Earlier this week I was set a challenge: to research and write an essay (fortunately there were no criteria about quality) using solely sources freely available on the internet. The title and subject matter: the tirailleurs sénégalais in the Algerian War (it is after all what we’re interested in here and what this site is mainly focussed on). The idea was to see whether or not it could be done or if I’ll just come up against a brick wall of ignorance and shouting that can only be resolved by looking at books or academic articles.
There’s also one further limitation (as if there weren’t enough already) I’m not allowed to use the AOH website because apparently that might be considered cheating.
So pretending I know absolutely nothing about any of the essay’s main protagonists and therefore starting out from complete scratch let’s start with a bit of research. First up the tirailleurs themselves, and Google!
Google’s autocomplete after typing in tirailleurs sénégalais comes up (as you can see below) with the options of ‘1940’, ‘world war ii’ and ‘wwii’. Which are not what we’re after.
We all know that the first couple of results google comes up with are Wikipedia based (which was always drummed into my student head as unworthy of consultation) so we’ll skip over those and go straight for … ‘Think Africa Press’ Remembering the tirailleurs sénégalais. Here we learn about the tirailleurs and their uneasy relationship with France. Which could be useful as background. There’s no mention of Algeria. And I’ve no idea who Rose Bewick is who wrote it, but she seems nice enough.
The next attempt was a link to a blog by a chap called Abagond. From the feel of the page I get the impression that he or she is an African American taking an interest in whatever pops into his head. The little essay about the tirailleurs he’s produced seems to rail more against the American Army and its racial problems than about the French. Admittedly he touches on the fact the tirailleurs fought (or at least were present in) the Algerian War, but that’s about it. Problems with the source: it’s a blog, no one’s really checking if its true or not though he does say he got the figures from the BBC.
Further down (and this is the last one I promise before we try looking for information about the Algerian War) is a link to RFI (a well-known and reputable French media chain) and a search on their website brings up a cacophony of tirailleurs related articles. Some do not seem to have much to do with the tirailleurs at first glance (or at least they are only vaguely related – for example an article on flooding in Senegal) and most are about their battles in the First and Second World Wars. Some interesting items include an investigation of the massacre at Clamecy (where 44 tirailleurs were killed) and an article describing a memorial service for the tirailleurs in 2012 at the Arc de Triomphe.
But we’re still none the wiser about their role in Algeria.
The search terms ‘Algerian War’ and ‘Guerre d’Algérie’ come back (unsurprisingly) with 1,860,000 and 2,270,000 results respectively on Google. So there’s a lot of stuff out there. I stumbled across a YouTube channel, YouTube videos (of which this one has funky music and some fascinating photos – in one of the pictures I’m fairly sure there’s a tirailleur) and a lovely little website very similar in idea to our very own AOH but done by 16-18 year olds (http://guerredalgerie.free.fr/) but ultimately I think that this needs refining. Of the vast amounts the first and easiest and (probably) the ‘best’ source comes from the encyclopaedia Larousse but there is no mention of the tirailleurs. They cover the basics, what happened when, who the main actors were etc. So, if anything, it’s probably good for background again.
Attempts to refine didn’t work too well for English internet sources – the search engine prefers the word torture to tirailleur for some reason – but we still found a couple of interesting articles and writings from, in particular, Black Past (which sounds the alarm bells when checking for bias… the tagline is ‘remembered and reclaimed’ (emphasis added). This tells us a bit more about their involvement in the World Wars but annoyingly limits the Algerian conflict to one sentence: “The Tirailleurs Senegalais controversially participated in the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria in the 1950s, although some troops protested the involvement” a tantalising glimpse that you only wish they’d elaborated upon.
The French internet search looks much more interesting because look what I’ve found on l’Express: 4 little interviews with 4 ex-tirailleurs! How promising is that! And it’s on a reputable media website so eminently trustworthy!
And another rather interesting source from poteapote: where we find little interviews with people from the foyers! There are a even a couple of brief mentions of Algeria and that.
After all this very hard work I must confess I gave into temptation and had a look (very briefly I promise) at the Wikipedia entries for Tirailleurs Sénégalais. The English article does mention that they fought in Algeria and Indochina, how many of them were there and even details the type of action they would have been used for – quadrillage. The French version mentions only in passing that they fought in the Algerian War. There isn’t an Arabic version of the article and the German version is a bit light on information. Hmm. Anyway, both articles don’t provide many sources for this particular section which was what I was mainly hoping for from Wikipedia, so we’ll have to look elsewhere.
Then I turned to a cunning trick when searching the interweb. I used a term that could only really be used in conjunction with the Algerian War – fellagha – with the term tirailleurs and look what it got me!: Page 32 of a recount of the Algerian War by, it seems, a young soldier (from the Vendée) fighting on the French side. It is an account of his time in the French army as a young recruit of 20 years of age and is addressed to his children and grandchildren; he obviously feels this is a story that needs to be told. Now I don’t have time to read the whole thing, it could be very interesting, but Page 32 shows him going out to rescue a wounded tirailleur with a Sergeant Slimi (an Algerian fighting for France).
And with that I think I’ll try and write myself an essay. It’s not going to be easy but I’ll give it my best shot using all the stuff I’ve found in the way I’ve lovingly described to you all. And to find out how that went, click here…