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In the footsteps of the African Resistance fighters who fell in the Battle of Vercors

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Thousands of German soldiers moved in on southeastern France’s Vercors Plateau in July 1944 in a bid to crush a regional uprising led by a rural French Resistance group. Over 100 Resistance fighters died in the bloody battles on the mountainside. Many of them were of African origin but who they were and why they decided to join the French Resistance has only recently begun to come to light.

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

The choice of location was no coincidence.

During World War II, the village and its surroundings served as a refuge for a French Resistance group known as the Vercors Maquis. The group used the mountainous terrain to train its fighters and organise the wider French Resistance against the Nazis. Shortly after the Allied forces landed in Normandy in June, 1944, Vercors then became the first French region to claim its independence from German and Vichy rule, sparking the Vercors Uprising.

The German response that ensued was brutal. An estimated 10,000 German soldiers stormed Vassieux-en-Vercors, completely devastating the village and dealing one of the most serious single blows to the French Resistance. Today, 187 white crosses and some tombstones stand in the village cemetery, marking the final resting place for the many civilians and Resistance fighters who met their deaths in 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 both worked on a local construction site when they picked up arms for France, while N’dour joined the movement after having served as a Senegalese tirailleur within the French Army’s colonial infantry.

But how these “colonials” – as they were referred to at the time – ended up in the French Resistance is still a mystery historians are trying to piece together. What has been established, however, is that the foreign fighters played an invaluable role in the Resistance that the Vercors Maquis was able to put up on the mountain.

Abdesselem Ben Ahmed tombstone at the cemetery in Vassieux-en-Vercors, in southeastern France.
Abdesselem Ben Ahmed’s tombstone at 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, said. “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 explained.

Not all foreign contributors have gone unnoticed, however – in particular, a group of Senegalese soldiers 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 soldiers take up arms under the command of Henri Zeller, a high-ranking officer within the French Resistance. © DR

Their arrival caught a great deal of attention in the region. Photos show how they paraded through the town of Romans-sur-Isère on September 8, 1944, after having participated in its liberation just a few days earlier.

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

“Seeing 52 Senegalese riflemen in Vercors is something that is totally out of the ordinary, so it was something that was talked about. But out of an historical point of view, they were not talked about enough because it was never looked into where they came from. All we know is that they fought on the plateau and that they were then going on to join the reconstituted units of the 11th cavalry unit before 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 said.

In his comic strip, Kamel describes Abdesselam’s heroism, who was executed at the end 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 comic book on the African Resistance fighters. © DR

Mouellef, whose Algerian great-grandfather was killed near the French town of Soissons at the end of World War I, underscored the importance of passing on the memory of these forgotten war heroes to young people with immigrant backgrounds.

“It’s important that we talk about these people. It’s to remind Marine Le Pen, who points her finger at us from morning to night, that these people died for France, even though they weren’t French. There were Algerians in the French Resistance. They fought, they carried out dozens of attacks on German officers… Why are we never talking about them? I’m not talking about getting them into the Panthéon or anything, I’m talking 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 have to go and see today’s young people, talk to them, and we have to value them from morning to night. I have kids say to me ‘they think we’re thieves, migrants, but we fought for France’,” he said while visiting a secondary school while touring the country exhibiting his work.

On the Vercors plateau, Guillon the historian continues to try to put names and faces to the foreign Resistance fighters who died in 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 original in French.

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