SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 38: Beau Geste

Dennis Meyers
Relevant experience: U.S. Army Intelligence, 1974-1980, BA & MA Economics,
Economist for over 30 years for State of California, Community College Adjunct Faculty

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: France in North Africa

Most of Beau Geste involves the Geste brothers service in the Pre-WW1 French Foreign
Legion, particularly at the fictional Fort Zinderneuf as it is attacked by a band of Tuaregs, a
Saharan Berber ethnic group.


The term ‘Berber’ is an Arab word for the Amazigh (Ama-zeer), the original indigenous people who
inhabited North Africa west of Egypt. This region, the Maghrib, stretches from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to
the Canary Islands and from the Mediterranean to the Niger and Senegal rivers—modern day Morocco,
Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, Mauritania, northern Mali, and northern Niger. ‘Amazigh’ mean free or noble
men which they applied to themselves because the harsh environment of the Sahara Desert prevented
agriculture from taking root which led them to be nomadic traders and herdsmen rather than stationary
farmers. Eventually, many Berbers became farmers in the mountains close to the Mediterranean coast,
or oasis dwellers.

The Berber region and history can be divided between the Mediterranean coastal regions and the vast
arid inland desert region. The Mediterranean region was valuable for a variety of trade and commercial
activities, including the slave trade. Thus, the North African coast attracted a series of outside invaders.
The Amazigh opposed and outlasted a succession of empires, including the Carthaginians, Romans,
Vandals, and Byzantines, Ottomans, and lastly the French.

Islamic Arab military expeditions into the Maghrib began in the 7th century. By 711 the Umayyads (a
Muslim dynasty), helped by Berber converts to Islam, had conquered all North Africa. However, many
Amazigh kept their own identity. So, the North African population became a mix of Amazigh, Arab and
Islamic influences. Conflicts between Berbers and Arabs were chronic.


The term ‘Barbary’ originates from the term Berber. Not long after Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli came under
the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, pirate raids became a major factor in the
region’s economy and history. Privateering1 had long existed in the Mediterranean, but because it had
become so lucrative North African rulers ramped it up considerably in the late sixteenth and early
seventeenth centuries. Algeria became the leading privateering city-state. Piracy was the chief purpose
and main source of income of all the Turkish settlements along the Barbary coast.

1 Privateer: an armed ship owned and officered by private individuals holding a government commission and
authorized for use in war, especially in the capture of enemy merchant shipping.

The main objective of this privateering was to capture slaves for the Ottoman slave trade and the Arab
slavery market in North Africa and the Middle East. Barbary pirate ships, or corsairs, also captured
thousands of merchant ships and repeatedly raided coastal towns of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal,
England, the Netherlands and as far away as Iceland. It is believed that between the 16th and 19th
centuries from 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves
in North Africa and Ottoman Empire. The threat of these pirates was so great that many European
maritime powers paid tributes to the rulers of North African privateering states of to prevent attacks on
their shipping.

In 1625, the Algiers pirate fleet, the largest, included 100 ships and employed 8,000 to 10,000 men. The
corsair industry accounted for 25 percent of the workforce of the city, not counting other activities
related directly to the port. In addition, 2,500 men served in the pirate fleet of Tripoli, 3,000 in Tunis,
and several thousand more in all the various minor pirate bases such as Bona, Susa, Bizerta, and Sale.


Following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, European powers agreed upon
the need to suppress the Barbary corsairs entirely. Algiers found itself at war with Spain,
the Netherlands, Prussia, Denmark, Russia, and Naples. The U.S. Congress also authorized naval action
against the so-called Barbary States.

The words “the Shores of Tripoi” in the Marine’s Hymn commemorates the United States
capture of Tripoli in 1805—the first U.S. victory on foreign soil—during the First Barbary
War. The war originated from the U.S. refusal to pay tributes.

As a result of what the French considered an insult to the French consul in Algiers by the Turkish
governor of the province in 1827, France blockaded Algiers for three years. The failure of the blockade
was the reason given for a military operation to take Algiers in 1830. Following the conquest of Algeria,
France gradually expanded its North African empire. It invaded Tunisia in 1881 and made it a French
protectorate. In 1907, under the pretext of protecting its citizens following riots and local unrest, France
sent forces to Morocco and by 1912 it had made Morocco a French protectorate.

However, as France expanded its North African empire it encountered the same difficulties as previous
empires. They could control cities on the coasts but inland, in the vast harsh deserts and mountains, the
Berbers (Amazigh) could always retreat, regroup, and launch fresh raids on their invaders.


From its creation in 1831 the French Foreign Legion has been closely identified with the French
colonization of North Africa. King Louis Philippe gathered former foreign soldiers and veterans of the
Napoleonic wars into a new Foreign Legion that would only serve outside of mainland France and would
be composed exclusively of foreign soldiers. It was first sent to Algiers to support French colonial efforts
in Africa. This first assignment and the subsequent battles in Algeria would lead to the Legion
considering the country their spiritual home. The Legion was used in campaigns across North Africa.

The French conquest and pacification of Morocco was largely made possible by the French Foreign
Legion. Morocco possesses challenging terrain of high mountain ranges, arid plains and desert. Water is
scarce, and oases were often fought over. There were also thick forests inhabited by intensely independent
tribes who engaged the French in some of the most demanding combat they had ever encountered.


The Legion built and manned a network of large garrison bases at locations such as Fes, Meknes, and
Marrakech, as well as isolated forts from which units were deployed to dominate the surrounding
terrain and enable safe movement for military forces and supply columns. This enabled the French to
link strategic areas, to quell local rebellions and to ‘show the flag’ to intimidate the local population.

In many instances these forts and outposts were attacked and sometimes defended ‘to the last man.’
Since the attackers lacked artillery or other methods to force their way into the forts, the garrisons were
generally considered relatively safe. A fort could survive as long as ammunition, food and water lasted,
or was relieved by additional troops. Isolated forts under attack could summon relief with telephone
and radio to more primitive heliograph (a semaphore system that signals by flashes of sunlight reflected
by a mirror), carrier pigeon, and bugle calls and later with telephone and radio. After the First World
War, regular over flights by aircraft provided additional cover and had mixed results at dropping

The greatest danger was a long siege and a gradual depletion of water. However, direct attacks and
infiltration were real threats to Legionnaires. Berber attackers would sneak up to a fort in the middle of
the night and capture, and sometime kill, sleepy guards and steal their weapons and gear.

It wasn’t uncommon for forts to be lost to direct attacks when attackers scaled a fort’s walls and
bastions. In such cases, if possible, the defenders stripped the forts of weapons and demolished them.
In one case, the commanding officer of one outpost, having held out for almost eight weeks, blew up
the post, killing himself and his remaining men, rather than let it fall to enemy hands.

Another notable action occurred in 1908 when the French occupied Bou Denib in Morocco. They built a
walled redoubt surrounding their camp and a blockhouse on a nearby prominent hill. On September 1
the blockhouse, manned by 75 men (including 40 Legionnaires), was attacked by 7,000 Moroccans. The
unsuccessful attack ended the next morning with the blockhouse defenders suffering only one killed and
25 wounded while the attackers lost probably 200-300 fighters.


Immediately after WWII, France faced a prolonged and often violent decolonization period. Nationalist
movements in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco arose early in the 20th century. France resisted them with
violent repressive measures, which typically led to increased popular support—including armed
resistance—for the independence movements.

The Moroccan Sultan Muhammed V, a central figure in the independence movement in Morocco was
deposed and sent into exile by the French in 1953 and replaced by his uncle. But nationalist agitation
forced his return in 1955. In 1956, France and Spain recognized the independence and sovereignty of
Morocco. Following Morocco’s independence, Tunisia gained full independence in 1956. French rule in
North Africa finally ended with the Évian Accords that enabled Algerian independence in 1962 which
ended the 1954-62 Algerian War.


Snoopy is a cartoon beagle from the comic strip Peanuts created by Charles Shultz in the 1950s.
Snoopy's character enjoys role playing and creating alter egos for himself, including The World Famous
French Foreign Legionnaire. He first appears in August 1965 where Snoopy dons a handkerchief due to
the incredible heat, as hot as the Sahara Desert. He is first shown as alter ego when Snoopy steals one of
Charlie Brown's handkerchiefs on March 1966 and looks for Fort Zinderneuf. He is finally identified as a
member of the French Foreign Legion a few weeks later, going by "Beau" Snoopy.


Morocco History, Info Please,
A Brief History of Tunisia, Local Histories,

History of Algeria, Nations On Line,

French Blockhouses – Part 3: Africa, Mon Legionnaire,

Action at Bou Denib: Part 2, Mon Legionnaire,

Berber, New World Encyclopedia

Forts of the French Foreign Legion, World Archeology,

World Famous French Foreign Legionnaire, Peanuts Wiki,

Wikipedia articles: Barbary pirates, French conquest of Algeria, Beau Geste (1939 film), Beau Geste,
First Barbary War, French North Africa, History of the French Foreign Legion, French conquest of Algeria,