From the very first days of its official protectorate over Morocco in 1912, France found itself faced with myriad serious problems. The country, in the northwest corner of Africa, was a wild, virtually ungovernable land, split by towering mountain ranges and nominally ruled by a weak sultan whose power hardly extended beyond the holy city of Fez.
Even before France had snatched control of Morocco in a deal with the sultan (which involved a huge loan), the French had extensive commercial interests there. Now they were de facto rulers of the vast land — except for those considerable parts of the interior that were eternally in revolt against both the French and their puppet sultan.
|Goumier Rubarck ou Boujmaa sharpens his bayonet at Mistretia, Sicily, preparing for his nightly foray on July 30, 1943. As was typical of the goumiers, he wears a French helmet with his striped djellaba.|
In 1919 Morocco was still in turmoil, with French forces just inching into the foothills of the forbidding Middle Atlas Mountains, where fierce Berber tribesmenwere holding out with unrelenting determination. In that year, under chaotic conditions, a young infantry officer, Augustin-Léon Guillaume, entered the land that was to become the center of his military life.
Guillaume had been admitted to the French military academy in 1913 at the age of 18. He saw only a few weeks of frontline action in World War I before some Germans captured him at the end of September 1914. He spent the rest of that conflict as a prisoner of war and was repatriated in 1919. For an ambitious professional officer, it was not a promising start.
He put all of that behind him, however, when he was ordered to Morocco. It was love at first sight. Everything he saw around him — the land, the people, the strange customs, and the mysterious atmosphere — entranced him. A mountain man himself, born and raised in the Hautes Alpes region of Provence, Guillaume was particularly drawn to Morocco’s towering mountain ranges and the wild Berber nomads inhabiting them — the same tribesmen who were causing the French the most trouble.
French army records describe Guillaume’s first service in Morocco simply as “at the disposition of the resident general,” which means he probably worked in the intelligence service or the native affairs bureau, practically the same thing in the Moroccan bureaucracy. However, after two years in that job, he took a new assignment that had no air of mystery.
On March 15, 1921, Guillaume assumed command of the 12th Goum Mixte, a dream assignment for the young officer. The term “goum” derives from an Arabic word used to describe a small tribal group. In Morocco it was originally applied to the local horsemen the French army recruited when it first invaded the area around Casablanca in 1905, before establishing the protectorate.
By the time Guillaume arrived, each goum was the size of a company, containing anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred fifty men, with its own horse-mounted section and a small mule train to pack supplies. The units operated as rural police, each working independently, high in the mountainous hinterland. At first the groups had operated under the control of their own chieftains and disbanded after every command. Now they were “Mixte,” because the goum commander was always a French officer, usually trained in intelligence and native affairs, and aided by several French enlisted men. The native enlisted men were almost exclusively mountain Berbers, often recruited from the same tribes the French had only recently been fighting. As irregulars, their basic uniform — Frenchman and Berber alike — was the native djellaba, a striped, hooded cloak that gave the force a distinctly Moroccan appearance. Turban and sandals completed the look. Kepis, bonnets de police, and shoes distinguished the officers from their troops.
Guillaume fitted right in with his new command. He was as tough as the Berber tribesmen and looked the part. Short, stocky, and muscular, with a prominent nose, bushy eyebrows, and a thin moustache, he most often displays a poker face in photographs, as traditionally befits an intelligence officer.
At the same time, he worked diligently to understand the customs of his men and to show respect for their religion. He wore the djellaba with pride and panache, and tried earnestly to be one of the men. In time the goumiers looked up to him and gave him their allegiance; in fact, in every goum the loyalty of the men was to their officers, rather than to France or the sultan.
While the principal duty of the goums was to police their own recently restive tribal areas, the French often attached them to the Groupes Mobiles, the task forces of regular North African and Foreign Legion troops that France used to subjugate dissident tribes that still resisted French occupation. The goums generally acted as scouts and guides. Because they knew the terrain so much better than the regulars did, they frequently became the leading units in mountain skirmishes. They were also more familiar with the tactics and tricks of the natives, since they themselves were mountain Berbers, brought up in an atmosphere of tribal hostility. They already knew how to fight in the mountains.
While Guillaume’s goumiers were not soldiering with the Groupes Mobiles, and were acting as police in their own communities, their commander was practicing the duties of a native affairs officer. Among his responsibilities was arbitrating the quarrels between local tribes, keeping an eye on suspected arms smugglers, and spying on potentially dissident mountain clans.
For a French officer, service in the goums provided an in-depth education in mountain warfare but not much in the way of pay or promotion. When the inevitable orders came for Guillaume to leave Morocco and take a new step in his career, he may have had some pangs of regret but he could not have been entirely displeased.
He spent the next four years in varying assignments, with many opportunities for advancement. His time included routine regimental service with two different regular infantry units, a tour of duty with the Army of the Rhine (the French occupation force in Germany), and a stint as assistant to the French military attaché in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. This interesting mix of military and political experience culminated in Guillaume’s appointment to the École Supérieure de Guerre, the prestigious French war college. Appointment to this school had always been the gateway to French military advancement, and indeed the mountain fighter in the djellaba was on his way to higher office.
When Guillaume returned to Morocco in 1928, he was no longer a boots-on-the-ground company grade officer but a senior staff expert, eventually a colonel, operating in the rarified atmosphere surrounding the resident general himself. In spite of his new responsibilities, however, Guillaume retained a deep interest in his beloved goumiers. They had established themselves in French Moroccan military history. There were now fifty goums stationed around the country, half of them still fighting the last of the dissident Berbers, holding them at bay on the highest peaks of the Atlas Mountains.
In 1933 the goums were part of a huge task force, the size of four divisions, of Groupes Mobiles closing in on Mount Baddou, a twelve-thousand-foot peak in the Jebel Sahro. Several thousand rebellious tribesmen had seized strong positions there, defying the French to take them. It was the last refuge of the Berber rebels. The tribesmen were desperately holding out, along with their families and herds, in a tangle of rocky chasms and deep caves.
The French force included regular tirailleurs, Foreign Legionnaires, and goumiers, with support from airplanes, tanks, and artillery. But the rebels were so well dug into their mountaintop positions and the surrounding terrain was so difficult that all these modern weapons of war were insufficient. As a last resort, the goumiers had to crawl up to the caverns and toss in grenades.
Even these close encounters failed to dislodge the tribal warriors. In the end, they were defeated only after the attackers dammed the streams that flowed into the caves, cutting off their water supply. Rather than watch their families slowly die of thirst, the rebels surrendered.
Only a few half-hearted dissidents remained in the remote southwestern mountains, and they were soon conquered. In 1934 the government in Rabat declared that the pacification of Morocco was complete. The tirailleurs and legionnaires returned to their barracks, and the goumiers went back to policing their home territories. All seemed quiet for the first time during France’s occupation of Morocco.
The tranquility did not last long. In September 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. France sent most of the regular troops in Morocco to meet the enemy in Europe. In May 1940, twelve goums assembled at El Hajeb, where they were reorganized into tabors de suppletifs (auxiliary battalions) and sent to the southern desert region of Tunisia. There, they were to defend the border with Libya against the Italians, who entered the war on June 10.
The goumiers had only had the opportunity to fight a few skirmishes — just enough to intimidate the Italians with their guerilla tactics — when German panzers overran the French and British positions in the European lowlands. The French government surrendered, an armistice was declared, and the goumiers returned to their home stations to carry on as rural policemen. Then began one of the most audacious military deceptions since the ancient Greeks entered Troy inside a wooden horse.
As the defeated French troops returned from Europe to Africa, the victorious Germans limited the size and armaments of the post-Armistice French army. It was to control all of North Africa with a mere 120,000 men, plus an insignificant number of field guns, armored cars, trucks and the like, hardly enough for basic internal security considering the huge expanse of French holdings.
Most of the French generals in North Africa were not defeatists. They hated the Boche as much as did any other patriotic Frenchmen, and they took the word “armistice” literally, meaning a temporary halt in the fighting — while they secretly rebuilt their forces. Even as the German and Italian armistice control commissioners began to swarm over North Africa, looking for illegal soldiers and arms, the French were covertly recruiting troops beyond the armistice limits. French officers falsified order-of-battle lists and showed the Axis examiners only what they wanted them to see.
Even bolder, they hid away tons of banned armaments in remote mountain and desert caches, as well as on the back-country farms of patriotic settlers. This concealed treasure included thousands of rifles, machine guns, and mortars, and a substantial number of 77mm field guns, armored cars and trucks, and even a few tanks.
In Morocco the deception went still further. From his past experience with the goumiers, both as a goum commander and as a high-level staff officer, Colonel Guillaume was well aware of their fighting ability. He had long believed that these mountain Berbers could be organized and trained to become first-class mountain infantry, in sufficient numbers to be effective against the best troops any enemy could field. Colonel Auguste Paul Nogués, the current resident general, shared that view. Both officers were aware that no one considered the goumiers soldiers at all but policemen — and they were carried as such on the books of the protectorate. Now the job was to convince the Axis agents that the armed natives they occasionally ran across in the more remote parts of Morocco were just a rural constabulary, a force that should not be counted as part of the armed forces.
When the French negotiators put this suggestion before the Axis commission, the Germans bought the idea but the Italians did not. The Italians troops had recently fought against the goumiers, albeit briefly, on the Tunisian frontier, and they didn’t want to face them again. As usual, however, the Germans ignored the Italian protests. They agreed that they would not consider the goumiers as part of the French army and there would be few restrictions on their use as police officers.
The German concession on this point may have had something to do with Nazi racist theories. These dark-skinned men in their bizarre robes might be able to perform simple policing duties in the hinterland but could hardly be considered on the same level as German soldiers. On the other hand, perhaps the commission simply did not have enough manpower to poke around in every little mountain village, counting noses. Besides, who could tell an irregular goum from a Moroccan farmer?
Whatever the commission’s reasoning, it was just the opportunity Guillaume sought. He immediately gained authorization from the resident general to reorganize the goums into tabors of four goums each. They sought suitably remote areas for clandestine training of the newly formed tabors. Auxiliary goumiers, recruited from among retired goumiers, handled the function of policemen in their home districts.
The plan worked. They found excellent sites for training mountain infantry throughout the hill country of Morocco, all hidden well away from curious eyes. Vigorous recruiting efforts filled the ranks with enthusiastic mountain men, and they were armed with rifles, machine guns, and mortars, all brought out from their hiding places. The Italian-German armistice commission never discovered that the bearded backwoods constabulary they had disdained had grown into a modern, well-trained military force right under their noses.
Soon after Allied troops landed on the North African shores in November 1942, the French were ready to welcome them in their advance into Tunisia against the Axis forces that had flooded into Tunis and Bizerte. By this time, the French had abandoned any pretense of an armistice agreement and had rejoined the Allies wholeheartedly.
The goum tabors were now further reorganized into regiment-sized groups of four tabors each. In December, the 1st Groupe de tabors Marocains (GTM), under the command of a Colonel Leblanc, joined General Maurice Mathenet’s Moroccan Division in the understrength French force holding the hasty defensive line strung across northern Tunisia. A few weeks later, Lt. Col. Pierre Boyer de Latour’s 2nd GTM also arrived at the battle zone.
Their new American and British allies did not quite know what to make of these strangely attired warriors. The goumiers’ striped djellabas, turbans, and goatskin sandals were unlike any other uniform in the Allies’ panoply. Another unusual touch was that many of the goumiers carried long knives as well as rifles. All the Moroccans had beards, and some sported pigtails — so Allah would have handles, convenient for lifting them into heaven when their time came.
To the GIs and Tommies, the French officers seemed only a little less exotic than their wild-looking men. All the Frenchmen in the tabors wore the traditional Moroccan djellabas over their uniforms. Many officers also carried walking sticks, a longtime French army custom. There were even a few wearing monocles, incongruous symbols of European aristocracy in the midst of a nasty North African war.
While the French forces in Tunisia fought with heart, their materiel was obsolete and badly worn. Their few small-caliber antitank guns were next to useless against the enemy’s modern Mark IVs and Tigers, while their artillery, left over from World War I, and even their small arms had seen better days. General Mathenet’s Moroccans, including the tabors, fought gallantly but took heavy casualties — and a severe beating. They were forced out of the string of mountains known as the Eastern Dorsale, where they had been trying to hold a very weak line while awaiting Allied reinforcements that never came.
The exhausted French were finally reassigned to the quieter central sector of the Allied line for rest and reequipment. During this period, the goumiers conducted small-scale nocturnal raids on nearby enemy installations. Often the Axis did not discover their silent attacks until the next morning, when they would find the bloody body of a sentry with one ear off, some valuable equipment destroyed or missing — and no other hint that there had been an intruder. The Germans first learned to fear the Moroccans during these early days in Tunisia.
In April the Allies began to advance, and the goumiers joined with zeal. The 1st and 2nd Groupes de tabors Marocains, rested and equipped with some new American arms, swept back into the mountains of the Eastern Dorsale impelled by a Berber desire for revenge. No longer just bloodthirsty, knife-wielding, behind-the-lines raiders, they were now well-trained and well-equipped professional mountain infantry. They were an important part of a reinvigorated French force that helped push the Axis troops back through the mountain passes onto the coastal plain and their eventual defeat.
Simultaneously, the separate 4th Tabor of Moroccan goums, attached to Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s U.S. II Corps, was playing a similar role in recapturing the vital French naval base at Bizerte. Both Bizerte and Tunis fell to the Allies on May 7, 1943, and the Tunisian campaign was all but over. A last-ditch remnant of the Afrika Korps held out in the Zaghouan Mountains south of Tunis until May 12, when goumiers of Boyer de Latour’s 2nd GTM charged in, putting an end to the Axis presence in North Africa.
While the French suffered heavy casualties in the Tunisian campaign, they recouped some of the military glory they had forfeited in 1940. The goumiers acquired a reputation for sheer ferocity in combat and gained the notice of high-ranking British and American officers. The flamboyant Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, who had previously met Guillaume (himself no shrinking violet), declared that the goum commander was “worth three divisions.” Patton, a Francophile since World War I, wanted a token French force assigned to his 7th Army for the Sicilian invasion, and asked for the independent 4th Tabor, which had performed so well at Bizerte. General Henri Giraud, the de facto Free French leader, was delighted to oblige.
On July 14, 1943, the 4th Tabor of Moroccan goums, fifty-eight Frenchmen and 678 Berbers, landed at Licata, Sicily, with 117 horses and 126 mules. Their Tunisian experience set the pattern for the goumiers in Sicily. Taking positions in the mountains to protect the flanks of three U.S. divisions in succession, they fought their way across the most difficult terrain on the island, taking heavy fire from Italian automatic weapons and German artillery. In one horrendous instance of friendly fire, Royal Air Force Spitfires strafed them relentlessly.
In spite of this punishment, they advanced along the ridgelines day after day with determination, steadily flushing out the enemy with bayonet and knife and taking many badly frightened prisoners who had already heard horror stories about the ferocious goumiers.
When the Sicilian campaign was over, the 4th Tabor returned to Morocco for a hero’s welcome. This was the first time in their history that the goums had fought on any soil other than Africa, but it would not be the last.
Soon after they helped take Sicily, the goumiers were ordered to another island in the Mediterranean. Some 120 miles off the coast of France, Corsica was part of that nation, although it was occupied by German troops. The French provisional government in Algiers wanted to retake the island but did not have the means to force the issue.
General Giraud appealed to the Allied command for help, but preparing for the initial landings on the Italian mainland absorbed their attentions, and they could offer little to aid the French. In September 1943, Italians deposed Mussolini and the new government was switching to the Allied side. The Allies hoped a quick invasion would capture German troops now stranded in an unfriendly country, although that did not prove realistic. The Allies were not looking to Corsica, however.
Nevertheless, Giraud assembled a small force of French North African troops and a tiny fleet of antiquated warships to carry them, and sent them off to liberate Corsica. Among the liberation force was the 2nd Groupe de tabors Marocains, still led by that veteran, Lt. Col. Boyer de Latour.
Simultaneously, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in the Mediterranean, decided to evacuate the German troops from Corsica, moving them to Italy where they were needed against the Allies. Bastia, Corsica’s second most populous city, was the most logical port for the evacuation. Lieutenant General Frido von Senger und Etterlin came from Italy to supervise the operation, which involved moving the SS Reichsführer Brigade on Corsica and evacuating the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division from Sardinia. The Italian troops elected to stay and become prisoners of war of the French rather than fight their way out with the Germans.
Von Senger was determined to disembark his troops and their equipment with minimal losses, but the French advance from their landing site, Ajaccio, interrupted the evacuation. There was heavy fighting when the French reached the rugged mountains just west of Bastia. The goumiers lost forty men killed and 126 wounded. The Germans suffered considerable losses, not only in fighting on the ground but also when Allied aircraft attacked their evacuation fleet. Although many Germans escaped, Corsica came firmly into Allied hands, and more than a dozen airfields on the island became bases from which Allied planes could pound German troops and installations in both Italy and France.
Back in Morocco, Guillaume was bringing more goums into training that would fit them for modern warfare. The 1st, 3rd, and 4th regiment-sized GTMs now were equipped with American arms, preparing for service in Italy.
Combat in Italy came to be the high point — and the low point — of the goumiers’ service in World War II. In spite of their proven worth in Tunisia, Sicily, and Corsica, they arrived in Italy with a reputation as undisciplined savages, not quite ready for modern warfare. Additionally, many British and American officers tended to regard all French-officered troops as bearing the stigma from the French defeat in 1940.
The 1st and 3rd Tabors went into the line in the high mountains behind Monte Cassino in the winter of 1943 and quickly made an impact in a limited but ground-gaining offensive. It was the first indication for many in the Allied high command that the Moroccans had exceptional skills as mountain soldiers.
Yet the planners scarcely listened to General Alphonse Juin, commander of the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC), when he made suggestions during preparations for “Diadem,” the spring 1944 offensive designed to crash through the Germans’ long-held Gustav Line. General Sir Harold Alexander, the dapper, gentlemanly British officer who commanded all the Allied troops in Italy, saw the main attack as chiefly a British operation. His staff had dreamed up Diadem as a drive to push the enemy off Monte Cassino, splash across the Rapido River, and follow the Liri River valley toward the ultimate prize, Rome. But he had no objection if the French wanted to take their herd of mules and plod their way toward Rome over the endless mountain ranges south of the Liri Valley, as Juin recommended.
Of all the French troops now in Italy, Guillaume and his tabors were given what many considered the toughest mission. They were supposed to traverse the terrifying Aurunci Massif, the most difficult of all the mountain ranges that blocked the way to Rome. There was great doubt among the British planners that the Moroccans, on foot (and a few on horses) could make it through this roadless, rockbound wilderness. Could they conquer the lofty peaks, vertical cliffs, and yawning chasms and still keep up with the modern, highly mechanized British Eighth Army on their right flank?
The Germans thought the Aurunci was impenetrable. “Unfit for military activity,” it was labeled on their terrain maps, and consequently they had never fortified its naturally defensible features. Guillaume declared that he preferred to attack in “impenetrable” terrain because enemy tanks were less likely to be found there.
Just before midnight on May 11, 1944, the crash of more than a thousand guns announced that Operation Diadem had begun. The barrage took the enemy completely by surprise, as every fieldpiece in the Allied arsenal smashed into the German fortifications, blew their artillery to pieces, and tore up their communications. The bombardment lasted through the night and into the next day. Then the Allied troops started forward.
Initially, only the French Expeditionary Force made much progress. For old-fashioned infantry relying on animals for transportation, Guillaume’s newly organized Mountain Corps, twelve thousand goumiers and a regiment of tirailleurs, moved with uncommon speed. Accompanied by a supply train of four thousand mules, the goumiers in their striped djellabas looked like a vision from the pages of Tales From the Arabian Nights along the primitive tracks and cliffside trails of the Aurunci.
For four days and nights they slogged across the massif at their ground-melting pace, with short breaks every four hours and only slightly longer halts for a few winks of sleep. Their advanced patrols scaled the Petrella, Scampadura, and other high, terrifying peaks, only to find them devoid of Germans. At Mount Revole the nearly exhausted men and mules earned a brief rest, while the forward units were resupplied by airdrop until the mule train could catch up to them.
The goumiers pushed on, brushing aside what little enemy opposition they met. Captured documents later revealed that the operation took the Germans completely by surprise. They just could not believe that French troops had penetrated the Aurunci in force and were now threatening their rear. To this point, the German response had been too little, too late, but as the Mountain Corps descended from the hills and neared the key town of Pico, resistance increased. Only after some heavy fighting did the goums take the town.
Guillaume’s goumiers now turned their attention to the next hill mass that stood in their way to Rome, the Lepini Mountains. These were not as challenging as the Aurunci, but this time the countryside was alive with Germans. The enemy holding positions were, as usual, strong and deadly, defended with artillery, machine guns, mortars, wire, mines, and booby traps. The goums found American tanks a major aid in reducing these strongholds; then the Berbers from the Atlas stormed in to finish the job with bayonets, knives, and grenades. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and the Allies took many prisoners.
In the confusion that followed the historic disagreement about which troops should enter Rome first, the French found themselves elbowed out of the main line of advance. When the Americans entered Rome on June 4, the French were crossing the Aniene River, many miles to the east of the Eternal City. There was little doubt, however, about the major role the FEC played in the city’s liberation, and particularly Guillaume’s Mountain Corps.
In the struggle to get through the mountains, the Fifth Army’s foot-slogging North Africans and their mules had not only kept up with the over-mechanized Eighth Army on their flank but had stayed ahead of it most of the way. Juin had been right in thinking that the limited road network in that part of Italy simply could not handle the British motorized divisions. Traffic jams held the British troops back more than German firepower.
The goumiers still had more mountain service ahead of them. The Germans were now in full retreat, with the FEC hot on their heels. Lieutenant General Edgard de Larminat had formed a Pursuit Group, comprising the 1st GTM and some light armor of the 1st Algerian Spahis. These troops, by now very tired, continued to dog what was left of the enemy through the main routes north.
The still-dangerous Boche made one last stand along the Orcia River. It took the goumiers three days of heavy fighting to winkle them out of their positions. Then they continued to chase the survivors north, toward Florence. On July 4, as the tabors marched into the beautiful medieval city of Siena, they received the order to stand down. The entire FEC was being pulled from Italy to prepare for the invasion of southern France, scheduled for the following month.
The goums had been triumphant in Italy, and many doubts about French fighting ability had been dispelled, but all had not gone smoothly. In between the bouts of fighting, the discipline of the Moroccan hill men had broken down in some tabors. There were reports of rape and pillage, with ordinary Italian villagers the victims.
In fact, the goumiers did have their wild side. In the tribal warfare of their native hills, such conduct was considered normal. Didn’t the victors deserve some spoils? Many of the goumiers could not understand why their officers made such a fuss about it.
When the authorities discovered these outrages, they acted immediately. There were drumhead courts-martial. Justice meted out included executions as well as long prison sentences. There were also loud outcries against sending the “uncivilized” goumiers to fight in the upcoming invasion of southern France. There was even a complaint made directly to General Charles de Gaulle, while he was in an audience with Pope Pius XII. In spite of the objections, six thousand goumiers were included in the invasion force, with twelve hundred mules.
The combat record of the Moroccan tabors was as noteworthy in France and Germany as it had been in Italy, and no further atrocities against civilians marred their record. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Groupes de tabors Marocains landed in Provence with the invasion force and were almost immediately committed to liberating Marseille. A hard march through the rolling hills of the Maritime Alps ended in the city after hard fighting in the suburbs. Days of building-to-building combat followed. Urban warfare was not what Guillaume had in mind when he trained his goumiers, but his soldiers held up well in the threatening environment. Scarcely two weeks after General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s Army Group B hit the beaches of southern France, on August 28, the Marseille garrison surrendered.
Although they had taken heavy casualties in the Marseille fighting and suffered severe hardships, goumiers found even worse conditions as they moved east and plunged into the forested mountains of the Vosges. Freezing autumn rains and deep winter snows added to their misery, and a strongly entrenched Boche added to their casualties. The French army ran short of clothing that winter, and many of the goumiers were practically wearing rags.
Spring weather brought relief, and new djellabas and more new American equipment brightened their outlook. In early April 1945, the first of the tabors crossed the Rhine, under fire in small boats and on hastily constructed bridges. Once in Germany, they headed for the southern prize of Stuttgart.
On April 19, shellfire wounded General Guillaume, recently promoted to command the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division, which included the attached goums. Hit in the head and arm, he suffered a severe loss of blood. His troops continued into Germany. On the 21st, when French tanks entered Stuttgart, the Algerians and goumiers circled around to the east, ready to round up any of the city’s defenders who might try to escape in that direction.
As the war wound down, the goumiers gained a reputation for their skill at ratissage (literally, “raking in”), or rounding up stragglers of the broken Wehrmacht. They seem to have had a peculiar ability to convince large numbers of enemy soldiers to surrender without a fight. Perhaps it was their appearance, their reputation, or their long knives and the frightening stories of how they could use those knives. When the war officially ended May 7, 1945, they had placed thousands of German soldiers in prisoner of war camps.
When the goumiers returned to Morocco after the war, they found that few things had changed, although some things had changed a great deal. The attitude of the protectorate government toward the natives, Arab and Berber alike, was haughty, supercilious, and neglectful. Yet the troops who had helped roll back a repressive German government in North Africa and Europe had acquired a sophisticated worldview that made them intolerant of the old ways. They were yearning for nationalism and independence.
Before the people finally threw off the protectorate, the Moroccan goumiers had one last war to fight for France. There was a full-blown revolt in the French colony of Indochina. The first contingent of Moroccan goumiers embarked for Hanoi in 1948.
In most of their long service in Indochina, the independent goums fought with their usual élan. There were reports, however, of goumiers panicking or in some cases even surrendering to the enemy, a disgrace almost unheard of in previous wars. In Indochina they seemed more easily influenced by the underdogs. Viet Minh propaganda took hold in some, and when these prisoners were released, they brought the message of colonial independence back to their units, and eventually back to Morocco.
Meanwhile, General Guillaume’s postwar career was taking off. He was appointed to a number of important European posts, skyrocketing from military attaché to Moscow in 1945 to commander in chief of all French occupation forces in Germany in 1950. One year later he was named resident general of Morocco.
Given his long experience in North Africa and his closeness to the soldiers of the Moroccan people, he would seem to have been the perfect appointee for this prestigious position. What the office called for on the eve of revolution, however, was tact and subtlety. Guillaume instead came across as a hard-nosed soldier, determined to keep Morocco under the heel of France rather than simply within its orbit. His attitude only exacerbated the situation.
Paris sent the new resident general to Morocco with orders to get rid of the lawful but uncooperative Sultan Mohammed V, who had allied himself with the nationalist movement. After two years of Machiavellian plotting and outright threats failed to convince the sultan to abdicate, in 1953 Guillaume stood face to face with the defiant ruler and brusquely told him, “You are deposed!” He then sent the ruler and his family into exile in Corsica.
This arbitrary act led to further disorder in Morocco, acts ruthlessly suppressed by the French authorities. Guillaume then installed a new sultan, Moulay Mohammed El Arafa, but he was an old man who really didn’t want the job and acted as an unwilling puppet of the French. During that same year, 1953, General Guillaume was recalled to Paris and named chief of staff of the French army, the highest post of his long career.
As the independence movement grew in Morocco, discipline broke down in a number of army units, and the number of deserters increased dramatically. Ironically, the goumiers seemed most apt to desert, and in some cases armed goumiers left and joined the resistance.
In 1956 French authorities realized they could no longer govern Morocco. They brought Mohammed V back from exile and enthroned him as king of an independent domain. By mid-1956, the protectorate no longer existed. The regular Moroccan regiments and the goumiers, still proudly wearing their djellabas, were absorbed into the new Royal Moroccan Army. In that same year, General Augustin-Léon Guillaume, chief of staff of the French army, retired to his home in the Hautes Alpes.
Edward L. Bimberg is the author of The Moroccan Goums: Tribal Warriors in a Modern War (Greenwood Press, 1999). As a U.S. Army officer in World War II, he served in North Africa, Corsica, and Italy, and became acquainted with Moroccan goumiers and their French officers.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2007 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!