1882 Battle of Chott Tigri

In North Africa in late April 1882, in a borderland territory which separated Algeria from Morocco, a surveying expedition under the command of Captain de Castries was returning from survey work at the Chott Tigri depression. Escorted by two companies of the French Foreign Legion, the column was heavily attacked by local rebels. The escort, whose strength was no more than 350 men, was fighting one against six. At the end of the seven-hour battle, two officers and dozens of legionnaires had been killed.

 
Battle of Chott Tigri - Algeria - 26 April 1882 - Foreign Legion

 

La version française de cet article:
Combat du Chott Tigri de 1882

 

Introduction

Before 1881, calm reigned in Algeria, then an integral part of the French Empire. But in that year, the growing influence of Cheikh Bouamama was felt. An anti-French insurgency leader, he rallied several thousand warriors from local tribes and launched a rebellion in the still little-explored deserted region of South Oran in western Algeria, situated close to the Sahara. In April 1881, Lieutenant Weinbrenner (a French officer in the local administration) was murdered by the Bouamama insurgents. This was the turning point; from then on, Bouamama and his men were constantly pursued by the French.

Meanwhile, also in 1881, Colonel Oscar de Négrier took command of the Foreign Legion, a regiment-sized unit comprising four battalions at that time. In December of the same year, in order to more effectively chase the armed insurgents in South Oran, he mounted some of his legionnaires on mules. That step made it easier and quicker for them to cross even 40-mile-long stages, during which they would come upon the rebels when they least expected it. These mule-riding legionnaires were called sections franches (autonomous platoons), later known as mounted companies.

At the beginning of 1882, the French Army pushed its reconnaissance trips in South Oran towards the west and the south, where the then still uncertain, disputed border with Morocco was located. On April 20, a map-making topography mission, led by army engineer Captain de Castries, left the camp of Ain Ben Khelil to survey the Chott Tigri. This was a large desert depression about 40 miles long and 20 miles wide, located in a no-man’s land at what was then the Algerian-Moroccan borderlands. The expedition should last one week.

The escort of Captain de Castries‘ column was composed of:

  • 1st Company (150 legionnaires) of the 3rd Battalion, Foreign Legion
  • 3rd Company (150 legionnaires) of the 4th Battalion, Foreign Legion
  • Section franche (23 legionnaires on mules)
  • a platoon of Chasseurs d’Afrique (11 cavalrymen)
  • a group of Arab scouts (10 men)

 

The escort was led by Captain Barbier from the 3rd Battalion Foreign Legion, the 1st Company commander. On April 25, his men clashed with a group of rebels who had allied with Bouamama and seized 1,800 sheep from them. This later turned out to be a tactical error. First, those sheep had kept some of the security guards quite busy. Second, the owners wanted to get them back at any cost.

 

Algeria - South Oran - Ain Ben Khelil - map
The region of South Oran in western Algeria, with the then important military post of Ain Ben Khelil. This was the starting point of the April 1882 surveying expedition.

 
 

26 April 1882: Battle of Chott Tigri

The next day, April 26, at six o’clock in the morning, the French column left the camp of Temaid Ben Salem in the northeastern part of the Chott Tigri. They were to march in the direction of Forthassa Gharbia, which lies on the road to Ain Ben Khelil. Their survey work was finished.

Shortly afterwards, the rear guard of the column – Lieutenant Massone with his mounted section franche – was attacked. The attackers numbered about 800 horsemen and 1,500 infantrymen. The rearguard was cut off from the rest of the column by enemy cavalry; Lieutenant Massone was killed by 5 bullets and 6 saber blows. He and his 23 mounted legionnaires had mistakenly tried to fight as cavalry: they had no chance and almost all were massacred.

Seeing the bloody attack, Captain Barbier decided to take control of a 130-foot-high gara, a flat elevation above the depression, where he could mass his troops, repel the enemy and, if necessary, wait for support. In the meantime, a platoon of the 1st Company under Second Lieutenant Mesnil managed to clear the way for Captain de Castries and his engineers, as well as the Chasseurs d’Afrique and the native scouts that accompanied them. However, in doing so, the unit lost 14 legionnaires.

The main body of the column managed to reach the gara. Nevertheless, both their camels and the freshly seized sheep panicked and scattered, causing chaos on the scene. The animals were eventually captured by a charge of rebel horsemen. In this charge, Captain Barbier was killed, hit by 9 bullets and 7 saber blows. Lieutenant Weber, the 3rd Company commander, was wounded; 8 legionnaires were killed.

Captain de Castries‘ group of engineers, protected by the platoon of Second Lieutenant Mesnil, himself wounded, joined the rest of the defenders.

Captain de Castries took command of the survivors and formed an infantry square. He inflicted losses on the enemy and tried to make sorties to pick up the wounded. Legionnaire Androesco retrieved, on his back, the body of Captain Barbier, which had to be taken away from the rebels three times in a row. The battle continued.

From 1 p.m. (13:00) onward, the enemy, who had suffered significant losses, became less aggressive. Captain de Castries‘ column began its retreat in the direction of Forthassa Gharbia. After seven hours of fierce fighting, the battle was eventually over. At 6:30 p.m. (18:30), the survivors arrived at Gaaloul, a small indigenous village on the way between Forthassa and Ain Ben Khelil. There the captain and his men were finally able to rest a bit, before continuing onward to safely reach their destination.

The losses in the Battle of Chott Tigri were significant: 2 officers and 49 legionnaires killed; 2 officers and 26 legionnaires wounded. The fallen men would be buried at the military cemetery of Ain Ben Khelil.

This fierce battle proved that the freshly established units equipped with mules should not be used in combat as cavalry. Colonel de Négrier therefore ordered that each mule must be used by two men (one mounted, one marching alongside), who in battle would immediately dismount and fight as light infantry. The famous mounted companies maintained this practice until 1950, when the last of them was eventually disbanded.
 

 
 

Conclusion

After the Battle of Chott Tigri, the insurgents of Bouamama tried on several occasions to get closer to the French positions. Colonel de Négrier‘s column and another – that of certain Major Marmet – combined their movements in the region. This tactic was crowned with success, as by doing so, the enemy could be attacked several times. Finally, after a few weeks of pursuit and fighting, the rebels and their leader Bouamama fled towards Morocco, leaving in the hands of the legionnaires their dead, their wounded, two hundred tents and many animals, as well as the camel convoy that had been previously seized from the surveying expedition of Captain de Castries at the Chott Tigri. Calm returned to Algeria for many decades afterwards.

As for Lieutenant Weber, the wounded 3rd Company commander, this brave officer would be killed in a battle with the Chinese in Taiwan in January 1885.

Among the legionnaires who partook in the battle of Chott Tigri was a Dane, the future Captain Bruun of the Danish army. He became a famous archaeologist who swapped the hot south for the cold north and made, among others, an important archaeological expedition to Greenland in the 1890s.

On April 26, 1907, a war memorial was unveiled at Temaid Ben Salem in memory of the men killed in the Battle of Chott Tigri, which had occurred not far from there 25 years ago. The memorial was built by Captain Maurel‘s 3rd Mounted Company of the 2nd Foreign Regiment (now 2e REI), with white stones, according to the plans of legionnaire Lagrâce, who himself engraved the inscriptions. It was in the form of a four-sided pyramid resting on a double socle. The north face of the pyramid bore a commemorative plaque and the list of the officers, non-commissioned officers and legionnaires killed in the battle. The south face bore an excerpt from the 3rd Battalion’s war diary, recounting the battle. A replica of a Legion grenade made of stone was attached to the top of the memorial.

Unfortunately, in November of the same year, the war memorial was severely damaged by Moroccan rebels. Since then, its fate remains unknown.

 

Chott Tigri - Temaid Ben Salem - War memorial - Unveiling - 1907
The unveiling of the War Memorial built in memory of the men killed in the Battle of Chott Tigri. The ceremony took place at Temaid Ben Salem, on 26 April 1907.

Chott Tigri - Temaid Ben Salem - War memorial - 1907
The only known closer photo of the Chott Tigri War Memorial. It can be found on the Land Lousa blog.
Ain Ben Khelil - 1962 - 1er REC - Chott Tigri - 1882
A ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1882 Battle of Chott Tigri, organized by a squadron of the 1er REC at the military cemetery of Ain Ben Khelil, on 26 April 1962.

 
 

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Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines
French newspapers from 1882 and 1907
J. Brunon, G.-R. Manue, P. Carles: Le Livre d’Or de la Légion Etrangère (Charles-Lavauzelle, 1976)
Google.com
Wikipedia.org

 
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More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1911 Battle of Alouana
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1978 Battle of Kolwezi

 

 

The page was updated on: May 06, 2022

 

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