A French “protectorate,” the once-independent kingdom of Morocco has been an imperial project for much of the last century, with European players vying for power. When France extended its “protection” to Rabat in 1911, the resulting international Agadir Crisis with Germany very nearly touched off the war that is being fought right now. The once-independent Kingdom of Morocco has never truly been sovereign in its tribal regions, however, and even as the Great War is beginning the process of decolonization, the European colonial project is still incomplete here.
The Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco dominate the land routes from the French colonies of North Africa, but the local Zayanes tribesmen refuse to be part of anyone’s imperial project. Pacification efforts only began in earnest this Summer, and since the war began it has drawn away most of the available troop strength from this region. Frustrated, Lieutenant Colonel René Laverdure has disobeyed a direct order from his commander, General Paul Prosper Henrys, and led his Group Mobile out in pursuit of the Berber men who have unsuccessfully attacked his hard-won outpost at Khénifra more than once recently.
He has been baited, for Mouha Ou Hammou Zayani wanted to draw him out with insults and attacks. Gen. Henrys has ordered Col. Laverdure not to give them what they want, but his subordinate’s overly-developed sense of personal honor and faith in rapid action has led his force to disaster. The result of his disobedience today is the complete defeat and near-destruction of his command — despite superior weaponry.
It is worth noting that Laverdure’s force is mainly composed of African troops. Algerian and Senegalese Tiralleurs, Moroccan Goumiers, and Spahi cavalry are supported by four machine guns and two batteries of artillery, including the legendary 75 millimeter field gun. They come upon Zayani’s camp at El Herri in the early morning, surprising and overrunning it while the men are away, but soon find themselves under fire, and leave the camp behind for an allied tribe to loot. The erstwhile ally is soon attacking their rearguard.
Having avenged himself, Col. Laverdure must now return to his safe base in a column laden with artillery and machine guns while five thousand angry tribesmen organize to surround and destroy him. The Zaian have no European training to inhibit them from scattering under artillery fire or taking cover. They have no European officers to enforce disciplined formations, and make terrible targets for his guns.
Despite all his firepower, Laverdure’s column is soon isolated and surrounded, its gunners dead. Desperate, he orders his men into a defensive square, but the last-ditch formation is wiped out in minutes. Of the 1,200 men who marched out from Khénifra, over half are dead and 176 are wounded. Nine out of ten officers, including Laverdure himself, have been killed.
Laverdure has made many mistakes, some of which he shares with George Armstrong Custer, another commander who led a large force into a frontier defeat against native foes in an area with little to no road infrastructure. The key moment of the battle took place at the Chbouka River when his force was bottlenecked at the crossing; he had not made any plans for his getaway in hostile territory. Laverdure has displayed contempt for an enemy’s capabilities and overconfidence in his weapons. Moving against orders left him without any reinforcement or relief: he had taken almost the entire garrison out with him, leaving no hope of rescue if things went wrong — which they certainly did.
As the highest-ranking survivor of his command, Captain Pierre Kroll telegraphs Gen. Henrys to report the debacle. Tribesmen reappear in the hills around Khénifra the next morning. Alarmed by the possibility that France could lose all of the Moroccan Kingdom without an immediate show of force, Henrys moves immediately to quash the Zaian resistance, surging every available soldier to Khénifra, including a company of the famous Foreign Legion. The garrison soon exceeds 7,000 troops, and the display of power has the intended effect as France is once again respected for superior strength.
Despite harassing attacks, Henrys will spend the next three years building a military road into Zaian territory so that motor vehicles can support operations against the resistance. The Zaian War will last until 1922, when after years of patient diplomacy a military expedition breaks through and establishes the overland corridor that Paris wanted. Yet some Zayanes will continue to hold out in their hills until the 1930s.
The French imperial project is centuries old, but since 1871, imperial expansion has been a national priority aimed at expunging the loss of national honor in the nation’s defeat by Prussia that year. The Battle of El Herri is the biggest defeat France has suffered in its colonial wars since then, and it will later be compared to the French defeat at Dein Bien Phu, when the Fourth Republic loses its Vietnam colony.