Charles de Gaulle's Victory Began in This Central African Nation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Chad backed Charles de Gaulle when the odds were stacked against him, and the bet paid off.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
It was the moment all of France had waited for. Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, which Germany had historically eyed as its own, was finally free from the Nazis. The 2nd French Armored Division under Gen. Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque had liberated the city, burying the ghosts of France’s humiliating defeat four years earlier during the blitzkrieg. And the soldier who climbed to the top of the Strasbourg cathedral to hoist the French flag on Nov. 23, 1944, was from a regiment raised 4,000 miles away: the Régiment de marche du Tchad, or the Marching Regiment of Chad.
Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free France government in exile, organized the liberation of his nation from headquarters in London. When France’s future president delivered his famous June 18, 1940, speech on the BBC, urging French people to continue the war against Germany even though France itself was preparing to surrender, he had no territory under his control. That would change two months later, when the colony of Chad and its Black administrator, the French Guiana–born Félix Éboué, gave de Gaulle his first launch pad for striking back at the Axis.
The heart of Free France was not located in London … but rather in Free French Africa.
Eric T. Jennings, historian
On Aug. 26, the broad-shouldered Éboué announced in Fort-Lamy — the capital now known as N’djamena — that Chad was breaking with Axis-backed Vichy France and lining up behind de Gaulle. The colony’s support contributed “credibility, legitimacy, manpower and revenue to de Gaulle’s movement in its infancy, when it was most fragile,” according to University of Toronto historian Eric T. Jennings. Chad allowed de Gaulle to claim he was the legitimate leader of a French fighting force based on French soil, adds John Langdon, professor of world history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Chadian forces went on to help the Allies win key victories in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and then drive back Axis forces in France and Germany.
“Éboué’s proclamation of Chad’s loyalty to de Gaulle on Aug. 26 was a godsend for the French general,” says Langdon. “The proclamation at Fort-Lamy was the beginning of the practical implementation of the rhetorical call to arms that de Gaulle had issued on June 18.”
Until then, Éboué had followed the standard French colonial script as an administrator in Cameroon, Martinique, Mali, Guadeloupe and Chad. His act of resistance against the Vichy regime turned him into a French icon. In 1949, five years after his death, Éboué became the first Black man to be interred at the Panthéon in Paris alongside France’s greatest heroes.
Éboué’s decision was “courageous,” says Langdon. But the administrator had his reasons. He was a disciple of the great French socialist Jean Jaurès and, as a Black man, found Nazi ideology and the Vichy’s right-wing politics repulsive.
There were pragmatic reasons as well, say historians. Chad had a significant French population worried that Italian-occupied Libya would invade the colony if it didn’t support de Gaulle. Most of landlocked Chad’s trade passed through Nigeria, a British colony, so supporting the Allies made sense. But Éboué also astutely concluded that Adolf Hitler was likely to overreach, and Nazi Germany would lose. “To Éboué, a highly talented soccer player in his youth, it made no sense to back what would probably be the losing side,” says Langdon.
Instead, his decision became an example that Gaullist forces used to convince other French African colonies to similarly switch allegiances. By October 1940, French Equatorial Africa — French Cameroon, French Congo, French Gabon, Chad and Ubangi-Shari (present-day Central African Republic) — was all under the control of Free France, and de Gaulle appointed Éboué governor of the entire federation.
“Between August 1940 and the summer of 1943, the heart of Free France was not located in London, as standard accounts would have us believe, but rather in Free French Africa,” writes Jennings in his book Free French Africa in World War II: The African Resistance.
And that heart could fight. It was only after the Allies arrived in French West Africa in November 1942 that de Gaulle could build a navy. And Chad’s location in north-central Africa made it an ideal military base for launching troops into enemy Libya.
Founded in 1940, with help from Éboué, as the Senegalese Rifle Regiment of Chad, the Marching Regiment of Chad consisted of Chadian and French soldiers. It got its latter name in July 1943. Between December 1940 and March 1941, these men — supported by British troops — fought under Leclerc in the Battle of Kufra in southwestern Libya, eventually taking control of the Italian outpost. From that crucial foothold, the Allies were able to push the Axis powers out of Libya and all of North Africa by May 1943.
Kufra was also where the seeds of the battle that would later play out in Strasbourg were sown. On March 2, 1941, the day after the Italian garrison surrendered, Leclerc and his troops took what has come to be known as the Oath of Kufra, pledging to fight until “our flag flies over the cathedral of Strasbourg.”
The Chad regiment went farther than that. After landing in Normandy, it fought its way to Strasbourg, fulfilled its oath and kept going with Allied forces all the way to Berghof, capturing Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps in mid-1945. Éboué didn’t live to see it — a heart attack felled him in May 1944. But his bet in picking de Gaulle over Vichy France paid off.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY AuthorContact Charu Sudan Kasturi