The Thiaroye massacre, 1944


by Steven Johns
Tirailleurs as prisoners of war

A short history of the mass killing of black soldiers in the Free French Forces who were protesting against non-payment of wages towards the end of World War II.

It is an often-neglected fact that the majority of General De Gaulle’s Free French Forces were not white Frenchmen but were predominantly troops from its colonies in Africa and the Middle East.

Those from West Africa were known as the “tirailleurs Senegalais” (“Senegalese sharpshooters”) but were actually from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, and Togo.

17,000 of them died in the defence of France from Nazi occupation, and many others were captured and either died or suffered terribly in the racist German prisoner of war camps.

Following the liberation of France, from which black soldiers were excluded by Allied High Command, the tirailleurs were stripped of their uniforms and hurriedly sent back to Africa.

Largely unpaid, they were told they would receive backpay upon their arrival.

Some of the West African troops were suspicious of French authorities and refused to board ships to depart until they received what they were owed. One such incident occurred at a camp in Huyton on Merseyside in England.

Tirailleurs being repatriated were taken to a holding point at Camp Thiaroye, near Dakar in Senegal.

Those stationed there were already upset at poor treatment by the white colonial authorities, following fighting for France and experiencing the horrors of the Nazi POW camps. So when they were told that their payment could only be converted into the local currency at half the actual exchange rate, discontent boiled over.

On 30 November, 1944, around 1300 tirailleurs mutinied and began protesting against poor treatment and for equal pay with white soldiers, taking a French general hostage.

In the early hours of 1 December, French troops attacked. Despite the mutineers being unarmed, they came in shooting, with armoured cars, mounted machine guns and even a US Army tank.

The official death toll of the repression was 35, although meticulous research by French historian Armelle Mabon suggests a much higher number of victims – around 3-400 – which is more in line with the estimations of veterans.

The mass grave into which the bodies were dumped has yet to be discovered.

In March the following year, 34 of the survivors were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison by a military tribunal.

In 1947, those imprisoned were amnestied, however some had already died in prison. To date they have not been pardoned, nor has the French government apologised.

Like much of France’s violent and oppressive colonial history, the Thiaroye massacre is not taught in schools, and a 1988 film about the event, Camp de Thiaroye directed by Ousmane Sembène, was banned in France, and Senegal as well.

Sources

source: https://libcom.org/history/thiaroye-massacre-1944-steven-johns

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