Penelope in a Pickelhaube: The Rottembourg Bastion at Rabat

Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Louis Mercier, the French Vice-Consul, describes the agreeable walk down the coast from Rabat’s Bab el-Alou to the walls of the Sultan’s seaside palace, al-Qubaybat (the Little Domes).

Opposite the qoubba of Sidi El-Khattib there is a forking of the ways: the metalled road which comes up from the Customs quay, of which we have already spoken, passes the entry to the gardens, leading westward as far as the Rothemburg battery, which is 700 metres from the Bab El-Alou. Then from the battery the same road goes on for another 400 metres along the shore to the stone quarries that were the source of the stone for this building work. The battery takes the form of an enormous block of masonry, carrying two platforms, each armed with a 24cm artillery piece. Ramparts, of which the whole system was probably intended to form an extra set of defences, remain incomplete, some 700 metres to the east of the battery. There also remains a trace of works undertaken in the same place which give an idea of the volume of sand removed: it is a small hill where one can see the tombs of a very ancient cemetery, overturned by the later works.

This strange building, still standing today, looks like a gothic stage-set, a landward-facing screen of rusticated masonry so entirely out of place that I am put in mind of Sydney Smith’s remark on King’s Chapel at Cambridge, that it was like “a billiard table come down to the river to pup.” The Rottembourg Bastion is a wing of Balmoral Castle on the same obstetric mission. I remember it as a rather dilapidated pile, squatted by colourful families and hung about with washing and surfboards. It smelt of urine and frying fish, and was a regular call with our visitors to Rabat, a strange, unexpected wonder. It has lately, it seems, been taken in hand and municipalised, lavished with lawns and flowerbeds, its 30-ton guns dug out of the sand into which they had disappeared like the columns of an ancient temple. It is once again, as Mercier described it in 1906, the endpoint of a family walk, where strollers “can be fairly sure of not being troubled by the audacious enterprises of the Za’er: they call this stretch of coast Madreb El-Aman, which means ‘the Place of Safety’” (Restoration has finally banished the smell, too, I daresay – a long-standing tradition, as the gong-farmers of old Rabat used to empty the sewage they collected into the sea, just below the fort.) Mercier goes on,

Moors from the town come frequently to pass on its summit a few hours of farniente and contemplation.  They carry with them all that is needed to make tea, and one of them charms society with his guenibri (small guitar); one also sees in many places that the soil has been freshly dug, and one need only scrape the surface to discover the charcoal which the visitors have extinguished and stored away for their next meeting. Behind the battery rich farmland stretches as far as the walls of the enclosure of El-Guebibat.

The Rottembourg Bastion has an interesting history. It was built on older foundations as part of the arms race that took place in the years before the Protectorate – not an arms race to strengthen the Sultanate so much as an arms race to dump as much loan-financed fortification and military matériel on Morocco as possible, benefitting European arms suppliers, bankers and politicians. Arms were the instruments of influence-peddling: whether or not the armaments were appropriate or of the slightest use was not a major consideration. The bigger and the more expensive the better. France had a military mission at court and landed on the Sultan, Moulay Hassan, a mass of Napoleonic rifles; the Italians sold the Sultan a munitions factory, known as La Machina, at Fes, which produced according to one writer, 5-10 rifles a day “more dangerous to their operator than to anyone else.”

France, having achieved major financial concessions from Morocco in 1880 at the Madrid Convention, proceeded to try and squeeze Germany out. Germany was meanwhile trying to achieve exactly the opposite and had patrons and allies at court in the Rbati Bargach family, whose head, Abd er-Rahman, was the Sultan’s delegate to all foreign diplomatic missions. The Sultan was persuaded by the French to decline Germany’s offer of an artillery school at Rabat; Germany countered with an offer to build a system of forts to defend the Bouregreg estuary and sent military surveyors to plan the job in 1886. The Sultan tactfully accepted only one bastion, to the south of the city close to his summer palace. This was a bit like being offered a pair of trousers and accepting only one trouser-leg: one fort alone was not going to defend the estuary, which is why, no doubt, the French let it happen. The site was chosen and a German engineer, Walter Rottembourg, was put in charge. Everything from cement to gunpowder had to be imported through Rabat, which was a small port with one quay and a difficult seaward approach across the dangerous bar that crossed the estuary. This required a good deal of engineering work in Rabat, starting with the construction of a new mole, and the importing of an enormous crane for unloading the heavy German cargoes.

But all went swimmingly, and the foundations of the bastion were laid by 1889. Two large cannons were ordered for delivery in 1892 from Krupp by Bargach, who was sent by Moulay Hassan on a mission to Germany for the purpose. In keen anticipation of the cannons’ arrival the new mole was built at the Customs Quay below the Qasbah des Oudayas and the large crane erected there. To get the guns from the port to the new fort required a railway along the top of the Alou and out through a large gap knocked in the town’s wall, all the material for the railway – from Portland cement (800 barrels), gunpowder (another 800 barrels) and rails to wagons, sleepers and an engine, curiously from the French manufacturer Decauville, also being delivered from Europe at huge expense.* The German government even managed to flog the ship that carried them to the Sultan, no doubt at an inflated price. The guns were brought in by March 1893 and entrained for the fort; but there were a series of disagreements, including a row over the decking of the crane with celebratory German flags, which sent the port authorities off to the Sultan in frantic apology; and, once the guns were in place, the refusal by Krupp to remove the railway or repair the Almohad wall because (as builders seem always to say) “it isn’t in my contract.”

Moroccan artillerymen were trained (and the suspicion was strong that their training was not so much in handling cannons as in the Prussian drill and tactics that Rottembourg had been explicitly forbidden to teach). But not much else seemed to happen. In fact progress was so slow that the historian on whom we depend for most of our information about the fort, Jacques Caillé, calls it “un travail de Pénélope.” The French had a strong interest in delaying completion, and the Germans (who didn’t really seem to grasp the weakness of their position) thought that by holding out they could extract a contract for the other fort. Each side was busy unpicking its own and the other’s embroidery.

It was December 1901 before the fort was ready for Moulay Abdel Aziz (who had succeeded Moulay Hassan in 1894) to visit for the first time, and he did so. Attempts to fire a salute from the new cannons failed five times and had to be abandoned. Abdel Aziz went home suitably discombobulated (he was after all a mechanical enthusiast whose palace was full of bicycles, cameras, mechanical toys and beached speedboats, and obliged to his British military adviser, Caid Maclean, a fellow-devotee of bicycle polo). But worse was to come. The fort was formally handed over to the Moroccan government early in 1902, and there was much showy demonstration of the manoeuvring of the cannons, followed by a – successful – firing of three rounds. Unfortunately, the success was limited to the cannons themselves: the masonry of the bastion proved quite unable to withstand the shock of the monster cannons’ actually firing, and dangerous cracks opened up in several of the turrets.

The cannons were never fired again, which was probably wise. It’s not entirely clear what use they would have been anyway, as stand-alone defences for the southern approach to Rabat (the Sultan rather understandably declined once again Krupp’s idea of a second such battery on the north bank at Salé, and the brass cannon on the Kasbah would not have made much of a dent in a European warship). The two test-firings had made quite clear that the whole project was anyway much more dangerous to its own artillerymen than to any ship in the roads. This was confirmed ten years later in 1911 when a massive explosion took place in transporting gunpowder to the magazines in the ditches around the fort: an artillery captain and two soldiers were killed and five others wounded by the explosion itself and collapsing walls. It had cost the Sherifian government more than eight million French francs and was entirely useless.

I have seen no eye-witness description of the fort and its armaments, though no doubt one or two do exist. But I do recall an exactly contemporary (1889) account of the guns at Tangier by a French diplomat called H M P de la Martinière (the ‘P’ stands, irresistibly, for ‘Poisson’). His account will perhaps give us a flavour of the Rottembourg bastion:

The supervision of the batteries and carefully built works near the Kasbah is entrusted by the Sherifian government to a Spanish engineer who is attired on the occasion of grand ceremonies in a splendid uniform, glittering with gold. Three of the batteries are composed of twenty-ton Armstrong guns, which would offer serious resistance if there existed some corps of artillery well instructed in working and firing the guns, or even in keeping them in proper order. The existence of such a corps seems doubtful when you behold the steel monsters sleeping with true Morisco nonchalance under a thick layer of dust.

The Rottembourg bastion never saw action again. Or, in fact, at all. But that didn’t stop the French colonial authorities from purging it of its teutonic associations in the early months of the Great War. It was triumphantly renamed after the first French airman killed in that war, a Captain Isodore Hervé, Commander of the Morocco Squadron, who was shot down in April 1914 “by Arabs” with rifle fire, while taking his Blériot aircraft to support Gouraud’s attack on Taza. Walter Rottembourg’s memory was purged so successfully that there is argument on the web today about whether he really existed at all, what he was called, and how he was spelled. Mind you, no one seems to remember who the gallant Capt. Hervé was, either.

The suburb of Océan was developed (or rather, sprang up with the encouragement of Lyautey’s planning staff) between the inner and outer walls of Rabat after the war. It housed foreign workers, many of them Spanish and Italian. It swiftly lapped the walls of the Sultan’s Qubaybat, which survives only in the ghost of a smile that is the roundabout still called Bab al-Qubaybat on the Casablanca Road. The coastal strip into which the Qubaybat disappeared, of which Fort Hervé was a rather flamboyant element, filled up with official and military buildings – among them Camp Garnier and the Hôpital Marie Feuillet with their great ruinous presence giving a sinisterly impressive, almost Gormenghastian, character to that stretch of the coast road.

And now the fort is being revived, its ditches planted with flowers and its great guns perhaps polished and remounted. Once again, “Moors from the town will come frequently to pass on its summit a few hours of farniente and contemplation.” I hope there’s a good café.

[I have always meant to write about the bastion, but was finally prompted to do so by a recent article in Zamane by Sami Lakmahri, sent me by a kind Rbati friend. Most accounts derive from Caillé’s Ville de Rabat and his Petite Histoire de Rabat; I greatly regret the lack of a French or English translation of Khalid ben Srheer and Abdel Raheem Benhadda’s 2013 Arabic history of my favourite city, published by UM5 in Rabat.]

*Moulay Abdel Aziz might have been quite sore on the subject of the Decauville engine. He had ordered one for his palace at Fes, to take him four kilometres to his gardens at Dar Dbibar, and everything from rails to carriages arrived overland on muleback from Larache in tickety-boo order, except for the locomotive’s wheels. “Despite extensive searches they were never found: the Sultan decided that the train would be pulled by mules, or horses. He wanted no delays and scarcely two kilometres of track were in place when he gave himself the pleasure of making an expedition. After which, quite satisfied, he forgot about his railway.” (Gabriel Veyre)

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