Herbillon also noted that no wailing or death dirges had been heard from Zaatcha of the sort that normally followed combat with the Arabs. He took this to mean that the dead on the Arab side had all been outsiders who had no women to mourn them. This might have been true. Equally possible is that Arab losses had so far been very light. In any case, his insistence that the resistance of Zaatcha beyond that normally expected of desert Arabs sprang directly from the presence of “fanatical” outsiders betrays a confusion bordering upon incompetence. If this were true, then why had he not taken steps to seal off the town from the outside?
On the morning of October 9 began the tedious business of constructing saps that snaked out from the zaouia toward Zaatcha barely 250 yards away. It also proved to be a difficult and dangerous business. The Arabs, not notable as marksmen in normal times, managed to sow confusion with highly accurate sniper fire directed especially at the artillery batteries at the moment of unmasking. The chief sapper was critically wounded. Herbillon attributed this unaccustomed accuracy to the presence of ostrich hunters among the defenders. Workers in the trenches were harassed by large stones thrown into the heads of the saps and by the occasional raid, one of which was vigorously repulsed by a company of Legion grenadiers on October 10.
By October 11, the sap had reached the south wall of Zaatcha, where the artillery had succeeded in reducing the corner tower to rubble. Until then, Herbillon had believed that the arrival of the sap at the moat would “suffice to force the inhabitants, who in all probability did not wish to expose themselves to a final assault, to surrender. On the contrary, the besieged only became more entrepreneurial, more audacious and more stubborn in their resistance which continued to increase the closer we came to the village.” Therefore, he pushed a sap toward the northeast angle of the wall to open a second breach, harassed every step of the way by Arabs who knew the oasis well enough to spring surprise attacks or who, lighting huge bonfires in the night, exposed the saps to a plunging fire from the walls. And while the French toiled away at this exhausting work, each night they could hear the firing and ululations of the women that announced the arrival of fresh contingents. The Arabs appeared to be growing in strength and audacity, despite the arrival of 1,512 French reinforcements on October 12, which brought French numbers to around 6,000. To drive home their will to resist, the Arabs coordinated attacks on both the saps and the French camp on the night of October 13, which, if not particularly effective, at least demonstrated a robust morale.
The trench work continued at a snail’s pace. On the south face, the French had reached the moat that surrounded the walls. The wall was badly enough damaged to storm, but attempts to pass bricks and debris from the zaouia to hurl into the moat snagged on the accurate fire from the village, which killed several sappers. On the right, the trench crept forward only a yard or two each day, hampered by Arab countermeasures, by the difficulties of cutting palm trees to shore up parapets, and by the time taken to fabricate the gabions, portable wicker earthworks, to protect the workers in the trenches. By the 18th, Herbillon had become worried by reports of unrest in the Tell caused by the slow progress of the siege. The government even passed on a report that the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi planned to travel to Zaatcha to lead the resistance, although why Arabs supposedly locked in a Moslem holy war would have turned to a Christian for leadership is not entirely clear.
Herbillon admitted that the fragile political situation in Algeria, rather than the progress of the siege, caused him to order an attack for October 20. He called a war council, which concluded that if the south wall were sufficiently damaged to attack, the northern sap was still twenty-two yards away from the moat, which, unfilled, offered a water obstacle nine yards wide. An enterprising captain of engineers suggested that a wagon be pushed into the moat to serve as a bridge for the attackers. Only the colonel of the 43 rd Infantry Regiment, whose soldiers would be expected to charge over this makeshift bridge, expressed reservations. The rest unanimously agreed that even if the plan failed on the north face, it would provide the diversion needed to get Carbuccia and his legionnaires safely into the town from the south.
At five-thirty on the morning of October 20, the artillery opened fire, gradually increasing in intensity. A battalion of tirailleurs screened Lichana to prevent surprises from that quarter, while cavalry and goumiers policed the western approaches. On the left, where the Legion was expected to carry the honors of the day, the word was given to attack. Unfortunately, the wall the sappers had constructed to protect the head of the trench refused to collapse to allow the attack to begin. When eventually it was destroyed, the rubble was so encumbering that the legionnaires could file out only one by one into a murderous fire. The light company managed to occupy the breach, but at great cost.
Ten legionnaires climbed onto the roof of a house just inside the wall, but when it collapsed, the attackers spontaneously fled back across the moat into the sap, according to Grisot because the tower’s collapse exposed them to the full force of the garrison’s fire. “This retrograde movement resulting from natural instincts, would probably not have happened if these two companies had been supported when they arrived on the breach which they sought to hold,” Herbillon believed. On the other hand, Herbillon appears to be responsible in part for his lack of support, which sprang from a tactical problem he had not yet solved. He was later criticized for attempting to storm Zaatcha with what amounted to less than two under-strength battalions. However, his problem was that while his army was substantial, there were just so many troops he could fit in a small sap or use to attack a small breach without causing impossible chaos.
The Legion’s retreat was covered by a company of Chasseurs d’Afrique, fortunately, because the Arabs followed them to the sap itself. This, Herbillon believed, was the moment to counterattack, and he faulted Carbuccia’s decision not to do so: “This unexpected news caused the greatest surprise and destroyed the confidence which we placed in the attack on the left.” But, in Carbuccia’s defense, it is not clear that he had any troops capable of counterattacking at that moment.
The attack on the right was equally unsuccessful. The wagon that was supposed to serve the 43rd as a bridge flipped into the moat, causing the conscripts to wade through five feet of water and then climb a wall that had been only partially destroyed. They clung to the breach for two hours and suffered 17 killed and 80 wounded before being ordered to retire. For its part, the Legion counted 13 dead and 40 wounded. In all, the failed attack had cost the French 45 killed and 147 wounded. Herbillon blamed Carbuccia for the failure, and the war minister concurred: “I agree with you that Colonel Carbuccia’s attack on the left was not as energetic as that of the 43rd,” he wrote to the governor-general. “It had greater advantages, a better prepared path, and it got less far and held less well. However, in such a difficult operation, I have no thought of assigning from such a distance the slightest blame.” He reiterated his view expressed in September that the French should move against those things the oasis dwellers valued most— their water and their palm trees.
Only now did Herbillon begin, it seems, to take account of his difficulties, and they were many—too few engineers, too little siege equipment, no grenades, an artillery that was too light to breach the walls and ammunition much of which, dating from the siege of Constantine twelve years earlier, too often declined to detonate. The destruction it had caused had made problems worse, for it simply created more piles of rubble behind which the defenders could hide. Casualties and sickness were reducing his numbers. He was also forced to admit that he had underestimated his opponents, and recognized that his measures, rather than undermining their will to resist, had actually stiffened it. Nevertheless, all of his officers save one were for abandoning several of the gardens to reduce the extent of their front and pursue the siege. The one dissenting voice, Herbillon noted with apparent surprise, was Carbuccia’s: “His insistence on this point opened my eyes and I could see in him only bad intentions, even more when I heard that, during a dinner, he was not afraid to rejoice at my failure of 20 October,” Herbillon wrote.
The sluggish progress of the French before Zaatcha had not gone unnoticed among the Algerians, although their restlessness was far from the brewing general revolt Herbillon feared. Its manifestations were rumors of seditious talk in tribal councils and an increase in brigandage, especially against convoys traveling between Batna and Biskra. It was one of these convoys that brought in the new commander of the 3rd Battalion of the Legion, Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte. His presence added one of the more bizarre twists to the Zaatcha episode, and would help both to strain relations between Herbillon and Carbuccia almost to the breaking point as well as draw the siege into the political debate in France. Pierre-Napoleon, son of Lucien Bonaparte, who had served his brother as president of the council of five hundred during the Directory in 1799, was born in 1815 in Italy, where his father had fled into exile. Like his first cousin Louis-Napoleon, in 1848 Pierre had returned to France from the exile imposed upon all Bonapartes after Waterloo to trade upon the prestige of his name to get elected to the Constituent Assembly as a representative for Corsica on May 7, 1848. Eager to associate himself with the military glory of his illustrious house, he was named a major in the 1st Regiment of the Foreign Legion on April 19, 1848, by virtue of the fact that he had held this rank in the army of New Granada (Colombia) in 1832 when he was seventeen years old.