The sword and the cross book
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The Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand
Effectively, Fleming contrasts the diligent, tough-minded professionalism of the two men with the futility of their task. The Sword and the Cross takes us to the Sahara at the end of the nineteenth century, when France had designs on a hostile wilderness dominated by deadly Tuareg nomads. Abandoning his decadent lifestyle as a sensualist and womanizer, Foucauld founded a monastic order so severe that during his lifetime it never had a membership of more than one. Yet he remained a committed imperialist and from his remote hermitage continued to assist the military. The stern career soldier Laperrine, meanwhile, founded a camel corps whose exploits became legendary.
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When it comes to the history of Western empires, the French can seem anomalous. Aiming to turn overseas subjects into quasi-Frenchmen, Gallic colonialism's distinctive ideals are still evident through the labelling of places such as French Guyana as "overseas departments"; colonies in Africa and Indo-China were extensions of the mother country, where the natives would be "pacified" and learn to eat baguettes. The methods of this pacification form the subject of Fergus Fleming's excellent book on the French conquest of the Sahara at the turn of the 20th century. Though the story is brutal and depressing, the book is a chastening reminder of the nature of such endeavours. The Sword and the Cross tells of two pivotal figures in the Saharan conquest: Henri Laperrine, whose campaigns in the Algerian sands crushed the Tuareg nomads, and Charles de Foucauld, an ascetic monk whose stoicism in desert oases attracted the Tuareg to France's "peaceful intentions". Interwoven are the stories of various fantasists who sought the Sahara for France. Schemes included building a railway across the dunes, draining the Mediterranean into the Sahara, and creating ports on the Atlantic coast through dropping nuclear bombs.
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This is the tale of two extraordinary men who lived in an extraordinary place during an extraordinary time: General Laperrine and Father Foucauld, the two greatest figures from the turn-of-the-century French colonial conquest of the Sahara. A double biography is a virtual necessity when considering the intertwined careers of these two colleagues, but Fergus Fleming's The Sword and the Cross extends way beyond this to become a vivid chronicle of French imperialism in north Africa. Provision of that context is an essential part of the book's worth. Without some knowledge of the appalling historical background of the French conquest, it would be impossible to appreciate the personal achievement of Laperrine and Foucauld, who were nothing if not gung-ho imperialists. Laperrine invented the Camel Corps, which eventually subdued the wastes of the central Sahara.