Senegalese Tirailleurs

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Yora Comba, 38 years old, lieutenant in the tirailleurs sénégalais, born in Saint-Louis (Exposition universelle de 1889)
Tirailleurs Sénégalais under the command of Jean-Baptiste Marchand, 1898

The Senegalese Tirailleurs (French: Tirailleurs Sénégalais) were a corps of colonial infantry in the French Army. They were initially recruited from Senegal, French West Africa and subsequently throughout Western, Central and Eastern Africa: the main sub-Saharan regions of the French colonial empire.[1] The noun tirailleur, which translates variously as 'skirmisher', 'rifleman', or 'sharpshooter', 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.[2]

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[3]) and World War II (recruiting 179,000 troops, 40,000 deployed to Western Europe). Other tirailleur regiments were raised in French North Africa from the Arab and Berber populations of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco;[4] collectively they were called tirailleurs nord-africains or Turcos. Tirailleur regiments were also raised in Indochina; they were called Vietnamese, Tonkinese or Annamites Tirailleurs.



Tirailleur from the Bambara people (Mali) (engraving, 1890)

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.


Muslim area of the national cemetery in Amiens (Saint-Acheul) – in the foreground is the tomb of a soldier of the 45e régiment de tirailleurs sénégalais killed in the battle of the Somme

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, suggested that the French Army should look elsewhere to recruit its armies due to the 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.[5] Regiments of tirailleurs malgaches 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 defeated 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.

By a decree dated July 7, 1900 the Tirailleurs sénégalais, the Tirailleurs indochinois, Tirailleurs malgaches and the "marsouins" were no longer under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Navy and Colonies, but were reclassified as Troupes coloniales, different from the mainland elements Metropolitan army and separate from the Armée d’Afrique of the Maghreb. The anchor badge of the Troupes coloniales was worn on the collar from 1914, and when the Adrian helmet was adopted in WW1, an insignia with the anchor behind a flaming grenade was worn by the Tirailleurs Sénégalais.

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.[6]

World War I[edit]

The flag of the 43rd Battalion of Senegalese soldiers decorated with the fourragère, who fought in the recapture of Fort Douaumont in October 1916

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, during the Battle of El Herri 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.[7]

On the Western Front the Tirailleurs Sénégalais served with distinction at Ypres and Dixmude during the Battle of Flanders in late 1914, at the Battle of Verdun in the recapture 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)[8] and Chemin des Mains (7,000 out of 15,500 tirailleurs engaged).[8]

In 1915 seven battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais were amongst the 24 infantry battalions the French sent to the Dardanelles as the Corps expéditionnaire d'Orient.[9] 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. [10] The Senegalese tirailleurs particularly distinguished themselves in the attack during the initial French landings on the southern shore of the Dardanelles. [11]

New recruitment drive[edit]

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.[12] 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 (les marsouins) and African Tirailleurs into regiments mixtes coloniaux.[13] (Four such regiments were formed from the seven tirailleurs and five battalions of Infanterie Coloniale deployed at Gallipoli.[9])The harsh conditions of trench warfare were a particular source of suffering to the un-acclimatized African soldiers and, after 1914/15, the practice of hivernage was adopted: withdrawing them to the south of France for training and re-equipping each winter.[14] 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. [15]

At the 90th anniversary commemorations of the battle of Verdun, 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 troupes de marine.'

Occupation of the Rhineland[edit]

Senegalese Tirailleurs amongst the Honour Guard being inspected by Paul Tirard and Jean Degoutte 8 April 1920

The armistice of November 1918 had provision for the allied Occupation of the Rhineland and France played a major part in this. Between 25,000 and 40,000 colonial soldiers were part of this force. German attempts were made to discredit the use of non-European soldiers by the French during this occupation, as had earlier been the case during World War I. Although no hard evidence was produced, many campaigners claimed that the colonial soldiers – and the Senegalese in particular – were responsible for a substantial number of rapes and sexual assaults. Children resulting from these unions were stigmatised as "Rhineland Bastards" and subsequently suffered under the Nazi race laws.

Between the World Wars[edit]

A 1930 replica of the Great Mosque of Djenné (Mali), built in the French town of Fréjus for the use of colonial soldiers

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[edit]

Senegalese Tirailleurs serving in France, 1940
1942, Brazzaville, French Equatorial Africa. A tirailleur who has been awarded the Cross of Liberation by General Charles de Gaulle

On the eve of the Second World War, five regiments of Tirailleurs Sénégalais were stationed in France in addition to a brigade based in Algeria. The 2e division coloniale sénégalaise was permanently deployed in the south of France due to the potential threat from Italy. It was also reasoned the climate was more suitable for African soldiers.[16] This deployment of Tirailleurs, outside of their regions of recruitment and traditional peacetime service, arose because of the heavy casualties of the First World War. This had affected the number of metropolitan Frenchmen in the military service age group of twenty to twenty-five by more than half.[17] Up to 200,000 tirailleurs were active during the war, which constituted about nine percent of the French forces.[18]

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 fought against "inferior" opponents. At Montluzin, Senegalese prisoners were murdered by their German captors.[19]

The Senegalese Tirailleurs saw extensive service in West Africa, Italy, and Corsica. During 1944, they assisted in the liberation of southern France. The 9th DIC (Colonial Infantry Division) included the 4th, 6th, and 13th Regiments of Senegalese Tirailleurs, and fought from Toulon to the Swiss border between August and November 1944.

After the Liberation of France, the Tirailleurs concluded their service in Europe. They were replaced by newly recruited French volunteers,[20] on the order of Charles de Gaulle. This process became known as blanchiment.[18] Faced with U.S. restrictions on the size of the French forces, de Gaulle chose to incorporate the various partisan groups within the structure of the official army.[21] The complicated process of discharge and repatriation of the Tirailleurs, coupled with the refusal of France to pay wage arrears due to released prisoners of war, led to several incidents of violence. The most notable of these was the Thiaroye massacre, in 1944, during which the French killed between 35 and 300 (sources vary) Tirailleurs.[18] The Tirailleurs Sénégalais had been promised that in recognition of their service they would become equal citizens of France, this pledge was not kept following the end of hostilities.[18]

After 1945[edit]

Le Place du Tirailleur Sénégalais with the Monument Demba et Dupont in front of the Dakar train station in 2012.

The 24e Regiment de Marche 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.[22] The Tirailleurs Sénégalais comprised up to 16 percent of the French forces during the Indochina War.[18] Also in the suppression of the uprising in Madagascar against the French colonial rule the Tirailleurs were involved.[18] In 1949 there were still nine regiments of Tirailleurs Sénégalais 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 when 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. [23]

The last Senegalese unit in the French Army was disbanded in 1964.[18]

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.[24]


Tirailleurs posing for an autochrome photograph in September 1914
The son of Dinah Salifou decorated with the Légion d'honneur on 20 January 1916

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.[25] 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[26] and dark khaki started to be issued the following year.[27][28] Throughout these changes the distinctive yellow cuff and collar braiding was retained, together with the fez (worn with a drab cover to reduce visibility).[29]

Until World War II the Tirailleurs Sénégalais continued to wear the khaki uniforms described above, 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.


Emitaï (1971) depicts the effects of conscription on a Diola village.

Black and White in Color (1976), by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1 hour 30 minutes

Camp de Thiaroye, by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, 1987, 153 mins.

Le Tata, paysages de pierres, by French director Patrice Robin and Author Eveline Berruezo, 1992, 60 mins.[30]

  • Rafael Gutierrez and Dario Arce : Le Tata sénégalais de Chasselay : mémoires du 25° RTS" Documentary film, 52', 2007. Productions Chromatiques- TLM, France.


At Night All Blood Is Black (French: Frère d'âme, lit.'Soul brother') is a novel by French author David Diop. First published in French on August 16, 2018, by Éditions du Seuil, it won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens that same year.[31] The book centers around Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese Tirailleur who loses his close friend Mademba Diop while fighting in World War I.

The English translation by Anna Moschovakis won the 2021 International Booker Prize. It was published in the UK by Pushkin Press and in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.[32]

The Franco-American journalist and historian Ted Morgan volunteered to serve during the Algerian War as a junior officer with the Senegalese, whom he described as highly disciplined soldiers with cheerful dispositions, serving in a corps that was full of surprises.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cf. (in 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.
  2. ^ Mann, Gregory (2006). Native Sons. doi:10.1215/9780822387817. ISBN 978-0-8223-3755-3.
  3. ^ (in French) Marc Michel, "Les Africains et la Grande Guerre. L'appel à l'Afrique (1914–1918)", Ed : Karthala, 24 October 2003
  4. ^ Marc Michel,
  5. ^ Crocé 1986, pp. 208–9.
  6. ^ Crocé 1986, p. 471.
  7. ^ Crocé 1986, pp. 289–291.
  8. ^ a b Eugène-Jean Duval, pag. 165 "Aux sources officielles de la colonisation française-2°période-1870-1940", ISBN 978-2-296-05430-1
  9. ^ a b "Corps expéditionnaire d'Orient (C.E.O.): J.M.O. 22 février-5 mai 1915: 26 N 75/10 - Pièces justicatives 3 avril-16 septembre 1915" (JPG). Mémoire des hommes: Journaux des Unites (1914-1918) (in French). Ministere De la Defense. images 132 to 136 of 213. Retrieved 29 July 2020. Ordre de bataille 1 juin 1915 K34
  10. ^ Crocé 1986, pp. 379–380.
  11. ^ Crocé 1986, p. 380.
  12. ^ Lunn, Joe (October 1999). "'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. JSTOR 261249.
  13. ^ Sumner 1995, p. 11.
  14. ^ Dez, Bastien (2008). "Les tirailleurs « sénégalais » à l'épreuve de l'hiver". Regards sur... la Première Guerre Mondiale 1914 - 1918 (in French). Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  15. ^ Crocé 1986, p. 414.
  16. ^ page 36, Militaria No. 358 Mai 2015
  17. ^ Alistair Horne, p229 "To Lose a Battle – France 1940", ISBN 0-333-53601-0
  18. ^ a b c d e f g David Signer, Dakar. "Frankreich verriet die Senegalschützen nach dem 2. Weltkrieg". Neue Zürcher Zeitung (in German). Retrieved 2020-05-07.
  19. ^ Crocé 1986, p. 431.
  20. ^ Crocé 1986, p. 434.
  21. ^ Echenberg, Myron (1990). Heinemann (ed.). Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa. pp. 98–99. ISBN 978-0-85255-601-6.
  22. ^ Marin Windrow, page 15 "The French Indochina War",ISBN 1-85532-789-9
  23. ^ Crocé 1986, pp. 490.
  24. ^ Michel, Marc (2003). les Africains et la Grande Guerre. Paris: Kathala. p. 7. ISBN 9-782845-864177.
  25. ^ Delpérier, Louis (September 1984). "Les tirailleurs sénégalais 1857-1914". Les Armees de l'Histoire – Uniformes (in French). No. 83. Paris: Argout-Editions. pp. 13–19.
  26. ^ "Notice descriptive des nouveaux uniformes. (Décision ministérielle du 9 décembre 1914 mise à jour avec le modificatif du 28 janvier 1915)" (in French). Paris: Ministère de la Guerre. 1915. Retrieved 2021-07-30 – via Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
  27. ^ "Le tirailleur en tenue kaki". (in French). 10 March 2010. Retrieved 3 August 2021. The khaki-coloured cloth was introduced by the decision of 31 August 1915 which reserved one fifth of the monthly supplies of khaki cloth "for the workshops of the depots of the colonial troops in the metropolis (clothing for the [Tirailleurs] Sénégalais)". Worn by those.. that came as reinforcements during the year 1916, khaki-clad troops appeared during the Battle of the Somme, while the marsouins still wore horizon blue.
  28. ^ "Bulletin officiel du Ministère de la guerre. Volume 2" (in French). Paris: Ministère de la Guerre. 18 September 1915. Modifications à la tenue des officiers. Retrieved 2021-08-03 – via Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Non-caucasian Officers and Senior NCOs of the Troupes Coloniales are authorized to wear, in France, the khaki uniform used in the colonies
  29. ^ Jouineau 2009, p. 62.
  30. ^ "Le Tata Paysages de pierres – Tirailleurs-Sénégalais".
  31. ^ "2019.David Diop". Escale du Livre (in French). 2021-01-18. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  32. ^ Marshall, Alex (2021-06-02). "'Frightening' Tale of Senegalese Soldier Wins International Booker Prize". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-06-04.
  33. ^ Morgan, Ted (31 January 2006). My Battle of Algiers. pp. 56 & 60. ISBN 0-06-085224-0.


  • Crocé, Eliane; et al. (1986). Les Troupes de Marine 1622 - 1984 (in French) (1st ed.). Limoges: Charles Lavauzelle. ISBN 2-7025-0142-7.
  • Chartrand, René (2018). French Naval & Colonial Troops 1872–1914. Men-at-Arms 517. Illustrated by Mark Stacey. London: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-47-282619-0.
  • 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
  • Jouineau, André (2009). Officiers et soldats de l'armée française Tome 2 : 1915-1918 [Officers and Soldiers of the French Army Volume II: 1915-18]. Officers and Soldiers #12. Translated by McKay, Alan. Paris: Histoire & Collections. ISBN 978-2-35250-105-3.
  • Christian Koller:»Von Wilden aller Rassen niedergemetzelt«. Die Diskussion um die Verwendung von Kolonialtruppen in Europa zwischen Rassismus, Kolonial- und Militärpolitik (1914–1930) (= Beiträge zur Kolonial- und Überseegeschichte, Bd. 82). Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-515-07765-0.
  • Nancy Ellen Lawler. Soldiers of Misfortune: Ivoirien Tirailleurs of World War II. Ohio Univ Press (1992) ISBN 0-8214-1012-1
  • Sumner, Ian (1995). The French Army 1914-18. Men-at-Arms. London: Osprey. ISBN 978-1-85-532516-6.


  • Eveline Berruezo and Patrice Robin : Le Tata – paysages de pierres. Documentary film, 60', 1992. Espace Mémoire, France.
  • Rafael Gutierrez and Dario Arce : Le Tata sénégalais de Chasselay : mémoires du 25° RTS" Documentary film, 52', 2007. Productions Chromatiques- TLM, France.

External links[edit]