The Foreign Legion is well known as a force for foreigners fighting for France. But in addition to the legionnaires, the French also made use of ‘tirailleurs’—units made up of troops recruited from their colonies in Africa and Asia.
Tirailleur translates as ‘skirmisher’, ‘rifleman’, or ‘sharpshooter’, and was a designation given to indigenous infantry recruited in the various colonies and overseas possessions of the French Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The first unit of Tirailleurs Sénégalais was raised in 1857. Despite their name, the Senegalese Tirailleurs drew in troops not just from Senegal, but from across West Africa.
The Senegalese Tirailleurs served France in many wars, including World War 2, when 179,000 men were recruited for service both in Africa and Europe.
I decided that my WW2 colonial French army needed some of these stalwart soldiers. So when it came to equipping my army with support weapons, I chose tirailleur machine gun and mortar crews from Perry Miniatures’ excellent WW2 French range.
I painted them with their ubiquitous red chechia hats. Yes, I know these colourful hats were more for parade than combat, but, hey, it’s my wargames army, so I can do as I want!
The Senegalese Tirailleurs saw extensive service during the war, but after the liberation of France, they were replaced with newly recruited French volunteers in a process known as blanchiment, or ‘bleaching’. This led to several incidents of violence, most notably the Thiaroye massacre in 1944, where French troops killed dozens of tirailleurs after they mutinied against poor conditions and revocation of pay.