Indigenes (Days of Glory): What You Need to Know about the African Army

Indigenes (literally meaning Natives, Day of Glory), which premiered in the 2006 Festival de Cannes, is the Algerian nomination for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar Award.

1855: Beginnings

Originally, the African Army was the name of the expedition led by General de Bourmont that landed in Sidi Ferruch on June 14, 1830 and took Algiers. The name was used thereafter to designate units that came from France or were formed locally that participated in the conquest and pacification of Algeria. Made up of indigenous personnel (also recruited in Tunisia and Morocco), foreigners or French enlisted men, they were supervised by mostly French officers and sub-officers. They wore uniforms that distinguished them from the rest of the French Army, though they were an integral part of it.

These troops were sent to fight outside Algeria, whenever France engaged its troops in other operations: Crimea, the Italian Campaign, China, Mexico and France itself in 1870-1871. The Third Republic then used them in its colonial battles (Tonkin, Madagascar, Morocco, etc.), then, of course, in France from 1914 onward.

The African Army played an increasingly important role, with its special units: the Zouaves (named after a Kabyle tribe, the Zaouaouas), created in 1830; the African Hunters, in 1831; the Spahis in 1834; the Indigenous Skirmishers in 1841. Faidherbe, who was named Governor of Senegal in 1854, created the Senegalese Skirmishers.

The recruitment of Zouaves and African Hunters gradually became exclusively French, but the Spahis and Skirmishers continued to be recruited exclusively among indigenous populations with limited French leadership.

All these troops indigenous to North Africa belonged to the 19th Army Corps known as the African Army, whose emblem was a crescent. They were stationed in France from August 1914.

Military Timeline

1914-1918: World War I

The mobilization of colonial troops for WWI was unprecedented. Nearly 930,000 non-European soldiers (Hindus, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somalians, etc.) from 40 different countries were incorporated, and over 70,000 would lose their lives.

Among these troops, 290,000 North African soldiers fought for France: 173,019 Algerians, 80,339 Tunisians and 40,398 Moroccans. North African troops fought on all fronts: in France, in the Dardanelles, in the Balkans, and in Palestine where they distinguished themselves alongside the British during the taking of Nablus. At the end of the war, in November 1918, their losses totaled 28,200 dead and 7,700 missing.


France was defeated and 1,400,000 French soldiers were prisoners in Germany (40,000 died in captivity). The French Army no longer existed. For nearly two years, the Colonial Empire was struggling for legitimacy between de Gaulles forces and the Vichy regime. Following General de Gaulles call to continue the fight on June 18, 1940, France Libre could count on a little over 7,000 men. But numbers increased throughout the year following rallies in several African, Oceanic and Asian colonies: Chad, Oubangui-Chari, Congo and Cameroon, Indian Trading Post, Oceania, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna 1. The support of the colonial empire gave legitimacy to France Libre and allowed it to slowly gain influence among its allies.

In West Africa, de Gaulle failed to take Dakar from forces loyal to Vichy and he stationed the Forces of France Libre (FFL) in Gabon in early November. The FFL, still few in numbers, then participated in different battles alongside the Allies: in Fezzan, in Eritrea or in Libya.

The Syria Operation in June 1941 marked an important turning point when FFL troops defeated troops loyal to Vichy.


The big turning point was the Allied landing in North Africa, in November 1942, which allowed for the rebuilding of the French Army, under the authority of General Giraud and thanks to American equipment.

On June 3, 1943, The Comit National Franais of London and the Commandement Civil et Militaire of Algiers mergedunder the co-presidency of Generals de Gaulle and Giraudinto the Comit Franais de la Libration nationale (CFLN), based in Algiers. From then on, the French Army could rebuild before its decisive engagement in Italy.

During the summer of 1943, 233,000 North Africans were added to the French fighting troops. They joined the 363,000 North African soldiers already under military authority, 60,000 men from the AOF, 12,000 FFL, 20,000 escapees from prison camps in France and 10,000 women volunteers. This army was made up of just under 700,000 people, both fighters and auxiliary personnel.

It is noteworthy that Europeans from North Africa provided the majority of officers while non-European populations (from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa) provided the majority of fighting troops until the landing in Provence.

1944: Crucial Year

In history books and in collective memory, the Liberation of France and Europe is seen as only due to the Normandy Landing in June 1944, the action of Resistance members and the Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front. This is to forget that after the victory in Tunisia and the withdrawal of Axis troops, the offensive from the South and from Italy 3 allowed the opening of a second front before the landing in Normandy.

During the campaign in Tunisia, losses were very high, according to figures given by the Service historique de l'arme de terre (Army Historical Department) that declared 9,237 deaths, including 3,620 North African Muslims, and 34,714 wounded, including 18,531 North African Muslims.

The Battle of Toulon, on August 15, 1944, was the first battle the French Army fought for the liberation of France. Men and women from five continents came together under the French flag. Those known as indigenous fought alongside the French. Nearly half the soldiers were African: North African and Black soldiers were the majority of the infantry and were the most exposed in battle.

Nearly 120,000 soldiers from 22 African countries integrated into the French Empire landed on the Provence coast. Many of them had already distinguished themselves during the tough battles of the Italian Campaign. Placed under the command of General de Lattre de Tassigny, head of the African Army, now called the 1st French Army, they fought for the liberation of France, then in Germany, until victory in May 1945.

Joined by the FFI and the FFL, the First French Army landed in Provence on August 15, 1944 and liberated Toulon, Marseilles, Lyons, Dijon, Belfort, etc. This took place far from the press limelight, which was focused on the Anglo-American progression in Normandy and the very political liberation of Paris and Strasbourg by French soldiers.

May 8, 1945

While the whole of France was celebrating the capitulation of Nazi Germany, on the other side of the Mediterranean thousands of Algerians (who participated in the victory) gathered in the streets of Stif, to place a wreath at the foot of the citys war monument and demonstrate for Algerian independence. An Algerian flag was raised by a 20 year-old man, who was instantly shot because he refused to take it down, as was the mayor of the city who tried to intervene. In the shooting that followed, the crowd dispersed and attacked Europeans. There were 27 deaths on the French side. The news spread quickly through the province where the local population, mostly farmers, rose in revolt. Dubbed the Stif Massacre, it was the start of a general uprising in dozens of Constantine villages as well as Blida and Berrouaghia in Algiers and Sidi-Bel-Abbs in Oranais.

The Army intervened in Stif, then in the rest of the department, in Guelma and Kherrata. The Navy bombed the Kherrata coast and gorges, and seaside locations such as The Achas, The Cliffs and Mansouria. The insurgents took refuge in the mountains where they were attacked by 18 Army bombers.

The crackdown grew for six weeks and the Arab witch-hunt raged. It was not only carried out by the military. Other militia operations by extremist settlers, armed by the military and encouraged by local authorities, were often bloodier and more atrocious. These events were among the bloodiest of the history of colonial France.

According to the historian Charles Robert Ageron, the first riots of May 8th, 9th and 10th killed 102 Europeans, with 110 wounded and 135 homes reduced to ashes. These figures are nothing in comparison with the scale of the ensuing colonial repression. The number of Algerian victims is still being debated. In July 1945, Interior Minister Tixier pronounced a speech before the National Assembly referring to the death of 1,500 people. The Algerian newspaper, Le Populaire, in its edition of June 28 1945, spoke of 6,000 to 8,000 deaths. The Algerian government claims there were 45,000 victims. For researchers Rachid Messli and Abbas Aroua, from the Center of Historical Research and Documentation on Algeria, most historians agree that 45,000 is an exaggerated figure. It would be more realistic to think that the total is between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths. This is the figure recognized by France today.

The Freezing of War Pensions for Indigenous Vets

In the early 1960s, decolonization of Africa was completed. France then decidedin line with article 71 of the Law of Finances passed on December 26, 1959to freeze the retirement and invalid pensions paid to ex-servicemen from its ex-colonial Empire at their 1959 level.

This has resulted in great inequality and feelings of bitterness among ex-servicemen from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, whose pensions are up to ten times less than those of French ex-servicemen.

In 1996, a Senegalese ex-Staff Sergeant, Amadou Diop, sued the French State. He had served in the French Army from 1937 to 1959 and was dismissed when Senegal gained independence. He had only received a third of the pension he would have got if he had been French and he demanded compensation.

In 2001, the Council of State ruled in his favor posthumously, judging that the difference in treatment was in violation of Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This verdict obliged the French government to revise the freeze law of 1959, which concerned around 80,000 ex-servicemen of the French ex-colonial Empire. These veterans could then expect a reevaluation of their pensions with back-payment. The total was estimated at 1.85 billion euros.

In 2003, the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin began a partial de-freezing of pensions, which would henceforth be indexed not on French pensions but on the cost of living in the different countries where the ex-servicemen lived.

August 2004

On August 13, 2004, the day before the commemoration of the Provence Landing, a statement issued by the French Ministry of Veterans announced that a sum of 120 million euros had been written into the 2004 budget to increase the pensions of ex-servicemen from ex-French colonies from 20 to 100%. This was the first increase since the freezing law of 1959.

On August 15, 2004, Jacques Chirac paid homage to colonial troops by inviting several African Heads of State to the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Allied landings in Provence. Around 20 African veterans were made Knights of the Legion of Honor. Despite this homage, the question of frozen pensions is still not resolved.
February 2005

It took 60 years, but during an official visit to Stif, on Februray 27, 2005, Hubert Colin de Verdire, French Ambassador in Algeria, first spoke of episode that history has almost forgotten and to recognize for the first time since Algerian Independence, the French responsibility for this massacre.