This deployment of tirailleurs outside their regions of recruitment and traditional peacetime service arose because the heavy casualties of World War I had reduced the numbers of metropolitan Frenchmen in the military service age group of twenty to twenty-five by more than half.
During the Battle of France the Senegalese and other African tirailleur units served with distinction at Gien, Bourges and Buzancais. German troops indoctrinated with Nazi racial doctrines expressed outrage at having to fight against "inferior" opponents and at Montluzin Senegalese prisoners were executed.
The Senegalese Tirailleurs saw extensive service in Italy and Corsica during 1944, as well as in the liberation of southern France. The 9th DIC (Colonial Infantry Division) included the 4th, 6th and 13th Regiments of Senegalese Tirailleurs during a campaign which took them from Toulon to the Swiss border between August and November 1944.
After the Liberation of France, the Tirailleurs were removed from service in Europe and replaced with white soldiers on the order of Charles de Gaulle, a process known as "blanchiment." Faced with American restrictions on the size of the Free French forces, de Gaulle chose to incorporate the various partisan groups (some of them Communist-led) within the structure of the official army. The complicated process of discharge and repatriation of the Tirailleurs, coupled with the hardships faced by the soldiers in the winter of 1944-1945, led to several incidents of violence, most notably the Thiaroye Massacre in 1944.
The 24e Regiment de March de Tirailleurs Sénégalais, comprising two battalions, served in the Indochina War between 1946 and 1954. Several independent battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais fought in the same theatre of war. In 1949 there were still nine regiments of Senegalese tirailleurs in the French Army, serving in West Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Indochina.
During the Algerian War the Tirailleurs Sénégalais saw extensive active service from 1954 to 1962, mainly as part of the quadrillage - a grid of occupation detachments intended to protect farms and roads in rural areas. About 12 separate Senegalese units (either three-battalion regiments or single battalions) served in French North Africa between 1954 and 1967, when the last French troops were withdrawn. In 1958-59 the Tirailleur units were in part dissolved, as African personnel transferred to newly formed national armies as the French colonies of West and Central Africa became independent. Substantial numbers of former tirailleurs continued to serve in the French Army but as individual volunteers in integrated Colonial (later Marine) Infantry or Artillery units. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais lost their distinctive historic identity during this process. As an example, the 1er RTS, raised in 1857, became the 61st Marine Infantry Regiment in December 1958. The last Senegalese unit in the French Army was disbanded in 1964. The last Senegalese Tirailleur to have served in World War I. Abdoulaye Ndiaye, died at the age of 104 in November 1998. He had been wounded in the Dardanelles.
From 1857 to 1889 the Tirailleurs Sénégalais wore a dark blue zouave style uniform with yellow braiding (see first photo above). This was replaced by a loose fitting dark blue tunic and trousers worn with a red sash and chechia fez. White trousers were worn in hot weather and a light khaki drill field dress was adopted in 1898. Senegalese units sent to France in 1914 wore a new dark blue uniform introduced in June that year beneath the standard medium blue greatcoats of the French infantry. This changed to sky-blue in 1915 and then the universal dark khaki of French overseas forces the following year. Throughout these changes the distinctive yellow cuff and collar braiding was retained, together with the fez (worn with a drab cover to reduce visibility).
Until World War II the Tirailleurs Sénégalais continued to wear the khaki uniforms described in either heavy cloth or light drill according to conditions. In subsequent campaigns they wore the same field uniforms as other French units, usually with the dark blue forage cap of the infanterie coloniale. The red fez survived as a parade item until the 1950s.
Camp de Thiaroye, by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, 1987, 153 mins.
- Tirailleurs: history of the Pre-Colonial French and Colonial Tirailleur units (e.g.: Algerian, Senegalese).
- French colonial troops
- Pierre Messmer
- French colonial flags
- French Colonial Empire
- List of French possessions and colonies
- Cf. (French) Éric Deroo and Antoine Champeaux, La Force noire. Gloire et infortunes d'une légende coloniale, Paris, Tallandier, 2006, 223 p. ISBN 2-84734-339-3.
- (French) Marc Michel, "Les Africains et la Grande Guerre. L'appel à l'Afrique (1914-1918)", Ed : Karthala, 24 October 2003
- Marc Michel,
- Charles Lavauzelle, pages 208-209 Les Troupes de Marine, ISBN 2-7025-0142-7
- Charles Lavauzelle, page 471 Les Troupes de Marine, ISBN 2-7025-0142-7
- Charles Lavauzelle, pages 289-291 Les Troupes de Marine, ISBN 2-7025-0142-7
- Eugène-Jean Duval, pag. 165 "Aux sources officielles de la colonisation française-2°période-1870-1940", ISBN 978-2-296-05430-1
- Charles Lavauzelle, pages 379-380 Les Troupes de Marine, ISBN 2-7025-0142-7
- Lunn, Joe (October). "'Les Races Guerrieres': Racial Preconceptions in the French Military about West African Soldiers during the First World War". Journal of Contemporary History 34 (4): 517–536. Retrieved 12 January 2013.
- Alistair Horne, p229 "To Lose a Battle - France 1940", ISBN 0-333-53601-0
- Charles Lavauzelle, pages 431 Les Troupes de Marine, ISBN 2-7025-0142-7
- Echenberg, Myron (1990). Heinemann, ed. Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa. pp. 98–99. ISBN 978-0-85255-601-6.
- Marin Windrow, page 15 "The French Indochina War",ISBN 1-85532-789-9
- Charles-Lavauzelle, page 490 Les Troupes de Marine 1622-1984, ISBN 2-7025-0142-7
- Michel, Marc (2003). les Africains et la Grande Guerre. Paris: Kathala. p. 7. ISBN 9 782845 864177.
- Argout-Editions,Les Armees de L'Histoire - Uniformes, September–October 1984
- Andre Jouineau, Officers and Soldiers of the French Army 1918, ISBN 978-2-35250-105-3
- Senegalese Tirailleurs in WWI
- Domesticated or Savage?Thoughts on the representation of the body of the senegalese tirailleurs (1880-1918) by Nicolas Bancel and Pascal Blanchard
- Site on the Battle of Flandres, attention to Tirailleurs Sénégalais
- Myron Echenberg, "Tragedy at Thiaroye: The Senegalese Soldiers' Uprising of 1944 ", in Peter Gutkind, Robin Cohen and Jean Copans (eds), African Labor History, Beverly Hills, 1978, p. 109-128
- Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Senegalais in French West Africa, 1857-1960. Heinemann (1990), ISBN 0-435-08052-0
- Eveline Berruezo and Patrice Robin : Le Tata - paysages de pierres. Documentary film, 60', 1992. Espace Mémoire, France.
- Nancy Ellen Lawler. Soldiers of Misfortune: Ivoirien Tirailleurs of World War II. Ohio Univ Press (1992) ISBN 0-8214-1012-1
- Rafael Gutierrez and Dario Arce : Le Tata sénégalais de Chasselay : mémoires du 25° RTS" Documentary film, 52', 2007. Productions Chromatiques- TLM, France.
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