The world is getting ready to celebrate the 77th anniversary of the Victory in Europe Day; the day commemorating the surrender of Germany and the end of hostilities in the European theatre. On the 7th of May 1945 General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender terms at Rheims ending Germany's participation in the war. Surrender took effect the next day.
It was a time of great jubilation and relief, coupled with the gradual awareness of the full horrors of the German behaviour during the war as the concentration camps were liberated and the survivors began to tell their tales. Occupied nations struggled to reconstitute themselves with new governments and the Allied Powers began to assert their political rule in a continent which had lived through years of military rule.
Many nations threw out their wartime collaborationists and started along the path towards the reconstitution of democratic rule. In France Marshal Petain was arrested and Pierre Laval fled, later to be captured in Austria and then executed. There were miraculous events occurring all over France that day; men and women woke up in their beds to realise that they had all been secretly in the Resistance all along. They may have seemed to be collaborationists and Vichyites but were really closet Resistance fighters. Only the most unlucky lost their jobs or had their heads shaved.
The Struggle To Rebuild The Empire
One of the greatest challenges to the “New France” was its need to restructure its colonial empire that existed pre-1940. The creation of a Vichy France, under Marshal Petain made France the vassal state of Nazi Germany. Vichy France controlled the North and Centre of France, locating its headquarters in Vichy, not Paris. A Free French state existed in the South under the Free French but was taken over by the Germans in 1942 after the Allied landings in North Africa. The Free French regrouped in England under the leadership of DeGaulle. The colonial territories of the pre-war French Empire fell under the control of Vichy. Despite this, there were Free French troops fighting against the Axis in both Africa and the Middle East. When the Allies invaded the European mainland, the Free French troops returned to France to continue their battles with the Vichy French and the Germans.
The relationship of the French (both Vichy and Free) in the Empire was confusing and a source of trouble for the allies of both the Vichy French and the Free French. The problems which arose as the end of the war drew near were not only those in continental Europe; there had been dramatic consequences for the British, French, Belgian and Spanish colonial empires as well. Many of these colonies had sent men to fight in their colonial armies. The largest were incorporated in the British and French armies. In the French army there were colonial troops within the forces of Vichy France as well as among the Free French. Although the British were initially able to resist the call for decolonisation, this was not true of the French colonial troops. As early as 1943 the French lost control of the Mandate of Lebanon and Syria which it operated as a colony from the days of the League of Nations.
The Struggle in the Middle East
Many of these French colonies had sent men to fight in their colonial armies. The largest were incorporated in the British and French armies. In the French army there were colonial troops within the forces of Vichy France as well as among the Free French. Although the British were initially able to resist the call for decolonisation, this was not true of the French colonial troops. As early as 1943 the French lost control of the Mandate of Lebanon and Syria which it had operated as a colony from the days of the League of Nations.
The French troops in the Mandate of Lebanon and Syria were divided between Vichy and the Free French. Both sides had large contingents of African troops. The French were happy to use African troops against other African troops. Perhaps the best example was in “Operation Exporter”.
During the Second World War the Germans concentrated their Central Asian policies on supporting the regime of Rashid Ali and the colonels of the "Golden Square" in Iraq. They were trying to block British access to India and to the oil supplies of Iraq, then under British influence. In the spring of 1941, the French Government (Vichy) granted permission for German and Italian aircraft to refuel in the Levant en route to Iraq. The French were still the ‘Mandated’ rulers of Syria and Lebanon. The British were urged by the ‘Free French’ under De Gaulle to intervene against the Vichy French.
British forces in the Middle East under Wavell invaded Syria and Lebanon from Palestine and Transjordan on Sunday, 8 June 1941 (with columns arriving from Iraq later in the campaign) under the codenamed "Operation Exporter". At that time, the ‘Allies’ were only the members of the British Commonwealth. The Soviet Union had not yet been invaded and the Japanese had yet to bomb Pearl Harbor.
These Allies anticipated a quick knockout followed by immediate rallying of Vichy forces to the Free French. This did not happen, although the Vichy forces were small and without sufficient reserves or supplies. Their ground forces were tough and well-trained, and their small air force actually maintained air superiority for much of the campaign.
Instead of a quick victory, the Australian, Indian, British, and Free French forces slugged it out with the Vichy defenders and suffered several serious setbacks before the ceasefire on 12 July. The reason that the Free French and the Vichy French showed such valour was that they were both made up of Senegalese troops and Foreign Legionnaires. There were very few French actually involved, Free or otherwise. By July most of the Free French forces and the Vichy forces (especially the Senegalese), had enough of killing their countrymen, and refused to continue. When the campaign ended, with an Allied victory only some 5,700 (out of about 26,000) Vichy troops elected to join DeGaulle. The remainder were evacuated by sea to French North Africa under Allied supervision. The Senegalese were tired of fighting other Senegalese and went home. The War in the Lebanon was much quicker as the French soldiers quit after six days because they had run out of Senegalese. An armistice was signed in Acre on July 14, 1941.
The French were still as devious and unprincipled as ever. After signing the Acre Armistice, General Charles DeGaulle visited Lebanon, officially ending Vichy control. Lebanese national leaders took the opportunity to ask de Gaulle to end the French Mandate and unconditionally recognize Lebanon's independence. As a result of national and international pressure, on November 26, 1941, General Georges Catroux, delegate general under DeGaulle, proclaimed the independence of Lebanon in the name of his government. The United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, the Arab states, and certain Asian countries recognized this Lebanese independence. Some of them exchanged ambassadors with Beirut. However, even though the French (Free French) technically recognized Lebanon's independence, they continued to exercise authority.
General elections were held, and on September 21, 1943, the new Chamber of Deputies elected Bishara al Khoury as president. He appointed Riyad as Solh as prime minister and asked him to form the first government of independent Lebanon. On November 8, 1943, the Chamber of Deputies amended the Constitution, abolishing the articles that referred to the Mandate and modifying those that specified the powers of the high commissioner, thus unilaterally ending the Mandate. The French authorities responded by arresting a number of prominent Lebanese politicians, including the president, the prime minister, and other cabinet members, and exiling them to the Castle of Rashayya, located about sixty-five kilometres east of Sidon. This action united the Christian and Muslim leaders in their determination to get rid of the French. France, finally yielding to mounting internal pressure and to the influence of Britain, the United States, and the Arab countries, released the prisoners at Rashayya on November 22, 1943; since then, this day has been celebrated as Independence Day.
The other consequence of the French loss of the Syria-Lebanon Mandate was the creation of the Palmach. Throughout the Second World War many Palestinian Jews fought for Britain against the Axis. Many units were raised including pioneer and transport companies. Some Jews served with the TJFF and an infantry brigade was raised and fought in the latter stages of the Italian campaign. Special, commando type units were also raised and played an important role in Operation Exporter, the British invasion of Vichy French Syria in 1941.
On 15th May 1941, the leadership of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine), in consultation with the British military command in Palestine, established nine pelugot machaz ("strike companies") and so the Palmach was born. Palmach is the Hebrew acronym for pelugot machaz. These nine companies were comprised of experienced guerrilla fighters, most of them veterans of the 1936-39 Arab rebellion and many of them had been trained by Captain Orde Wingate, later commander of the Chindits in Burma. These new units were trained and armed by the British Army in Palestine.
Six hundred Palmachniks participated in the invasion of Syria. Others also supported the invasion of Lebanon. Forty hand-picked men, including Yitzhak Rabin, went into Vichy held territory on June 7th, 1941, the day before the invasion proper, to reconnoitre the western approach from Palestine and to sabotage transportation and communications infrastructure. They blew up bridges and rail lines and cut telephone and electricity lines.
The rest of the Palmachniks went in the next day to serve as pathfinders or guides for the Allies. The frontier country was well known to the Palmachniks for many had operated along the Syrian frontier. Captain Orde Wingate's Special Night Squads engaged in counterinsurgency actions during the '36-'39 Arab rebellion, striking at Arab insurgents in the Syrian and Lebanese border villages they used as jumping off points. Operation Exporter forced the surrender of Vichy forces in Syria after only six days. The Palmach became the first elements of the Haganah and later the Israeli Defence Force. Many of its earliest military commandos were participants in the War in Syria. That is where Moshe Dayan lost his eye.
There was another great loss of colonial territory after the Japanese overthrow of the Vichy French Decaux Government in Vietnam in March 1945 and France was driven from Indochina. There was a great deal of agitation within the rest of French colonial territories as many colonies, especially in North and West Africa began to discuss the end of French colonialism. This was important because many of the soldiers in the French (Free and Vichy) Army were Africans from the extensive French Colonial Empire.
The French And Their African Troops
These African soldiers were many and ubiquitous. They fought in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the Far East, especially Burma, Ceylon, and India. There were over a million African soldiers engaged in this war. For them, the war started at its very beginning; not the attack on Poland which triggered the European response in 1939, but even earlier in 1935 when the Italian Fascist troops, backed by African soldiers from Eritrea attacked Ethiopia. African troops were engaged in this war as a result of the colonial occupation of their countries and the compulsion of the colonial powers on the colonies to provide manpower for the war effort. Some were volunteers but most were compelled to become soldiers.
Each colonial power had a different method of conscription, but the end result was the same. In his book, Fighting For Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War, historian David Killingray says more than half a million African troops served with the British forces between 1939 and 1945 -- 289,530 of them with the King's African Rifles from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi. He describes it as the largest single movement of African men overseas since the slave trade. Most of the Africans were told that they had no choice. They were told that they must fight and were picked up by Army trucks from their home villages and sent for basic training, often with the complicity of the native chiefs and district supervisors. The Belgians just rounded up whomever they saw and dropped them off at a local army base, usually after some initial brutality.
The French had created a body of African soldiers earlier. Since 1857 the French colonialists created a surrogate army of African soldiers from the Africans living in the several states composing the AOF (French West Africa) and the AEF (French Equatorial Africa). They called these soldiers the “Tirailleurs Senegalais” although they were not limited to inhabitants of Senegal. The Tirailleurs Senegalais were created as the first permanent units of black African soldiers under French rule in 1857. These were not professional soldiers; they were drawn from the ranks of the ex-slaves and social outcasts who were sold to the French by the local African chiefs. From 1857 to 1905 the main recruiting of these soldiers was the rachat (repurchase) system in which slaves were purchased from their local owners by the French and turned into mercenary soldiers. The practice of buying slaves by the army was ended officially in 1882 but it was observed more in the breach than the observance.
In 1905 the French colonies in Africa were put under civilian rather than military rule. However, this removal of a French military rule over the region meant that ever more African proxies were needed for policing, fighting resistance forces, and as garrison troops. These surrogate troops were used to put down local uprisings and expand French rule. The Tirailleurs Senegalais participated in the conquest of Morocco in the early 1900s. In 1912 a new partial-conscription law was passed, making it easier for the French to recruit surrogates.
With the French entry into World War I these Tirailleurs Senegalais were sent to Europe to defend France. The number of West African troops serving under French command in World War I comprised about 170,891 men, and approximately 30,000 of them were killed. In Senegal alone more than 1/3 of all males of military age were mobilized and sent to France to fight. After the war, the French colonial authorities passed the Conscription Law of 1919, which called for universal male conscription in peacetime as well as wartime. Hundreds of thousands of the Tirailleurs Senegalais were compelled to fight in France's colonial wars and to provide labour brigades for the colonial authorities.
During World War II these African troops played an important role. The Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were used in even greater numbers, initially by Vichy France and later by the Free French. In 1940, African troops comprised roughly 9% of the French army. The French recruited more than 200,000 black Africans during the war. Approximately 25,000 were killed in battle. Many were also interned in German labour camps and thousands of black African Prisoners of War (POWs) were murdered by the Wehrmacht in 1940. One of those who escaped execution was later President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor. Despite his high level of education and acquisition of French citizenship in 1932, Senghor was enrolled as a French army enlisted man (2me Classe) in 1939 with the rank of private within the 59th Colonial Infantry division. A year later, during the German occupation of France, he was taken prisoner by the Germans and kept in several internment camps. He ended up in Front Stalag 230 at Poitiers, which was reserved for colonial troops. It was there that the Germans engaged in mass executions of African prisoners-of war. The main sport of the German guards at that camp was to randomly pick out their African prisoners almost daily and take them out to a field for target practice. Literally thousands were killed that way. Senghor escaped “by the skin of his teeth”. Senghor was lucky to avoid the daily executions. He was released for medical reasons in 1942 and went back to Senegal and his unit. He was then sent with his unit to Algeria as part of the French war against Algerian nationalists.
He has recounted some of his experiences in the famous book of poetry “Hosties Noire”; Black Hosts, published in 1948. It is the second collection of Senghor. The poet recounts his painful experience of war and labour camps, painful because of the physical violence and also the contempt shown by friend and foe to black men.
His first verse sums up the struggle:
Vous Tirailleurs Sénégalais, mes frères noirs à la main chaude sous la glace et la mort
Qui pourra vous chanter si ce n’est votre frère d’armes, votre frère de sang ?
Je ne laisserai pas la parole aux ministres, et pas aux généraux
Je ne laisserai pas – non ! - les louanges de mépris vous enterrer furtivement.
Vous n’êtes pas des pauvres aux poches vides sans honneur
Mais je déchirerai les rires banania sur tous les murs de France.”
(note: a Banania is a child’s cocoa drink sold in France with cartoons of a black soldier on its label)
DeGaulle’s ‘Whitening’ of The African Veterans
The war in Europe continued and large numbers of African soldiers continued to die. By late 1944 it became clear that an Axis victory was unlikely. It was a matter of time before the invasion of the German heartland would end with a German defeat. The Italians had already changed sides and DeGaulle was installed as the leader of the Free French. Vichy had disappeared. DeGaulle and his generals decided that it was time to “whiten” the French Army. They extended their gratitude to the African soldiers who were returning to West Africa in 1944 after the Liberation of France. De Gaulle, when he saw that the Allies had pushed the Germans out of France decided that it was too dangerous to continue to use these African troops. He ordered a “whitening” of the troops by replacing 20,000 Africans which were in battle at the front with white French soldiers.
This event caused hatred and dislike between the white and the blacks at war. These Tirailleurs Senegalais troops were segregated in French demobilising centres waiting to go back home. While at the centres these African soldiers faced discriminatory treatment. They barely got the food and resources they needed and did not have any kind of shelter. The French refused to pay them the money they owed them and informed them that, as they were not French, they would not be entitled to any pensions or benefits from their contribution to the Liberation of France. They were then transported out of France to holding camps in Africa, near Dakar in Senegal. In December 1944, humiliated and without having been given what they were promised, the soldiers at the camp at Thiaroye protested for the back pay that to which they were entitled. The protest was seen by the French as defiance against the French military and the general in charge, with the help of the gendarmerie, ordered the "white" French military to deploy machine guns and opened fire on the African soldiers which resulted in thirty-five Africans killed, hundreds wounded and many sent to jail.
It was known as the Thiaroye Massacre. It is not in any French history books, but it is not forgotten among African soldiers. There is a good film on the subject by Ousmane Sembene, Camp de Thiaroye made in 1988. Despite this, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were compelled by the French to participate in the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria in the 1950s, fighting Algerian nationalists.
The French Shameful Behaviour on VE Day
The French were worried about the rise of nationalism in their colonies, especially in Africa. The most severe threat was in Algeria. However, Algeria was not considered a colony; it was administered as part of France. The French were totally intolerant of any Algerian nationalism despite the fact that there was a long history of Algerian nationalist movements. Each time France was at war, in 1871, 1914 and 1940, militants hoped to exploit the situation to win reforms or free Algeria from colonial rule. There were uprisings in the Kabyle region and eastern Algeria in 1871 and in the Aurès mountains in 1916.
The Algerian nationalist movement was splintered by the Second World War. Long a backbone of the independence movement in Algeria the Algerian Communist Party turned against the nationalists when, on August 23, 1939, representatives from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union met and signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which guaranteed that the two countries would not attack each other. By signing this pact, Germany had protected itself from having to fight a two-front war; the Soviet Union was awarded land, including parts of Poland and the Baltic States. As a result, the French Communist Party, and the communist parties across the globe, turned on the socialists, liberals, democrats, and trade unionists fighting Fascism and ordered its members to support Germany and its allies. The French Communists supported Vichy as did the Algerian communists. This pact was broken when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union less than two years later, on June 22, 1941 and the communists suddenly became anti-fascists.
This was important for Algerian nationalism because the communists fought the nationalists when the communist line was to support Petain and Vichy and then they fought the nationalists when they became anti-fascists because they said that Algerian nationalism must be subsumed in the anti-fascist war.
The Algerian People’s party (PPA), under its charismatic leaders Messali Hadj and Ferhat Abbas, was not prepared to sacrifice the interests of Algeria to the fight against fascism and continued to press for Algerian independence. When Pétain came to power, Abbas sent memoranda seeking greater autonomy for Algeria to the French authorities but was ignored. He then turned to the U.S. for assistance. The U.S, was there, along with the British, in Operation Torch, the British-American invasion of French North Africa during the North African Campaign of the Second World War which started on 8 November 1942. There were several initial skirmishes with the Vichy forces across North Africa and a lot of diplomacy trying to ascertain whether the Vichy Forces would surrender instead of fighting. They did not surrender and resisted. Events proceeded in Algeria when in the early hours of 8 November 1942 400 mainly Jewish French Resistance fighters of Henri d'Astier de la Vigerie and José Aboulker staged a coup in the city of Algiers. Starting at midnight, the force under their command seized key targets, including the telephone exchange, radio station, governor's house, and the headquarters of 19th Corps. The Allied forces, with the assistance of Darlan, soon took control of North Africa. As the PPA was unable to make any progress with the French and, with the support of the ulemas, Abbas dispatched the document outlining the demands for autonomy of Algeria, signed by 28 deputies and financial advisers, that was to become known as the Manifesto of the Algerian People on 10 February 1943.
The pressure increased on the French to allow greater autonomy in Algeria. The French resisted. The nationalists continued their demands, but Paris would not negotiate with them. Following discussions between Messali Hadj, speaking for the pro-independence PPA, Sheikh Bachir al-Ibrahimi for the ulemas, and Ferhat Abbas for those in favour of autonomy, the nationalists joined forces in a new movement, the Friends of the Manifesto and Freedom (AML). Although the PPA was part of this movement, it retained its independence. Its militants had more political experience, they knew how to play the Islamic card and they concentrated on challenging the legitimacy of colonial rule. The more activist and politically sophisticated young people in the cities followed suit. There were increasing signs of civil disobedience across the country. Positions hardened on both sides[i].
As tensions mounted the nationalists united under the leadership of Messali Hadj and there was talk of a campaign of civil disobedience. On 25 April 1945 Messali Hadj was abducted and deported to Brazzaville following incidents at Reibell, where he was under house arrest. This lit the fuse. The PPA, furious at the seizure of its leader, was determined to secure his release. The party decided to march in a separate contingent with its own slogans in the Labour Day procession on 1 May, since the largest trade union, the CGT, and the French and Algerian communist parties had remained silent on the nationalist issue.[ii]
This was further complicated by the ulemas calling for a jihad against the French. The French formed local militias and prepared for conflict.
The French Celebrate V-E By Massacring Algerians
On May 8, 1945, a day chosen by the allies to celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany as VE Day, thousands of Algerians gathered near the Abou Dher El-Ghafari mosque in Setif for a peaceful march - for which the sous-prefet had given permission. It was a market day. At 9am, led by a young scout Saal Bouzid, whose name had been drawn for the honour of carrying the national flag, the demonstrators set off. A few minutes later the crowd, chanting 'vive l'independance' and other nationalist slogans, waving banners calling for the release of Messali Hadj and Algerian independence, came under fire from troops commanded by General Duval and brought in from Constantine. Saal Bouzid fell dead, becoming a national martyr.
The scene soon turned into a massacre - the streets and houses being littered with dead bodies. Witnesses described terrible scenes - that legionnaires seized babies by their feet and dashed their heads against rocks, that pregnant mothers were disembowelled, that soldiers dropped grenades down chimneys to kill the occupants of homes, that mourners were machine gunned while taking the dead to the cemetery. The public record states that the European inhabitants were so frightened by the events that they asked that all those responsible for the protest movement should be shot.
The carnage spread and, during the days that followed, some 40,000 to 45,000 Algerians were killed. Villages were shelled by artillery and remote hamlets were bombed with aircraft. A Colonel in charge of burials being criticized for slowness told another officer 'You are killing them faster than I can bury them.'
After five days of chaos, French military and police restored order, but then carried out a series of reprisals for the attacks on settlers. The army, which included the Foreign Legion, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Senegalese, carried out summary executions in the course of a ratissage ("raking-over") of Muslim rural communities suspected of involvement. Less accessible mechtas (Muslim villages) were bombed by French aircraft, and the cruiser Duquay-Trouin standing off the coast in the Gulf of Bougie shelled Kerrata. Pied noir vigilantes lynched prisoners taken from local jails or randomly shot Muslims not wearing white arm bands (as instructed by the Army) out of hand. It is certain that the great majority of the Muslim victims had not been implicated in the original outbreak. These incidents led to the upsurge of the PPA and ultimately, 17 years later to the country's independence. In the retaliatory violence that immediately followed 104 Europeans were assassinated, but by the end several thousands were to die.
These incidents were particularly hard for Algerians who had fought the Nazis alongside the French forces, some of whom came home to find that their families had been decimated by the troops of General DeGaulle. Led by the FLN (the national liberation front) the independence struggle caused France to draft in thousands of troops. Despite opposition by Europeans living in the country a cease-fire was agreed to in March 1962. An extremist wing of the French Army, the OAS, expanded its campaign of murder, torture and destruction, carrying on despite the cease-fire.
Survivors say that to this day France as a colonial power has not had the courage to recognize the crimes carried out in its former colonies and that it pretends to be a champion of human rights. Ending the liberation war, the Evian Agreement declared that extremist French soldiers (both regular, OAS soldiers and pieds noir irregulars) would not be prosecuted for crimes carried out in Algeria. President Francois Hollands finally apologised for the Setif Massacre in 2012.
There is a good film about the massacre, “Outside the Law” by Raschid Bouchareb which was nominated best picture in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
It is interesting to reflect that both Jacques Chirac and Le Pen served in Algeria in the French Army. The French celebration of VE Day this year should include a moment of silence for the tens of thousands of Algerians massacred that day at the Massacre of Setif.