French Blockhouses – Part 3: Africa

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).  

French Blockhouses Africa

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Legion Pulp: The Gorilla of No. 4

This month’s pulp fiction story is from J. D. Newsom and appeared in the 01 January 1928 issue of Adventure.  It is a tale of dandy officers (fancy pants) who find themselves in the midst of a tribal rebellion on the edge of the Sahara.  Cut off from reinforcements the French garrison at el Kelima seems to be losing ground bit by but to the tribesmen of the Ouled-Farik while 4th Company of the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment is believed to have mutinied under the inept command of Lt. Kergonec.  It is only after the arrival of Legion Captain Grellon, the “gorilla”, that things are sorted out properly.

This story is a good example of Newsom’s approach to Foreign Legion fiction.  He liked to have foppish senior officers or bureaucrats pitted against the rough and tumble men of the Legion.  Legionnaires seem to fall by the dozens in his stories only for a handful to hang in there long enough to save the day when the right leader arrives.  It is no coincidence that his collection of Legion stories published in book form (a Dell Paperback) is titled Wiped Out.  His stories are a bit formulaic but still exciting to read (and you will come to really hate Colonel Liancourt and Lieutenant Kergonec in this one).

The Gorilla of No.4

I’m sorry for being AWOL.  It’s been a month since I posted here due to a combination of writer’s block, spring cleaning, work, a sick cat and several other distractions that have kept me from posting.  Hopefully back on track.

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Legion Pulp: A Berber Racket

This month’s pulp story comes from the 15 October 1931 issue of The Popular – Complete Stories.  This title used to be the called The Popular Magazine until it was merged with Street and Smith’s Complete Stories in 1931.  It’s author, Captain Leighton H. Blood was a WWI veteran who turned to journalism and fiction writing after the war.  (I’ve posted some reporting he did on the Foreign Legion in the Rif conflict on this blog–just search for his name to pull up the post and another story by him).

This piece again appeals to the popular obsession Prohibition-era readers of 1931 had for gangsters and mobs and combines this element with the always adventurous French Foreign Legion and the honor-bound Berbers of the High Atlas of Morocco.  This time the Legionnaires are somewhat on the outside of a brewing conflict between a New York mobster and two Berbers half-bothers but they are at least co-conspirators to the deed of delivering “Berber payment, paid in full”.

A Berber Racket

Note:  This scan originated from one by jvh and EXciter.  I’m not sure why but this one takes some time to print even though it is a small file so be patient. 

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FRANCE 24: The Foreign Legion, another French Exception

Here is a clip that just popped up in my YouTube feed.  It is an English language video about the Foreign Legion produced by France 24 that appeared there on 27 April.  It is really well done thematically and filmed in beautiful high quality video.  The reporter follows a section of the 13th DBLE (now located in France) during their deployment to southern Mali as part of Operation Barkhane.  There is no combat during the six days the reporter spent embedded with the Legion but what comes across in the individual interviews and background is extremely enlightening.  This is very well worth the time to watch.

UPDATE:  Here is a more recent supplement to the above video.  Shorter but provides more insight and commentary of the same Legionnaires–mainly about their motivations for joining.

 

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Some Benigni

I found these color uniform prints recently at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library.  The artist is Pierre Benigni whose work on the Foreign Legion usually appears as black and white illustrations.  Many of his drawings appeared on the covers of La Légion Etrangère which was the predecessor to the Kepi Blanc magazine known as (see below).  These four illustrations are some of the uniform prints that appeared in the first edition of the Foreign Legion’s Livre D’Or that was published for the Centennial of the Legion in 1931.

Pierre Benigni, (1878 – 1956), was a 20th century French military painter who specialized in Napoleonic armies.  A pupil of Édouard Detaille, he became, after Maurice Mahut (another prominent illustrator of the Foreign Legion), the appointed military painter of the Legion and immortalized the Legion regiments on foot, mounted companies and cavalry units.  He was named an honorary Legionnaire 1st Class in 1933 for his illustrations and given the matricule number 12,002.

 

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The Foreign Legion on Holiday (Ft. LeClerc)

Here is a quick post that gives a glimpse into what the Legion was up to back in 1952 during Camerone Day.  This article came from the 11 October UK illustrated magazine”The Sphere”.  This has a couple of pictures of Fort LeClerc which (according to Wikipedia) was originally built by the Italians.  It came under control of the French Foreign Legion during WWII when General Leclerc and Free French Forces invaded Italian Libya in 1943.  it is located near the town of Sebha, Libya.  The picture above is interesting given the date of the article and that the two buglers are recently returned from Indochina and are wearing their bush hats which you don’t normally see worn with the the Saharan “gandoura”.

Foreign Legion on Holiday_The Sphere_19521011_027

 

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Foreign Legion Recruitment Posters

Here are some images depicting about 21 Foreign Legion posters.  Not all of them are official recruitment posters but most of the known ones used by the Legion are included.  I found out that each poster had a print run of about 2,000 and that there were actually only 15 unique posters ever designed with the first created circa 1947.  Five posters were designed with photographs and ten were drawings.  The drawings were for the most part the work of legionaries and among the more notable artists were Andreas Rosenberg (Legionnaire and then Army painter in the 1950s) and Rudolf Burda (1960s-1980).  This makes original posters highly collectable and might fetch up to 500 euros for one in good condition.

Recruitment posters were displayed for years in transit centers where there would likely be a parade of foreigners who just might make the jump into the Legion; these would be the rail stations, ports, airports and cleverly enough–the police stations (gendarmeries).  (I remember seeing a Legion poster in the Police Station in Calais when I was pulled off the train for a random search and questioning in 1982.)  Nowadays the internet seems to be one of the more effective recruitment techniques.   Unlike the other French military services the Legion kept their posters very simple and usually made no reference to exotic locations as an enticement to enlist.  The originals were printed by civilian printers in Paris and Marseilles but are now produced by the folks at Kepi Blanc Magazine.  They were made in two sizes with the large 1.5m X 1.5m appearing in the transit centers and the smaller ones .9m X .7m or .5m in other locations.  If you can’t find an original Foreign Legion recruitment poster you might have better luck finding a poster created for the annual Camerone celebrations in the various regimental centers.

NOTE: This information came mostly from issue #03 of Soldats de la Légion étrangère by Hachette.  The images were from multiple locations on the internet especially Pintrest.

 

 

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The Demon Caravan by Georges Surdez

The official Camerone 2018 ceremonies are now over in most of the Legion’s garrisons and regimental posts but I’m sure the celebrations (and libations) will last well into the early hours of Tuesday.  I will have my bottle of Kronenburg tonight after work and some red wine during dinner and here on this blog I usually make several posts to commemorate Camerone Day and this week will no different.

I will start off by sharing one of the three Georges Surdez fiction stories to appear in book form (the others being the 1928 Swords of the Soudan, L. Harper Allen Co. and the 1931 They March From Yesterday by W. Collins, Sons & Co).  The Demon Caravan was published in 1927 by Lincoln MacVeagh/The Dial Press, reprinted in 1929 by A.L. Burt (a serial re-printer), published in the U.K. in 1931 by W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., and then in 1951 by Dell as a map-back paperback (see below).   I’m not sure why more of Surdez’s work did not make the jump to book form or at least to paperback.  Many of his serials could have easily reached the 120-200 page length of what was an average paperback of the time so could have easily filled up hardback.  (Note that the hardback copy has 245 pages of story and the Dell paperback has 222.)  Swords of the Soudan originally appeared as a four part serial in Argosy All-Story Weekly (1923 Jan 27, Feb 03, Feb 10, Feb 17).  It also appeared serialized in certain newspapers in 1940.

The Demon Caravan is not 100% Foreign Legion as the protagonist, Paul Lartal, is an officer in charge of a company of the Saharan Camel Corps.  One of his NCO’s is a former legionnaire and the Legion is mentioned several times.  The Demon Caravan was made into a movie in 1953 called The Desert Legion and the switch was made by casting Alan Ladd as Paul Lartal of the Foreign Legion.

The copy that I added to the Monlegionnaire Library came from the Digital Library of India via the Internet Archive and is the 1931 UK edition.  The version I downloaded from there was pretty poorly scanned so I spent some time fixing it up, adding covers, and inserting an illustration of an Algerian girl that I thought appropriate.  So here is a nice readable copy of The Demon Caravan.

The Demon Caravan

 

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Joyeux Camerone 2018!

It’s that time of year again.  Tomorrow is 30 April–the most revered day in the history of the French Foreign Legion that commemorates that famous last-stand battle in 1863 that pitted 65 legionnaires against 3,000 Mexican cavalry and infantry.  The theme for this year’s 155th anniversary of the battle is Tu n’abandonnes jamais…ni tes morts, ni tes blesses… (you never abandon your dead nor your wounded).  This comes from the last part of the Foreign Legion’s Code of Honor where it mentions “In combat, you act without passion and without hate, you respect defeated enemies, and you never abandon your dead, your wounded, or your arms.”

For the ceremony on 30 April in Aubagne, the designated carrier of the “hand of Captain Danjou”, the “le porteur de la main du capitaine Danjou” will be Chief Medical Officer Jean-Louis Rondy.  In this way the Legion will honor the French Army Health Service and the way in which it cares for wounded soldiers and legionnaires. 

At 17, in 1943, Jean-Louis Rondy participated in the liberation of Paris and served in the ranks of the Leclerc Division (French 2nd Armored Division) in the campaign of France and Germany.  After the war, he resumed his studies and was admitted into the French Naval School of Medicine (the Santé Navale a civil-military medical school).  Appointed doctor-lieutenant in 1952, assigned to 1BEP (1st Foreign Parachute Battalion) of the Foreign Legion, he joined the fight in Tonkin. He participated in operations in the Delta and made the fateful jump onto Dien Bien Phu on November 21/22 1953.  He is wounded and captured on May 8, 1954 and held prisoner for four months until he was repatriated and then hospitalized for almost a year. He served again in the Foreign Legion, as medical officer at 3REI (1965 – 1967) in Madagascar, during the events in the Comoros.

–There will be a press booklet released soon for the 2018 Camerone Day but as of now I cannot find a copy online.  Here is the annual information booklet on the Foreign Legion.  Legion Etrangere 2018

–This year you can watch the ceremony live on the official Foreign Legion Facebook page.  …and be sure to check out the page for Miss Kepi Blanc 2018 (2REG).  (Note that there are several Miss Kepi Blanc events–one of each regiment it seems.)

–Another veteran who will be present at the ceremony will be 91 year old Frencis Ruiz.  A former member of the Foreign Legion who joined when he was 16 years old in 1944.  In 1950 he was sent to Indochina to serve as a Sergeant-Chef in the 1BEP.  He fought in the battle for RC4 (Colonial Route 4) in October 1950 and was captured by the Viet Minh and held prisoner until 1952.

Note:  More to follow this week.

 

 

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Legion Pulp: Outguessed

Here is a pretty short story from the pulp Thrilling Adventures dated July, 1936.  This one appeared last week on the wonderful page called PulpGen.  It was written by Ralph Milne Farley which was a pen name for Roger Sherman Hoar who was a prolific Science Fiction writer for the pulps as well as a State Senator in Massachusetts.  Not much say about this story other than it pays to plan your desertion from the Foreign Legion in extensive detail.

Outguessed

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