New Caledonia - Military History
Cannibalism, which was generally practised on the island in former times, had disappeared by the end of the 19th Century in consequence of the strict measures taken by the French colonial administration. Although the men of the same tribe lived together in the greatest harmony (such being in fact a leading dictate of their religious belief) intertribal wars had been always frequent, and had been in the past almost the sole occasion of cannibalism, as the flesh of a fellow tribesman was one of the most intelligible of their numerous and in very many cases peculiar taboos.
Since their arrival after the islands’ annexation in 1853, French naval and military forces in New Caledonia were the enduring—and largely the most publicly recognised—threat to the sovereignty of Britain’s colonies in Australia and to British interests in the Pacific during the colonial period. Without such a palpable, menacing presence, it is unlikely that British forces would have been needed — or even welcome. As Britain’s imperial might began to eclipse both French and Russian power projection in the 1890s, a fatalism over the impending loss of France’s possessions discouraged further investment in her colonial defences—and New Caledonia was no exception. Nonetheless, local military efforts to optimise Nouméa’s abilities to repel attack remained resolute, even after the signing of the Entente Cordiale (between France and the UK) in April 1904.
Of the South Sea islands participating in the Great War not one save perhaps French New Caledonia knew anything military except from tribal feuds or European punitive expeditions in an era ending upward of half a century before. From the point of view of the contingents involved in the Great War, 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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