P018 – African Colonial Soldiers: Challenging the Limits of Their Historiography
10 July, 14:00-15:30

Zimmerman Sarah / Western Washington University


This panel will broaden our historical understanding of how African colonial soldiers interpreted, navigated, and contested military service and their post-colonial relationship with France. In recent decades, colonial soldiers of the French Empire have come to symbolize the historical injustices of French colonization, as well as the negative legacy of colonialism across West Africa. These critiques have brought symbolic and financial restitution to veterans, but the discourses of discrimination have narrowly cast African soldiers and veterans as victims of an elaborate exploitative colonial system. This panel will examine the agency and dynamism of African servicemen’s lived experiences.
World War One catalyzed the expansion of recruitment through quota-based conscription in French West Africa. One panelist will analyze the debates concerned with recruits’ volition in wartime enlistment, as well as coercive elements at imperial and local levels. In the aftermath of World War Two, demobilizing African colonial soldiers led uprisings against the military and the French colonial state. Another paper will grapple with soldiers’ violent collective disobedience during their demobilization from wartime Europe. Another panelist will probe the limitations of the historiography on colonial intermediaries and decolonization. Guinean tirailleurs sénégalais serving in the Algerian War experienced deterritorialization and denationalization in an era of fervent African nationalism.

Soldats coloniaux africains : dépasser les limites de l’historiographie
Ce panel permettra d’élargir notre compréhension de l’histoire des expériences vécues par les soldats coloniaux africains. Au cours des dernières décennies, les combattants africains de l’empire français sont devenus des symboles des injustices et des conséquences négatives de la colonisation française en Afrique de l’Ouest. Ces critiques ont permis aux anciens combattants d’obtenir des compensations symboliques et financières, mais ont aussi contribué à produire un discours discriminant stigmatisant les anciens combattants africains en victimes du système colonial d’exploitation. Ce panel examinera le pouvoir, l’autorité, et le dynamisme de ces combattants africains.

La Grande Guerre a accéléré la conscription en Afrique Occidentale Française. Un des intervenants analysera les débats concernant l’engagement volontaire des recrues et les pressions pour les pousser à s’engager pendant la guerre. À la fin de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, des soldats africains ont conduit des soulèvements contre l’armée et l’Etat colonial français. Un intervenant examinera la désobéissance collective et violente de ces soldats lors de leur démobilisation en Europe. Un autre intervenant analysera les limites de l’historiographie sur les intermédiaires coloniaux pendant la période de la décolonisation. Les tirailleurs sénégalais, d’origine guinéenne, déployés en Algérie ont connu la déterritorialisation et la dénationalisation lorsque leur pays a obtenu l’indépendance.

Paper 1

Zimmerman Sarah / Western Washington University

Becoming Stateless in a Decolonizing World: Guinean Tirailleurs Sénégalais after the 1958 Referendum

This paper analyzes the ways in which Guinea’s sudden decolonization from France in 1958 led to the deterritorialization and denationalization of Guinean tirailleurs sénégalais. Often portrayed as a resounding victory of anti-colonialism, Guinea’s independence caught Guinean tirailleurs sénégalais serving the French military in Algeria by surprise. After the 1958 referendum, hundreds of Guineans opted to remain in the French colonial military while their home colony became an independent country. As a result, these Guinean colonial soldiers became stateless in the shifting geopolitical forces that redefined African countries’ citizens’ relationships with their former colonizing powers. Years after the end of French colonialism, these veteran tirailleurs sénégalais lacked official citizenship or nationality while they attempted long-term residence in France or other countries of former French West Africa. Their stateless partially resulted from Sekou Touré’s representation of Guinean veterans of the tirailleurs sénégalais as internal enemies in independent Guinea. This case study of Guinean veterans reveals how tirailleurs sénégalais interrupt many of the common narratives of decolonization by muddying national allegiances and legacies of colonialism in newly independent West Africa.

Paper 2

Fogarty Richard / SUNY-Albany

French culture de guerre in Africa? Consent, Coercion, and Recruitment during the Great War

In trying to make sense of the social and cultural experience of the Great War, historiographical debates in France have expended much energy assessing the nature of a culture de guerre during those years, and whether this culture was sustained by “consent” or “coercion.” But France did not merely consist of the European metropole at this time, nor was its war effort exclusively European. Large portions of Africa belonged to the French empire and so participated in the French war effort, notably by supplying large number of African men to serve as soldiers on the Western Front. How can we incorporate this colonial aspect into the history of France at war? Is a supposed culture de guerre a useful way of characterizing and interpreting African involvement in the war? When it comes to recruitment of Africans to serve in the French army, do terms like consent and coercion, cooperation and resistance have the same meaning, or any meaning at all in the colonial context? This paper will explore these questions, seeking to paint a complex and nuanced picture of Africans’ military service between 1914 and 1918, understanding them as participants in a dynamic process that included a whole range of motivations and experiences.

Paper 3

Ginio Ruth / Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Fighting for Equality: African Soldiers and Veterans of the French Army, 1944-1958

Debates around the recent struggle of African veterans to receive compensation for the freezing of their pensions upon independence have dictated much of the academic research on African soldiers who served in the French Army. They have pushed historians to focus on the soldiers’ participation in the two World Wars, on discrimination against them and on French ingratitude towards their sacrifices. On the other hand, little has been written about the soldiers’ and veterans’ successful fight for equality after World War II, which resulted in the equation of the pensions and of service conditions of African soldiers to those of metropolitan troops. In fact, in the context of decolonization, this achievement is much more surprising than the French decision to freeze the pensions in 1959. My paper will examine this fight for equality from three aspects: first, the soldiers’ revolts in the aftermath of WWII and their influence on the decision to radically improve soldiers’ service conditions; second, the discourse used by main veterans’ newspaper to protect their rights and improve their situation; finally, the case of the circle guards, most of whom were veterans, and their struggle to equate their rights to those of soldiers. By using these examples I will demonstrate that African soldiers and veterans were not always in the position of “victims” and often knew how to take advantage of the army’s desperate need for them to gain points in their struggle for equality.

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