Foreign Legion in Madagascar in 1947-1951

At the end of March 1947, a violent rebellion broke out in Madagascar, then a French colony. Within a few weeks, accompanied by massacres of French settlers and the pro-French Malagasy, the rebellion had reached most of the eastern coast. Already at war with the Viet Minh in Indochina for three months, France had to react quickly. Among the units sent to suppress the revolt and to restore order on the island, there was a battalion of the French Foreign Legion. Learn about this already forgotten campaign…

La version française de cet article: La Légion à Madagascar en 1947-1951

 
Foreign Legion in Madagascar in 1947-1951 - History - Rebellion in Madagascar in 1947-49

 
 

Introduction

Madagascar, nicknamed “Red Island” (in reference to the laterite which colors its plateaus), is the fourth largest island in the world. Located in the Indian Ocean, the island is geographically attached to the African continent, from which it is separated to the west by the Mozambique Channel. Its inhabitants are the Malagasy, divided into two sub-groups: the Highlanders, inhabitants of the Central Highlands (also known as Hauts-Plateaux) in Madagascar who descended from Austronesian migrants speaking a Malayo-Polynesian language. The second sub-group is represented by coastal dwellers who descended from East African migrants.

In the 1810s, different Malagasy kingdoms were definitively unified under the authority of the Central Highlands elite and the island became the Kingdom of Madagascar.

The first French attempt to establish a colony in Madagascar occurred in the 17th century (Colonie de Fort-Dauphin, 1643-74). Further attempts were made a century later, in the 1770s. During the 19th century, French influence on the island increased. It led to the French intervention in 1881-82 and to the Franco-Hova War of 1883-85. A treaty was signed. In 1895, a second French expedition arrived in Madagascar, this time even with a battalion of the Foreign Legion. The Kingdom would be abolished and Madagascar annexed; in 1896, it became a French colony. The pacification of the island began and would continue until 1905, with the help of two Foreign Legion battalions already stationed on the island. Thereafter, almost forty years of relative prosperity followed, and the country was growing richer.

Nevertheless, the situation changed during World War II. France was defeated by Germany and partially occupied. The colonies, including Madagascar, were placed under the authority of the French government in Vichy (that one in collaboration with the Germans).

In May 1942, the Red Island saw a British invasion. Known as the Battle of Madagascar (or Operation Ironclad), this invasion was seen as an aggression against French territory by both Vichy France and the Free French of General de Gaulle, based in London. However, the occupation of Madagascar wasn’t completed until November 1942, when the main Allied landings took place in French North Africa.

In 1943, Madagascar found itself in French hands again. But the reputation of France had already been undermined in the eyes of the Malagasy. This was why their nationalist sentiments and the desire for emancipation emerged after World War II, as in other French colonies at the time (especially in Indochina). Peace in Madagascar was in danger.

 
Madagascar - map

Foreign Legion - Madagascar - legionnaires - 1895-1905
Legionnaires in Madagascar around 1900.
Battle of Madagascar - Operation Ironclad - 1942 - French Troops
French troops during the Battle of Madagascar in 1942.

 
 

Political situation in Madagascar in 1946-47

In 1946, two important Malagasy movements were formed to represent Madagascar in the French Union (a new political entity to replace the former colonial empire). The first of them was the Democratic Movement for the Malagasy Revival (Mouvement Démocratique de la Renovation Malagache, MDRM) led by Joseph Raseta, a pre-war anti-colonial militant, who was elected to the Constituent Assembly of the Provisional Government in France in November 1945. The movement’s goal was to gain independence for Madagascar. The MDRM was ruled by the Merina, a people of Indonesian origin occupying the Central Highlands, ethnically related to the nobility of the former Kingdom of Madagascar and its rulers. The MDRM would quickly become the main political movement of the Malagasy.

The second movement formed on the Red Island in 1946 was the Party of the Disinherited of Madagascar (Parti des déshérités de Madagascar, PADESM) led by Philibert Tsiranana. This movement of the pro-French Malagasy, encouraged by the colonial government, was made up of the coastal peoples, mainly from the western coast. They opposed independence because they feared a possible return to power of Merina rulers, who had used them as slaves before 1895.

In the November 1946 elections, three members of the MDRM were the first ever Malagasy deputies elected to the National Assembly in Paris. It was a significant victory for the separatists.

In January and February 1947, the first provincial elections in Madagascar were held. During these elections, MDRM activists and their supporters were provoking more or less violent incidents. With the pro-French policy of PADESM, these aspects whipped up a bitter rivalry between the two movements. The incidents multiplied and the possibility of an uprising would become increasingly evident. Since mid-March 1947, military intelligence had been confirming that the insurrection all Malagasy militants were speaking about would start at the end of the month.

At the same time, nationalist secret societies were fully active on the Red Island, in collaboration with the MDRM, whose certain leaders had been members of these societies during WWII. These were in particular secret societies “PANAMA” (Nationalist Patriots, created in 1941) and “JINA” (Nationalist Youth, created in 1943), the latter led by a certain Monja Jaona. JINA would be responsible for triggering the expected rebellion that was going to erupt soon on the island, in this violent atmosphere.

 

MDRM - Joseph Raseta - 1946
Joseph Raseta from MDRM in 1946.

 
 

Military situation in Madagascar in early 1947

In March 1947, France did not have a single “European” unit on the Red Island. There were two Madagascar mixed regiments (RMM) of three battalions each (i.e. 1,500 – 2,000 men). They were made up of troops from Madagascar, Senegal (West Africa) and the Comoros (an archipelago located north-west of the island). The 1er RMM was stationed in the region of Tananarive (the capital), the 2e RMM in the far north of the island, at Diego Suarez, the target of the British landings in 1942.

In the region of Tananarive, there was also based the Autonomous Motorized Detachment (DMA) of Lt Colonel Farret, a combined-arms unit comprising a motorized infantry battalion (BI / DMA, using trucks for movement) of three Senegalese companies, a reconnaissance squadron with three armored car platoons, a motorized artillery battery, an engineer company and a transport company (i.e. 1,000 – 1,500 men together).

There were also two colonial artillery groups, those of Diego Suarez and Emyrne (Imerina, the land of the Merina), and a Malagasy infantry battalion (BMT, created in 1946), the latter with exemplary loyalty.

Apart from these units, maintaining order in Madagascar was guarded by militiamen from the Indigenous Guard of Madagascar and dependencies (the Malagasy and Comorians, some 2,000 – 3,000 men) and by the police which were composed, in addition to the Malagasy, of Comorians and Senegalese.

All these units were commanded by French officers; they also included a certain number of French non-commissioned officers and corporals.

 
Madagascar - Tananarive - Diego Suarez - map

Madagascar - Tananarive - city - 1947
Tananarive in Madagascar in 1947.

 
 

At the outset of the rebellion in Madagascar in 1947

The rebellion in Madagascar broke out on the night of March 29, 1947, in the eastern part of the island: in Moramanga, Manakara (stronghold of JINA), Sahanisaka, Ambatofotsy, at Fort-Carnot, and finally in Vohipeno and in the region of Nosy-Varika. At the beginning, the rebellion was characterized in the vast majority by massacres of French settlers and the pro-French Malagasy, burned alive in their homes or killed with cold weapons.

But the most surprising incident during the first hours of the rebellion took place in Moramanga, the garrison town of the 1er RMM and DAM. Around 2,000 attackers assaulted the local military base – Camp Tristani – and killed four officers and dozens of soldiers (Major Perrier, Captain Weibel and Second Lieutenant Brie from 1er RMM + Lieutenant Hervé from DAM transport company). Fortunately, the attackers weren’t able to open arms depot to seize weapons and ammunition; they had to vanish empty-handed.

Despite this strategic failure, the rebellion was gradually increasing. In three months, it expanded across a large part of the eastern coast (MDRM’s bastion), as far as Tananarive. France, already at war with the Viet Minh in Indochina since December 1946, had to react briskly.

In April, the 6th Company of the 2nd Parachute Shock Battalion (128 men led by Captain Geraud) and a company of Senegalese riflemen arrived in Madagascar, followed in May and June by two reinforcement battalions of Senegalese riflemen (BTSR). These troops would be accompanied by a battalion of the Foreign Legion arriving in June, two battalions of Algerian riflemen (from the 7e + 9e RTA, in July) and by three battalions of Moroccan riflemen (from the 1er + 5e + 2e RTM, in July and September). A squadron of armored jeeps and an engineer battalion would be also constituted on the island in July and September.

In total, there were about 15,000 French troops in Madagascar in 1947 either to suppress the rebellion at the eastern coast or to maintain order in the rest of the island. Initially, these units were under the command of General Pellet, Commander-in-Chief, who was replaced in December 1947 by General Garbay.

 

Madagascar - Rebellion - 1947 - map
The core areas affected by the rebellion and its maximum range which was reached in July 1947.

 
 

Foreign Legion and the rebellion in Madagascar in 1947-1949

In 1947, the Foreign Legion was already well established in Algeria (North Africa) for over a century. Its battalions were spread across Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Indochina.

One of them, the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade of Morocco (4e DBLEM, a two-battalion military formation activated in 1946) was designated in May 1947 for reinforcing the troops in Madagascar as a bataillon de marche. That means as a task force, a temporary unit purposely constituted for a particular task or mission. By the way, all French battalions going to Madagascar were designated as bataillon de marche, contrary to those deploying to Indochina.

Under the command of Major Pierre Périn (a captain with the 1st Battalion, RMLE in France in 1944-45), the battalion comprised a HQ company and three infantry companies (4th + 5th + 6th), numbering in total 20 officers, 61 non-commissioned officers and 456 legionnaires. As of June 2, the 2nd Battalion left Morocco to embark on the “SS Nantes” in Oran, an important Algerian port. On June 28, 1947, the legionnaires landed at Tamatave, a large town on the eastern coast of the Red Island and its most important port. It took forty-two years since the last legionnaire had left this country.

As of June 30, the battalion went into action and began to criss-cross the forest area around ​​Tamatave. The legionnaires were mainly equipped with MAS 36 rifles. In addition, each platoon possessed, in general, three FM 24/29 light machine guns (one per group of 10-15 men), three Brandt Mle 35 mortars (60 mm caliber), a few of aged Lebel Model 1886 rifles used with Viven-Bessières rifle grenades, and Mauser Karabiner 98K sniper rifles. Group leaders were armed with a MAS-38 submachine gun.

Regarding the Fahavalos (the rebels – pronounced simply Favals), they mainly bore a spear or an antsy (machete). Out of several thousand warriors (estimates claim 10,000 – 13,000; the exact number is unknown), there were only a two hundred rifles or aged carbines, and a few machine guns. In the majority of cases, the adversary was represented by groups comprising from 5 to 300 ill-trained men, stimulated by toaka (local rice rum), and fanaticized either by a militant anti-French propaganda or by their clan leaders and magicians. Like fifty years ago.

Their advantage were the tropical rainforest and the poorly accessible bush, since the transport network in Madagascar was considerably insufficient at the time. In addition, the rebels had destroyed dozens of bridges and were systematically cutting off essential lines of communication, including the two local railroads.

On the contrary, the fundamental advantage on the side of the French command was the geographical position of Madagascar. Unlike the situation in Indochina, Madagascar was an isolated island with no possibility of a vital supply to the rebels, both in armaments and in troops, across land borders.

The Fahavalos’ strategy was therefore to occupy the villages in the bush and make them, by propaganda or by force, to supply the rebels. On the other hand, the strategy of the French command calculated on a visible presence of its troops, to restore both order and confidence in France among the village chiefs and their inhabitants. In this way, the rebels could have been isolated and forced to surrender, or eliminated.

For that reason the French were creating small outposts usually occupied by a platoon each. These platoons carried out regular “columns” (patrols) to explore and pacify their proposed sub-sector. Occasionally, the outposts or the columns experienced serious attacks, including hand-to-hand combat. But quite often the enemy fled immediately after the legionnaires had opened fire.

 

4th Foreign Infantry Regiment - 4th Demi-brigade - 4e REI - 4e DBLE - Foreign Legion - Badge - 1937
The badge of the 4e REI from 1937, used since 1946 by its successor, the 4e DBLEM. The badge was also worn in Madagascar. Today, it is a badge of the 4e RE.

4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - 2nd Battalion - Foreign Legion - Algeria - Oran - 1947
The legionnaires of the 2nd Battalion, 4e DBLEM in Oran, before their embarkation for Madagascar.

Madagascar - Tananarive - Tamatave - carte

Major Perin - Pierre Perin - 4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
Major Pierre Périn, commander of the 2nd Batailon, 4e DBLEM in Madagascar. The photo was published with the kind permission of Krzysztof Schramm, historian of the A.A.A.L.E. en Pologne.

 
 

In two weeks, the legionnaires would suppress all danger in the Tamatave region, despite the loss of Lieutenant Henri Gresle-Bouignol, who died in action on July 6. He became the first member of the Legion to be killed on the Red Island in half a century.

Thereafter, the battalion would be transferred further south, to the Central Highlands, in the forest region of Fianarantsoa, ​​where no one had been able to go since the beginning of the revolt. This was the region of the Tanala, a tenacious people perhaps even prouder than the Merina. During the following months, at the cost of incredible fatigue in the treacherous dense forest full of tropical diseases, despite the rainy season (December-April) and numerous ambushes with the confirmed warriors, the Foreign Legion battalion persecuted the local Fahavalos and forced them to submit.

Meanwhile, a reorganization of the 4e DBLEM had taken place in Morocco. So, on October 1, 1947, the 2nd Battalion in Madagascar was renamed and became officially the Bataillon de Marche (Task Force) of the 4th Demi-brigade. The battalion’s provisional headquarters would be placed in Ambositra, a town located some 60 miles north of Fianarantsoa ​​where military operations had been continuing.

In January 1948, a large reinforcement left Morocco to strengthen the Legion battalion in Madagascar. The battalion companies would be completed and, moreover, a 7th Company would be constituted. By February, the battalion strength had reached 755 men.

The same year, another three Senegalese infantry battalions and a mixed battalion reinforced the French troops on the island.

In early July, the battalion’s HQ was set up in Fianarantsoa, ​​at Camp Mandalahy. All the sectors assigned to the legionnaires were put back in order. The Fahavalos had returned to their villages, and life gained its normal course. But the pacification would continue, with both military patrols and construction works (e.g. road/bridge building).

From the 1947 rebellion, only a few rebel groups remained active in September 1948, isolated in their forest refuge and commanded by three autonomous warlords. After the death of Michel Radaoroson (July 20) and Victorien Razafindrabe (September 7), the most remarkable of them was Philippe Lehoaha (called “Minister of War”), a former corporal of the French Army. He was captured on November 10. His group consisted at the time of only a few dozens of Malagasy ex-tirailleurs with two FM light machine guns and a few rifles from the First World War. Nevertheless, it was the most armed group back then.

On February 1, 1949, another prominent rebel leader, Joseph Ralaivalo (referred to as the “Marshal”), was captured in the same Legion-controlled southern sector, located east of Fianarantsoa and Ambositra. Other submissions of less important insurgent groups would follow. Finally, the very last rebels hidden in the forest (small packs of certain Etienne and Bernard) surrendered on April 7, 1949. That day, the rebellion in Madagascar was definitively over. The final number of submissions, including inhabitants of rebel-dominated villages, reached 560,000.

In two years, according to official statistics released by the French administration in 1950, the events on the Red Island between 1947 and 1949 claimed 11,342 “known” victims, including some 1,900 Malagasy on the French side (the “partisans” serving France as auxiliaries, employees in the colonial administration, and members of PADESM) and 550 French citizens, soldiers included.

The MDRM was banned in May 1947 and its officials sentenced to life imprisonment (however, they were amnestied ten years later, in 1958). In 1949, order and peace reigned again over Madagascar.

 
Madagascar - Fianarantsoa - Ambositra - map

4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Jeep - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
A jeep of the 4e DBLEM in Madagascar in 1947. Note the insignia of the 4e REI. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Madagascar - Poste - Foreign Legion - 1947-48
One of the small Legion outposts in Madagascar in 1947-49.
Fahavalo - rebel - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947-48
A Fahavalo (Malagasy rebel) during the 1947 revolt.
Lieutenant Henri Gresle-Bouignol - 4th Demi-brigade - 4e DBLE - Foreign Legion - 1947
Lieutenant Henri Gresle-Bouignol, killed on July 6, 1947. He was the first member of the Legion who died in action in Madagascar after half a century.
Bataillon de Marche - 4th Demi-brigade - 4e DBLE - Foreign Legion - Badge - 1948
The badge of the Bataillon de Marche of the 4e DBLE (M for Morocco was ignored). The badge was created in late 1947 and homologated in 1948. It had been worn since mid-1948; first by the officers and then by the rest of the battalion. It represents the “Red Island” and the affiliation between the legionnaires of the 4e DBLE arriving in 1947 and their ancestors from 1895.
4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Fanion - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
The fanion of the 4e DBLE’s Bataillon de Marche (Task Force) in Madagascar.
Philippe Lehoaha - Michel Razanakalahy - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
A legionnaire of the 4e REI with Philippe Lehoaha (on the right, smaller), the most formidable rebel leader of the revolt in Madagascar. On the left, Michel Razanakalahy, his faithful deputy. Razanakalahy was a senior NCO of the French Army, with 21 years of service + 4 years in German prison; he retired in February 1947. He was the highest-ranking ex-tirailleur among all of the Malagasy rebels. This photo appeared in a 1949 Kepi blanc issue (Legion’s official magazine). Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Philippe Lehoaha - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Philippe Lehoaha signs the call to lay down arms, November 1948. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Joseph Ralaivalo - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Joseph Ralaivalo, another prominent rebel leader. He was captured in early February 1949. Since then, the rebellion would have been virtually over. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.

 
 

Foreign Legion units in Madagascar in 1949-1951

On May 1, 1949, following another reorganization of the 4e DBLE in Morocco in late 1948, the battalion in Madagascar became the 4th Battalion of the 4th Foreign Infantry Regiment (4e REI). During the summer of 1949, after fulfilling their two-year tour, the legionnaires under Major Périn left the Red Island to return to North Africa. They were relieved on the island by a new Foreign Legion reinforcement which armed the five companies of the 4th Battalion (CCB + 4th + 5th + 6th + 7th Coy). Now under the command of Major Roger Brinon, a former captain of the 4e DBLE in Senegal in 1941-43 and of the RMLE in France in 1944-45. Later, this officer would command the 1st Battalion of the 13e DBLE in Indochina and would be wounded at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Furthermore, the 4th Battalion was reinforced in Madagascar by another two Legion units. The first one was the 4th Squadron of the 2e REC. This squadron was organized in Sidi Bel Abbès (a town in Algeria, then the HQ of the Legion, until 1962) on June 1, 1949. Led by Captain Raymond Calmels, the squadron left Oran on July 24 and landed on the Red Island at Tamatave on August 27.

It should be noted that the 4th Squadron, 2e REC remains one of the only two units of the Legion to be equipped with armored jeeps (the second unit was a platoon of the 9th Squadron, 1er REC in Laos in 1953). The armored jeep distinguished by a vertical armor plate in front of the driver (up to eye level) which replaced the glass windshield. In front of the vehicle commander, there was a shield mounted on a pivot with a machine gun (MAC 31 Reibel or FM 24/29).

The last formation to reinforce the legionnaires in Madagascar was the 1st Foreign Legion Engineer Company (Compagnie de Génie, CGLE). The company remains a little-known unit, shrouded in mystery (we know neither the unit commander nor its strength). It was probably activated in Algeria in early October, within the 1er REI (1er RE now). The company landed in Madagascar on November 17, 1949.

These two units were administratively assigned to the 4th Battalion, the latter already fully autonomous at the time, considered a regiment. In early January 1950, the three grouped elements were designated as the Foreign Legion Units of Madagascar (ULEM), and placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Albert Royer, the former head of the 3e REI in Indochina in 1947-48. Responsible for the ULEM, he took charge of the 4th Battalion at once, with Major Brinon as his deputy. The HQ had been installed at Ambositra.

In comparison with the year of 1947, the majority of these new ULEM legionnaires had already experienced two-year deployment in Indochina.

 

4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Foreign Legion - Badge - 1949 or 1950
The badge of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI in Madagascar, containing “ravenala”, the Malagasy tree. The badge had been worn since mid-1950.

Lieutenant Colonel Albert Royer - 4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Foreign Legion - 1950
Lt Colonel Albert Royer, commander of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI and of the Legion Units in Madagascar in 1950-51. Head of the 3e REI in Indochina in 1947-48, he started his career in the Legion as a young lieutenant in late 1924. Don’t confuse him with LCL Pierre Royer, commander of the 1er REC in 1951-52. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
ULEM - Foreign Legion Units of Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950 - stamp
Stamp of the ULEM (Foreign Legion Units of Madagascar).

 
 

The 4th Battalion turned to garrison life and the legionnaires became builders. Plantations of trees, gardens, roads, bridges, dams, buildings, and even entire camps (in Ambositra, Manakara or Fort-Carnot for example) were built by them. Military activity was preserved by training, shooting exercises, maneuvers and above all by patrol tours of 10 to 15 days in the bush and the forest. Fairly frequent and always in a different sector, the tours were carried out by groups on foot (one officer, two or three non-commissioned officers and about fifteen legionnaires).

As of June 1, 1950, a reorganization of the battalion took place. The 5th Company became Motorized Company (Portée), furnished with M3 Scout Cars and Bren Gun Carriers. The same day, the 4th + 6th + 7th Companies changed their number and became the 14th + 15th + 16th Coys, based at Ambositra, Manakara (14th) and Fianarantsoa (16th).

The 4th Squadron, 2e REC had also been stationed in Fianarantsoa. The unit’s missions were almost identical to those assigned to the 4th Battalion. With their jeeps, the Legion cavalrymen conducted tours of several thousand miles, from Fort-Dauphin or Tulear located in the south, up to the north of Tananarive. They even abandoned vehicles to cross unknown rivers in inflatable boats (Zodiacs). Simultaneously, the 2e REC legionnaires were constructing a brand-new camp in Fianarantsoa, including a common room and an extraordinary Hall of Honor.

During these tours, the legionnaires were discovering the traces of their ancestors from the campaign of 1895-1905: old posts, defense works, graves, cemeteries.

Regarding the mysterious CGLE, Compagnie de Génie, its legionnaires were spread across more than 60 miles in the valley of the Mangoro River, located to the north-east of Ambositra, halfway between Fianarantsoa and Tamatave. Equipped with heavy machinery, their objective was to build roads and bridges. To conquer nature, the engineers of the Génie-Légion were deforesting large strips of dense vegetation, moving thousands of cubic meters of earth and leveling the land.

In August 1951, a 700-mile single-stage car rally was organized between Fort-Dauphin and Tananarive, across the former rebellion zone. This event demonstrated clearly that the island had become completely safe again. Out of the 33 cars involved, the 4th Squadron’s jeep with Captain Calmels as vehicle commander would finish 1st among military teams and 2nd in the overall results.

On September 5, 1951, the 14th and 16th Companies of Captains Colin and Boisnard left the Red Island for Morocco. They were followed by 253 volunteers who left the island for Indochina in mid-December, the date of the dissolution of ULEM. Finally, on December 26, 1951, the rest of the battalion, along with the squadron and the engineer company, embarked for North Africa. The Legion’s mission in Madagascar was accomplished.

 

4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - Camp - Ambositra - 1950
One of the new buildings built by legionnaires in Madagascar. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - Tananarive - Military band - 14 July - 1950
Legionnaires and the military band of the 4e REI in Tananarive, 14 July 1950 (Bastille Day). Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - Tananarive - parade - 14 July - 1950
Parade of the 4e REI in Tananarive, 14 July 1950. The officers already wear the new badge of the 4th Battalion. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - Tananarive - Motorized Company - 14 July - 1950
M3 Scout Cars of the Motorized Company, 4e REI in Tananarive, 14 juillet 1950. Note the insignia of the 4th Battalion. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - Fanions - Ambositra - 1951
The fanions and the military staff of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI at the HQ in Ambositra, 3 September 1951. Two days later, the first two companies would leave Madagascar for Morocco. Second row, third from right, LCL Royer. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.

 
 

Conclusion

The Legion’s mission in Madagascar in 1947-51 remains among its little-known campaigns. This is partly because of the bloody war that was taking place in Indochina at the same time, and which provoked the dominant interest of the French. Partly, it is because of the silence of the government in Paris, which did not want to exaggerate in public the “events” on the island, to not encourage the other independence movements across the colonial empire.

In late January 1952, the legionnaires arrived in Morocco. The 4th Battalion were stationed in Fez to be redesignated as a training unit for young volunteers having enlisted in the Legion. The cavalrymen of the disbanded 4th Squadron rejoined the 2e REC in Oujda and the elements of the Engineer Company, also disbanded, were to be assigned to the autonomous Motorized Company (ex-Mounted Company) of the 4e REI at Ksar Es Souk.

Three officers (Lieutenant Henri Gresle-Bouignol, Lieutenant Georges Berthonnaud and Lieutenant Jean Birolet), two non-commissioned officers and 14 legionnaires from the 4e DBLE(M) / 4e REI lost their lives in Madagascar, likewise a Polish legionnaire from the 2e REC.

However, the Red Island would remain only five years without its legionnaires. They returned there in November 1956, to form the Foreign Legion Madagascar Battalion (BLEM), which would become a new 3e REI in 1962. The Legion was maintaining its presence on the Red Island for long seventeen years, until 1973. Thereafter, it moved north-west, to the Comoros, to be finally stationed in Mayotte.

Legionnaires have remained active in the area until nowadays. Within the Foreign Legion Detachment in Mayotte (DLEM), they periodically make visits to Madagascar, either to train Malagasy troops or to carry out maneuvers there. The tradition continues…

 
 

Album of the Legion in Madagascar in 1947-1951

4e DBLE(M), 4e REI in Madagascar in 1947-1949:

 

Major Périn - Pierre Perin - 4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
Major Périn of the 2nd Battalion, 4e DBLEM as a jeep driver in Madagascar, 1947. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.

Major Perin - Pierre Perin - 4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
Major Périn (light-colored shirt), following a general during an operation in Madagascar in 1947. They both wear a French colonial helmet Mle 1931. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Ceremony - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
The men of the 4e DBLEM during a ceremony in Madagascar in 1947. Note the European character of the architecture. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Legionnaires - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
Two legionnaires from the 4e DBLEM hunting in Madagascar in 1947. They are equipped with a MAS-38 submachine gun. Note their colonial helmet Mle 1931 (used in Madagascar and Indochina until 1949). Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Jeeps - 4e DBLEM - 4 DBLEM - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1947
The escort of a 4e DBLEM captain in Madagascar in 1947, equipped with the FM 24/29 light machine guns. The legionnaires wear U.S. M1 helmets or the colonial ones (drivers). Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - burial - 1948
Burial of Senior Corporal I. Deák from the 4e DBLE at Ambositra, 1948. Photo published with the kind permission of Ms Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi, daughter of Karl Melchner, a Hungarian legionnaire who served in Madagascar with the 4e DBLE/4e REI in 1947-49.
Camerone - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Camerone Day in Madagascar, 30 April 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Legionnaire Karl Melchner - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Legionnaire Karl Melchner of the 4e DBLE in Ambositra, 1948. He wears a bonnet de police (side cap) and the badge of 4e REI. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi. To see other images of Karl Melchner in the Legion, visit our DCRE article.
Legionnaire - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Legionnaire Karl Melchner (left), Sergeant Knesspel and Legionnaire Richin from the 4e DBLE, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Legionnaire - crocodile - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
A legionnaire of the 4e DBLE with a young crocodile (mamba in Malagasy), 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Legionnaire - Malagasy boy - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
The same legionnaire and his little Malagasy friend in Ambositra, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
La Réunion - Saint-Denis - Bastille Day - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Foreign Legion - 1948
An extremely rare photo of a 4e DBLE detachment in Saint-Denis in Réunion, a French island located east of Madagascar. The legionnaires are ready to parade there on July 14th, 1948 (Bastille Day). By the way, the military parade in Tananarive, the capital of Madagascar, was canceled the same day because of a very hot weather. Note the officer to wear alone the recently received BM/4e DBLE badge. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
General Monclar - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
General Raoul Magrin-Vernerey (also known as Ralph Monclar), then an inspector of the Legion, during his visit to an outpost of the 4e DBLE in Madagascar, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
General Monclar - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
General Monclar at the HQ of the 4e DBLE in Ambositra, 1948. From left to right: General Monclar (Magrin-Vernerey), Major Périn and Captain Dubos, most likely his deputy. Note the two officers wearing the new badge of their battalion. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Procession - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
A local Catholic procession in Madagascar, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Festivities - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
An indigenous festivity in Madagascar, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
GMC Truck - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Legionnaire Melchner and his GMC Truck in Madagascar, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Senegalese Tirailleurs - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Legionnaire Melchner with a friend from Senegalese Tirailleurs at the station in Ambositra, late 1948. He already wears the new badge of his battalion. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Thermal baths - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
Legionnaire Melchner in front of a thermal baths in Antsirabe, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Veteran - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Ambositra - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
With an ancien (veteran), 1948. Note Legionnaire Melchner and his air force officer leather boots. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Ambositra - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
In the town of Ambositra, 1948. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Patrol - 4e DBLE - 4 DBLE - Ambositra - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1948
A patrol of the 4e DBLE in the hilly area of the Central Highlands in Madagascar, 1948. The legionnaire in the lead bears the FM 24/29. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Legionnaire - Bataillon de Marche - 4e REI - 4 REI - badge - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
A Polish legionnaire Kovalsky with the badge of the 4e DBLE’s Bataillon de Marche in Madagascar, 1949. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Market - Ambositra - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
A small indigenous market in Ambositra, 1949. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - Patrol - 1949
4e REI legionnaires patrolling in the bush of the Red Island. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Rice plantation - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
Rice plantations in Madagascar, 1949. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Ambositra - Camp - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
Legionnaire Melchner at the Camp of Lieutenant Gresle-Bouignol (the 4e DBLEM officer killed in early July 1947) in Ambositra, 1949. Note the U.S. Army tents used by the Legion as a temporary living in Madagascar until 1951. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Tananarive - Palace - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
Legionnaire Melchner with his Legion comrade enjoying their day off in Tananarive (the capital, today called Antananarivo), 1949. In the background, the former Royal Palace. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Tananarive - garden - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
In the Royal Palace garden in Tananarive, 1949. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Pulled rickshaw - pousse-pousse - Tananarive - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
A pousse-pousse (Malagasy rickshaw) in Tananarive, 1949. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.
Ambositra - celebration - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949
4e REI legionnaires celebrate in Ambositra the end of their two-year stay in Madagascar and the anticipated return to Morocco, mid-1949. Collection of Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi.

 
 

4th Battalion, 4e REI in Madagascar in 1949-1951:

 

Ambositra - Hangar - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
A hangar constructing by legionnaires in Ambositra, 1950. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.

Ambositra - camp - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
A tent camp of the Motorized Company at Ambositra, 1950. The brick buildings weren’t finished until 1951. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Military band - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
Military band of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI in Madagascar, 1950. Activated in 1949, it comprised eight drummers, four fifers and eight buglers. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Motorized Company - Bren Gun Carriers - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
Motorized Company of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI, with their Bren Gun Carriers at Ambositra, 1950. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Motorized Company - Bren Gun Carriers - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
Bren Gun Carriers of the Motorized Company at Ambositra, 1950. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Pioneer - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
A Pioneer (Sapper) of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI in Madagascar, mid-1950. Note the new badge of the 4th Battalion. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Lieutenant-colonel Albert Royer - bureau - 4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Foreign Legion - 1950
LCL Royer in his office in Ambositra in 1950. On the wall, “Father of the Legion”, General Rollet, and the badge of the 4th Battalion. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Fanions - 4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Foreign Legion - 1951
Another nice photo of the 4th Battalion fanions gathered for the very last time in Ambositra in early September 1951. From left to right, these six fanions belong to the 16th Coy, 14th Coy, HQ Coy, 4th Battalion, Motorized Coy, and to the 17th Coy. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Document - 4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Foreign Legion - 1950
A document of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI from April 1950, signed by LCL Royer. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
6th Company - 4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Fanion - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949-1950
Fanion of the 6th Company, 4th Battalion, 4e REI used in Madagascar in 1949-50. It is a rare curiosity within the French Army since the 5th + 6th + 7th + 8th Companies are regularly reserved for the 2nd Battalion.
Cemetery - Ambositra - 4e REI - 4 REI - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
Foreign Legion cemetery at Ambositra, 1951.
Clairon - Bugler - 4th Battalion - 4e REI - 4 REI - Foreign Legion - 1950-1951
A clairon (bugler) of the 4th Battalion, 4e REI in Madagascar in 1950-51.

 
 

2e REC in Madagascar in 1949-1951 :

 

Tananarive - Armored Jeeps - 4th Squadron - 2e REC - 2 REC - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
This very rare image shows Armored Jeeps of the 4th Squadron, 2e REC. Here, during the Bastille Day parade in Tananarive on 14 July 1950. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.

Tananarive - Motos - 4th Squadron - 2e REC - 2 REC - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1950
Motorcycles of the 4th Squadron, 2e REC in Tananarive on 14 July 1950. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Fianarantsoa - 4th Squadron - 2e REC - 2 REC - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1951
4th Squadron, 2e REC parade in Fianarantsoa, 1951. Note the captain’s Dodge 4×4 Command Car; armored jeeps follow him.
4th Squadron - 2e REC - 2 REC - Fanion - Madagascar - Foreign Legion - 1949-1951
Fanion of the 4th Squadron, 2e REC used in Madagascar in 1949-51.

 
 

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My special thanks belong to Ms Anikó Melchner Kőhegyi and Krzysztof Schramm, for sharing their rare photo albums and for their diligent help with this article.

 
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Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines
Légion Etrangère magazines
Diego Falcone: Ma vie racontée… (An Italian in the Foreign Legion 1946-58; Paris, 2011)
Jean Fremigacci: La vérité sur la grande révolte de Madagascar (l’article dans L’Historie, mars 2007)
Jean Fremigacci: Bataillons marocains à Madagascar en 1947-48 (Madagascar-Tribune, 2013)
Jean Fremigacci: Forces coloniales contre insurges dans le secteur sud (l’article dans Omaly sy anio, 2001)
Jacques Tronchon: L’insurrection malgache de 1947 (Editions Karthala, 1986)
Stephen L. Weigert: Traditional Religion and Guerrilla Warfare in Modern Africa (Macmillan, 1995)
Françoise Raison-Jourde: La nation malgache au défi de l’ethnicité (Editions Karthala, 2002)
Anthony Clayton: The Wars of French Decolonization (Routledge, 2013)
Didier Nativel: Madagascar et l’Afrique (Editions Karthala, 2007)
P. Cart-Tanneur + Tibor Szecsko: Le 4ème Etranger (Editions B.I.P., 1987)
Pierre Dufour: Génie-Légion (Lavauzelle, 2000)
de Collectif: Les Grandes Pages de la Légion (Editions Italiques, 2002)
J. Brunon, G.-R. Manue, P. Carles: Le Livre d’Or de la Légion Etrangère (Charles-Lavauzelle, 1976)
Henri Le Mire: L’épopée moderne de la Légion 1940-1976 (SPL, 1977)
de Collectif: Les secrets de la Légion étrangère (E/P/A, 2014)
Memorial Gen Web (Fr)
Service historique (Fr)
Légion Cavalerie (Fr)
Fanion Vert et Rouge (Fr)
Wikipedia.org

 
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The page was updated on: November 06, 2020

 

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