A War Mission in the Sahara

By Raymond Recouly (Captain X)
(Aide-de-Camp to the Governor-General of Algeria)

[Scribner's Magazine, September 1918]

War, with its vicissitudes, its varying fortunes, imposes singular and radical changes upon every one engaged in it. This time last year, for example, I was on the high table-lands of Asia Minor, travelling from one end of the Russian Caucasus to the other, from Erzeroum to Trebizonde, with the commission sent out to verify on the spot to just what degree of insubordination and confusion the anarchical propaganda of the Soviet had already reduced the Russian army.

And now, this year, here I am "somewhere in Africa," between five and six hundred kilometres from Algiers, on the confines of the Sahara!

Last winter one of the most eminent of French statesmen, M. Jonnart, former minister of foreign affairs, was intrusted by his friend M. Clemenceau, with the difficult duties of governor-general of Algeria—duties which he had discharged during a former term of office with marked success. This was the same M. Jonnart, by the way, who, as High Commissioner of the Allied Powers, in a few days caused the abdication of King Constantine and the political alignment of Greece on the side of the Entente. I accompanied the new governor-general to Algiers as his aide-de-camp. Immediately upon our arrival he sent me with the military leader of native affairs to the Southern Territories to stimulate recruiting among the Arabs. And so, since yesterday I have been at Laghouat, a delightful little Franco-Arabian city buried in flowers and palms and orange-trees.

Nothing can equal the charm of the oases of the Sahara in the springtime. After long journeyings over monotonous stretches of plateaux, across unending plains where nothing growing is to be seen save, here and there, scraggy clumps of l'alfa (esparto-grass), after traversing interminable sand-dunes, suddenly one finds oneself in a veritable bower of living green, musical with the sound of running water.

The barley planted at the foot of the palms is of a delicate green—a refreshment and a delight to the eye. Everywhere, growing among the native African trees, are the fruit-trees of France; the apricot, the peach-tree laden down with pink blossoms, and the grape-vine, its long and flexible tendrils climbing upward about the dry and knotty trunks of the palms.

Owing to the foresight of the colonel who is in command of the Territory of Laghouat, all the great native leaders of that region, the commanders-in-chief, the commanders and the heads of the tribes, were assembled in the Arab bureau, the official residence of the French authorities. The native chiefs were in full dress—long, flowing robes of fine silk over which was flung the great burnous of red wool. Pinned on the breast, or hung about the neck, of each one were the French decorations which our government has conferred upon them, and of which they are inordinately proud. Several of the youngest among them wore the Croix de Guerre, gallantly won at the head of their troops, cavalry or sharpshooters, on the battle-fields of France—in Champagne, in Picardy, in Flanders.

When all were gathered about us the colonel addressed them, explaining briefly the intentions of the French Government:

"The new governor, M. Jonnart, whom you have known a long while and for whom you have always expressed the warmest affection, desires that the Southern Territories, which are governed by military authorities, should furnish, of their own accord and without any pressure brought to bear on them, the contingents of native troops which will have the honor of serving in the French army. The French authorities will not intervene any way in the recruiting of these units nor in the disposition of them. They will leave these matters entirely in the hands of the native chiefs in whom they have the fullest confidence."

And then the colonel added: "It is for the purpose of making this communication to you and at the same time of conveying to you a message of welcome, that the governor-general has sent me here."

When this speech had been translated by the interpreter, the commander-in-chief, a fine-looking, black-bearded Arab, replied:

"Our tribes are ready to furnish all the men you ask for and more. Only give us a few weeks in which to round up those who are out pasturing their flocks, two or three hundred kilometres from here in the Sahara. As soon as we can get hold of them we will recruit these troops; our soldiers will be on hand the day agreed upon and not one will be missing.

"Never before has our country been so prosperous, our people so well off. They sell their sheep for two or three times as much as before the war; the French Government makes large allotments to the families of our soldiers, exactly the same, in fact, as those granted to the native French combatants. The wealth, the prosperity, and the tranquillity of our country are your work. We cannot stand aside, therefore, selfishly enjoying, our good fortune, while France, who has been fighting for three years, is called upon to make more and more sacrifices."

The promises of the commander-in-chief were fulfilled in every particular. In fact, the Southern Territories, where, by the advice of M. Jonnart, conscription was not resorted to, will furnish more native troops this year than the Civilian Territories of the north. The splendid result of this policy is that among the thousands of these recruits there is not one dissatisfied soldier, not one deserter!

The willingness of colonies to engage in war side by side with the mother country is the supreme test of their loyalty.

The Germans were fully persuaded that, thanks to their intrigues and machinations, the Mohammedan territories of northern French Africa—Algeria, Tunis, Morocco—would rise against us at the very beginning of the great European war. They had spared no effort to accomplish that result. Throughout these countries they had established a vast system of espionage of which the numerous German hotel proprietors, German commercial travellers, and a certain number of neutrals were the well-paid agents. The proximity of Tripoli, as yet not entirely under French domination, and of Spanish Morocco, in both of which countries their emissaries can take refuge, have made it possible for them to continue their intrigues since the commencement of hostilities.

Those efforts and those intrigues have been without the results so confidently expected. The Mussulmans of Algeria have stood by France with an unshakable loyalty and fidelity. Since the outset of the war three-fourths of our active forces here have been sent to France. They played a magnificent role in the first decisive battles. At the Marne, on the Yser, the African troops, zouaves and sharpshooters, covered themselves with glory. The troops remaining in Algeria, few in number and composed largely of old classes, have, nevertheless, been able to preserve unbroken order and security in the colony.

After nearly four years of warfare it is good to see the tranquillity and prosperity of Algeria. Algiers, the capital of our African empire, has become a large city, having almost doubled in extent and population in the last ten years. Owing to the increase in price of all foodstuffs, the Algerian colonists, who are wonderful farmers, do an excellent business. They sell their wines, cereals, early vegetables, fruits, and sheep at high prices, while the value of the land itself has considerably augmented. There is not an acre which is not under cultivation. Everywhere are vineyards, orchards of orange and lemon trees, fields of wheat and barley. Farming, and especially grape-growing, is carried on along the most modern lines and with the aid of up-to-date machinery.

There is something about the Algerian planter which reminds one of the American farmer. Like the American, he cultivates a rich, virgin soil; like him, he breaks away from tradition and the routine way of doing things much more easily than the French peasant.

Leaving Laghouat, we strike downward toward the south. Our route lies in the direction of the oases of M'zab, one of the most curious and unique spots in the world.

The Frenchman is a wonderful builder of roads. Nowhere save in Algeria is there such a network of roads and trails offering to the automobilist the most attractive, and at the same time the most varied, excursions. American tourists who come to Europe after the war will not regret taking a look-in on Algeria.

From Laghouat on through the desert, the military authorities who control the affairs of the country have constructed a road especially reserved for automobiles. Vehicles without rubber tires are prohibited from using it under heavy penalty of the law. Thanks to this regulation, the road is as smooth as a billiard-table.

Every thirty kilometres there is a fortified road-house where soldiers on the march may halt for rest. There they can obtain water and food. One of these caravansaries, Tilrempt, even boasts a wonderful native cook, El Haid, a desert Vatel, who can serve a breakfast which would make the chef of a "Cafe de Paris" or a "Voisin" restaurant jealous.

At eighty kilometres from Laghouat there is a sudden and extraordinary change in the character of the country. We have reached the limestone plateau of the "Chebka," an Arab word signifying a net. The rocks, worn, hollowed out by the action of the water, assume under the burning reflection of the sun's rays the appearance of a net whose meshes shimmer away as far as the eye can see.

This chain of faintly yellow, rocky ravines is the last word in desolation. In comparison with their arid, parched rims, stretched across the landscape like some vast skeleton, dried to powder by the blazing African sun, the sand-dunes seem delightfully cheerful!

Behind this barrier of sterility and death men, fired with religious zeal, the Mozabites, have sought a sanctuary where, free from persecution, they could worship according to their beliefs. The Mozabites are Berbers belonging to a dissenting Mohammedan sect, the Idabites, who in the tenth century conquered northern Africa and founded the kingdom of Tiaret. Violently persecuted by the Arabs, who looked upon them as heretics, the Mozabites took refuge in this inhospitable land, too poor and too remote to tempt any other people.

After hours of driving over this desolate sea of stones, one is surprised and enchanted on rounding a hill to come suddenly upon a forest of green palms. One asks oneself by what miracle they have been able to grow in such an arid, rocky place.

It is a miracle—a miracle wrought by man, who, at the cost of arduous labor has achieved the fertilization of a barren soil. In order to irrigate these oases, it has been found necessary to bore to a great depth in the rock for water. And after all, these wells yield only a scanty flow. Unless there are good rainfalls during the season they are apt to go dry altogether. Camels, mules, and asses tug incessantly at the long ropes which, by a primitive system of pulleys, raise the buckets of goatskin filled with the precious water to the surface, and empty them into a reservoir. From these reservoirs the water is carried by pipes, cleverly disposed, to the gardens. Everywhere is heard the creaking of the never-idle pulleys. It is the only noise that breaks the silence of the oases of the Mozabites.

The sacred cities of M'zab, Ghardaïa, Melika, Beni-Isguen, are situated in a line along a dried river-bed of the Sahara. Only once in every four or five years is there any water in this river, and at those times the stream is carefully dammed and used for the fertilization of the parched oases. During the dry years, only by the most strenuous efforts do the Mozabites protect their gardens from the ever-menacing aridity of the surrounding desert.

But such a land is too poor to maintain the inhabitants, no matter how industrious and hard-working they may be. Therefore great numbers of the young Mozabites are obliged to expatriate themselves. They go to the fertile and rich country of North Algeria, where they engage in commercial pursuits and succeed admirably. Their shops are in all the cities of the sea-coast. These deeply religious Mohammedans are the most astute of merchants, canny enough to outwit even the Jews. They are at one and the same time the Quakers and the Phoenicians of Islam.

But, though expatriated themselves, they leave in far-off M'zab their families—their wives and their children—and invariably they return to M'zab. The priests who govern these little theocratic republics lay upon them the inviolable obligation to return to the land where their ancestors are buried and where they, Too, on pain of excommunication, must one day rest.

At Ghardaia, the capital of M'zab, one stands on the threshold of the great African desert. The odors of the Sahara are borne to one on the wind. It is the last outpost of civilization. From there on there stretches southward to Timbuctoo, in the heart of the Soudan, that vast expanse of desert which constitutes the illimitable empire of the sand.

The méhari, the trotting camel of the desert, which is to the caravan camel what the thoroughbred is to the cart-horse, here makes its first appearance. During the last few days of our journey the captain, head of the Arab bureau at Ghardaia, stationed along our route groups of méharist riders to mark out the road for us. Perched fearlessly upon their long-legged mounts and draped in the flowing burnous, the lower part of the face hidden by a veil according to the Touareg fashion, they present arms and salute when we pass.

These troops of méharist cavalry, made part of our forces by the happy inspiration of our military commanders, have rendered it possible for us to conquer the entire Sahara without too great an effort or at too great a sacrifice. There were in the desert several tribes who, unable to hit upon a more lucrative occupation, applied themselves to the fine art of brigandage, making off with flocks of sheep, destroying encampments, plundering caravans, and murdering travellers. The cure which our officers found for this unhealthy state of things was to take these robbers and make mounted policemen of them. They lent themselves willingly enough to this transformation, greatly encouraged thereto by the regular government pay! Of course, nothing was more simple than this expedient, only, like the famous egg of Christopher Columbus, the idea had to occur to some one.

And now, thanks to us, practically the whole immense desert of the Sahara is pacified. As a rule it is a comparatively easy trip from Algiers to Timbuctoo—the whole length of the great desert. It is no longer a warlike expedition, bristling with serious risks, but just "globe-trotting," pure and simple.

During the three years and more of the war the security of the Sahara has not been seriously disturbed. At one time the Turco-German intrigues in Tripoli threatened to cause us some embarrassment. The Italians were obliged to evacuate the hinterland of their colony, the oases of the interior, Ghadames and Rhat. A Senoussist uprising, instigated by the Turco-German propaganda, seemed to be on the point of breaking out in the extreme south of Algeria, the Senoussists having been able to bring up a fairly strong fighting force which attacked our outposts. But this menace was speedily averted, thanks to the energetic measures taken by our military commanders and to the loyalty of the native chiefs. At the present time the danger has entirely passed.

At the beginning of the European war, when the fate of France hung in the balance, it might have seemed more wise and prudent to economize our troops, to reduce appreciably the extent of our African possessions guarded by French soldiers, to evacuate our frontier posts in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunis, with the intention, of course, of reoccupying them, once the great war was over.

During the first months of the war this measure was advocated by certain political leaders at Paris. But the military commanders here on the spot, who understood the situation better than any one else, violently combated this move, which, while it was apparently wise and far-sighted, would have been in reality most imprudent. They decided that even with the diminished forces left to them, they would not abandon a single frontier post. Where the French flag had once waved, there it should never be hauled down. In the relations between Europeans and natives, above all with the Mussulmans of North Africa, moral forces and prestige are of more importance than material strength. It is necessary to guard carefully against doing the least thing which, in the eyes of the Arabs, would diminish our prestige.

Recently General Nivelle, commander of the French troops in North Africa, has made, without the slightest difficulty, the journey to In Salah, a thousand kilometres from here in the Sahara by automobile. Our auto-trucks go everywhere in the desert with rations for the soldiers. At Biskra there is an escadrille of aeroplanes which fly over the roads, accomplishing in a few hours distances that formerly took weeks to traverse. The aeroplane and the camel in the desert—what a wonderful contrast! Without doubt air machines will in a short time become the most practical mode of desert travel. American tourists who come to Algeria after the war will be able to visit the oases of the Sahara in aeroplanes!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury