The Moroccan Division’s memorial is situated within the Canadian National Memorial Park at Vimy Ridge.
From Neuville St Vaast follow the signs for the Canadian Memorial, continuing past the Visitors’ Centre until you reach the monument’s car park. You will see this memorial on your left as you turn into the car park.
It is a shame that so many people who come to Vimy, visit the trenches, go down the tunnels, marvel at the Canadian monument and leave without giving much thought to the large memorial at Hill 145 to the men of the Division marocaine (Moroccan Division).
To them this was in fact Cote 140 or Hill 140, and whilst the Canadians did indeed score a magnificent victory here, the men of the French Foreign Legion had already gained the summit in May 1915.
In their case, they hadn’t started at the foot of the ridge but from almost four kilometres away.
The right of their Division was positioned in the general area of the French Military Cemetery at La Targette and extended towards the north-west and a place called Berthonval Farm which can still be seen today if you take the La Targette to Mont St Éloi road: D49.
Their route towards the summit of Vimy Ridge would take them across the main Souchez-Arras road (D937) in the area of the Polish Monument and Czechoslovakian Cemetery.
The Division went into the attack on 9th May 1915 with two regiments : The 1er Régiment étranger and the 7e Tirailleurs. Their other two regiments were held as the 33e Corps Reserve (8e Zouaves and 4e Tirailleurs).
Unlike other units in the French Army the Moroccan Division wore khaki uniforms — as did the other Colonial units. The full title of the Foreign Legion unit was the : 2e Régiment de Marche du 1er Régiment étranger and it consisted of four battalions (A-D as opposed to the usual habit of being numbered).
The Moroccan Division was assigned to the 33e CA (Corps d’armée — commanded by Général Philippe Pétain’s) for the offensive and took up its positions on the 29th April 1915.
Général d’Urbal, commanding X Army, had decided that he wanted to have the attacking troops in position so that they could familiarise themselves with the ground. The risk being that German raids might capture someone.
The Division had a lot of work to do in preparation for the assault. The trenches that they had taken over were good enough for defence but not deep enough to hold troops waiting to go forward. A jumping off trench, closer to the German front line had to be created ; more communications trenches needed to be dug. The German line was under constant observation from both the ground and the air and the troops were briefed on what lay in front of them.
In the nine days prior to the battle the soldiers and engineers dug a new assault trench in no man’s land and four kilometres of communications trenches, two of which had to be wide enough to allow the passage of wheeled stretchers. Command and Medical Posts were created, telephone cables were dug in, usually doubled sometimes tripled. Everything was clearly sign posted.
The orders required the Division to attack with all its fury and not to stop. There were a number of German strong points in front of them but these were to be left for the following waves of infantry. Once surrounded they would surrender (This is pretty much the same doctrine used by German Storm Troopers in 1918).
Sapeurs would go over the top with the first waves in order to reverse the captured trenches and commence digging communication trenches back to the French front line.
The Corps issued two proclamations (One in French one in Arabic) which were read to all of the men. Every man knew what had to be done. They were prepared ; now they would drive the Germans back.
Colonel Pein, commanding the 1st Brigade informed his Divisional Commander, Général Blondlat :
Your men will attack without packs so that they can run faster, if their uniforms get in the way they’ll advance naked, but they will take Hill 140.
The previous mornings had been shrouded in fog that had been slow to clear and it was only after 0500 hours that Général d’Urbal gave the word : the artillery preparation would commence at 0600 hours, the infantry would attack at Zero +4. The heavy artillery applied itself to the German fortifications and during the final hour the field artillery opened up on the German lines.
Starting their advance at 1000 hours the Moroccan Division smashed its way through all of the German front and reserve lines in its path — aided by the 77e Division (Général Barbot’s chasseurs) on its left and the 70e Division who had the important task of masking the attackers from Carency. By 1110 hours the first elements of the Foreign Legion were already on the ridge with the 7e Tirailleurs on their left.
Some of the troops managed to reach Petit Vimy or Givenchy before coming up against any real resistance.
There would be other occasions in the war when a unit would so outstrip its flanking units that it would find itself placed in danger and under attack from three sides. Rarely though would the distance be as great as created by the Moroccan Division.
Their success was so unexpected that the reserves that were being called for at 1045 hours were still in the villages of Mont St Éloi and Acq, eight kilometres behind the objectives. The 8e Zouaves would not enter into the conflict until mid afternoon by which time the Légionnaires and Tirailleurs had been forced to pull back.
At 1300 hours Général Blondlat had received the strict order that his field artillery (the famous 75mm canons) was not to go above its allocation of 300 rounds per gun — and a hundred of those had been fired off in the hour of preparation.
His men were at that stage still at Hill 140 but under severe pressure from a seemingly endless supply of German reserves and shells. His own artillery was down to 70 rounds per gun and he needed to count on fifty of those in case of a coordinated German counter-attack. The only way to hold the line now was with infantrymen and these were sent forward as fast as they arrived.
Having suffered heavy casualties, especially amongst its Officers and NCOs, the ridge was relinquished at about 1530 hours. On the far side of Neuville St Vaast the assault by the 17e Corps against Thélus had never got off the ground (some units were reported as having refused to go into battle) so the planned envelopment of Neuville had not taken place. Neuville would require further weeks of fierce combat before it would fall.
Although the Moroccan division would continue fighting in the area for the remainder of the battle for the moment it was a spent force.
From it’s initial strength of 3,900 officers and men the Legion, in four days of fighting, suffered 268 killed, 694 wounded and 1,216 missing. The 7e Tirailleurs lost almost 2,000 killed wounded and missing. The 8e Zouaves almost as many again.
The Division’s monument stands proudly alongside that of Canada and has recently been refurbished.
Aux morts de la division marocaine, sans peur, sans pitié
À la mémoire du Colonel Plein, commandant la 1ère demi brigade, du Colonel Cros, commandant la 2ème demi brigade, des officiers, des sous-officiers et soldats de la Division marocaine tombés ici glorieusement les 9, 10 et 11 mai 1915. Le 9 mai 1915, les régiments de la division marocaine s’élançant à 10 heures des tranchées de Berthonval et brisant de haute lutte la résistance des allemands atteignirent d’un bond la cote 140, leur objectif, rompant pour la première fois le front ennemi.
To the memory of the soldiers of the Moroccan Division, no fear, no pity
To the memory of Colonel Plein, commanding the 1st Brigade, to Colonel Cros, commanding the 2nd Brigade, the officers, NCOs and soldiers of the Moroccan Division who fell here on the 9th, 10th and 11th May 1915. The 9th May 1915 the regiments of the Moroccan Division launched their attack at 1000 hours from the trenches at Berthonval Farm and, breaking the Germans’ defences, reached Hill 140 in just one leap, piercing the enemy’s line for the first time.
The Moroccan Division had been formed in that country by the French Military,
however there was not a single Moroccan unit within its ranks.
The term sous-officier in French corresponds to sergeant and above, corporals are not included within their number but NCO is approximate.
More accurate maps would transform Cote 140 into Hill 145 for the Canadians in 1917.
The monument was erected on the initiative of veterans and it was inaugurated on 14th June 1925.
Around its base are a number of Association plaques which commemorate some of the nationals forming the Foreign Legion.
A plinth reminds visitors that the Division remains the most decorated Division to have served France.