April 16th, 1917
Abdoulaye N’Diaye is dying, tucked between the bodies of two other soldiers of the 43rd Battalion. He thinks he recognizes Moustapha on his left. The infantryman is missing the top of his face, his guts spilled in muck. Frozen blood partially hides some tribal scars.
But it is Moustapha’s grin.
In a lull between shells, he hears Germans soldiers approaching. Face down, unmoving, Abdoulaye is terrified, frostbitten fingers clenched around his useless gun.
Through the panic, he concentrates on his chest, where the amulet his mother gave him to keep him safe rests. Freezing rain pelts again as he mercifully loses consciousness and stops shaking. His fear and shock ooze into the mud.
Death creeps in slowly with nightfall. Rats gnawing at his legs, scurry across his body to the blinding throbs in his skull and wake him. The dirty mist is full of ghosts and wandering souls.
Hell jerks him back to life.
Racked with pain, he struggles upright, soon stumbles, faints, and crawls through an endless labyrinth of barbed wires, mangled bodies, and exploded wood.
The stench of the slaughterhouse seeps into his bones. The camp is not far.
Just beyond the collapsed trenches, beyond the sucking mire, the next bomb crater, beyond the rain and soul-sapping cold, beyond the horror.
April 18th, 1917
Amita Diop, widowed less than a week, is still on duty in the infirmary, drunk with fatigue and grief. She tends to the wounded. Each man is her dying husband.
She turns to the noise of the stretcher bearers dropping another wreck in a corner of the tent. One more mad sacrifice to the brutal carnage.
He looks petrified; only the eyes scream his agony.
There are no blankets left, but she finds a torn tarp and ripped uniforms to cover him.
As she cleans blood and filth from his face, she recognizes the Senegalese man.
Back in his village, he had convinced the colonial recruiter to take him instead of his father and uncle.
Deep gaping gashes on his head, frost bite, and multiple wounds cover his body, but he is whole she thinks, grateful.
Walking through the moans and nightmares of the nearly-dead, she fetches a tin cup of horsemeat broth and rice.
She brings it to his cracked and torn lips.
“Drink Abdoulaye N’Diaye, great warrior of Thiowor. Death tasted you, but you will not die today,” she whispers in their native tongue.
After he sipped all he could, she lets her hand rest on his chest briefly, then moves it to her lap. A victory cry slowly rises from her belly. Eyes closed, barely rocking back and forth on her stool, she turns the cry into a song and hums a soft lullaby.
And fat tears wash her face.
Notes: 135 000 Senegalese Tirailleurs served in WWI. 30,000 died.
Abdoulaye N’Diaye survived his wounds and went on to fight in other wars. He returned to his village where he died in 1998, two days before he was to receive the ‘Légion d’honneur’. He was 104 years old.
Amita Diop represents the women who followed their husbands to war. The French Colonial Army felt that African soldiers had better morale and better health when their families were present.
The women followed the front and stayed wherever they were needed. Information about their contributions and fate is scarce.