The Bataillon d' infanterie légère d' Afrique better
known as the BILA or Bat d´Af served for over a century as the infamous penal
battalions of the French Army.
Men with prison records who still had to do their
military service or soldiers with serious disciplinary problems were shipped of
to Tatahouine, headquarters of the Bat d´Af, to serve a term in a hell.
Although discipline was extreme and the conditions
harsh the BILA should not be confused with a military prison or a hard labour
gang. The men were often used for back
breaking construction work but were trained as soldiers.
"Battailonaires", better known as "les Joyeux" (the
"the joyful ones") fought in the Crimean war, won high honours during
WW1 and bled and spilt blood in many long forgotten skirmishes in France’s
North African colonies.
Right: A soldier of the Bat d'Af with the
traditional tattoos. A famous French journalist asking a member of a
Bat d’Af what it was like was answered
“L’enfer et les Bat d’Af, c’est kif-kif, si tu veux tout savoir” or
the Bat d’Af, they are the same, if you really want to know”.
This page contains a very brief description of the history of the BILA in the period after the First World War until the end of the Rif War. Recommended reading is Pierre Dufour's "Les Bat' d'Af: Les Zephyrs et les Joyeux (1831-1972) from which much of this information was taken.
The end of the Rif War would signal the end of the BILA
in its traditional role as fighting ex convicts and by 1932 only the 1st BILA
still existed, stationed in Tunisia.
The BILA would continue in one form or another until the 1970s but they were used in a different capacity.
A Legionnaire fighting in Morocco alongside the Bat' d'Af wrote the following...
"This fighting is better, more "honest"
than in (WW1) Europe. Here you fight for your
life but only bullets and blades can hurt you. When you sleep you do not risk
being killed by a big artillery shell or Aeroplane bomb while you sleep 20km´s
behind the lines. There is no gas either. With an uncovered face the fighting
is more personal and "honest" "
It was never the less a fight to the death. The locals
did not take prisoners and killed the wounded. They killed all Europeans, even unarmed,
that fell into their hands. It was common for soldiers to keep a last shot for themselves
Below:An exceptionally rare document to Capitaine Lucien Hilarion Marie Victor Lannes of the 1er Bataillon d'Infanterie Legere d'Afrique.
The Bat d’Af in the Rif
war and beyond
Although it provided compagnies for the
"Bataillon de Marche" which were specially formed for service on the
Western Front from 1914-18 the regular BILAs spent the war in North
Africa. The 1ere BILA stayed in Morocco
where along with the rest of the occupation forces it lived precariously,
surrounded by a hostile population which kept an eye on the events in Europe and hoping they would lead to their liberation.
In this period the BILA were scattered over a wide
territory occupying a series of desolate outposts, taking part in long patrols
and fighting columns. They were also used for hard labour building roads and
Left: "Biribi" A soldier from a BILA in the deserts of North Africa
1ere Bat d`Af was headquartered at Bou Denib it´s
companies spread throughout the surrounding territory.
The "Joyeux" keep a strict eye on the local
tribes. As they did during the war they took part in patrols and did back
breaking construction work.
In 1919 the 2eme Compagnie finished building the fort
at Ouled-Djerrar while the 3eme and 4eme built a new fort at Sekrouna. The
battalion also built a fort at Moyenne-Moulouya.
There was little action and the battalion suffered few
losses. At the beginning of March some of the compagnies joined General Auberts
column at Taza which marched over Ouled-Djerrar then on to Reggou which it
occupies with just one soldier wounded.
After taking part in the operations in the Taza pocket
the 1ere Bat d´Af was tasked with building forts and protecting the workers
constructing the railway from Geflet to Outat-El-Hadj.
Above: Either Bataillonaires (Bat' d'Af) or Legionnaires occupying the fort at Bou Denib. The Legion and the BILA wore the same uniforn during this period with the exception of the badges.
At the beginning of 1920 the 1ere Bat d´Af is headquartered
at Guettara with sections dispersed to Oued-El-Ouhar, Reggou, Oued-El-Amar and
In spite of the reduction of the Taza pocket things
did not stay quiet for long. The rebellion did not die down and in 1921 the Rif war broke out with Add-El Krim at the head.
After beating the Spanish at Anoual he declared a
republic of confederated Rif tribes. His
agents worked to get the tribes in French Morocco to break into open revolt. It
was a situation the French were to find difficult to control.
In May 1923 General Poeymirau decided to pacify
Bou-Arfa. It was a major operation and included the 1st, 2nd and 3rd BILA which
were attached to the Fez-, Meknes-, and Bou-Denib mobile columns. By the
20th of May the preparations for the action were finished.
On the 20th of May the Mobile Column Fez (which
included the 1ere Bat d´Af) occupied the Beker heights/hills. These were an
important strategic point for the operations that followed.
The Mobile groups had
1) Clear the region of the Taghzeft pass on the Meknes to Midelt to
2) Open the road to Tafilalet
3) Push the warriors of the Ait Tserrouchen tribe
eastwards, out of the Tishoukt highlands, then to encircle and
On the 20th of May the Groupe Mobile de Meknes
(including the 3eme BILA) marched North
West to the plain of Oum-Jeniba, to Recifa and the
wooded slopes of Bou-Arfa which dominated the Southern entrance of the gorge.
At 16:00, after hours of fighting, the spearhead of
the attack reached the top of the heights. The men of the Bat d´Af guarded the right flank. Thousands
of Ait Tserrouchen warriors resisted with weapons of all calibres. The fighting
was heaviest in the scrub and bush.
In spite of exhaustion and losses the French continue
their push taking the objective by 18:00.
At 15:00 a notable occurrence had taken place on the
battlefield. A surprise storm raged across the battlefield, visibility was
limited in the pouring rain and for a moment there was a lull in the shooting.
The enemy, knowing the terrain well, crept forward
getting ready to use the storm to their own advantage.
Rushing forward with their knives they hoped to
surprise the French with a furious attack of cold steel. They had not reckoned
with "les Apache" of the Bat d´Af. In the BILA a mans status depended
on his ability to trade blows and where many had drawn their first knives as
youths in Parisian back alleys and the harbour front taverns of Marsailles.
There was savage hand to hand fighting in which the
French held their own. By the evening, victory theirs, the French had suffered
38 killed and 89 wounded, the locals an estimated 60 dead and 150 wounded.
On the 21st of May the bulk of the Groupe Mobile de
Meknes, reinforced with elements of the Groupe Mobile de Fez (including the
1ere BILA) bivouacked at Oum-Jeruba ensuring the security of the road to Engul
over the heights of Souiguer. They were to build a road wide enough for trucks
and a fort which covered the ravines descending from Tichoukt.
A strong detachment of the G.M. de Meknes, under
Colonel Callais, cleared the heights at Bou-Arfa and constructed blockhouses
close to Recifa.
The Bat d´Af assumed the role of builders and construction
troops building not only desert forts and blockhouses but also roads through
the gorges. In a remarkable effort 600 men built 5kms of road in 10 days
including blasting rock and building supported sections on the mountainside.
In 1925 Abd El Krim, encouraged by his successes,
decided to attack the French Army.
Taken by surprise and in spite of heroic resistance a
number of forts were taken, the occupants massacred.
Seeing disaster on the horizon the French Govt. Sent
General Petain to take command.
The colonial troops, Legionnaires and Tirailleurs had
fought bravely and had absorbed the first blows of the rebellion. It had been a
campaign dominated by courage and cruelty and the four Battalions de Infanterie
leger d´Afrique had played an active role in the fighting.With the Arrival of Petain, the influx of new troops and supplies the role of the BILA as active combat troops began to wain.
Left: "The Battalions of Pain", the French press did much to expose the conditions in the Bat d'Af.
Soon after the end of the Rif
war it was decided to drastically reduce the number of BILA. The 5eme Bat d´Af
was dissolved in 1925. The "originals", the 1ere and 2eme Bat d´Af
fell away in 1927. The 4eme BILA was renamed 1ere BILA. The 3eme Bat d´Af continued to serve at Outat
El Hadj until it was disbanded in 1932.
As only remaining BILA the 1ere Bat d´Af continued to
serve in Tunisia.
The Headquarters company was based in Tatahouine while other companies were
based in Ben-Gardane, Medenine and Gabes. The battalion served no other purpose
other than keep an eye on the neighbouring Italian colony and to help construct
the Mareth line.