In the footsteps of the African Resistance fighters who fell within the Battle of Vercors | EUROtoday

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Thousands of German troopers moved in on southeastern France’s Vercors Plateau in July 1944 in a bid to crush a regional rebellion led by a rural French Resistance group. Over 100 Resistance fighters died within the bloody battles on the mountainside. Many of them have been of African origin however who they have been and why they determined to affix the French Resistance has solely just lately begun to come back to mild.

When France on Tuesday inaugurated the commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the French liberation, President Emmanuel Macron’s very first go to went to the tiny pre-Alps village of Vassieux-en-Vercors, within the Vercors Massif.

The selection of location was no coincidence.

During World War II, the village and its environment served as a refuge for a French Resistance group often known as the Vercors Maquis. The group used the mountainous terrain to coach its fighters and organise the broader French Resistance in opposition to the Nazis. Shortly after the Allied forces landed in Normandy in June, 1944, Vercors then turned the primary French area to say its independence from German and Vichy rule, sparking the Vercors Uprising.

The German response that ensued was brutal. An estimated 10,000 German troopers stormed Vassieux-en-Vercors, fully devastating the village and dealing some of the critical single blows to the French Resistance. Today, 187 white crosses and a few tombstones stand within the village cemetery, marking the ultimate resting place for the various civilians and Resistance fighters who met their deaths within the Vercors battles. But some names stand out, like that of Abdesselam Ben Ahmed, Ahmed Ben Ouadoudi and Samba N’dour.

Ben Ahmed and Ben Ouadoudi each labored on an area building website once they picked up arms for France, whereas N’dour joined the motion after having served as a Senegalese rifleman throughout the French Army’s colonial infantry.

But how these “colonials” – as they have been referred to on the time – ended up within the French Resistance remains to be a thriller historians try to piece collectively. What has been established, nonetheless, is that the international fighters performed a useful position within the Resistance that the Vercors Maquis was capable of put up on the mountain.

Abdesselem Ben Ahmed tombstone at the cemetery in Vassieux-en-Vercors, in southeastern France.
Abdesselem Ben Ahmed’s tombstone on the cemetery in Vassieux-en-Vercors, in southeastern France. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

“The memory of them has not been passed on,” Didier Croibier Muscat, the secretary-general of the National Association of Volunteer Combatants and Pioneers of Vercors, stated. “Sometimes you can find a trace of them in a testimony, in a book or in our association’s news publications, but it’s completely random. They have never been the subject of any in-depth research,” he defined.

Not all international contributors have gone unnoticed, nonetheless – particularly, a gaggle of Senegalese troopers who fought for the Vercors Maquis as a unit between June and September, 1944. “They had been assigned to the Doua barracks in the (Lyon suburb of) Villeurbanne and worked at the Édouard Herriot port in Lyon, under the supervision of German soldiers. They weren’t taken prisoner in 1940 during the fighting,” Croibier Muscat explained.

Julien Guillon, an historian and scientific supervisor to the Resistance Memorial in Vassieux-en-Vercors, said they joined the Maquis after the group’s leaders “came up with the idea of getting these 52 or 53 Senegalese riflemen and bring them back to Vercors so they could form a fighting unit. Which they did”.

Senegalese soldiers take up arms under the command of Henri Zeller, a high-ranking officer within the French Resistance.
Senegalese troopers take up arms below the command of Henri Zeller, a high-ranking officer throughout the French Resistance. © DR

Their arrival caught quite a lot of consideration within the area. Photos present how they paraded by means of the city of Romans-sur-Isère on September 8, 1944, after having participated in its liberation only a few days earlier.

Two Senegalese tirailleurs in the Lente forest, in Vercor.
Two Senegalese tirailleurs within the Lente forest, in Vercor. © DR

“Seeing 52 Senegalese riflemen in Vercors is one thing that’s completely out of the atypical, so it was one thing that was talked about. But out of an historic standpoint, they weren’t talked about sufficient as a result of it was by no means regarded into the place they got here from. All we all know is that they fought on the plateau and that they have been then happening to affix the reconstituted items of the 11th cavalry unit earlier than being demobilised,” Croibier Muscat said.

Forgotten fighters?

Croibier Muscat said that up until now there has been little or no research into how these foreigners helped to fortify the French Resistance.

“It’s not a question of discrimination, racism or exclusion. In my opinion, that’s not at all the problem. I think the loss of remembrance of the foreigners stem more from an absence of social demand throughout the years.”

Guillon offered a similar explanation. “At first, historiography focused on the Maquis legend, the battles and the deaths. It was only after that that [historians] began to investigate who the fighters were. Starting by the leaders, then those below them. Why would you join the Resistance if you were born in Algeria or Madagascar? There were Madagascans in Vercors… Their life stories are extremely difficult to research, especially since not all names have been found.”

For retired sales manager Kamel Mouellef, tracing the footsteps of these foreign Resistance fighters has become a passion, next to an obsession. Born to Algerian parents who immigrated to France in 1936, Mouellef spends his time scouring the archives to piece together the portraits of what he calls the “forgotten Resistance fighters”. In 2015, he published a comic book on his findings.

“I learned about Vercors through Ahmed Benabid. He was a doctor born in Algeria in 1911 and trained at the Grenoble medical school in the 1930s. He joined the Resistance in Vercors in 1942 with a captain rank and became a liaison officer. During the German offensive in July, 1944, he treated the many wounded in a field hospital that had been set up in the Luire cave, where the Nazis went on to kill 17 Resistance fighters,” he said.

Mouellef said he had received the information from Benabid’s son and that he then went on to gather testimonies from families in the Vercors area “who remember this doctor who would go up whenever the Maquis were wounded”.

Transmitting their memory

Mouellef has also been able to trace parts of Abdesselam Ben Ahmed’s life story, who rests in one of the two Muslim graves that can be found in Vassieux’s war cemetery. When he consulted the documentation that the Pioneers of Vercors association had kept on Ben Ahmed, it was discovered that more than 20 other foreign workers had also joined the Maquis around the same time.

Croibier Muscat said that in Ben Ahmed’s file, “there is a mention of ‘six years in the army”.

“So this is someone who was probably in the military. He was working on a dam construction site on the Drac, in Isère. There, a certain Mr. Pisani, who was working on the dam and who was a member of the Resistance, convinced a group of workers to join the Resistance and organised their transfer. There were Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians. I was able to identify 22 of them,” he stated.

In his caricature, Kamel describes Abdesselam’s heroism, who was executed on the finish of July in 1944, when the German troops entered the Luire cave to kill the wounded.

An extract from Kamel Mouellef’s comic book on the African Resistance fighters.
An extract from Kamel Mouellef’s comedian e book on the African Resistance fighters. © DR

Mouellef, whose Algerian great-grandfather was killed close to the French city of Soissons on the finish of World War I, underscored the significance of passing on the reminiscence of those forgotten struggle heroes to younger folks with immigrant backgrounds.

“It’s essential that we speak about these folks. It’s to remind Marine Le Pen, who factors her finger at us from morning to nighttime, that these folks died for France, despite the fact that they weren’t French. There have been Algerians within the French Resistance. They fought, they carried out dozens of assaults on German officers… Why are we by no means speaking about them? I’m not speaking about getting them into the Panthéon or something, I’m speaking about giving them recognition.”

Kamel Mouellef in Grenoble, on April 7, 2024.
Kamel Mouellef in Grenoble, on April 7, 2024. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

“We should go and see immediately’s younger folks, speak to them, and now we have to worth them from morning to nighttime. I’ve children say to me ‘they think we’re thieves, migrants, however we fought for France’,” he stated whereas visiting a secondary college whereas touring the nation exhibiting his work.

On the Vercors plateau, Guillon the historian continues to attempt to put names and faces to the international Resistance fighters who died within the battles.

“There’s a very good chance that on the other side of the Mediterranean there are descendents of these fighters who clearly fell with honour here on the Vercors plateau. I think it’s terrible that they don’t know where their ancestors are buried and that they don’t know what they did during the war.”

This article has been translated from the unique in French.