Recently I was at a seminar given by Dr Berny Sèbe of the University of Birmingham. He talked about a very interesting research project into the military forts of the Sahara, looking at the way forts had developed and been used, the way they interplayed with mobile military forces and urban settlements, the way they represented continuities with Roman military occupation, their post-Independence uses and so on. At one point he showed a grainy black-and-white photograph of a rather chubby white bus with round portholes, and commented that it was one of the buses commissioned by the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne to carry its customers across the Sahara from the coast to Gao on the Niger bend. I was fascinated by the idea of a company running white, bulgy buses across the great desert, carrying passengers in air-conditioned comfort, in what looked like the 1930s. So I did a little reading and found that trans-Saharan motor-transport has a very different history from that across the Syrian desert to Baghdad, but an equally fascinating one.
Where the Nairns built a business on fast, cheap, competitive transport between Jerusalem and Baghdad, carrying the post, bullion and passengers, the French desert convoys had quite another rationale. They arose from imperial amour-propre and a fierce competition between the two major French car manufacturers, Louis Renault and André Citroën. The two episodes epitomise so perfectly the cultural differences between France and Britain that they are worth holding up to the light together: the one pragmatic, commercial, brave and accidentally romantic; the other loftily idealistic, romantic, brave and accidentally commercial.
In the early 1920s Citroën and Renault launched a series of great quasi-anthropological expeditions across Africa, and filmed them, at about the same time that they set about the Sahara. French imperial triumphalism, a lascivious cod-ethnology and intense commercial self-promotion lay behind what were called ‘raïds’ – lavish, expensively conceived expeditions that criss-crossed the continent with ciné cameras running. Citroën filmed La Traversée du Sahara in 1923, La Croisée Noire in 1925 and La Croisée Jaune in 1932, each one “a moving visual catalogue of the French colonies.” Starting generally from Touggourt, to which the Constantine-Biskra railway line had been extended in 1918, they pushed southward, filming as they went, encouraged by the success in 1922 of ‘Le Raïd Citroën,’ which made the first motorised crossing of the Sahara. In 1925 La Croisée Noire, a massive motorised expedition south from Colomb-Béchar split into four separate columns with very different routes, reuniting at Tananarive in Madagascar. It was a very French imperial statement.
In 1924 Citroën established a subsidiary called CITRACIT to run regular transport on an Oran-Béchar-Toggourt-Timbuktu route (the first Toggourt-Timbuktu transit ran in the winter of 1923/4). Citroën bought the patent for the rubberised caterpillar half-track capable of driving in deep sand, designed by Adolphe Kégresse, who had worked on tank and half-track design for Renault during the war. Hotels were constructed along the route, “luxurious tent-like structures, each adjoined to an elegant dining-room” – “intended to create an ambience for men in smoking-jackets, women in gowns and dancing to live music under the stars.” Three boats were built and installed on the Niger for travelling between Bouarem, Timbuktu and Gao.
Citroën was in a hurry. Unlike Renault which took almost four years from founding the company to launching a commercial service, Citroën wanted instant results:
Il faut que la réussite de cette entreprise étonne le monde par la rapidité avec laquelle la réalisation aura suivi la conception. A peine la nouvelle du projet sera-t-elle connue, et déjà les bordjs seront sortis de terre en pleine desert; ils seront meublés, organisés, eclairés à l’électricité et fonctionneront. Les voitures munies de chenilles auront tout transporté à travers le chaos des terrains désertiques, tandis que d’autres véhicules appropriés à leur nouvelle destination, rapides et confortables, auront été conçus, construits et expédiés, leur personnel entraîné aux solitudes désertiques et les premiers voyageurs transportés d’une rive a l’autre de la mer saharienne …
A magnificent launch event was planned for January 1925, a journey from Colomb-Béchar, a military base on the Algerian-Moroccan border reachable by rail from Oran since 1905, through Beni Abbès, Adrar and Gao to Timbuktu. In the convoy were to travel King Albert II of the Belgians and Maréchal Pétain. It is hard to imagine a more grandiose, more prestigious launch event.
Beside Citroën, competing with quiet determination, was Renault, more oblique and perhaps marginally subtler in its approach to publicity. Eschewing the most grandiose self-promotion, it too ran African expeditions, and it too filmed them: the 1924 ‘Mission Gradis’ was filmed, though the film is now lost; and the Oran-Cape Town ‘raid’ of 1926 produced Les Mystères du Continent Noire. For the Sahara run itself, Renault produced La Première Traversée rapide du desert (329 heures), a not-at-all-subtle dig at Citroën’s slower half-track expedition, La Première Traversée du Sahara: Renault ran six-wheeled, double-tired trucks which moved much faster than Kégresse’s quasi-military vehicles.
Alongside both, Peugeot was up to much the same gambit, if in a lower key, with its expedition and film of 1926, L’Image d’Afrique. But the real struggle was Citroën versus Renault. The latter started to push out exploratory crossings of the Sahara with a view to a regular service, just as Citroën did. Much of the infrastructure was already in place. Tourism in French North Africa had grown through the second half of the nineteenth century. Railways ran inland from the coast at Constantine to Biskra (1905), extended to Touggourt in 1918; and from Oran to Colomb-Béchar (though the Béchar line was mostly military). Biskra first, and after it Touggourt, became tourist destinations, Biskra in particular suffering from rampant commercialism and vulgarisation. Desert camping trips became common. The first Cook’s tour to Algeria was in 1875 and Cook’s first desert excursion in 1886; and soon parties were being taken to Touggourt and El Oued.
After the Great War tourism really took off, officially promoted and growing fast. The 1920s and 1930s were golden decades in this respect. The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, dominant in the shipping of tourists to Algeria, built dozens of hotels in collaboration with Renault across French North Africa – 44 of them by 1930, many luxury establishments like the Mamounia at Marrakech and the Jamai Palace at Fes, but others small fort-like bordj-es deep in the desert, to serve circuits like the 27-day Marrakech to Algiers tour which took ten passengers at a time 1700 miles ‘in armchair seats’ across the desert. By 1926 Renault vehicles were taking parties out into the Grand Erg Occidental on camping and hunting trips from the new railhead at Figuig. Between 1920 and 1925 SVHNA, a subsidiary of CGT, established no fewer than 22 auto-circuits in the desert, on which it ran 270 vehicles.
So when the idea of a trans-Saharan ‘bus’ service began to emerge in the early 1920s, it was not new, and much of the hardware already existed. The railway line came as far south as Colomb-Béchar, an oasis military base on what is now the Algerian side of the Moroccan-Algerian border (later used as a French missile-testing ground), and although the first crossings started in Touggourt, it was from Béchar that regular services eventually ran.
Partnering with Renault, a Bordeaux businessman called Gaston Gradis bought several Renault six-wheelers and established the Compagnie Générale Transsaharienne. The president of the company was General Jean-Baptiste Eugène Estienne, who had been a major force behind the wartime development of French tanks and half-tracks – and thus the boss of Adolphe Kégresse who was developing Citroën’s desert half-tracks. (This double association is a reminder of the close links between desert transport and the military – the great Marmot-Herrington articulated buses that the Nairns operated in the 1930s came from a US manufacturer specialising in armoured vehicles.)
Gradis’s first exploratory voyage (ironically using Citroëns) took place in the winter of 1923-4, and consisted of four trucks pulling an aeroplane from Beni Ouif through Adrar and Tessalit to Colomb-Béchar. He set up the Compagnie Général Transsaharienne, its name chosen deliberately to echo the dream (dating back to the mid-19th century) of a French north-south railway – the Transaharien – which was supposed to meet an equally putative Djibouti-Senegal line at Timbuktu. (Four ‘raïds’ organised by the Commission for the Transaharien had ended in disaster with the massacre of the Flatters expedition in 1881). Gradis ran a number of preparatory expeditions, after the first using Renaults and carrying Renault engineers. The second crossing was from Colomb-Béchar to Gao and back again, in the course of which he marked out the southern sector of the track, known as ‘Bidon V,’ with empty oil barrels. The third ended with an extraordinary journey from Savé in Dahomey to Colomb-Béchar in just six days.
The two companies were running very much head-to-head, though Gradis puritanically disliked the notion that they were in any way racing; and in January 1925 Citroën looked ready to deliver the knock-out blow with its VIP maiden voyage, studded with celebrities and royalty. Alas, the military authorities decided at the last moment that the security situation couldn’t be relied upon: there was tribal unrest in the desert, and a big raid was reported just to the south of Colomb-Béchar. The King of Belgium cancelled. The voyage was postponed several times and then itself cancelled; and CITRACIT collapsed, like an over-inflated balloon, shortly afterwards.
There is some apparently well-founded suspicion that Renault was behind the convenient and devastating intelligence of rebellion in the desert. Whether or not this was the case, the collapse of CITRACIT left the field to Gradis and Renault, who ran a regular service between Béchar and Gao from the winter of 1927-28, at first fortnightly and then weekly. In 1926 a luxurious sleeping-car was commissioned for the service by Georges Estienne, the general’s son, who became president of the company in 1926. His vehicle, looking like a cross between and ocean liner and a piece of retro-design modern kitchen equipment, was what I had seen in the photograph I mentioned above. “Trans-Saharan Transport,” as one writer puts it, “which annually handles hundreds of travellers and tourists and delivers them at their destination in safety and comfort, and a schedule which may be compared favourably with those of any well-organized ocean line …” and of the buses themselves, they “come through with a kitchenette, steward, wireless operator, compass, like ships on schedule.” Accommodation en route was found at hotels in Reggane – the famous Bordj Estienne – Gao and Niamey, the latter being an optional extension from Gao, mainly for hunters, with many of the tourists alighting at Gao to travel to Timbuktu.
This trans-Sahara service ran until the war. As war approached, the Compagnie Générale Transaharienne found itself increasingly militarised, moving large numbers of troops northwards from Gao to Colomb-Béchar and keeping open the transport line that connected French possessions in West Africa to those in the North. But the World War and the struggle for Algerian independence that followed killed off large-scale tourism, and by the fifties air transport had largely eliminated the need for buses. Gradis was originally an air-man himself, president of Nieuport-Astra aeroplane company, and the Compagnie Générale Transaharienne had been founded to explore the possibilities of both land and air transport. Soon after the end of the war it was running air services between French possessions in North and West Africa. Meanwhile Georges Estienne, having left Compagnie Générale Transaharienne in 1933, founded another company, SATT, which operated an eastern bus route, from Algiers to Kano, and he too took his company into aviation.
Much later of course the same sort of mechanical bravado was displayed in the Paris-Dakar Rally, known latterly and with a pleasing symmetry as the Dakar Rally Raïd. Here too the French car companies slugged it out in the sand, Citroën, Renault and Peugeot dividing the honours over the years, though diluted by Mitsubishis and Volkswagens. The ‘Raïd’ hasn’t run in North Africa since 2008, AQIM having played the same sort of role as the revolting tribes of 1925 played then. It now takes place in South America, a sort of Latin Raïd. The Sahara though, remains what one writer describes as “the ultimate testing-ground of the French automobile,” and French troops at least seem able and willing to intervene today in armoured cars, in the stamping grounds of these splendid, ancient hi-tech bus companies.