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The Maquis (French pronunciation: [maˈki]) were rural guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters, called maquisards, during the Nazi Occupation of France in World War II. Initially, they were composed of men and women who had escaped into the mountains to avoid conscription into Vichy France's Service du travail obligatoire ("Compulsory Work Service" or STO) to provide forced labor for Germany. To avert capture and deportation to Germany, they became increasingly organized into active resistance groups.
Although strictly speaking it means thicket, maquis could be roughly translated as "the bush". Historians have not established how this Corsican term arrived on the mainland of France; nevertheless,
the Italian-derived word ‘maquis’ is commonly used to describe woods and scrubland on the island, and evokes an all-encompassing image of woods and mountains, whereas the more limited word ‘garrigue’ used in the south of France indicated [...] an inhospitable terrain, and the words ‘bois’ (wood), ‘foret’ (forest) and ‘montagne’ (mountain) were too bland.
The term maquis signified both the fighters and their rural location. Members of those bands were called maquisards. Their image was a committed and voluntary fighter, a combattant, as opposed to the previous réfractaire ("unmanageable"). The term became an honorific meaning "armed resistance fighter". The maquis came to symbolize the French Resistance.
Most maquisards operated in the remote or mountainous areas of Brittany and southern France, especially in the Alps and in Limousin. They relied on guerrilla tactics to harass the Milice and German occupation troops. The Maquis also aided the escape of downed Allied airmen, Jews and others pursued by the Vichy and German authorities. Maquisards usually relied on some degree of sympathy or cooperation from the local populace. In March 1944, the German army began a terror campaign throughout France. This included reprisals against civilians living in areas where the French resistance was active, such as the Oradour-sur-Glane, Maillé and Tulle massacres by SS troops. The Maquisards were later to take their revenge in the épuration sauvage that took place after the war's end.
In French Indochina, the local resistance fighting the Japanese since 1941 was backed up by a special forces airborne commando unit created by de Gaulle in 1943, and known as the Corps Léger d'Intervention (CLI). They were supplied by airlifts of the British Force 136.
Politically, the Maquis were very diverse, including right-wing nationalists, socialists, communists, and anarchists. Some Maquis bands that operated in southwest France, were composed entirely of left-wing Spanish veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Spanish Civil War veteran Carlos Romero Giménez was a center-democratic liberal operating from Bordeaux.
When Germany began a forced labor draft (Service du travail obligatoire, STO) in France at the beginning of 1943, thousands of young men fled and joined the Maquis. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) helped the Maquis with supplies and agents. The American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) also began to send its own agents to France in cooperation with the SOE and the French BCRA agents, as part of Operation Jedburgh.
Prior to the inception of the maquis, small resistance groups were created in the occupied and unoccupied zones of France. In northern and western France, movements like Organisation Civile et Militaire, Libération-Nord, Ceux de la Libération, Ceux de la Résistance survived through clandestine pamphlets or newspapers, to build up a solidarity of attitudes and disparate actions and to taunt the Germans (narguer les Allemands). Some of these movements also took the first steps at hiding weapons and plotting sabotage. In the Zone Libre, movements were created as early as in the north and west but did not face decimating raids by the authorities, which allowed movements like Combat, Libération-Sud and Franc-Tireur to have a more expansive character".
Resistance groups in the occupied zone eventually became linked to the Free French in London or the Special Operations Executive (SOE) set up by Britain to undermine Nazi-occupied Europe with specially trained agents. By May 1941, the northern movements, who specialized in sabotage and espionage and the southern movements, who focused on planning escape routes, developed the only major movement common to both, the Front National. Resistance became closely linked with the effects of the occupation and Vichy legislation and as the working class became alienated "resisters and people on the run could be harboured with a degree of safety". in the rural areas of France, resistance had a role and justification in the lives of many people "who had no ambition to hold a gun, or memorize a coded message, though as the occupation grew in its violence the pressure on the French people to defend themselves by force intensified, and the military nature of resistance came to predominate". The connection between the Vichy government and armed resistance paved the way for the eventual formation of the Maquis.
The Service du Travail Obligatoire (S.T.O.) was enacted on 16 February 1943 but underwent various refinements and classifications. It required young men born between 1920 and 1922 to register at their mairies (town halls), whereupon the authorities “listed several categories of workers, divided them into those who were exempt, those who would be liable for compulsory service in Germany, and those who would have to work for German industries in France”. In the first few months, reports suggest that there were many who refused STO and went into hiding, mostly in areas where people hid Jews and resisters. These first few months of refusal of S.T.O., and the "embryonic camps and groupings that resulted" contributed to the eventual emergence of the mystique and discourse of le Maquis.
Politically motivated anti-fascists, immigrant workers on the run, the réfractaires and Spanish Civil War veterans, along with the leniency of the Vichy administration's pursuit of réfractaires, contributed to the emergence of an aggressive movement, with a combative discourse and a romantic mystique of rural revolt. The speed with which the term ‘maquis’ spread was astonishing, since the concept did not exist in January 1943. By June, maquis discourse made its way from south-eastern France to the plains of northern France. The Maquis eventually became the national service, due to the large influx of young people in revolt against the S.T.O. This unification was due, in part, to Michel Brault, a Parisian lawyer, who headed the organization of the resisters in April 1943 and to the drafted circulars establishing the Maquis’s charter. "Within one month, 20,000 copies of the text—which did not exceed the size of a playing card—were distributed throughout the southern zone". Michel Brault, in a report sent to London on 14 February 1944, listed the various elements available for action to the Allies and described the Maquis as "youths who have rebelled against the S.T.O. as well as men of all ages who have given up trying to live a normal life[...]. They totalled about 48,000".
A popular maquis band, the "Maquis de l'Ain", was captained by Henri Petit (alias Romans), who organized a network of camps in the dense forests in the mountainous regions of le Bugey and the lower regions of la Bresse, without creating a fixed camp. This gave “primacy to isolation from all habitation, but also to sites which permitted hasty retreats”. The enemy would not be able to surprise the maquis because the views from the hills were extensive, but some enjoyed this advantage and stayed in the same sites for months, defying their own rules of mobility. Guerrilla warfare practiced by the Maquis “created a psychosis of fear within the enemy [...], giving an impression of numbers and strength which was more illusory than real". The Maquis de l’Ain’s effectiveness was due to the training school opened at Gorges above Mongriffon in June 1943. Captain Romans described the situation like so: "The watchwords were explicit: no large concentrations of men. No pitched battles. Guerrilla warfare only! We had a few revolvers and some hunting rifles and were reduced to making sketches in order to teach the use of modern weapons. Early in July we received our first Sten machine gun. We kept taking it apart and putting it together until we could do it in record time, Then the gun was passed from one camp to another."
In the control for rural areas, the maquisards, in their role as the hunted, “gradually made the terrain of the hunt unpredictable for the hunters,” and eventually dangerous. The Maquis’s goal was to destabilize Vichy authority, and they did this by simultaneously making themselves, as well as Vichy authorities, the ‘hunters’ and the ‘hunted’.
During the Allied invasion of Normandy, the Maquis and other groups played some role in delaying the German mobilization. The French Resistance (FFI Forces Françaises de l'Interieur for "French Forces of the Interior") blew up railroad tracks and repeatedly attacked German Army equipment and garrison trains on their way to the Atlantic coast. Thanks to coded messages transmitted over the BBC radio, each Maquis group was alerted of the impending D-Day by listening for seemingly meaningless messages such as "the crow will sing three times in the morning" or any other pre-arranged messages read in a continuous flow over the British airwaves. As Allied troops advanced, the French Resistance rose against the Nazi occupation forces and their garrisons en masse. For example, Nancy Wake's group of 7,000 maquisards was involved in a pitched battle with 22,000 Germans on June 20, 1944. Some Maquis groups took no prisoners so some German soldiers preferred to surrender to Allied soldiers instead of facing maquisards.
The Allied offensive was slowed and the Germans were able to counterattack in southeast France. On the Vercors Massif, the Maquis du Vercors rose up with some 4000 soldiers against the German occupiers, but was defeated with 600 casualties.
Although the Maquis used whatever arms they could get, they relied heavily on airdrops of weapons and explosives from the British SOE. SOE parachuted agents in with wireless sets (for radio communication) and dropped containers with various munitions including Sten guns, Pencil detonators, plastic explosives, Welrod pistols (a silenced specialized assassination weapon favored by covert operatives) and assorted small arms (pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns). The Maquis also used German weapons captured throughout the occupation, the Mauser 98k rifle and MP 40 submachine gun being very common.
It was standard practice among the Maquis to identify members by wearing a Basque beret because it was common enough not to arouse suspicion but distinctive enough to be effective.