D-Day is also a time to remember the forgotten heroes of French history

Journalist Nabila Ramdani looks at the battles faced by France's colonial troops, both during WWII and after the nation's liberation

Historical black and white photograph of preparations by Allies for Operation Dragoon, to invade the south of France during WWII
Allied troops prepare for Operation Dragoon. Commonly, little mention is made of the colonial French troops who partook in the battle

The eyes of the world were on northern France in June, as thousands gathered for the 80th anniversary of D-Day. 

The liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny will always be celebrated, and eight decades make for a particularly poignant commemoration – it was undoubtedly be the last significant one for the few surviving veterans. 

The Battle of Normandy will soon disappear from living memory, but the history will continue to be revered. 

Read more: Key quotes from King Charles, Macron and Biden at D-Day commemorations

'Other D-Day' saw similar death and destruction

Far less likely to be remembered so visibly, sadly, is “the other D-Day”, which took place in August 1944, two months after the more famous landings. 

Operation Dragoon saw Allied forces come ashore in Provence to push the Germans out of strongholds in places such as Marseille and Toulon. 

Unlike in Normandy, where only 177 French commandos and 32 paratroopers landed alongside the thousands of troops from other nations, an entire French Army arrived on southern beaches. 

They were mainly colonial soldiers from countries such as Algeria and Senegal – close to half a million men that made up 80% of the French landing forces. 

Their bravery played a huge part in pushing the Third Reich out of France, but Hollywood never thought to make a hit movie akin to The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan about them. 

Soldiers often forgotten at home and abroad

Even French collective memory has often been extremely selective. 

The only popular film that touches on Operation Dragoon is Indigènes [Natives], which was made in 2007 by French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb. 

It was given the very ironic title Days of Glory for English-language audiences and highlights how members of France’s so-called African Army were exploited and humiliated while being used as cannon fodder. 

Very few people in France could put a single name to the dark-skinned men who helped win two World Wars, and indeed who later fought valiantly in horrific conflicts such as Vietnam. 

Instead, all are viewed as faceless statistics. Paris is dotted with plaques recalling those who fell during the liberation of the city in 1944, but you seldom if ever see an Arab or black African-sounding name. 

Few in positions of power acknowledge that some 400,000 French combatants in World War Two alone were from North African colonies, including Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. 

There were 70,000-odd from Senegal, and other areas of sub-Saharan Africa. 

Casualties among them were absolutely enormous – by the time France surrendered in 1940, some 17,000 of its West African troops were already killed in action. 

As in the south four years later, if they surrendered to fanatical units like the SS, they were executed. 

Liberation 'myth' white-washed photographs 

France’s 2nd Armoured Division – the famous 2e DB which entered Paris after D-Day – contained almost 4,000 North Africans, and many more from black African countries, but you would not know it from looking at the victory parade photos taken on the Champs-Elysées. 

General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the wartime Free French and future president, did not want non-white faces on show, so as to give the impression that his own indigènes had liberated themselves. 

 Read more: De Gaulle’s myth of Paris freeing itself leaves a complex legacy

This whites-only myth was followed up by further appalling treatment of colonial veterans. Most were shipped home and lost all pension rights when their countries were granted independence a few years later. 

Others ended up on decrepit sink estates in France, suffering the kind of racism that still persists to this day. 

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and are not always the ones who make headlines, or who end up being played by John Wayne or Tom Hanks. 

After witnessing another round of hugely moving D-Day commemorations, it is certainly worth sparing a thought for the fallen you have never heard of.