A double biography of two extraordinary characters who helped shape France’s colonial fortunes in North Africa. This is the story of General Henri Lapperine, the dashing Commander of the Oasis whose camel corps rode sleek racing méharis with the general at their head. Alongside walked his guide and interpreter – a sunburnt scarecrow of a man reciting prayers as they went – Charles, Pere de Foucauld.
Fleming’s style is well researched and enthralling. He admits that there is not a lot of material on Lapperine, who wrote little down and seems to have been little appreciated in his lifetime. Foucauld, an obsessive letter writer and list maker, left a large legacy and has been the subject of many works – mostly in French and usually lionising his saintly attributes.
In order to tell the tale, Fleming first describes the situation in the French African colonies of Algeria and the Soudan to the south during the 19th Century. The grandiose plan is to link the two – eventually by rail – via the Sahara, the conquest of which becomes a matter of national honour. The descriptions of the large expeditions sent to achieve this aim are horrifying – they end in unmitigated disasters, each one greater than the previous. The flamboyant characters involved are described – with a repetitive postscript ‘…they too were murdered’.
Into the desert enter two seemingly different men – bound by a desire to see the Sahara and its population as French – in Foucauld’s case, Godly and French. The main protagonist is Charles de Foucauld, an aristocrat turned hermit. Starting out as an overweight and not very good cavalry officer with a taste for women and the easy life, he is sent to Algeria. Here he discovers not only a love of the desert but also forms the idea of creating a religious order – not just an average order, but one whose regime of self denial makes Trappism seem luxurious. Living on a diet of barley and dates, spending twelve hours a day in prayer he founds an order that had a membership of one during his lifetime (unsurprisingly) and converted a single elderly blind woman. He never loses touch with his acquaintances from military days – they provide protection for him and he in turn supplies them with maps and information regarding the ‘ground feeling’ of the desert tribes.
Lapperine sees the folly of the mass marches and forms a camel corps, whose swiftness in smaller numbers and less need for supply chains enable them to subdue the Tuareg. A ‘soldiers’ soldier’ he was a hard taskmaster admired by his troops (when one of his natives was questioned about his loyalty to France he replied that his loyalty was not to France – but to Lapperine). He needed information from the Hoggar (a little light spying) and who better than his old friend Foucauld. When offered the chance to set up a hermitage in the remote outpost of Tamanrasset, Pere de Foucauld relishes the prospect of tending to the locals (and supplying Lapperine with reports).
By 1910 with the Tuat and Hoggar under the control of the French and with Foucauld alternating between Tamanrasset and his even more remote hermitage at Assekrem, Laperinne sets out on a series of tours. Although successful these are seen by his superiors as meddling in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire (which at the time was nominally in charge of the Tripolitania to the east of Algeria). Lapperine is recalled to France as war clouds gather leaving Foucauld behind. In an obscure footnote to the international situation Senoussi raiders roam the Sahara attacking the remaining French at the behest of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Caught up in the intrigue, Foucauld is assassinated on December 1st 1916.
Upon hearing the news Lapperine requests immediate transfer back to Algeria to avenge his friend. Three years later as he lays dying, lost in the desert following an aircrash, General Lapperine’s utters his final words: ‘People think they know the desert, people think I know it. Nobody really knows it’.