Force Publique

For the Monagasque Force Publique, see Force Publique (Monaco).
Force Publique soldiers on parade with their Belgian officer in the late 1940s.

The Force Publique (French for "Public Force") or Openbare Weermacht in Dutch 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 direct Belgian colonial rule (1908 to 1960). After independence, the FP was retitled as the Congolese National Army or ANC.


The FP 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 August 17, he was promoted to "Commandant of the Force Publique".[1] 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.

Under the Congo Free State

Two Force Publique soldiers at Fort Shinkakasa. Shown are the blue and red uniforms worn until 1915

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 drawn from Zanzibar and West Africa. The role required of the Force Publique was that of both defending Free State territory and of internal pacification.[2] The Force Publique fought in the 1892–1894 war in the Eastern Congo against Tippu Tip.


Under Leopold a major purpose of the Force was to enforce the rubber quotas and other forms of forced labor. Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte—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.[3]

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).[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

Under Belgian rule

Organisation and role

The Force Publique in German East Africa during World War One

Following the takeover of the Free State by the Belgian Government in 1908, 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. These Force Publique companies eventually grew to over 600 men each but their constituent units known as detachments were so widely scattered that the force had no real military value. 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.

Belgian officers and NCOs replaced nearly all the multi-national Europeans who had been employed under the Free State. 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 Boma at the mouth of the Congo River in Boma. Fort Boma contained eight 160mm guns manned by 200 men, who saw little or no service during the war.

In 1914, the Force Publique, inclusive of 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 a primarily 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 FP 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.

Much had been done to remedy the worst excesses of the Free State period and the Force Publique had become a more typical colonial army — well disciplined but with an inevitably repressive role. Most askaris were armed with single shot 11 mm Albini Rifles. They continued to wear the blue uniform (with red trim around the neck and down the front opening), red fez and sash of the Free State period until replaced by khaki during 1915–17. Initial enlistment was for a period of seven years.

Other weapons included the Maxim machine-guns and Nordenfelt 4.7 cm and Krupp 7.5 cm cannons.

World War I

Map of the 1916 campaign by the Force Publique

During World War I (1914–18) an expanded Force Publique served against German colonial forces in the Camerouns, Rwanda, Burundi and German East Africa. They generally performed well, winning the respect of their British and Portuguese allies, as well as that of their German opponents. From 1916 on the FP 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 do this.

Charles Tombeur (1867–1947) was the general who commanded the Force Publique during the First World War. In 1916 he was made Military Governor of the Belgian Occupied East African Territories.

At the time of the fight for Tabora in September 1916 about 25,000 men were under arms, and during the war their actions were supported by more than 260,000 native bearers.[7]

World War II

Governor-general Pierre Ryckmans reviews FP troops at the inauguration of the monument to King Albert I in Leopoldville, 1938

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.[8] 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 to produce the atomic bomb for Hiroshima.[7] 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.[9] It provided detachments to fight Italian forces during the East Africa Campaign and German and Italian forces in 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 Sayo on June 8, 1941.[7] Their retreat cut off, the Italian troops surrendered to General Auguste-Édouard Gilliaert on July 7, 1941 including nine generals, among them Generals Pietro Gazzera and Count Arconovaldo Bonaccorsi, 370 officers, and 2,574 noncoms and 1,533 native soldiers.[7] About 2,000 additional native irregulars were sent home. The Force Publique lost about 500 men during the East Africa Campaign,[10] among them four Belgians.[7]

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 expeditionary 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.[11]

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").[12]

Final stages of Belgian rule

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

In 1960, the Force Publique comprised three groupements (Groups) each of which covered two provinces.[16] The 1st groupement had its headquarters at Elisabethville in Katanga Province, according to Louis-Francois Vanderstraeten.[17] 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),[18] 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.[19]


Vanderstraeten reported the dispositions of the Force publique in July 1960 as:[20]

Total strength of the Force Publique immediately prior to independence was 26,000 men with about 600 Belgian officers and warrant officers.


The last 15 commanders of the Force Publique were:[21]


On 5 July 1960, five days after the country gained independence from Belgium, the Force Publique garrison near 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 (see Congo Crisis).

Soon afterwards, 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.[13]

Former members



See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website

  1. Rudi Geudens, Force Publique: Organisation (1885-1918), accessed October 2011
  2. John Keegan, page 822 World Armies, ISBN 0-333-17236-1
  3. Thomas Pakenham, page 600 "The Scramble for Africa", ISBN 0 349 10449 2
  4. Thomas Pakenham, pages 29-33 and 394-6 "The Scramble for Africa", ISBN 0 349 10449 2
  5. Zaire: Evolution of the armed forces — The Colonial Period
  6. The Objects of Life in Central Africa: The History of Consumption and Social Change, 1840-1980. Afrika-Studiecentrum Series. BRILL. 2013. p. 50. ISBN 9789004256248.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 David van Reybrouck. Congo: The Epic History of a People. HarperCollins, 2014. p. 132ff.
  8. David van Reybrouck. Congo: The Epic History of a People. Harper Collins, 2014. p. 182ff. ISBN 978-0-06-220011-2.
  9. John Keegan, page 57 World Armies, ISBN 0-333-17236-1
  10. Abyssinian campaign (Dutch)
  11. Belgian Army remembers role of Force Publique (Dutch)
  12. "Un Belge face aux Japs" (book) isbn D/1986/2070 (French)
  13. 1 2 Luc Baudoux, Les Avions de la Force Publique du Congo, accessed October 2011. Description of handover of machines to Katanga substantiated by Jules Gerald-Libois, 'Katanga Secession,' University of Wisconsin Press, 1966, 114.
  14. "Histoire de la Force Publique" du Lieutenant Général F.P. Émile Janssens, Ghesquière & Partners Éditeurs, 1979, p.239-240
  15. Janssens, 1979, p.263
  16. See also Vanderstraeten, 'De la Force publique a l'Armee National Congolaise,' Brussels, 1983, Annex I, 469-471
  17. The actual location of the headquarters on 30 June 1960 is potentially unclear. Vanderstraeten, 1983, Annex I, lists the HQ at Elisabethville. However, ONUC Liaison Reports with the ANC, No. 18, 25–26 June 1961, pg 61 of 84, says General Mobutu has declared the headquarters 'has now been moved from Luluabourg to Elisabethville.'
  18. Une école au Congo Belge dans les années 50, Watsa - Page 16) Camps militaire de Watsa |
  19. Armée et police
  20. Bases sur les tableaux d'organisation (TO) en vigueur au 1 octobre 1959, corriges en fonction des principales modifications apportees aux TO jusqu'au 30 juin 1960. Vanderstraeten, 1983, Annex I, 471.
  21. Histoire générale du Congo: de l'héritage ancien à la République Démocratique, Par Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem,Théophile Obenga,Pierre Salmon, p.687.


Further reading

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