Monday, 23 September 2013

It's Sidi Brahim Day!

So, what are we all doing for Sidi Brahim Day?

In 1845, the French in Algeria were engaged in fighting the rebellion led by Abd el-Kader. In August, the garrison at the port town of Nemours (now Ghazaouet), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel de Montagnac, had been strengthened by the arrival of the 8th Battalion of Chasseurs d'Orléans, under Major Froment-Coste, and a squadron of the 2nd Hussars, under Major Couby de Cognord.

The next month, intelligence reached the French C.-in-C., General Cavaignac, that Abd el-Kader was near Nemours. He ordered de Montagnac to go and arrest the rebel. Despite his misgivings, de Montagnac was not a man to disobey an order, and so took four companies of chasseurs (the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th) and the carabiniers company (8th) under Froment-Coste, 354 men all told, and 60 hussars led by Couby de Cognord. The French left at dead of night on 21st September, and marched all the following day. In a second night-time march, the column made four kilometres before bivouacing.

At dawn on the 23rd, Montagnac sent most of the hussars, supported by three companies of chasseurs to disperse a small force of rebel horsemen. At the last moment, de Montagnac decided to accompany the force with three companies, leaving Froment-Coste with Captain Burgard's 2nd Company and Captain Géreaux's 8th carabiniers Company, as well as six hussars, to guard the baggage.

Approching the enemy, the hussars charged off impetuously down a wadi, leaving the chasseurs to catch up as best they could. About 200 rebels were lining the slopes of the valley; with the hussars already disadvantaged by the slope, they drove the French back, inflicting numerous casualties. Couby de Cognord tried to withdraw his command to a low hill to await the infantry.

De Montagnac bravely marched his three companies to the rescue, but by the time he approached the hussars' position, the latter had been virtually overwhelmed. The three companies formed square and tried to defend themselves, but were outnumbered. De Montagnac sent a hussar to warn Froment-Coste, but was mortally wounded soon afterwards. But Froment-Coste could already see what was happening, and decided to take Burgard's company to aid de Montagnac. He never got close. All were killed or captured.

Géreaux was left with 82 men. He withdrew as far as a nearby marabout, the tomb of a local holy man, which consisted of a small, square building surrounded by a low wall. The site was quickly surrounded; Abd el-Kader demanded that the French surrender, but Géreaux declared they would rather die. The rebels then threatened to kill their French prisoners; still the French refused to surrender. Géreaux, already wounded, was resting when Corporal Lavayssière replied to a third demand with 'S**t to Abd el-Kader. Chasseurs die but do not surrender.' The rebels then tried to get the chasseurs' adjutant, Captain Dutertre, to persuade the French to surrender. The captain shouted to the remaining chasseurs to carry on fighting, and was beheaded on the spot. Assaults on the little post continued for the rest of the 23rd through the 24th, and into the 25th. But down to four rounds per man, and with no water, the French decided to break out. Fortunately most of the rebels had moved off into the interior. Facing a weakened force of beseigers, the French made a break for it, hoping to regain Ghazaouet.

But they were spotted, and casualties started to mount. With about three kilometres still to go, the French breasted the sides of the Oued Mersa to find it full of rebels. They fixed bayonets and charged. Amazingly, they succeeded in forcing a path through, as far as a grove of fig trees outside the village of Ouled Ziri, now a suburb of Ghazaouet. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued - Captain Géreaux was killed, and the survivors were reduced to Corporal Lavayssière and about twenty men.

Just at that very moment, as Lavayssière and his comrades prepared to die, the garrison of Ghazaouet intervened, and a few well-placed shells dispersed the rebels (you couldn't make it up, could you?). Only sixteen men survived the action - two died of exhaustion before relief could arrive; three more died of their wounds.

Note that the identification by Wikipedia of the site of the battle with the village of Sidi Brahim, north-east of Sidi bel Abbès, is incorrect. The sites of the battle and monument are to be found either side of the 7AA road, to the south-east of Nekhla (Michelin road map here; an older map here).

Pictures: the battle, as depicted by Louis Théodore Devilly; Courby de Cognard; de Montagnac; Froment-Coste; an old postcard of the marabout; inside the marabout during the battle - Captain Géreaux has his back to the viewer, centre; Géreaux

There is a lot more to be said about the battle, but that's for next time.