By Abdellatif Lahlali
By Abdellatif Lahlali
Massachusetts – Growing up in Tangier, Morocco, in the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, I remember the most memorable times I had as a child were when I sat listening to my Father talk about War! These occasions usually occurred when he had one or two Old French Army Veterans come to visit us in our Home. These men were ‘Anciens Combattants’. Old Veterans from the French Army of North Africa. My Father was Master Sergeant Mohamed Ben Salem Lahlali; a Veteran of the ‘4e Régiment de Tirailleurs Marocains’ or the 4th Regiment of Moroccan Riflemen. He was a Radio Telegraph Operator within the 8th Company of that famous French Army Regiment. One of many in N. Africa that were decorated multiple times; just like my Father who had six Military Medals including the prestigious ‘Médaille Militaire’.
As I grew older, my fascination with my Father’s War Stories only grew and I kept asking him again, and again to speak to me about his Military Career. I knew it spanned a tumultuous fifteen years from 1940 to 1955. That it included both his participation in WWII, and the French Conflict in ‘Indochine’ – That it ended with his captivity there, and miraculous return to Morocco. As we both grew older; it became easier for him to talk about certain episodes; and as Time passed; we both realized that my initial curiosity had resulted into Thousands of documents, and scattered bits of information. But time was needed to put it all together.
A labor of love and respect was needed to complete the research; and to do right by these brave Moroccan and N. African Soldiers who made up the bulk of the French Army of North Africa since WWI, and practically all French Colonial Wars afterwards. These brave Soldiers never received more than a rare; fleeting image in the History Books, and a few Hollywood Movies; especially those that dealt with French Legionnaires; or Allied involvement in WWII in N. Africa. Extensive research was needed to uncover their massive involvement in the French Conflict in Indochine -Vietnam. Even more rare; is finding anything about men like my Father who actually survived captivity at the hands of the Communist Viet Minh; in a ‘death camp’; and lived to talk about it!
These Veterans whom my Father called his Brethren ‘Lkhoot’ in local Arabic; used to come from far away to visit him. They were part of this rarest group of people; who shared my Father’s past. They had always identified him as one of their own; and because he was able to read and write in French, he was chosen to be their own ‘messenger’. They came to him specifically so he can write to the French Authorities about their condition in hopes of increasing their meager Military pensions! My Father served his Brethren in this way; during the Wars by delivering messages between their Commanders. He was a Radio and Telegraph Operator; and these brave Soldiers always came to him to find out what their next Command would be. He always obliged; both in War, and decades afterwards. In their eyes, he was always the link they needed to ‘talk’ to those in Command.
My Father generously used his personal time, money, and knowledge of the French Language to help his Brethren. He was elected President of their Association in N. Morocco; and he was the only one they’ll ever come to for help; since they never really ceased to be Soldiers. They were all almost exclusively Muslim men from Morocco or Algeria. Tall, proud, and tough men of exceptional personal courage, and loyalty to each other; and to their French Commanders. They had made their oath of loyalty to the French Flag with pride; and to their own brilliant Generals of ‘Pieds Noir’ origins whether Christian; Jewish or Muslim. Most of their Military Regiments, including the 4th RTM were dissolved by the French Army after the Independence of Morocco. But the Military History, and personnel records of these men are kept under lock and key at the Archives of the French Ministry of Defense.
After Morocco’s Independence, these Moroccan Military men, some highly decorated, were vilified by both France, and Morocco. France wanted to ignore them as part of its ‘Colonial’ past, one that most of its people did not want any part of, especially after the debacle in Algeria. As for the newly Independent country of Morocco, these Military men were seen as ‘remnants’ of the much maligned French Colonial Authorities before Independence. A few were integrated into the newly formed Armed Forces of Morocco (FAR: Forces Armées Royales); and served their country with distinction, and honor. Others, however were later involved in two successive attempts at the life of King Hassan II in 1971. The most important of these was General Mohamed Oufkir who served in the French Army, in the same 4th RTM as my Father and others.
This burdened History made ‘War Stories from my Father’ a never ending Book project, whose complex research was only compounded with indifference to its subject matter within both countries. Time was of the essence however, because of the fading memory of the main protagonists; and by their rapid passing. The majority of these men; ended up spending the rest of their lives in total obscurity; and abject poverty, or barely surviving off their meagre French Military pensions which were frozen in time since 1959. Today; very few of these brave men are still living, past their 90 years; their Military Medals fading in the shadows of dusty old closets. Their memory only ignited on rare occasions in France; or in false pomp and circumstance in Morocco.
On the eve of the Seventieth commemoration of the end of WWII; I finally had the time I needed to get ‘War Stories from my Father’ out, firstly to the English speaking world, where this story is mostly unknown. Then, start the French version in earnest; less I disobey my Father’s wish. I had finally understood why my Father told me these Stories over and over again; and burn them into my memory. Why he insisted that I do the necessary research over and over again; and do it as accurately as humanly possible. I believe his wish was that I make it my ‘mission’ to one day, write, and publish ‘War Stories from my Father’. When that time finally came; it was not difficult for me to find a voice for this rarefied group of Soldiers. With great pride, I chose the voice of my Father who represents, in my mind; the very best of the Generation of King Mohamed V; whom he loved, and revered, all his life.
After his Military career was over; my Father had skills that were badly needed in Morocco; and he selflessly answered the call of the late king Mohamed V; to serve his newly independent country. He joined the newly formed Ministry of ‘Postes, Télégraphes et Téléphones’ (PTT); to develop and operate the first Moroccan Maritime Radio Stations. His first service to his country was to help secure Morocco’s Maritime Commerce; and help control Morocco’s territorial waters. He used his Morse-code expertise, and Radio Transmission knowledge that he learned in the French Army, to start operation of the Agadir Maritime Radio Station; in the late Fifties. After surviving the devastating earthquake of 1960; we moved to Tangier where he helped expand, then operate the Tangier Maritime Radio Station; to monitor Maritime Traffic in the Straits of Gibraltar. He did so until his retirement in 1982!
‘War Stories from my Father’ is a Book dedicated to my Father; his Brethren; and his Generation. It is their collective Story as told by one of their own.
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission