The Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino: The French Reenter the Line

Gen Juin and French Goumiers, May 1944

During the First Battle of Monte Cassino in January, the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) was undoubtedly the most successful unit in that battle, despite advancing over the worst terrain. The Corps’ commander, Gen Alphonso “No Mules, No Maneuver” Juin, felt betrayed by Gen Mark Clark for his refusal to reinforce the French during the battle. Juin felt that one more regiment, even an American one, would have allowed him to break through to the Liri Valley behind Monte Cassino and avoid the last three months of bloodshed.

To add insult to injury, in April, 1944, the FEC was pulled out of the area that they had fought so hard to capture in January. Juin was outraged: the blood of France was on the slopes of Monte Belvedere and the Colle Abate. The FEC was sent to the near impassable Aurunci Mountains on the southern wall of the Liri valley. Juin suspected (accurately, but only partially) that his soldiers were being sent into the Aurunci mountains because they could do less damage to Italian civilians there. His colonial troops, in particular the Goumiers from Morrocco, saw the infidel Italian civilians and their property as spoils of war, and their French officers either could not control them or encouraged the depredations. There were hundreds of reports of Italian women being raped, and anything valuable or useful stolen. The Allied Italian government routinely complained that his soldiers were driving the Italians back to the Germans. Although the French had ravaged the Italian peninsula for centuries, Juin knew modern warfare necessitated the humane treatment of civilians. He sent a strongly worded letter to his division commanders to control their men, summarily executing them if need be.

To Juin, those issues were deplorable and regrettable because they stained the image of France. However, he also thought that he had more important matters to worry about. He was told (also accurately) that the defenses in the Aurunci Mountains could only be breached by his soldiers, easily the best mountain fighters in the Allied army. But even with his troops, the Aurunci Mountains were a formidable obstacle. There were only two small mountain paths suitable for mule trains and none for vehicles. Those two trails could barely support one regiment in the attack and there was nearly two thirds of a German division defending the area. But he had been hoarding his mules, supplies, and equipment, and his troops had been in no significant offensive action against the Germans in months. With proper planning, complete surprise, colonial toughness, and French élan, he would succeed where the British and Americans expected failure. On 6 May 1944, the last units of the French Expeditionary Corps entered the line just south of the Liri Valley.

Impassable or not, Juin was determined to break through the Aurrucci Mountains: the honor of France demanded it.

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