1911 Battle of Alouana

The following text deals with a little-known battle that took place in Morocco in May 1911. Determined never to surrender to the enemy, thirty members of a Foreign Legion company lost their lives in the fight. Even at the time, information about the battle was sometimes very disparate. Thus, nowadays, different sources give us slightly different accounts, and the names, places or dates they provide often do not match. This text therefore attempts to present the information as accurately and completely as possible.

La version française de cet article: Combat d’Alouana du 15 mai 1911

 
Battle of Alouana - Morocco - 15 May 1911 - 1st Foreign Regiment - 22nd Company - 1er RE

 

Introduction

The years 1909 and 1910 in the North African country of Morocco were relatively calm. French troops camped in their positions and tried to organize the country, which had been partially occupied by France since late 1907. Sultan Moulai Abdelhafid – a descendant of the Alaouite dynasty – had ruled in Fez, the capital of Morocco, since early 1908. A French military mission was established there. The sultan needed French help to train his armed forces, the Cherifian mehallas, and to generate taxes. But this source of revenue was hard to bring in, which made it difficult to pay the troops regularly and to recruit new volunteers.

By early 1911, the sultan had little money and, as a result, increasingly poor control over the interior of his country. Thus, a revolt broke out among the tribes in the Fez region in January. The rebels seized the capital, pillaged it, and even murdered an officer of the French mission, Lieutenant Marchand. The Sultan found himself besieged in Fez and was forced to seek French assistance. These circumstances required military intervention.

At the end of April, a relief column of about 10,000 men was set up by General Moinier in Casablanca, in western Morocco. Among them was a Foreign Legion mounted company led by a certain Captain Rollet. In the meantime, near the Algerian border in northeastern Morocco, General Toutée organized another column in the event that it was impossible to unblock Fez from the west. This column was organized in Taourirt and consisted of about 8,000 men, including the 6th Battalion, 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE) commanded by Major Gerst (then quoted as Goertz in the press). His deputy was Captain Duriez. The latter would be killed as a lieutenant colonel at the head of his legionnaires in France in 1917.

 
Morocco - Casablanca - Fez - Taourirt - Columns - General Moinier - General Toutée - 1911 - map

Morocco - Mehalla - Fez - Cherifian armed forces - 1911
Sultan’s Mehallas parading in Fez, 1911.

 
 

General Girardot’s column

In early May, the column of General Toutée camped at Merada, 22 miles (35 km) southwest of Taourirt, on the Moulouya River. While there, the soldiers were systematically attacked by local rebel tribes. On May 10, a fight took place about six miles (10 km) to the south, near the town of Guercif. Two companies of the 6th Battalion took part, the 22nd under Captain Labordette and the 21st under Captain Bigotte. The latter was wounded; his left wrist was pierced through by a bullet.

On the evening of May 11, General Toutée sent a column of 3,000 men 25 miles (40 km) to the southeast, as far as Debdou, an important village occupied a few days prior. The column was tasked with a reconnaissance mission, to find passable communication routes between the two posts and ensure the tranquility of the region. The column, including the 6th Battalion, was commanded by General Girardot, a former officer of the 2nd Foreign Regiment from 1896 to 1900 and a commanding officer of the 1er RE between 1907 and 1910. He thought he had completed his mission and returned to the camp at Merada five days later, on May 16.

Around the new camp at Debdou, there were mountain ranges that had to be explored. On the morning of May 15, General Girardot dispatched three reconnaissance detachments toward the mountain passes leading to the west, to the Moulouya River. Each detachment was composed of a reduced company of the 6th Battalion (three platoons), a lieutenant of the 3rd African Field Artillery Group (3e GACA), two goumiers – native auxiliary soldiers – and a guide. They were ordered to return by noon.

At 5:30 a.m. (05:30), the detachments left to the southwest of the camp, on the track used by the camel caravans. The first two would return around 10:00 a.m. But at noon, the third detachment had not yet arrived back. It consisted of about 60-70 legionnaires from the 22nd Company under Captain Charles Labordette and Lieutenant Fradet, his deputy. They were accompanied by Lieutenant Drouin, an artillery officer. The latter was responsible for studying the viability of the tracks for the passage of the 1897 French 75 mm field guns.

At 12:30 p.m. (12:30), Lieutenant Drouin of the artillery group arrived, accompanied by several legionnaires. He informed General Girardot that they had been left by Captain Labordette at the pass that marked the limit of the reconnaissance and that the rest of the detachment had most likely been attacked by rebels on the western slope. The fog made it impossible to determine exactly what occurred. However, the sound of gunfire reached the pass. So, what had actually happened?

 
Morocco - Taourirt - Merada - Guercif - Debdou - Moulouya - 1911 - map

Morocco - Debdou - panorama
The mountains around Debdou, 1910s.
Morocco - Debdou - military camp - legionnaires - 1911
Legionnaires at the military camp of Debdou, 1911.
Morocco - 75 mm field gun
1897 French 75 mm field gun transported in Morocco, around 1911.

 
 

Battle of Alouana

The men of the 22nd Company left their camp to explore a pass in the mountains surrounding Debdou. The captain was in the lead with a half-platoon and a guide. At 7:30 a.m., when they arrived at the highest mountain, they saw a man running away towards the ksar Alouana, a fortified local hamlet, located five miles (8 km) west of the camp. No one cared at the time; the captain insisted that the guide show him the path from Debdou to the Moulouya, to make sure it was passable for the mounted artillery.

At 8:00 a.m., they came to the path. Suddenly, a thick fog appeared. Captain Labordette intended to turn back to Debdou as soon as he had reached an intersection on the prescribed route, but because of the march in the fog, the intersection had been passed. At this point, the artillery officer declared that his horse could not go any further. So the captain kept some men with him and continued on his way.

The detachment then arrived at the edge of a semi-circular valley, with the ksar Alouana situated at the bottom, in the center. Having been warned that many Moroccans might be hiding in Alouana, Captain Labordette decided to go and verify this information before visibility was completely reduced. He departed for the ksar with his half-platoon (15 men), leaving Lieutenant Fradet and 40 legionnaires in reserve. It was now 9:00 a.m. The company was divided into three groups: Sergeant H. with his men on the left, on the ridge; Lieutenant Fradet in the middle of the slope with 20 men; and on the right, the captain’s descending group in liaison within earshot. By the time the captain arrived at the bottom of the valley, some 650 yards (600 meters) from the ksar, the fog had partially disappeared. The officer sent the guide to talk, but the Moroccans got excited. A first shot burst out. It was 9:30 a.m. The thick fog fell again.

As soon as the first shots were fired, Lieutenant Fradet took up a position on a rocky spur to protect the retreat of Labordette‘s group. At that moment, he heard calls of “Help!” from the captain. The lieutenant quickly descended with his men to join his commander, who already had a wounded legionnaire whom he did not want to abandon.

Unfortunately, the two platoons – two officers and 35 men – found themselves in a ravine with such steep sides that they could not climb it with a wounded man, not without becoming an easy target for their pursuers. The hillside to be climbed was about 450 yards long (400 m), with a slope of 80%. Blocks of huge rocks loomed up and seven-foot (two-meter) thick bushes emerged between them. Surrounded by some 150 warriors from the Beni Reis tribe, the men of the 22nd Company were scattered among the rock boulders on a slope which they could neither climb nor descend. A hard fight began.

Around 10:30 a.m., Captain Labordette was fatally wounded. He died a few minutes later. At 12.30 p.m., the fog dissipated and the shooting intensified. The situation became very serious. One by one, the men fell. The painful fight lasted six hours, until 3:30 p.m. (15:30). Corporal Rubricky, hidden together with his lieutenant, wanted to smoke his last cigarette. A bullet hit him in the neck and went out through his mouth. He still had time to grumble: “One can’t smoke in peace here!” Then he died. Of the 35 legionnaires grouped around the captain, only eight remained alive. Them and the lieutenant. Their comrades were all dead or dying.

At that point, faced with the inevitable end of their situation, the officer gave the order to seek escape downwards. He was the last to leave the position. The small group was immediately pursued by the Moroccans, who killed two more men and wounded another. Five legionnaires managed to get out of the ravine by another side and climb on the ridge. The lieutenant, wounded twice in the leg, remained at the bottom. He was accompanied by Corporal Eemann, who had his chest pierced and his arm broken. While he was attempting to hide, another bullet went through the corporal’s thigh. Surrendering all chances, he asked the lieutenant to finish him off so that he would not fall into enemy hands alive.

Fortunately, between 3:45 and 4:00 p.m. (16:00), Captain Duriez arrived with the rest of the 6th Battalion, supported by a 75 mm gun from the 3rd Artillery Group that had been pushed to the ridge of the mountain despite great difficulties. They opened fire on the Moroccans while the artillery, led by Sergeant Bonnet, shelled the ksar. The enemy ran away. The lieutenant, the corporal and the five remaining legionnaires were saved.

A bivouac was immediately set up. The terrain was so difficult to climb that the legionnaires could only start to remove their dead the next morning. This delicate mission would take all day.

 
Morocco - Debdou - Alouana - 1911 - map

Morocco - Alouana - 2018
The hamlet of Alouana in 2018, photographed by Kad Mam.
Morocco - Alouana - valley - 2018
The Alouana valley which is 5 miles (8 km) from Debdou, photographed by Kad Mam in 2018. As we can see, a thick fog is nothing exceptional here.

 
 

Conclusion

While collecting the dead, the rifle bolts of Corporal Bréval and Legionnaire Petersen were found carefully hidden in their haversacks, shoved into the loaves of bread. These forethoughtful soldiers had managed to disassemble them to make the rifles unusable in case the attackers came to rob their dead bodies. These bolts are now displayed in the Legion museum in Aubagne.

As for Sergeant H. and his group, after having been left on the ridge by the lieutenant and lost in the fog, they finally managed to get back down to the camp of Debdou.

The funeral took place on a hill between Debdou and the camp, on the evening of May 17, half an hour before Girardot‘s column departed for Merada. The troops paraded in front of the thirty corpses. General Girardot and Major Gerst gave speeches afterwards.

On May 26, all those dead and wounded in the battle of Alouana were mentioned in dispatches by General Toutée, in the divisional order. These were the heaviest French losses during the campaign to liberate the capital of Morocco.

Meanwhile, General Mounier managed to reach Fez. His troops liberated the capital and on May 21, the Sultan was freed. The insurrection in the Fez region against the French presence was suppressed. But the situation had already become irreversible. A year later, in April 1912, the French protectorate over Morocco began.

At the end of July 1911, Lieutenant Fradet was entered on a list of officers recommended for promotion, for his “admirable conduct” in the battle of May 15. Promoted to captain, he left the Legion to command the 5th Company of the 150th Infantry Regiment in France. Captain Duriez himself was entered on that list, at the same time as the lieutenant, for exceptional services rendered in Morocco, and for his “energy and dedication” during the rescue mission of May 15. As a major, he would be appointed head of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Foreign Regiment.

The five rescued legionnaires were awarded the military medal. As for Corporal Eemann, no information on his fate could be found.

In December, the bodies of ten victims of the Battle of Alouana, including the remains of Captain Labordette, were exhumed in Morocco and transferred through Algeria to France, as requested by their families.

Although this battle is considered as the second Camerone, because the men were determined never to surrender to the enemy, and they fulfilled their promise, it has been almost forgotten over the years. Thus, this text is dedicated to these brave men and their memory.

 

1911 Battle of Alouana: Killed and wounded

Killed:

  • Captain LABORDETTE Charles – 22nd Company’s commander
  • Corporal BRÉVAL (originating in France, from Paris)
  • Corporal EKNAYAN (Ottoman Empire, Constantinople)
  • Corporal RUBRICKY Paul (France, Paris)
  • 1st Class BURKART (France, Alsace, Turckheim)
  • Bugler JACQUOT (France, Aubenas)
  • Legionnaire BECKER Ernest (Germany, Oggersheim)
  • Legionnaire HATTLER Adolphe (France, Nancy)
  • Legionnaire HOLVANS Joseph (Germany, Bremen)
  • Legionnaire CHALE (France, Paris)
  • Legionnaire IRSCH (France, Paris)
  • Legionnaire JAMET (France, Kerdudou)
  • Legionnaire JENSEN Jean (France, Alsace, Metz)
  • Legionnaire KLAUCK Charles (Germany, Cottbus)
  • Legionnaire KOERNER Hugo (France, Saint-Germain-en-Laye)
  • Legionnaire LE COLLEC Félix (France, La Manche department)
  • Legionnaire LÉONCE (France, Paris)
  • Legionnaire MALTERRE Victor (???)
  • Legionnaire MEISSENER Ernest (Germany, Dresden)
  • Legionnaire MOREAU Marcel (France, Cholet)
  • Legionnaire NÉLATON Jean (France, Jura department)
  • Legionnaire PETERSEN Ferdinand (Denmark)
  • Legionnaire PINARD Charles (France, Ille-et-Vilaine department)
  • Legionnaire SCHLOSSMACHER Pierre (Germany, State of Hessen)
  • Legionnaire TÉHÉO (France, Cognac)
  • Legionnaire TREFS Constantin (Germany, Gundelfingen)
  • Legionnaire TRUBERT (France, Paris)
  • Legionnaire UILHAM Pierre (???)
  • Legionnaire VALÉRIUS Paul (France, Lorraine, Forbach)
  • Legionnaire VIE (???)

 

Wounded:

  • Lieutenant FRADET (France, La Rochelle)
  • Corporal EEMANN (Belgium, Namur)
  • Legionnaire DEQUINEMACRE (Belgium, Brussels), 2 years of service
  • Legionnaire HOFFMANN (Bavaria), 1 year of service
  • Legionnaire LINGERHAND (Prussia), 1 year of service
  • Legionnaire NIEMZYCK (Germany), 3 years of service
  • Legionnaire SI BELLA HOUEL (Algeria, Mostaganem), 2 years of service

 
 
 

1st Foreign Regiment - 1er RE - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - Capitaine Labordette - Foreign Legion
Captain Charles Labordette, commander of the 22nd Company, 1st Foreign Regiment, killed near Alouana on May 15, 1911. Born in August 1873, of Breton origin, he graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy in 1895. Lieutenant Labordette was promoted to captain on September 28, 1910 and left the 42nd Line Regiment for the 1st Foreign Regiment, which he joined in early January 1911.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - Battle of Alouana - divisional order - 1911
The divisional order of May 26, 1911, which recounts the Battle of Alouana. The order was issued by General Toutée, commander of both the Taourirt column and French Algeria’s Oran division. This rare document was published with the kind permission of Krzysztof Schramm, historian of the A.A.A.L.E. en Pologne veteran association and the author of Niczego nie żałuję.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - Battle of Alouana - Names of the dead and wounded - 1911
The names of those killed and wounded during the battle of Alouana mentioned in the divisional order of General Toutée. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - Battle of Alouana - wounded - Morocco - Alouana
Transfer of the legionnaires wounded in the battle of Alouana, May 1911.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - Battle of Alouana - survivors - caporal Eemann - Morocco - Alouana
The six survivors of the 22nd Company from Alouana. Lying on the ground, Corporal Eemann (called as Sergeant Ehmann in the postcard), three times wounded. On the left, with his hands on his hips, Legionnaire Si Bella Houel, of Algerian origin.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - Debdou - graves - Morocco
The graves of Captain Labordette and his 29 men from the 22nd Company at Debdou, on a hill between the camp and the mountains. The cross on the right marks another battle, which occurred on May 23. Major Roumens from the Algerian Riflemen was killed there. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Morocco - Debdou - military camp - legionnaires - 1911
Another view on the military camp in Debdou, 1911. Behind the camp, on the right side, is the hill with the graves of the brave men killed at Alouana. At the back, we can see the steep rocky slopes of the local mountains.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - rifle bolts - Corporal Bréval - légionnaire Petersen - Légion étrangère
The rifle bolts of Corporal Bréval and Legionnaire Petersen, as displayed at the Legion Museum in Aubagne. The men dismantled them and hid them to make their firearm useless for Moroccans.
Morocco - Taourirt - coffins - 1911
The coffins of Captain Labordette and nine of his men killed at Alouana, as displayed in Taourirt, Morocco, December 1911. They were exhumed and transferred through Algeria to France, as requested by their families. Note the bad date in the postcard. Collection of Krzysztof Schramm.
Morocco - coffins - 1911
The coffins of Captain Labordette and nine of his men during their transfer to Algeria, December 1911.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - camp - Morocco
The camp of the 22nd Company, 1er RE in Morocco, early 1910s.
1st Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - 6th Battalion - 22nd Company - stamp - Morocco
The official stamp of the 22nd Company, 1er RE used in Morocco in 1913. At the time, still based in the Taourirt region, the unit was commanded by Captain Salle.

 
 

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Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines (1959, 1961)
Le Figaro daily (May 1911)
L’Écho d’Oran daily (May 1911)
La Dépęche de Brest daily (May 1911, June 1911)
Le Petite Journal daily (May 1911)
Journal Militaire bulletin (August 1911)
Bulletin du comité de l’Afrique française (1912)
Questions diplomatiques et coloniales magazine (1912)
Le Monde illustré magazine (January 1912)
Mémorial Gen Web (Fr)
Google Maps
Wikipedia.org
Google.com

 
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More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1908 Forthassa Disaster
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash

 

 

The page was updated on: May 13, 2021

 

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