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Moroccan colonial soldiers: between selective memory and collective memory.


Over the last decade, there has been an increasing interest in colonialism as a subject of scholarly inquiry. Whether in the field of anthropology, literary criticism, Feminist studies, or cultural studies, there has been a significant amount of "rethinking" about the colonial past and the politics of colonialism and empires. A new set of concepts such as "post-orientalist," "subaltern," and "post-colonial" which are now in vogue have been more closely associated with the work of the Subaltern Studies Group on colonial India. An interdisciplinary organization of South Asian scholars, the Subaltern Studies Group focused on the histories of the "Subaltern" which Ranajit Guha identifies "as a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, and office or in any other way."(1) For the historian to "rethink" may be understood as to challenge accepted paradigms and engage historical research in new directions by using new methodological tools. This has been very much the goal of the Subaltern Study Group: a challenge not only to the orientalist discourse, but also to the nationalist and Marxist conceptualization of colonial India.(2)

Historians of North Africa have been equally concerned with the impact of colonial expansion on the colonized and its influence on the social and economic organization of indigenous peoples. The colonial history of the Maghrib and the Middle East in general has certainly seen similar challenges and witnessed its own "decolonization" and reevaluation, but not to the same extent and with more theoretical basis, and institutional organization as has been the case in India. French colonialism has often been explained in abstract terms and without close analysis of the agency of those who were at the receiving end of colonial rule. My interest in the "Moroccan colonial soldiers" is partly a modest attempt to look at the history of a "subaltern" group that has been written out of history. The French military was one of the most fundamental forms of colonial control in Morocco. It depended primarily on indigenous soldiers who were at the same time coerced and instrumental in the implementation of French colonial policies. It is this condition of subalternity within the Moroccan society that I seek to investigate.

In this essay, I write about the way "Moroccan colonial soldiers," which might include Goums, Tirailleurs, and Spahis were represented in a colonial discourse which sought to appropriate them, and how they were excluded from a nationalist discourse which chose to silence them. My ultimate goal is to use the oral accounts of some of these soldiers as narratives of contestation, both to nationalist and colonial discourses, in order to legitimate their own place in history. The colonial history of Morocco in its official and codified version stands in contrast to memory in its personal and collective remembrance of the past. Oral history, which is the link between these two versions of history, allows the meaning of prior colonial experiences to be negotiated. To fully understand the histories of the Moroccan colonial soldiers, we must situate them in their local and communal context. In another but related way, this article is about the way the history of these soldiers has been forgotten or selectively remembered. These terms in themselves are clear insinuations to the notion of "memory." Of course memory should not be taken here in its clinical psychological terminology, but in what might be referred to as "historical" and "autobiographical" memories. Historical memory reaches social actors through written records, photographs, commemoration, festive enactment and films. It is scholarly and theoretically constructed in a certain body of historical knowledge. Historical memory is also about institutionalization and the representation of memory whether in public museums or in the school curriculum and media for the education of citizens. Finally, historical memory situates itself outside the event and aspires to objectivity by claiming to take a critical approach. Autobiographical memory is the memory of events that living individuals have experienced in the past. It evolves and is heterogeneous because it exists in different social groups such as workers, peasantry, elite, political parties or armies. The recollection of the past here is possible by reference to different notions and understanding that the people within the same social group can identify with: persons, places, dates, language, and other cultural signs. Autobiographical memory situates itself in the event and becomes part of it, it does not claim any objectivity but it aspires to some form of recognition.(3) However, both historical memory and autobiographical memory are about remembrance and they both engage in a process of "selective remembering" and "selective forgetting." I take here the example of Moroccan colonial soldiers as a way of exploring the problematical question of history and memory within the context of both colonial Morocco and France during specific moments of their turbulent histories.


The case of the Moroccan soldiers provides an ideal focal point for addressing three interrelated questions regarding the history of colonial Morocco.

1. The very lack of concern for different social histories within the colonial period in Morocco reveals a general tendency of most historians of colonial Morocco to orient their research toward political, military and institutional history. Historians of colonial North Africa like Charles Robert Ageton, Augustin Bernard, Jaques Berque, Mohamed Berkaoui, Charles-Andre Julien, Abdellah Laroui, Gilbert Meynier and Daniel Rivet have been able to show the extent to which colonial soldiers have been used by the French. All of them show how the question of conscription became entangled with the problem of naturalization and the intermittent political conflicts that existed between the metropolitan and colonial interests. Most of them point to the way conscription was seen as part of the overall politics of assimilation, but in which "colonial soldiers" were ambiguously perceived as a potential threat. Laroui in particular points to "the extremely cautious, not to say ambiguous, behavior of the Maghribis" who fought beside France. He explains that because of the harsh economic conditions of French colonial penetration into the countryside, the dispossesed peasants were forced to work on public works projects or enlist in the army.(4) He puts the phenomenon of indigenous recruitment in the overall socioeconomic dynamics and power relationships associated with French colonialism in Morocco. Because Laroui's book is a work of synthesis in the tradition of grand narratives, the Moroccan colonial soldiers are absent as real human actors in history, and the realities and experiences of these people are formulated in purely abstract terms. In the end the political and economic establishment of the colonial state, the politics of assimilation, the conflicts between metropolitan and colonial interests, resistance and the rise of nationalism are still dominant themes in the history of colonial Morocco. From this perspective the historiographies of colonial Morocco focused predominantly on elite politics, colonial administrators, policies, ideas, and institutions.

2. There has been an exclusive interest in resistance and the rise of nationalism, but only discrete allusions to other segments of Moroccan society which had to readapt their livelihood, negotiate their living existence, and in the end respond much differently to the colonial challenge. As "resisters" or "collaborators," the histories of these social groups had to be included in or excluded from the "grand narratives" of a nationalist history. The central modality common to this kind of view is that Moroccan colonial history is the outcome of how a native elite became involved in politics and the subsequent relationship that it created with the colonial authority in order to achieve its political power and economic goals.(5) What is missing in this formulation is the history of the masses and the politics of the people whose responses to the colonial power was not always stimulated by elite politics or charismatic authority.

3. The history of Moroccan colonial soldiers is one example, among others, which shows France's heavy reliance on the vast reservoir of manpower in its colonial empire. While France was technologically and economically advanced enough to carry out its colonial adventures, it could not count on its population to engage in military campaigns. The recruitment of diverse ethnic and religious groups was a long established tradition in the French army. This phenomenon was for the most part due to a certain amount of pragmatism on the part of the French, but there were also political motivations. The French preferred their "colonial conscripts" instead of their "citizen soldiers" to die for the advancement of colonial expansion. A famous phrase pronounced by Choiseul in 1762 stated that one foreign soldier is the equivalent of three French soldiers: "un enleve a l'ennemi, un gangne pour l'armee francaise, un francais epargne" [one taken from the enemy, one gained by the French army, and one Frenchman spared from death].(6) There is yet a persistent neglect of the fact of the participation of non-French colonial troops in the "French army" especially in its major European wars. Colonial soldiers were very extensively used in the defense of France itself during the First and Second World Wars, but they remain absent from its historical memory. As stated very succinctly in a recent documentary film about the Moroccan Goumiers, "they liberated Marseille, but not a single street carries their name."(7) The film produced by Ahmed el-Maanouni deals primarily with the participation of Moroccans during World War II and brings attention to the role that they played during different campaigns in Tunisia, Italy, France, and Germany. It points out quite effectively to the "Forgotten Memory" of the Moroccan troops in France and to the lack of sufficient indemnities provided to them in the present.

For the French, colonial soldiers in general remained present at the level of fiction with the medium of a romanticized language. Most of the French literature which dealt with the subject was written by ex-military officers in commemorative accounts or novels which were careful in portraying an "authentic," "subservient," and brave soldier. Exoticism and romanticism were blended with orientalist notions to represent the character of the Moroccan soldier.(8)

Since the publication of Paul Fussell's seminal book, The Great War and Modern Memory in 1975, there has been an important revival of interest in the social and cultural history of the two world wars. His book set the stage for new scholarship not only on literary questions, but on other aspects of the social history of the war, such as, class distinction and gender roles. Margaret Higgonet, Eric Leed, George Mosse, and others associated with European studies at Harvard have argued that there is a need to distinguish among the national, regional, and cultural traditions through which male chauvinism and female subordination have been expressed and justified during the two world wars. While these historians were attentive to important questions of gender, none of them addressed the problem of how the wars perpetuated racial prejudice, and the widening gap between those who were fighting as citizens and those who were recruited as "colonial soldiers." None of this literature pays the scantiest attention to the considerable numbers of these soldiers in the two world wars. They remained nonexistant in "official history." The point here is not simply to rhetorically recognize the "loyalty" and "heroic" military acts of "nos anciens combattants d'Afrique et d'outre-mere," but more fundamentally to integrate their histories within French/European history and collective memory.


Since the beginning of French colonial expansion in Morocco, the army relied very heavily on the recruitment of indigenous populations for its advancement. What has often been referred to as the "French army" was in large majority made up of Arab and Berber foot soldiers who constituted an important factor of a newly created colonial military institution. Even prior to the signing of the protectorate treaty by Moulay Hafid on 30 March 1912, four major military units were already established and under effective control of French officers (the Goums were created in November of 1908, and the Tirailleurs and Spahis in June of 1912). From 1908 to 1956, Moroccan colonial troops participated in different military campaigns within and outside of Morocco. (Morocco 1908 to 1934, France 1914 to 1918, Tunisia 1942-1943, Sicily 1943, Corsica 1943, Italy 1944, France 1944, Germany 1944-1945 and Indochina 1948-1954.) A cursory look at their military history reveals not only the large numbers of Moroccans who were recruited in theses units but also the way they were extensively used in different continents.

The Goumiers

The name Goumier etymologically comes from the Arabic word qum which is an order to stand up. The history of the Moroccan colonial soldiers known as the Goumiers goes back to the year 1908 with General d'Amade's order for the establishment of the first six Goums.(9) They were recruited predominantly in the Chaouia regions of Sidi Boubaker, Ouled Said, Settat, Kasbeth Ben Ahmed, Dar Bouazza, and Sidi Slimane. Each Goum was made up of about 200 men from different tribes. The mixing of tribal people into military units was conceived for better control and as a precautionary measure against possible insurrections and insubordination. The first six Goums functioned originally as a security force engaging in regular patrol control of newly conquered tribes. Under the control of French officers from the "service de renseignements" known later as the "Services des affaires indigenes," they also served as scouts and a cover force for regular French troops. But after 1911, their most effective role was not as a police force but as a major fighting force not only in French colonial expansion in Morocco, but also in overseas wars such as W.W.I, W.W.II, and Indochina. This new military institution was from the very beginning conceived for fighting. As General d'Amade explicitly stated it in 1909, "It is more appropriate to appreciate the conduct of the Goums in the battle field in order to judge the success of this new institution."(10)

Their number increased from fourteen Goums to twenty-five by the end of World War I. Originally they were recruited primarily from different Moroccan tribes of Arab origin. Gradually however, the Berber element became increasingly significant as the French expansion in the Moroccan hinterland was taking place. Reliance on tribes from remote areas and without local attachment or affinities proved to be a successful strategy for the French military command. By 1934, the year which is generally associated with the decisive military control of Morocco, there were fifty Goums, which was the highest since 1908. The French control over the countryside in Morocco was more effective as the Goumiers represented not only a reliant fighting and security force, but also a very useful mediating element between the Bureau des Affaires Indingenes and various dissident tribes. While there are no definite numbers of casualties, some have estimated that approximately 12,583 died between 1907 and 1922, and others have advanced the figure of 22,000 Goumiers during the period of "pacification" in Morocco (1907-1934).(11)

The rise of Nazi Germany and the escalation of tensions in Europe in the late 1930s would witness one of the most extensive uses of the Goumiers in a European war scene. As a way of preparing for an eminent war with Germany, 91 new auxiliary Goums were created. In September 1939, 126 active and auxiliary Goums were ready for mobilization. In the early stages of the war, 12 Goums were already mobilized in Tunisia. With the signing of the armistice in June 1940, France had to limit the number of its army in north Africa to 100,000 men. Faced with the regular inspections of a German and Italian military commission which were imposed on the French after their defeat, General Nogues decided to create "new police troops who were not considered part of the armistice army, but who were capable of engaging in a modern war." These forces were presented instead as part of the makhzan army and were under the umbrella of the so called mehallas cherifiennes. The period of the "Camouflage des Goums," as it was commonly referred to, made it possible for France to have approximately 19,700 Goumiers ready for mobilization.(12) German pressure led, however, to a whole process of demilitarization of the mehallas cherifiennes which came under the control of the French foreign ministry. The French military officers were integrated in the civil administration. A new period of clandestineness led to an impressive show of support on the part of the Goumiers to conceal weapons and military equipment from the German commission. Within the same period, the number of Moroccans under the control of the army increased by 14,300 serving secretly under various civil organizations, such as the Travailleurs Auxiliaires or the Corps Special Temporaire de Transmissions. The Goumiers had therefore flexible functions which served the colonial administration at two separate levels. First, they were used as a police force in a critical moment of the French presence in Morocco. They were instrumental as a symbol of strength that France desperately needed in order to impress the Berber tribes of the Atlas. In May 1942, while most of France was under Nazi occupation, General Nogues and Colonel Guillaume were projecting "French" military strength in Khenitra by attending a parade made up of 6,574 Moroccan Goumiers!(13) The second function of the Goumiers was their continuous training for modern warfare as a way of preparing them for an imminent war against the Germans. By the time the allied forces landed in North Africa, the Goumiers were already the first to be used. Armed with U.S. guns, wearing jellabas, and British helmets, the Goumiers would fight in Tunisia, Sicily, Corsica, Italy, France and Germany. Later they were used in Indochina and Algeria. The Goumiers represented a large part of the "forces armees royales" when they were first created in 1956. As a symbol of national independence, the Moroccan army was ironically made up largely out of the residue of colonial troops, such as the Goums. (Out of 25,000 soldiers in the Forces Armees Royales, 21,000 served under the French and the Spanish).(14)


On 16 June 1912 General Moinier decided to organize the so-called Troupes Auxiliares Marocaines (T.A.M.). These units were created from selected soldiers who remained loyal to the French after the Fez mutiny. But the majority came from Arab tribes from the regions of Fez, El Hajeb, Arbaoua, Agourai and Sefrou.(15) Between 1913 and 1914, their number increased from 4 to 19 companies which included 6,200 Moroccans all under French military officers. Because of the events in Fez, the T.A.M. were often kept in garrisons outside of the city with regular French troops. By the time W.W.I was declared, Lyautey decided to send five battalions to the western front. For political reasons, these units were referred to as Bataillons de Chasseurs Indigenes who became part of the Sixth Army on 20 August 1914. Of the 5,000 soldiers who were in the battle of the Marne, only 700 survived. During the whole period of hostilities, new battalions were created. Between 1915 and 1918, seven battalions were formed under the name of Regiment de Marche de Tirailleurs Marocains (R.M.T.M.). The "Moroccan Poilus" were part of trench warfare in the battles of La Marne and l'Aisne, Soissons in January 1915, in Verdun in 1916, in the sector of la Main de Massige, in the village of Brueil, on the road from Paris to Soissons, and in Villers-aux-Erables. There is no reliable estimate of the number of Moroccan Tirailleurs who died in the war, but two examples show clearly their sacrifice. In September 1914 alone there were about 3,200 casualties,(16) and in one single day on 30 September, 600 Tirailleurs died in the region of la Vesle.(17) By May 1919, all regiments were repatriated to Morocco.

With the end of the war and the process of demobilization, the Metropolitan French army had to rely once again on Moroccan troops in the army of occupation in Germany. Between I January 1920 and 1925, six new regiments were created. In 1927 the 65th and 66th regiment were fighting in the Levant.

Between 1919 and 1934, the Moroccan Tirailleurs were used in the "pacification" of Morocco. Their role was less significant in comparison to that which was played by the Goumiers during the same period. They were, however, instrumental in the curbing of different rebellions throughout Morocco. In the region of Fez, they were used against the northern tribes of Ouerrha in 1919; in 1920 the mobile guard took over Ouezzane for the control of the Gharb region; and between 1920 and 1921, seven battalions of Tirailleurs confronted the Beni Mestara. In the region of Taza, the Tirailleurs were engaged against the Beni Ouarrain in 1919, the Ait Tserhouchen-Marmoucha in 1922, The Beni Bou Zert (in the north) in 1923. But the most extensive use of the Tirailleurs within Morocco occurred between 1924 and 1926 against Abd-el-Krim during the Rif rebellion.

As was the case for the Goums, the late 1930s witnessed the most dramatic increase of the Tirailleurs. In 1939 there were 32 battalions of Moroccan Tirailleurs: 18 in Morocco, 12 in France, 1 in Corsica and 1 in the Levant. Some of them joined the French resistance as Moroccan "maquissards." In France alone there were 27,500 Tirailleurs out of 90,000 Moroccans surviving in different units.(18) Like the Goumiers, the Tirailleurs participated in all major campaigns during World War II as well as in Indochina.


As a colonial institution, the Moroccan Spahis were created in 1911. They first participated in fighting within Morocco in the region of Taza. They were formed in 1914 as the Regiment de Marche de Chasseurs Indigenes a Cheval and constituted ten different squadrons. They later became known as Regiments de Spahis Marocains. The gradual increase in the member of Spahis, depending on the need of the French army in different conflicts overseas and within Morocco, followed similar trends as in the case of the Goumiers and Tirailleurs. They were very useful in mountainous areas whether in the Atlas of Morocco or in Syria. In 1942, the first Groupe de Spahis Marocains (GESM) became part of the Forces Francaises libres. There were seven regiments of Spahis involved in the war in Europe, and one in Indochina. They were used to intervene in the uprisings of 1955 preceding the rerum of the king to Morocco. In comparison with the Goumiers and Tirailleurs, the Spahis had larger numbers of French citizens in their units.

The military colonial institutions that I have outlined above were by no means the only ones. Fewer in numbers but equally important in their use were the Bataillon du Genie, Bataillon de Sapcurs des Chemins de Fer, and the Bataillon des Transmissions. Of the 4,200 kilometers of roads that were made in the colonial period of Morocco, a large part was made by these troops. The Sapeurs were involved in the construction of 1,600 kilometers of rail roads. Most bridges were the work of the Genie.(19)

Given the large numbers of colonial soldiers who worked under the auspices of the colonial military administration, and given the "voluntary" aspects of their recruitment, the military history of the Moroccan troops has been largely appropriated by French army officers who found in the success of these colonial institutions a symbol of "attachment and mutual respect" between colonizer and colonized. The colonial discourse on this group of people revealed a clearer aspect of race and power relationships.


The military history of the Moroccan colonial soldiers has been captured primarily by French army officers. This interest came on the one hand out of a genuine attempt to retrace the general phases of what they considered a "shared history". A certain nostalgia for their experiences in colonial Morocco, "Pays du Soleil Couchant" and "Pays de Lumiere" was part of this fascination with what they referred to as "nos Goumiers, nos Tirailleurs et nos Spahis." On the other hand, colonial troops represented for a number of French officers a symbol of "loyalism" and success of what they called the "pacification" of Morocco. As Jean Saulay states, the Goumiers "became attached to their French officers in a climate of reciprocal friendship and followed them joyfully to the battlefield."(20)

Early French interest in the Moroccan soldiers came also out of a continuous concern for possible threats of rebellions and mutinies within the army. The Protectorate authorities were insistent on having a close knowledge of the soldiers' lives and behaviors. Most of the writing came from army officers who were elements of the Service des Affaires Indigenes and who became associated with a governmental institute known as the Centre des Hautes Etudes d'Administration Musulmane. This center was created in 1936 under the leadership of Robert Montagne, Sebastien Charlety (rector of the University of Paris), and Pierre Vienot (Secretary of state in the French foreign ministry). The center concentrated on the study of various subjects of interest to the colonial administration in the French overseas empire. It contributed to the study of different social and cultural groups, tribal organization, Islam, language and other institutions. Of major concern was the emergence of the forces of nationalism in the 1930s. The first promotion of the center was made up mostly of army officers and civil servants. They included people like George Spillmann, Paul Dugrais, B. Sanchis and Leon Roche.

The discourse on colonial troops can be situated within an overall orientalist discourse common among French imperial administrators. The entire colonial military enterprise in Morocco was a French creation, in the sense that they gave it more disciplined and institutional organization. The Moroccan soldier had to be imagined according to the way French colonial officers sought to represent him. He is often referred to as "Moha," a generic name which applies to every single individual within the group. "existe-t-il un autre moyen de le differencier de tousles autres Moha? Oui, parfois par un sobriquet."(21) The soldier is nameless and has therefore no personal traits or identity. By virtue of being a Goumier, Tirailleur or Spahi, it is the colonial administrator who seems to have given them their newly acquired identity. He speaks for him and represents him in history.

This colonial discourse was also characterized by a tendency to dehumanize the colonial soldier. Images of savagery and innate inclination to warfare remained part of this representation of the "other." Jacques Berque once wrote that "our Berbers will remain good savages, worthy of our love and respect, but whose ultimate advancement would consist of their promotions in the Goums."(22) The Goumiers were believed to have kept their atavistic qualities of rusticity and endurance because "they did not fear death" and were known for "their ability to walk for a long time, without food, finding on the way wild plants which they ate uncooked."(23) In the most recent book about the Goumiers, Yves Satkin states that the Goumier was "capable of the longest walks in the most difficult trails of mountains, he moved on the ground like a savage beast."(24) It is hard to dissociate the mental framework and symbolism of such representation in the colonial discourse from the fact that the precise numbers of deaths among the Goumiers were never fully recorded or mentioned in France. Otherwise, the casualties of war whether in the "pacification" period or overseas were something that the colonial administration did not have to worry about.

One of the fundamental conceptions that has been perpetuated in this colonial discourse is the notion of "voluntarism." The attractiveness of a career in the Goums or other regiments has often been explained as a result of different forms of social benefits which enhanced a "voluntary" recruitment. As opposed to Algeria, the system of conscription was in fact not put into effect in Morocco. Considered as a French department, Algeria was put in 1912 under the same rules of recruitment that were instituted in the French law of 1872. In Morocco, however, the Tirailleurs could enlist for a period of four years and re-enlist again.(25) As I will later show, this discourse of "voluntarism" contrasts sometimes with the oral accounts of some of the Anciens Combatants.

This colonial discourse was generally stereotypical, paternalist, and racist. In 1925, for example, Paul Azan states, that "regardless of the selection that soldiers from North Africa are subjected to, they inevitably bring the germs of the most serious diseases to the French population: Tuberculoses, Syphilis, malaria, without speaking of other physiological miseries."(26) But this identification of the colonial soldier should not be seen only in the context of a military institution. Its meaning should be read in a much broader context in which the difference between French collective identity and that of the "indigenous" as a whole was established. For Paul Azan later states that "we have forgotten an essential factor in the army which is that of a human being. We did not take into consideration the fact that the indigenous is not comparable to the French. He does not have his physical constitution, nor his moral qualities, education, religion, tradition and civilization."(27) Ultimately, the indigenous soldier was perceived not to have the same rights as the French because he was part of the "uncivilized other." As stated by Azan, "L'erreur a deja ete comise par ceux qui ont redige la declaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen au lieu de rediger plus modestement la declaration des droits du citoyen Franqais." [The error was made by those who wrote the declaration of human and citizenship rights instead of writing more modestly the declaration of French citizen rights.] This blatant form of racism from French colonial officers was, however, not unrelated to the overall mood of orientalist discourse that appeared in the more academic settings. They both fed into each other.

Within the more academic settings, one of the most important conceptions of Moroccan society was the stereotypical distinction that was made between Bilad al-Makhzan and Bilad al-Siba. Clearly the distinction is not an academic one, but it was fundamental to the way France sought to portray its mission in Morocco, and therefore stigmatize "resistance" as age-old antiMakhzan instincts. Along with this difference, emerged the idea that Bilad alMakhzan was the region which comprised Arab tribes and Bilad al-Siba was made up of Berbers. It was also believed that the Berbers were less Islamicized and more apt to be on the side of the French. Colonial ethnographers made a systematic opposition between these two artificial geographical entities in which Bilad al-Siba was perceived as the region of "anarchy and revolt" against the authority of the sultan while Bilad al-Makhzan was the area which was under the control of the government.(29) With this colonial formulation of the political geography of Morocco, the "Berber policy" was put into effect after 1914. The Makhzan lost control of most Berber-speaking regions in Morocco and Islamic courts were abolished. The officers of the Affaires Indigenes were among the first to subscribe to such notions. It was out of this belief in the "Berber Myth" that we can partly explain the heavy reliance on the Goumiers who were predominantly Berbers. It was very clearly expressed in one of the reports presented to the Centre des Hautes Etudes d'Administration. It states that "the non-Arab and less Islamicized circles (such as Kabyles and Berbers) would obviously be more favorable" for recruitment. ["certains milieux non-arabes et peut-etre moins islamises (Kabyles, Berbers. . . etc) seront evidement non de favorables."](30)


The history of either the First World War or the Second has been dominated by the perception that they were mainly European wars fought by Europeans in a European land. This Eurocentric view of writing the history of the two world wars has excluded other histories of colonized peoples as major participants in these wars. Indians, West Africans, North Africans and others fought and died next to Europeans. Yet their memories are today lost or remain still out of memorial festivities and ceremonials that are celebrated each year in Europe. In France the histories of these "colonial soldiers" remain absent from French "historical memory." Very few high school students learn that there were actually North Africans among the maquissards in World War II, or that there were about 170,000 Tirailleurs Senegalais in the trenches of World War I, or that it was the Moroccan Goumiers who liberated Marseille from Nazi Germany. For the French, the colonial soldiers in general remained present at the level of fiction within the medium of a romanticized language. The colonial soldiers existed, but they do not really exist in the French historical memory. The issue here is not simply a recognition of different heroic military acts, but more fundamentally the integration of these histories within French/European history and collective memory. In the present context of re-imagination of the European community, such an issue is an important one. With the current problems of immigration in France and the attempts to create an economically and culturally unified Europe, perhaps such memories may vex the cultural and historical homogeneity that governments are creating to the exclusion of different ethnic minorities. The European past becomes a social construction shaped by the concerns of the present.


In Morocco the history of the "colonial soldiers" is similarly absent from the country's "historical memory," but the issue there is different. Eric Hobsbawn once explained that history has always been the "raw material" on which nationalist movements base their legitimacy and create their identity.(31) The peculiarity here is that the history of "colonial soldiers" contradicts both the discourse of nationalism (national consciousness) and resistance. Since most national histories and commemorations celebrate the origin and rise of a nation which are perceived to have an effect on its subsequent history, the Moroccan government clearly sees none of these features in the history of the colonial soldiers. I was surprised during a meeting with a high official in the Bureau National des Anciens Resistants, which was much bigger and more organized than the Association Nationale des Anciens Combattants, when he assured me that the "Moroccan colonial soldiers never fought inside the territory of Morocco"!(32) His discussion was typical of a nationalist discourse which tends to highlight certain events and periods as representing important moments in the nation's history, while others are seen as disruptive and hence sink into oblivion. Up to World War II, the experiences of these soldiers did not symbolize, at least in the eyes of official history, any national commitment or heroic affirmation of national dignity. The colonial soldier becomes however an appropriate and useable national symbol once the sultan Mohamed V gave his idn (permission) for the support of the allied forces in World War II. It is now often said that Moroccans were fighting in Europe for the independence of Morocco. The fact is that the process of "pacification" in Morocco, by the French and with the use of Moroccan colonial soldiers, was done with the consent of the makhzan to control Bilad al-Siba. A repressed memory like that of the colonial soldiers brings out a broader issue of how historical imagination is possible in Morocco. What are the possibilities of different historical narratives in a country whose historical memory has always been associated with the same symbols and a dominant historical discourse? The Moroccan government has since independence had complete control over the mass media, particularly the television, for determining Moroccan historical and cultural imagery, displacing at the same time other alternative models of historical imagination. Control of the educational system also makes possible the persistence of a nationalist/monarchic paradigm for historical representation. Taking the step of defining Moroccan historical identity from the masses would question the convenience of considering as representative the notion of a homogeneous discourse, whose fundamental function is the exercise of authority, not only on the present but also on the past.

Out of an attempt to challenge the colonial discourse about Moroccan society and to show the rational reaction of different social groups to the French conquest, historians of colonial Morocco have concentrated on large-scale "resistance movements." They have consequently neglected the large scale "collaboration." The dichotomy between "resisters" and "collaborators" is of course in itself very problematic. Colonial soldiers can not be categorized as either "resisters" or "collaborators." It is known that most of those who became part of the colonial army were originally among the most resisting social groups. About 83% of colonial soldiers were peasants who reacted in a rather inconsistent way to the French. The economic aspect of their realities was an important variable which determined their collective response. The uncertainty of economic life, which in many cases was the result of colonial expansion, made different individuals give priority not to political symbols, but to the possibilities that guaranteed their human existence. Moroccan colonial troops joined the French army out of rational calculations in which economic considerations were primordial. Under French colonial pressure, the peasants' response, either as "resisters" or "collaborators," was rational.

The behavior of a large number of Moroccans who became part of the colonial regiments was seen as being "ambiguous." Was it simply a response to a collaborationist discourse by the elite? While French colonial penetration in Morocco was still in its early stages, Moroccan troops were already fighting next to the French in World War I. There was certainly a kind of "ideological coercion" in which both French officials and the Moroccan elite were implicated. With the support of the Moroccan sultan (commander of the faithful and the holder of religious symbolism), different religious brotherhoods and the Moroccan urban elite in general, the French were able to "concoct" a propagandist language from within an Islamic field of reference. As a result a number of fatwas were promulgated for the moral support of the war effort in France. But it would be too simple to accept the notion that colonial troops joined the French army necessarily out of religious conviction in the notion of jihad. French penetration into the countryside affected very drastically the economic structure of peasant society. "These people were loosing their land and at the same time continuing to pay heavy taxes."(32) It was these groups of people that constituted the majority of colonial troops. It is this colonial context that should be taken into consideration. They in fact enlisted in a "voluntary" way, but it was out of the coercive economic and military measures which were imposed upon them. To see more closely the reasons of their enlistment, I turn now to an examination of their oral accounts.


Let me start by saying that the memories of colonial soldiers are shaped by the past as well as by the present. They are the product of outcomes and consequences which were unknown to them. Their personal accounts of their experiences in the colonial army are in themselves selective, but they represent their own views and their recollections of the past is clear and tangible. In a sense, these oral accounts reflect the perspectives of those who were at the receiving end of French colonialism in Morocco. Individual remembrances reflect personal experiences, but they coincide simultaneously with the broader social group to which they belong.(34) To read the oral narratives of these soldiers is not simply to emotionalize and glorify their experiences. More importantly they should be read as a way of discerning not only the political and economic context of their colonial past, but also their present day concerns.

The oral accounts which I will relate here were recorded in the summers of 1995 and 1996. Some of them are taken from a documentary film. I will concentrate here on one main point, which is related to the reasons and motives for their enlistment and the context in which it happened. I tried not to interrupt their oral narratives, so the interviews were not oriented by the interviewer except for occasional clarification. The interviews as a whole served alternately to both support and refute previously held views about enlistment in the colonial army. An important value of these narratives is that they provide a tangible and more direct basis for assessing the impact of colonial penetration into the countryside in Morocco and of French recruitment methods. The colonial discourse about recruitment in Morocco, as I mentioned above, tends merely to support the official French assertion that recruitment was, for the most part, dependent upon securing volunteers. Their oral accounts here reveal hidden coercive methods which were used to acquire colonial troops in Morocco.


Lahcen Ou Mimoun, a Goumier who was in the Baroud in Italy and Germany:

We defended ourselves with stones and with all that came to our hands. There were a few muskets, but it wasn't enough. You know we were civilians and you know what the situation of civilians is. From the other side, they were well equipped, their tank gun fired from far. They came down and in order to oblige us to surrender, they took all our livelihood, all our livestock. They left us only the minimum. One mule to work with. If you had two mules, the French would take one in order to work for the French. Once we surrendered, they imposed the corvee and in addition we were sometimes beaten and those who were with the French beat us. We were in the front with pickax, and those with shovels were behind. It was unbearable. Those who refused to do the corvee were simply thrown in the river in the middle of the winter, it was very cold, and some of us died. That's it and it was this injustice that pushed me to enlist.

Said Ou Hamou, a Goumier who participated in all the major campaigns in Europe:

The mobile infantry came from all sides. They bombed from all sides, they bombed Air Serghouchen, they had also planes. There were a lot of deaths. They took all our livestock and left us. . . . So why did I enlist in the Goums? Simply because my dad was killed by the French and we were five orphans. In fact the majority of mature men from Ait Serghouchen were killed by the French and they left a lot of orphans who did not have other choices but to become Goumiers and work for the French.

Shrif al-Amrani, Tirailleur:

I was born in 1930. I became part of the army with the French on 15 June 1949. There were special circumstances. I never thought of entering the army. I used to be involved in commerce. I stayed for four years. Between 1948 and 1949, I was involved in the black market. I was with two friends of mine. In the month of June, we were bringing some merchandise from Oujda, and we were caught by the French. The only way out for us was to join the army. We were trained in Taza and taken to Germany, and then to Vietnam.

Hussein Ben Iouich, Tirailleur, was born in 1928. He enlisted in 1943 when he was unemployed:

We were mahkoumin, [in this context this word means to be under the authority of a foreign ruler] we did not have the possibility to do anything. No job, no nothing. I was in Rabat working as a gardener in Skhirat and I lost my job. I joined the army in 1943. I went to France in the first of January 1946. I became a corporal. We were guarding German prisoners. In 1948 I went back to Morocco. In 1949, I went to Vietnam. In 1953, I went with the Vietnamese army with my gun because I thought that if they exiled Mohammed V, they later would have to imprison the Moroccan soldiers too. There was a lot of forest, it was dark, and there were a lot of bushes and rain. I ran away by myself. I took with me about 300 bullets and five or six grenades. The Vietnamese were propagandists. They used to tell us, "Go back to your country, the French are colonizing you and us, we are fighting for our country, so you should fight for yours." They sent tracts and letters in Arabic. They used to tell us to shoot up in the air, and there were a lot of Moroccans who did it and there were a lot of Moroccans who were with the Vietnamese, about 1000.

What can we make out of these statements? My interpretation of these fragments of oral accounts has more to do with the factors that incited each individual to enlist in the army. For Lahcen Ou Mimoun, who started out as somebody who confronted the French, joining the army was a way of escaping the cycle of what he himself refers to as "injustice." It is quite symbolic that he refers to the corvee in the French language. The imposition of the corvee on the Moroccan peasantry was a burden that was not financially beneficial. In his narrative he refers to those who were "in the front with pickax and those who were with shovels." The coercive aspect of the corvee is also clear in his reference to being thrown in the river if one refused the task. His statement that "it was injustice that put me to enlist in the army" does not carry with it any form of political loyalty.

Said Ou Hamou refers in his own terms to the often forgotten memories of deaths during the conquest of Morocco. Lyautey's most celebrated article," Du Role Coloniale de l'Officier" would not make sense to Said. His account is revealing in the sense that it brings to light the practice of depriving newly conquered tribes of their livestock. Ou Mimoun brings up the same issue about taking away the mules. In the case of Ou Hamou, he himself poses the question of why he joined the Goums. In his reference to the death of his father, he interestingly includes the "majority of mature men from Ait Serghouchen who were left orphans and did not have choices but to become Goumiers and work for the French." Ou Hamou's testimony explains another coercive measure for enlisting in the Goums. It was a matter of survival within an imposed colonial context.

The Moroccan Tirailleur, Shrif al-Amrani, represents a more urban condition for the context of this recruitment. He is literate and speaks French fluently. His recruitment in the Moroccan Tirailleurs was more a matter of coincidence and of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he states it, "I never thought of entering the army." Instead, as a way of escaping legal justice for his involvement in the black market, he joined the French army. But this phenomena of enlisting in the army as a way of avoiding a prison sentence was common also among the Goumiers. In other interviews, I came across similar stories. In his book, La Longue Route des Tabors, Jacques Augarde states: "In the Goums we find shepherds, peasants, and a good proportion of thieves and bandits."(35)

Finally Hucein Ben Iouch's experience in Indochina reveals the fact that enlistment in the army was a way of escaping unemployment and a means for achieving an improved economic situation. His "loyalty" to the French colonial army was only temporary. He deserted on his own but he refers to a lot of Moroccans who were with the Vietnamese. Desertion in the colonial army was not something uncommon, but exact data is not yet available. As he himself states, the Vietnamese engaged quite extensively in a continuous propaganda campaign to persuade colonial soldiers to join them in the fight against the French. Moroccans, like others, were also exhausted from the war in Indochina. The idea that the Goumiers "did not fear death," so common in the colonial discourse, is too rhetorical to make any sense. Lucien Bodard states that "nothing is so fantastic as the courage of Moroccans, but nothing is so fantastic as their fear when they break like a stone dropping over a cliff. Their courage is gone . . . everything lost in madness save the primeval urge to stay alive. . . ."(36) Moroccans like Ben Iouch had to desert. They simply had no political identification with the French imperial government and no attachment to the causes for which that war was fought.


In the aftermath of the nationalist movements for independence in North Africa, there was a new straggle for recapturing the past and challenging the colonial paradigms which dominated most of the writings about Maghribian history and societies. What often emerged out of the colonial literature was a set of concepts, formulated in a racialized language, which sought to demonstrate the "colonizability" of North African societies and hence give support for the French colonial project. With a few exceptions, colonial histories showed only a partial understanding of the colonial experience and at the same time relegated the conditions of indigenous people to static notions of culture in an unhistorical interpretation of the past. A series of dichotomies were then elaborated ("civilized" and "uncivilized," "modem" and "archaic," "rational" and "irrational") to justify the eminent historical role of the mission civilisatrice: to bring reason and progress to people who were perceived as backward.

It is against the colonialist mode of representation that nationalist histories emerged. The "decolonization" of North African history was one of the goals of a kind of revisionist historiography which sought to show the dire effects of French colonial penetration on the socio-economic structures of societies.(37) The dominant colonialist interpretation of the pre-colonial Maghrib as anarchic was being challenged by a new vision which emphasized the preexistence of the nation state and the subsequent emergence of resistance movements against colonial role. Nationalist historians of the post-colonial era concentrated on the political and economic history of the colonial state and on the rise of nationalist movements. In doing so, they remained limited to elite politics and deprived the majority of the people from their agency. A major characteristic of this new historiography was the production of new dichotomies between "colonizer" and "colonized," "resisters" and "collaborators," "colonialism" and "nationalism." The corrective aspect of this conceptual framework was simultaneously a source of its strength and weakness. While it attempted to historicize the social and economic conditions under which colonialism manifested itself, it created a set of homogeneous categories which reproduced a different version of the colonialist discourse itself. What was missing from such a conceptual framework was the behavior of a large number of North Africans who reacted in different ways to the colonial enterprise. The case of the Moroccan colonial soldiers provides an example of these social categories who were outside the field of elite nationalist politics. In that sense they were neither "resisters" nor "collaborators". While their behavior toward colonial rule was ultimately the product of the conditions of exploitation to which they were subjected to as subaltern groups, they had to renegotiate their position and make the best out of it. Their reaction to colonial rule was the outcome of local politics and of the limited economic options which were available to them. Moroccan colonial soldiers were coerced into recruitment in the French army, but they became at the same time agents of colonization.

At least one way of rewriting the history of colonial North Africa is to look at the histories of subaltern groups from the perspective of oral history and popular memory. As Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler aptly wrote: "We need to confront the more elusive methodological problem of connecting what was written to what was said and to what was done, of exploring the relationship of the language of the written documents to the language of the people who were the objects of bureaucracy but the subjects of their own life."(38) In the case of the Moroccan colonial soldiers, oral accounts not only enrich our understanding of the diverse motives that stimulated enlistment in the colonial army, but also give more direct testimonies of the broader historical consequences resulting from French colonial penetration in Morocco. Historians can no longer rely solely on the archives in order to do colonial history of the Maghrib. More conceptual and methodological tools will be required to broaden our understanding of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of colonial rule in North Africa.


1. Ranjit Guga and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press: 1988, p.35.

2. On the debate about the Subaltern studies group, see Guga, op cit. Gyan Prakash, "Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography." Comparative Study of Society and History, Vol. 32, #2, 1990.

3. This distinction between "autobiographical memory" and "historical memory" is borrowed from Maurice Halbwach's, La Memoire Collective, Paris: P.U.F., 1950. More recent studies of memory are to be found in Maurice Crubelier's, La Memoire des Francais: recherche d'Histoire Culturelle, Paris: Henry Veyrier, 1991; Henry Rousso's, Le Syndrome de Vichy, Paris: Seuil, 1990; and Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de Memoire, Paris: Gillimard, 1986.

4. Abdallah Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, Princeton University: NJ, 1977, pp.351-354.

5. Most historians of colonial North Africa deal with colonial troops within the overall political conflicts between metropolitan and colonial interests. Colonial soldiers are not dealt with as real human actors in history.

6. Quoted in Andre-Paul Comor's, La Legion Etrangere, Paris: P.U.F., 1992, p.12.

7. "La Memoire Oubliee des Goums Marocains," Serie d'Alain de Sedouy et realisation de Ahmed el-Maanouni, 1992.

8. Examples of this literature include among others Louis Berteil's, Baroud Pour Rome Italie 44, Paris: Flammarion, 1966; Henry Bordeaux's, Henry de Bournazel, Paris: Plon 1935; Jacques Weygand's, Goumier de L'Atlas, Paris: Flammarion, 1954.

9. Commonly known as "l'ordre 100 du premier November 1908," it called for a more institutionalized and disciplined military formation.

10. Quoted in Jean Saulay's Histoire des Goums Marocains, Paris: La Koumia, 1985, p.34.

11. The number of 22,000 is presented in Coudry's article, "L'Armee et la Mise en Valeur du Maroc," Revue Historique de l'Armee, Vol. 2, June 1952, p.79. The figure of 12,583 is estimated in Daniel Rivet's Lyautey et L'Institution du Protectorat Francais au Maroc, 1912-1925, Paris: L'Harmattan, 1988, Vol. 2, p. 68.

12. Colonel Yves Jouin, "Le Camouflage des Goums Marocains pendant la Periode d'Armistice," Revue Historique de L'Armee, Vol. 2, 1972, p.107.

13. Ibid., p. 116.

14. Jean Naudou, "Le Maroc en 1963," C.H.E.A.M. no.3771, p.5.

15. See Lugand's, "Historique des Tirailleurs Marocains," Revue Historique de l'Armee, Vol. 2, June 1952.

16. Mohamed Berkaoui, Le Maroc et la Premiere Guerre Mondiale, unpublished These de Doctorat, Universite de Provence, 1987, p. 193.

17. Lugand. p.47.

18. Ibid. p. 32.

19. Coudry, p. 80.

20. Jean Saulay, Histoire des Goums Marocains, Paris: La Koumia, 1985, Vol. 1, p. 15.

21. Yves Salkin, Histoire des Goums Marocains, Paris: La Koumia, 1989, Vol.2, p.23.

22. Quoted in Clarles-Andre Julien, Le Maroc Face Aux Imperialismes, Paris: Editions J.A, 1978, p.99.

23. Spillman, "Les Goums Mixtes Morocains," Revue Historique de l'Armee, Vol. 2, June 1952, pp.139-140.

24. Salkin, Histoire des Goums Marocains, p. 22.

25. Paul Ducray, "les Tirailleurs Marocains, Leur Recrutement," C.H.E.A.M. no.1143. 1947, p.5.

26. Colonel Paul Azan, L'Armee Indigene Nord-Africaine, Paris: Charles-Lavauzelle, 1925, p. 32.

27. Ibid. p. 38.

28. Ibid. p. 39.

29. Robert Montagne, Les Berberes et Le Makhzen Dans Le Sud Du Maroc, Paris: 1930, p. 4.

30. P. Rondot, "Remarques Sur La Selection des Contingents Nord-Africains," C.H.E.A.M. no. 1007.

31. Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Cambridge, 1990.

32. From an interview conducted in the summer of 1995.

33. Abdallah Laroui, The History of the Maghrib, Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 354.

34. See Maurice Halbwach's, La Memoire Collective, Paris: P.U.F., 1950.

35. Jacques Augarde, La Longue Route des Tabors, Paris: Editions France-Empire, 1983, p.44.

36. Lucien Bodard, The Quicksand War: Prelude to Vietnam, Boston: 1967, pp.300-308.

37. Mohamed Sahli's Title was quite revealing as to the purpose of this kind of nationalist literature. Decoloniser l'Histoire: Introduction a L 'Histoire du Maghreb, Paris: 1965.

38. Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler, "Introduction: Tensions of Empire: Colonial control and Visions of Rule," American Ethnologist, Vol. 16, no. 4, 1989.

Driss Maghraoui is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently working on his dissertation "Soldiers without Citizenship: Collective Memory and the Culture of French Colonialism."
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Title Annotation:Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in North Africa
Author:Maghraoui, Driss
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Previous Article:Theorizing the histories of colonialism and nationalism in the Arab Maghrib.
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