31 Dec

Events of Interest and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective



Arab mission warns Syria as opposition unites

Arab League monitor warns government to remove snipers or face consequences as opposition groups unite against Assad.
Last Modified: 31 Dec 2011 16:05 GMT

Iran to test-fire long range missiles in Gulf

Straits of Hormuz naval drill continues, as European Union says it is open to talks over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Last Modified: 31 Dec 2011 14:23 GMT

Clashes as tensions rise in southeast Turkey

 Angry crowds attack local government official a day after 35 Kurdish civilians killed in botched raid are laid to rest.
Last Modified: 31 Dec 2011 15:14 GMT

The decline of the American empire


 As the world is undergoing a profound transformation, what role will the US play in a post-American century?

Vast Syrian crowds demand Arab League observers’ help

Emboldened protesters turn out in hundreds of thousands to put new pressure on Assad. Loveday Morris and Matthew Kalman report.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili

Iran proposes to reopen nuclear talks

Islamic republic says it has notified UN of its intention to resume negotiations amid confusion over reported missile tests

 Robert Fisk
Saturday, 31 December 2011

It took Indigènes to remind the French that they owed their liberation not
only to De Gaulle’s largely white Free French troops but also to 134,000
Algerian soldiers, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 92,000 “others” from
Sub-Saharan Africa.

Indigènes means “natives” but the English version of the movie was called
Days of Glory, which rather took the sting away. Yet the French have still
largely ignored their massive empire armies of both world wars. And so have we.
Where are the great films, the great novels about the Indians who fought for
King and Empire at the Somme, and in North Africa and Italy?

Wandering the Great War cemetery at Chemin des Dames – the atrocious 1917
offensive, which won for General Charles Mangin the title “Butcher of the
Blacks”, and led to French mutiny – and the British Second World War graves at
Sidon in southern Lebanon, I notice how the Muslim dead, mostly Senegalese and
Algerians and Tunisians in the first graveyard, Indians in the second, are
separated from their non-Muslim comrades-in-death. A few metres of grass keep
infidel and believer apart (the definitions are interchangeable, of course) as
if sharing the same cemetery is quite enough, without accepting that all were
brothers in humanity.

It’s the same today. A recent exhibition in Beirut showed archive footage of
Australian troops in the 1941 invasion of Lebanon, fighting and dying and laying
railroad tracks and manning gun positions on the Beirut Corniche. The Lebanese
flocked to see the films, especially Lebanese Armenians who remembered how
Australian troops of the Great War gave their food to the dying victims of the
Armenian genocide 23 years earlier. But there were no pictures of the Indian
soldiers who fought and died in Lebanon.

So it’s worth a glance at how “we” Westerners regarded “our” soldiers over
the past 100 years. All praise to Le Monde Diplomatique for drawing our
attention to a sand dune beside a small forest road not far from the old
Courneau camp in the Gironde which is bleakly decorated with two memorials. One
shows African faces, sculpted in stone. The other says: “To the greatness of
Allah.” Yet in a war that for the first time commemorated the individual names
of the fallen, all that is written here is a dedication “to the 940 Senegalese
and 12 Russians who died for France 1914-1918”. Anonymity was enough for

The French camp of Courneau was a training ground for newly arrived
Senegalese troops en route to the Somme, but it was also a hospital base for the
sick and wounded of the Somme and Fort Douaumont at Verdun. And when – after
weeks under the snow and the rain of shells – they did not die of their wounds
at Courneau, they died of disease. A government health inspector predicted in
1916 that the Senegalese, under the autumn rains and cold, would contract
respiratory diseases. In a camp of 20,000 largely black troops, thousands fell
ill each week. The first soldier died on 28 April 1916, 13 others in May,
including a soldier called Dakpé of the 42nd Battalion, “son of a father and
mother whose names are unknown”. In the archives, the soldiers’ names are
recorded. Mory Bakilé, born at Lambatura, Moriba Keita from Manikoura. The first
black French member of parliament, Blaise Diagne, raised his voice in protest.
But the “cemetery of Negroes” continued to be filled with corpses.

At least 421 Senegalese riflemen died in 1916, mostly from pneumonia, then 12
Russians – recruited to fight in France by the pre-Bolshevik Tsarist government
– and then 88 American soldiers died of the same infections at Courneau after
May 1918. Sixty-six of their bodies were later reburied with military honours in
the US, the rest transferred to the American military cemetery at Suresnes.
Their names are on their gravestones. Not so the Senegalese. A local French
architect’s appeal for a memorial with their names was overruled.

In nearby Bordeaux, says Mar Fall, a sociologist of Senegalese origin, “they
like to avoid topics which are unsettling. If we open the Pandora’s box of First
World War African soldiers, or those of the Second World War, we will arrive
very quickly at the colonial history of the city.” The city fathers promise a
real memorial “after further study”. The dead African soldiers, whose graves are
clearly identified in the front-line cemeteries, all joined up on the promise of
French citizenship. A further little indignity. Originally, the dead African
soldiers did have their names inscribed on a wooden board above their individual
graves. Then they were reburied in a mass grave and their names disappeared.

But wait. If we are not yet ready to confront the black Africans’ sacrifice
for us, do we dare – like the Franco-Ivorian journalist Serge Bilé in his new
book Sombres Bourreaux (“Dark Executioners”) – investigate the lives of those
black soldiers who chose to fight for Hitler? For yes, incredibly, the Nazis let
a few serve in the Légion des Volontaires Français. One was Norbert Désirée, a
Guadeloupe docker who wanted to fight Bolshevism in opposition to his communist
fellow countrymen who were demanding independence for their island. Then there
was Louis-Joachim Eugène, also from Guadeloupe, who found German racism less
painful than that of his fellow Frenchmen.

And the Cameroonian Werner Egiomue who loved Hitler but whose black skin
created a scandal in the German High Command. Ahmed Fall from Senegal was used
as a propagandist by the German army. How could these men – old enough to be our
grandfathers – have collaborated with Vichy or the Nazis, asks Malika
Groga-Bada, a journalist for Jeune Afrique, originally from the Ivory Coast.
“Patriotism? A desire to be recognised?” Unforgivable, of course. But history is
cruel and there is plenty of rusting barbed wire beneath the snow.

Why, I still have copies of Signal, the German propaganda magazine that
remained on open sale in Paris until the 1980s, which show German troops
throwing raw meat at Algerian prisoners-of-war in 1940, photographs which depict
the indigènes as animals fighting for food. We forget that these poor men were
also our Allies.


Comments are closed.

© 2022 | Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS)

Global Positioning System Gazettewordpress logo