Foreign Soldiers Built the French Army
Not just the Légion Étrangère
At the end of World War II, the French Army was the fourth largest military force on the European continent, behind the Soviet Union, the United States’s expeditionary forces and Britain. The Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle had battled fascism alongside the Allied armies and marched straight into Paris.
France remained one of the world’s great powers, and received a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for these contributions. However, while the French military played a significant role in the war, it’s commonly overlooked that a generous portion of de Gaulle’s troops during the war—as in well over half—weren’t French.
Throughout much of France’s history, foreigners have been regular fixtures fighting on the side of French armies at home and abroad. Some fought for money, others for citizenship and many were conscripted from colonies and thrown into battle to fight for the interests of a country they’d never seen.
The Légion Étrangère, or Foreign Legion, is well known to even the most casual students of military history. It’s essentially a force for foreigners who agree to fight for France as mercenaries and has played a key role in French military history. But in addition to the legionnaires, the French military made liberal use of tirailleurs—units made up of troops recruited from colonies in Africa and Asia.
As the French began their conquest of Africa, they recruited Algerian Arabs and Berbers to fight for them. The French also relied heavily on Algerian troops to meet other commitments, utilizing them in the Crimean War, in Italy, Mexico and in the Franco-Prussian War.
As France expanded its reach in Africa, French commanders raised the Senegalese Tirailleurs corps. Despite its name, the corps drew in troops not just from Senegal but across West Africa and played a significant role in occupying territory throughout the continent.
During World War I, as casualties mounted, the French high command launched a major recruiting drive in the republic’s African colonies to bring tirailleurs to fight in Europe. On April 22, 1915, when German forces first used chlorine gas on the Western Front it was against members of the French 45th Division, which was composed in large part of Algerian tirailleurs and African light infantry.
The majority of French colonial troops killed in World War I were Muslims. To commemorate their deaths, the French built the Great Mosque in Paris in 1926 as a place of worship for Muslims living in France. Thousands of tirailleurs remained in Europe to compensate for the heavy losses the military took during the war.
Above—Senegalese soldiers on the Western Front in 1916. At top—an Algerian colonial soldier during the Battle of the Marne, 1914. National Library of France photo
This wasn’t without controversy. In 1919, the French Army occupied the German Rhineland with thousands of colonial soldiers among them. German nationalists were furious about the presence of Africans occupying German territories, whom they regarded as inferior.
However, in the Rhineland itself, locals often viewed the African troops differently. Compared to white French troops who were war weary and resentful of the Germans, the Africans were generally friendlier and more courteous in their interactions with the Germans. In some cases, African troops married German women or had liaisons out of wedlock. Some had children, who would come to be known as “Rhineland Bastards.”
Adolf Hitler wrote about them with vitriol in Mein Kampf, arguing that any relationship between German women and African troops amounted to the contamination of German bloodlines. “Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate,” he wrote.
When the Nazis took power, they targeted these offspring. In truth, they represented a small percentage of the already minuscule number of Afro-Germans—most mixed race Germans were the offspring of white German missionaries and their African wives. Nevertheless, the Nazi regime ordered that all black and mixed race children in the Rhineland be sterilized.
In May-June 1940, Germany unleashed the Blitzkrieg and decimated the French Army, overrunning thousands of colonial troops hastily deployed to bolster defenses. In many cases the Germans refused to take Africans prisoners, opting to execute them for their “inferior” heritage on the spot.
The remaining French troops who didn’t surrender fled to Britain or became guerrilla fighters, leading to the creation of the Free French Forces. Others joined the collaborationist Vichy government and served the Nazis.
The Vichy government took control of colonial holdings in Africa and Asia, including most of the colonial troops that included French settlers, Foreign legionnaires and indigenous tirailleurs. However, when the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, de Gaulle absorbed many of these troops into his small army—greatly bolstering his forces.
These troops engaged in heavy fighting during the Italian campaign as members of the French Expeditionary Forces. By this point well over half of all French troops were foreigners fighting under a French flag, and they were largely outfitted with American weapons and equipment. As the Allied armies planned the liberation of France itself, de Gaulle made it known that he believed French troops should liberate the capital.
The Allied High Command agreed but laid out a stipulation—it would have to be liberated by a unit made up of white troops only. “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel,” U.S. Maj. Gen. Walter Smith wrote in a January 1944 memo. “This would indicate the Second Armored Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”
“It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco,” British Gen. Frederick Morgan wrote to the Allied High Command. “Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.”
French commanders tried to find white troops to replace African ones. But as it stood, many of the white troops weren’t French either, but Spanish Republicans or members of the Foreign Legion. Finding a 100 percent French unit, let alone one that was all white, was going to be impossible.
Eventually, Allied commanders decided that they could accept allowing light-skinned Arab troops to fill the gaps as a mostly European unit entered Paris. As a result, the 2nd Armored Division was selected.
After France’s liberation, de Gaulle began demobilizing many of the Senegalese Tirailleurs and returning them back to postings in Africa or discharging them outright, replacing many with French partisans—even openly communist ones—in a process called “blanchiment” or “bleaching.” It was a complicated, and frustrating process.
In November 1944, former Senegalese POWs who had been repatriated learned that they would not receive the same pensions as their white comrades—as recruiters had promised earlier in the war—nor would they receive back pay for time spent in enemy captivity. They mutinied against colonial authorities, resulting in French troops killing dozens of still-serving tirailleurs. De Gaulle, worried about the possibility of wider revolt, ordered colonial authorities to quickly pay them.
While that was the beginning of end for the tirailleurs, French African troops would continue to play a role in the bloody last days of colonialism. French commanders used them in the jungles of Indochina hunting for Vietminh guerrillas as well as in the bloody counterinsurgency campaign in Algeria.
But the units were gradually disbanded as French colonies gained their independence, though several of these troops stayed on with the French military. Some members of black and Arab communities in France today are their descendants. France has wrestled with how to recognize the legacy of these soldiers, particularly as anti-immigrant sentiment rises.
In 2004, 60 graves in the Muslim section of a French war cemetery at Alsace were vandalized with swastikas and “SS” markings. In 2007, vandals struck Muslim war graves at the Notre-Dame de Lorette cemetery in Ablain Saint-Nazaire. And in 2008, vandals put swastikas on 500 Muslim military graves along with slurs directed at Rachida Dati, a French-born politician and daughter of Arab immigrants from France’s former colonies.
The recent French election that pitted the nationalist and anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen against independent centrist Emmanuel Macron evoked virulent debate over whether Arab and African immigrants deserve a place in French society. But many have already been buried there since long before either of them were born.