Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa

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Bataillons d'Infanterie Légère d'Afrique
Detaille - Light Infantry of Africa.jpg
Light infantry of Africa in 1833, during the conquest of Algeria
Active 13 June 1832—31 March 1972
Country  France
Branch French Army
Type Penal military unit
Role Light infantry
Garrison/HQ Tataouine (French Tunisia)
Nickname Bat' d'Af'
L'Enfer
Biribi
March "Les Bataillonnaires"
Anniversaries Battle of Mazagran (6 February)
Engagements French colonial Wars
French Intervention in Mexico
Crimean War
First World War

The Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa (French: Bataillons d'Infanterie Légère d'Afrique or BILA), better known under the acronym Bat' d'Af', were French penal military units, serving in Northern Africa and made up of men with prison records who still had to do their military service or soldiers with serious disciplinary problems.[1]

History[edit]

Creation[edit]

Created by king Louis Philippe I on 13 June 1832, shortly after the French Foreign Legion, the Bat' d'Af' were parts of the Army of Africa and were stationed in Tataouine, Tunisia, in one of the most arid and hostile region of the French colonial empire. The original Ordonnance royale (Royal order) creating this corps provided for two battalions, each of eight companies. A third battalion was created in September 1833. According to the order the rank and file of these units were to be drawn from: (i) serving soldiers who had been sentenced to existing disciplinary companies and who had not completed their period of army service upon release; and (ii) civilian convicts who upon completing terms of imprisonment had still to meet their obligations for compulsory military service.[2]

Initial service[edit]

The defence of Mazagran by the Light Infantry of Africa in 1840.

The newly raised Bat' d'Af' saw active service for the first time during the conquest of Algeria. They participated in operations at Bougie in 1835 and took part in the siege of Constantine the following year. Between 3 and 6 February 1840 at Mazagran in Algeria, a detachment of 123 chasseurs of the 1st BILA, under Captain Lelievre, held off repeated assaults by several thousand Arabs. This action won the first battle honour for the corps and was subsequently commemorated in all battalions by memorial ceremonies on 6 February each year.[3] A platoon of the Bat' d'Af' served at the Battle of Taghit when the French fort of Taghit was besieged by 4,000 Moroccan tribesmen, who were eventually repelled.[4]

Subsequent history until 1920[edit]

Tataouine circa 1925.

As discipline and living conditions in the Bat' d'Af' were extremely harsh, Bataillonnaires, colloquially named Zéphyrs or Joyeux ("Joyous ones"), usually nicknamed their unit l'Enfer ("the Hell") or, ironically, Biribi (a game of chance of that period). However they fought bravely in the Crimean war, won high honours during the First World War and in the various colonial wars. They also assumed the role of construction troops, building not only desert forts but also roads and bridges.[5]

"Biribi" reached a peak between the 1880s and 90s, when it played its most conspicuous role. In May 1888 the corps was enlarged to five battalions, each of six companies. Three battalions (3rd, 4th and 5th) were based in Tunisia while the remaining units served in the southern districts of Algeria. On the eve of World War I two battalions were on active service in Morocco. During 1914-18 three bataillons de Marche ("marching battalions" detached for particular service) served on the Western Front with distinction (see Battle Honours and Fourragères below). The permanent units remained in French North Africa, providing garrisons and mobile columns.

Character[edit]

One of the factor fuelling French army's disciplinary battalions was the need to avoid a seeming contradiction : men, whose crime in civilian life resulted in the loss of civil rights, gained an undeserved privilege in being exempted from military service. As their integration into regular formations could have spread indiscipline among soldiers, the solution was to incorporate them into disciplinary battalions.[6]

Although the Bats d'Af are commonly described as penal units, their purpose was not punishment but segregation in what were officially described as "redemptive combat units" (corps d'epreuve). In addition to petty criminals and military offenders, the rank and file also included a number of soldiers suspected of Communard sympathies during the 1870s and the ringleaders of several mutinies in metropolitan regiments in the early 1900s.[7] Finally, there were also some volunteers who chose for reasons of promotion or other motives to serve in the Bats d'Af.

In opposition with the prevailing discourse about criminality of the time influenced by Cesare Lombroso's eugenistic theories, the disciplinary battalions of the French Republic were supposed to show that criminals could be redeemed through hard work and combat.[8]

"Yesterday, they were "Apaches" (gangsters), anarchists, professional antimilitarists and thieves, delinquents filled with hatred of bourgeois society, men contemptuous of all morality, shirkers, pimps, knife-handlers, pickpockets... Today, they are soldiers."[9]

—Louis Combe, military doctor
Biribi depicted by Maximilien Luce.

Georges Darien, a soldier condemned for insubordination was sent for 33 months in the Bat' d'Af'. In 1890, he published a novel, named Biribi, where he described and denounced the horrific treatments and corporal punishments which he endured in the Bat' d'Af'.[10]

Many Bataillonnaires displayed tattoos covering much of the body, as was customary in the French criminal underworld of the early 20th century (see examples here).[11]

Interwar period and World War II[edit]

Their bad reputation and doubts about their efficiency as a mean of rehabilitation, led to the dissolution of most Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa during the Interwar period. Following the disbandment of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, serving personnel were transferred to the 3rd Battalion in 1927. In the course of France's general mobilisation in 1939, twelve additional penal battalions of Light Infantry (BIL) were created but the historic title of Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa (BILA) was retained only by those units continuing to serve in French North Africa. During 1939-40 both the BIL and the BILA served primarily as construction units, working on fortifications, railways and roads in France, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. All were disbanded between July and October 1940 following the battle of France.[12]

Final years and disbandment[edit]

A single company of the BILA was re-established in April 1944, becoming a full battalion in September 1948. It was based at Tataouine, the original garrison of the Bat' d'Af'. This formation provided a marching battalion, renamed the Bataillon d'Infanterie legere d'Outre-Mer (BILOM) which participated in the First Indochina War by manning a number of posts in the Bencat sector. Upon returning to Tunisia in November 1952 it was merged with the depot detachments of the BILA. Now designated as the 3rd BILA, the unit was transferred to Algeria following Tunisian independence in November 1956. The battalion was reduced to one company in October 1962, which was stationed near the French nuclear testing facilities in the Sahara from 1963 to 1966. This last remaining component of the Bat' d'Af' was then transferred to French Somaliland where it was disbanded on 31 March 1972.[13]

Between 600,000 and 800,000 men served in the Bat' d'Af' from 1832 to 1970, mostly from the working class of Paris and Marseille.[14]

Uniforms and insignia[edit]

Throughout most of their history the Bat' d'Af' wore the uniform of the French line infantry, modified according to the overseas conditions under which they had to serve and with some regimental distinctions. The latter included yellow piping on the blue and red kepi, yellow collar numbers, and for full dress red epaulettes with green woolen fringes.[15] As light infantry the Bat' d'Af' wore silver buttons and rank braiding rather than the bronze or gold of the line regiments. A bugle horn appeared on buttons and other insignia.[16][17]

Prior to 1914 the most commonly worn uniform of these units was white fatigue dress with white covered kepi and blue waist sash. The medium blue greatcoat of the French infantry was worn on the march. A full dress uniform of dark blue tunic and red trousers (white in hot weather) could be worn on parade or for off-duty wear. From World War I on the Bat' d'Af' were distinguished by "violet" (light purple/red) collar patch braiding and numbers on their khaki drill uniforms. Khaki pith helmets appeared during the 1920s and 30s as an alternative to the kepi, which itself could be worn with khaki or white covers according to the occasion. White dress uniforms were reserved for cadres.[18]

March[edit]

The march of the Bat d'Af is Les Bataillonnaires:

French English

1er couplet:

Il est sur la terre africaine
Un bataillon dont les soldats, dont les soldats
Sont tous des gars qu'ont pas eu d'veine
C'est les Bat' d'Af', oui nous voilà, oui nous voilà!
Pour être "Joyeux", chose spéciale
Faut être passé par Biribi, par Biribi !
Ou bien alors d'une Centrale
C'est d'ailleurs là qu'on nous choisit, qu'on nous choisit !

Refrain

Mais après tout, qu'est-ce que ça fout !
Et l'on s'en fout !
En marchant sur la grand' route
Souviens-toi, oui souviens-toi, oui souviens-toi
Les Anciens l'ont fait sans doute
Avant toi, oui avant toi, ah! ah! ah! ah!
De Gafsa à Médenine
De Gabès à Tataouine
Sac au dos dans la poussière
Marchons bataillonnaires !

2ème couplet:

J'ai vu mourir un pauvre gosse
Un pauvre gosse de vingt ans
Plombé par les balles féroces
Il est mort en criant maman
Je lui ai fermé les paupières
J'ai cueilli son dernier soupir
J'ai écrit à sa pauvre mère
Qu'un légionnaire ça sait mourir

(Refrain)

3ème couplet:

Mais comme on n'a jamais eu d'veine
Bien sûr un jour, on y crèvera
Dans cette putain d'terre africaine
sous le sable on nous enfouira
Avec pour croix une baïonnette
À l'endroit ousqu’on s’ra tombé
Qui voulez-vous qui nous regrette
Nous ne sommes que des réprouvés

(Refrain)

1st verse:

There is on African soil
A battalion whose soldiers, whose soldiers
Are all guys who had no luck
It is the Bat 'Af', yes here we are, yes here we are!
To be "Joyeux", a special thing,
You must have been through Biribi, through Biribi!
Or coming from a penitentiary
This is where we were picked up, we were picked up!

Chorus:

But after all, why do we care!
And we don't care!
When walking on the open road
Remember, yes remember, yes remember
The ancients did probably
Before you, yes before you, ah! ah! ah! ah!
From Gafsa to Medenine
From Gabès to Tataouine
Backpacking in the dust
Let's march bataillonnaires!

2nd verse:

I saw die a poor kid
A twenty-year-old poor kid
Pierced by wild bullets
He died screaming "mom"
I closed his eyelids
I picked his last breath
I wrote to her poor mother
That a legionnaire knows how to die

(Repeat Chorus:)

3rd verse:

But as we never had a vein
Of course one day we will die here
On this fucking African soil
Under the sand we'll be buried
With a bayonet as a cross
At the place where we have fallen
Who do you think will regret us
We are only forsaken ones.

(Repeat Chorus:)

Battalions[edit]

  • 1er BILA : formed in 1832 ; disbanded in 1940
  • 2e BILA : formed in 1832 ; disbanded in 1927
  • 3e BILA : formed in 1833 ; disbanded in 1972
  • 4e BILA : formed in 1888 ; disbanded in 1927
  • 5e BILA : formed in 1888 ; disbanded in 1925

Fourragères[edit]

Those units received the fourragères of the following medals :

Battle honours[edit]

On the Regimental flag of the Bat' d'Af' were embroided those battle honours :

Cadres (NCOs and officers)[edit]

The difficult task of obtaining sufficient non-commissioned officers for the Bat' d'Af' was resolved by creating two categories of sous-officiers. The cadres blancs ("white cadres"), like the officers, were professional soldiers who served a term with the BILA before continuing their careers with other regiments. The cadres noirs ("black cadres") were former bataillonnaires who chose to remain with the Bat' d'Af' on promotion, after finishing their original terms of service.[19]

Disciplinary companies[edit]

The Bat' d'Af' should not be confused with the compagnies d'exclus ("companies of the excluded" i.e. thieves) of the French Army, which were stationed at Aîn-Sefra in Southern Algeria. These penal units consisted of military convicts condemned to five years or more hard labour and were judged unworthy to carry weapons.[20] Upon completion of their sentences such convicts might however be required to complete their military service in the Bat' d'Af'.

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Soldier's burden, Maroc 1923 : Hell on earth in the Bat' d'Af' [1] (retrieved 2011-12-29)
  2. ^ Jacques Sicard, page 46 "Les Bataillons d' Infanterie Legere d'Afrique et leurs insignes, 1832-1972", Militaria Magazine Septembre 1994
  3. ^ Jacques Sicard, page 47 "Les Bataillons d' Infanterie Legere d'Afrique et leurs insignes, 1832-1972", Militaria Magazine Septembre 1994
  4. ^ Pierre Montagnon, "Histoire de la Légion de 1831 à nos jours" [2]
  5. ^ The Soldier's burden, Maroc 1923 : Hell on earth in the Bat' d'Af' [3] (retrieved 2011-12-29)
  6. ^ H-France Review, Dominique Kalifa, Biribi: les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française, review by Richard S. Fogarty. [4]
  7. ^ Martin Windrow, p630 "Our Friends Beneath the Sands, ISBN 978-0-297-85213-1
  8. ^ H-France Review, Dominique Kalifa, Biribi: les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française, review by Richard S. Fogarty. [5]
  9. ^ H-France Review, Dominique Kalifa, Biribi: les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française, review by Richard S. Fogarty. [6]
  10. ^ Georges Darien, Biribi, 1890.
  11. ^ Jérôme Pierrat, Les vrais, les durs, les tatoués : Le tatouage à Biribi, Broché, 2005. [7]
  12. ^ Jacques Sicard, pages 48-49 "Les Bataillons d' Infanterie Legere d'Afrique et leurs insignes, 1832-1972", Militaria Magazine Septembre 1994
  13. ^ Jacques Sicard, page 49 "Les Bataillons d'Infanterie Legere d'Afrique et leurs insignes, 1832-1972", Militaria Magazine Septembre 1994
  14. ^ Dominique Kalifa, Biribi. Les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française, Paris, Perrin, 2009, 344 p. ISBN 978-2-262-02384-3 [8]
  15. ^ A.E. Haswell Miller, plate 44 "Vanished Armies", ISBN 978 0 74780 739 1
  16. ^ Andre Jouineau, page 57 "Officers and soldiers of the French Army 1914, ISBN 978-2-35250-104-6
  17. ^ Planche n.1, "Uniformes et equipements Armée Française 1937", Ministere de la Guerre
  18. ^ Ian Sumner and François Vauvillier, page 24 "The French Army 1939-45 (1), ISBN 1-85532-666-3
  19. ^ Jacques Sicard, page 47 "Les Bataillons d' Infanterie Legere d'Afrique et leurs insignes, 1832-1972", Militaria Magazine Septembre 1994
  20. ^ Musée de l'infanterie - "Les Bataillons d'Afrique"

Bibliography[edit]

  • Anthony Clayton, 'France, Soldiers, and Africa', Brassey's Defence Publishers, 1988
  • Pierre Dufour, 'Les Bat' d'Af' : les Zéphyrs et les Joyeux (1831–1972)', Pygmalion, 2004 (FR)
  • Dominique Kalifa, 'Biribi. Les bagnes coloniaux de l'armée française', Paris, Perrin, 2009, 344 p. ISBN 978-2-262-02384-3 (FR)

See also[edit]