Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Free French Africa in World War II


In June 1940 , France crumbled under the German blitzkrieg. The roughly forty thousand Africans in French uniform during the May–June campaign fought valiantly and died in droves during the brief and tragic Battle of France. German forces infamously committed war crimes against African soldiers who had surrendered, summarily executing approximately 3 ,000  of them immediately after fighting ceased. Nazi propaganda reels mocked African prisoners and derided the French high command for using black combatants. Captured black troops, hailing predominantly from French West Africa, would spend much of the remainder of the war in prisoner camps, guarded first by Germans, then astonishingly as of 1943 , by Vichy French guards.

These events are well established, recounted by historians, some of the stock images shown and re-shown in documentaries starting with The Sorrow and the Pity. What seems less recognized is that only months after France’s defeat, another army was raised in French Africa to fight the Nazis. In late August 1940 , Charles de Gaulle’s Free French seized Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa (FEA), vast territories spanning from south of the equator to the Sahara. They promptly turned them into the first hotbed of French resistance. Free French Africa lent immediate credibility, legitimacy, manpower, and revenue to de Gaulle’s movement in its infancy, when it was most fragile. It is the story of this improbable French military and institutional rebirth through Central Africa that I wish to tell here.

“With what rage anti-Gaullists of both the left and the right, the Communists and the Vichyites, relentlessly propagate the myth of a London Resistance. To both sides, I counter with the truth: Free France was African.” So claimed prominent Free Frenchman and ethnologist Jacques Soustelle in his memoirs. Indeed, in the fall of 1940 , London offered Free France neither combatants, raw materials, territory, nor sovereignty. Territorially, Free France spanned from the Libyan border with Chad to the Congo River, and to the scattered small French territories of the South Pacific and India. Without the support of these colonial holdings, what credibility, what international recognition, what counterweight to Vichy’s legitimacy could a maverick general in London have mustered? While we now know in detail the motivations of Felix Eboue, the black Guyanese governor who rallied Chad to de Gaulle on August 26, 1940, not to mention the exploits of the French domestic resistance, the fate of the first Gaullist bastions of FEA and Cameroon has remained curiously overlooked, save for a handful of specialized French-language studies concentrating predominantly on Gabon and Cameroon.

Between August 1940  and the summer of 1943 , the heart of Free France was not located in London, as standard accounts would have us believe, but rather in Free French Africa. Instead of a beret-coiffed white maquisard in the Alps, the archetypal early French resistance fighter between 1940 and  1943 was, in fact, black and hailed from Chad, Cameroon, or Oubangui-Chari (modern-day Central African Republic). Some of these early fighters volunteered; others did not. For a movement whose glory rested in part on the notion of personal and patriotic commitment, this revelation alone shifts our understanding of Free French ranks. In addition, histories of the Resistance teach us that the metropolitan French maquis only gained momentum in  1943; we also know from Jean-Francois Muracciole’s work that between the fiasco at Dakar on September  25,  1940, and the end of  1942, Free France struggled mightily to recruit outside of its colonial holdings. It is thus tempting to situate the lion’s share of the first armed French resistance between the Sahara Desert and the Congo River. This of course, leads us to “rethink France from its colonies,” a current historiographical trend, and already a pressing imperative of General de Gaulle’s in  1940. Indeed, one of de Gaulle’s first steps involved his June  1940 calls exhorting colonials to join him, if possible with their territories.

Has the story of Free French Africa really been forgotten? Aside from a few exceptions such as at the Mont Valerien memorial outside of Paris, one looks in vain for plaques or testimonials to FEA and Cameroon’s contribution to the Free French cause. To be sure, recent histories have recognized the crucial role of French colonial troops in general during the twentieth century’s two world wars. The topic, broadly conceived, even captured the public imagination with the release of Rachid Bouchareb’s 2006  film Indigenes, dubiously translated into English as Days of Glory. A year later, Jean-Francois Muracciole, Francois Broche, and Georges Caıtucoli broke a taboo by asserting that “the majority of the Free French who saved the nation’s honor in 1940  were not French citizens.” But even here, FEA and Cameroon’s contributions remained largely underrecognized. Many a narrative, starting with Bouchareb’s film, commences in 1943  with French North and West Africa’s entry into the fray. This broken chronology has served to obscure another reality and memory: the tens of thousands of Chadian, Congolese, Cameroonian, Gabonese, and Central African soldiers in de Gaulle’s camp since August 1940 , who managed to wage battle against the Axis from early 1941  onwards.

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