Analysis of Document 1

Here I have mapped out the methods I used to answer the question: How can we use this document to understand the daily life of the tirailleurs sénégalais?

1. Firstly I looked at the context of this document. It is an Inter-Army letter regarding the allocation of gardens to the tirailleurs sénégalais. 

Tirailleurs Sénégalais was the common, collective name for the conlonial infantry troops raised across Francophone Africa, beginning in Senegal in 1857. By creating regiments of indigenous troops, the French could better manage their overseas territories and deploy their troops more effectively, it also solved the problem caused by a diminishing French population which meant that there were less recruits for the French Army.

As a historian and a translator, it is often necessary to ‘play the detective’, especially with archive documents, and use books and journal articles alongside primary sources to piece together a narrative. This is the challenge I came up against whilst researching the context of this letter. One of the first questions I asked myself is why were the tirailleurs sénégalais in Touggourt in 1913? This was prior to the First World War and therefore cannot be linked to any battles which took place on African soil. However, whilst researching this question, I came across material in secondary sources which helps to explain their presence. For example Vandervort (1998, p.42) explains that the tirailleurs played a large role in defending France’s possessions in the Chad-Congo region prior to 1914 and led French campaigns in this region. Therefore it is important to note that an archive document is not a stand-alone source, and other sources should not be forgotten when analysing it.


When looking at any document it is necessary to ask yourself: What do you think is significant about this source? And then look at your series of responses which will then make up your Big Questions.

For example here are some of the various responses which can be kept in mind whilst analysing the document in depth:

  • What are the purposes of allocating land to the tirailleurs?
  • Why are these lands split between the tirailleurs and the spahis?
  • In what ways does this text reveal details of the French “civilising mission”?
  • What is the role of “expert” scientific studies in Algeria?
  • In what way does the author use  scientific methods and statistics as persuasive tools?

2. Read through the document in depth thinking about WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY and HOW

Battalion Chief Martin

Supreme Field Commander of Touggourt

Touggourt Military Territory



20th November 1913, Touggourt

Subject: Allocation of land to the tirailleurs sénégalais

To the Touggourt Territory Military Commander,

I am honoured to  following the requests you made in your correspondence on 26th June 1913 (N° 3044).

Firstly, the oasis in Touggourt is in the process of drying up; several years of drilling explorations into the top soil have resulted in little success. Moreover, the farmable lands surrounding the oasis are either granted already or in the process of being put under contract. Even if these lands were not allocated to those who have requested them, they should be set aside and reserved for Colonisation [sic.]. It therefore does not seem possible to reserve these lands for the sénégalais.

However, there are, in Touggourt, two significantly large gardens which can be used by the garrison. Since the sénégalais encampment in Touggourt will likely lead to job losses in the current garrison, there the first seeds may be sown of the type of organisation that the Governor-General wants. These two gardens feature in the enclosed sketch.

They are located two kilometres, as the crow flies, from Fort Touggourt. They come from the sequestered property on Ben Djelleb. Garden A has been allocated to the tirailleurs detachment and garden B has been given to the spahis detachment[1]. However, I have been unable to find any trace of these orders. The engineering service will not interfere with them and the Regiment’s Board of Directors has no further knowledge of the origin of these orders. Recently the tirailleurs’ Major requested information regarding this subject and I was unable to fulfil this request. Be that as it may, these gardens have long been in the hands of the regiments in question.

Garden A (which belongs to the tirailleurs) has a surface area of 4.93 hectares (49,300m2), with 500 palm trees, it is watered by 4 ¼ noubas out of the 28 noubas from Aïn Kebira, of which the output is 500 litres per minute[2].

All in all this is insufficient and the palm trees, which are starved of water, are in a bad state. The date harvest, which in previous years has been sold at auction for an average of 350 francs, was this year simply distributed amongst the tirailleurs. Due to lack of labour, the soil is in a bad state and yields an insignificant crop of vegetables.

Garden B (which belongs to the spahis) has a surface area of 3.01 hectares (30,100m2), it has 160 palm trees (until last year) but it has dried up and yields nothing. Last year, the wells of Bou Yerrou were rebuilt by a communal workforce. The spahis helped with the costs and they are now entitled to 5 noubas, which dispense 150 litres per minute, out of the 28 wells that have been repaired. The Chief of Detachment is actively involved in the garden, he has harvested vegetables from it and distributed them amongst the spahis troops and also supplied greens for his horses to eat. As such the palm trees have picked up a little and he has also planted 60 djebbas[3].

However, progress in this garden is limited because the amount of watering that can be done is minimal. As such, here there are about eight hectares of existing gardens, which could be made available to the tirailleurs. But they are only likely to become more useful if they are watered as much as possible. Eight hectares can and should hold around 800 palm trees. In order to water them enough, half-a-litre of water is needed per tree.

In order for there to be sufficient output to cultivate the trees, a large quantity of water is needed in Oued Rihr. From the statistical information that I have collected in the diverse Oued Rihr regions, the results show that the rate of development is 100 djebars per hectare.  This is the rational number adopted by all Europeans as it gives the maximum return. This includes the purchase of djebars and comes at a price which varies between 1000 and 1500 francs. Regarding the irrigation, it takes half a litre to a litre of water per palm tree, per minute, depending on the region.

Let us therefore examine the case of a land grant of 100 hectares. In the most propitious circumstances, the development of the land would cost 1,000 x 100 = 100,000 francs. If the region in which this land is located is good and we can obtain wells with an average flow rate of 1,000 litres per minute (which is excellent but not impossible), a well could irrigate 2,000 palm trees or 20 hectares. Again this would be in the most propitious of circumstances. Therefore, in order to irrigate the area, five wells would need to be built. This would cost at least 7,000 francs per well and therefore 35,000 francs for all five. As such, the cost of all this work would be 135,000 francs. This would undoubtedly be money well spent since a palm grove grown under these conditions would bring in 5 francs per palm tree year after year, so 1,000 palm trees would bring in 5,000 francs. However, if the grove would only turn a profit ten years after its creation and, at the moment, with farm fees, paying the labourers, replacing old djebars and maintenance of the khandags[4] and the wells, will all require constant funding.

Judging by these calculations and under the most fortunate of circumstances, the development of one hectare would cost 1,350 francs including labour. This is not to say that the sénégalais cannot provide their own labourers. If they did, this would bring down the cost of developing each hectare to 1,200 francs. As such, 300,000 francs is needed for Ain Messaka, 240,000 francs for Chott Ez Zidi and 240,000 francs for Moggar making a total of 780,000.

After 10 years of development, the mean ratio could be 500 francs per hectare, which would all in all for these land grants be 650×500 = 325,000 francs.

These figures have been calculated for the creation of all the new areas of the Oasis. I believe therefore that it is impossible to proceed in any other way. All the palm groves we have in the area are privately owned; the wells which irrigate the groves belong to those who are prepared to pay large sums of money for them and those that water the gardens do so insufficiently. Therefore nothing from the wells can be taken free of charge, and as such the installation costs should be supported by the State.

[1] The spahis were light cavalry regiments in the French Army and were mainly of North African origin.

[2] A nouba is the area that can be watered in the space of 24 hours

[3] A traditional method of draining oases using a network of pipes

[4] Djebbas or djebars (plural) are a type of celery


Sketch of Touggourt Military Territory


(Copyright Kelsey Suggitt, 2013)

3. Having read through the letter in detail, I will now go back to my Big Questions, and use the detail in order to answer them by reading the text against the grain

  • What are the purposes of allocating land to the tirailleurs?

By allocating land to the tirailleurs, the French feel that they can placate the troops and prevent any uprisings or rebellions. They supplement this idea with suggestions that it may even bring down costs in the long run and improve the troops’ diets.

  • Why are these lands split between the tirailleurs and the spahis?

Again the French work on their own assumptions when allocating land to the troops. They may have perceived that the two detachments were not compatible with one another and that it would be more effective for each to have his own. Yet there is no evidence to suport this presumption except the ‘expert’ knowledge of the Battalion Chief.

  • In what ways does this text reveal details of the French “civilising mission”?

As the previous two questions suggest, this document shows that the French army based many of their opinions about the colonial troops on popular thought of the period. That is to say that the troops were offered land of their own (under army conditions) but not until a certain amount of it had been set aside for the Europeans. This shows the faulty nature of the “civilising mission” which aimed to export French values, and yet retained a hierarchy with the French benefiting first.

  • What is the role of “expert” scientific studies in Algeria?

By using “expert” studies, the French were able to select the facts that suited their purposes in order to construct knowledge. This was done in order to support their ideas and orders and even validate them as “factual” and “correct”.

  • In what way does the author use  scientific methods and statistics as persuasive tools?

Throughout the text there is evidence of persuasive language through the use of scientific language and calculations. These enable the author to ‘show his working’ and ‘prove’ that what he is saying is worth taking note of and cannot be denied.


Vandervort, B. (1998). Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa: 1830-1914. London: UCL Press.

One thought on “Analysis of Document 1

  1. Dear Kelsey,

    Great analysis and excellent presentation!

    I think we may have met at the CAOM back in the spring of 2011. I’m a PhD student at Princeton, but from the New Forest. I am fairly certain that we met in the company of Melissa and Blake. If that is the case, hallo again!

    I’m writing because my own work on auxiliaires médicaux and the administration of public health has thrown up some references to tirailleurs sénégalais. I’d be happy to talk to you about my sources and would love to know more about the origins of yours. I hope you will get in touch.

    Kind regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *