In The Steps of The First Army, Part Three

November 1947

“In the third of his articles John Alldridge writes of Medjez el Bab, a name which he says the Lancashire Fusiliers will one day carry on their regimental colours.” – Manchester Evening News, November 14 1949

Medjez el Bab, Armistice Day

For more than two thousand years this little town of Medjez el Bab has dozed around its vital crossroads, sublimely indifferent to its strategic importance.

Its very name means Keeper of the Keys.

“Who holds Medjez holds Tunis,” said Hannibal.

But Medjez, founded by thrifty Roman farmer colonists, has always been predominantly a market town, its chief concern the price of wheat and the size of the olive crop.

In November, 1942, the olive harvest was one of the largest in living memory. They were still stripping the last trees when three German parachute battalions came racing down the road from Tunis, 35 miles farther east.

It was the lunchtime siesta in the Arab quarter. Merchants were quietly asleep on their counters.

A sergeant of Chasseurs d’Afrique, hurriedly called from his lunch, found himself at the Tunis end of the lovely sixteenth-century bridge that spans the sluggish Mejerda River, facing alone the wrath of the Wehrmacht.

Peremptorily the German commander demanded permission to cross the river.

Politely but firmly the Frenchman refused.

Five minutes later a demolition squad blew up the central arch of the bridge. From the opposite bank the town’s tiny garrison, cut off from its commander, opened a ragged but determined fire.

And Medjez found itself involved in a war for the second time in a thousand years.

It was seven months before the war finally left Medjez behind.

By then hardly a building in the ancient little town was still intact.

But Medjez has made its mark on history. A new bridge now spans the Mejerda River, and at the Tunis end of it, roughly on the spot where that humble garrison commander stood his ground, there is a slim obelisk.

On the smooth granite are carved these words in French,

“On the 19th November, 1942, French Tunisian troops rejoined the fight beside their Allies.”

So quickly has Medjez healed its wounds that there are few souvenirs of the turmoil of seven years ago.

A farmer will come into market, his donkey’s saddlebags contrived out of a pair of ammunition boxes.

The river wall is holed in a dozen places.

The town’s one station taxi is an ex-R.A.F. jeep.

The Arab newsboy who has been pestering me all morning to buy yesterday’s “Depeche de Tunis” wears an elderly battle-dress blouse still four sizes too large for him.

The town hall and the police station still show their honourable scars.

But the Catholic Church, the handsome mosque with its tall, green-tiled minaret, the school, the official residence of the civil governor — all are new.

I walked round the town with a portly, dignified, old gentleman who understands English if you speak it slowly and has a passion for Players cigarettes.

We examined trim, new villas, freshly whitewashed in the Moorish style, with blue doors and window frames.

I congratulated him. He shrugged his shoulders with all the fatalism of two thousand years.

“It will do — till the next time.”

But though they have forgotten the bitterness of war in Medjez they remember the unexpected humanities, the simple kindnesses that spring up in its footprint.

They remember us in Medjez. And it is heartwarming to learn that they still think of us as “Les gentils Anglais.”

I lunched at the Café de L’Avenir, a favourite pull-up for lorry drivers outward bound from Constantine to Tunis — slices of cold ham between chunks of crisp French bread, a glass of rough red wine, and coffee.

Seven years ago the cafe was a first-aid post for the Second Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, who as part of a brigade of 78th Division led the first attack on the town.

A stray shell from one of our mortars removed most of one wall. But they still think kindly of “Les Lonkasheers.”

One day the Lancashire Fusiliers will carry the name “Medjez el Bab” on their regimental colour.

If ever a British regiment earned a battle honour the Fusiliers did that bloody afternoon.

They attacked in broad daylight. Almost at once their colonel was killed.

But they rallied under their second-in-command, Major Red Kelly, a former insurance official.

They waded into the flood waters of the muddy Mejerda. Though exposed to furious and accurate fire from the other side, somehow they scrambled across.

Two companies reached the top of the bank, but could get no farther.

For hours they hung on out there in the open, blasted and pounded by mortar and machine-gun fire.

Only when it was obvious that the position was untenable was the order given to retire.

And then those incredible Fusiliers coolly turned round and swam and waded back to the other side the way they had come.

“A superb example of Lancashire pluck” their Brigadier — a Yorkshireman — called it.

They were much in our thoughts this Armistice Day, those boys from Salford and Warrington and Wigan who found journey’s end in the barley fields and among the olive groves of Medjez.

Today was a holiday here in Medjez.

Flags — the tricolour crossed with the star and crescent of Tunisia —flew from every public building.

For November 11 to the French is as much Victory Day as a solemn day of remembrance.

But afterwards I joined a quiet pilgrimage to the British war cemetery just a half-mile from the town.

The cemetery lies beside the main road to Tunis — an area of reddish-brown earth enclosed by a low wall of flints.

At the entrance stands a fragment of a Roman column.

This is poor soil where only the hardiest plant will grow.

But the Arab gardeners who guard it night and day have done their best. Around the plain wooden crosses — no carved headstones here — they have planted clumps of red and green lichens.

It is all very clean, very neat, but so dreadfully desolate that it makes your heartache.

At 11 o’clock Greenwich Mean Time we stood in silence with them.

But in this lonely place, silence — the utter silence of the grave — is theirs eternally.

And before I left I made a sentimental gesture that I will not attempt to excuse.

On the graves of two Lancashire Fusiliers I planted two Flanders poppies I had bought in Albert Square a week before.

They lie side by side. They died in the same hour on the same day 1,000 miles from home.

Jerry F, Going Postal
Medjez el-Bab war cemetery today.
Tombs in the Medjez El Bab war cemetery,
Verity Cridland
Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Reproduced with permission
© 2024

Jerry F 2024