It's a very contemporary scenario. Young soldiers face a hostile and alien environment full of Muslim insurgents with inadequate equipment. Military aims are unclear. On a remote front line, mission creep deteriorates into a cycle of brutality and atrocity that the media break to a horrified public. Yet Bertrand Taithe's captivating story unfolds just south of the Sahara in the late 19th century, at the tail end of Europe's scramble for Africa.
To this day, locals believe that violent spirits haunt one of the main highways in this region, blaming them for an unusually high level of mortalities. The road in present-day Mali follows the fateful route of two seemingly ordinary, twirly moustached, young French army captains, Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine. Sent to the region in 1898 by the French colonial office, they were instructed to shore up the border with the British. What ensued exposes the contradictions of imperial "pacification" in the name of civilisation. Following reports of mass killings, the superior officer dispatched to haul them back found hundreds of rotting corpses and teenage girls hanging from trees. Voulet and Chanoine shot him and ran away with their private slave army, declaring themselves African rulers. Soon they were murdered by their own men. Sacre bleu! - to the power of ten.
The stomach-churning violence aside, this book is really enjoyable. As it's not about Britain behaving badly in its Empire, we can all tut-tut at French excess, from the soliders' depravity to their champagne hampers. More seriously, the author brings a lightness to his prose and analysis that makes for a charming read. Taithe even-handedly explores the fateful ingredients that produced such unacceptable military force: typical of how the heavy demands made of soldiers in particular conditions can lead them to deliver by any means available.
As Taithe rightly points out, this episode was part of "a pattern of inhumanity across Africa". Racism, slavery, imperial greed and technological superiority also produced Germany's genocide against the Herero in southern Africa, and the Congo atrocities of Belgium's King Leopold as bleakly immortalised in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Yet the perceived savagery of Africa and its effect on white people were blamed. European governments may recoil from "moments of excess", but such censure, Taithe argues, always functions to obscure "common practice".
Most chillingly for us all, Taithe sees in Voulet and Chanoine's routine abuses, misplaced power and deluded ambition, the "ordinary cruelty of the servants of the modern state". "L'horreur ... l'horreur."
The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Afria
By Bertrand Taithe Oxford University Press. 336pp, £16.99 ISBN 9780199231218 Published 22 October 2009