Sunday, July 22, 2012

Archaeology of the French Foreign Legion

The remote desert outpost, manned by rugged and desperate legionnaires, surrounded by hordes of camel mounted tribesmen has become something of an iconic image ever since P C Wren first published Beau Geste in 1925.

In his stirring tale of the French Foreign Legion much of the action takes place at Fort Zinderneuf, an isolated desert fort which forms the backdrop to the story. The original story resulted in several Hollywood films and a whole range of books and films of a similar genre.

In reality the French Foreign Legion was used in campaigns across North Africa. They did build and garrison isolated forts and such forts did become the focus of military actions. Outposts being defended to the last man were not plots in popular novels but frequent occurrences during the early part of the 20th century.

Using a combination of numerous literary sources, diaries, French military mapping and satellite imagery a number of possible fort locations were investigated before a decision was taken regarding the most suitable for more detailed study.

The largest building selected so far for research is a desert fort in Southern Morocco. Built by the French Foreign Legion in 1921 it is situated on a high plateau at the Southern end of the Oued Guir river valley.

Thanks to the dry climate and remote location the structure of the fort is in a relatively complete condition. The outer walls and tower remain standing whilst remains of inner buildings are clearly visible with only the roofs missing. This location presents a rare opportunity to study a structure that played an important part in the creation of modern Morocco and French colonial history.

Why were the forts built built?

The problems facing the French during their occupation of Morocco were immense. Militarily it was not a simple operation. Climate, terrain and a fiercely independent population were all against them. The terrain, in particular, provided a major obstacle to conquest. High mountains (heavily wooded in the North) were difficult to penetrate other than through mountain passes that were narrow and steep sided. Such routes provided easy locations for ambush and became death traps for many French columns moving through them. Water, a vital requirement, was available in certain areas and the oases where it was found were much disputed. Domination of ground and control of the passes and supply routes would be essential if the French were to succeed in their mission.

How were the forts used?

Without effective artillery and methods of forcing entry into the forts it is likely that the garrisons would have felt relatively secure from attack. With modern weapons and behind “hard cover” the greatest threat perceived by most would have been that of a protracted siege and the gradual diminishing of water supplies. However, there is literary evidence to indicate that direct attacks on, and infiltration into, the forts was a very real threat.

Although isolated, the forts did have effective communications with the outside world using a variety of methods ranging from telephone and radio to more primitive heliograph, carrier pigeon and bugle calls which could be used to summon assistance. In addition, after the First World War, regular over flights by aircraft of the French Air Force would provide additional cover.

The uprising in the Rif Mountains led by Abd-el-Krim in the 1920’s saw some of the most dramatic assaults on isolated forts. Inspired by his success against the Spanish in Northern Morocco, he was prepared by 1925, to have a go at the French.

Numerous forts were completely surrounded and cut off from all supplies and French forces, with the Foreign Legion in the forefront, were dispatched on desperate rescue missions not all of which were a success. The Legion suffered a number of defeats at the hands of Abd-el-Krim’s tribesmen and at least one fort, having held out for almost eight weeks was blown up by its commanding officer.

Fieldwork in the desert

On sites field walking and building surveys are the order of the day. They produce a large number of finds including clear evidence of garrison life in the form of ration tins, tunic buttons and belt clasps. Evidence of military activity comes in the form of spent cartridge cases, spent bullets and grenade fragments.

The blockhouse at Boudenib, whilst visible from some miles away, proved to be very difficult to reach and it was only after several motorcycle recce operations over a two day period that a route suitable for a vehicle was found through the ruins of the old Kasbah and oasis tracks.

Holding a key position covering the Southern approaches to Boudenib the blockhouse had been subjected to a major attack in 1909. The forty defenders held off some four hundred attackers for almost two days before finally directing artillery fire onto the position to clear the attackers. A Legion equivalent to Rorkes Drift it had been a very close thing.

Very little now remains of the blockhouse and, surprisingly given the historical accounts of the attack, very little archaeological evidence could be located to indicate the severity of the battle.

More Information

Full details of the Legion Project can be found on the website and applications are welcome from anyone with a genuine interest in archaeology (or related subjects). The fieldwork opportunities are particularly useful to students seeking to expand their practical experience. The work takes place in difficult terrain often at some altitude so a level of physical fitness is essential as well as a true “spirit of adventure”. Costs involved can vary but cover flights, transport, accommodation, tuition and insurance.

For those who want to be involved but do not wish to undertake field work there are sometimes openings for pre and post expedition work based at Trailquest in the UK

Jeynes, Richard. 2012. "Archaeology of the French Foreign Legion". Past Horizons. Posted: July , 2012. Available online:

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