The Frontstalags were camps opened outside the Reich by the Germans during the Second World War; they were mostly situated in France and in Poland. They were intended for prisoners from the French colonies. In April 1941 there were 22 of them in occupied territory, holding around 69,000 "natives": about 50,000 North Africans and 16,000 Senegalese with the rest split according to their involvement (Madagascan, West Indian and Indochinese etc.). Because of the combined effect of releases agreed for various reasons (political agreements, sickness, incapacity for work), and because of deaths and a few escapes, the number of prisoners fell to 44,000 in March 1942 and to 37,000 in May 1943. These releases did not, however, concern either ex-servicemen of the 1914-18 war or fathers of large families.
Life in the camps was not easy. The prisoners were used as labour in the collieries, and in the farming, forestry and building industries; some were even used in the munitions factories. A certain number caught tuberculosis. Despite help from the local people and aid organisations, starvation was not completely prevented and there was little defence against the cold. The solidarity of the local residents also helped successful escape attempts, which would otherwise have failed as the escapees were too easily identifiable; such complicity guided many escapees towards the Résistance networks.
The guards at these camps were German sentries, usually ex-servicemen from the 1914-18 war and relatively kind towards the prisoners. From January 1943, in the light of requirements on the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht mobilised all its resources and the French government responded favourably to the German request to maintain the guard at some frontstalags using French officers. This transfer created a totally new situation and led to questions being asked, as French officers formerly in command of the indigenous troops suddenly became their jailers. This increased the demoralisation of the prisoners as well as the feeling of having been betrayed for the purposes of the State... German guards were not replaced everywhere Charity organisations and local prominent people set up a "godmothering" service in order to build local relationships and not just for correspondence, as was the case during the Great War. The presence of godmothers helped to facilitate permissions being granted for days out, to share a family meal, for example. Sometimes these godmothers, who were sometimes very young, would make knitted garments and food and exchange letters. Some gave lessons in literacy or catechism and a few prisoners were baptised. Serious relationships existed and mixed race children were born. But in such circumstances these relationships were - in most cases - short-lived.
Paradoxically, the Liberation did little to change the prisoners' situation. Around 30,000 men, including 17,000 North Africans regained their freedom but their status remained military; they were thus regrouped in barracks.
Impatient to go back home to their families, they lived in unpleasant sanitary conditions and were often under nourished and poorly dressed. They suffered various fates on returning to their countries, bitterly claiming that they had been forgotten and betrayed. In France there is a distinct lack of commemorative evidence, except for a scattering of graves that are more often than not anonymous. © Armelle MABON, Associate professor at the University of Southern Brittany E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org Université de Bretagne Sud 4, rue Jean Zay - BP 92116 56321 LORIENT
Sources: Cahiers de l'AMCB, 1995, no.1, Le Frontstalag 222 de Bayonne "La singulière captivité des prisonniers de guerre coloniaux durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale" , French Colonial History, no. 7, 2006, Michigan, State University Press National Archives F9, 2258. Letter from Warrant Officer Gernet, Frontstalag 194, to Monsieur Sacapini, Nancy, 21st August 1943. F9, 2959. Wiesbaden, note no. 3690/PG of the 9th September 1940 from the sub-commission for prisoners of war and the Armistice commission for the German Armistice Commission, signed Chauvin. F9, 2883. [list]Letter for the Ambassador Mr. Brinon. [list]Letter addressed to the Commander in Chief of the military forces in France. F9, 3811. The Department of Prisoners of War, 21st November 1945, signed Ciosi. F9, 3815. History Department of the Defence/Land Department 2P78. [list]State Department for War, Prisoner of War Department, 3rd July 1942. General report on the frontstalags. [list] General report on the frontstalags, 3rd July 1942. [list]Report of the 23rd June 1943. 3P84, dossier 2. [list]Letter for the Ambassador Mr. Brinon. [list] Letter addressed to the Commander in Chief of the military forces in France. [list]May 1943. 6P6, file 5. General Ingold, Director of the Colonial Troops, 2nd May 1945. Centre of overseas archives DAM 3, file 8. Report by General de Périer, inspector of colonial troops, 6th February 1945. DAM 74. Rapport by Colonel Le Masie, Chief of staff, Dakar, 5th December 1944. Departmental Archives of Maine et Loire 97W38. Feldkommandantur's statement, Angers 4th March 1941. Private Archives Jeanne Joly. Claude Le Minous. Bibliography of the author [list]" La singulière captivité des prisonniers de guerre africains" (1939-1945), in "Les prisonniers de guerre dans l'Histoire, Contacts entre peuples et cultures ", edited by Sylvie Caucanas, Rémy Cazals and Pascal Payen, Toulouse, Privat, 2003, pp.137-155. [list]" La tragédie de Thiaroye, symbole du déni d'égalité ", Hommes et Migrations, n° 1235, January-February 2002, pp. 86-97. [list]- " Les prisonniers de guerre coloniaux durant l'Occupation en France ", Hommes et Migrations, no. 1228, November-December 2000, pp.15-28. [list]L'action sociale coloniale, l'exemple de l'Afrique occidentale française du Front populaire à la veille des Indépendances, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2000, 221 p. Documentary film: [list]" Oubliés et Trahis Les prisonniers de guerre coloniaux et nord-africains " with Violaine Dejoie-Robin (director) and Grenade Productions (Paris).