1932 Turenne Rail Accident

In North Africa’s Algeria, on September 14, 1932, a train carrying a detachment of the Foreign Legion derailed near the town of Turenne. This rail accident caused the death of 56 legionnaires and left more than 200 wounded. Even today, it remains the deadliest accident ever experienced by the Legion. However, the sad event has almost been forgotten. Learn more in the article written to pay homage to the victims of the 1932 Turenne Rail Accident…

1932 Turenne Rail Accident - History - Foreign Legion


La version française de cet article:
Catastrophe de Turenne de 1932


The accident

In 1932, France was still engaged in Morocco where its troops, including three infantry regiments of the Foreign Legion, were participating in the pacification of the country. Detachments of legionnaires were regularly sent from Algeria to Morocco as reinforcement. This was also the case for a detachment of 510 men from the 1st Foreign Infantry Regiment (1er REI, now 1er RE). Commanded by Lieutenants Pénicaud and Parisot, it was composed of 27 non-commissioned officers, 46 corporals, and 435 legionnaires, all of whom volunteered for a combat tour.

On Wednesday, September 14, at 7:15 a.m., this detachment left the station in Sidi Bel Abbès, the then Legion’s headquarters, located in the Oran region of Algeria. The legionnaires traveled to Oujda in northeastern Morocco, 80 miles (130 km) away, where they were to be distributed among the three foreign regiments. Their mixed train no. 403, from the PLM railroad company, was composed of a steam locomotive and twenty-nine cars, thirteen of which were freight wagons.

The journey was uneventful. The train successfully covered more than half of the route before taking a break in Tlemcen, another large city in the Oran region. Thereafter, it approached the worst section of the line, located between Tlemcen and the small town of Turenne (now Sabra). Here the track follows the Ourit Valley, has a series of sharp curves, passes through several tunnels, and crosses the valley several times on stone bridges.

At 2:53 p.m., while passing through this challenging section, a terrible disaster occurred at the exit of tunnel no. 4 at kilometer point 163.770, in a curve between Zelboun and Turenne. The train carrying the detachment derailed and, after rolling on the ballast for about a hundred yards, it slid into a ravine about 70 feet (20 m) deep. There, the passenger and freight cars collided, causing their wooden structures to completely shatter. Among the wrecked cars were the bodies of the legionnaires. Many were dead, and others seriously injured. There were screams of men trapped in the wreckage. A scene of horror and anguish.


The causes

What were the causes of this disaster? As we have learned from subsequent investigations, renewal work was being carried out on this section of the line by a private company. As a result, the track had been partially stripped of its ballast and numerous railroad ties were out of place. It is also suspected that the driver ignored the warning signs and drove at the regular speed of 25 mph (40 km/h) instead of the stated 18.5 mph (30 km/h). Thus, the loosened rails couldn’t carry the moving train, and the derailment took place. After a hundred yards of rolling on the ballast, along with a deafening noise, the train slid down the slope into the ravine.

According to a rescued legionnaire, another problem could be the fact that the station manager in Tlemcen was content with hooking up freight wagons without brakes to the tail of the train, which was against the rules (the freight wagons should have been at the head of the train and the passenger cars following). These same wagons, loaded with heavy cargo, crushed the wooden cars full of legionnaires when falling into the ravine.


Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Railroad - Tlemcen
The challenging section of the railroad between Algeria’s Tlemcen and Turenne, in the early 20th century.

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - map
The northwestern part of Algeria bordering Morocco, where the 1932 rail accident took place.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Wreckage
The wrecked train no. 403 in the ravine near Turenne, on September 14, 1932.

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Wreckage of the train

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Wreckage

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Wreckage

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Wreckage

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Wreckage


The rescue work

Rescue work was immediately organized. The surviving legionnaires worked to free their injured comrades. At the same time, the gendarmerie of Turenne, located about 3 miles (5 km) away, was alerted by the driver of the train, who had miraculously escaped. Then, five rescue trains arrived successively at the scene of the tragedy. They left from Tlemcen, Bel Abbès and Oujda, with doctors and equipment for the recovery and rescue of the wounded, as well as civil and military authorities.

When he heard, General Rollet, the “Father of the Legion,” arrived himself and took charge of the rescue operations. The doctors sorted out the wounded and administered first aid while preparing the evacuation of the most seriously injured. The first train of wounded arrived in Tlemcen at 9:40 p.m., also carrying sixteen dead bodies, the first to be discovered. The work continued throughout the night and the following days.

On September 15, the Governor General of Algeria, Mr. Carde, went to the scene of the disaster. He met with General Rollet and conveyed to him the condolences of the President of the Republic. As General Rollet remarked in the following conversation: “Yesterday, in a single day, I lost more men than in two years in Morocco.”


The consequences

After a few weeks, the number of wounded and dead stabilized at their final figures. Of the railroad workers, there were 5 dead and 2 wounded. Of the 510 men in the 1er REI detachment were:

  • 56 dead legionnaires (including 9 who died later of their wounds)
  • 217 wounded men (of whom 69 were seriously injured and 148 slightly)
  • 20 legionnaires (among the seriously injured) who underwent amputations
  • Lieutenant Pénicaud, who was among the seriously injured men
  • Lieutenant Parisot, who was among the slightly wounded


Only the names of the 9 legionnaires who died later of their wounds are known:

  • BOUFFET Seraphin
  • KOCHK Oscar
  • MARCINOFF Téodor
  • PÉRIE Paul
  • ROUET Télémaque
  • STATZAK Ludga
  • WRONA Joseph


Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Rescue work
Rescue work on the site of the accident.

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Survivors
A group of surviving legionnaires from the derailed train no. 403.
General Rollet - Foreign Legion - Father of the Legion
General Rollet, “Father of the Legion”.


The funeral of the victims

On Saturday, September 17, the funeral for victims of the disaster took place in Sidi Bel Abbès, in the presence of French North Africa’s most senior figures. Arriving from Tlemcen in the morning, the coffins were taken off the train, lined up on one of the station platforms and covered with flags and flowers. Colonel Nicolas‘ 1er REI was there in full force to pay respects and homage to their comrades killed in the accident.

The religious services were held immediately, in the presence of all the authorities and delegations, as well as the civilians who had managed to find a spot on the platforms. A prayer was pronounced by the Protestant pastor. The absolution was then given by the Catholic clergy of the city.

Following this touching ceremony, several official speeches were made. Among them were those of Colonel Nicolas and General Rollet. The latter, moved to tears, spoke to the crowd:

“After Colonel Nicolas, my rank calls me to speak on behalf of the Legion, which mourns the victims of a horrible catastrophe. The handsome detachment that the 1st Foreign Regiment sent to Morocco as reinforcement was made up of volunteers, all of whom were eager to “go to the battlefield” with all its anticipated risks, which they were happy to take, except for the unforeseeable one they fell victim to. During the painful hours that I spent with the rescuers — the survivors here present —, it was the only recrimination that I heard from them against the fatality that mowed down so many of their comrades: that they died on the field of honor, but not on the one they were entitled to.”

In his speech, the general also said:

“In this unfortunate situation, the traditional qualities of the Legion – solidarity, comradeship, stoicism – were shown once again. The rescue operations were carried out without any legionnaire being ordered into this service at any time. All of them, wounded and able-bodied, were volunteers. I only had to intervene to reduce their number. On the side of the victims, from the unfortunate men still alive and trapped in the wreckage of their cars, there were no complaints, only cries to signal their presence, then silence when they were sure they would not be forgotten. Almost all of them were seriously wounded; several died without renewing their call. In its grief, the Legion has a right to be proud of the conduct of its own men.”

After the speeches, the coffins were placed on the beds of twelve trucks which would carry them to the cemetery, through the streets of Bel Abbès. The trucks were surrounded by a cordon of legionnaires. The funeral procession was led by the more than 230 survivors of the disaster. Following Colonel Nicolas’ order, they paraded in the uniform they were wearing at the time of the derailment, torn and stained with blood. A huge crowd, estimated by some journalists to be close to 50,000 people, formed a hedge as the procession passed.

At the cemetery, the legionnaires lined up the coffins in a long trench that had been dug overnight.

It should be noted that only 52 coffins were present at this ceremony, held on September 17. The last four bodies were only discovered in the wreckage of the derailed train on the night of the 16th to the 17th. Heavily wedged under several vehicle chassis, they were removed during the day. The funeral of these four poor legionnaires took place in Sidi Bel Abbès on September 20, in the simplest way and without any speeches being made.


Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Bel Abbes - coffins
The 52 coffins lined up at the station of Sidi Bel Abbès, on September 17, 1932. They are covered with flags and flowers. It should be noted that the last four dead bodies were only extracted from the wreckage that same day. These four poor legionnaires were buried quietly in Sidi Bel Abbès on September 20.

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Bel Abbes - General Rollet - Colonel Nicolas
General Rollet giving his speech at the station of Bel Abbès. Behind him (in the white uniform), Colonel Nicolas, head of the 1er REI.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Bel Abbes - convoy - coffins - trucks
The 52 coffins are carried through the streets of Sidi Bel Abbès on beds of twelve trucks, surrounded by a column of armed legionnaires. An innumerable crowd gathered around the procession. Photo source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Bel Abbes - procession - coffins
The funeral procession going through Bel Abbès, September 17, 1932.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Bel Abbes - Survivors
The procession was led by the survivors of the accident in the uniform they wore at the time of the derailment. They are followed by General Rollet, his wife, Colonel Nicolas, and others. This rare photo comes from an old album of a German legionnaire, owned by Hans-Michael Tappen; it was found by Jack from Mon Legionnaire.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Bel Abbes - Cemetery - coffins
The rare photo shows the coffins at the cemetery of Bel Abbès, September 17, 1932. Even this photo comes from the same old album owned and posted by Hans-Michael Tappen.


The memorial to the victims of the disaster

On the initiative of the Foreign Legion veterans from Tlemcen and thanks to the efforts and charity of the “Committee for the erection of the memorial,” which was founded in Bel Abbès in late 1932, a memorial would be erected to honor the legionnaires and railroad workers who were victims of the Turenne disaster, at the very site of the accident.

The memorial would be more than 35 feet (10 m) tall, with a stone base, topped by a huge grenade, the emblem of the Foreign Legion. It was the work of architect Paul Terrade, contractor Eugène Brahic, and Corporal Panabières from an artillery regiment. The latter directed the construction work that was carried out by the 1er REI legionnaires under Corporal Viviani. The land on which the memorial would stand was kindly donated by a local resident, Mr. Ould Ben Malek.

On September 23, 1934, after a few months of work, the memorial was unveiled in the presence of high ranking personalities, including Lieutenant Colonel Azan, the then head of the DCRE who was also acting as temporary commander of the 1er REI. Along with him, the mayor of Sidi Bel Abbès or Mrs. Rollet were present as well. General Rollet did not attend this event, as he was participating in military maneuvers of the Oran Division.

As a matter of interest, on the memorial’s plaque, the number of dead legionnaires reads 57. Unfortunately, we do not know if this is a fact or a simple mistake as there is no public document clarifying this figure.



Even today, upon 90 years, the Turenne railroad accident remains the deadliest accident ever experienced by the Foreign Legion. Yet, it has almost been forgotten. The last official commemoration of this disaster took place in September 1957, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary. The ceremony was organized by the 5e REI, stationed in the Tlemcen sector at the time.

Regarding the question of responsibility for the disaster, the PLM railroad company has never admitted any fault on its part. As for the private company that repaired the track, one of its employees was sentenced to four months of suspended prison by the criminal court of Tlemcen, in late October 1933. The company was also found civilly liable, without giving any other details to the case. The other defendants were acquitted.

Despite the tragedy of September 14, 1932, reinforcements of legionnaires continued to leave Algeria for Morocco on regular basis. Thanks to that, a year and a half later, the pacification of the country was successfully achieved.


Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Memorial - design - construction work
On the left, the design of the memorial from 1933. On the right, the work carried out by the 1er REI legionnaires in 1934.

Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Memorial - 1934 - Unveiling
The unveiling of the memorial to the victims of the Turenne disaster. The unveiling took place near the site of the accident, on September 23, 1934.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Memorial - Algeria - 1934
The freshly built memorial in 1934. It has a height of more than 35 feet (10 m).
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Memorial - 1957 - 5e REI - ceremony
The last official ceremony to pay homage to the victims of the 1932 disaster occurred in September 1957, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary. It was organized by the 5e REI, then stationed in the Tlemcen sector.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Memorial - 2010
The abandoned memorial in 2010, still proudly reminding the already forgotten tragedy. On the top, the seven-flame grenade of the Legion. The grenade itself is about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall.
Turenne - Rail Accident - 1932 - Foreign Legion - Memorial - Site of the accident
The site of the 1932 rail accident, with the memorial erected nearby.


Main information & images sources:
Képi blanc magazines
French newspapers from 1932, 1933, and 1934
Pierre Soulié: Paul-Frédéric Rollet (Editions italiques, 2007)


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The page was updated on: September 16, 2022


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