Assaut de Zaatcha, 26 novembre 1849 by Jean-Adolphe Beauce
Bad news from Algeria would also rattle a government whose stability was precarious. The bloodily suppressed June Days of 1848 had temporarily put an end to the riotous behavior of the Parisians. But the shaky Second Republic had yet to establish a solid political base in the country. The last thing the government required was a lengthy military campaign that would focus yet more discontent, provide yet more ammunition for their opponents, especially if things deteriorated rapidly in North Africa. For this reason, Rulliere wrote to the governor-general that he must choose his commanders with great care, “… not only from the point of view of war, but also with an eye for the general political situation and the government of the Arabs…. The further they are away from the center of government, the more you must take their personal qualities into consideration.”
It was precisely these “personal qualities” that preoccupied Rullière. Administrative logic dictated that the command of the expedition fall to General Herbillon as chief of Constantine Province, seconded by Colonel Carbuccia, commander of the Batna subdivision that included Biskra and Zaatcha. But Rullière had little confidence in either man, and, as it turned out, with good reason. The first, and perhaps most important, quality of a good commander in this era when disease claimed far more soldiers than did bullets was to get his men to the battlefield in fairly good shape. Apparently on this score Herbillon’s record was a blemished one. Patrice MacMahon, who had campaigned with Herbillon in the 1840s, noted that he ran up high sickness rates among his troops because he chose his campsites badly, near rivers where the temperature variation between day and night was substantial, and also, no doubt, because these lowlands were malarial. Wise commanders, according to MacMahon, camped on high ground, even if it lacked shade and water. But Herbillon did not learn his lesson, for as the troops assembled at Biskra in September 1849, fully 300 were in the hospital, while in the Legion alone 444 men were reported unfit for service. Herbillon blamed the stagnant water and “the lack of cleanliness in and around the camp. The men throw their trash anywhere they find a hole or a fold of earth.”
Nor was Rullière willing to place confidence in the command qualities of either man: “I repeat, I do not believe General Herbillon and Colonel Carbuccia capable of successfully conducting these operations,” he continued.40 Worse, the individual shortcomings of the two men were magnified tenfold when they were placed in tandem. In Rullière’s opinion, Herbillon “is not in a state to lead this operation…. He is extremely irresolute and will not make decisions.” [Italics in original.] One of the Armée d’Afrique’s young prodigies, Louis de Lamoriciere, who was to be exiled to Rome after President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III on December 2, 1852, suggested assigning another general to him, “… to compensate for his weakness … [but] today even you admit the inadequacy of this precaution because General Herbillon does not necessarily listen to the opinions of his equals in rank.” And, as was to become apparent as the operations progressed, he was to prove a poor planner.
Herbillon’s irresolution meant that he was bound to be dominated by his headstrong subordinate, Carbuccia, for whom Rullière obviously had no great affection. Algerian Governor-General Viala Charon’s view of Carbuccia differed little from that of Rullière. “I followed [Carbuccia] throughout his career and I always found him the same,” he wrote to General Jean-Jacques Pélissier when he learned of Carbuccia’s death at Gallipoli, a staging point for the Crimean expedition, in 1854, “looking for popularity at the expense of the dignity of man, and often implacable with the weak and servile in the presence of the powerful. He drew Herbillon into more than one mistake at Zaatcha….” In early September, Rullière told the governor-general to select one of the Armée d’Afrique’s stellar commanders, like Pierre Bosquet, or Saint-Arnaud, to command the expedition. On September 22, he placed the earlier suggestion in stronger terms, by informing Charon that the president of the Republic and the council of ministers “invited” him to choose another commander. But, as often happened in colonial affairs, orders from Paris could be conveniently ignored or arrive too late to be executed. The colonies were a law unto themselves.
At eight o’clock on the morning of October 7, 1849, Herbillon arrived before Zaatcha with 4,493 men, about 1,000 of whom were Carbuccia’s legionnaires, and eleven artillery pieces served by 300 artillerymen. This army established its base on a small hill called the Coudiat-el-Meida, about 550 yards to the northeast of the oasis edge. From this small promontory the soldiers could look out over Zaatcha, to Farfar and the Tolga oasis beyond. In the midst of his army, Herbillon must have looked the very picture of confidence—his slender frame, his tunic with great gold epaulets, the beard that surrounded his mouth, and the kepi tilted rakishly over his right ear made him look younger than his fifty-five years. And, on the face of it, he had no reason to worry. After all, his force was almost a quarter as large as that sent against Constantine in 1837, and Zaatcha was a mere fly-speck compared with what had been one of the greatest, and most formidably bastioned, cities in North Africa.
But in his memoirs, Herbillon confesses that he was far from confident. In the first place, he claimed, his force, though substantial, was simply too small to besiege the entire oasis. This was a red herring. He never needed to seal off the entire oasis. Lichana and Farfar were not in revolt, only Zaatcha, which was a postage stamp of a place that could have been ringed fairly easily by earthworks. The sapper colonel attached to the expedition proposed to approach Zaatcha from three directions—from the zaouia [monastery] to the northeast, from Lichana to the south, and from Farfar to the west. Herbillon rejected this sensible solution: “With so few people, to divide our efforts from the beginning, was to be weak at all points, to expose our flanks to attacks of the rebels and to throw ourselves open to all their enterprises which, by harassing our troops, would have excited the audacity of the Arabs even more.”47
Now, while dividing one’s force in the face of the enemy is not a tactic recommended by most staff colleges, and one that certainly brought on the demise of Custer at the Little Big Horn and Lord Chelmsford at Isandl-whana in 1879, Herbillon’s troops, if so divided, would not have been out of touch with each other, but close enough to offer mutual support if attacked. If Herbillon really feared this as a possibility, he could easily have organized mobile groups, fire teams that could have rushed to any portion of the trenches in danger. But neither the trenches nor the French base camp ever came under serious threat. In 1865, the French were able to surround and successfully besiege Oaxaca, a Mexican town of twenty-five thousand inhabitants built partially on hills, with a force of essentially equal size.
And this exposed the second fatal weakness in Herbillon’s logic. The Arabs had no interest in coming out of Zaatcha. They wished to fight a defensive battle, force the French to attack them. The only time they seemed prepared to sacrifice this substantial tactical advantage, apart from occasional raids on the trenches, was when the French began to cut down their date palms. But Herbillon’s decision was final: “All our efforts should therefore concentrate on one point, and after mature reflection, the general decided that the trench depot would be established at the zaouia, .. ,” The results of this decision were not difficult to predict—Zaatcha was allowed to resupply and reinforce each night because the critical west face of the town, which contained the gate and the road out, were never invested. Therefore, at the outset Herbillon sacrificed a weapon vital to the success of so many sieges—starvation. And while the Arabs could draw on an almost inexhaustible supply of fresh manpower from the outside, Herbillon had virtually drained the garrisons of Constantine Province and had to beg fresh forces as casualties, disease and the climate took their toll.
There is some indication that Herbillon believed a decisive demonstration by his force would persuade the Arabs of the futility of resistance. But, if true, he was destined for disappointment, for things began to go wrong from the very beginning. In what was to become a too familiar accusation during the course of the siege, Herbillon blamed his initial setbacks on Carbuccia, who was ordered to seize the zaouia with the infantry, which included six hundred legionnaires. The commander insisted upon the limited nature of this operation to his subordinate: “Colonel Carbuccia was given a formal order not to go beyond the houses grouped around the minaret and, above all, not to pursue the Arabs into the gardens which were unknown to us,” he wrote. “This order was passed on and repeated several times orally to the troops.” This done, the artillery opened fire, collapsing several walls. The Arabs scattered and the troops seized the zaouia almost without resistance. In fact, so effortless was this opening attack that, “… in the heat of the action, officers and soldiers totally forgot [their orders] and pushed into the gardens where the Arabs, hidden behind the walls, directed a murderous fire at them. Many of them, marching blindly, even got to the crenelated walls of the village, where several were killed.” Although the blame for this fuite en avant (forward flight) was laid at the feet of the Chasseurs à Pied and the zéphyrs, rather than the Legion, the result was the same. Realizing the danger, the soldiers began what Herbillon described as a “precipitous flight,” which stopped only when they reached a small “mountain gun” whose rapid fire kept the pursuing Arabs far enough away to allow them to rally.
This opening action of the second siege of Zaatcha by the French exposed the shortcomings of Herbillon’s approach. The first was that he had underestimated the skill and determination of his adversaries. He admitted that he had hoped the seizure of the zaouia would deflate their will to continue. In fact, he had handed them at the very least a moral victory at this critical opening stage—how could they not be encouraged at the sight of the mighty Armée d’Afrique fleeing through their gardens, leaving behind quite a few of their twenty-five dead and dragging sixty-seven wounded with them in retreat? “The cadavers of our soldiers produced the greatest enthusiasm among them,” Herbillon admitted. “Bouzian proceeded to announce [the defeat] in the neighboring oases by sending as trophies clothes stripped off them. This spectacle was visible proof, strong medicine which increased the numbers of his partisans (some from as far away as the Tell) and encouraged those already with him.” Needless to say, had the oasis been invested completely, Bouzian would neither have been able to get out to announce his victory, nor those tempted to support him to get in.
The second aspect of this opening action that bode ill was that it raised serious questions about Herbillon’s control of his own troops. Why, if they had received repeated orders to limit their advance, did they continue? Was this lapse of discipline an exceptional case caused, as Herbillon claimed, by the passions of the moment? Or did it betray other, more fundamental shortcomings, like an institutionalized ardor that bordered on recklessness, useful perhaps in a razzia, but a positive hindrance in a controlled operation like a siege? Or was it more willful, a reaction by ambitious officers against their commander’s well-established reputation for hesitation, caution, indecision, an act of collective indiscipline? Whatever the reason, it was a cause for worry. It suggested that the Armée d’Afrique, while tough and resilient, had not developed the discipline, coordination and skill in minor tactics required for an offensive siege. It also hinted that Herbillon did not have a firm grasp on his command. In Algiers, fears were soon expressed that Herbillon, despite his good qualities, was “not up to it.” Colonel Borel noted that “It’s a great pity that such a forthright man, so loyal, so attentive, so up to date on the affairs of the Province [of Constantine], capable of undertaking everything, is now lacking in self-confidence, in élan and initiative. It’s a pity, but lacking that, can one command?”
If proof were needed that the failure of the first attack was not a fluke, it was furnished on the following day. On the morning of October 8, a battery established just within the oasis behind the zaouia began to bombard the town barely one hundred yards away. While clouds of dust and smoke were clearly visible from the French positions, the effects of the bombardment were hidden by the palm trees. A battalion-sized reconnaissance of Algerian tirailleurs was ordered forward to see if a breach had been created. Incredibly, given the experience of the preceding day, they too decided they could take the town singlehanded, and rushed the walls, from which they were bloodily repulsed with seven dead and forty-three wounded. Herbillon must have been struck by a strong sense of déjà vu when he saw them rush back, causing panic among the soldiers, who abandoned the most advanced positions in the gardens, which had to be retaken the next day. Clearly, Herbillon had serious difficulties with what a modern officer would call “command and control.”
He was also going to have serious problems creating a breach. The tirailleurs reported that the bombardment had made little impact on the lower, stone section of the walls. But surely Carbuccia’s experience in July should have told him that the walls would be difficult to breach. This was the view of the war minister, who, on November 10, announced it “unthinkable” that after the July 16 experience Herbillon had neglected to include incendiary shells in his inventory, because “they would certainly have produced a great effect in Zaatcha and Lichana.”