1908 Forthassa Disaster

March or Die… In early February 1908, an unexpected severe snowstorm surprised a company of the Foreign Legion during their march to a remote military post at the Algeria-Morocco border. Cut off from help in a semi-desert land, many legionnaires died. Although unknown by most, this disaster remains one of the most tragic events in the Legion’s history. This article was written to remember these brave men.

La version française de cet article: La Tragédie de Forthassa de 1908

 
1908 Forthassa Disaster - Foreign Legion - Forthassa - Algeria - 1908

 

January 1908: From Berguent to Ain Ben Khelil

By January 1908, France had already been involved in operations in Morocco for several months. One of the two fronts located in this North African country was the Algeria-Morocco border. French troops, including legionnaires, were being deployed there to secure the territory along the border and operate against local rebel tribes.

That also was the case for the Foreign Legion’s 20th Company, 5th Battalion, 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE). Led by Captain Capillery, the unit was stationed at Berguent (now Ain Bni Mathar) in what was then western Algeria, before the later border modification. A forward military post was built there by legionnaires in 1904. The company maintained order in the sector.

In mid-January, the unit was joined at Berguent by the 3rd Mounted Company, 1er RE (with a certain Lieutenant Rollet as a platoon leader, the future Father of the Legion).

Thus, Captain Capillery received an order to return to Ain Sefra, some 155 miles (250 km) distant. Nicknamed “The Gateway to the Desert”, this garrison town served as the main French HQ for an autonomous military territory of the same name. Large, modern barracks were constructed in the town, with the important help of legionnaires. Nevertheless, the order was changed on January 23, the day before the planned departure. There was given a new objective: Forthassa Gharbia.

Forthassa Gharbia is a small, remote village lying some 30 miles (50 km) west of Ain Sefra, and about 15 miles east of the current border with Morocco. It is located on the edge of the Hauts Plateaux (High Plains), a semi-desert, steppe-like region in view of the Sahara. In the early 1900s, Forthassa Gharbia belonged technically to then Morocco, although the border line was disputed at the time. Known as a source of drinking water for French troops, the important location was occupied. A forward military post was built there by legionnaires from the 2nd Mounted Company, 1er RE since March 1904. Finished in 1905, the outpost would serve for controlling the Beni Guil, a local rebel tribe.

The departure to Forthassa Gharbia took place on January 25, 1908. The 20th Company and its wagons full of supplies and baggage, pulled by eight Arabian horses, left Berguent. Only a small detachment composed of an officer, an NCO, a corporal and several legionnaires would remain there.

However, it wasn’t a straight path to Forthassa. The company first headed to Ain Ben Khelil, an Algerian settlement in the direction of Ain Sefra. The reason? It would be a more suitable road for the company’s wagons. Six days later, in the afternoon of January 30, the company arrived there, after having covered about 100 miles (160 km).

At that time, the military post of Ain Ben Khelil was occupied by Lieutenant Leclerc and his small 11-man detachment of the 1st African Light Infantry Battalion (BILA). Nicknamed Bat’ d’Af’, these battalions were largely composed of French soldiers with disciplinary records and conscripts having already experienced violating the law before their recruitment. Though they weren’t strictly considered as penal units (this ensured the harsh compagnies de discipline), the African Battalions served in the most inhospitable places of the French North Africa, very often alongside the legionnaires.

The same day, a column of camels arrived in Ain Ben Khelil too. They had to replace the company’s eight horses, provide supplies to the legionnaires, and accompany them on their road to Forthassa.

The 31st of January was the company’s day off. The weather was cold, but nice. Nevertheless, in the evening, the sky clouded over, and a chilly wind started to blow. Forthassa Gharbia remained some 46 miles (74 km) away.

 

Berguent - Morocco - 1908
Berguent. A watering hole occupied in 1904 by a Legion mounted company (Captain Met). A few weeks before occupying Berguent, the same company had occupied Forthassa Gharbia. General Lyautey considered these two places as important points to secure western parts of Algeria and ordered the legionnaires to immediately build military posts there. Note that even in 1908, Berguent was still claimed as part of Algeria. The border line hadn’t been clearly defined since 1845 until the official border modification in 1912. Thereafter, the place ended up in Morocco. In 1943, during WWII, an important U.S. airfield was set up there.
Berguent - Morocco - Forthassa - Algeria - Disaster 1908
The planned road from Berguent to Forthassa Gharbia for the 20th Company, 1st Foreign Regiment in January 1908.
Legionnaire - Foreign Legion - 1900s
A legionnaire of the 1st Foreign Regiment in the 1900s.

 

February 1, 1908: The Disaster

In the morning of February 1, 1908, the company was ready to set out to Forthassa. It consisted of two officers, Captain Capillery and Lieutenant d’Arboussier, five NCOs (including Adjudant Cazals, Sergent-major Ollivier, Sergeant Isard, Sergeant Deiss), 11 corporals, and 131 legionnaires – which meant 149 men in total.

The weather didn’t look good. The sky was clouded over and the chilly wind was strong. Nevertheless, even Lieutenant Leclerc was ready to leave the post that day. He had to travel to Mecheria, along with Ain Sefra another important town in the region, to collect his men’s monthly pay. One could suppose that this officer should had already been familiar with the local weather conditions. If there was any apparent danger that morning, he would have canceled his trip. But he didn’t, nor did the 20th Company’s commander.

At 7:30 a.m. (7h30), the majority of the company left Ain Ben Khelil. Three-quarters of an hour later, at 8:15 a.m. (8h15), the remaining elements of the company (a sergeant, two corporals and 18 legionnaires) took to the road. This group was in charge of the camels carrying supplies and baggage. After several hours of marching, the sergeant stopped the column. Having seen the oncoming bad weather, he turned his men and camels and led them safely back to the post of Ain Ben Khelil.

At 12:30 p.m. (12h30), the company arrived at Hassi Sfeia, to take a planned break there. A water source and an orientation point on the road to Forthassa Gharbia, Hassi Sfeia is some 15 miles (24 km) distant from Ain Ben Khelil. At the time, the men could feel the temperature was dropping dramatically as the wind, accompanied by snowflakes, became stronger. Their destination was still 30 miles (48 km) away.

From this point on, we don’t know exactly what happened. There are only three sources related to the tragedy which provide us with more detailed information: an article in the official magazine of the Legion, Kepi Blanc, published in the 1950s (and fully reproduced in the 1980s), and two short articles in Le Petit Journal (a French newspaper), which were published in February 1908.

The weather was getting worse and Hassi Sfeia was the last place where one could take refuge and prepare for the oncoming storm. Although the legionnaires were well-trained, experienced soldiers, they didn’t have sufficient winter clothing, and there were still many hours of painful marching in the semi-desert land to reach their objective. Nevertheless, according to Kepi Blanc, Captain Capillery ordered his men not to take a break at Hassi Sfeia, but rather to keep marching. Thus, the company would cover an additional 10 miles (16 km) before stopping. The already cold wind had turned into a fast-moving blizzard. The disaster began…

Battered by the fierce snowstorm, the exhausted legionnaires had been trying to set up their tents and make a fire for more than forty minutes, in vain. Having witnessed the unsuccessful attempts, Captain Capillery ordered the march to resume again. Forthassa was still about 20 miles (32 km) distant.

It was getting dark and the situation became serious. Because of the snowstorm and the upcoming night, the marching men were barely able to see more than a few yards straight ahead. The company began to be disorganized and split up. According to Le Petit Journal, a group of legionnaires (at least 25 men – notice by FFL Info) decided to go through a 15-mile long and 6-mile wide depression called Haoud El Gorea. That could be likely an attempt to reach a road connecting Forthassa to Sfissifa, a settlement located south-east of the company’s final destination.

Captain Capillery, Adjudant Cazals, and more than 50 men kept marching toward Forthassa through a pass next to the mountain Djebel Gaaloul. However, heavily exhausted Cazals, an old legionnaire, collapsed. Like in a battle, his devoted men tried to save him and covered the non-commissioned officer by their own bodies to warm him at least a bit.

In the meantime, the captain and the rest of his men had to march another 8 miles (13 km) in the blinding severe blizzard before finally taking shelter at Gaaloul, a native hamlet of the Akerma tribe. They would spend the night there.

As for the rest of company (over 40 men), we have no available information. We don’t know who was (or were) their leader(s), nor if these men were either a part of the first group marching through a depression or if they had formed another column or if they split up into smaller groups.

Early in the morning of February 2, around four o’clock, the terrible snowstorm finally calmed down.

 

Ain Ben Khelil - Forthassa - Algeria - Disaster 1908
The planned road from Ain Ben Khelil to Forthassa Gharbia for the 20th Company, 1er RE.

 

1908 Forthassa Disaster: Aftermath

At 1:00 p.m. (13h00) in the afternoon of February 2, the first legionnaire of the 20th Company reached the military post of Forthassa Gharbia and informed the garrison about the disaster. He was the ordonnance (batman, also orderly) of Captain Capillery. The second man of the company to reach the post was Lieutenant d’Arboussier. According to Le Petit Journal, he was “in a miserable condition”, riding his captain’s horse. No further facts regarding the story of the poor lieutenant were provided neither by the Legion, nor by the French newspaper.

A rescue operation was immediately launched by troops occupying the post: Captain Moullet with his African Battalion company and the Moghazenis (Moroccan auxiliaries). Meanwhile, scattered groups of heavily exhausted, frostbitten legionnaires were arriving at the post. At 4:30 p.m. (16h30), a rescue patrol from Forthassa came to Gaaloul with food and medication, to meet Captain Capillery and his men.

According to the French newspapers of the time, 21 men were found dead by patrols on February 2. In his telegram sent the next day to the Legion’s HQ in Sidi Bel Abbes, Captain Capillery reported 28 men being found dead, including Sergeants Isard and Deiss, and Corporals Gretill, Barre, and Gafaioli. The majority of the victims belonged to the group that had decided to march through the depression. Most of the discovered dead bodies were “black and seemed to be like carbonized,” and were hidden by a thick blanket of snow. Many were found with an open hand placed on their forehead, protecting their eyes. Obviously, the snowstorm was extremely devastating.

However, six men were found alive near Djebel Araouia, on the road connecting Forthassa and Sfissifa. All of them had frozen extremities.

A week after the disaster, well-known General Hubert Lyautey (the then Military Chief of the Oran region and a future Military Governor of French Morocco) told the media that 37 legionnaires had died, while another two men were missing. According to Kepi Blanc, 38 legionnaires of the company were finally pronounced dead in February 1908. One legionnaire had never been found. On February 7, the victims of the disaster were buried at Forthassa.

As a result of the tragic march, most of the survivors suffered frostbite which caused gangrene. Due to the development of gangrene, 22 men had to undergo amputation and were discharged from the Legion. Among these discharged men was Lieutenant Paul-Marie d’Arboussier. The unfortunate officer had lost his right arm and leg. He never fully recovered and died of his injuries nine years later, in 1917, at the age of 38.

Captain Edouard Capillery had also suffered serious injuries, but eventualy recovered. Furthermore, according to Le Petit Journal, during the fatal snowstorm unmercifully damaging his unit, the officer’s hair turned grey. Born in 1869, Captain Capillery would be killed in northern France in September 1914, in the early stages of World War I. He was 45 years old.

Adjudant Bernard-Jean Cazals, the highest-ranking NCO within the company, brought round several hours after his collapse and discovered that he remained the only one to survive. The adjudant scrambled out of the mound of frozen corpses and stayed with his dead men until the next day, when the help arrived. He was nominated for an officer’s rank of Second Lieutenant in September 1908 (Journal Militaire, 1908, p. 1043).

In April 1909, a monument was unveiled at Forthassa Gharbia to commemorate the tragedy and to honor the 38 legionnaires who perished during the severe snowstorm. Over twelve hours, these men had to withstand this uncommon calamity in a semi-desert land without sufficient clothing. The company lost 61 men that night. Even if it has been all but forgotten, this disaster remains one of the most tragic events in the Legion’s history. These brave legionnaires should be remembered. They were defeated on the edge of the Sahara by an unexpected enemy: the extremely violent blizzard. May they rest in peace.

 

Captain Capillery - Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - 1908
Edouard Capillery. In early 1908, this French officer and his 20th Company, 1er RE were caught by an unexpected severe snowstorm. The decimated unit lost 61 men overnight. At the time, it was probably the largest individual French loss since the beginning of the operations in Morocco in mid-1907.

Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - 1908
The entrance to the military post of Forthassa Gharbia, around 1908. The post was built by legionnaires between 1904 and 1905.
Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - 1908
The Officers’ Mess (a dining room & club) inside the post of Forthassa Gharbia.
Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - 1908
The military post of Forthassa Gharbia seen from the south, around 1908.
Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - Disaster 1908
A U.S. article from February 6, 1908, reporting on the disaster near Forthassa Gharbia.
Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - Disaster 1908
An Australian article from February 6, 1908, informing about the disaster.
4e CSPL - 4 CSPL - Foreign Legion - Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - 1956
Legionnaires of the 4e CSPL during a ceremony at Forthassa Gharbia, paying homage to the victims of the 1908 disaster (February 1956).
Foreign Legion - Forthassa Gharbia - Algeria - Monument - Tragedy - 1908
The monument unveiled at Forthassa Gharbia to commemorate the tragedy and to honor the 38 legionnaires who perished during the severe snowstorm (photo taken in 1956).

 
 

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My special thanks belong to Joe (Voltigeur), Jack (Mon Legionnaire) and Andi, for their helpful effort to improve at least a bit my bad English.

 
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Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines
Le Petite Journal (February 1908)
Journal Militaire (1908)
MapCarta
Google Maps
Google.com
Wikipedia.org

 
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More from the Foreign Legion’s history:
1863 Battle of Camerone
Foreign Legion in the Balkans: 1915-1919
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 
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The page was updated on: April 1917, 2021

 

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