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The 1944 Thiaroye Massacre in Senegal, a Shameful Episode of the French Colonial Period in Africa

Screenshot of Thiaroye Camp from the film Le Camp de Thiaroye by Ousmane Sembene on YouTube.

On December 1, 1944, an unspeakable tragedy took place at the military camp of Thiaroye, a small village in the suburbs of Dakar. Thirty-five Senegalese Tirailleurs (a type of rifleman or sharpshooter) were killed, according to official records, but other testimonies reported more than 300 dead, gunned down by colonial troops after protesting to be paid for their military service. The general public did not learn of this tragedy until 1988, when a film called “Camp de Thiaroye,” by Senegalese cineaste and writer Sembène Ousmane, was released.

The massacre is symptomatic of the French colonial power’s contempt for the African soldiers who had fought for its liberation during World War II. The film, which was produced by Senegal and Algeria, was banned in France for 17 years before being becoming available on DVD in 2005.

The Facebook page “Massacre du 1er Décembre 1944 : CAMP DE THIAROYE” (Massacre of December 1, 1944: CAMP THIAROYE) was created to honor the victims, killed by their metropolitan army comrades with whom they had fought the Nazi enemy. The course of events is recalled:

Le 1er Décembre 1944, furent massacrés des soldats africains, libérateurs de la France par… la France. Ces soldats Africains, communément appelés ‘ ‘Tirailleurs Sénégalais’  ont commis un seul crime: celui d’ être Africains.

En effet, comment expliquer autrement l'assassinat dont ils ont été victimes?  Car ces Tirailleurs africains* , à qui on avait toujours répété que la France est la mère patrie, avaient pour la grande majorité, même si ils ont été pour la plupart recrutés de force, combattu avec conviction l'ennemi Nazi, dont ils sont finalement venu à bout. C'est donc fiers de leur victoire qu'ils ont été démobilisés et sont arrivés au camp de Thiaroye* au Sénégal, le 21 novembre 1944. Sur leur visage, se lisait le bonheur de retrouver enfin leurs familles, après quatre longues années d'absence, malgré le traumatisme de la guerre et la perte de leurs nombreux camarades morts au combat ou fusillés par les Nazis. Ils ne se doutèrent pas qu'ils ne reverront plus jamais les leurs, ou leurs pays, pour ceux originaires d'autres pays du continent. Ils sont au nombre de 1280, originaires de pays d'Afrique Occidentale Française.

Mais le 30 Novembre 1944, il y’ eut une révolte au camp de Thiaroye, suite à la réclamation de leurs arrièrés de solde et de leur prime de démobilisation, qu'on leur avait déjà refusés en France, avant leur retour en Afrique. Ils prirent le général Damian en otage donc. Le 1er Décembre 1944, le bataillon de Saint-Louis donne l'assaut de nuit, sans sommation, du camp désarmé. Il y eu une trentaine de survivants qui  furent condamnés à des peines allant de 1 à 10 ans, avec amende, et perte de leur indemnité de mobilisation. Ils ne furent libérés qu’ en 1947, par le président Français de l'époque Vincent Auriol, sans avoir été rétablis dans leur droits, et n'ont pas eu droit à une pension de retraite.

On December 1, 1944, African soldiers, liberators of France, were massacred by… France itself. These African servicemen, commonly known as the Senegalese Tirailleurs, had committed one crime: that of being African.

Indeed, how else could the assassination they suffered be explained? These African Tirailleurs, who mostly had been recruited by force and who had repeatedly been told that France is the motherland, fought the Nazi enemy with conviction and finally triumphed. They were proud of that victory and were afterwards demobilized, arriving at Camp Thiaroye in Senegal on November 21, 1944. In spite of four long years of absence, the trauma of war, and the loss of their many comrades who perished in combat or were shot by the Nazis, their faces shone with happiness to finally be reunited with their families. They did not suspect that they would never again see their loved ones or home countries, for those originating from other parts of the continent. There were 1,280 of them, coming from all over French West Africa.

On November 30, 1944, however, there was a revolt at Camp Thiaroye. It came about after they demanded to be paid their salary arrears and demobilization allowance, which had already been denied to them in France before they returned to Africa. They thus took General Damian as hostage. The night of December 1, 1944, the battalion of Saint-Louis stormed the unarmed camp without warning. There were about 30 survivors who were condemned to one to 10-year prison terms, fined, and denied their mobilization pay. They were only released in 1947, by France's then-President Vincent Auriol. They were not restored their rights and were not entitled to a retirement pension.

Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the rare public figures at the time to have denounced this colonial crime, dedicated a poem to the victims in December 1945 and wrote an article on their subject in the July 1945 issue of the review Esprit.

In contrast, the French administration tried to minimize the contribution of these soldiers in an effort to avoid paying what it owed them, before finally killing them.

In a 2014 letter and petition addressed to French President François Hollande, the Vigilance Committee on the Public Use of History (Comité de Vigilance face aux usages publics de l’histoire), an advocacy organization that aims to rectify the historical recollection of the French colonial period, broke down the lies of the state and denounced the attitude of the French authorities in this affair:

Des droits spoliés.
Ces hommes qui s'étaient battus pour la France, ont réclamé le paiement de leurs soldes de captivité que les autorités militaires de Dakar avaient refusé de leur verser, enfreignant ainsi la réglementation en vigueur.
Cette spoliation fut couverte par le ministère de la Guerre qui a fait croire, par une circulaire datée du 4 décembre 1944 -donc postérieure au massacre-, que les rapatriés avaient perçu la totalité de leur solde avant leur embarquement en métropole.
Un massacre prémédité puis camouflé.
Dans le but de faire taire les légitimes revendications de ces hommes, une opération des forces armées destinée à écraser/réduire les rebelles a été montée. Pour camoufler le massacre, certains officiers ont produit des rapports à charge, et ont fabriqué de toute pièce l'histoire officielle d'une mutinerie. Dans ces rapports, les ex-prisonniers de guerre sont décrits comme étant à la solde des Allemands et lourdement armés. Afin de justifier la lourde riposte, ils sont accusés d'avoir tiré les premiers.

Stripped of their rights.

These men had fought for France and demanded to be paid for their time as POWs. Their request had been refused by the Dakar military authorities, which was a transgression of the regulations at the time. This despoliation was covered up by the then Ministry of War. It falsely stated in a circular dated December 4, 1944 — thus after the massacre — that the repatriated soldiers had received the totality of their compensation before their departure from France.

A massacre premeditated and concealed.

Aiming to silence the legitimate claims of these men, an operation of the armed forces was mounted to crush/diminish the rebels. To conceal the massacre, certain officers produced damning reports and fabricated an official account of a mutiny. In these reports, the ex-prisoners of war are described as being paid by the Germans and heavily armed. In order to justify the heavy response, they were accused of being the first to shoot.

For decades, this attempt to erase all traces of the massacre succeeded so well that we still don’t know, 73 years later, how many soldiers were massacred or where the victims’ remains lie.
An article by Benoit Hopquin, published in Le Monde culture et idées in March 23, 2013, presents the struggle of historian Armelle Mabon in this matter. A lecturer at the University of Southern Brittany and specialist in prisoners of war from the French ex-colonies, she has striven to uncover the lies of the French Army and to bring the truth to light:

A partir de là, rien n’est clair, si ce n’est qu’une fusillade éclate peu après 9 heures. C’est ici que l’historienne doit se faire limier, tant les rapports sont litigieux. Le témoignage écrit du lieutenant-colonel Le Berre diverge ainsi de celui du chef de bataillon Le Treut, du capitaine Olivier, du colonel Carbillet, du général Dagnan, du lieutenant-colonel Siméoni, du lieutenant de gendarmerie Pontjean, du colonel Le Masle ou du général de Perier, qui diligentera une commission d’enquête en 1945. Certaines circulaires ou certains comptes rendus sont même introuvables. “Ils ont disparu”, explique l’historienne, qui a exploré les différents centres où sont conservés les documents de l’époque, en France, mais aussi au Sénégal.

Au fil des versions se développe l’idée d’une riposte à des tirs à la mitraillette ou au pistolet-mitrailleur venus des mutins. Le général Dagnan a fait établir à l’époque une liste des armes prétendument retrouvées. Armelle Mabon l’a fait examiner par des experts de l’Union française des amateurs d’armes. Rien ne tient dans cet inventaire ni ne justifie d’utiliser de tels moyens – un char, deux half-tracks, trois automitrailleuses – pour y répondre.

Officiellement, 35 tirailleurs furent tués ce 1er décembre, chiffre repris par François Hollande dans son discours à Dakar. Vingt-quatre seraient morts sur le coup et onze à l’hôpital. Mais le rapport du général Dagnan daté du 5 décembre fait état de “24 tués et 46 blessés transportés à l’hôpital et décédés par la suite“,soit 70 victimes. “Pourquoi aurait-il eu intérêt à alourdir le bilan ?”, demande l’historienne qui accrédite plutôt ce dernier chiffre.

The shooting began shortly after 9 am, but what followed isn't clear. The reports are so contentious that the historian has to become a sort of detective. Testimony written by Lieutenant-Colonel Le Berre diverges from that of Battalion Chief Le Treut, Captain Olivier, Colonel Carbillet, General Dagnan, Lieutenant-Colonel Siméoni, Gendarmerie Lieutenant Pontjean, Colonel Masle, and General de Perier, who initiated a commission of inquiry in 1945. Certain circulars and reports are nowhere to be found. “They’ve disappeared,” explains the historian, who explored the various centers where the documents of the time are preserved, in France and in Senegal.

Successive accounts communicate the idea of a response to machine or submachine gunfire from the mutineers. General Dagnan had a list made of the weapons allegedly found. Armelle Mabon had this list examined by experts from the French Association of Arms Enthusiasts. Something doesn’t add up in this inventory, and the response to it – a tank, two half-track vehicles, and three armored cars – is totally unjustified.

Officially, 35 sharpshooters were killed on December 1, the figure used by François Hollande in his speech in Dakar. Twenty-four were reported to have died during the attack and eleven at the hospital. But General Dagnan’s December 5 report cited “24 killed and 46 wounded transported to the hospital and deceased thereafter,” for a total of 70 victims. “What could he have stood to gain by overstating the number of deaths?” asks the historian, who gives credence to this last figure.

On the occasion of a conference on colonial massacres, organized at the University of Southern Brittany in Lorient from November 27 – 29, 2014, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, a French historian, specialist on Africa, and professor emeritus at Paris Diderot University, wrote on the website of the Vigilance Committee on the Public Use of History:

On ne sait toujours pas où ils furent enterrés, sans doute dans une fosse commune non loin ou dans le petit cimetière militaire oublié de Thiaroye. Jean Suret-Canale fut l’un des tout premiers à évoquer cet épisode dans le tome II de son Histoire générale de l’Afrique occidentale (1963). J’en entendis pour ma part parler vers la fin des années 1970 par des amis sénégalais qui en avaient une vague notion. Je partis à la recherche du cimetière que je finis par retrouver avec une certaine difficulté car plus personne ne savait où il se trouvait, dissimulé derrière un petit mur pas très loin de la route partant vers la petite côte (il est aujourd’hui restauré et bien entretenu).

We still don't know where they are buried, probably in a mass grave nearby or in the small, forgotten military cemetery of Thiaroye. Jean Suret-Canale was one of the very first to evoke this episode in Tome II of his General History of Western Africa (1963). I heard about it towards the end of 1970 from some Senegalese friends who had a vague idea of what had happened. I went looking for the cemetery but had trouble finding it, since no one knew where it was. It was hidden behind a small wall not very far from the road heading towards the Petite Côte. Today it has been restored and is well maintained.

In November 2014, through the voice of President Hollande, France paid homage to the victims of this crime – but it still did not apologize. France did not facilitate the acquisition of French nationality for the Senegalese Tirailleurs until 70 years after World War II was over; this measure would help the soldiers and their family acquire French citizenship if they wish to do so.
In Africa, there have been some initiatives to commemorate them. Senegal instituted a Tirailleurs’ Day in memory of all the soldiers who fought wars alongside France. Its theme this year was “Les évènements de Thiaroye : histoire et mémoire” (The Events of Thiaroye: History and Memory). In Bamako, Mali, a monument was specifically dedicated to the victims of Thiaroye.

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