War-disabled men from the French colonial empire (1916-1939)

What was the status granted to war-disabled men from the French colonial empire after the First World War? By virtue of their sacrifice for the Fatherland, did they deserve credit equal to those from Metropolitan France?

In France, several studies on the war disabled men of the First World War have focused on Metropolitan France and ignored the fate of the war-disabled men from the colonial empire, who were very few compared to the nearly one million disabled persons in Metropolitan France. We estimate the number of war-disabled in the Empire to have been between 25,000 and 50,000, the majority of whom were in the territories of North Africa (between 10,000 and 20,000) and in French West Africa (FWA) (about 11,000). This geographical distribution can be compared with the numbers sent by each colonial territory to fight on the front lines. The North African countries (Algeria primarily, Tunisia and Morocco) and the FWA territories sent nearly 275,000 and 170,000 fighters respectively to the front lines. Madagascar and the West Indies sent several tens of thousands of them.

As a first surprise, the war-disabled men from the French colonial empire quickly organized themselves into associations to claim their rights. War-disabled people quickly formed associations to defend their rights in Algeria (from August 1915), Morocco (1919), Tunisia (1919), Senegal (1920), and Madagascar (1926). These associations brought together French and Indigenous persons from all social classes, but those of national scope were systematically led by French people from upper cultural and economic strata. They mobilize and put pressure on the various ministries of the metropolis (Foreign Affairs, Colonies, Pensions), in order to obtain rights equal to those of war-disabled men from Metropolitan France. In a repressive colonial context, these associations had a rather limited repertoire of action, based on non-violent and non-subversive actions: political and administrative negotiations, pressure on parliamentarians, public questions to political leaders at congresses. During these congresses, the associations put forward arguments based on the equality of the rights of all disabled persons in view of their similar sacrifice for France, and the denunciation of the injustices linked to the partial application of Metropolitan France’s legislation. In 1924, the delegate of the Moroccan disabled thus declared that “all disabled persons must be treated equally – whatever their origin, the blood shed for France always has the same value”[1].

As a second surprise, the Empire’s war-disabled enjoyed a range of rights almost similar to those of Metropolitan France (including economic rights) a few years after those of France. Metropolitan legislations in favour of the war-disabled were not immediately and fully transposed to the various territories of the Empire, but local governors and associations were undertaking quickly many actions in favour of war-disabled (creation of vocational rehabilitation centres, fitting centres, etc.). While local governors appeared to develop a wide variety of social policies designed to minimize the state’s obligations to wards of the Empire, war widows, and blind civilians, they did not systematically adopt this attitude towards war-disabled. The latter had easier access to significant economic benefits, particularly in terms of pensions and employment, because of their sacrifice for the “Fatherland” and the impossibility of discriminating too strongly against them without taking political risks. However, the disabled of the Empire did not benefit from free surgical and medical care (except in Algeria and Tunisia).

Since the end of the war, various fitting centres were created in Hanoï, Fort-de-France, Dakar, Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Casablanca, and Salammbô (Tunisia). These fitting centres provided tens of thousands of prostheses and orthotics for the war-disabled. They seemed to be working well, except in Dakar where the size of the centre appeared insufficient compared to the needs of the entire FWA.

Colonial administrations promoted the vocational reintegration of disabled persons who were fit for a job, by reserving some of the vacant places in colonial administration for them in the post-war years. In Tunisia, less than a hundred jobs within the Tunisian administrations (police station, municipal administration, etc.) were attributed to disabled persons up until 1924[2]. The main beneficiaries were French disabled persons with qualifications or diplomas. The General Residence in Morocco was very active in job placement during the period 1917-1921. Out of 1360 disabled persons who returned from France, 1200 were placed in administrations and private companies before 1921[3]. General Lyautey obviously wanted to promote their vocational reintegration in order to establish them as a political support group for colonial order, in a tense political context due to Berber dissent in the Rif mountains. In Algeria, the administrations placed a minimum of several hundred disabled persons within their ranks, but the associations complained about the absence of a legal provision regulating the compulsory employment of disabled persons in private companies, following the example of the law of 29 August 1924[4].

In order to solve the problem of unemployed war-disabled, vocational rehabilitation centres were organized in the Algerian departments (in Kouba, Algiers, Oran), and in the following years in the protectorate countries (La Goulette near Tunis, Casablanca) and in Dakar. These institutions generally provided manual training (basketry, mat making, grass weaving, brush-making, carpentry, blacksmithing) in order to turn them into independent small artisans.


War-disabled apprentices in a carpentry workshop in Algiers (1919).

Plusieurs mutilés de guerre sont dans un atelier en train d'apprendre la menuiserie

L’Afrique du Nord illustrée, 11/10/1919.


The number of beneficiaries was not negligible (at least two thousand in the Empire) but did not cover all needs. But few rehabilitated disabled persons found a job on leaving. War-disabled people have to set up their own business, but they generally do not have the means to finance the necessary equipment. This vocational rehabilitation policy proved to be a partial failure.

Until the early 1920s, the war-disabled did not receive their invalidity pension, but rather a provisional allowance of a paltry sum while waiting for the rest. From the early 1920s, the vast majority of war-disabled who applied received a pension, which varied greatly from one territory of the Empire to another. French and indigenous war-disabled in North Africa and the four municipalities of Senegal theoretically enjoy a right to pension relatively similar to that of the war-mutilated in metropolitan France. But in reality, they received pensions much lower than those of the French disabled in the same territories: first, because they belonged to a military unit separate from the regular French army for a more or less long period of time ; Second, because the indigenous war-disabled remained in very low positions in the military hierarchy (Fogarty, 2008: 111). Finally, the pension reversion system was very unfavourable for the beneficiaries. On 31 December 1926, in FWA, 1057 European war-disabled and 10151 indigenous war disabled were receiving an invalidity pension[5]. We do not know the number of invalidity pensioners in the other territories of the Empire.

These pensions and the multiple economic benefits associated with being disabled allowed French war-disabled – and to a lesser extent indigenous war-disabled – with significant degrees of invalidity to live comfortably. The pension constituted a valuable inflow of cash for the war-disabled in the colonies. The pension offered them the opportunity to support a family, and thus to remain attractive in the matrimonial market and preserve their masculinity in a world where men had a duty to support their families. However, we should not overestimate this financial contribution to the disabled from France, which only occurred periodically (once every quarter). Many indigenous people, in need of more regular cash flow, took out loans from loan sharks, who eventually recovered a significant part of the pension.

Our research make it possible to note the extreme heterogeneity of the assistance policies in the colonial Empire, with strong territorial and ethnic inequalities in the allocation of the various services. Job placement in employment was intended primarily for French war-disabled. This discriminatory attitude could be explained both by the wishes of local governors to respect colonial hierarchies (priority to French disabled people in employment), by the prejudices of colonial administrators, and by the low educational level of these disabled people, which made them unsuitable for administrative positions.

Due to their specific administrative status, indigenous war-disabled benefited from a very limited number of reserved jobs in the administrations. In the North African territories, specific trade jobs were reserved for them: in Algeria, they benefited from the majority of the authorized quota for egg exports, as well as authorizations to open outlets for Moorish coffee. However, irregularities in egg exports led to the permanent withdrawal of these export licences. In addition, only a limited number of indigenous people had the opportunity of owning a Moorish café, because of few vacancies in the first half of 1926 in the department of Oran, only two positions for Moorish coffee makers were allocated to indigenous war-disabled, out of 522 applications[6]. In Morocco, 91% of tobacco shops were attributed to war-disabled (French or Indigenous) or widows. In order to find new vocational opportunities for indigenous people, the associations also requested the reserving of the positions of chaouchs (public service workers) or spahis (horseman). Many indigenous disabled people were “unwittingly unemployed” due to insufficient policies developed by local governments. Their economic situation worsened during the 1930s with the economic crisis and the decline in the relative value of pensions.

In all other colonies (FWA, FEA, Madagascar, etc.), indigenous war-disabled were severely discriminated against, they only had a pension that was much lower than that of the French disabled of the same territory.  Indigenous war-disabled of the FWA and the FEA receive pensions in an estimated amount between 40 and 60% of the rate attributed to French disabled persons according to rank ; and war-disabled of other colonies ((Indochina, Côte des Somalis, New Caledonia, Oceania) receive pensions in an estimated amount between 30 and 43% of the rate of French disabled persons, and finally the war-disabled of Madagascar receive pensions in an estimated amount between 25 and 32% of the rate of French disabled persons. Not only were these pensions very low, but the severely disabled indigenous invalids in these territories did not benefit from the pension supplements granted to severely disabled invalids who were beneficiaries of the law of 31 March 1919 (25% increase for persons who needed assistance from another person, and supplements in the event of serious multiple disabilities). Moreover, the indigenous disabled of these colonial territories did not enjoy the increases attributed to the French disabled who benefited from the law of 31 March 1919 during the 1920s.

Following the 1929 economic crisis, the Army General Staff was more favourable to increasing the rate of invalidity and seniority pensions for colonial soldiers, due to the intensity of the economic and social crisis in the colonies. A new decree on 16 April 1932 unified and increased the amount of invalidity pensions for indigenous colonial soldiers of the FWA and FEA, Madagascar and other colonies (outside North Africa and 4 communes of Senegal). It also issued significant supplements for the severely disabled requiring the assistance of a third person.

The Empire’s policy to assist the war-disabled was one of the few social policies that provided protection for colonized populations. This social policy, which was costly for metropolitan France, was a priority because of the political imperative of showing gratitude for those who sacrificed themselves for the country, but also and above all to maintain the backing of the colonized populations and the political support of the disabled and former combatants in a context of growing anti-colonial nationalism.

[1] France Maroc, revue mensuelle illustrée, June-July 1924, p. 104.

[2] TU NA, SG 6 – 135, file 8. Tables on jobs available to the disabled, June 1924.

[3] FR DAC, K – Africa, 53CPCOM/013740. Letter, April 1, 1921, the Delegate to the General Residence in Morocco at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[4] L’Algérie mutilée, April 16, 1928.

[5] FR NOA, 61 COL 192. Letter, Dakar, April 13, 1927, The Governor General of the FWA to the Minister of Colonies.

[6] Bulletin Mensuel Les Mutilés, Oran, n°106, August 1926, p. 3.


For more informations : Gildas Brégain, « Reintegrating without changing colonial hierarchies? Ethnic and territorial inequalities in the policies to assist war-disabled men from the French colonial empire (1916–1939) », ALTER European Journal of disability research, vol. 13, issue 4, november 2019, p. 244-262.

Citer ce billet
Gildas Bregain (2019, 23 décembre). War-disabled men from the French colonial empire (1916-1939). Handicap, histoire et politique au XXe siècle. Consulté le 26 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/pfz3

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