In 1914, with war raging in Europe, France made the decision to seek reinforcements from overseas, most notably from Senegal, a French colony at that time. Two transit camps were set up away from the frontlines to welcome, train, organise and rest these extra "tirailleurs sénégalais" (Senegalese infantrymen). One was in Fréjus on the Mediterranean coast, the other was Camp du Courneau, on a parcel of newly-irrigated marshland where rice used to be cultivated between La Teste and Cazaux.
From April 1916 until July 1917, the camp accommodated an estimated 27,000 (some say up to 40,000) Senegalese infantrymen who had arrived by boat in Bordeaux before being ferried by rail to Courneau. The conditions were rudimentary though and the poor hygiene contributed to the loss of 940 soldiers – in other words, 940 victims of war who succumbed to illness rather than enemy fire on the frontline.
|Senegalese soldiers on Rue du Port in La Teste (source).|
|Life on the camp for the Senegalese with their mascot, |
a sheep (source).
|The final stop for many Senegalese troops.|
|In front of the barracks (source).|
|Washing clothes in the canal (source).|
|The canal today.|
|US forces at |
Camp Hunt (source).
They too lost a number of men through accidents and illness. 87 bodies were buried on a plot of land just yards away from the Natus grave of the Senegalese and Russian troops. After the Second World War, the remains of those US troops were transferred either back to the States or to the American military cemetery in Suresnes near Paris. The memorial remains.
While there is no way a humble blog item could possibly do justice to such a vast topic, former top rugby player (and now Doctor) Serge Simon went much further by filming “Une pensée du Courneau”, a revealing documentary broadcast by France 3 Aquitaine in November 2011. When researching the subject, he uncovered unsettling evidence of experiments which had been carried out on the Senegalese, "who were relegated to the state of human guinea pigs".
One Dr Joseph Kérandel, affiliated with Institut Pasteur in Paris, had been drafted into the camp to eradicate the lobar pneumonia epidemic sweeping through the troops. Though incurable in these pre-antibiotic times, it was hoped the illness could at least be prevented and Kérandel developed a vaccine in under four weeks. The product, which had not been tested on animals, was widely administered to Senegalese soldiers and results were monitored and documented with a view to subsequent capitalisation and more extensive deployment of the vaccine.
When revealed at the time, news of the life-size experiments resulted in Kérandel being dismissed, but a commission decreed that Institut Pasteur and the military could continue to administer the vaccine in order to use up the 6,000 doses they still had. According to Serge Simon, quoted by newspaper Sud Ouest, “the vaccine was neither dangerous nor effective, but experiments were undeniably carried out on humans. If there hadn’t been all those vaccines to get rid of, the camp may have been abandoned earlier.”
In research carried out since this Invisible Bordeaux article was originally published, writer Eric Joly has however established that the vaccine was derived from a formula used with success on miners in South Africa. Was Kérandel's dismissal therefore misguided?
|Tall fences surround the former camp.|
- Find them: Nécropole Nationale du Natus (or Nécropole Nationale de La Teste-de-Buch), Camp du Courneau
- Other archive pictures in these two YouTube clips: