Monday, 3 February 2014

It's Mazagran Day!

So, what are we all doing for Mazagran Day?

Mazagran is a small town 4km to the south of Mostaganem, in Algeria. On 3rd February 1840, a large force of fighters under Mustapha ben Tami, one of Abd el-Kadr's principal lieutenants, swept into the town. The size of ben Tami's force is unclear. One (French) account says 10,000 ('by the most moderate accounts'); another (also French) says 1,500-2,000. The French garrison consisted of 123 men from the 10th Company, of 1st Battalion, Infanterie Légère d'Afrique, commanded by Captain Hilaire Lelièvre.

General Baron Guéhénec, the commander of the Oran Division, published an account of the action in an order of the day:
'On 3rd February, between 10 and 11 in the morning, a column of eight hundred men attacked the redoubt at Mazagran ... The town, unoccupied, was captured by the enemy in an instant; a lively fire broke out in several places; the enemy artillery opened fire. Night put an end to the fighting.
'On the 4th, the enemy, reinforced, renewed the attack at 6 in the morning, and carried on until 6 in the evening, but was once more repelled with great losses.
'On the 5th there was a new attack, which met the same fate as the others.
'With a breach in the walls caused by the enemy artillery, the garrison repaired it during the night, as well as bandaging the wounded, and preparing for more fighting. On the 6th, the enemy made a dispairing attempt to capture the post, with a column of 2,000 men. The enemy reached the foot of the wall, but, thanks to the determined courage of the garrison, was repelled using bayonets, grenades and even rocks. This was their last effort. Discouraged, the enemy abandoned its positions and retreated.'

In contrast, another French officer, Edmond Pellissier de Reynaud, who was attached to the staff in Algeria at the time, stated that all that happened was that the besieging Arabs kept up a desultory fire over several days; the enemy artillery fired one shot, which knocked over a flagpole, then never fired another round. Only on the 6th was there an assault, replused with heavy losses. The French did not lose a man. 'There was', he wrote, 'a good deal of exaggeration in the way this action was presented, even though it was not without glory for the 1st Battalion, Infanterie Légère d'Afrique ... Historical truth obliges us to say that the Government and public made much more of the defense of Mazagran than they ever did of the capture of Djemilah in 1838, which was much more difficult.'

Whichever 'historical truth' was the correct one, Mazagran was celebrated by the Infanterie Légère d'Afrique on 6th February every year. The flag that had flown over the post, pierced by musket balls, by given into the care of the battalion, and it was carried on parade every year. Medals were struck, and the defenders were feted. Lelièvre retired to his hometown of Malesherbes, and died in 1851. A monument was raised in the town by public subscription, but it was demolished to improve the traffic flow in 1878. It was replaced two years later by a trophy of arms, but that was itself replaced by a bronze statue in 1898. The statue was melted down in 1942. The last survivor of the action, Private Fleuret, died in Commentry (Allier) in 1900, and was buried alongside his old commander.

The Infanterie Légère d'Afrique were an unusual unit, even by the standards of France's Army of Africa. They were formed in 1832, two battalions (three from 1833) composed of men from disciplinary companies but who still had time to serve before their discharge. To these were added men who were in prison when their call-up; once they had served their civilian sentences, they were directed into the Infanterie Légère. It was intended that service in these battalions would turn the men into reformed characters, fit to take a place in polite society once again.

The discipline was ferocious, with long and exhausting marches in extreme conditions, or building roads and forts in the remotest locations, their uniforms and boots in tatters. It had the effect of creating a rather grim esprit de corps, in which tattoos were compulsory. The soldiers nicknamed themselves les Joyeux - 'the happy ones' - and the grim relish with which the soldiers embraced the battalions' reputation can be seen in their song, the 'Chanson des bataillons d'Afrique' (there are several versions):

On the soil of Africa
There's a battalion whose soldiers [twice]
Are all lads who've had no luck
It's the Bat d'Af, and here we are [twice]
To join these special units
You have to come out of Clink
Or out of a nick
That's where they pick us

But after all, who cares? Who gives a damn?
Marching along the road
Remember, yes, remember
The men who made it
Before you, yes before you
From Gabès to Tatouine
From Gafsa to Médenine
Packs on your back in the dust
March, bataillonaires.

I saw a poor lad die
A kid of eighteen [twice]
Struck down by cruel fate
He died crying for his mum
It was me that closed his eyelids
Felt his last breath [twice]
And wrote to his mother.
As a joyeux he knew how to die.

But since we never have any luck
It's certain one day we'll die [twice]
On the African soil
Buried in the sand
A bayonet for a cross
At the spot where we fell [twice]
Who do you want to mourn us
Since we're all reprobates.

The three battalions saw service in almost all of France's campaigns, from Tonkin to Mexico, and two further battalions were added. In 1914, the five battalions created three bataillons de marche for service at the Front. All were hard-fighting units at Verdun and at Reims in 1918; the 3rd, in particular, gained a good reputation for patrolling and night work. At the beginning of December 1914, the 1st and 3rd (part of 45th Division) were involved in the operations to clear the west bank of the Yser Canal, and so distinguished themselves at the Maison du Passeur, that its name was added to the Infanterie Légère's colours. The Maison du Passeur (its Flemish name was De Witte Huis) was a bargeman's cafe on the Ypres-Yser Canal, just south of Drie-Grachten (and a flat and boggy place it was). 3rd Battalion lost 24 killed, including the CO, 90 wounded and 45 missing. A contemporary magazine account is here., but a more sober account is contained in the war diaries of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. Anyone with a dramatic bent might want to have a look at the play here.

The battalions saw some service post-war in north Africa, but three were disbanded in the 1920s, one in Indochina in 1952, and the last, the 3rd, was reduced to a company in 1962, and disbanded ten years later.

Pictures: Défense héroïque du capitaine Lelièvre à Mazagran by Jean-Adolphe Beaucé (1818-75), from Wikipedia; Captain Lelièvre; the flag of Mazagran from an old postcard; the original monument in Malesherbes, from an old postcard; an example of the tattooist's art, from Les vrais, les durs, les tatoués: les tatouages à Biribi by Jérôme Pierrat and Eric Guillon (Paris, Larivière, 2009); the poster for the sole film set in the battalions, Les Réprouvés (1937)