Tirailleurs Sénégalais in the Indochina War (1947-1954)

Parachuting French troops, Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, 1954
Public domain image

The Indochina War (1947-1954) pitted the French Colonial government against the Vietminh, the Communist Vietnamese devoted to the liberation of their country from French colonial rule.  During that conflict the French used thousands of Tirailleurs Sénégalais, soldiers recruited throughout the French African colonies, for service against the Vietminh.

The French began recruiting Senegalese soldiers in 1947 as the war began and they found they urgently needed military forces in Indochina.  Considering French manpower shortages because of the recently ended Second World War, military budget restrictions, and the great number of African soldiers demobilized in 1945-6 at the end of the European conflict, the French government turned to the Tirailleurs Sénégalais: African soldiers who, since the 19th century, were often used due to their relatively low cost.

The first Tirailleurs Sénégalais arrived in Indochina in April 1947. On April 30th, they numbered only 167 but reached 2,260 men at the end of the year. Marching Battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais (BMTS) were formed in France, then dispersed throughout various existing French units in Vietnam such as the 2nd, 6th and 43rd Colonial Infantry Regiments (RIC), the 4th and 10th Colonial Artillery Regiments (RAC) and the Moroccan Colonial Infantry Regiment. Thus “French” regiments often included natives from North Africa, France, Senegal, and other African colonies as well as Vietnamese loyal to the colonial regime. The demand for Tirailleurs Sénégalais kept growing; there were 14,500 mobilized in 1951 and when the French were finally defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, 19,570 of them were on the Vietnamese territory.

African soldiers were assigned to various units. Due to the lack of men, a thousand Tirailleurs Sénégalais joined the French Air Force. Black soldiers were crucial to several Marching Battalions and Marching Groups (combat troops). However, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais also maintained posts and opened roads and were mainly relegated to small safety operations. Indeed, few units participated in large-scale operations even though some Tirailleurs Sénégalais were present at Dien Bien Phu.

More than a thousand Tirailleurs Sénégalais were captured by the Vietminh.  The most exploited prisoners, they were given the harshest labor. In 1954, approximately 800 of them were released. It was estimated that about 5,500 Tirailleurs Sénégalais had been killed, died, disappeared, or had deserted during the Indochina War.

The last Tirailleurs Sénégalais left Vietnam with the French troops in September 1956.  The French military department was increasingly worried that some African soldiers, now in close contact with Vietnamese nationalists and communism ideals, might be a potential threat to French colonial regimes in Africa.  Thus for the first time some Tirailleurs Sénégalais were considered not suitable to re-enlistment. Others were reorganized and integrated in the RAC and the RIC.