Open Country with Erica Hume Niven

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In the dark room I am watching the front tyre of a scrambler bike trundle over grit, over stone. Then I see my toes in their sandals walking over sand, over cobbles. Then I am watching my feet stepping on grey stones, 
on snow. Then I remember his new work boots trudging through mud alongside me and there is not much light on the path between the conifers.

The day before I attended Richard Jeynes’ talk I had set out on a relatively short walk survey. I picked my camera, phone and tracker device up, but I had no inhaler.

Despite the horrible dampness in the air, I set off anyway; I had a meeting that evening in the same town. Fortunately for me a stranger caught up with me on the Cuddy Bridge. Johnny Walker is one of my angels that serendipitously came into my life just at the right moment. Having a wee blether for the following hour and a half on our route distracted me from my forgotten puffer.

My focus returns to the scramblers following old tracks and paths to archaeological sites in the south of Morocco. They duly arrive at their destination. At the south end of the Oued Guir valley there is a Foreign Legion fort, the nearest town is Boudenib. This area is near the French colony of Algeria. Richard tells us that the excuse for building over the border was to protect Algeria and possibly they thought they were on the border and not over it; this is what they told their head office.

As a youngster the seeds for Richard’s interest in the Foreign Legion (Légion Étrangèr) were sown when he read Beau Geste. More pertinent for his understanding of the Legion and its practical applications was his reading of a major’s diary. It was clear from this man’s accounts that much of their time was spent on construction works – roads, tunnels and forts in isolated places.

The forts were built to a plan, almost a kit house if you like. The building of roads allowed them to bring in building materials. The walls and living quarters were made of rough dressed stone, covered in white washed plaster. Of course, the thickness of the walls and the white would help to keep the interior cool.

In the event of the main door being breached there was a short section of wall parallel to the opening that housed light artillery. The battlements were covered with slits to allow rifles to be shot on to attackers below.

The towers were different. Much care was taken over their construction, the floors strengthened with pre-fabricated beams and the windows framed with more ornate stone and protected with iron bars. There was always one tower in the main fort and two or three outlying towers.

The outlying towers were the most vulnerable part of these remote forts. The 100 men garrisoned at the forts rotated their stay of duty in the out posts every four days or so. Being stationed at these towers was not something they volunteered for. You were more likely to be attacked while walking here.

The easiest way for the Berber to weaken and kill the garrisons was not by weapons. The most effective warfare was to stop their food supply and cut off their water supply. In fact, most legionnaires died from starvation. Often, to prevent being taken prisoner and being cruelly tortured, they would commit suicide either individually or blow up the fort.

Richard spoke in a candid manner – there is no romanticism here. Watching Richard’s slides appear makes you feel that you are at a briefing for a military sortie. This sensation is not surprising when you learn that this competent and clear speaker worked in intelligence.

Richard’s company, Trail Quest Archaeology, is now associated with three British Universities – Worcester, Bristol and Glasgow. Glasgow University is the leading academic institution with regards to modern conflict archaeology. Both students and interested persons can join Richard’s teams on digs.

Their next fact finding exploration will be to the Rif Mountains in the north of Morocco to visit a fort that was detonated to avoid capture.

For more information visit the website at