The extraordinary tales of wartime resistance on the French Caribbean island of Martinique

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When general Charles de Gaulle, exiled in London, called on his countrymen in June 1940 to rise up against German occupation of France and the puppet pro-Nazi Vichy regime, his words inspired resistance not only in mainland, but also thousands of kilometres away across the Atlantic, in the French-governed islands of the Caribbean. On Martinique, many young men and women made perilous crossings to the British islands of Dominica and Saint Lucia to join up with the Free French Forces and fight in Europe. These are some of their extraordinary stories, told in picture-portraits by photographer Sylvain Demange and historian Sylvie Meslien, and which are part of an exhibition now showing in the Martinique capital Fort-de-France.

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  1. April 28th 2019: the remains of the French military camp of Balata, on Martinique, where a mutiny led to the liberation of the island in 1943.

    In 1940, following the defeat and occupation of France by Germany, the high commissioner for the French Caribbean islands, Admiral Georges Robert (1875-1965), placed them under the authority of the Vichy regime, the pro-Nazi collaborationist puppet government of France led by Marshall Philippe Pétain.

    For the inhabitants of Martinique, one of the largest of France’s Caribbean territories, living conditions soon deteriorated. The naval forces under Robert’s dictatorial control enforced order on the island, which was subjected to the laws of the Vichy regime, but this was met with resistance from all spheres of local civil, political and cultural society.

    Numerous men and women, known as “les dissidents”, decided to actively join up with the Free French Forces (FFF) led by General Charles de Gaulle in exile in London, answering his call,  broadcast on radio on June 18th 1940, for his compatriots to rise up against the German occupation and the Vichy authorities.

    Many of the” dissidents” fled the island clandestinely at night, taking to the sea in fragile craft – the pirogue-like gommier and the flatter yole – to head for the then British island territories of Dominica and Saint Lucia, respectively to the north and south of Martinique. Numerous attempted crossings ended in failure and deaths.

    But those who succeeded in reaching Dominica and Saint Lucia were officially registered by FFF representatives and sent on to the United States for military training at the Fort Dix base in New Jersey. They would subsequently take part in allied military operations in North Africa, Italy and subsequently in the liberation of mainland France.

    Meanwhile, on June 29th 1943, around 220 French troops – made up of local men and others from France’s African colonies – stationed at the camp of Balata (photo above), situated about ten kilometres from Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, mutinied against Admiral Robert. Led in the rebellion by their pro-Gaullist commander Henri Tourtet, and joined by a revolt among the civil population, they overran the military commanded by Robert, and forced the admiral to flee the island, which subsequently came under the control of the Free French Forces.

    Tourtet was made a lieutenant-colonel and tasked with creating the 5th antillais (West Indian) and Guyanese march battalion, the BMA5, made up of volunteers mostly from Martinique, the neighbouring French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and from French Guyana. They were sent by sea to North Africa where they took part in campaigns in Morocco and Algeria before landing for combat in southern France. In the spring of 1945, they were given the task of taking German army positions on the Atlantic coast, at the Gironde river estuary, and although successful, Tourtet and two of his officers, both from Martinique, died in the fighting.

  2. Dissident: Eugène Jean-Baptiste, born on July 13th 1923 at Grand’Rivière, a small fishing village in northern Martinique. (This portrait was taken on April 29th 2019).

    Eugène Jean-Baptiste was 20-years-old when he became a dissident and decided to leave Vichy-controlled Martinique for the British-governed island of Dominica, along with his friend Jean Philibert. The two men set off at 10pm on May 14th 1943 in a small sailing dinghy they had stolen from the then mayor of Grand’Rivière, Thomas Théodore Sylvaniello. Jean-Baptiste, a fisherman, already had experience of the journey between the two islands, but that night conditions were poor and they only reached Dominica, about 99 kilometres (or 54 nautical miles) north of Martinique, at 7am the next day.

    They landed at the south-west peninsula of Cachacrou (beside Scotts Head), met up with locals and were led by police to Dominica’s main town of Roseau, where they were taken to the offices of a colonel Perrel from the Free French Forces (FFF), who was in charge of organising the postings of arriving dissidents into the military units. In that same month of May, Jean-Baptiste signed up as a volunteer with the FFF for the remainder of the war.

    Because Martinique had soon after come under the control of the FFF, following the revolt in June that deposed Admiral Georges Robert, he was not sent for training like others before him at Fort-Dix but instead to the Gerbault military base on Martinique. From there he travelled for further training at the US military’s Camp Edwards, in Massachusetts. In July 1944, he and his comrades arrived in Europe, and in August they went into combat in Italy.

    After taking part in liberating Naples, he was sent to the Algerian capital Algiers, and from there he travelled onto the Moroccan towns of Casablanca and Marrakesh for training in operating ground-to-air defence weapons. He was later stationed in France, in the southern city of Marseilles, and also the north-west town of Nantes, and after the end of the war in Europe he was incorporated into the French occupation forces in Germany.

    On January 11th 1946, when his military contract had expired, he returned to Martinique and Grand’Rivière, where he resumed his profession of fisherman and became a member of the local municipal council, which he sat on for 38 years. On June 25th 2009, he was awarded the Légion d’honneur with the rank of chevalier (knight).

  3. Dissident: Norbert Plesel, born on July 15th 1919, at Marigot, northern Martinique. He died on March 20th 2019.  (This portrait was taken on May 6th 2018).

    In February 1939, a then 20-year-old Norbert Plesel was declared “apt for military service” and on April 17th he was assigned to the Gerbault military base. That was where he learned of the exiled General Charles de Gaulle’s call for resistance following the fall of France. It was on April 11th 1943 when he found the opportunity to join the ranks of the “dissidents”, leaving Martinique in a clandestine trip to Dominica by yole. Just 17 days later, he arrived at Fort Dix in New Jersey for training and was assigned to the FFF’s 1st march battalion.

    In September that year, he and his comrades were sent across the Atlantic to Morocco on a liberty ship, landing in the port city of Casablanca on October 12th 1943. A few days later, the battalion crossed the Algerian border, when he was part of a group that were sent further east to the port of Sousse in Tunisia, to prepare for a crossing to Italy. Plesel was assigned to the 21st Groupe Antillais de DCA (an anti-aircraft defence group made up of French volunteers from the Caribbean islands), and on May 3rd he landed in Naples. After taking part in the Battle of Monte Cassino, he and his group were sent to the nearby town of Pontecorvo, which they helped liberate. They then headed south to the port of Taranto, in the ‘heel’ of Italy, where they prepared to be sent to Provence, in south-east France.

    Landing in France, they took part in the fierce fighting to free the ports of Toulon and Hyères. Plesel and his comrades then moved north, liberating the town of Autun, in central Burgundy, and the towns of Giromagny and Grosmagny, in the east. On November 23rd 1945, he boarded a ship in Marseille to return to Martinique and on January 31st 1946 he was demobilised. Immediately after leaving the army he went back to his former job as an agricultural worker in the banana and sugar cane plantations. He later became a cattle farmer, and subsequently opened a butcher’s store. He received several military medals, and was made a chevalier (knight) of the Légion d’honneur on July 14th 2009.

  4. Resistant: Jeanne Catayée, born on January 10th 1921 in the village of Sinnamary, in French Guyana and raised in Martinique. (This portrait was taken on April 27th 2019).

    Jeanne Catayée arrived with her family in Martinique from French Guyana when she was a young child, and grew up in the small town of Morne-Rouge, in the north of the island. She passed exams to qualify as a school teacher but after the German occupation of France, and General Charles de Gaulle’s call to resistance, she volunteered to join the FFF.

    Declared “apt for military service”, she was assigned to the Balata military camp in Martinique where she was among 22 women soldiers of the march battalion, the BMA5, formed following the mutiny at the base. She was posted to the battalion’s communications secretariat, in charge of phone and radio communications. In March 1944 she was sent across the Atlantic to Morocco, and then France. She was with the BMA5 during all of its combat operations, right up to the battle for Royan, in September 1944. The following year she was posted to Marseille and then Italy.

    Demobilised in 1946, she went back to school teaching, which she exercised for many years on the French mainland before returning to Martinique. She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2014, and earlier this year celebrated her 100th anniversary.

  5. Grand’Rivière, May 7th 2019. The village of Grand’Rivière is the most northerly community on Martinique, reachable by road along the island’s eastern Atlantic seaboard, and only by boat on the western side, lapped by the Caribbean Sea. It faces the island of Dominica, situated around 99 kilometres (54 nautical miles) to the north, and which was a British territory during World War II. Many of Martinique’s “dissidents” clandestinely left the island for Dominica from, or around, Grand’Rivière, mostly on the small local fishing boats called yoles and gommiers, either managing the crossing themselves or secretly taken there by local fishermen. Featured in the photo above is the last known gommier to survive in Grand’Terre, moored at a seafront house which was once inhabited by the late French explorer and ethnologist Paul-Émile Victor (1907-1995).

  6. Resistant: Jean Maran, born on May 8th 1920 in the town of Rivière-Pilote in the south of Martinique. He died on May 8th 2021 in the island’s capital Fort-de-France.  (This portrait was taken on April 27th 2019).

    Jean Maran was a trainee school teacher when he was called up for compulsory military service in August 1941, assigned to a coastal artillery defence unit and posted to the Tartenson barracks at Fort-de-France. Over two years, he was successively made a bombardier instructor (drill corporal) and later drill sergeant, before he was demobilised on March 3rd 1943.

    With the war raging in Europe, he wanted to join the combat on the continent within the FFF, which had taken control of Martinique since the summer of 1943. Maran enrolled on April 6th 1944, and was sent to New Orleans aboard the liner Duc d’Aumale, which had previously served to ferry passengers between Fort-de-France and Cayenne in French Guyana. From New Orleans he was sent for training at the US military base of Fort Crook in Nebraska, and then, on July 29th 1944, on to Fort Dix. He was sent to France in late August 1944, almost three months after the D-Day landings, and on to Algeria on September 30th 1944. There, he was posted to the port city of Oran, where he was put in charge of a factory workforce re-treading tyres for combat vehicles.

    After returning to Martinique and his profession as a French-language school teacher, he led a long career in politics, as a conservative party member, becoming mayor of the small town of Sainte-Luce between 1965-1990, and a member of the French parliament, representing the local constituency, between 1986 and 1988.

    In 2018 he was awarded a “gold medal” for his services contributing to the prestige of the French federal union of war veterans and victims.

  7. Dissident: Alexandre Negouai, born on March 28th 1923 at Grand’Rivière.  (This portrait was taken on May 7th 2019).

    Alexandre Negouai joined the FFF on February 2nd 1943 when he was still 19-years-old. A “dissident”, he had fled Martinique for Dominica where he was declared apt for service. On February 23rd 1943, he arrived at the US military base of Fort Dix in New Jersey, where he underwent combat training. Assigned to the 1st march battalion of French West Indies volunteers, the BMA1, he landed in Casablanca, Morocco, on October 12th 1943.

    In January 1944, Negouai and his BMA1 colleagues were integrated into the 1st Free French Division (1re Division Française Libre, or 1re DFL) which subsequently became the 21st anti-aircraft defence group (21GDCA), where he was posted to a motorised group. As such, he took part in the combat in Italy and the landings in Provence in southern France in August 1944. Subsequently, Negouai saw action in the liberation of Toulon, of the Rhône valley, and of the Vosges and Alsace in north-east France. On June 25th 2009, he was made a chevalier (knight) of the Légion d’honneur. 

  8. Dissident: Roger Vélasques, born on January 5th 1923 in the coastal town of La Trinité, east-central Martinique. (This portrait was taken on May 6th 2018).

    Roger Vélasques was 17-years-old when, in June 1940, a WW1 veteran, who was among the early movement of dissidents, told him that General Charles de Gaulle was in need of men to help liberate France. Inspired, Vélasques managed to collect 500 francs to pay a boatman to smuggle him to the British island of Dominica, 99 kilometres north of Martinique. But the attempted crossing ended in disaster, and he had to swim back to the village of Grand’Rivière.

    His mother declared his disappearance to the authorities, as she was legally required to, and Vélasques went into hiding, hoping to try again to reach Dominica. After the smuggler of the failed crossing refunded him 250 francs out the 500 francs he had been paid, a friend of Velasquez gave him the remaining 250 francs for a second attempt. Together with four other comrades, he finally succeeded in reaching Dominica on April 18th 1943, where he signed up at the FFF office welcoming dissidents on the island.  

    He was sent to Fort Dix in September that year, where he was assigned to the BMA1, and on October 12th he arrived in the Moroccan port of Casablanca. There he was posted to an anti-aircraft defence unit, and sent on to the Tunisian port city of Bizerte to prepare for landing in Italy. He took part in the battles for Naples, Monte Cassino, Garigliano, Pontocorvo and Monte Fiasco. Subsequently he took part in the liberation of France, seeing combat in the north-east of the country in the Upper Rhine region, in Alsace, Lorraine and the Vosges.

    On November 21st 1945 he returned to Martinique from the French channel port of Rouen, and was demobilised on January 31st 1946.

    On June 25th 2009 he was made a chevalier (knight) of the Légion d’honneur.

  9. Resistant: Émile Barst, born on February 20th 1916 at Macouba, in the north of Martinique. He died on June 21st 2020 in the neighbouring small town of Basse-Pointe.  (This portarit was taken on May 7th 2019).

    When Émile Barst heard of Charles de Gaulle’s June 1940 call for resistance to the German occupation of France, he wanted to join the FFF. But he was declared unfit for combat. But he didn’t give up for as much, and trained with his brother to be accepted into the ranks. They made the crossing to Dominica, and he was finally enrolled and sent to Fort Dix. But by the time he arrived at the US base, the war in Europe was over.

    Now a soldier, he was instead sent to join the French military personnel based in Cayenne, in French Guyana, where he was posted for two years. After that, he returned to Martinique and found a job working for the technical services of the municipal council in Fort-de-France.

  10. Post scriptum: the port of Petite-Anse, May 2018.

    The photo above shows the tiny port of Petite-Anse, in the south of Martinique, facing the island of Saint Lucia, which, like Dominica, was governed by Britain during WWII. Saint Lucia, situated 87 kilometres south of Martinique, was also a landing point for the “dissidents” hoping to join the FFF. There were several cases of drownings during the attempted crossings.

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    • The exhibition of the work by Sylvain Demange and Sylvie Meslien, featured in part here, opened in Fort-de-France on June 28th, presented in giant portraits hung on the railings surrounding the prefecture (local administration offices of the French government). It is the result of a partnership between the prefecture and the French national office for war veterans and victims, the ONCVG.
    • The French version of this article can be found here.

     

    English version by Graham Tearse

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