In case you didn’t know–the French Foreign Legion is again engaged in military operations in the Saharan Desert–primarily in northern Mali. On 11 January, the French, with some NATO allies playing a supporting role, launched several lighting quick military operations (code named Opération Serval) to support the fragile Malian military and to root out Islamist extremists of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) organization in the region. Last year AQIM had kidnapped several Europeans and along with some Tuareg allies fleetingly captured the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu and sought to impose their brand of brutal sharia law in the region. Among the French forces deployed were elements of the Foreign Legion’s 2nd Parachute Regiment (2REP) and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment (2REC). Last week, as the French rooted out terrorists hiding in the Tigharghar mountain region of the Adrar des Ifoghas Massif region in Northern Mali, just south of the Algerian border, the Legion suffered a fallen hero. Sergeant Harold Vormezeele, a Belgian Legionnaire who was killed while fighting the AQIM became the second fatal French casualty of the operation–the Chadian’s, who were supporting this attack, lost 19 soldiers. Despite these losses the operation was successful in killing dozens of Islamic insurgents (estimates place rebel losses over 60) including the AQIM leader in Mali, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an Algerian with roots to the local area. The French government reports that this intervention is it’s final phases although a lot can happen between now and when they are estimated to depart the area sometime in July. Great pictures and information can be found here. here, here and here.
I don’t usually cover current operations of the Foreign Legion on this blog as there are so many other reporters, writers and bloggers who do a much better job. The reason I mention Opération Serval is that I was planning on posting an old written account of a French expedition to Timbuktu (or Tombouctou) that took place in 1893-94 and was written by the column commander Major (later to become the famous World War I General and hero of The Marne) Joseph Joffre. Timbuktu was occupied by the French shortly after Joffre’s account and became the site of a French fort for years though lines of communication between Timbuktu and other French colonies was always problematic. The French presence did bring a measure of stability to the region for decades and the traditional pastoral residents were made fairly safe from hostile Tuaregs during that time. In 1960, Timbuktu became part of the independent country of Mali. Last year the town of about 35,000 suffered once again the wrath of the Tuaregs and yet again it took the French to pacify this desolate region.
The document below is an English version (1915) of the report made by Major Joffre about his expedition from Ségou to Timbuktu in 1894. His mission was part of a two pronged advance to the city from the French bases in their western African colonies into a region known as the Le Soudan (having nothing to do with the country of Sudan and mainly about the grass land south of the Saharan desert). Joffre went overland, the slower more arduous route, while another column commanded by Colonel Bonnier took the riverine route along the Niger River. Bonnier arrived at Timbuktu first but five days later he and ten other French soldiers and 64 natives were killed by Tuaregs at a nearby village called Takubao. Joffre arrived at Timbuktu three weeks after Bonnier and would later recover the bodies of their slain countrymen. Joffre’s account of his operation starts at page 56 (following a lengthy biographic sketch of the then General Joffre). I found it a quick read and pretty informative on conditions in the region 120 years ago. The only confusing parts were trying to fix the geographic positions of the various villages, camps, blockhouses and lagers mention in the book as the maps are not that great.