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News > World

Defending France in WWI, Senegal's Last Rifleman Died Unhailed

  • Senegalese Tirailleurs serving in France, 1940

    Senegalese Tirailleurs serving in France, 1940 | Photo: Wikipedia

Published 12 November 2018

One of 600,000 soldiers recruited from the French colonies, Ndiaye was part of an infantry unit known as the "Senegalese Tirailleurs" (Senegalese Shooters) which took part in the 1915 campaign to open the Turkish Dardanelles strait between Europe and Asia.

Born in 1894 and enlisted after showing his prowess as a wrestler, Abdoulaye Ndiaye was a Senegalese villager who fought for France as a sharpshooter in World War I.

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In 1916, while fighting in the Battle of the Somme, he suffered a head wound, which still gave him pain years later.

His military service card, now on display at the Army Museum in Dakar, states that Ndiaye hailed from Thiowor, a village with a population of 3,000 about 180 kilometers north of the capital.

On 11 November 1998, the soldier — who spent the rest of his life a farmer, was to have been decorated with the prestigious Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honor. But just one day before, Senegal's last rifleman died. He was 104.

Several years earlier, he recorded the story of how he joined the army while working as a camel driver, after a wrestling match in which he was "invincible."

"He did many military exploits," recalled Babcar Sene, another villager in his 80s who fought for France in Indochina. "He is Thiowor's most famous son."

Decades after his injury, the head wound still bothered Ndiaye, his great-nephew Cheikh Diop told AFP. "He said it hurt to touch."

After the war, he went home and simply returned to his work as a farmer.

"He just went back to his life which revolved around this hut and this tree," said Diop, showing a dog-eared photo of his great-uncle leaning on a tree trunk, surrounded by children.

Ndiaye's tragic death has been no exception in France, where the state continues to deny the efforts of the soldiers it imported forcefully from the colonies. In 1944, the French army decimated about 400 Senegalese soldiers in the city of Thiaroye as they were claiming their right to be paid.

Their bodies still lie in mass graves, while the French state would still refuse to recognize the massacre — only acknowledging 70 death officially to this death, despite mounting historical evidence on the tragedy.

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