80 years ago, French Africa was born

On August 26, 1940, through the voice of its Governor Félix Éboué, Chad was the first colony to join French France. A few days later, it was Cameroon and the French Congo’s turn to do the same. Brazzaville then becomes the capital of French Africa.

“In the interests of France and the Empire and to avoid destroying territory, I decided, in full agreement with the Commander – in – Chief, to establish a policy involving the Union with the French French forces of General deGaulle and cooperation between our British allies and us.” August 26, 1940, a few weeks after the coat of arms It is with these words written in a telegram that Governor Félix Éboué announces that he continues the fight.

The official call telegram from Chad to French France, signed by Félix Éboué and Colonel Marchand, 26 August 1940. © Archive Nationales d’Outre-Mer (Anom)

He proclaimed the unification of Chad into French France, giving it the first territory of French French Africa. In the following days, Congo-Brazzaville and Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic) in turn announced their support.

For France 24, the historian Eric Jennings, professor of contemporary history at the University of Toronto and author of “Free France was African” (Perrin editions) looks back on this resistance to Nazi Germany that was not only waged in France or London but also in Africa. These territories brought both men and resources to French France.

France 24: On August 26, 1940, Chad, through his governor Félix-Éboué, rallied to liberate France. Why does he make this choice?

Eric Jennings:The collection of Chad decided by its Governor FélixÉboué is motivated by several factors. At the end of June 1940, rumors spread about the arrival of an Italian weapons commission. Chad shares its northern border with Mussolini Libya. Eboué is determined to avoid this humiliation and to continue the struggle, especially as the proximity to Italy offers just such an opportunity. In addition, as a leftist and colorist, and also a Freemason, Éboué rejects the turn taken by the new so-called Vichy government, and in particular its first exclusive measures. This is the case, and Governor Éboué also has practical sense; Before announcing his meeting to General de Gaulle, French France, he negotiated with the authorities in neighboring British Nigeria. The rally must really open up Chad and, for example, secure sales for its cotton production. Éboué must finally convince the military elements in Chad of the benefits of a rally. We must not forget that by joining Gaulle in 1940, we risk everything: it is a hope for the unknown. Those who do so rightly fear for their careers, for their families who remained in France, etc. Vichy also condemns many of the leaders of Free France to death in absentia.

General de Gaulle's arrival in Brazzaville on October 24, 1940.
General de Gaulle’s arrival in Brazzaville on October 24, 1940. © Wikimedia

How important is this gathering to General de Gaulle?

This gathering is the capital of De Gaulle because he, who had previously hoped to continue the battle from Algeria, had seen only one colonial territory gather for him on July 20, 1940. It was a very modest archipelago. of the New Hebrides[situé sur l’actuel territoire du Vanuatu]was divided for a long time between Great Britain and France. The rebel general also has no constitutional or international legitimacy. Suffice it to say that before August 26, 1940, he was completely dependent on the good grace of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The tribulations at the end of August 1940 suddenly brought a tax base, subjects, combatants, territorial bases and a certain legitimacy. Everything changed between 26 and 28 August 1940.

On August 27, 1940, it was the turn of French Cameroon to gather, then Congo. How are these meetings conducted?

Chad’s rally is decided from within; in Cameroon and the Congo it is the other way around. So much so that some historians have questioned the validity of the term “collect.” The decisive driving force comes from outside, from dispatchers sent by Gaulle from London: Philippe Leclerc in Cameroon and Edgard de Larminat in the French Congo. It should be noted that in the territories that affect us, the European population, let alone the African population, is never heard: the change of August 1940 is not a referendum, but rather a kind of coup. In addition, there are very modest operations that make these territories in Vichy happy, a kind of scam. Thus, on August 27, Cameroon was captured by 24 men armed with 17 pistols borrowed from the British. As for Edgard de Larminat, he succeeded in convincing the soldiers on the ground in Brazzaville, starting with African non-commissioned officers reluctant to take the lead. party of a regime that advocates a compromise with Hitler to expel General Husson loyal to Vichy. The overseas archives have photographs showing the draft of the latter manu militia. These changes are really a kind of coup.

Expulsion of Vichy Governor General Husson from Brazzaville, 28 August 1940
Expulsion of Vichy Governor General Husson from Brazzaville, 28 August 1940 © Archive Nationales d’Outre-Mer (Anom)

You write in your book that “the archetypal resistance fighter during the first hour is not a Savoyard wearing a beret, but rather a Chadian, a Cameroonian or a resident of what was then called Ubangi-Chari”[actuelle Centrafrique]. What role did these African warriors play in the early days of resistance?

Between 1940 and 1943, Free France recruited more than 17,000 fighters in French Equatorial Africa (AEF) and Cameroon, in addition to the thousands of men already lying on the ground in these territories at the gathering. There is no consensus on the estimates of the first French French forces, but these figures suggest that at least about a third of all free French warriors in 1941 came from sub-Saharan Africa. This is a consequence of intensive recruitment in Africa, of course, but also, we all too often forget that Free France is attractive in European public opinion before 1942. Historian Jean-François Muracciole has really emphasized the great remembrance in the recruitment of Europeans in the French the French route between the tragedy in Dakar in September 1940 and the end of 1942. For all these reasons, it is advisable to complete the portrait of the free Frenchman in the first hour: Leclerc’s fighters in the Sahara in 1941 were overwhelmingly African, mainly Chadians, Cameroonians and Central Africans.

It should also be remembered that the first French victory under the French French flag took place in southern Libya, at Koufra in 1941. Leclerc’s troops crossed the Sahara from Chad to take this fortress. This was followed by a continuous involvement of the African units in French France in the Horn of Africa, in Libya, then in Tunisia.

What were the motivations of these men?

Among the volunteers there are several motives: anti-Nazism, idealism, but also the pursuit of a career or specific education, such as the Cameroonian drivers of General Leclerc, who play a crucial delivery role in the Sahara. Others choose the army to avoid forced labor on construction sites or in mines, while others are recruited under dubious conditions.

So not all of them were volunteers?

No. If it is impossible to restore the exact proportions of volunteers from the sources available, we know that some African recruits then bear the label “volunteer” and others do not. Outside the cities, subcontractors are often recruited: recruiters trust local leaders and call on them to quickly get a number of men to them. A large number of recruitments of this type do not know what they are involved in: some do not speak French and do not understand the commitment they present to them. Others try to escape within hours of being incorporated. There are cases of forced recruitment in all major territories affecting us, from Chad to Gabon via Cameroon.

A tirailleur who received the cross of the Order of Liberation from General de Gaulle, in Brazzaville.
A tirailleur who received the cross of the Order of Liberation from General de Gaulle, in Brazzaville. © Library of Congress

In your book,you also mention that Africa has not only brought with ittroops to liberate France, but also resources?

In fact, the AEF and Cameroon are supplying their resources to the Allies and to French France. The region has long produced hardwood, wax, cotton and palm kernels. But the most important goods from 1940 are gold, rubber and rutile, the metal used in armor. Gold feeds the coffers of French France, allowing it to deviate somewhat from its dependence on Britain. If the gold is primarily intended for the French French chests, the rubber will rather increase the weight of Free France with its allies. In 1942, after the Japanese drilling in Southeast Asia, Washington and London launched an SOS: their reserves of this important ingredient for military vehicle tires were depleted. The free French authorities are reacting. AEF and Cameroon then suffered from rubber fever between 1942 and 1944.

Why do you think AEF and Cameroon’s participation in French France is no better?

This is a complex issue. In the euphoria of 1944-1945, colonial troops were seldom placed in the foreground, and there were some exceptions, such as an exhibition held in the Grand Palais about the role of the colonies in victory. Overall, however, the emphasis is rather on the maquis, FFI, internal resistance that began much later (1943), at the expense of the first resistance which is Free France. However, the chronology alone cannot explain everything, as the African forces are still active in 1945, availableto clean the last German bastions from the pockets of the Atlantic. In any event, as far as public opinion was concerned, at the time of the liberation and in the years that followed, Free France was neglected in the broadest sense in relation to internal resistance.

Can a second marginalization work. Within French France, the early contributions of Central Africa were also smaller than those of North Africa (beginning in 1943) and of the metropolis (1943 for Corsica, 1944 for the rest of France). The end result, the oblivion of the role of AEF and Cameroon, is all the more surprising as the priority of engagement is usually counted among the French and French: the commitment in 1940, rather than 1942 for example, is generally a source of pride and glory. It is therefore surprising that neither Brazzaville nor London received the title for that matter Companion of the order of liberationunlike Paris, Nantes, Grenoble, Vassieux-en-Vercors or Île de Sein. It is ultimately a very hexagonal vision that has covered the reality of a remarkably cosmopolitan and manifold free France.