This post gave me a serious bout of writer’s block and I’m just going to post it now to get it out of the way and move on to other things. The subject matter was far greater than I thought it would be and I went through dozens of revisions until my written narrative grew to several pages. Luckily I stopped this pointless battle of “the perfect vs. the good enough” after reminding myself that I post to a blog and not any academic journal or magazine. So here is the much shortened version. The value of this post is really in the .pdf file posted below.
The French first built minor fortifications in Africa when they established trading posts along the continent’s west coast in the 1600’s but it was only when they landed in Algeria in 1831 did they start building a serious, long-lasting colonial infrastructure. In these early days blockhouses were utilized extensively along lines of communication in Algeria and were often long-standing structures built from local rock, improvised adobe bricks or in some cases on existing native structures. As the French spilled out from the coastal cities they were still vulnerable to attacks from mountain tribesmen so they fortified many cities and garrisoned French and loyal native troops behind walled sections or redoubts. Sidi Bel Abbes, the former headquarters of the Foreign Legion, is a perfect example of a city that grew up at first within the garrison walls of a French Army camp and then rapidly expanded around the military portions. Other garrison cities include Batna, Biskra, Ain Sefra, Colomb-Bechar, and several others including Saïda, the home of the 2nd Foreign Legion Regiment.
The desert terrain that exists just south of the northern coastal area (the bled) has always lacked enough water, forage, agriculture, roads, population and combustible fuel to support large numbers of troops. Very extended distances existed between those populated areas that could support military garrisons. Because of this inhospitable terrain the larger French structures had to be situated near water sources and some base of native population from which they could obtain needed supplies, labor and pack animals. Supply columns would launch out from the larger bases such as Colomb Bechar, Beni Abbes, Figuig (Beni Ounif), Ain Sefra and later Bou Denib, Tindouf and Fort Tinquet. These columns would push forward much needed water, food, ammunition and other supplies to the forward elements of the French military that were slowly encroaching across the ill-defined Moroccan – Algerian border.
French fortifications in North Africa can be categorized into many different types based on their function, type of garrison, geographic location, and time period built. The smaller French military structures built in North Africa included but was not limited to the following:
Signal Post (Poste Optique). The smaller blockhouses such as the one depicted below would were built as Line-0f-Sight signal towers (called Poste Optique) and were equipped with modern optical signaling devices. These structures had to be built defensively only to last a short-lived attack as they were usually within close proximity of a relief force from a larger fort. Nevertheless, some are very well built and have withstood both attack and time. Many of the larger French forts in North Africa were built with a couple of towers that were essentially blockhouses and signal towers and provided fall back points of defense in case the rest of the position was overrun.
Bordj. A Bordj was most often a native structure that was built along old Saharan Caravan routes and functioned much like the caravanserai did along the Silk Road. These were often militarized and occupied by French troops and provided a small measure of security, water and safe rest to French supply convoys and patrolling columns. These were often no more than four walls with a gate and a holding area for the camels. Bordjs in the southern areas of Algeria, Morocco and French West Africa (Mauritania) were often constructed along travel routes which parallel watersheds such as the Oued Zouzfana and the Oued Guir.
Fortified Train Station. (Gare Fortife). As the French slowly pushed their railroad (Algerian Western Railway) further southwest to the Moroccan border they became worried that stations along the route were vulnerable to attack. Therefore many of the new stations were constructed with sturdy brick walls, watch towers, firing ports, and crenelations.
Area Security. It was not uncommon for larger forts/bases to have several smaller positions (blockhouses and signal towers) posted on surrounding key terrain. The larger posts were responsible for manning and provisioning. These fortifications provided for static defense in a pacified area. Blockhouses were also essential to supporting active offensive and defensive operations. When France landed in Morocco to pacify an uprising in Casablanca (they pretty much never left) and consolidated their gains by extending out from that city and established several forts around their occupied territory. Blockhouses were built along roads to keep their mobile forces supplied. Outside of Casablanca one would find the small forts Fort Provot and Fort Ihler.
During the 1920’s, when the Rif insurrection in Spanish Morocco threatened French held Morocco to the south, a line of blockhouses was built along a series of mountains just below the Spanish border. These forts were more hastily constructed affairs manned by a platoon sized force and located within line of sight of each other (see picture below).