1908 Battle of Menabha

In the Algerian-Moroccan borderlands in mid-April 1908, a violent battle between French troops and local rebels took place. It marked the beginning of France’s conquest of Morocco (1907-1934) conducted from this eastern direction. Men from two Foreign Legion companies partook in the battle and made a major contribution to the French victory.

Battle of Menabha - Algeria - 1908 - Foreign Legion



In late July 1907, nine Europeans from a French construction company were killed by a mob in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca, which sits on the western coast of that North African country. The incident led to a French naval attack of the city in early August 1907 and the following landing of French troops, including a battalion of the Foreign Legion. The French conquest of Morocco had officially begun.

At the same time, French troops operated along the eastern Moroccan border in French Algeria’s South Oran territory. In the spring of 1908, the creation of a large Moroccan harka – a military force consisting of local tribesmen – was announced in the region. Its aim was to attack and occupy the South Oran town of Colomb Bechar. As a preventive measure, four French military columns under General Vigy were formed on the territory in early April: in Berguent, Ain Sefra, Beni Ounif and Colomb Bechar. The latter, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pierron, left the town and headed up north on April 7.

Lt. Col. Pierron’s column, called Column C, was composed of four infantry companies supported by a machine gun platoon, one and a half Spahis cavalry squadrons, a Saharan cavalry auxiliary platoon, and a mountain (light) artillery platoon. Among the infantrymen were two Foreign Legion companies: Captain Maury’s 24th Mounted Company, 1st Foreign Regiment (224 men) and Captain Anthoine’s 23rd Company, 2nd Foreign Regiment (195 men). The column altogether numbered about 1,100 men. They would be installed at Talzaza, halfway between Colomb Bechar and Morocco’s Mengoub, where the harka camped under a preacher named Moulay Ahmad Lahsin. The latter gathered around 2,300 Berber warriors and horsemen.

Foreign Legion Etrangere - Morocco - Algeria - Menabha - map

Foreign Legion Etrangere - Morocco - Algeria - Colomb Bechar - Ain Sefra - Berguent - Beni Ounif - columns - map
The four French columns formed to chase the Moroccan harka in the Algerian-Moroccan borderlands in April 1908. In fact, the border was slightly different at the time. Thus, Berguent was still part of Algeria.


Camping at Menabha

By April 14, Pierron’s column had left Talzaza and moved four miles (6 km) farther north to set up a camp in a broad desert plain north of Menabha (also El Menabba). This was an indigenous hamlet with a small oasis and an important source of water nearby, the only one in a wide area. The Moroccan rebels in Mengoub were about 19 miles (30 km) away.

The French camp at Menabha was established according to the rules. In the middle, protected from all sides, were the HQ, a military ambulance, and a supply convoy with camels, near which the heavy loads of provisions had been meticulously arranged. Around them, the troops’ small tents were carefully lined up with the 24th Mounted Company to the east, the 23rd Company at the northeast and southwest corners, the Spahis to the west, a company of Algerian riflemen at the northwest and southwest corners, and the Saharan auxiliaries to the south. The northern side, which was most vulnerable to enemy attack, was well guarded by the artillery and machine gun platoons.

The animals were well arranged behind each mounted unit. In the center, in reserve, another company of Algerian riflemen was stationed, including a Zouave light infantry platoon.

Before nightfall, after the usual tasks had been completed, small forward posts were designated about 300 to 400 yards around the camp. Two of them protected the northern corners and guarded the flat elevation above the plain that dominated the camp on that side, a few hundred yards away. The north face itself was cleared to allow machine gun fire at the slightest warning. To the south, two small posts were established on the other side of the palm grove. On a hill in the southeast stood an old, ruined outpost that once controlled passing nomad caravans; it would be transformed into another forward post, occupied by a group of Saharan auxiliaries. Finally, to the east, as a further precaution, a half-platoon of the 24th Mounted Company was put on alert and posted without tents on a small hill some 50 yards ahead of the camp.

The order was given to the men to sleep with the rifle tied to the wrist, and with clothes on. However, this did not change in any way the habits of the legionnaires.

With all these security precautions taken, it seemed impossible that an attacker could approach the camp without being signaled from afar. The night was calm, as was April 15 which was spent at rest and in the expectation of a departure for the next day. In the evening, however, this order was cancelled. A reconnaissance patrol reported that the enemy had moved south. That was true. The harka marched all night and in the early morning, before daylight, the rebels discreetly advanced into the French sector. Their horsemen and part of the infantry bypassed the camp from the west and progressed to the south of the palm grove.

As it turned out later, this undetected advance occurred thanks to the close assistance of local inhabitants. They had previously pledged allegiance to France and promised to Pierron to cooperate against the harka and alert his column as soon as the rebels approached. They had failed to keep their promise.

Foreign Legion Etrangere - Morocco - Algeria - Menabha - map
The column under Lt. Col. Pierron, going from Colomb Bechar, was first stationed at Talzaza; on April 14, it moved to Menabha.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Morocco - Algeria - Menabha - camp - units - organization - map
The camp of Lt. Col. Pierron at Menabha, with placement of units, as shown in an Illustration magazine of the time. South of the camp, a palm grove and two small posts (A, B) established nearby. In the south-east, a hill with an old outpost (C). In the east, a post of the Legion with about 25 men (half-platoon).
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Morocco - Harka - rebels
A rare photo of the Moroccan harka stationed north of Menabha in April 1908.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - Camp - Legionnaires
Legionnaires during a review at the eastern side of the camp at Menabha, on the eve of the battle, April 15, 1908.


Battle of Menabha

On April 16, at 4:30 in the morning, at the moment when the moon disappeared behind the horizon and the sun had not yet risen, one of the forward posts located in the palm grove suddenly gave the alarm by a rifle shot. This was abruptly followed by detonations coming from all around the camp, on the northern, eastern and southern sides. Under the cover of darkness, the French were surrounded. In the meantime, due to the violence of the attack, the forward posts were forced to retreat to the camp.

Awakened by the attack, the men jumped out of their tents with rifles in their hands. But on which target to fire? In that deep dark there was a risk of hitting the retreating comrades.

The camp side opposite the palm grove had just given way under the first violent effort of numerous enemies coming out of the palm trees; as a result, about twenty attackers were able to penetrate the encampment.

The man-to-man fight began and the first laments of the wounded were heard. Also hit were a few mules, which broke their shackles and ran through the camp, knocking over piles of the carefully lined up sacks with provisions, tearing down tents, and, finally, fleeing outside the camp toward the rebels waiting for them like the most envied prey. Meanwhile, the officers had regrouped their men. It took some time before the defenders managed to neutralize the attackers inside the camp and take up positions.

The Moroccans in the palm grove, suddenly in a bad position because of their exposure to the southern side of the camp and the machine guns reposted there, left the site and climbed to the old outpost on the southeastern hill, abandoned by the Saharan group in the face of overwhelming odds. It became the assailants’ new fire base and gave them a big advantage over the battlefield.

The situation was really serious. Therefore, by five o’clock, Lt. Col. Pierron tasked Captain Maury with reoccupying the hill, which was now the key position on which the fate of the battle hinged. The 24th Mounted Company’s commander immediately made his arrangements. To maintain the defense of the eastern side of the camp, assigned to his company, he decided to take along a single peloton (Foreign Legion mounted companies were usually made up of two pelotons consisting of several platoons), with the 1st Platoon under Lieutenant Thévenot and the 2nd Platoon under Lieutenant Coste. However, after having received the orders from their captain, both lieutenants were hit by bullets. First was Thévenot whose thigh was shot through; Captain Maury had to replace him, seconded by the platoon’s warrant officer, Adjudant Beaugé. As for Lieutenant Coste, on the way back to his unit to pass the orders, he was fatally hit in the chest. Thus, only some of his confused men followed the 1st Platoon that was already moving ahead, led by the captain. The rest stayed with the 2nd Peloton under Lieutenant Huot, now defending the southern side of the camp.

Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - 1908 - Lieutenant Maurice Coste
Lieutenant Maurice Coste, of the 24th Mounted Company, 1st Foreign Regiment. He was killed during the Battle of Menabha on April 16, 1908.

The courage and energy of this group of some seventy legionnaires with Captain Maury and Adjudant Beaugé at the lead, enabled them to get fairly close to the hill, from its eastern side. There, the warrant officer, with a small detachment, took charge of fixing the enemy from the right while the captain, with the rest of the men, climbed the eastern slope of the hill to attack the adversary occupying the old outpost; the group of the warrant officer would rejoin them a little while later.

Extraordinary acts of bravery were performed during the assault and soon, many dead legionnaires appeared on the hillside. Nevertheless, Maury and his men succeeded in reaching a low wall that had once formed the first defensive line of the old outpost. Sergeant Dasse and a small detachment were charged with defending the wall; a moment later, his head was smashed by a bullet. Sergeant Thill had to replace his killed comrade.

In the meantime, the captain, along with the warrant officer and a group of last combat-ready legionnaires, continued their advance to the top of the hill and attacked a five-foot wall of the outpost. However, they immediatelly faced a furious enemy fire both from inside the post and from the palm grove. Corporal Bazanowski and a number of legionnaires fell dead, others were wounded. The corpse of legionnaire Profilet could be seen lying across the wall. Captain Maury, already four times wounded, asked for volunteers to help him to remove the corpse and prevent the enemy from desecrating it. An Italian legionnaire named Guy managed to get closest and remove the body of his comrade when he was fatally wounded by a bullet in the chest. His last words were: “For France, my captain!” During this rescue operation, the captain received the fifth bullet – it strongly damaged his right wrist. Adjudant Beaugé was wounded, too.

Finally, the artillery platoon under Lieutenant Gerbenne went into action and fired on the enemy. A few precisely aimed shells landed inside the fortification and knocked out the Moroccans. That allowed Maury and his men to reach the top of the hill, break the last vestiges of resistance, and occupy the old outpost. Lt. Col. Pierron, who had followed the captain’s heroic action with anguish, embraced him later in front of the entire column and thanked him: “You have saved us.”

Meanwhile, defending the camp, Lieutenant Huot and his second peloton of the mounted company were fighting hard, too. Hence, at about 6 a.m. began the enemy’s retreat, followed by a vigorous offensive of the French troops. The Moroccans were now fleeing in front of them, and the pursuit continued for several miles from the camp.



The battlefield was littered with dead bodies. The French column suffered 19 men killed and 85 wounded. The vast majority of those killed were members of the Foreign Legion. Captain Maury’s 24th Mounted Company lost Lieutenant Coste and 11 men; another 29 were wounded, including the captain and Lieutenants Thévenot and Huot. From the 23rd Company, also bravely defending the camp during the battle, four men were killed and eight wounded, including Lieutenants About and Saunier. Another 14 members of Pierron’s column later succumbed to their wounds.

As for the Moroccans, over 100 of their men were killed and many more were wounded.

After the battle, the weapons taken from the enemy were gathered. The Mounted Company alone took a fanion, 34 rifles, about 50 sabers and numerous Arab cartridges full of ammunition.

All in all, it was a disaster for the Moroccan harka. Despite all odds of success, its lack of tactics and discipline eventually allowed the French to defeat it.

The Battle of Menabha was the first important action of what would later become known as the 1908 Campaign of Upper Guir (Haut-Guir), named after the frontier region between Algeria’s Colomb Bechar and Morocco’s Bou Denib. In May, the 24th Mounted Company would once again prove their bravery, this time at Bou Denib. But that’s another story. Nevertheless, what’s important, the 1907-1908 French campaigns in Morocco helped launch the conquest of the country which was successfully achieved in 1934.

Over the next two decades, the 24th Company, 1er RE would gradually become the Mounted Company, 3e REI. In late December 1949, the unit would be disbanded as the last of the Foreign Legion mounted companies.

The desert plain north of Menabha saw another sad event almost forty years later, in late November 1947. A North American B-25 Mitchell aircraft crashed there, killing famous French General Leclerc on board. A large memorial was build at the site in his memory.

As for the rifles and sabers that the Legion captured at Menabha, some of them were sent to the 1st Foreign Regiment’s Hall of Honor in Algeria’s Sidi Bel Abbes and displayed as a panoply on the wall to the right of the entrance.

In 1962, following Algeria’s independence, the trophies were transferred to Aubagne in Southern France, the regiment’s new home. However, since the late 1960s, only a few of them were displayed in the newly established Legion Museum. After 2013, the 1908 battles are no longer included in the museum’s permanent tour. Instead, the pieces of the “Menabha panoply” are stored in the museum’s depositories.


Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - 1908 - Wounded - convoy
A convoy with the French troops wounded during the 1908 Battle of Menabha.

Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - 1908 - killed men - legionnaire
Men of the French column killed at Menabha. On the right, note the legionnaire of the 24th Mounted Company, wearing a white uniform with a blue sash wrapped around the abdomen, and a white-covered kepi with tactical goggles.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - 1908 - rifles - trophies - postcard
The postcard of the time shows the trophies captured from the enemy at Menabha, on April 16, 1908. They were displayed back in Colomb Bechar. On the left, an Algerian rifleman (tirailleur); on the right, a legionnaire.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - 1908 - Remington rifles - fanion - trophies
Other trophies seized from the rebels at Menabha, including their fanion (guidon) and two U.S. Remington Rolling Block 1867 rifles with a locally made decoration.
Foreign Legion Etrangere - Menabha - 1908 - Captain Maury - Lieutenants Huot, Thévenot, About and Saunier
A very rare photo coming from a private archive, never published before. The photo was taken at the military hospital in Algeria’s Oran in early May 1908, and shows the officers wounded at Menabha three weeks earlier, on April 16. Sitting are, from left to right: Lieutenants About and Saunier from the 23rd Company, 2e RE; Captain Maury, the hero of the battle; Lieutenant Prunis, who commanded the machine gun platoon. Behind them, Lieutenant Bernard from the Saharan auxiliaries, and Lieutenant Huot (white jacket), head of the 2nd Peloton, 24th Mounted Company.



Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines
Jacques Hortes: Les Compagnies montées de la Légion étrangère (Editions Gandini, 2001)
Journal des Sciences Militaire bulletin (January 1912)
Le Monde illustré magazine (April 1908)
L’Afrique du Nord illustrée magazine (April 1908)
Le Journal daily (April 1908)
L’Écho d’Oran daily (May 1908)
Le Matin daily (April 1908)
Mémorial Gen Web (Fr)
Google Maps


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More about the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1882 Battle of Chott Tigri
1911 Battle of Alouana
1933 Battle of Bou Gafer
1952 Battle of Na San



The page was updated on: April 26, 2023


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