I have the clearest memory of standing, ten or twelve years ago, under the great barrel-vault of the Menin Gate, looking at the names of the 55,000 dead in the battles for Ypres, whose bodies had never been recovered. It is a melancholy place, site of an extraordinary daily theatre of the emotions when the Last Post is played at sunset, the heart-breaking bugle echoing across quiet streets. What struck me then was the number of men and officers from the Indian army, havildars, subadars and sepoys who had given their lives for the King-Emperor, very far from home in the mud of the Ypres Salient. It is a strange and sobering reflection, that victory depended on colonial armies, and that so much was given by them, so unstintingly. And of course it wasn’t just Britain’s Indian Army that fought in Europe and elsewhere: troops from North Africa – including perhaps 40,000 from Morocco – served in the Great War too, and a foundation called Forgotten Heroes 14-19 Foundation has been set up to commemorate them and promote the memory of their contribution to the winning of the war. It is a fine project and worth exploring, run by a group of people that includes Eugene Rogan of Oxford and Driss Meghraoui of Al-Akhawayn.
I was struck this morning to check my phone and find quite how often an article I re-tweeted yesterday on the Muslim contribution to the Second World War had been re-tweeted again. It clearly strikes a chord on this 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the 1944 Normandy landings are all over the press, to remember that many of the named and nameless dead are Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian – without even mentioning the troops from East and West Africa, India and the Far East. I was mulling this over when I noticed a copy of L’Opinion on a news stand this morning, headlined on its front page Hommage aux Marocains tombés dans la lutte contre le nazisme.
It is essentially an account of the role of the Moroccan Goumiers at Monte Cassino. My father, who saw his twenty-first birthday in a dug-out opposite the monastery at Cassino in March 1944, used to say of the Goumiers, echoing the Duke of Wellington, “I don’t know what effect they had on the enemy, but by God they scared the living daylights out of me.” Now I have a glimpse of what they did to the enemy.
“It was the legendary Moroccan soldiers of Moulay Driss Zerhoune, from Taza and the Atlas, who would breach the German lines, considered impenetrable for months, and open the route to Rome.” The French cemetery is at Venafro, twenty kilometres away, where the Corps Expéditionnaire Français was based, and there are 3,130 Muslim graves out of a total of 4,578 – sixty-eight per cent. Of the French force that took part in the Italian campaign, 72,000 – sixty per cent – were Moroccans. The Goumiers broke through the Gustav Line, outflanking Cassino, and took the neighbouring summits of Monte Majo, Monte Aurunci and Belvedere. “They had to climb steep slopes covered in mud and snow, which the Germans judged to be unscalable, before securing the peaks under German artillery fire.” Kesselring himself later said that “The French, and above all the Moroccans, fought furiously and exploited every success by concentrating their forces on each point that showed signs of weakening.” After Cassino the Moroccans marched north, and the story of their campaign is told in the 2006 film Indigènes, which had such a powerful impact, among others, on President Chirac that he finally relented on the longstanding scandal of pensions for Moroccan ex-servicemen.
The Moroccan writer of the article, Abdelmalek Terkemani, notes the losses to the Goumiers at Cassino – 4,272 Muslims dead, 2,000 lost and not identified, and some 23,500 wounded, of whom the great majority were Moroccan. And he goes on to lament the growing xenophobia in Europe, where the common struggle is allowed to slip out of memory: “Photographs of these tombs, of young Frenchmen and Moroccans buried side by side, captioned ‘THEY DIED FOR EUROPE,’ should hang in every meeting room where foreigners in Europe are discussed.” But – as he concludes – “One can’t talk of this subject without remembering the unjust treatment suffered by the brave Moroccan soldiers who survived, compared to their European brothers-in-arms. Many of them died without trace, others among the survivors crippled or handicapped dragged themselves painfully for decades, to the front of French consulates demanding more just and more worthy treatment of their predicament.”
King Mohamed V was guest of honour at the first great France Combattant parade in June 1945, with Goumiers marching along the Champs Elysée, but as Terkemani points out, the lesson was not altogether well learned in France. Maréchal Alphonse Juin, the immensely successful French commander at Monte Cassino became Résident-général in Morocco and fiercely opposed the Nationalists. The present French Ambassador, Charles Fries, addressed this question gracefully and directly at the launch recently of a second edition of the 2006 history of the Goumiers, by Pierre Riera and Christophe Touron, Ana! Frères d’armes marocains dans les deux guerres mondiales. “Tens of thousands of Moroccan soldiers have twice paid the price in blood to defend our liberty. May they be assured that France will be eternally grateful to them for it.” May they indeed.
And now I know, as I leave my house in the morning and head for the office, why I am walking up rue Zerhoune, and it is a good reminder.