New Caledonia in the two World Wars

Noumea, departure for La Grange, 4 June 1916 © Noumea City Museum
Noumea, departure for La Grange, 4 June 1916 © Noumea City Museum

As was the case for all of France and the French Empire, New Caledonia, one of France's principal possessions in the Pacific, played a role that remains mostly unknown in France today but was nonetheless important, or even crucial, at certain points during the World Wars, especially in the Pacific operations during World War II.

Corps 1

New Caledonia, with an area of 19,823 km², had a population of 55,886 inhabitants in the 1906 census, made up of French people of European origin and the indigenous Melanesian people, the Kanaks.

I - New Caledonia and the Great War

From the start of the Great War, France's possessions in the Pacific were to play a significant role given their strategic position in the great ocean and due to the fact that they are not far from major sea routes for the warring parties' trade, the traffic of their warships and notably because, starting in August 1914, the well-targeted operations carried out by Japan were to eliminate Germany from their Far East possessions in China and the Pacific. But the naval war carried out by the Germans was to last for some time, and later they engaged in submarine warfare.

Noumea, departure for La Grange, 4 June 1916 © Noumea City Museum

From the point of view of the contingents involved, according to the official French statistics, one thousand fighters came from Oceania. Moreover, for the needs of the war, the Kanak people were called upon, notably with the help of a Protestant pastor (the Protestant religion was imported by British explorers and colonists in the 19th century and is very important), Maurice Leenhardt, who took on the role of a mediator and spokesman for ”mobilising” the Kanak populations. The argument developed was quite traditional. The Kanaks' participation in the fight earned them France's recognition, ensuring them good land and the means to cultivate it.

Maurice Leenhardt in 1902. Source: DR

Thus, the first convoy of 700 Melanesian soldiers left Noumea on 23 April 1915 on the Sontay, after several weeks of training for the recruits.

The Sontay embarks troops at Noumea, 23 April 1915. Source: P. Ramona Collection

According to the archives of the Amicale des Anciens Combattants de Nouvelle-Calédonie (New Caledonia Veterans Association), out of 1,134 Melanesian volunteers who went to France between 1914 and 1918 (or approximately 18% of the men of fighting age), 374 were killed on the front, notably in the Aisne in July-August 1918, and 167 were wounded. Furthermore, of the 2,290 men of the Bataillon du Pacifique (which, of course, included recruits from all French possessions), 332 were decorated on the front.

Kanak Tirailleurs, undated. © Noumea City Museum

II - New Caledonia and World War II

On the eve of World War II, New Caledonia had a population of 53,000 inhabitants, according to the 1938 census, 18,000 of them French citizens with full rights.
Right from the start of the war, the neutrality of the main powers close to the French territories in the Pacific meant that there was no immediate threat to our possessions. But things changed over time. The Japanese, already at war with China and in a ”Cold War” with the USSR, started looking at the Pacific and Southeast Asia. France's defeat in June of 1940, which immediately followed Holland's collapse, was to have immediate consequences in the Far East. Little by little, Japan ended up imposing a de facto protectorate over Thailand and Indochina and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the war. With the fall and occupation of France in June 1940, the French Establishments in the Pacific were among the first to refuse defeat and to join forces with General de Gaulle.
This territory held a decisive strategic importance in the context of the times. Great Britain and its Empire continued the fight against Nazi Germany and then against the Japanese menace. Furthermore, as it continued the struggle, New Caledonia could count on support from nearby Australia and New Zealand.

Corps 2

Thus, the Governor of New Caledonia, Mr Pélicier, decided on 20 June 1940, to ”continue the fight alongside the English”. A few days later, as the Governor started to hesitate, the Privy Council, a consultative body comprising four civilians and two civil servants, and the General Council, a deliberative assembly with four elected members, maintained the position that the fight should go on. It should be pointed out that this position was not unique, as many personalities around the Empire expressed the same desire despite the armistice.

Michel Verges. Source: Museum of the Order of the Liberation

During the month of July 1940, as the French State was being set up in the defeated French homeland, Michel Vergès, a notary in Noumea, drew up a manifesto for the population in which he called for a new political organisation in the colony, whereas the Governor remained faithful to Pétain and published the first Vichy laws in the Official Journal of New Caledonia.
But ”de Gaulle Committees” were set up all around New Caledonia and support lists were going around. The General Council disagreed with the Government and decided ”to contact General de Gaulle directly on 2 August 1940”.

While Governor Pélicier was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Denis and part of the African colonies joined Free France from the Pacific Establishments in the night of 18 to 19 September 1940, hundreds of residents of the bush ”descended” upon Noumea to demand that they rally General de Gaulle, while on 19 September, Governor Henri Sautot arrived in New Caledonia from the New Hebrides as General de Gaulle's representative. At the end of the day, the new Governor announced to the population that they had rallied de Gaulle.

Governor Henri Sautot. Source: Museum of the Order of the Liberation

On 3 May 1941, during a ceremony at the war memorial in Noumea, the Bataillon du Pacifique was created, its flag being handed over to Captain Félix Broche. As of April 1941, 605 volunteers, 287 of them Caledonians, signed up to form the battalion which also included recruits from Tahiti and the New Hebrides.

Capitan Félix Broche. Source: Museum of the Order of the Liberation

After training in Australia, the Bataillon du Pacifique, called the ”the guitarist battalion”, set sail to the Middle East and then North Africa. It was incorporated into the 1st Free French Division, a Brigade that was first under the orders of General Koenig. It first fought within the ranks of the British 8th Army, starting an epic adventure marked by the Battle of Bir Hakeim.
At the same time, on 3 March 1943, a second contingent of volunteers reached North Africa, notably to fight in Tunisia, while other Caledonians joined Free France's SAS paratrooper commandos.
The volunteers in the Bataillon du Pacifique successively made a name for themselves in North Africa, at Bir Hakeim, and then in the campaigns of Italy and the Liberation of France.
From 27 May to 11 June 1942, the Caledonians of the Bataillon du Pacifique took part in the fight in the desert of Cyrenaica to preserve and facilitate the British 8th Army's retreat after an attack by General, then Field Marshall, Rommel's Afrika Korps. The 1st Free French Brigade, which included the Bataillon du Pacifique, was notably given a sacrificial mission consisting in defending Bir Hakeim for a few days so that the British could avoid being bypassed and surrounded by the Germans and Italians. The story of this heroic, epic battle has been told many times. This violent fight went on until 11 June, when the British ordered the French to pull back. The battle was a magnificent defensive victory that was the highest glory of the Free French. General de Gaulle had it right when he sent the following message: ”General Koenig, I would like you to know and to tell your troops that all of France is looking at you and that you are our pride!… For the whole world, the cannons of Bir Hakeim announce the start of the rebirth of the Fatherland.” Colonials and legionnaires, the soldiers of the Bataillon du Pacifique fought side by side, refusing to surrender, breaking through their encirclement and bringing out the injured. There were heavy losses. The leader of the Bataillon du Pacifique, Commander Félix Broche, was killed on 8 June 1942.

Arrival of the Free French Forces on the English lines. Source: Imperial War Museum. DR.

In July 1942, the Bataillon du Pacifique merged with the first naval infantry battalion to become the BIMP (Bataillon d'Infanterie de Marine du Pacifique - Pacific Naval Infantry Battalion). It made a name for itself at the battle of El Alamein and then in the Libyan Campaign.
The Battalion then took part in the Italian Campaign as part of the CEF (Corps Expéditionnaire Français - French Expeditionary Force), commanded by General Juin. They landed in Naples on 20 March 1944, where the Battalion's volunteers fought bravely in the Battle of Garigliano. The Battalion's bravery was recognised, especially as the weather conditions were difficult for the volunteers.

San Giorgio Cemetery: before leaving Italy. The BIMP salutes the flag along with the delegations from all the Companies forming a Section, to those who would never return to France. Source: Amicale de la 1re Division Française Libre. Polvet Collection.

Thirdly, the Pacific volunteers took part in the liberation of France as part of General de Lattre de Tassigny's First French Army.
After the landing in Provence on 15 August 1944, the Caledonian volunteers fought bravely, notably at Hyères and Toulon and as they marched up the Rhone River. Once they arrived in the Vosges, they were relieved of their positions and sent to the rear, taking into account the serious difficulties they had in the very harsh climate.

April 1945, BIPM parade in Nice. Source: Museum of the Order of the Liberation

After the German capitulation and participation in the 1st Army's parade on the Champs Élysées to celebrate victory, the Bataillon du Pacifique returned to New Caledonia. The Caledonians received a veritable triumph when they arrived in Noumea on 21 May 1946.
It should be pointed out that the Pacific volunteers, notably the Caledonians, fought very bravely. Seventy-two of them died in the line of duty and 137 were wounded.
These volunteers' tenacity and bravery were recognised five times by the Battalion's citation to the Army Order, which led to its receiving the War Cross with palms. It received the supreme honour, the Cross of Liberation, on 28 May 1945.

Flag. Source: Amicale de la 1re Division Française Libre.

From 1942 to 1945, New Caledonia was also an essential support base and a key location for the American and Allied troops during the Pacific War, notably contributing to strategic deployment and logistics support during the re-conquest carried out by the American forces against Japan. Indeed, on 12 March 1942, an American Expeditionary Force landed in Noumea under the orders of General Pach. Despite the difficult relations with the new governor, Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu, the American, Australian and New Zealander allies were to make full use of New Caledonia as a highly effective ”aircraft carrier” against the Japanese, notably during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu (right), governor of New Caledonia in the name of Free France, with Brigadier General Alexander Patch, commander of the American Poppy Force, in Noumea. Source: U.S. Federal Government