Force Publique soldiers on parade with their Belgian officer in the late 1940s
|Country||Congo Free State (until 1908)|
Belgian Congo (from 1908)
|Allegiance||Belgian colonial empire|
|Size||c. 17,000 (1914)|
c. 23,500 (1960)
|Motto(s)||Congo uni, pays fort|
The Force Publique (French: [fɔʁs pyblik], "Public Force"; Dutch: Openbare Weermacht) was a gendarmerie and military force in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 (when the territory was known as the Congo Free State), through the period of Belgian colonial rule (Belgian Congo – 1908 to 1960). After independence, the FP was retitled as the Congolese National Army or ANC.
The Force Publique was initially conceived in 1885 when King Leopold II of the Belgians, who held the Congo Free State as his private property, ordered his Secretary of the Interior to create military and police forces for the State. Soon afterwards, in early 1886, Captain Léon Roger (of the Belgian Army's Carabiniers) was sent to the Congo with orders to establish the force. A few months later, on 17 August, he was promoted to "Commandant of the Force Publique". A number of other Belgian officers and non-commissioned officers were also dispatched to the territory as the nucleus of the officer corps. The officers of the Force Publique were entirely European. They comprised a mixture of Belgian regular soldiers and mercenaries from other countries who were drawn by the prospect of wealth or simply attracted to the adventure of service in Africa.
Leopold II was able to rely on three kinds of volunteers to command his Force Publique: regular officers from the Belgian Army, adventurers, and former officers from armies of other European nations, especially Scandinavia, Italy and Switzerland. To these men, service in the Congo Free State offered military experience, adventure and—as they saw it—an opportunity to participate in a humanitarian endeavour. From 1886 to 1908 the officer core consisted of 648 Belgians, 112 Italians, 53 Danes, 47 Swedes, 26 Norwegians and smaller numbers recruited from other nations, such as the British empire and the USA.
Serving under these European officers was an ethnically-mixed African soldiery, who eventually became comparable to British or Imperial German Askaris. Many were recruited or conscripted from warrior tribes in the Haut-Congo, others were mercenaries drawn from Zanzibar and British West Africa (Nigerian Hausas). The role required of the Force Publique was that of both defending Free State territory and of internal pacification. In the 1890s, the Force Publique defeated the African and Arab slavers in the course of the Congo Arab war (1892–1894), which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties.
As time went on, the Force Publique began to increasingly recruit and to rely on Belgian officers and native Congolese soldiers, so that the white and black foreign mercenaries had been mostly phased out by 1908.
Under Leopold II the Force Publique, an "exceptionally brutal army" of African mercenaries and locally-recruited tribal militias, was responsible for maintaining order in the Congo Free State, a major purpose of the Force was to enforce the rubber quotas and other forms of forced labour. Armed with modern weapons and the chicote—a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide—soldiers of the FP often took and mistreated hostages. Reports from foreign missionaries and consular officials detail a number of instances where Congolese men and women were flogged or raped by soldiers of the Force Publique, unrestrained by their officers and NCOs. They also burned recalcitrant villages and there is evidence, including photographs, that FP soldiers cut off human hands either as trophies or to show that bullets had not been wasted.
There was also disturbing evidence that limbs were severed of children of poorly performing parents in the rubber plantations during this time.
During the Free State period, the Force Publique suffered from institutional problems. During the early years of the force, mutinies of black soldiers occurred several times. By the early 1890s, much of the eastern portion of the Free State was under the control of Arab ivory and slave traders (though the Government was able to re-establish control over the east by the mid-1890s). Organizational problems were also quite prevalent during the Free State era. With many Force Publique detachments being stationed in remote areas of the territory, some officers took to using soldiers under their control to further private economic agendas rather than focusing on military concerns. By the end of 1891, the force had 60 officers, 60 non-commissioned officers, and 3,500 black soldiers. Friendly tribes and militias were often used to help exert control over the outermost parts of the Free State.
Following the takeover of the Free State by the Belgian government in 1908, the new authorities began reorganize the Force Publique. This process was rather slow, however, and was only completed during World War I. Though the new Belgian administration was "more enlightened" than its predecessor, it still tried to keep the cost of the colonial army low. As result, the proportion of commissioned Belgian officers to askaris (about one to a hundred) was very low by the standards of most colonial armies of this period. The weaponry of the Force Publique also remained mostly outdated due to the tight budgetary constraints on the colonial administration. Most askaris were armed with single shot 11 mm Albini-Braendlin rifles, though the white cadres and units in Katanga were given better Mauser Model 1889 rifles. Other weapons included Maxim machine guns, smaller numbers of Madsen machine guns, Nordenfelt 4.7 cm and Krupp 7.5 cm cannons.
The uniforms of the old Free State remained in use among the Force Publique until World War I: Belgian officers wore white uniforms until late 1914, while the blue uniform (with red trim around the neck and down the front opening), red fez and sash of the askaris was phased out in a series of changes during 1915–1917. Thereafter, officers and askaris wore a variety of khaki uniforms.
The Force Publique was organised into 21 separate companies (originally numbered but were later known only by their names), along with an artillery and an engineers unit containing over 12,100 men. The companies were as follows: Aruwimi, Bangala, Bas-Congo, Cateracts, Équateur, Ituri, Kasai, Kwango, Lac Léopold II, Lualaba, Lulongo, Makrakas, Makua-Bomokandi, Ponthiérville, Rubi, Ruzizi-Kivu, Stanley Falls, Stanley Pool, Ubangi, and Uele-Bili. There were also six recruit training camps containing over 2,400 men.
The separate companies comprising the Force Publique eventually grew to over 600 men each. Their constituent units, known as detachments, were so widely scattered that the force had no real military value. Rather the bulk of these sub-units consisted of small garrisons in fixed locations, with local policing functions. It was intended that each administrative company form a Compagnie Marche of 150 men. Each Marche or field company was intended to have four Belgian officers and NCOs plus between 100 and 150 askaris (African soldiers). In principle companies comprised two or three 50-man platoons. There were supposed to be enough companies to form three Marche battalions. There were eight Congolese NCOs as part of this establishment.
The 2,875 men of the Troupes de Katanga constituted a semi-autonomous force of six companies: four de marche and two other infantry, plus a cyclist company and a battalion headquarters. In addition there was the Compagnie d'Artillerie et de Génie (Artillery and Engineers Company) manning Fort de Shinkakasa at the mouth of the Congo River in Boma. The fort contained eight 160mm guns manned by 200 men, plus an equal sized auxiliary force, which saw little or no service during the war.
In 1914, the Force Publique, including the Katanga companies, totalled about 17,000 askaris with 178 white officers and 235 white NCOs. The majority served in small static garrisons called poste with primarily a police role. With the outbreak of World War I, the Katangese units were organized in battalions (Ie, IIe, and IIIme) for military service in Northern Rhodesia and the eastern frontier districts of the Congo. The Force Publique was able to assemble another battalion from smaller units; originally called the IIIe but changed to the 11e to avoid confusion with the Katanga IIIme battalion.
During World War I (1914–18) an expanded Force Publique served against German colonial forces in the Camerouns and German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi), as part of the East African Campaign. The Force Publique performed well on the battlefield, winning the respect of their British and Portuguese allies, as well as that of their German opponents.
From 1916 onwards, the Force Publique grew to reach a strength of three mobile Groupes (brigades), Kivu, Ruzizi, and Tanganyika, comprising a total of 15 battalions, from the static garrison and police force of 1914. However, it did take until late 1915 for the Force Publique to finish preparations for a large scale offensive on the German colony of German East Africa. The allied powers, the British Empire and Belgium launched a coordinated attack on the German colony, by 1916 the Belgian commander of the Force Publique, Lieutenant-General Charles Tombeur, had assembled an army of 15,000 men supported by local bearers and advanced to Kigali. Kigali was taken by 6 May 1916. The German army stationed in Burundi was forced to retreat by the numerical superiority of the Belgian army and by 17 June 1916, Burundi and Rwanda were occupied. The Force Publique and the British Lake Force then started a thrust to capture Tabora, an administrative centre of central German East Africa. The army went on to take Tabora on 19 September after heavy fighting. At the time of the Battle of Tabora in September 1916 about 25,000 men were under arms, during the war their actions were supported by more than 260,000 local bearers. In 1916 Charles Tombeur was made Military Governor of the Belgian Occupied East African Territories. After the Mahenge Offensive and the capture of Mahenge in 1917, the Belgian Congolese army controlled roughly one-third of German East Africa. After the war, as outlined in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to cede "control" of the Western section of the former German East Africa to Belgium. On 20 October 1924, Ruanda-Urundi (1924–1945), which consisted of modern-day Rwanda and Burundi, became a Belgian League of Nations mandate territory, with Usumbura as its capital.
After Belgium had surrendered to Germany on 28 May 1940, Governor Pierre Ryckmans decided that the colony would continue to fight on the side of the Allies. With Belgium occupied, the contribution to the Allied cause by the Free Belgian Forces from the Belgian Congo was primarily an economic one providing copper, wolfram, zinc, tin, rubber, cotton and more. Already prior to the war uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine had been shipped to New York; it was later used in the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb for Hiroshima. The military contribution was also important: the Force Publique grew to 40,000 in the course of the War, formed into three brigades, a river force and support units. It provided detachments to fight Italian forces during the East Africa Campaign and serve as garrisons in West Africa and the Middle East.
At the end of 1940 the XIth Battalion of the Force Publique was placed at the disposal of the British forces in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The 3rd Brigade of the Force Publique, together with the XIth battalion (5,700 men), took part in the campaign in Abyssinia arriving from the Congo via the Sudan. The troops took Asosa and Gambela with little resistance and shelled Italian forces at Saïo on 8 June 1941. Their retreat cut off, the Italian troops surrendered to General Auguste-Édouard Gilliaert on 7 July 1941 including nine generals, among them Generals Pietro Gazzera and Count Arconovaldo Bonaccorsi, 370 officers, and 2,574 noncoms and 1,533 native soldiers. About 2,000 additional native irregulars were sent home. The Force Publique lost about 500 men during the East Africa Campaign, among them four Belgians.
The Force Publique then helped to establish an overland route from Lagos through Fort Lamy and the Sudan to Cairo. Between 1942 and 1943 an expionary force of 13,000 was sent to Nigeria. Nine thousand of these troops served in Egypt and Palestine. They returned to the Belgian Congo at the end of 1944 without having seen active service.
The Force Publique also sent the 10th Belgian Congo Casualty Clearing Station to the battle zone. Between 1941 and 1945 some 350 Congolese and twenty Belgians, under the command of Medical Colonel Thomas, worked together with the British medical services in Abyssinia, Somalia, Madagascar and Burma. They especially proved their value serving with the Indian XXXIII Corps on the Upper Chindwin, where they were attached to the 11th (East Africa) Division. During the confusion inherent in jungle fighting, the Belgian medical unit found itself on one occasion in advance of the front line troops. This incident was later used by British officers to motivate the fighting troops to greater efforts ("even a hospital can do better").
At the end of 1940 the FP headquarters, recognising the need for aviation support for the force, began forming the Aviation militaire de la Force Publique equipped with requisitioned civilian machines and based at N'Dolo Airport in Leopoldville. The first machine purchased for the force was a de Havilland DH.85 Leopard Moth that entered service on 9 October 1940.
For the remainder of the period of Belgium's rule the Force Publique continued its joint military and police role, split into territorial units, charged with maintaining public order, and mobile units (between the wars known as unites campees) charged with territorial defence. There was a mutiny by the XIV battalion at Luluabourg in 1944.
In 1945 the FP mobile units consisted of six battalions of infantry (the V battalion at Stanleyville, the VI battalion at Watsa, the VIII battalion at Luluabourg, the XI battalion at Rumangabo, the XII battalion at Elizabethville, and the XIII battalion at Léopoldville), three reconnaissance units, military police units, a brigade under training at Camp Hardy, still under construction at Thysville, four coastal defence guns, and a small aviation element including two De Havilland DH.104 Doves.
Between 1945 and 1960 Belgium continued to organise the Force Publique as an entity cut off from the people that it policed, with recruits serving in tribally mixed units and no more than a quarter of each company coming from the province in which they served. Tightly disciplined and drilled the Force Publique impressed visitors to the Congo with its smart appearance but a culture of separateness, encouraged by its Belgian officers, led to brutal and unrestrained behaviour when the external restraints of colonial administration were lifted in 1960. The infamous chicote was only abolished in 1955. The Belgian Government made no effort to train Congolese commissioned officers until the very end of the Colonial period and there were only about 20 African officer cadets at military schools in Belgium on the eve of Independence. A separate gendarmerie was organised in 1959 drawn from the Territorial Service Troops of the FP. By July 1959 a total of 40 companies and 28 platoons of gendarmerie were either formed or in training.
In 1960, the Force Publique comprised three groupements (Groups) each of which covered two provinces. The 1st groupement had its headquarters at Elisabethville in Katanga Province, according to Louis-Francois Vanderstraeten. The 2nd groupement covered Léopoldville and Equateur. The 3rd groupement, commanded by a colonel whose headquarters was at Stanleyville, grouped F.P. units in Kivu and Orientale Province (PO). It comprised three infantry battalions (each of approximately 800 men), seemingly including 6 Battalion at Watsa (under Lieutenant Colonel Merckx in 1960), two battalions of Gendarmerie (each of approximately 860 men), a reconnaissance squadron (jeeps, trucks and armoured M8 Greyhound vehicles – approximately 300 men), a transport company, a military police company (approximately 100 men), a heavy mortar platoon, a combat engineer company and a training centre at Lokandu.
Vanderstraeten reported the dispositions of the Force publique in July 1960 as:
Total strength of the Force Publique immediately prior to independence was 22,403 Congolese regular soldiers and NCOs, 599 European NCOs, and 444 European officers.
The last 15 commanders of the Force Publique were:
On 5 July 1960, five days after the country gained independence from Belgium, the Force Publique garrison in Léopoldville mutinied against its white officers (who had remained in complete command) and attacked numerous European and Congolese targets. The immediate incident sparking the mutiny was reported to have been a tactless speech made by the Belgian general commanding the FP to African soldiers in a mess hall at the main base outside Léopoldville, in which he stated that Independence would not bring any change in their status or role. Lieutenant General Émile Janssens' intention may only have been to stress the need for continued discipline and obedience to orders but the impact on the soldiers, unsettled by the demands of maintaining order during Independence celebrations and fearful that they would be excluded from the benefits of the new freedom, was disastrous. The outbreak caused fear amongst the approximately 100,000 Belgian and other European civilians and officials still resident in the Congo and ruined the credibility of the new government as it proved unable to control its own armed forces. For example, the white community in Luluabourg was besieged in improvised fortifications for three days until rescued by a Belgian Army paratroop drop.
This violence immediately led to a military intervention into Congo by Belgium in an ostensible effort to secure the safety of its citizens (the earlier Luluabourg intervention had been against orders). The re-entry of these forces was a clear violation of the national sovereignty of the new nation, as it had not requested Belgian assistance.
Soon afterwards, after an extraordinary meeting of ministers of the new Congolese Government at Camp Leopold on 8 July, the FP was renamed as the Congolese National Army (Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC)), and its leadership was Africanised.
The chain of events this started eventually resulted in Joseph Mobutu (Mobutu Sésé Seko), a former Sergeant-Major in the FP who had been promoted to Chief of staff of the ANC by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, gaining power and establishing his dictatorial kleptocracy. His regime was to remain in power until May 1997.
Prior to independence, the air component of the Force Publique (Avi / or Avimil, Aviation militaire de la Force publique) was based mainly at the N'Dolo airport, Leopoldville. Avimil's roles included the transportation of passengers, medical supplies and other goods, as well as undertaking connecting flights and recognition duties. Between 1944 and 1960 the following unarmed aircraft and helicopters were used by Avimil:
At independence on 30 June 1960, Avimil was placed under the control of the new government of the Republic of the Congo, and continued its missions until 20 July 1960. On this date the chief of Belgian forces in the Congo ordered the assembly of non-Congolese personnel and operational aircraft ('des appareils en état de vol') at the Belgian base at Kamina. On 23 August they were transferred to Elizabethville, and on 26 August officially turned over to the secessionist State of Katanga.