Categories 1941

The French fight to defend Syria

A Bren gun carrier passes through Roman ruins during the advance through Syria.

The decision to invade Syria had been taken because it was believed that Germany would move forces into the area north of Egypt. It had been hoped that French forces in Syria, loyal to the French Vichy regime – which had come to terms with Hitler, would put up only a nominal defence. The very stiff resistance presented by the French troops in the country had been a nasty surprise, leading to early casualties amongst British and Australian troops. The journalist Alan Moorehead considered why these former allies put up such a fight:

Talking to captured Frenchmen, we got to know how bitter was this fight which had started as a skirmish and was developing into a war. The better informed Frenchman would argue like this: ‘Why shouldn’t we fight? We’re professional soldiers obeying orders, and you came here on a deliberate aggression. You think it would have been easy for us just quietly to submit; but what about our friends and our relatives imprisoned by Germany? The Boches keep threatening us. They say they will take reprisals and they mean it. We’ve got to fight.’

And there was another subtler impulse. It was expressed perfectly by a French sergeant near Sidon. ‘You thought we were yellow, didn’t you? You thought we couldn’t fight in France. You thought we were like the Italians. Well, we’ve shown you.’ They were fighting for something that was almost as fundamental as self-preservation – for human dignity, for the right of walking among others as an equal. And since we brought against them forces much inferior in numbers to their own, the French could not out of sense of pride surrender at once.

I am speaking now of the early stages in June when it was touch and go as to whether they would go on or not. When we tackled them with too few men and guns and they beat us back, they naturally gained confidence and wanted to continue the fight. And that old deadly front- line bitterness sprang up—Jean’s comrade Gaston is killed and he wants to avenge him.

And so the war gathered impetus, snowball fashion, feeding on itself. Everyone on the British side hated it. No one enjoyed killing Frenchmen. And it was naturally painful to be destroying the men and the arms which once had been drilled and built to help us. Even the very propaganda posters the French had printed to bring in volunteers to help the Allies in 1939 were being used now to recruit men against the British.

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

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