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My father served with the 808th Tank Destroyer Battalion during the war. This photo was among his possessions. It shows several German soldiers with what I believe are Senegalese Tirailleur prisoners of war. Can you confirm that? Did many Senegalese Tirailleurs fight during the war? And how were they treated as prisoners? —James Whitlinger, Allison Park, Penn.
This photo does indeed show Senegalese Tirailleur POWs being guarded by German soldiers. Senegalese Tirailleurs were French colonial light infantrymen; the surest sign of their identification is the anchor insignia on their helmets. France originally raised the corps in 1857 in Senegal and later expanded recruitment to all French colonies in West Africa.
During World War II the French recruited 179,000 Tirailleurs; some 40,000 were deployed to Western Europe. Many were sent to bolster the French Maginot Line along its border with Germany and Belgium during the German invasion in 1940—where many were killed or taken prisoner. After the fall of France, others served in the Free French army in Tunisia, Corsica, and Italy, and in the south of France during the liberation.
As prisoners of the Germans, they fared poorly. As many as 3,000 Senegalese Tirailleurs may have been killed after they surrendered; others were abused en route to POW camps; deprived of food, drink, and shelter once there; or executed for minor infractions. On top of that, writes German historian Raffael Scheck in Hitler’s African Victims: The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940, the Germans treated them as curiosities: “Witnesses and surviving photos indicated that some German soldiers and guards took pride in posing with black POWs for a picture.”
After the war, the French government showed no gratitude for the Tirailleurs’ help in defending the country. Following the liberation, General Charles de Gaulle engaged in a process known as “blanchiment” (“whitening”), replacing colonial army units with French Partisans. As the Senegalese Tirailleurs made their way home, the government treated them shamefully. On the night of November 30, 1944, at a demobilization camp at Thiaroye, Senegal, Senegalese Tirailleurs mutinied over a dispute about back pay, discharge allowance, and exchange rates; French soldiers shot as many as 300 of them. France acknowledged only 35 deaths but quickly paid off the survivors. To this day the incident, known as the Thiaroye Massacre, is shrouded in mystery and secrecy.
While one can only wonder about the fate of these particular men, the photo serves to remind us of these little-remembered soldiers of World War II. ✯
—Tom Czekanski, senior curator and restoration manager, The National WWII Museum
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This article was published in the April 2020 issue of World War II.