5m Africans, Carribeans and Asians who fought in WW1 and WW2: Spotlight on the Senegalese Riflemen (Tirailleurs Sénégalais)

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Senegalese Tirailleurs in Paris 1916
Tirailleurs sénégalais (Senegalese riflemen) walking through Paris in 1916.
Agence Rol: Sénégalais sur les boulevards, black-and-white photograph, Paris, 1916; source: Gallica, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rol 47060, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6946549s.r.

In 1857, the first permanent battalion of Senegal was formed by the military governor of Senegal, Louis Faidherbe (1818-1889). Senegal was one of the first coastal areas of Western Africa to come under French control. It was called the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. Tirailleur is French for Riflemen, and was a designation for the indigenous troops from Senegal in the Army. Later, Senegalese Tirailleurs started recruiting from other parts of western Africa and subsequently from the east and center, from a federation of 1.8 million square miles; but these troops were still identified with the Tirailleurs Sénégalais as a respect to the original origin.

During the early years, recruitment depended on the Slave Trade. The military authorities paid the enrolment bonus directly to the slave’s lord.  The “freed” slave then owed twelve to fourteen years of service to the army. Later, during the 1850’s these forces were professionalized and made permanent which attracted the young men of higher social status. This led to the creation of two regiments of Tirailleurs utilized for conquests and security in West Africa and other provinces.

Senegalese Tirailleurs uniform 1898 under Jean-Baptiste Marchand
Senegalese Tirailleurs under the command of Jean-Baptiste Marchand, 1898 Source: Wikimedia


Under the leadership of Louis Faidherbe, from 1857 to 1889, the Senegalese Tirailleurs wore a dark blue Zouave style uniform with yellow plaiting. A baggy blue tunic and pants worn with a red scarf called sash and Chechia fez then replaced this. Later in 1898, a light khaki field dress was adopted while in sweltering climate white trousers were worn.

Senegalese Tirailleurs - uniform Bertrand Malvaux
Senegalese Riflemen (Tirailleurs Senegalais) uniform, Source: Bertrand Malvaux

When the Senegalese units were sent to France in 1914, they wore another dark blue uniform underneath the standard medium-blue greatcoats of the French armed forces. In 1915 the dark blue was changed to sky – blue. Then in the next year a dark khaki uniform was worn by all french troops from the overseas.  All through these progressions the particular yellow sleeve and collar braiding was held. Also the fez, which was worn with a dreary cover to lessen visibility, was not changed.

Senegalese Tirailleurs kept on wearing these khaki uniforms until the World War II. The thickness and heaviness of the cloth depended on the weather conditions. Later during the World War II and after, they wore field uniforms same as the French units, which was for the most part with a dark blue cap and a red fez.


Conquest of Madagascar

Only a small troop of the Senegalese Tirailleurs took part in the Madagascar Conquest in 1895. Madagascar had been the target of invasion attempts by the Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British since the 1500s. At the time of the 19th century French attack, Queen Ranavalona III (Head of state of the kingdom of Merina) ruled Madagascar from 1883. The suzerainty of kingdom of Merina over other polities on the island was unacknowledged and already weak.

Madagascar Ranavalona_III_of_Madagascar in Algeria
Queen Ranavalona III, Source: public domain

Madagascar already had schools, hydraulic power for industrial factories and a trade agreement with the British. The French wanted to subdue Madagascar to take control of its lucrative trade in timber and exotic spices, such as Vanilla.

Prior to France attacking Madagascar, Britain had already entered a three-way negotiation with Germany and France to sell its trade rights with Northern Madagascar to France in exchange for rights over the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Germany at the Congo Conference of Berlin (Westafrika-Konferenz) agreed to betray Madagascar and fail to honour a “treaty of friendship” signed in 1884-1885, less than a year after signing it.

Berlin conference 1884-1885, as illustrated in Die Gartenlaube (Afrikakonferenz)
Berlin Congo conference (Afrikakonferenz) of 1884-1885, as illustrated in Die Gartenlaube. Source: public domain

Seizing control by France took place in two stages. First, in 1885 the French bombarded Tamatave starting the First Franco-Hova War (Hova referring to the andriana) and offered a protectorate treaty in exchange for stopping the attack. To end the attack, Queen Ranavalona III gave up Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) and paid random money of 560,000 gold Francs.

When the French also imposed a Resident-General on Antananarive (capital of the Kingdom of Merina), Queen Ranavalona III, along with the aristocracy of Hova (the Kingdom of Merina), rejected French garrisons. This led to the Second Franco-Hova War in 1895. A surprise attack was launched including the 40th infantry battalion of France and the Senegalese Tirailleur. This later attack led to the overthrow of Queen Ranavalona III.

Senegalese Tirailleurs - madagascar campaign
Capital of the Kingdom of Merina, Source: public domain

Marchand Mission

A small regiment of around 200 Senegalese Tirailleurs encountered the British and Egyptian Troops in Fashoda situated on the banks of the river Nile while they were on an expedition to discover unexplored territories under the French Colonial Rule.

World War I

In 1910, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais started to expand and by 1914, the Western Africa known as “inexhaustible reservoir of men” was able to provide almost at least 10,000 volunteers per year to the Troop. At the outbreak of the World War I, there were 31,000 Senegalese Tirailleurs in the French Army, which were divided into 21 battalions.

Picture from WW1, Source: public domain
Senegalese Tirailleurs www.senegal-online.com
Teenage Senegalese rifleman in the middle, Source: public domain

From 1914 to 1915 there was a steady increment, while in 1916, which was the emergency year, saw a remarkable convergence of 59,000 men. In response to the subsequent social and monetary strains and indigenous obstruction, the administration moderated the pace of enrolment in 1917. However, in 1918 there was tremendous increase of 63,000 recruitments due the new efforts of the colonial administration. France had therefore recruited 161,000 more men (compared to 1914) by the end of 1918.

Out of the 21 battalions, 5 Contingents were serving on the western front while the others helped the decreasing French Army in Morocco. The fifth battalion of the Senegalese Tirailleurs suffered a heavy loss of soldiers in the Battle of El Henry on 13 November 1914, with 646 of them dead. Some other battalions also found themselves in intense battles in Morocco, which were then fortified by 9,000 extra Senegalese Tirailleurs raised from French West Africa. They then won the Battle of Flanders in the late 1914 and captured of Fort de Douaumont in October 1916, but the losses during these battles were heavy; 3,000 – 4,000 Soldiers were lost during the Battle of Flanders alone.

senegalese tirailleurs cemetry Amiens_St_Acheul_Carré_musulman_de_la_nécropole_nationale
Muslim area of the national cemetery in Amiens (Saint-Acheul). In the foreground is a tombstone for a Senegalese rifleman killed at the Battle of the Somme. Source: public domain

The quantities of West Africans that joined into the French armed forces faded throughout the war. Around 30,000 Tirailleurs were counted dead during the First World War, and more than ten thousand were injured. Further to this loss of lives and war injuries, numerous families were left lamenting and without the support of their kins, as was the situation for all families around the world that sent troops after 1918.

World War II

During the World War II five regiments of Senegalese Tirailleurs were positioned in France and a Senegalese detachment in Algeria. A Senegalese battalion was sent permanently to the south of France, due to the fact that weather conditions there were most favorable and adaptable to the African fighters; and also because of the potential danger from Italy facing the South France. This arrangement of Tirailleurs in France emerged due to the losses of manpower in World War I, which had diminished the quantities of metropolitan Frenchmen in the military.

Amid the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France, the Senegalese and other African Tirailleur units displayed excellence in battles at Gien, Bourges and Buzancais. German troops instilled with Nazi racial conventions were outraged about battling against “inferior” rivals and at Montluzin Senegalese detainees were executed.

The Senegalese Tirailleurs served extensively in Italy and Corsica amid 1944, and also helped in the liberation of southern France.

Senegalese Tirailleurs ww2
Senegalese Riflemen in Europe, WW2 (source)

War away from the Field

Tirailleurs Sénégalais hold a special place among troops from the provinces who battled in the Wars. Beside setbacks, the dread of battle, and the daily practice of life as a trooper, West Africans had an exceptional experience encountering the French and the Europeans. Because of their tropical roots, there were many problems due to the winter climate on the Western Front. Due to this, the Tirailleurs tended to be assigned to either North Africa or, the south of France in Winter seasons. This shifting of bases was regarded as “wintering” among the white French soldiers. And this created a lot of intercultural and interracial contact, which in turn led to discrimination on the basis of French language, interpersonal relations and color line.

In 1915, the picture of a grinning West African warrior showed up on boxes of the prominent French breakfast drink Banania. This affirms to the ubiquity of the Tirailleurs but also testifies to the racialized and bigoted generalizations through which the French saw these men, at the time. Even after contributing vigorously to the French War efforts and managing prejudice at home and in the armed forces, the Senegalese were either denied or offered significantly lower pensions and salaries than their white comrades.

Disbanding the Tirailleurs

After the Liberation of France, the Tirailleurs wound up their services in Europe and were replaced with recently enlisted French volunteers on the request of Charles de Gaulle. In 1958-59 the Tirailleur units were broken down to a small extent, as the African soldiers were sent to recently formed national armed forces when the French provinces of West and Central Africa became independent. Still, considerable quantities of Tirailleurs kept on serving in the French Army as individual volunteers in the Colonial Infantry. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais lost their noteworthy historic character amid this procedure. The last Senegalese unit in the French Army was disbanded in 1964.


  • Charles Lavauzelle, pages 200-300 Les Troupes de Marine
  • Echenberg, Myron (1990). Heinemann, ed. Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa. pp. 98–99.
  • Andre Jouineau, Officers and Soldiers of the French Army 1918
  • Fogarty, Richard: Tirailleurs Sénégalais , in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08.
  • Matthew Patsis, The Legacy of African Veterans of World War II and their Role in the Independence Movements of the Mid-Century, Published : April 7th, 2017

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5m Africans, Carribeans and Asians who fought in WW1 and WW2: Spotlight on the Senegalese Riflemen (Tirailleurs Sénégalais)

by Editorial Team time to read: 7 min