REGIMENTS DE MARCHE
DES VOLONTAIRES ETRANGERS
OF FOREIGN VOLUNTEERS)
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(not yet completed)
Les Régiments de Marche
des Volontaires Etrangers
General Brothier (extracts)
By a decision dated January 14th 1985, The Minister of Defence just entrusted the 2nd REI (Foreign Infantry Regiment), the duty of perpetuating the memory of the March Regiments of Foreign Volunteers created in 1939 at the war declaration…Who were these men?
I’m proud to have been among them. I believe that I can speak about them by knowledge… The motivations for their engagement were different from the other legionnaires… Living on our soil by choice, or chased from their home by racism, economical and political crises, they formed in France minorities sometimes important… That was the case of the “white” Russians, the Armenians, the Italians, the Poles, the anti-nazi Germans, the central and oriental Europe Jews and last the republican Spaniards.
One ought to say about the fact that some group’s motivations for engagement were sometime political; those saw the opportunity to fight and maybe bring down any hated regime from which they had to suffer. But it’s right to recognize that their engagement signed, they behaved with loyalty, our fight becoming their’s.
At the war declaration, in September 1939, thousands foreigners asked to fight on our side. The French law did not allow a foreigner to contract an engagement in a French army unit. Therefore was created a specialized mobilisation centre, an annex to the common depot of the Foreign Regiments in Sidi Bel Abbes, from which it ought to receive its active nucleus, and was based in the Vantia Fort near Lyon. It started by creating the 11th then the 12th REI, and added the 13th DBLE (semi-Brigade) arrived from North Africa and that was sent to Norway.
But there was such an afflux of volunteers for the engagement that it became necessary to create a second engagement and instruction centre. It was named the “Common Depot of the Regiments of the Foreign Infantry Volunteers”, and it was installed in the camp of Barcarès in department of Pyrénées Orientales. Its assigned mission was to recruit, train and instruct the 1st, 2nd ,3rd RMVE (Foreign Volunteers March Regiment which became eventually the 21st, 22nd, 23rd RMVE in order to avoid any confusion with the active regiments and those formed in Vantia. A separate battalion planned for Syria was also created… At the end of the combats, 13 citations had been given to Infantry Units. Among this meagre total number, 4 had been given to Foreign Regiments: the 11th, 12th, and 22nd RMVE for their behaviour in France, the 13th semi-Brigade for theirs in Norway. If one wants to remember that close to one million infantrymen were mobilized or engaged, how not being surprised to observe that less than 20,000 foreign infantrymen deserved one third of the distinctions granted to the Infantry in its whole. But let’s tell about the Barcarès camp.
At the North East of Perpignan and near Rivesaltes, laying between sea and pond was drowned out a long and narrow sandy stripe, covered with a rare vegetation, and permanently wrought by violent winds and sea sprays. A path from south to north crossed an alignment of thirty barracks built with light frames made of wood covered with cared board and “vitrex”, those materials used to build poultry houses. In each, two long bedsteads made of wooden boards separated by an alley on the very sand, constituted the bedding. In the privileged barracks two or three bulbs hanging from the ceiling dispensed a weak light. And the whole was infested by parasite insects; bugs, fleas, lice and mosquitoes. The “lavatories” were less than compendious, and the taps distributed with parsimony a briny water. So was the “Camp le Barcarès” that discovered the new comers… The problem of the management by the non-commissioned officers took a bit longer to solve… Those were Czechs sent from Sidi Bel Abbes to participate to the training of a “free Czech Brigade”, and had preferred to fight under the French flag...
Drawing by Bagel
Caporals were hardly existing, but the astonishing intellectual qualities of many recruits and the experience “in the field” of the Spanish fighters allowed to train some caporals quickly in accelerated platoons… As far as I remember, the Barcarès depot received about 12,000 to 13,000 candidates to engagement; 2 to 3,000 ought to be sent back for diverse reasons: age, physical inaptitude, questionable political attitude… 50% belonged to a panel of 50 European nationalities, 30% were republican Spaniards, 20% were Jews from central or eastern Europe. Their average age was between 25 and 28. They were already educated people, sometime married, having the practice of a profession or studying in our universities or school at a pretty good level… This heteroclite and disparate community melted quickly together, and no systematic hostility ever opposed the different groups. Ingeniousness, mind of undertaking and goodwill of everybody did marvels… But we also needed to equip and instruct this mass of men. We saw arriving pell-mell, by wagons, a huge amount of frippery not so clean and disparate, left over by the mobilized units… Sorting, cleaning and repairing were the first activities in order to make everything at least presentable… Speaking from the initial weaponry it was composed only with rifles, very often without a strap. Since we have to “repair” everything, packthread became soon a very important element of amendment; our regiments winned the title of “packthread regiments” (regiments ficelles)! Their merit is for having through their glorious behavior transformed this mockery nickname, given by the German officers, into a kind of glorious title. But after these laborious and not so encouraging beginnings everything finally got organized.
Drawing by Bagel
Not to speak of profusion, the equipments and weapons started to arrive, automatic weapons and mortars, anti-tank guns and anti- airplane machine guns allowed us to resume the instruction of the specialists… So it’s quite correctly equipped that the first elements could left to the Larzac military camps to accomplish their collective instruction. And finally by the end of Marsh 1940 kaki cloths allowed us to present a uniform bearing… and to dream about a soon departure to the “front”…
Mounting to the Front.
The first unit to leave Barcarès at the beginning of April 1940 was the March Battalion to Syria. Then was the turn of the 21st RMVE directed to Brumath in Alsace, and incorporated into the 35th Infantry Division of the General Decharme. It received them with a quite cold welcome, due apparently to their poor equipment and weaponry. They were luckily completed.
At the time of the German attack of May 10th 1940 and the break-through on Sedan, the 35th division was deployed south of the Ardennes, along the canal in order to obstruct the breach. The 21st will hold its sector during more than three weeks. Receiving the command to retreat in order to escape from the German tongs, the regiment fought a series of combats, one of which particularly severe, in the streets of the town of Sainte-Menehould cost more than hundred men. These rear-guard combats were fought in very difficult conditions till the end. It’s yet after that the armistice was already signed, and with the express command of general Decharme, that its last elements laid down arms.
A few days after the 21st, the 22nd RMVE left Barcarès also to Alsace. Incorporated into the 19th Infantry Division in Mulhouse, it was placed in support of a fortress regiment, which casemates sided the left bank of the river Rhine. The regiment wouldn’t stay long there for, after the start of the German offensive, the whole division was moved by train to the south bank of the river Somme. The 22nd’s first lost happened while this move while one of the train’s wagons was strongly bombed by the German air force in the region of Pontoise. Putting its steps in the footprints of the WW1’s R.M.L.E. it settled on the two sides of the road from Lille to Paris on the south of Péronne. By the end of May the regiment was commanded to reduce the German stronghold, but a strong will and courage of the men couldn’t replace the lack of artillery support, the lack of tanks and the lack of planes. So the enterprise, who provoked severe lost mainly among the 2nd battalion, had to be abandonned. At the dawn of June 5th , after a violent artillery preparation and strong dive-bombings, hundreds of tanks from Guderian’s et Rommels armored divisions submerged the strong base held by the 22nd and opened the way to Paris. With no any support, counting only on their own strength with their derisive anti armored guns hauled by tilling horses, receiving no supply, neither food nor ammunitions, their strongholds were condemned from the beginning and despite their wild resistance finally fell, one after the others. The enemy himself would later give homage to the resistance that had opposed him, and the French Commandment recognized it too according a citation at the Order of the Army to the regiment. All was quite over when on June 3rd the 23rd got a command to leave Barcarès. On June 6th while the offensive of the German armored divisions kept developing in direction of Paris, the regiment settled itself in coverage in the Villers-Cotteret forest. Poorly armed and equipped, it had in turn to bear the German assaults since June 9th. During two weeks it had to face a desperate rear-guard combat, loosing most of its soldiers in unequal fights in Nangis, Pont-sur-Yonne and Montargis. When Armistice was signed, its last elements still able to fight located in the Chartres region could move to the south of France and got demobilized.
Such is quickly sketched the story of these March Regiments of Foreign Volunteers. For the centuries our country has faced dark hours, but those in 1940 were particularly black. These men coming from everywhere in the world shared these hours with us. But because they were not French, rather republican Spaniards or Jewish, the Nazi Germany did not forgive them for taking the arms against her. If they shared our misery, our sufferings and our tears, alas they had to face other ordeals. But they also shared our hopes and many among those again took arms as partisans in the Resistance. In Barcarès and in the villages where they fought, monuments perpetuate the memory of their combats.
Then a young officer of the 22nd RMVE