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The Legion built fortresses in the sands of the Sahara

Posted in Africa, Historical articles, History, War on Monday, 10 February 2014

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This edited article about the Foreign Legion first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 548 published on 15 July 1972.

Bonnier enters Timbuktu,  picture, image, illustration

Entry of Lieutenant-Colonel Bonnier and the Legion into Timbuktu

By 1871 the Foreign Legion had begun to long to return to their North African home. Adventures abroad, whether in Mexico, Europe or Asia were all very well but even the heat and the sand of Algeria, they felt, were preferable to endless campaigns and ferocious battles.

In returning, however, the Legion came face to face with the biggest and most awesome enemy they had ever encountered – the Sahara Desert. Until then the French had never penetrated beyond the fringes of the country but when one tribe after another finally submitted then the process of colonisation started in earnest.

When the Legion made its first, tentative thrusts south they were reaching into an immense unexplored wilderness. Few white men had ventured into the interior and even fewer returned. Nor did the Legionnaires realise then that of the 3,000,000 square miles of wilderness only one-seventh was sand. The rest of it is composed of immense boulder-strewn plains, rocky defiles and sharp mountain ranges.

Within this wilderness, and centred on the green oases which alone made the desert blossom, lay a vast and complex organisation of merchants, sheiks and princes who controlled the long trading routes which criss-crossed the desert. Salt, spices, slaves and gold were among the multitude of goods which camel trains carried for thousands of miles. It was a powerful organisation which was determined to resist the French.

Yet a worse enemy was also banded against the merchants. From the remotest part of the Sahara, the Hoggar, a mass of mountains and gorges, came some of the fiercest and most savage fighters on earth – the Tuareg. For hundreds of years the Tuareg had moved out of their mountain fortress, covering huge distances on camels and harrying and raiding the long caravans of the traders. Now they, too, prepared to fight the Legion.

The Tuareg was impressive even to look at. He was usually more than six feet tall, lean from the hard and unyielding life of the desert and with piercing blue eyes. Under the high turban was a short veil which matched a long, blue flowing cloak. He was always well armed, too. A tall shield, covered in dried gazelle skin, sword, dagger, rifle and seven foot spear formed an impressive collection and woe betide the Legionnaire who fell into Tuareg hands.

Into this difficult and frightening wilderness the Legion brought its usual efficiency and directness. The system of forts and blockhouses was by far the most important approach and over a period of 30 years they sprang up, one after another, in an attempt to bring real control to the desert.

The procedure was always the same. About 120 officers and men would travel to the selected site which had to have only two requirements – a supply of water and of stone. For obvious reasons, most were near the old camel trails, too.

The Legion took with it all the stores and provisions needed for at least six months although in difficult times it was often up to a year before a company was relieved. Hardtack biscuits, flour, rice, macaroni, salt, sugar, coffee, dried beans, peas and beef formed their staple diet, with a supply of lemon juice to ward off scurvy. The mules, too, had to be fed and they also carried the most important item of all – the casks of wine to supply each man with his ration of one cupful a day.

The forts were surprisingly large which meant that they could be garrisoned by many extra men in times of trouble. Built in a square, the walls would be 100 yards long, 9 feet high and 3 feet thick, with a firing platform all the way round. Only when this was complete would the Legionnaires make a start on the barracks, cookhouse, hospital and stores. At each corner of the square were 15 foot high towers, giving a commanding view of the wide, shifting expanse of sand dunes or the endless, flat plains.

Building the forts was back-breaking work but at least it was preferable to the monotony of garrison duty in these lonely outposts. The routine of daily existence was broken only by wide sweeps of the desert by scouting parties risking their lives in the implacable Sahara, which was always ready to catch the unwary.

The heat was sometimes unbelievable, pricking like fire until men felt they could not live unless the sun went down. Yet then, the drop in temperature was such that teeth would be chattering within half-an-hour. A Legionnaire who left his can of water outside his tent would wake to find ice on the surface the following morning.

Most feared of all was the sandstorm. An Englishman who served with the Legion described how he first experienced one, together with a comrade, whilst they were acting as advance scouts for a party. He wrote:

“A wind had sprung up accompanied by a peculiar moaning sound. I could still see the sun, blood red in the thickening blur of the wind-blown sand, but now the haze was too thick to see my comrade. In an incredibly short time the wind rose to a shrieking fury, so strong that I could not stand upright against it. It became dark as night and all I could do was lie flat on the ground and cover my head. The heat was overpowering and all I wanted to do was drink – but had I raised my head the driving sand would have skinned me in an instant. Every few minutes I had to raise up a little to heave the sand off my body and avoid being buried.”

It was seven hours before the Legionnaire felt the wind had dropped and he looked up to see the stars shining faintly through the dust haze. He found his companion buried to the waist in the sand and unable to move until he was dug out. He was lucky, for others died in that sandstorm, yet more victims of the desert.

Although Algeria might seem to be at peace there were always hazardous missions elsewhere in the world and Legionnaires volunteered for service in Indo-China, Dahomey and Senegal. But by far the most romantic mission ever given to the Legion was in 1893, when a company were ordered to proceed to Timbuktu. This fabled city, 1,000 miles south of the Mediterranean and 800 miles east of the Atlantic had been the subject of travellers’ tales for centuries. Only four white men had seen it and lived to describe the experience. The French had been trying to find a way to it for 50 years, and, as the source of the gold, rare scents, exotic feathers and wood which spread through the camel trails all over Africa it seemed certain to be a rich prize.

The Legionnaires had to fight their way through brush and swampland as they neared the city, contending with lions, crocodiles, poisonous reptiles and fierce tribes as they did so. Finally, on 12th February, 1894, they clambered over a sandy ridge and Timbuktu lay before them.

The men could hardly believe their eyes! The once great city had been torn and destroyed by constant warfare and then reduced to a shrunken ruin by the sandy winds. The few remaining inhabitants struggled grimly for survival in a land without trees or birds – or, it seemed, hope. Instead of looting and riches the Legionnaires found themselves repairing buildings and paving roads. Months later, they were glad to return to Algeria.

Work in the north became more and more demanding as the French extended their activities to Morocco. But now a greater shadow hung over the Legion as war with Germany became imminent. The 40,000 Legionnaires faced a conflict of a very different kind.

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