The whitewashing of French forces in the liberation of Paris - Steven Johns

Senegalese troops who fought for the French as prisoners of war in Europe

A short account of how American and British commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris was orchestrated by a “whites only” force.

Operations

The BBC uncovered documents revealing that black colonial soldiers, who made up the majority of General De Gaulle’s Free French army were removed from the unit that led the Allied recapture of the city.

In the planning of the liberation exercise, Charles de Gaulle wanted to ensure his Free French force led the operation. He was anxious to assert his authority in post-Nazi France, to avoid the Resistance - much of which was made up by communists and working class radicals - taking power.

Allied High Command agreed, but on the condition that the division which did so should not contain any black soldiers.

Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, wrote in a confidential memo:

It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.
This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.

British General, Frederick Morgan wrote:

It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.
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.

Due to the fact that West African conscripts made up 65% of the Free French army, finding an all-white division proved impossible

Mike Thompson for the BBC reported that as a result:

Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.
When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.

Indeed, the shortage of white French soldiers was one of the reasons for using the 9th Company, of Spanish anarchist and Republican exiles in the mission.

Celebrations

Black fighters were not just barred from the military operation, some were also rejected from the liberation celebrations.

Pictured, above right, is French resistance fighter Georges Dukson, near General De Gaulle during the official celebrations.

Dukson had enrolled in the French army in 1940, and lived underground during the Nazi occupation. He was part of the resistance, and played an important role during the Paris insurrection in 1944, where he was put in charge of the unit for his bravery. He was then promoted to Sublieutenant and was wounded in action when he was shot in the arm.

Shortly after the above photograph was taken, he was marched away from the event at gunpoint.

Aftermath

17,000 of France’s black soldiers had previously died resisting the Nazi invasion.

But after being excluded from the liberation, many of them just had to return their uniforms and were sent home. Even the method of repatriation was brutal.

In late November, 1944, around 1300 former Senegalese servicemen who had been prisoners of war in Europe and had been returned home protested against poor treatment and lack of pay. Dozens of them were massacred by French troops, and some of the survivors were subsequently jailed for 10 years.

To add insult to injury, their pensions were frozen in 1959.

One former French colonial soldier, Issa Cisse from Senegal, told the BBC:

We, the Senegalese, were commanded by the white French chiefs.
We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that said, do this, do that, and we did. France has not been grateful. Not at all.

This story of the racism, colonialism and violence of the Allies, is just one of many similar tales - like the Bengal famine, the Hitler Stalin pact, the British massacre of anti-fascist Greeks - which give weight to the perspective that World War II was not a fight against racism and for democracy, but more a battle between rival empires.

This idea is explored much further in the excellent book, Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, by James Heartfield .

Sources

Posted By

Steven.
Aug 24 2016 22:26

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  • It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel

    Major General Walter Bedell Smith

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Comments

jesuithitsquad
Aug 25 2016 04:05

An interesting bit of history I did not know. Thanks for doing this.

Steven.
Aug 31 2016 17:57
jesuithitsquad wrote:
An interesting bit of history I did not know. Thanks for doing this.

No problem. I hadn't heard of it until someone on the Working Class History Facebook mentioned it in a comment.

(Also just a bump because I have updated the text above to add an additional section about the liberation celebrations)

Khawaga
Aug 31 2016 18:47

Thanks for writing it up. I had no idea this happened, but I can't say I'm surprised.

TMF
Aug 27 2018 21:43

I'm adding a comment onto here to clear up some of the inaccuracy on the figures.
The confusion has come due to the poor translation of the word 'indigenes' which has been translated to mean 'black' and therefore in the article says 'West African conscripts made up 65%' which is incorrect. Indigenes means indigenous and therefore includes all African soldiers. The vast majority of African Free-French troops came from the Mahgreb not black Africa and were therefore Arab, Mahgrebi Jews and Berbers not west African or black.
To also say 65% of Free French were troops Indigenes is also only partially correct. What it should say is when the Normandy campaign was planned in early 1944, 65% of troops were non-whites. This changed through the course of 1944-5 though. The French army sent to Italy comprised of 40% French and 60% Colonials.This is mentioned in 'Le Corps expéditionnaire français en Italie' by Paul Gaujac. LeClercs 2nd Armour and the 1st Armoured division (who landed in Operation Dragoon) comprised of 75% Europeans and 25% Mahgrebi. 2nd Armour still included 3,600 Mahgrebs when it liberated Paris and 350 Spanish Republicans. The majority of colonial troops landed in the South of France in August 1944. Just after the liberation of Paris, figures for early September 1944 show the Free French forces comprised of 550,000 men. 225,000 were white: 195,000 Pied-Noirs (French settlers in the colonies) 25,000 metropolitan and 5,000 foreign Europeans. 325,000 were colonial: 233,000 Maghreb and 92,000 black Africans. This is mentioned in Phillipe Buttons book 'La france et les français de la liberation 1944-1945/ vers une france nouvelle ?'. This would mean 41% were European and 59% Colonial at this stage. As the weather grew colder and a massive influx of french citizens (many former resistance fighters) joined the Army, the African troops were replaced by young Frenchmen in September 1944, with many being repatriated. Lots of information on the 1er division Francaise Libres site. By the end of the war the Free French numbered 1.3 million men strong the majority being white french.
Many of the Black Africans had been there since the early days of the free french, they were extremely brave and were extremely unfairly treated by the French state after the war. One account about a Senegalese soldier talks about how his fingers had swollen in the cold but was determined to continue. But for sake of accuracy I wanted to clear this up otherwise readers would get a wrong impression from the article and the Facebook caption.

Steven.
Aug 30 2018 03:50

Thanks for that additional information. I do believe you, however can you provide a source for this info? As it does contradict my original sources

Mike Harman
Aug 30 2018 04:09

Had to read the post twice but there are two sources given:

'Le Corps expéditionnaire français en Italie' by Paul Gaujac
Phillipe Buttons book 'La france et les français de la liberation 1944-1945/ vers une france nouvelle ?'