In this post, Dr. Vincent Hiribarren (Lecturer in World History, King’s College London) describes how he made a map of the casualties of the French army outside of France since the end of the Second World War, as well as the aims of his project.
Why count French dead soldiers between 1945 and today?
This map displays the number of French soldiers who died outside metropolitan France between 1945 and the end of 2013. It is directly based on a similar map created for the United Kingdom and published in The Independent. The present map includes soldiers dead during the colonial period (Madagascar, Indochina, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Cameroon) and losses in other wars such as Korea or conflicts that took place after 1962.
The purpose of this map is to show the importance of colonial conflicts since the end of World War II. Of course, the Cold War or the war against terrorism are not to be neglected either. In addition, this map shows that France is involved in numerous conflicts on behalf of the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union or to honour bilateral agreements signed with former colonies. Strikingly, Africa is at the heart of the French military system and it is in Africa that most French soldiers have died in the last 50 years.
This map is not the first document trying to find the number of casualties in the French army. In 2011, General Bernard Thorette’s report tried to enumerate French casualties since 1962 in order to build a ‘war memorial for French soldiers dead in external operations’. For the author of the report, it was a ‘devoir de mémoire’, a phrase encapsulating French colonial history, France’s current role in the world and the way the French army want to be remembered. At the time of writing this short post, this war memorial has not been constructed yet.
Sources: a question of vocabulary?
In the vocabulary used by the French army, post-1962 operations are called ‘OPEX’ or ‘external operations’. The origin of this term comes from the colonial era (from Theatre of External Operations), but this difference in naming conflicts during and after the formal colonial period has implications in counting the number of casualties. Indeed, the legal mention ‘mort pour la France’ attributed to certain soldiers has not automatically been given to every soldier killed in overseas operations after 1962 and sometimes the number of casualties only take into account those ‘morts pour la France’. With the help of the bibliography below, I researched the number of casualties for each conflict.
Therefore, the figures between 1945 and the end of 2013 include all the dead of the French army ‘morts pour la France’ or not. As in my previous attempt to develop a typology of French military operations in Africa, the availability of sources was therefore primordial. Often updated by a team working for the French Ministry of Defence, the database ‘Mémoire des Hommes‘ has been my primary source of information. The French Ministry of Defence only provided official figures which are not frozen in time and which can change over recognitions of death conditions. As a consequence, this map is not definitive.
Towards a map of victims of the French army?
A future project would naturally establish an opposite map, i.e., one that showed the deaths caused by the French army. Finding accurate figures would be the main problem for such a map. First, as in the case of the Algerian war of independence, few historians and politicians in Algeria and France agree on precise numbers or even orders of magnitude. Secondly, France has been engaged in conflicts where opponents did not necessarily have instruments to count their losses. Thirdly, counting civilian and military casualties together can be misleading and the difference of status between combatants is often blurred. Finally, the French army doesn’t always fight its own and counting its sole victims is not feasible.
The only map which would be possible to draw would be that of the number of deaths claimed by each side. On the one hand, the French army often produces a very low estimate to minimize the impact of its actions while on the other hand, the opposite side tends to exaggerate losses to show the devastating effects of the French presence.
The choice to represent with the same colour all the casualties in either colonial wars or external operations is mine; it is in no way a legal or military division of these conflicts. It is a deliberate choice which aims at showing the continuity of French actions in some parts of the world, and particularly in Africa.
The size of the circles is proportional to the number of casualties but it was necessary to build a particular scale because of the preponderance of the wars in Indochina and Algeria. I took the square root of the number of victims per country and have set these values on a logarithmic scale, which has the effect of maintaining the hierarchy of each conflict and making the map readable.
- Database:’Mémoire des Hommes’, last accessed 18 January 2015.
- Database:’Opérations Extérieures’, last accessed 1 February 2015.
- Deltombe, Thomas, Jacob Tatsitsa, and Manuel Domergue,Kamerun! Une guerre cachée aux origines de la Françafrique, 1948-1971 (Paris: Découverte, 2011).
- Ely, Paul,Les enseignements de la guerre d’Indochine (1945-1954) (Vincennes: Service Historique de la Défense, 2011), tome 2.
- Gautier, Louis,La défense de la France après la guerre froide. Politique militaire et forces armées depuis 1989 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2009).
- Pascallon, Pierre, ed.,Les interventions extérieures de l’Armée française (Bruxelles: E. Bruylant, 1997).
- Pervillé, Guy,Atlas de la guerre d’Algérie : de la conquête à l’indépendance (Paris: Autrement, 2003), p. 54.
- Thorette, Bernard,Rapport du groupe de travail ‘Monument aux Morts en Opérations Extérieures’ (Paris, 2011).
- Vaïsse, Maurice,La puissance ou l’influence ? La France dans le monde depuis 1958 (Paris: Fayard, 2009).