Sources on the Infanterie Légère d’Afrique – Part 1

In my introduction to Too Many Heroes, Volume 1, I quote a statement of Pierre Mac Orlan from 1933, in which he remarked on the scarcity of books that had been written on soldiers of the Infanterie Légère d’Afrique – nicknamed the Joyeux. Pierre Mac Orlan’s complaint needs to be qualified, because in many ways we have more written on the Bataillons Infanterie Légère d’Afrique (BILA) than most other individual units of the French Army. What we do not really have is a personal memoir written by an actual private soldier of the BILA (not an Officer, NCO, or a civilian) who served before the Second World War. We have a mountain of outside opinions to sift through, but very little direct evidence specifically for those Joyeux who fought the First World War. The sources that do exist need to be treated carefully, because everyone who wrote of the Joyeux did so with an agenda. We need to understand what those agendas were. I also tried to avoid applying comments recorded in eras such as the 1840’s or 1940’s to the First World War period, though there is often little alternative.

While my introduction explored much of the early history of the BILA – from 1832 onwards – Too Many Heroes, Volume One focuses on the Joyeux who fought in the First World War. The BILA changed considerably as an organization over its roughly 150 year history, so I attempted to draw on sources as close as possible to 1914. Fortunately, the period from 1900 to 1914 was one of the most prolific for writings on the BILA. I drew heavily on the writings of two medical doctors in particular, namely Louis Combe and Raoul Jude. The writings of Jude and Combe provide some useful insights into the BILA; however, these are something of a mixed blessing because of their connection to degeneracy theory. Degeneracy theory was a pseudo-science that gained influence after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, which contrary to Darwin’s own views held that individuals and societies could become degenerate. Degeneracy theorists believed that the human species could devolve as well as evolve, resulting in physical defects, mental inferiority and a tendency to anti-social behaviour. In the decade preceding the First World War, some French medical doctors such as Louis Combe and Raoul Jude reasoned that since the Joyeux were recruited from the petty criminals of French society, they must be degenerate. The BILA, they believed, made an ideal test case in degeneracy theory. The Joyeux were examined mentally and physically in order to build profiles of degenerate individuals, including the kinds of physical and character defects that supposedly resulted from a degenerate condition. There was also the question of whether the supposed degeneracy could be reversed through military discipline, and if there would be a resulting improvement in physique or character.

Doctor Raoul Jude served as a doctor at the military hospital at Gabès, Tunisia, and therefor had an opportunity to examine Joyeux when they were treated at his hospital. The title of Jude’s 1907 book, Les Dégénérés dans les Bataillons d’Afrique, reflects his preoccupation with degeneracy. Because the Joyeux he examined were those passing through the hospital there is an emphasis on malingerers – those faking illness to escape military duty. Consequently, Jude’s view of the BILA is somewhat narrow. The strength of Jude’s writing is that he was the first to provide some concrete statistics on the social background of the Joyeux, though his sample sizes are very small and it is often unclear whether he is referring to soldiers of the BILA or soldiers of Disciplinary Companies.

Jude’s insights into the relationship between the Joyeux and their officers and NCOs are an important aspect of his writing but cannot be taken in isolation; his observations do seem to compare favourably with the high calibre of leadership seen in the war diaries, but the officers and NCOs sent to the Western Front were probably the best available. Jude seems to argue that the leadership of the BILA needed to take an even firmer hand than they did. Indeed he remarks that the discipline in the BILA could be somewhat lenient. He observed that recruits often arrived on their best behaviour, having heard about the harsh reputation of the BILA, but began to slack off and get into trouble when they realized that the regime was not that harsh. He also remarked upon the dangers of giving them the freedom to go into town on their off-duty hours, where they would be exposed to vice and get into trouble that would result in punishment. In that regard, we can see how Jude’s preoccupation with degeneracy influences his conclusions. Since he assumed that the Joyeux were degenerate, he frowned upon any freedom that would provide an opportunity for bad behavior to come out, though it should be emphasised that he did not advocate any form of abusiveness. The Joyeux, he argued, could be kept in line if their leaders were consistently firm from the beginning. Yet there is certainly no evidence that the disciplinary regime in the BILA was any less harsh than that of a regular regiment, quite the opposite in fact. Nevertheless, because he advocated strict limitations on the freedoms granted to the Joyeux, there is some credence to his assertion that Joyeux were not treated too badly, which I think – based on sources taken together –  was likely the case for those who took to their training quickly and did not cause trouble.

Doctor Louis Combe followed up on Jude’s writing with his own book published in 1912, entitled, Le Soldat d’Afrique – 1. His first volume was intended to be part of a three volume series. A subsequent volume on the Foreign Legion and the Algerian Tirailleurs was published in 1921, but it seems he never completed a volume on the Zouaves. Combe’s first volume covered the BILA as well as the Disciplinary Companies, the North African military penitentiaries and forced labour units. Combe did visit North Africa though it is not clear whether he did so as an observer or as part of his military service. As with Jude, Combe’s concern was with degeneracy among the Joyeux, and observable physical and mental traits of the supposed degeneracy. Consequently, he comes to some egregious conclusions. Combe states, for example, that the Joyeux were ugly and universally homosexual, neither of which is to be believed. To a greater degree than Jude, Combe concerned himself with whether or not service in the BILA had a rehabilitative influence on the Joyeux. The strongest evidence he seems to have been able to muster, was that the Joyeux finished their North African service with a good sun tan. Combe regarded degeneracy as a contagion that could be spread through contact, and for that reason advised that the worst criminals in the BILA be separated out. Nevertheless, Combe’s writing is useful for some of the statistics he provides and the anecdotes of day to day life in the BILA, and his opinions are valuable as a glimpse into the attitudes of an outsider who expressed ideas about the Joyeux that may have been prevalent in the public at large.

Also interesting are Les Bataillons d’Afrique et leur organisation actuelle, published anonymously by the Journal des Sciences Militaires in 1903, and La Réorganisation des Bataillons d’Infanterie Légère d’Afrique written by Commandant Ordioni (likely a pseudonym) in 1911. They are similar enough in nature that one wonders if they were written by the same person. There is also no indication of whether either author had any direct experience with the BILA – Oridioni is said to have been from the 4th Infantry Regiment, which did not serve in North Africa. Despite their titles, both actually contain recommendations for reorganizing the BILA, and in the process, provide some useful details about the composition of the battalions that are included in my introduction. I place these two sources in the same category as Jude and Combe, because even though there is no indication that the authors were degeneracy theorists, Ordioni appears to have drawn heavily from the writings of Jude; many of the statistics he provides are found in Jude as well. Ordioni also shares the concern that salvageable Joyeux should not be “contaminated” by contact with more hardened criminals. Ordioni’s recommendations to limit the number of convictions a potential recruit could have do not appear to have been taken up as policy by the French government. Ordioni’s work reflects the seemingly paradoxical tensions of building an elite corps out of ex-convicts. Ordioni does offer readers some of the problems he saw with regard to the Infanterie Légère d’Afrique, which is useful in its own right.

Thanks for reading! In Part 2, I will take a look at sources that come from the post war period.

Allan Lougheed

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.