April 24, 2021
The Tirailleurs Sénégalais weren't from Senegal
This colorized photo of a Senegalese soldier who lost both of his arms in World War I looks like it was taken yesterday, but it's over a century old. It was taken at the Vocational Rehabilitation School for Amputees at 28 Avenue de New-York, Paris, in 1918, and as you'll see from the original version it not only shows the way in which Black soldiers were put in the line of fire during the first World War, but the way that the American Red Cross went out of its way to provide limbs for soldiers who were mutilated in action.
Shown here is a member of the Senegalese Tirailleurs, a French colonial force whose name could be translated as "skirmishers" or "sharpshooters." He is still in rehab to learn how to use his new arms. While working beneath the European sun he writes a letter to the American Red Cross to thank them for the help with his limbs. It couldn't have been easy for this soldier to relearn how to do something that he learned when he was a boy. Hopefully with the help of this nurse he was able to not only get back to where he was before the loss of his limbs, but to a place where he had even more mobility.
The Senegalese Tirailleurs, sometimes simply referred to as the "Senegalese" weren't always just from Senegal. The French military conscripted men from Western, Central, and Eastern Africa into their colonial infantry troops. Regardless of where these men were from they were strangers in a strange land, fighting a war for a country that was not their own.
During the war the members of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais were looked down on by their allies and by their enemy. The German military crafted propaganda against these the men that referred to them as savages, while the British and Canadians fighting along side them in the war were hardly enthused to see Black faces in the trench next to them. Regardless of the hate directed at them, these men fought for the Allied Forces without pause.
By the end of World War I there were more than 135 battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais, with more than 170,000 African soldiers serving in France. At least 30,000 of these men were killed in action, and thousands more were severely injured.
The American Red Cross helped European soldiers learn to use their new limbs
The African soldiers who lost limbs during World War I were referred to as "mutilé de guerre," or a disabled service person. Many of them sought re-education at schools run by the American Red Cross where nurses did their best to rehab soldiers who were tasked with learning how to use a new hand, leg, or as this photo shows us, arms.
The prosthetics at this time were far from what we have today. Perfect mobility was still a long way away but with the right training and focus soldiers were able to to learn how to use their new limbs as a way to have a somewhat normal life. The school where this photo was taken didn't just train the soldiers to use their new limbs, it also taught injured French and African soldiers how to write and speak English and it offered accounting classes.
It's clear that the efforts of the nurses weren't simply to get these injured soldiers back into working condition, but they wanted to make sure the men came out of the hospital with skills that that made them employable.