In 1922, General John Biddle, SSC, DSM, Ret., toured Algeria and Tunisia by caravan. He kept a diary of his journey from Biskra to Algiers, through Tougqourt, Ouargla and Ghardaia, later compiled as a neatly typed manuscript with photographs that he gave to his cousin, my Gr-great Aunt Bess Ogden, and which is among the more unusual items in our family archive.
Introduced by the author as "no tale of adventure, no dangers, nor escapes; just the telling of an ordinary trip of thirteen days through part of the desert of Sahara, under the competent and comfortable care of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique", it is still a fascinating read. Biddle is a descriptive observer, though his view is colored by the attitudes of his day. As such, his account reveals as much about the author as the lands through which he traveled and the people he met along the way.
"There seemed no guide to direction. A small trail indicated by tracks and some droppings might help, but the sand soon covers all; there are often cross trails and the camels going slowly wander around to graze. The mules sink to the fetlock, and leave a small crater as the track, while the camels barely sink in, except a little at the toes.
An Arab dressed in black turban, black cloth coat, Arab white trousers, strong bare brown calves, and a rough wide rawhide heelless boot, carrying a rifle, walks and runs behind my mule and finds time to keep it going with word and stick. After a while, he gives the gun to a camel-driver showing that even Arabs can tire. It is like Vercingetorix with Caesar, but I don't suppose I go as fast..."
"...The Kabyles are the best of the Arab race. They come from Bougie and westward. They did the best fighting and now having been conquered, they make the best citizens, going to school, and as their country is poor, going all through Algeria to earn their living. The Head caravaner at Tougqourt Ramdam and the chief I have Nazef, are Kabyles and fine, well mannered, good looking men they are. Like the Virginians, they tell you they are the best of the country, and luckier than the Virginians, others agree with them."
Along their route, Biddle enjoyed the hospitality of the Caid of N'goussa, shown at left with his son and wearing a red blanket bedecked with medals from his service with the French.
"He is a big, handsome man 75 years years old, has had 16 wives and still 2 or 3. Has one nice looking boy of 17 and 2 girls unseen. Had a child a couple of years ago and did not see why i should not marry at my age. I asked him what I should have to do to come here and find many wives. He said I must be circumcised and believe in the Prophet. As I protested a little he reconsidered a moment and then said that he thought probably that believing in the Prophet would be enough. The Caid invited me to tea, dinner and to sleep. I accepted the two former."
"...We ambled slowly at 6 or 7 kilometers an hour, stopping at Temacin to climb the minaret and see the oasis, and buy some dates which are cheaper than at Tougqourt. Then a couple of kilometers further on, the mule riders stopped at the edge of a palmgrove for lunch; canned sardines, chunk of beef, two boiled eggs, cheese and fruit, wine and water, all this was good enough for anybody. An hour later, the camel train having passed, we started and about two hours later, made camp at the edge of a palmgrove, dry and protected from the wind, but always lots of flies, especially on the old men and women."
There is a good deal more along these lines in the pages of John Biddle's caravan diary. He died in 1936 and is buried at West Point where he once was commandant. Apparently his medals were offered last August on Ebay, and like another old soldier he has faded away. But still we have the record of a few weeks of his life out in the Sahara, a glimpse through his eyes of a vanished world.