The Goumiers: France’s Forgotten Soldiers

This year we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Italy during World War II. Fighting as part of the French Expeditionary Corps in the Italian campaign were units from the Army of Africa, including Moroccan soldiers, or 'goumiers'. The goumiers are very often associated with mass rapes, thefts, pillaging and murders that took place in Italy in the aftermath of the campaign. Yet they also greatly contributed to Allied victories. 75 years after the liberation, their service deserves recognition.

Moroccan soldiers at Monte Cassino.

The Army of Africa was a French colonial army formed in the nineteenth century after the French conquest of Algeria. The army consisted of white European regiments as well as North African regiments from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco and was active until the end of the Algerian war in 1962. France was not alone in utilising colonial troops. Since the early modern period, European imperial powers made use of colonial troops to maintain order in the colonies themselves; and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, colonial armies were deployed within Europe as well.

The French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) was raised after the capitulation of Vichy French North Africa in November 1942, from African Army units for the purpose of the Italian campaign. The army was a crucial military resource for the Free French Forces who were unable to deploy troops from mainland France due to Nazi occupation. Under the command of General Alphonse Juin, the FEC forces in the Italian campaign were comprised of one Algerian division, one Free French army division, and two Moroccan divisions.

During the liberation of Italy, one Moroccan division participated in Operation Husky—the successful campaign in July and August of 1943 to secure Sicily.

Three Moroccan regiments took part in Operation Diadem, assisting US and British troops to break through the Winter Line, capture Monte Cassino and secure a pathway to Rome.

The Moroccans were tasked with breaking through German defenses in the mountain regions—defenses which both the Germans and Allies believed to be impenetrable.

Yet the Moroccan soldiers proved to be highly adept at mountain terrain combat and through grueling campaigns were able to break through successive German defenses, thereby contributing crucially to the allied advance.

Moroccan divisions also fought in the Allied liberation campaigns in Tunisia, Corsica, France and Germany.

Moroccan Goumier sharpening his bayonet. Italy 1944.

Goumiers landing craft at Corsica for the invasion of Elba.

Controversies

The goumiers are mostly remembered for atrocities committed in the Italian countryside in the wake of the campaign. Thousands of women, including children, infants, and elderly women were subjected to sexual violence, as well as some men. Many of the victims were raped repeatedly, and many people were also killed. There was extensive theft, with some studies estimating over 14,000 robberies attributed to the Allied forces. The attacks became known in Italy as the “Marocchinate”, meaning Moroccan Deeds.

In response to the allegations French military authorities held a tribunal. Fifteen goumiers were executed in the field, and a further 44 received prison sentences.

The actual number of rape victims is widely disputed. Some scholars place the figure at just over 1000, while others estimate well over 3,000 victims. In 1946 the Italian Women’s Union (l'Unione Donne Italiane) claimed that 12,000 women had been victims of sexual violence. In total there were 60,000 compensation claims made for damages caused by the French troops, including cases of theft and homicide.

While the exact number of victims is impossible to ascertain, the local populations certainly suffered greatly from the atrocities committed during this period.

A powerful scene of the 1960 film La Ciociara (Two Women) by Vittorio de Sica.

Past and present consequences

The goumier has continued to loom large in Italian collective remembrance of the war. Perhaps the most iconic cultural reference to the Marocchinate is Vittorio de Sica’s 1960 film La Ciociara (Two Women) starring Sophia Loren. But more recent tributes to the atrocities include a monument erected in 2004 in Castro dei Volsci, Mamma Ciociara, as well as a number of non-fiction books published within the last few years.

There has also been growing scholarly interest in the last few decades, including extensive oral history research by Tommaso Baris. But while it is essential that we continue to remember the mass rapes and violence committed by Allied troops in Italy, one-sided commemoration of the Marocchinate poses the risk of reinforcing long-standing European racial ideas about Moroccans or fanning the flames of anti-immigration sentiment. With the rise of such sentiment in Italy, it is more important than ever to represent the atrocities of the liberation in all their complexity.

Indeed, there has been little attempt to understand the perspective of the Moroccan veterans until recently. Algerian-French director Rachid Bouchareb’s film Indigènes, released in 2006, finally depicts the campaign from the perspective of the Moroccan troops.

Additionally, oral history research involving interviews with former goumier soldiers illustrates a more complex picture of the atrocities. One of the veterans interviewed recounted an Italian woman who wanted to marry him. Another soldier related that being far from family they were ‘looking for any chance to make love’ and that sometimes it was consensual, but other times they were ‘obliged to do it by force.’ The same veteran claimed that the French officers encouraged the soldiers to inflict violence on the Italians ‘because they were at war with the Italians and they wanted to express their hatred and revenge in that way'. In fact, most studies confirm that the French authorities did little to restrain or punish their troops and many accounts do implicate FEC authorities in encouraging the violence. While this oral history study does not exonerate the actions of the soldiers, it offers a more complex understanding of events.

Monument to "Mamma Ciociara", Castro dei Volsci, Italy. (c) Martina Paolucci (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

With regards to commemoration of the liberation campaigns, recognition of Moroccan contributions has been vastly inadequate. African troops were largely excluded from the WWII victory parades in what has been described as a whitening or blanchissement of the French troops. This exclusion is still evident today, manifest in the unwillingness to commemorate the goumier veterans. It was not until the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the campaigns that Moroccan soldiers first received major recognition for their service.

Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to the African soldiers who fought in the liberation campaigns during the WWII. While this is a step in the right direction, there is still a distinct lack of recognition of the colonial soldiers.

Over 12,000 Moroccan soldiers served in the liberation campaigns of 1943-1945 and suffered over 7500 casualties including 1600 killed in action. Their contribution—largely unacknowledged—was critical to Allied victory.

While it is crucial that we continue to pay tribute to the victims of the atrocities caused by Allied troops, the Moroccan goumiers’ contribution to the liberation campaigns should also be recognised.

With the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in Europe, it is more important than ever to engage with a complex, inclusive and critical account of the liberation campaigns.

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