The Flatters Expedition, 1880

By Hans Von Stockhausen

Webified by Tim Besko

The ill fated Flatters Expedition of 1880-1881 was the result of an ill conceived scheme to build a transsaharian railroad that would connect Algeria with the French Sudan and central Africa. While debating the details of the half-baked idea the Transsaharian Committee decided to send an expedition to reconnoiter the unexplored regions south of Ourgla for possible routes. To command the expedition they chose Lt. Col. Paul Flatters, a 48 yeqar old lack luster colonial officer from the Arab Bureau considered an expert on Arab matters. However he lacked the drive and necessary command experience for such an expedition.

After an abortive start in March 1880, Flatters set out again in December with 97 men (including 11 Frenchmen, 47 Algerian tiraillers, and 31 Chaamba cameleers) and 280 camels. Several hundred miles into the desert the expedition began to run out of water after incompetent (treacherous) guides missed a critical water hole. On February 16, 1881 Flatters guided by treacherous Tauregs took an advance party (a third of the men and all the camels) to collect water at some nearby wells. On reaching the wells the party was ambushed and destroyed, a few survivors fleeing back to the camp.

The rest of the expedition under lieutenant Dianous sought to make their way back to Ourgla, without camels and stalked by hostile Tauregs. At each successive waterhole they had to fight or negotiate for water relying on their firepower to drive off or keep hostile Tauregs at bay. The dates were poisoned, killing some, driving others mad. After Lieutenant Dianous was killed by a sniper the expedition disintegrated. The leaderless remnant resorted to cannibalism and eventually a dozen or so survivors straggled into Ourgla in early April.