The role of African people is often overlooked in both the World Wars. At the time of the World Wars, Africa was split between the British, the Germans and the French, with all three countries colonizing large parts of the population. Naturally, Africa was dragged into both World Wars, though its role in helping win the war for the Allies in underappreciated.
One such nation which contributed a large number of troops to the war efforts is Madagascar. Their efforts are underlined here, but have been ignored by many in the West, who see the World Wars as Europe based, ignoring the many sacrifices of people from Africa and Asia, to save the Allies during the War.
In 1897, the French launched an expedition to depose the Queen of what is now Madagascar. Through force, and some little diplomacy, they imposed a protectorate treaty on the population. Due to a popular uprising against French rule, pacification operations had to be held, which involved modernizing the country. However, they give no real representation to the local people who were treated as second class citizens in their own country.
First World War
When the World War begun, the British and the French started enlisting the colonized people into their armies. In the four years of the war, 45,000 Malagasy men served the French Army, out of which 41,000 were assigned into specially dedicated Malagasy infantry units. The other 4,000 included administrative staff and nurses.
In addition to this, nearly 5,000 Malagasy were summoned to France to work in munition factories for the French. These people played a huge role in keeping the war machine going.
The Malagasy troops fought with great valor and bravery. Two thousand four hundred men died in battle while around 1800 more were wounded. The Malagasy 12th infantry battalion was cited three times as ‘magnificent’ during the operations in 1918. For their bravery, the battalion received the Croix de guerre, with a silver star, exemplifying their bravery in the war.
However, despite their service, these troops were not given the same respect as the French troops. The Malagasy who died during the battle for France were buried primitively at the military cemeteries in Frejus. It was only later in 1966 that they were reinterred with proper honor.
Second World War
Despite all the promises given in World War 1, not much changed. While the French continued modernizing the island, there were not many administrative changes. However, despite all these broken policies, 10, 500 men responded to the French call and enlisted for the French Army. A third of these would die in battle. However, the 3rd and 11th artillery along with the 42nd Malagasy infantry units earned a reputation for their bravery, and unwillingness to back down. They entered the war on the side of the allies.
Malagasy troops captured by the Germans were summarily executed and depicted as black savages who showed no mercy to the enemy.
After the armistice between the French and the Germans, the Vichy Government retained control of the Island. With the Vichy government still retaining control of the land, this placed the Malagasy on the side of the Axis Forces. This was not, however, due to support of the Germans, but because of the Vichy French Government.
With Japan entering the war, the British decided to invade the Island to retain control of the Indian Ocean. This was dubbed Operation Ironclad. The English landed on Diego-Suarez and defeated the Vichy French forces who were forced to retreat.
It was here that the Malagasy French Forces truly played their part. Familiar with the terrain, the majority Malagasy forces launched a vigorous defense of their Island, which lasted up to 2 months The Governor finally surrendered on 5 November 1942, but these battles shook Madagascar.
They were finally handed back to the French in December. This placed them back on the side of the allies. Those prisoners who had escaped from German Imprisonment were more than eager to fight back against the enemy and fought bravely.
Post Vichy France
Madagascar would remain in the hands of the Allies after this victory in 1942. With the war in Asia and the Middle East raging on, it would become an important place for shipping lines to pass through and link the war efforts with Western Europe. Diego Suarez, where the British landed, was heavily defended from Japanese Submarines, and more and more Allied Ships were docked there to take control of the Indian Ocean.
In the hands of the Free French Forces, a Commissioner was appointed to take control of the area. The Germans did not give up hope of reclaiming the Island, as U-Boats continued to operate around Madagascar. Around August 1944, three U-Boats sunk 8 Merchant ships that were en route to Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel. A few weeks later, a Greek Freighter would be sunk off the coast of Madagascar. This prompted even more Allied Ships to Madagascar, as it was considered highly important to the war efforts.
With the importance of the area growing, French treatment of Madagascar would soon improve. Charles De Gaulle, the President of France in the World War gave representation in the National Assembly to Madagascar. This was to prevent rebellion, as more and more Malagasy were wondering if they might as well gain independence from the French.
This would lead to continued support from the Malagasy Armed Forces in the World War, and they played their part in the defeat of Hitler. They remain underappreciated however, as the French have still not given them the recognition, they deserve for their valor in both World Wars.
Monuments to the War Efforts
In Monthermé, Ardennes, there lies a monument to the 42nd Malagasy Infantry Units mentioned above. They died fighting in France, defending the crossing of Meuse from the German invaders.
Another monument to the brave soldiers from Madagascar lies in Laxou. This commemorates those who were executed by the Germans, who depicted them as savages. When they complained of not been given food, seven of them were killed on the spot. Their bodies lie in Laxou, as a testament to the bravery of the men, in fighting for France.
After the World War
With Representation in the National Assembly, it was only a matter of time before they submitted a bill to gain Independence. This was rejected by France, and with the return of the Malagasy troops, led to further demands of independence. With them being treated as second class citizens, despite having risked their lives for the French, this angered the Malagasy. This led to an uprising that would eventually lead to independence in 1960.
Richard E. Osborne, World War II in Colonial Africa: The Death Knell of Colonialism (Published in 2001).
Riebel-Roque PubISBN 978-0-9628324-5-1. Ian M. Malcolm (1 July 2013