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Senegal honours the soldiers who fought for France in WWI

© AFP/ Tirailleurs in traditional uniform

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-07-14

As the world commemorates the centenary of the beginning of World War I, Africa honours the soldiers it sent to fight for France in the war that was meant to end all wars.

In Senegal, several memorials have been built in honour of the soldiers who fought for France. Senegal’s last surviving soldier from that war, Abdoulaye N'Diaye, died in 1998. He was posthumously awarded the French Legion of Honour.

N'Diaye was one of the riflemen known as the “Senegalese Tirailleurs”, a group of colonial infantrymen recruited from countries including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco to fight for France in various wars. Senegalese tirailleurs will join the massive Bastille Day march in Paris on Monday, July 14.

In World War I they provided France with 200,000 troops; around 135,000 fought in Europe, and 30,000 of those were killed. Five Senegalese battalions served on the Western Front.

Sixteen years after his death, the only mementoes of N'Diaye in his home village of Thiowor are a photograph and an amulet designed to protect him from danger – and the war stories handed down to his grandson, Babacar N'Diaye.

"During one attack, he was hit in the head,” N'Diaye's grandson explains. “To save his life, he lay down between two other soldiers who were lying on the ground. An enemy patrol then thought he was dead. He waited for them to leave, then got up and rejoined his group.”

In 1915, 100 people from N'Diaye district went to battle. The recruitments were not always voluntary: some men were stripped of their land if they failed to enlist.

Residents of Thiowor village remember Ndiaye's sacrifice. The village chief Ady Diop says, "The French came to recruit his father and uncle. Abdoulaye offered to go in their place; he did not want them to leave. He told the recruiter he was strong. He was a wrestler at that time."

Of the former tirailleurs still living, most struggle to get by. Babacar Sene, who fought as a soldier in Indochina, finds it difficult to make ends meet farming peanuts and millet on the dry land.

"I have to work to raise my children. My kids are still young, they cannot work yet. Their mother is dead. With income from my harvesting and my pension, I can buy rice, oil - just enough to feed my family," he says. 

So it is with some bitterness that Thiowor (pronounced Cho-war) this year honours the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. The residents hope the government will shine a spotlight on a museum built in honour of the men who fought abroad for a country that was not their own.

Date created : 2014-07-14

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