One of the best books that I bought in the last Big Bad Wolf Book Sales was called “Our Friends Beneath the Sands: The French Foreign Legion in France’s Colonial Conquests 1870-1935” which focuses on the French Foreign Legion’s participation in Algeria, Vietnam (back then Indochina), Madagascar and Morocco. Image source: Amazon.
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Personal Encounter with The French Army
When I was in Kabul in 2007 for a work assignment, one of the things that were clear from the moment that we landed was how the sectors of the city were segregated between the various military forces with the US military basically running the areas surrounding the Kabul Airport as their main air force base was just next to it. There was also a green and red zone that determine who will be handling the sector (red zone means the Taliban are still active and it is not safe for civilians).
Move away from this area, you will have the German military guarding the key road junctions with their Armoured Personnel Carriers namely TPz Fuchs and sometimes lonely main battle tank handling the next sectors. Then you have the Turkish at the centre of our workplace which also has the key Government offices and some embassies.
The French are stationed between the German and Turkish military and we often see their convoy as we leave the heavily guarded hotel to our workplace which looks like a fortress from the outside. I caught the above photo as we had just left the hotel and was waiting at a junction when the French passed us by. Unlike the Americans, the French has smaller carriers and less defended.
However, unlike the US military convoy who will shoot first and then ask questions if anyone gets close to them, the French, on the other hand, seems more friendly and often passes sweets and meals to the children on the street as they pass by with their smaller APCs.
Different Empire Building Styles
According to Wikipedia, one can see the vast difference between the British and the French when it comes to colonisation:-
By 1913 the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24 per cent of the Earth’s total land area
At its apex, the Second French colonial empire was one of the largest empires in history. Including metropolitan France, the total amount of land under French sovereignty reached 11,500,000 km2 (4,400,000 sq mi) in 1920, with a population of 110 million people in 1936.
In the book, Our Friends Beneath the Sands, the reasons why the British are more successful as empire builders compared to others namely the French, Russian and even the Germans are highlighted when a very young French officer by name of Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey was assigned to a mission in Indochina and made a stop in India after befriending British officers in his ship.
The British were more successful compared to the French because of the manner they handle the locals and made decisions that impact the local population.
The British often take the trouble to learn the local culture and language and often British officers mixed well with their men who often made from locals. The local governors had the power to make immediate decisions that impacts the locals and this was often made with the right advice and sensitivity from the local leaders.
The French, on the other hand, insist their men even it is made of local garrisons, to communicate only in French and thus do not take any trouble to learn and master the local language and culture.
All decisions that impact the locals and military missions come directly from Paris and from unstable central government that changes after a few months. Thus the decisions made from Paris do not take any consideration of the local needs, culture and difficulties.
Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey
One of the best decisions made by the French military was recognising the potentials of Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey who first assigned to Algeria and then to Indochina serving under a visionary leader, Colonel Joseph Gallieni.
After a series of failed battles with the rogue Black Flags rebels along the Chinese borders, Colonel Joseph Gallieni recognised that they needed to work closely with the locals and also with the Chinese governors to curtail the support that the Black Flags getting.
Gallieni started by implementing a series of changes that fostered prosperity and trade with the French ensuring the security of the land.
Lyautey continued with this on a greater scale in Indochina and then when he was assigned for the conquest of Madagascar, serving again under the very capable Joseph Gallieni who then had been promoted to General and then Governor of Madagascar.
From 1897 to 1902 Lyautey served in Madagascar, again under Gallieni. He pacified northern and western Madagascar, administering a region of 200,000 inhabitants, beginning the construction of a new provincial capital at Ankazobe and a new roadway across the island. He encouraged the cultivation of rice, coffee, tobacco, grain and cotton, and opened schools.
He remained a professional soldier but had a lot of political influence to make real changes to the military. Interestingly he also disliked politicians who make political decisions on military strategies.
In 1903, thanks to the strong support from his political friends namely the Governor-General of Algeria, Célestin Jonnart who was frustrated with the massive losses that the French military was facing in Algeria due to attacks from tribesmen in Morrocco, Lyautey was once again handpicked to lead the charge into Morocco.
He was promoted as a brigade general and continued the closer corporations with the locals and improvement of security especially at the borders for benefit of trade that he learned in Indochina and fine-tuned in Madagascar.
At the same time, the manner how the military responds to warring tribesmen who often attack trading posts and also the French convoys (for guns, bullets, mules and camels) so that it decided that these tribes try not to engage the French.
In 1910 Lyautey was recalled to France to command the army corps at Rennes but in 1912 was appointed resident general in Morocco, over which the French protectorate had just been proclaimed.
After routing insurgent tribes in Fès, he replaced the sultan Moulay Hafid by his more reliable brother Moulay Yusuf. In the task of conquering and pacifying the whole country, however, Lyautey showed respect for local institutions and impressed the Arabs with his sense of grandeur and his competence.
Recalled to France to be minister of war (1916–17), he thereafter returned to Morocco, remaining until his resignation in 1925
Lyautey was credited for expanding the French influence in Morocco, not by brute military force but rather perhaps in the same line as to how the British have been doing so successfully in other parts of the world:-
Lyautey’s work in Morocco has come to be recognized as a masterpiece of French colonization. He believed that pacification should be achieved with a demonstration of force and as little fighting as possible.
To him, colonization was, above all, a creative work. Although he endeavored to preserve the political, social, and economic traditions of Morocco, he wished the country to progress through adopting some of the material civilization of Europe and by acquaintance with its spirit.
Medicine, education, public works, and agricultural colonization were the chief means by which he hoped to accomplish these ends.
Had the French deployed the same strategy as the British have done since the 1700s, the world probably be speaking more French than English.