Wednesday, June 15, 2016

New Caledonia 2016
Kanak Skirmishers in the Great War 1916-2016

ISSUE DATE: 6 June 2016
STAMP SIZE:30 x 52 mm

Continuing a series begun in 2015 with a triptych commemorating the New Caledonians who fought in the First World War, the OPT is proud to present a 110 XPF stamp issue showing a Kanak Skirmisher about to leave for France aboard the Gange.

Military draughtsman Roberto Lunardo drew his inspiration from the wooden statue which stands in front of the Customary Senate, a work created by sculptor Armand GOROBOREDJO.

As natives of the colony of New Caledonia, the Kanaks were not eligible for mobilisation in 1914 because under the Indigenous Regime, in force since 1887, they were not entitled to the rights and liberties of citizenship. However, although France generally represented land-grabbing practices and restrictions, it also contributed the missionaries who often stood up for the Kanaks. A number of clans opted to acknowledge the French Republic.

As from December 1915, under the policy of equality of treatment for all natives of the French colonies, the voluntary enlistment of one man out of ten paying the capitation tax was required of the Kanaks of New Caledonia. More than a thousand Kanaks from every tribe flocked to enlist between January 1916 and July 1918. Some were picked by their chiefs, others enlisted to see the war and many were driven by their faith in Christian values. However, as the recruitment campaigns continued, eagerness to enlist faded as a result, inter alia, of failures to pay allowances due to families and the heavy drain on the male population. Grouped according to their geographical origin and strictly supervised by the catechists, the Kanaks were assigned to the Bataillon des Tirailleurs des îles du Pacifique (Pacific Islands Rifle Battalion), founded in Noumea in January 1916. 

Most of them were sent to France. Three major contingents left Noumea, on 4 June 1916 on board the Gange, on 3 December 1916 on the same ship and 10 November 1917 on the El Kantara. They landed at Marseille and were posted to the camps at Fréjus.

The Bataillon Canaque or Bataillon de la Roussette was a “bataillon d’étapes”, attached to the Marseille Ports Commission and responsible for logistics work on the French Riviera. Although the Kanaks worked as dock labourers and roadmenders, they were given military training and quickly acquired skills in grenade throwing and weapons handling. In April 1917, numbers were swelled with the addition of an artillery company and the battalion became the Bataillon mixte du Pacifique (BMP). In July 1917, to the rear of Chemin des Dames, the Kanaks were assigned to maintaining trenches, installing and repairing telegraph and telephone lines, and working as stretcher bearers and trench cleaners. From August to October 1917, the BMP became an infantry battalion within the 72nd Infantry Division on the Champagne front and fought in the battles of the Matz and the Serre. However, like all soldiers from the colonies, in late October 1917 the Kanak fighters were sent back to spend the winter on the Riviera, where they again worked as labourers and dockhands.

From June 1918 onwards, the BMP was involved in the Battle of the Matz in the Oise, where small units fought alongside the 164th and the 365th Infantry Regiments. In August, the BMP was attached to the 418th Infantry Regiment and fought as an assault troop in the attack on Pasly plateau near Soissons, and in offensives along the line of the Ailette, to the rear of Chemin des Dames. In October, five companies of the BMP were reunited for the first time and saw front line action with the 164th Infantry Regiment at the Battle of the Serre to recapture the Hunding line. On 24 and 25 October, the BMP took part in the capture of the village of Vesles-et-Caumont and Petit Caumont farm, near Laon (Aisne). On 10 December 1918, a meritorious unit citation (10th Army Division) was awarded to the BMP. Following the armistice, the battalion returned to the French Riviera to await a ship back to Noumea. The BMP was dissolved on 9 May 1919. The next day, 908 Oceanian soldiers, including 92 Kanaks, returned home aboard the El Kantara. The remaining troops, including 601 Kanaks, were attached to the 73th Senegalese Rifle Batallion. They were shipped home on the Kia Ora in November 1919, and sometimes later.

In all, 383 Kanak soldiers gave their lives for France in the Great War (35.4% of those who enlisted); they formed the largest group of indigenous French subjects who died for France.

author: Sylvette Boubin-Boyer

Stamp images and description thanks to
Calédoscope - OPT Nouvelle-Calédonie

New Caledonia Post