Hubert Lyautey

17 Nov 1854
21 Jul 1934
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Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey (17 November 1854 – 21 July 1934) was a French Army general and colonial administrator. After serving in Indochina and Madagascar, he became the first French Resident-General in Morocco from 1912 to 1925. Early in 1917 he served briefly as Minister of War.

From 1921 he was a Marshal of France. He was dubbed the Maker of Morocco and the French empire builder, and in 1931 made the cover of Time.

Lyautey was born in Nancy, capital of Lorraine. His father was a prosperous engineer, his grandfather a highly decorated Napoleonic general. His mother was a Norman aristocrat, and Lyautey inherited many of her assumptions: monarchism, patriotism, Catholicism and belief in the moral and political importance of the elite.

In 1873 he entered the French military academy of Saint-Cyr. He attended the army training school in early 1876, and in December 1877 was made a lieutenant.

After graduating from St Cyr, two months holiday in Algeria in 1878 left him impressed by the Mahgreb and by Islam. He served in the cavalry, and was to make his career serving in the colonies and not in a more prestigious assignment in metropolitan France.

In 1880 he was posted to Algiers, then campaigning in southern Algeria. In 1884, to his disappointment, he was recalled to France.

In 1894 he was posted to Indochina, serving under Joseph Gallieni. He helped crush the so-called piracy of the Black Flags rebellion along the Chinese border. Then set up the colonial administration in Tonkin, and was then head of the military office of the Government-General in Indochina. By time he left IndoChina in 1897 he was a lieutenant-colonel and had the Legion of Honour.

In Indochina he wrote “Here I am like a fish in water, because the manipulation of things and men is power, everything I love”.

From 1897 to 1902 Lyautey served on Madagascar, again under Gallieni. He pacified northern and western Madagascar, administering a region of 200,000 inhabitants, beginning the construction of a new provincial capital at Ankazobe and a new roadway across the island.

He encouraged the cultivation of rice, coffee, tobacco, grain and cotton, and opened schools. In 1900 he became Governor of Southern Madagascar, an area a third the size of France, with a million inhabitants; 80 officers and 4,000 soldiers served under him. He was also promoted to colonel in 1900. In Madagascar he wrote to his father “I am Louis XIV and that suits me”. He believed that he did not crave power for its own sake.

He returned to France to command a cavalry regiment in 1902, before being promoted to general de brigade that same year, largely a result of the military skill and success which he had shown in Madagascar.

In 1903 he was posted to command first a subdivision south of Oran and then the whole Oran district, his official task being to protect a new railway line against attacks from Morocco.

French commanders in Algeria moved into Morocco largely on their own initiative, early in 1903. Later in the year Lyautey marched west and occupied Bechar, a clear breach of 1840s treaties.

The following year he advanced further into Morocco, in clear disobedience to the Minister of War, threatening to resign if he were not supported by Paris.

The French Foreign Minister issued a vague disavowal of Lyautey, because he was concerned at clashing with British influence in Morocco – in the event Britain, Spain and Italy were placated by France agreeing to allow them a free hand in Egypt, northern Morocco and Libya respectively, and the only objections to French expansion in the region came from Germany (see First Moroccan Crisis).

Lyautey met Isabelle Eberhardt in 1903, and employed her for intelligence missions. After her death in 1904, he chose her tombstone.

Early in 1907 a prominent French doctor was killed in Marrakesh, possibly as he was attempting to lay the groundwork for French expansion, causing Lyautey to occupy Oujda in eastern Morocco on the Algerian border.

Having been promoted to général de division, Lyautey was Military Governor of French Morocco from 4 August 1907. After taking Oudja, he went to Rabat to put pressure on the Sultan, getting embroiled in a power struggle between the Sultan and his brother, with Germany and France taking sides in the dispute.

He returned to France in 1910, and in January 1911 he took up command of a corps at Rennes.

In 1912 Lyautey was posted back to Morocco, and relieved Fez, which was being besieged by 20,000 Moroccans. After the Convention of Fez established a protectorate over Morocco, Lyautey served as Resident-General of French Morocco from 28 April 1912 to 25 August 1925.

Sultan Moulay Hafid abdicated at the end of 1912, replaced by his more pliable brother, although the country was not fully pacified until 1934.

His personal beliefs evolved from monarchism and conservatism to a belief in social duty. He wrote a journal article “On the Social Function of the Officer under Universal Military Service”.

However, his colonial policies were similar in practice to those of Gallieni, a secular republican. He was suspicious of republicanism and socialism, and believed in the social role of the Army in regenerating France.

Lyautey adopted and emulated Gallieni’s policy of methodical expansion of pacified areas followed by social and economical development (markets, schools and medical centres) to bring about the end of resistance and the cooperation of former insurgents.

This method became known as tache d’huile (literally, “oil stain”), as it resembles oil spots spreading to cover the whole surface.

Lyautey’s writings have had a significant influence on contemporary counterinsurgency theory through its adoption by David Galula.

He also practiced politique des races, i.e. dealing separately with each tribe, analogous to the British policy of divide and rule.

Lyautey is considered to have been an apt colonial administrator.

He tried to balance blunt military force with other means of power and promoted a vision of a better future for the Moroccans under the French colonial administration. For example, he invited a talented young French urban planner Henri Prost to design comprehensive plans for redevelopment of the major Moroccan cities.

In Morocco from 1912 he was publicly deferential to the sultan and told his men not to treat the Moroccans as a conquered people. He opposed Christian proselytising and the settlement of French migrants in Morocco, and quoted with approval Governor Lanessan of Indo-China “we must govern with the mandarin and not against the mandarin”.

On 27 July 1914, Resident-General Lyautey received a cable from Paris from the undersecretary of foreign affairs Abel Ferry.

He was quoted as telling his officers:

They are completely mad. A war between Europeans is a civil war. This is the most monumental foolishness that they have ever done.

However, like many professional soldiers, he disliked the Third Republic, and in some ways welcomed the outbreak of war “because the politicians have shut up”.

On 27 July War Minister Messimy told Lyautey to prepare to abandon Morocco except for the major cities and ports, and to send all seasoned troops to France. Messimy later said this had been a “formal” order.

Lyautey briefly served as France’s Minister of War for three months in 1917, which were clouded by the unsuccessful Nivelle Offensive and the French Army Mutinies. Lyautey was apparently surprised to receive a telegram offering him the job (10 December 1916) and demanded, and was given, authority to issue orders to Nivelle (the new Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front) and Sarrail (Commander-in-Chief at Salonika); Nivelle’s predecessor Joffre had enjoyed much greater freedom from the War Minister and had also had command over Salonika.

Prime Minister Aristide Briand, not going into detail about Joffre’s removal, replied that Lyautey would be one of a War Committee of five members, controlling manufacturing, transport and supply, and thus giving him greater powers than his predecessors. Lyautey replied “I shall answer your call”. Lyautey had to spend a good deal of time touring units and learning about the Western front.

Lyautey was strongly disliked by the political Left, and when Briand reconstructed his government in December 1916, Painlevé declined to stay part (he had been Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts) as he was reluctant to be associated with him, although doubts about the replacement of Joffre by Nivelle also played a role (Painlevé was later himself Minister of War for much of 1917, then briefly Prime Minister late in the year).

Lyautey was hard of hearing and inclined to dominate conversation. He preferred to deal directly with the British government via the British Embassy, to the annoyance of the British CIGS Robertson, who despite disliking Lyautey, tried in vain to open private channels of communication with him (at a time when generals of both countries tried to prevent politicians from “interfering” in the details of strategy).

On the train to the Rome Conference (5–6 January 1917) Lyautey stood before a map lecturing the British delegation on their Palestine campaign. Robertson, a man of notorious bluntness, listened to the lecture then asked Lloyd George “has he finished?” before retiring to bed. Robertson told Lloyd George “that fellow won’t last long”.

He wrote to the King’s adviser Clive Wigram (12 January) “Lyautey … is a dried up person of the Anglo-Indian type who has been in the colonies all his life and talks of nothing else. He talks a good deal. He has no grasp whatever of the war as yet and I should doubt if he remains long where he is now.”

Lyautey attended the infamous Calais conference on 27 Feb 1917, at which Lloyd George attempted to subordinate British forces in France to Nivelle.

After a serious argument had broken out between Lloyd George and the British generals, Lyautey claimed that he had not seen the proposals until he boarded the train for Calais. On being shown Nivelle’s plan, Lyautey declared that it was “a plan for “the Duchess of Gerolstein” ” (a light opera satirising the army).

He contemplated trying to have Nivelle dismissed, but backed down in the face of traditional Republican hostility to military men with political aspirations.

Lyautey refused to discuss military aviation even at a closed session of the French Chamber, and at the subsequent open session declared that to discuss such matters even in closed session would be a security risk.

He resigned as Minister of War after being shouted down in the Chamber on March 15, 1917, and after several leading politicians declined the post of Minister of War, Aristide Briand’s sixth cabinet (12 December 1916 – 20 March 1917) fell four days later.

Lyautey caused the Institute for Advanced Moroccan Studies and the Sherifian Scientific Institute to be set up in the early 1920s.

During the First World War, he had insisted on continuation of the occupation of the whole country, regardless of the fact that France needed most of her resources in the struggle against the Central Powers.

He was in overall command of French forces during the time of the Zaian War of 1914–21. He resigned in 1925, feeling slighted that Paris had appointed Philippe Pétain to command 100,000 men to put down Abd-el-Krim’s rebellion in the Rif Mountains.

Political opposition in Paris ensured that he received no official recognition when he resigned; his only escort home was two destroyers of the Royal Navy.

Lyautey was commissioner of the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, designed to encourage support for the Empire in Metropolitan France. The introduction to the visitors guide contained Lyautey’s instruction: “you must find in this exhibition, along with the lessons of the past, the lessons of the present and above all lessons for the future.

You must leave the exhibition resolved always to do better, grander, broader and more versatile feats for Greater France.” A special extension line of the Paris Metro was built to Bois de Vincennes.

Despite costing the French government and City of Paris 318m francs, the exhibition made a profit of 33m francs. Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Portugal and the USA also contributed exhibitions on their overseas possessions, but not Britain, which despite repeated pleas by Lyautey cited the cost of its own exhibition of 1924.

A building in Bois de Vincennes housed part of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931; Lyautey’s study is preserved as part of the foyer.[

In his final years, Lyautey became associated with France’s growing fascist movement. He admired Italian leader Benito Mussolini, and was associated with the far right Croix de Feu. In 1934, he threatened to lead the Jeunesses Patriotes to overthrow the government.

Lyautey would have liked to have been a national saviour; he was disappointed to have played only a minor role in France’s political life and in the First World War. Robert Aldrich writes that he liked hot climates and “the masculine company of young officers”.

Lyautey died in Thorey and was buried in Morocco, but his body was reinterred in Les Invalides in 1961.

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