Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Sidi Brahim, part two

My last post was about the battle of Sidi Brahim, fought on 23-25 September 1845. Although it settled little in the struggle between the French and Abd el-Kader, it continues to have reverberations to the present day.

All the survivors were decorated with the Légion d'Honneur. Corporal Lavayssière was promoted to sergeant, and exchanged his regulation carbine for one bearing a small plate describing his valorous conduct. He left the Army in 1848. Later in life he owned a vineyard, which was devastated by phylloxera; at the same time he was losing the sight in one eye. Past and present chasseurs rallied around, ensuring he had the operation that saved his sight, and that he would live in relative comfort for the rest of his life. In 1909, a monument was erected in his village of Castelfranc (Lot); it can be seen on Google Streetview here.

Another survivor was Carabinier Jean Tressy, who was promoted to corporal. A monument was erected on his grave, at Chilleurs-aux-Bois (Loiret) in 1990. In 1892, he wrote to a friend, 'nearly every night for fifteen years, I relived some episode of that terrible fighting, and today, after forty-seven years, the memory is as vivid now as the first day.'

The monument to Corporal Gabriel Leger (1812-1901), at Glouloux (Nièvre) can be seen in the mid-distance here.

The other famous survivor was Bugler Rolland of the 2nd Hussars. He was captured by the rebels quite early in the battle. As his comrades gathered together for a last stand, Rolland was brought before Abd el-Kader and was instructed the blow the Retreat, to get the French to stop fighting. Rolland took a pace forward and instead blew the Charge. Fortunately for Rolland, el-Kader did not know one bugle call from another, and his defiance went unpunished.

The rebels held about 300 prisoners from the battle, including Major Courby de Cognord. But on 25 April 1846, the prisoners were massacred. In the confusion, eleven, including Rolland, escaped and made their way in ones and twos back to friendly territory. An interview with Rolland, that appeared originally in Lectures pour Tous on 1st August 1913, is here.

The song Sidi Brahim was composed not long after the battle itself, and was converted to a march in 1889 by Bandmaster Porot of the 20th Battalion. It has since been adopted as the march of all chasseur battalions. Sadly, the names of both lyricist and composer have been lost. You can hear it here (with words) or here (a rather better version, to my mind, but no words).

The 8th was reformed with volunteers from the other battalions. It would fight in the second Algerian campaign of 1856-58, as well as in Italy in 1859 and in France in 1870-71. During the First World War, it served as part of 83rd Brigade, 42nd Division. It found itself in Lorraine in 1940, and was disbanded in the following year. Reformed in 1944, it served in the Liberation of France, then in Algeria and in Bosnia. It was disbanded in 1999. The marabout itself became part of the battalion's badge, as you can see from the battalion fanion (left).

The values of duty and dedication portrayed in the battle continued to influence men in a quite different war. One junior officer of chasseurs described an attack during the battle of Verdun in October 1916: 'On the morning of the attack, the fog was very thick. That would do us nicely! At 1000 we got the plan of attack. The battalion would be in four waves. Behind us, another battalion had to carry on marching with the [Senegalese]. At 1140 the signal was given. "Attention, men" I shouted. Then I blew the whistle and sang "Forward, brave battalion", like in Sidi Brahim. The movement was superb. All the waves moved off at the same speed, [carried forward] with ferocious enthusiasm. The first Boche lines were overcome. They were almost completely evacuated... We carried on. There were no waves any more, just a mob moving forward behind our barrage!... The advance continued and at 1300 we had reached our objective without losing a single man killed or wounded. Splendid, eh? We settled in. To our left, Douaumont had fallen. As everything was going well, the night passed peacefully.'
Soldier Albert Bergère of the 1st Chasseurs had heard something similar in August 1914: 'We took up positions to the west of Pexonne, it was about 1700. Crouched in trenches eating a tin of rations and two biscuits - no water, we couldn't get any. At 2300, for fifteen minutes we heard a formidable bayonet charge going in, the bugle sounding the Charge; they must have been chasseurs because they were singing the Sidi Brahim, our preferred song.'

Just as Camerone became a significant battle in the collective memory of the Foreign Legion, then Sidi Brahim would occupy a pre-eminent place in the annals of the chasseurs à pied. A similar battle against the odds, a similar heavy loss of life, both used as an example to inspire future generations of the corps. The anniversary of the battle is always commemorated by the chasseurs, although not with the heavy pomp and circumstance of the Legion. There is video of the 2011 parade at Vincennes here, and versions of the 2010 parade at the same location, here and here, and in a small town in Normandy, here.

Pictures: the original monument to Sidi Brahim on the Place 1er Novembre, in Oran (it now includes the bust of Abd el-Kader) (on Google maps here); Bugler Rolland in old age; the battalion fanion of the 8th; the modern monument to the action, at Perissac (Gironde); a Sidi Brahim parade, with the flags of old comrades' associations.