Nine hundred and forty (940) African soldiers died at Camp Courneau during World War I. Santorri Chamley went to La Teste-de-Buch in France to find out who they were, what killed them and about the campaign to have them remembered.
The overlooked status of a World War I memorial for 940 African soldiers who died for France, and possibly medical science, has galvanised a remembrance campaign by Bordeaux’s Senegalese community and their French partners. The memorial, which stands beside the African soldiers’ tomb, is located in an isolated grove of trees off the “214” Forest Road near the Cazaux military base in La Teste-de-Buch, in the Gironde region of Southwest France. The African soldiers it commemorates were victims of a pneumonia epidemic that swept through the Courneau military camp in 1916-17.
Between 15,000-18,000 African soldiers, generically known as “tirailleurs sénégalais” (Senegalese infantrymen) were based at the camp during this period as part of France’s large African colonial army in WW1.
The memorial, known as the Nécropole Nationale du Natus, recognises 940 African and 12 Russian soldiers who died in the camp. A Christian cross, Islamic crescent moon and star, and other religious symbols on five separate gravestones are the only symbols offering clues to their lives. The names of the deceased are not listed, though research by local historian Jean-Michel Mormone and his late colleague, Patrick Boyer, has helped identify most of the buried men. These soldiers would have been among those who fought in the critical Battle of Verdun and served in France’s 43rd Senegalese Battalion, which took the fort of Douaumont in October 1916.
Led by the Bordeaux-based Gironde chapter of the French Union of Senegalese Workers (L’Union des Travailleurs Sénégalais, UTSF), a remembrance campaign is being run for Camp Courneau which includes an attempt to get the names of the African and Russian soldiers inscribed on the memorial. Malick Ndaw, a key player in the action and president of UTSF from 1994-2014, explains:
“It’s crucial to progress the engraving of the names during the centenary of the First World War. It provides an opportunity for the French government to make amends for its regretful lack of recognition for the African soldiers.”
He adds that UTSF, which has around 1,000 members in the Bordeaux region, is continuing to push for the inscription. The union also organises two annual events at the site, on 23 August and 11 November. The August event was launched in 2006 to concur with the “Memorial Day for all Tirailleurs”, which was established in Senegal in 2004 by former president Abdoulaye Wade. The November ceremony is part of the international Armistice commemoration.
Around 150 people typically attend these events, including war veterans, African and French dignitaries, members of Bordeaux’s Senegalese and African community, and French supporters. In addition to honouring the Camp Courneau’s African and Russian soldiers, Bordeaux’s Senegalese community is also active in remembering other forgotten soldiers in the Gironde region. These include Algerian and Moroccan soldiers buried in a cemetery in northern Bordeaux and African soldiers in Lectoure, in Gers. The Gironde region is closely linked to the history of African soldiers in France, including the popular Atlantic coastal town of Arcachon, which also has a war memorial where African soldiers are named and buried.
Ndaw emphasises the importance of young people learning about their story and contributions to the freedom of France. “Children today are far away from war times,” he says. “Not just the African children here in France but also French ones. We’re doing this so that they know what their grandparents and France’s colonial soldiers did, which is not in the history books.”