Kanak infantrymen at the Chemin des Dames
In the chapel next to the military cemetery at Cerny en Laonnois, a plaque recalls the sacrifice of the mixed battalion of the Pacific1. As a people who had been colonised sixty years before the declaration of war, the Kanaks2, who were the natives of New-Caledonia, were segregated in the Reserves by the Indigenousness code, with their social relations subjected to “civil laws”. Forgotten for many years by History, the history of the Pacific battalion has remained in the realm of military history. Today it relies on the accounts through which everyone concerned had a unique view on what was “his” war, in spite of the debate which pits history against memory. Nevertheless, such an approach allows us to gain a better understanding of what these thousand men who were called up to do battle 20,000km from their homeland, went through and to appreciate how the natives from the most distant Oceania islands from France dealt with and lived through their experience at the Chemin des Dames.
Very quickly, France needed every man who was available, either from mainland France or from the colonies. On 29 December 1915, the governor Repiquet applied, to the natives of New-Caledonia, the Kanak, the decree on the recruitment of Senegalese infantrymen3. After the recruitment campaigns, which had sometimes been excessive, and which were partly the cause of the natives’ revolt in 1917 at the centre of Grande Terre, 1,078 Kanak infantrymen would set off for France. They would not form any unit themselves and throughout almost the whole war were used as auxiliary troops, according to the needs of the armed forces. On two occasions, the Kanaks would take part in the offensives known as the Chemin des Dames. In 1917 and 1918, Kanak auxiliaries, either individually (as grenade throwers) or in little groups (stretcher bearers), were allocated to various regiments, like the 6th RIC and, alongside the battalions of Senegalese infantrymen, they played their part in defending the Cerny en Laonnois sector ; but also, within the 418th RI, they took part in the fighting on the Ailette front.
When they were on the front within large units, the Kanak infantrymen would form little nuclei controlled by a Créole who spoke their language. Whilst their non-commissioned officers would ply them with alcohol to stoke up their bravery, and whilst natas and catechists would whip up their religious fervour4, their leaders would use ancestral war techniques as the offensive drew closer. Updated to serve the purposes of the war between French and Germans, the War speech of Mindia, (a war chief) known as a vivâ, had already been given by the great chief on 30 April 1916, on the occasion of the enlistment of the infantrymen at Houaïlou, which incited “an enthusiasm to the extent that women would send their men to war.5 ” His son Apoupia, also used it himself to encourage the infantrymen near to Cerny in July 1917, as he did before each time battle was joined. These never ending speeches which were recited at births or bereavements, were highly emotionally charged moments when family bonds become tighter and when more particularly wartime alliances were solidified. The Kanaks are defined by their relationship in the natural environment, their position within the clan, and the land from which each individual takes his name6. By referring to the history of each clan, the call to the native infantrymen was therefore the opportunity to resurrect the past: Every Kanak was elated at the certitude of being the nucleus of a network of human relations and felt entrusted with a mission. The art of the narration of Apoupia, transposing the vivâ to the situations and places where it is being delivered, describing with meticulous energy the details of the scenery, mimicking the war postures7, evoking divination, reached such a degree of dramatization, that each infantryman would live the moment like a reality in which he rediscovers the continuity of his lineage within the history of his community: “I will search for the man who prepares his victory and goes into action before blowing up the enemy, the man who alone amidst the crowd and the countless faces, knows how to break the Germans’ grip and sink them into the deepest depths of the earth!”. This is how then the magic and the epic set to work on the individual like a powerful psychological spring to which he could but submit. For sure the notion of patriotism could not be applied to the Kanaks, but they did have this will in them to fight: “You will go forth as a fighting unit, you will leave no gap between your two wings, you will set fire to all around you in your pursuit, striking and trampling in this valley8 which is full of the noise of the Germans, the fugitive who is hiding and whose voices we have heard rather too much. I said.” Judged to be capable of carrying out dangerous jobs, whether grenade throwers or stretcher bearers, the infantrymen knew no danger and their service at the front was for them an intense experience. It is here that the warrior clans were reliving what their fathers were forced to give up after colonisation.
Their faith and their confidence in God contributed to the courage that the Kanaks were able to muster before the enemy. An extreme sense of piety was part of every moment of their life; one of them wrote as follows: “The Boshes had already bombed us… We were desperate because we had received the order not to come out. That was when I thought about my flag9. I took it out and hung it at the entrance to the quarry, so that the shells would stop falling on it. Less than five minutes later… The shells started falling 40 metres behind us and we were saved.10 ” The only way of accepting the unexplainable was through religious syncretism: “An old soldier from Canala had taken his protective badges. But one day when he didn’t have his leaves, he was killed” 11. The forced marches at night, the rain and the mud remain in our memories. But in the situation of intensive bombardments, with the terrifying noise which was deafening, the earth seemed to explode, with the shrapnel mixed in with the remains of the soldiers, would scar the survivors for life: “They were shaken by the death of the infantryman Wahéa, who was torn apart by a shell and whose heart was later found hanging to a tree. Then there was the hand to hand fighting, with bayonets and guns. Others were wounded by shrapnel from shells, buried in the trenches or crushed by the tanks.12 ” Being as they were, intimately close to nature, the infantrymen would always mix their descriptions with references to their homeland: “In the sky, countless stars, like shells on the banks of the Magatu…” They didn’t feel any hate for the Germans but said that they just couldn’t understand this form of war: “The whole region, earth, the trees, there is nothing left to show that it is a country; there were no visible roads left, the tree trunks were snapped into pieces. (…) And we saw all the horrific things that those people, the Boshes, had done for they had burnt houses, planted mines under roads before fleeing into the distance so that the mines would explode when we passed over them.”13 In a manner more symbolic, it was the relationships with the people living in the combat areas which were the most revealing when moral suffering is shared. “We talk with the authorities from the village about the distress and suffering that they experienced during the German occupation.”14
Thirty Kanaks (the Pacific battalion fought at the CDD in 1918) and 7 Caledonians (including two at the Hurtebise farm) died for France at the Chemin des Dames. Their bodies are buried at the military cemeteries of Flavigny, Soupir, Ambleny, Cerny… As auxiliaries, miniscule in numbers, intended only to be used at the rear echelon, the Kanaks acquitted themselves in exemplary fashion at the Chemin des Dames and for that matter everywhere at the front where they were in the first line of fire. Of all the French native peoples they were the ones who spilled the most blood for France15.
The Great War allowed many native Caledonians to go to mainland France to defend what was for them a distant and utopic fatherland. On their return, the Indigenousness code, which was only abolished in 1945, meant that the Kanaks were once again forgotten about16. However, even if no nationalist sentiment had yet emerged, for the first time in the history of the colonised New-Caledonia, this experience enabled the natives to see the island of their archipelago as a common land. When in 1925, the French government of the islands issued a questionnaire designed to find out the number of former infantry men who wanted to acquire French citizenship, the majority refused. It was because of the respect for their word they had given,17, their deep seated customs and their religion that the Kanaks were enlisted.
1 The battalion of the Pacific Infantrymen, made up of two companies, was formed in Nouméa on 4 June 1916 before heading to Marseille and it was disbanded on 10 May 1919. Known as the Pacific mixed battalion (BMP) after the addition of an artillery company, then stage and then marching battalion, it consisted of up to four companies of Kanak and Tahitian infantrymen. Reinforcements left Nouméa on 3 December 1916 then on 10 November 1917. Reporting first to the Marseille ports Commission, the BMP was then a part of the 72nd DI on the Champagne front, from August to October 1917. From June to September 1917, it was involved in the battle of the Matz, then in the attack on the plateau of Paoly and in the push towards the Ailette. In October 1918, united as one for the first time, it was in the front line of attack for the capture of Vesles and Caumont, and cited in the order of the Xth army.
2 In order to take account of the demands for independence of a section of the Melanesians of New-Caledonia, the word “kanak” (invariable) was made official as part of the 1988 Matignon-Oudinot accords.
3 Resulting from the decree of 9 October 1915 stipulating the voluntary engagement of the natives from the colonies for the duration of the war, supplemented by an order of 6 January 1916.
4 The natas (Protestants) and the catechists (Catholics) are native ministers from Christian faiths. Their role was of the utmost importance: “Aiva ! The Infantrymen were fortified, we were ready to go to War. We would always say our prayers every evening, and the Temperance. A number of them didn’t understand, others cried because they were being held back to look after the belongings. (…) So we were elated and we had everything ready because we were going to chase the fleeing Germans.” New-Caledonia Archives (ANC), Coll. G. Leenhardt, Nata Acôma Nerhon, June 1918.
5Leenhardt Maurice, New-Caledonian Documents, Paris, Institute of Ethnology, 1932, 514 pages, p. 312-318. The Speech of Mindia is a vivâ (a harangue) given when at the time of the recruitment of the auxiliaries enlisted to put down the Kanak revolt of 1878. The pastor-ethnologist Maurice Leenhardt suggested a translation for it which though not literary remains as faithful as possible to the metaphors of the text recounted by the big chief, in order to remain faithful to the translation of the Kanak thought.
6 Tjibaou Jean-Marie, MISSOTE Philippe, Kanaké, Melanesian from New-Caledonia, les éditions du Pacifique, 1976, 120 pages.
7 During an interview at Nékliaï (September 2002), Alphonsine Ouinémou (82 years) started miming the gestures of her grand-father, a former infantryman from Muéo, as he recounted, on his return from the war, the attack at the “Chemin des Dames” , when she was a child. Her two cousins, Jean-Baptiste Ouinémou and Pascal Borékaou, came and joined her. The three elderly people, in a crouching position, held out their hands as they symbolically held a club, then they rose slightly to mime the war dance, in a sort of trance, Jean-Baptiste reciting the vivâ out loud in the païci language.
8 This is the valley of the Ailette, according to the war diary of the corporal Henri Mayet, who was in charge of the Kanaks.
9 The catholic infantrymen have a Sacré-Cœur pennant which they attached to the hilt of their gun “at the most dangerous moments”.
10 Anonymous, in L’Écho de la France catholique-New Caledonia, November 1918.
11 Interview with Monseigneur Michel Matuda Kohu, of Nakéty-Canala, 83 years, 5 June 2003.
12 Interview with the pastor Wazone, 96 years, of Rôh-Maré, 31 July 1995.
13 ANC, Coll. G. Leenhardt, letter from the nata Acôma Nerhon to the pastor Leenhardt, 01/11/1918.
14 ANC, Coll. G. Leenhardt, A. Nerhon to the pastor Leenhardt, Cerny district, October 1918.
15 1078 Kanak infantrymen were recruited in 1,137 identified acts of engagement. 382 were killed or went missing in action, which is to say 35.34% of the volunteers.
16 Some Kanak infantrymen made known their desire not to return to the colony after the war. As demonstrated by a Lifou (an inhabitant of Lifou) who threw himself into the sea at the port of Marseille when the ship had already gone too far for its engines to be stopped; after a stay in Paris, he finished his days as a verger near to Briançon. A Houaïlou deserted at the stopover in San Francisco and made a new life for himself in the United States.
17 All the volunteers from the 1st contingent of the pacific battalion, with the exception of one or two of them, belonged to clans who were allies of the French.
Sylvette Boubin-Boyer, From the First World War in Oceania, the wars of all the Caledonians 1914-1919, Septentrion Distribution, University Press, A la carte Thesis, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, 2003, 888 pages.
Colonel de Buttet, The Pacific battalion of the Great War, in Army Historical Review, 1965, N°3, p. 119-123.
Gustave Mondain, Our natives who have been called up, Society of Evangelical Missions, Paris, 1920, 147 pages.
Army History Department , 26 N 1968, Diary of the Marches and operations of the Pacific Mixed Battalion.
In Le chemin des Dames, s/d Nicolas Offenstadt,
Stock, 2004, republished by Tempus, Perrin, 2012