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A Picture From History: Senegalese Tirailleurs

Continuing our series, we explore a moment in world history caught on camera with the WWII Senegalese Tirailleurs. Come get your learn on!
Senagalese French soldiers
Senagalese French soldiers, France 1940

I’ll bet dollars to donuts that nearly everyone who reads this article won’t have heard of the Senagalese French soldiers.

While they served with distinction from 1870 to 1964, they are an often forgotten and ignored part of military history.

And honestly, I only heard their name in passing until I did dedicated research for this article.

While there are dozens of interesting anecdotes that might be told, for the moment we’ll focus on the Senegalese Tirailleurs of World War II.

Recruited by the French from their colonial holdings in Africa, the Senegalese Tirailleurs come from many regions in what was French West Africa, though that is also a misnomer since they actually came from Western, Central, and Eastern Africa.

Called “Senegalese” since the first regiment was formed in Senegal, “Tirailleurs” roughly translates to rifleman or sharpshooter. It was the name given by the French to their colonial troops.

Senegalese Tirailleurs CS-1 Edward Lengel
Senegalese Tirailleurs (image: Edward Lengel)

Due to the heavy losses of World War I, France was short of infantry to defend the homeland in the run-up to the Second World War. Five regiments of Senegalese Tirailleurs were posted along the south of France to defend against a possible attack from Italy.

Some 200,000 Senegalese Tirailleurs would serve during WWII and made up as much as 9% of the total French military.

They also faced some of the worst conditions and abuse at the hands of the Germans.

Senegalese Tirailleurs captured by German forces were often executed on site. The SS was especially brutal to them due to their Nazi ideology.

Senegalese Tirailleurs POWs
Senegalese Tirailleurs POWs (image James Whitlinger)

Senegalese Tirailleurs would fight valiantly during the Battle of France seeing combat at Gien, Bourges, and Buzancais. They also fought extensively in West Africa and Italy and assisted with the liberation of France in 1944.

In short — they served honorably and well in the service of the French.

But as happens too often in history, they did not receive the honors they deserved. After the war General Charles de Gaulle started the process of “blanchiment” of the French military, literally — whitening it.

de Gaulle, faced with restrictions on the size of the French military, wanted to incorporate the French partisan groups into the main army. To make room he dismissed the colonial troops from service and sent them back to their home nations.

The process was mishandled, abused, and troops such as the Senegalese Tirailleurs grossly disrespected. France refused to pay out back pay earned by the troops and this lead to mutinies that resulted in violence. Most notably the Thiaroye massacre in 1944 when French forces murdered some 300 Senegalese Tirailleurs.

Survivors of the massacre were imprisoned and deigned their veteran pensions for their service in WWII.

Senegalese Tirailleurs were also promised French citizenship, but the French government ignored this too after the war.

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. For another slice of world history, check out more Pictures from History: Vietnam ARVN Ranger and Gallipoli Campaign.

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9 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar

    Eye opening article David. Thank you. The story of the mistreatment of the Senegalese Tirailleurs following their sacrifices made on behalf of a country that previously oppressed them mirrors the injustices made against African American service men during and after WWII here in the United States. Charles de Gaulle isn’t the only one guilty of blanchiment.

    June 16, 2021 4:04 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    Fantastic article! Keep up the good work

    May 3, 2021 5:56 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Erich Tompkins

    This is really interesting- thanks for doing the research and sharing

    May 2, 2021 5:49 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Great article. Keep them coming.

    May 2, 2021 4:32 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    This way a great article! I'm glad Pew Pew Tactical is broadening there website content. Keep up the good work!

    May 2, 2021 11:08 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Phil RN

    Please keep up the history snippets.

    April 30, 2021 3:07 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    SSgt ret

    Love history, so more please

    April 30, 2021 1:45 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I liked this bit of history mixed in with the normal gun review articles

    April 30, 2021 12:16 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Rob K

    Very interesting and informative, nicely done!

    April 30, 2021 10:44 am
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