Goums at 114: France’s Tough Moroccan Reliables
Back on 3 October 1908, under the terms of the Algeciras Conference that calmed the Moroccan Crisis between France and Germany, the French Republic stood up its first “goum” (roughly “troop” in Arabic) drawn from Moroccan Berber volunteers nominally still under the control of the Alawi Sultan of Morocco. These company-sized groups of irregulars, typically of 100-150 men consisting of three or four infantry platoons and a horse-mounted cavalry troop, all commanded by a couple of French officers and NCOs, soon expanded as they proved ideal for use in North Africa.
Tasked as sort of a gendarmerie intended to carry out patrols or reconnaissance missions on Moroccan territory, they were distinctive in their brightly colored wool djellaba cloaks with a hood (koub) to protect the soldier in harsh weather, loose gandoura blouses, naala ox skin sandals attached with palm cords, short séroual pants that ended in the mid-leg, a wool head covering, and leather choukara satchels in place of the more traditional French musette bag.
By 1920, there were 25 goums. Following tough service and proving themselves in the Atlas mountains against the Rifs in the 1920s, by 1933, there were 47 goums. By 1940, the French no less than 121 goums were on the books. Larger battalion-sized Tabors, formed from three or four goums, appeared. A dozen goums in May 1940 were molded into a regiment-sized force (1er Groupe de Supplétifs Marocains, 1er GSM) to fight to Italians in nearby Libya.
Restricted to local duty since they were founded, the Moroccan goums had missed out on service in Metropolitan France in the Great War and later in the 1939-40 Battle of France and remained a presence in North Africa, intact, during the Vichy regime under the guise of being gendarmerie troops used for internal security. Following the Torch Landings, the Free French moved to form the goum into something more expeditionary and 1er GSM was soon in combat against the Italians and Germans in Tunisia.
They marched in the liberation of Tunis in May.
Soon, a second GSM was formed and, befitting of Allied support, these units soon became GTMs or Grouping of Moroccan tabors (Moroccan Tabors Groupments) with four brigade-sized GTMs soon being stood up.
The size of a standard goum and tabor would expand to over 200 as 81mm mortar teams and a M1919 machine gun platoon was added. At the same time, the M1903A3 Springfield rifle in .30-06 became the main battle rifle while the heads of the goumiers would be protected by M1917 Brodie style helmets, the later dubbed “Mle 17 A 1” in French service. Slowly, GI combat boots replaced sandals while olive drab web gear supplemented then replaced French leather gear.
They would land with Patton’s 7th Army in the Sicilian Campaign, with the 4th GTM attached to the Big Red One of the 1st U.S. Infantry Division, and then continue to carry the war up the Italian boot, serving with Mark Clark’s 5th Army.
They were on hand for the liberation of Corsica and on to mainland France, with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd GTMs taking part in the Dragoon Landings in August 1944 and heading inland from there.
They even made it to a Bill Mauldin cartoon.
The 3rd GTM ended the war on occupation duty in Stuttgart.
Collectively, the goums racked up 26 unit citations for their WWII service. In all, they suffered more than 8,000 casualties fighting in Europe. They also left their marks on the continent, with several atrocities and assorted human rights violations blamed on the units.
Nonetheless, the French became increasingly enamored with these hard-fighting Moroccan troops and, of the 130,000 assorted North African troops that fought in Indochina between 1945 and 1954, no less than 52 percent hailed from Morrocco. The feeling was mutual, as, for many of these soldiers the duty was good and well-liked– with the goumiers returning home with medals and well-filled savings books while at the same time the units they were attached to saw very low desertion rates.
At least nine gourmier tabors (1er, 2e, 3e, 5e, 8e, 9e, 10e, 11e, and 17e) would be stationed in the region and were noted in their performance in the battles RC4 and at Diên Biên Phu. They would leave no less than 4,120 Moroccans behind in Southeast Asia, including 611 still listed as MIA.
In May 1956, with the independence of Morocco, the days of the goumier were numbered and on 9 June, the last goum was disbanded, folded into the Royal Moroccan Army of today.
As far as France is concerned, the Infantry Museum in Montpellier maintains the history of the goums through a dedicated collection in a room dedicated to them. A monument to the goums was erected in 1954 at the Croix des Moinats, in the heart of the Vosges mountain range they helped to liberate in 1944-45.
The Armee Musem, which houses the decorated banners of the GTM, notes, “Feared, admired, and always respected, the goums contributed by their exploits and their faithful commitment to the writing of the most valiant pages in the history of the French Army and the Infantry.”