By landing in 1830 summer on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean sea, french soldiers commit themselves at random. They put their feet on the ground of this vast continent, big unknown, in which they don’t know yet how to distinguish the north inhabited by arabs and berbers compared with its main part inhabited by black people, and which name is Africa. Therefore these soldiers make up naturally the Armée d’Afrique.
This appellation is confirmed and becomes general when, by necessity, french command recruits native auxiliaries contingents. This necessity brings two advantages : to reinforce the strengh, but also and above all, in the subject which is ours, to bring to french army a means of approaching the local people with which relations can be difficult seeing that the french soldier is ignorant of the natives’ language and way of life. Quickly french soldiers in north Africa will adopt a lot of arabian ways ans customs and this will distinguish themselves from their homologues staying in Europe. They share the combat dangers and the brotherhood in arms with the natives troops integrated in the french army. They become Africans in the largest acceptance that this term can get in the middle of XIXth century. They make the Armée d’Afrique and will remain deeply attached to that designation till the repatriation in 1962 on the metropolitan soil.
The creation of the units which have formed the Armée d’Afrique has been made up without any set plan, sparsely, chance by chance, each time when the command felt the necessities according to the circonstances and the place where they have been set up.
Chronologically the first who have been ceated are
tThe Zouaves, on october 1rst, 1830.
The french Foreign legion has been has been formed on march 9th 1831.
The Chasseurs d’Afrique on november 16th 1831,
The Infanterie Légère d’Afrique (Africa Light Infantry) on june 4th 1832,
The Spahis on september 10th 1834,
The Tirailleurs Algériens on december 7th 1841,
The Tirailleurs Tunisiens on november 20th 1881,
The Tirailleurs Marocains on june 16th 1912.
Let us note that these differents troop units don’t constitute an organized nor almagamated entity. They will continue to be composed either with european troops or with natives troops. Some units will get a mixed recruiting, both europeans and natives. Except few times they will never make an organic army which would serve in one go and united. They will stay independant ones from the others and, depending on the theater of operations, they will serve, according to their assignment to a french army main unit, of which they will be only one of the organic components. It’s not due to their organization, but really to their spirit, that has been fabricated their specificity and their fame.
That’s the reason why we are not going to study the Armée d’Afrique different components with a chronological method. We are going to classify them by arms, making a distinction between europeans and natives troops, and between the specific units.
First we will place the Armée d’Afrique action in time, during the three first decades of its existence, which means during the three first decades of the conquest of Algeria.
The Armée d’Afrique from 1830 to 1840 :
After its landing in 1830 on the North Africa coast and Algiers seizure, french army doesn’t get any definite order concerning its guiding principle. However, since august 1830, french command feels the necessity to show the french attendance from east to west, and settles small detachments in Bône and Oran. But interior tribes are resolutely opposed to a expansion of the occupied area. They provoke regularly french troops which have scarcely the means to beat off these attacks and which are in full uncetrtainty period.
In september 1830, as it has been required to do it, french command has to reduce its strength to 10.000 men. Which policy to be applied with so few possibilities ? They have only to keep some small posts which had been constructed. And, in order to compensate its strenght reduction, the command has got the idea to recruite auxiliary units in the native tribes. The first endeavour has been realized by contacting as soon as august 1830 the kabyle tribe of Zouaouas which will provide units of infantrymen, the futur Zouaves.
The interest of a native cavalry is just as obvious. Are created at the beginning of year 1831 squadrons of “Chasseurs Indigènes” on horseback, embryo of the “Chasseurs d’Afrique” units.
According to the european political context at this time, french government kills two birds with one stone by creating in march 1831 a “Légion Etrangère”. On the one hand it liberates Paris from unoccupied foreigners, disappointed by the french Empire decease or revolutionaries who flee their country by birth. On the other hand it finds with them troops complements easy to make in order to compensate the insufficiency of the french trrops settled beyond the Mediterraneam sea.
Just as brilliant was the idea which allows french young people who are incarcerated before having done their military service to finish their punishment by serving as a soldier on the North Africa coast. This initiative brought as well a double advantage : to allows this young delinquents to redeem themselves by risking to be injured or killed in a dangerous theater of operations, and to supply french troops on the other side of the Mediterranean sea with a strenght increase which they need a lot. So have been created in june 1832 two battalions of Infanterie Légère d’Afrique ( Africa Light Infantry ).
Despite this light troops strenghtening, from 1830 to 1837, commanders-in-chief of the french army in Algeria haven’t been abble to proceed with a coherent and definite action. Their command time is too short. The commanders constant changes, made worse by a lack of policy from the parisian government, generates a succession of errors and hesitations in the course of opertaions. When he takes his command in september 1834, the new gouverneur général gets as his mission “to organize the existing establishments without trying to increase the french possessions in north of Africa”.
Nevertheless some of these commanders will show a great activity. Pushed also, it must be said, by the expenses reduction and the strenght restriction they begin to put into practice for the pacification of Algeria a method of native policy which develops amicable relations with the arabs and which increases progressively the auxiliary units.
In september 1834 are created the “Spahis Réguliers”, strictly native cavalry units.
In west Algeria Emir Abd-El-Kader, fiercely opposed to the french troops penetration in this region, attacks violently in june 1835 and disconcerts a column of 2.000 french soldiers in Moulay Ismaël forest, 40 km south-east of Oran. This episode demonstrates the lack of discipline and the training insufficiency of french troops as well as the incompetence of too many officers.
In 1836 the french forces recovery is energetically made by the fifth commander-in-chief. He puts the principles of the war in Africa by analogy with the war he had made in Spain during the Empire. He puts particularly his efforts on the soldier’s kit improvement by relieving it and by ordering that rations and ammunition are carried by mules or light carts. He also stipulates that columns don’t systematically load themselves down with an artillery which was not always indispensable.
From that moment on, french army plucks up courage and its columns, when they are attacked, beat off vigorously their aggressors. However these expeditions purpose was so ambitious that it needed more battalions which were cruelly missing. It has been, for example, necessary beginning twice again to besiege and to occupy Constantine to the east.
In 1837 a new commander, marshall Valée, puts both the civilian administration and the army in order. Particularly he specifies the regulations and the administration of several specific native units which had been created by the local commandants. He fixes their strengh. Facing Abd-El-Kader’s growing ambitions he thinks of placing all the territory under french domination. In order to show his will he takes the opportunity of an inspection visit by the Duke d’Orléans, king Louis-Philippe’s first son, and organizes in october 1839 a liaison expedition between Algiers and Constantine provinces by crossing Bibans pass, called the Portes de Fer. It was a success thanks to in particular a serious preparation and to the effective protection of Khalifa Mokrani, commanding the native auxiliary squadrons.
This expedition has got a great repercussion both among native tribes and in France. Louis-Philippe’s government was showing by this way that he wanted to stay in North Africa. Remenber that, the same month of october 1839, french secretary of war was declaring that : ”the country occupied by the french in the north of Africa will be from now on designated under the name of Algeria”.
Abd-El-Kader considers this Portes de Fer expedition as a challenge and starts again hostilities. In order to face him, the new commander-in-chief gets finally reinforcing troops which puts the french army from the 40.000 men which were composing it in 1839 up to 70.000 men at the beginning of year 1840.
With this new strengh, french troops will occupy the most important point which followed Sidi-Ferruch landing in june 1830 that this fine Armée d’Afrique was born. It develops, of course with some difficulties and errors, and gives itself a character and a personality which it will never abandon. Not only it has constituted an original fraction of the french army, but also it has had on this french army a deep influence which imprignates it even today, at the beginning of XXIth century.
It would be interesting now to understand how were organized the different units which have composed the Armée d’Afrique. We know that they have been called Chasseurs d’Afrique, Africa Light Infantry, Légion Etrangère, Spahis, Tirailleurs, Zouaves, and others not quoted that we have not yet met between 1830 and 1857.
We are going to review them all one by one, explaining again how they had been created, giving again their history in the time, and describing in detail the uniform they where wearing and which has allowed to distinguish them either from the other units of french army or among their peers.
See Also 1 3 4 5