Military history



Lyautey in Morocco, 1912–1925

THE SPREAD OF Western imperialism was indisputably enhanced and accelerated by the strength of Western arms, but a small number of Europeans could hardly have controlled vast numbers of Africans and Asians with nothing but raw force. India, with a population of 250 million people, was garrisoned by just 68,000 British troops in 1899. Another 51,000 troops were stationed in the rest of the empire, which included 41 million people in Africa alone.102 Like the ancient Romans, nineteenth-century Europeans combined a harsh response to native revolts with benign measures designed to win acquiescence to their rule. The great theoretician of these policies, which came eventually to be called the “hearts and minds,” or “population-centric,” school of counterinsurgency, was the French marshal Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey.

Born in 1854 to an aristocratic family, Lyautey had his life forever altered by an accident that occurred when he was just eighteen months old: he fell out of a second-floor window in his native Nancy. Having narrowly escaped death, he spent the next two years confined to a bed. He could not walk normally until he was twelve, leaving him plenty of time to read and to dream. This sickly childhood produced the same result as it did for his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, making Lyautey an intellectual as well as an adventurer eager to prove his manhood. Florid, creative, theatrical, egotistical, high-strung, impatient, decisive, idealistic: Lyautey was a poor fit for the rule-bound world of the late nineteenth-century French army, whose reactionary cast of mind was vividly revealed during the Dreyfus Affair. He hated his time at Saint Cyr, the French military academy, and afterward preferred to socialize with writers such as Marcel Proust rather than with his fellow officers. He got his comeuppance in 1894—the same year that another misfit, the Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus, was convicted of treason on the basis of false charges of selling secrets to Germany—when he was dispatched to what was viewed as a hardship post in French Indochina.

France was then in a race with other European powers, notably Britain and Germany, to gobble up the remaining bits of Africa, Oceania, and Asia that did not yet have a Western flag fluttering overhead. The fever of acquisitiveness was reaching its height in all these regions, raising tensions that would help lead to the tragic events of August 1914. But imperial service was still frowned upon in the continental armies, as has usually been the case with counterguerrilla warfare, because it was seen as a distraction from “real” soldiering against fellow Europeans. As in Germany (and to a lesser extent in Britain, whose Indian Army was a world unto itself), there was a sharp distinction in France between the metropolitan and the colonial armies. The former was made up of draftees and led by officers who tended to be aristocratic, devoutly Catholic, unimaginative, and rigid. The latter, by contrast, was filled with volunteers from home and from other countries (most famously in the Foreign Legion) and led by officers who often came from middle-class backgrounds. As a French journalist noted years later, “Colonial officers were a hard-drinking profane, convivial group: they had little in common with the aristocratic officer corps stationed in France itself.”103 These colonial soldiers were widely seen by their domestic counterparts as duds and dolts when in fact they had to display greater flexibility, initiative, and inventiveness than was characteristic of the world of the parade ground, where the only attribute a soldier was expected to display was unquestioning obedience to orders. Few if any officers made the leap from one army to the other more successfully than Lyautey.

The historian Douglas Porch claims that part of the reason for his exile was that Lyautey was homosexual, but offers no evidence for this claim, which has also been made, with equally scant evidence, about other famous contemporaries such as Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and the novelist Henry James. It was true that Lyautey did not get married until he was fifty-five (to a younger widow), and it is possible he had homosexual proclivities but, as with Kitchener and James, there is no evidence he acted on them.104 In any case his sexual tastes are hardly pertinent in explaining why he had fallen into disfavor with his superiors. He was a maverick and a troublemaker who had dared to criticize the army in a popular magazine for failing in its duty to educate and uplift conscripts.105He even became known as the “socialist captain.”106

The posting to Indochina as a middle-aged major proved to be the pivotal event in Lyautey’s life. There he met Colonel Joseph Gallieni, a more experienced colonial officer (a “magnificent specimen of a complete man,” in Lyautey’s awed description)107 who shared his love for literature and his distaste for the “mummified existence” of the “routine-ridden” metropolitan army.108 Upon meeting the new arrival, Gallieni told him to literally throw out all the regulations he had brought with him and instead learn his “job on the spot.”109 Lyautey would become Gallieni’s “apostle” in promulgating the influential doctrines of “peaceful penetration” and “indirect rule”110—both far removed from the sort of direct assaults that would lead so many French soldiers to slaughter in the trench warfare of 1914–18.

Much like George Crook in the American Southwest, Gallieni employed light, mobile columns to trap Chinese bandits known as the “Black Flags,” who terrorized northern Indochina. Along with these offensive operations, he established a series of military posts whose commanders combined civil and military powers in an attempt to win over the local population. He even distributed more than ten thousand rifles so that villagers could defend themselves.111 Gallieni placed as much emphasis on economic development as on military operations. As Lyautey explained in a letter home, his mentor built “roads, telegraphs, markets . . . so that with pacification a great band of civilization advances like a spot of oil” (tâche d’huile). Thus was born a famous phrase still used in military circles to this day.

In an influential article published in 1900 while he was working with Gallieni to pacify Madagascar, Lyautey laid out his mentor’s “method” for a wider audience. “Military occupation,” he wrote, “consists less of military operations than of an organization on the march.” That organization must consist of officers who “destroy only in the last resort” and instead focus on building markets, schools, and other projects designed to win the “submission of the inhabitants.” This task, he contended, was far more difficult than ordinary war fighting of the kind practiced by his rivals in the metropolitan army. “Do you think,” he asked, “that it does not need more authority, more sangfroid, more judgment, more firmness of character, to maintain in submission, without firing a single shot, a hostile and excitable population than to subdue it through gunfire once it has arisen?” There was no rule book for “pacific occupation.” It could be achieved only by sending “the right man for the right place,” a phrase that he wrote in English, by which he meant a man equally competent in military operations and civil administration, a man who understood local conditions, spoke the local languages, and sympathized with the local inhabitants. A man like Gallieni. Or himself.112

This is essentially the doctrine of “population-centric” counterinsurgency that in the twenty-first century the United States and its allies tried to implement in Iraq and Afghanistan—as distinguished from “enemy-centric” strategies that focus on killing guerrillas. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were the direct descendants of Lyautey’s l’equipe (team) drawn from the military service des affaires indigènes and the civilian contrôleurs civils.113 There is good cause for this continuity: pacification, Lyautey style, is much more congenial to liberal democracies than are the harsher policies implemented by earlier French generals in Haiti or the Vendée. Indeed Douglas Porch argues that Lyautey’s doctrine was little more than “a public-relations exercise” designed to assure apathetic French voters that their country’s mission civilisatrice could be advanced on the cheap.114That is unfair. There is no evidence that Lyautey was cynical about his deeply held ideas. It is, however, true that reality was messier than the pretty word pictures he drew. The Lyautey approach worked best where local elites were willing to cooperate. That was the case in Indochina, where the chief challenge to French authority came from Chinese bandits who were as alien to the Vietnamese as the French were—and more disruptive. “Indirect rule” was a harder sell in Morocco, a country of 5.4 million Arabs and Berbers.115

AFTER INDOCHINA, LYAUTEY moved with Gallieni to Madagascar, another French colony. In 1903, as a newly promoted brigadier general, he was sent to administer a troublesome district in Algeria on the border with then-independent Morocco. From there he slowly expanded the “oil spot” of French control deeper south into the Sahara Desert and westward into Morocco itself. The sultan of Morocco became weaker and weaker until in 1912 Paris proclaimed a protectorate over his country. Lyautey was chosen as the first resident general, a post he would hold for the next thirteen years, interrupted only by a brief, unhappy stint as France’s minister of war in 1917. (A colonial soldier par excellence, he was utterly out of place in the mass, industrial warfare waged in Europe.)

Described by one historian as a “slim man of above average height, with a fine forehead, dark brows over large pale blue eyes, and a striking sensual mouth hidden by the big moustache of those days,”116 Lyautey reveled in his role as a Middle Eastern potentate. He wore a purple burnoose, rode on a saddle covered with tiger skin, and stayed in a silk-lined tent while he traveled the bled (countryside) to parley with “native notables.” He made no effort to disguise his “passion for power.”117

He found, however, that the “protectorate” was unpopular and the sultan uncooperative. Lyautey forced Sultan Abd el-Hafid to abdicate in 1912, giving the throne to his more pliable brother, Moulay Youssef. The new sultan was little more than a figurehead. All of the important ministries were in French hands, with Lyautey himself acting in effect as prime minister. French rule was only marginally more “indirect” than in next-door Algeria, which had been annexed outright.

As per his writings, Lyautey did place considerable effort on building ports, courts, hospitals, waterworks, schools, railroads, roads, power lines, and other infrastructure that Morocco lacked. These projects not only created an “immense . . . improvement in the welfare of its people,” in the judgment of a British newspaper correspondent,118 but also kept young men employed who might otherwise have spent their time sniping at the French. “A workshop is worth a battalion,” Lyautey said.119 However, he also had to expend a good deal of effort to put down opposition from recalcitrant tribesmen—and his methods were far from gentle.

Colonel Charles Mangin, a swashbuckling soldier reminiscent of Custer (but with better luck), was particularly brutal, if effective, in suppressing a holy war led by a self-proclaimed sultan named Ahmed el-Hiba. With 5,000 soldiers, 1,500 mules, and 2,000 camels, Mangin caught up with el-Hiba’s harka (army) on the plain of Sidi Bou Othman outside Marrakech on September 6, 1912. El-Hiba had at least 10,000 men, but like the Mahdists (followers of a self-proclaimed Muslim messiah) fighting British troops in the Sudan fourteen years before, they made the mistake of mounting a frontal attack on a European army across open ground. Armed with 75-millimeter cannons, machine guns, and magazine rifles, Mangin slaughtered the Moroccans. At least 2,000 of el-Hiba’s men died, while Mangin lost just 2. The outcome was reminiscent of a correspondent’s description of Kitchener’s victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, which marked the end of the Mahdist uprising in the Sudan: “It was not a battle, but an execution.”120

Mangin believed, probably rightly, that no diplomatic blandishments would have persuaded el-Hiba and his followers to support French rule. For the protectorate to prevail, they had to be smashed by force. But Lyautey’s development projects, his concern for local sensitivities (he prowled the streets of Fez and Rabat, wrote a biographer, “questioning merchants and passers-by regarding their needs and wishes”),121 his leniency in dealing with defeated rebels, and his outreach to religious leaders (marabouts) and tribal elders (caïds)—all this was more than window dressing. His efforts at outreach helped persuade most Moroccans to discontinue further resistance.

So effective were these policies that when the Great War broke out in 1914 Lyautey was able to send almost all of his 60,000 troops home, eventually to be replaced by older reservists unfit for duty on the Western Front.122 Despite German efforts to stir up trouble, Morocco remained quiet, and Moroccan troops fought valiantly for France in both world wars.

The end of Lyautey’s tenure would be marred by an Islamic revolt launched in 1921 by Abd el-Krim in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. Although the Rif was ruled by Spain, the insurrection spilled over into the French zone and embarrassed Lyautey when he was already old and sick. A left-wing government in Paris lost confidence in his leadership and sent Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of the Great War, to deal with the Rif. Abd el-Krim was defeated in 1926 by a massive Franco-Spanish force of more than half a million men.123 In the early 1930s the last major unpacified part of the country—the Atlas Mountains—was brought under control. Morocco remained relatively peaceful until 1956, when the French ended their protectorate in the face of growing opposition to concentrate all their efforts in Algeria.

The same pattern was visible in Egypt, Nigeria, and other countries where Europeans attempted “indirect rule,” a term coined by the British proconsul Frederick Lugard: it was not always indirect, but it was generally successful. Admittedly that may be more of a testament to the weakness of local resistance than to the brilliance of European administrators. But there is no doubt that Lyautey and Gallieni had elucidated timeless precepts of great value—as long as they are not carried too far.

“Civil action” has to be part of any successful counterinsurgency. That does not mean, however, that it can be a substitute for military action. What Hubert Lyautey and countless other soldiers found was that counterinsurgency warfare requires a complex mixture of political and military action whose exact contours have to be determined by the “right man” on the spot. Perhaps Lyautey’s most valuable contribution was to stress the need for “flexibility, elasticity, adaptation to time, place, and circumstance” rather than trying to impose a standard schoolhouse solution on complex and variegated situations. To get the kind of officers he wanted, Lyautey encouraged his subordinates to seek advanced degrees—a novel trend in a force that, like most modern militaries, was generally contemptuous of intellectuals. “He who is only a soldier is a bad soldier,” Lyautey said. A good soldier must be a “complete man” with “an open mind on everything.”124

Lyautey himself was a model soldier-administrator. But the kind of colonialism he practiced so successfully, which depended on a small number of European soldiers and envoys overawing much larger numbers of “natives,” could not last much longer. That was evident from the difficulties encountered by Lyautey’s English counterparts on the other side of Africa, where a colonial revolt was presenting the biggest challenge the British Empire had faced since the American Revolution. Like the American revolutionaries, the Boers were of European ancestry, but the methods they employed and the success they enjoyed would inspire non-European counterparts around the world—not to mention Irish revolutionaries located closer to the heart of the British Empire.

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