Let us now praise some un-famous men: the several hundred African conscripts killed or wounded fighting on the orders of their French overlords to liberate the Italian island of  Elba from the Nazis 75 years ago last Monday.

The big news in Marina di Campo this week was that the beach had been re-sanded in time for the tan-seeking summer crowds. That it had once been littered with dead and dying Senegalese tirailleurs (riflemen) — grandfathers, perhaps, of the immigrants now pushing Europe to the xenophobic right  — went unremarked.

I would not have known about Operation Brassard either had not my father covered it for the Associated Press. He landed with the first wave. In the cable he dictated from a hospital bed next day, he reported: “Senegalese never faltered even though many fell”. They had carried him to shelter after shrapnel put him down.

Victory was hard earned. The first troops ashore were stranded as German mortars, machine guns, artillery and phosphorus forced those still at sea to turn back and seek a less defended bay. Of 48 British commandos who went in to deal with a German flak barge whose 88’s flanked the primary landing beach, 38 did not come back.

Between the outbreak of the war in September 1939 and the fall of France in June 1940, the French mobilised some 100 000 troops from their West African possessions, writes Myron Eichenberg in Colonial Conscripts. In the face of blitzkrieg, “Africans fought tenaciously and retreated in orderly fashion before overwhelmingly superior forces”.

10 000 died between May and June 1940, Eichenberg estimates.  Another 15 000, including Leopold Senghor who would lead Senegal to independence, were taken prisoner.  As many as half did not survive. Captured Africans, read an order from the German high command, were “to be treated with the greatest rigour”.

While it still controlled French West Africa, Vichy France conscripted Africans to defend against British invasion. After November 1942, these and subsequent recruits found themselves serving De Gaulle’s Free French.  Many, according to the Italian writer Francesca Camminoli in her deeply researched — and very moving — novel, La Guerra di Boubacar (Boubacar’s War), were more or less press-ganged from rural villages. Men like these would form the core of the Free French Army’s rank and file until France’s liberation.

Did it make sense to sacrifice them against a well-dug-in but ultimately beleaguered German garrison on Elba? By June 1944, the allies had won back the mainland across from the island that had briefly housed Napoleon as well as the surrounding Ligurian sea. Some French authors like to paint Elba as the inspiration for the Guns of Navarone — threatening vital sea lanes with its mighty guns — but that is a reach.

This was more about restoring French amour propre after the humiliation of 1940 and the shame of Vichy. As my father wrote, “the action provided a definite lift for General (Jean) de Lattre Tassigny’s forces. They had hoped to invade France (on D-Day, 11 days earlier) but failing in this, they were willing to settle for any operation in which they stood a chance of killing Germans.” They actually did invade France — from the south — the following August in Operation Dragoon.

The Senegalese veterans were not to taste the fruits of final victory or share in the accolades. Before there was no more war left for newly freed Frenchmen to fight and reclaim some honour in, De Gaulle ordered the “blanchissement” — whitening — of the French army. The fact that France’s contribution to the allied cause had relied so heavily on its African subjects was not compatible with De Gaulle’s conception of French greatness or national morale.

So the Africans were abruptly ordered home before 1944 was out.  My father next saw them in 1954, defending France’s collapsing empire in Indochina, a job Frenchmen themselves no longer wanted.

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