Archive for June 20th, 2010

1940: Tirailleurs Senegalais, for France

8 comments June 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1940, German forces even then completing their rout of France — the humiliating capitulation was mere hours away — massacred a detachment of African soldiers who mounted a doomed resistance at Lentilly.

Tirailleurs Senegalais were recruited not only from Senegal but from throughout France’s domains in sub-Saharan Africa. (There were also Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan tirailleurs.)

Though these soldiers’ own lands were occupied, they were instrumental to defending the freedom of their occupier on European soil: over half a million African tirailleurs are thought to have served les couleurs in the two World Wars, and died in all the horrible ways those slaughterhouses could devise.

In 1940, black troops represented some 9% of the French army, a fact pilloried in German nationalist proaganda.

It’s hardly a surprise that the black man couldn’t catch a break from skull-measuring Aryan race warriors, but then, France too had its own less than comfortable relationship with these dark-hued citizens summoned from distant villages to bleed in the trenches of Europe. The military’s official guidelines emphasized (French link) the “Senegalese’s” special value as cannon fodder.

If a sacrificial mission is necessary, a defense to the death to provide cover for forces to regroup, appeal to the valor of the black fighter.

On the other hand, French authorities put up a monument to black soldiers in the aftermath of World War I. (The occupying Nazis vengefully dismantled it.) Such are the contradictions of colonialism.

Racial reservations notwithstanding, colonial troops were employed throughout the army if for no other reason than that they constituted nearly the tenth part of that army.

Their service record naturally included (French pdf) the over-before-it-started French defense against the Nazi blitz in 1940.

In this instance, knowing full well that the campaign was lost, French officers flipped open the “sacrificial mission” playbook and ordered their African charges to oppose a German march near Lyon “without thought of retreat.”

Since victory was equally out of the question, that left death. Wehrmacht troops duly prepared by Nazi racial typecasting to see their foes as savages were all too ready to wipe out African troops they greatly outclassed.


A monument to the Tirailleurs in Lentilly, France. Image (c) filoer and used with permission.

The Lentilly cemetery “Tata”, final resting place of 188 Senegalese riflemen who died under German artillery or were massacred after the battle by the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf June 19 and 20. Image (c) filoer and used with permission.

For more on the tirailleurs, there’s an extensive French-language blog.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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