Wing and Sword: Story Hour

The Shaman

First Post
Wing and Sword is a d20 Modern play-by-post military mini-campaign of counter-insurgency actions during the Algerian War of the 1950s.

The player characters are légionnaires of the 1er Regiment Étranger de Parachutistes (REP), the First Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Army, assigned to suppress the insurrection lead by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). FLN insurgents have been striking at civilian and military targets in the hinterland since 1954, but terrorist attacks in the large cities of Algiers, Oran, and Constantine are on the rise and the gendarmerie and sector troops assigned to the country are proving insufficient to stem the bloodshed. The French government begins a massive troop build-up in Algeria in 1956, but knows that conscripts alone will not be enough – the toughest assignments will fall to the men wearing a silver badge on their berets, of a sword clutched in a winged fist: Les Paras.

Because Wing and Sword is a play-by-post game, the story of the adventurers is already available to anyone who wants to read it – to duplicate it here would be redundant and add little to the campaign for the four players. With that in mind, I decided on a Rashômon-like attempt at re-telling the adventure narrative from the perspective of different NPCs: an ALN commander, a pied-noir farmer, an OAS terrorist, a Foreign Legionnaire, and so on. My goal is to provide some background on and insight into the ‘game-world’ of Wing and Sword for the benefit of the players and those following along with the game-threads.

Details about the game and the characters and links to the game-threads can be found in the The Divine Records of Exalted Deeds and Vile Darkness.

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The Shaman

First Post

Alger: city of Algiers
ancien: veteran
Armée de l'Air: French Air Force
battaillon de marche: a temporary 'marching' unit or task force
bled: the Algerian backcountry
casevac: casualty evacuation
chat et souris: cat and mouse
choc: 'shock' - refers to (1) the five-man assault team in the standard 12-man section and (2) battalions of para-commandos (i.e., 11e Battaillon de Parachutistes de Choc)
Deuxieme Bureau: French military intelligence bureau
djebel: mountain, mountainous terrain
djellba: hooded robe - traditional Arab garment
failek: ALN battalion (roughly 330 soldiers)
fell: abbreviated form of fellagha
fellagha: bandit; also FLN soldier or terrorist (derogatory); plural fellouze, fellaghas (informal)
fourragère: a braided cord worn around the left shoulder that signifies a unit citation for valor - the colors of the fourragère correspond to the ribbon associated with a particular decoration, such as the Legion d'Honneur (red), Croix de Guerre (red and blue), and so on
katiba: ALN company (roughly 110 men)
képi: a cap with a flat circular top and a visor
képi blanc: the traditional white kepi of the French Foreign Legion - the 'Beau Geste' hat
kufi: Muslim prayer skullcap
hammada: rocky desert plain
Hauts Plateaux: High Pleateau region of Algeria
Hôpital Maillot: Algiers military hospital
moudjahiddine: ALN regular soldiers (sing. moudjahid)
moussebiline: ALN irregular guerillas
oued: wadi or canyon
pieds-noirs: Algerians of European descent (literally 'black feet')
piste: track or trail
pourvoyeur: ammunition carrier
rappelés: recalled conscripts - reservists
ratissage: literally, 'raking' - used to describe sweeps across the bled to locate fellaghas
RAV: acronym for reconnaissance a vue, 'visual reconaissance'
régiment étranger de cavalerie: foreign cavalry (armored) regiment; abbreviated 'REC'
régiment étranger de génie: foreign engineer (sapper) regiment; abbreviated 'REG'
régiment étranger d'infanterie: foreign infantry regiment; abbreviated 'REI'
régiment étranger de parachutistes: foreign parachute regiment; abbreviated 'REP'
régiment de tirailleurs algerienne: Algerian native infantry regiment; abbreviated 'RTA'
régiment parachutistes de coloniaux: 'colonial' (marine) parachute regiment; abbreviated 'RPC'
régiment de chasseurs parachutistes: light infantry paratroop regiment (French Air Force); abbreviated 'RCP'
savate: French martial art that resembles kick-boxing in part
Service d’Itendence: French Army quartermaster corps
Sidi-bel-Abbès: town in western Algeria, home of the French Foreign Legion beginning in 1848
soldat: French Army private (also, any soldier generally)
sous-officiers: non-commissioned officers
spahis: French North African native cavalry
tirailleurs: French North African native infantry
viet: abbreviation for Vietminh; soldiers and legionnaires who served in Indochina occasionally refer to fellouze as "viets"
voltiguer: rifleman
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The Shaman

First Post
La Chat et le souris: Chapter 1

The moon set shortly after sunset.

The thin silver crescent disappeared below the horizon about an hour after sunset, leaving a brilliant canopy of glittering stars in its place. The moudjahiddine of Katiba 541 walk across the desert with studied ease, inured over several months to movement by starlight, familiar with the terrain. Most of the men were born and raised in the Saharan Tell, the rugged range of mountains separating the High Plateau of interior Algeria from the vast Sahara desert to the south. Once they were shepherds or farmers from small villages, tending flocks of goats or small plots of millet, or laborers or tradesmen from the scattered towns of the region, working on the farms or construction crews of the European pieds-noirs or more rarely operating a small business of their own.

Now they are freedom fighters, marching across the desert at night.

Near the head of the column walks a man in worn olive drab fatigues under a field jacket, a tan cap pulled down snugly on his head – a knowledgeable observer would recognize the fatigues as French Army issue, the jacket that of the U.S. Army, the cap that of the German Afrika Corps with the eagle and swastika patch removed, the insignia replaced with an embroidered red crescent and star on a field of white and green. Cinched around his waist is a web belt with a few ammo pouches and a canteen – the belt also sports a cordovan leather pistol holster and a sheathed combat knife. Slung over his shoulder is a bolt-action MAS-36, a typical French Army rifle, taken from the hands of a gendarme seconds after he was executed by a pistol shot to the back of the head.

Sewn on each shoulder strap of the moudjahid’s tunic are a white star and a red star, marking him as a dhabet el-aouel, a lieutenant of the Armée de Liberation Nationale. His name is Ahmed ben Salem, and he is grateful for both the night that conceals his men and the stars that light their way through the desert.

Ahmed walks with a steady pace, a function of both his soldier’s training and the experience of a lifetime traipsing over the rocky hills and the shifting desert sands of the bled. To many Europeans, even among the colons of Algeria, the desert is a hostile place best avoided – to Ahmed it is home, flooding his sense-memory with sights and sounds and smells and textures from his youth. Now it is become a refuge for him and for those he leads this night. The lieutenant permits himself a glance at the starry sky – out of the panoply of gleaming lights he picks out Hamil Ra's Al-Ghul, the Bearer of the Demon’s Head, and for a moment he sees the faces of his father and brother, gazing up to the heavens, his father’s arm outstretched as he names the constellations for the two boys.

“Ahmed.” A soft word breaks into his reverie. Saleh, commander of the first platoon.

“We’ll reach those hills before sunrise – there’s a dense thicket in a ravine where we’ll shelter for the day.” Ahmed’s thoughts spill out unbidden to his subordinate and friend. “Less than an hour, I think.”

Saleh’s nod is invisible in the darkness. “If we march another two hours, we could reach Oued Baraba,” he offers hopefully. “I’m sure the men could handle the extra distance.” Ahmed notes the unspoken rebuke, that the night’s march was too short, too easy. “From there we could send scouts into El Abiodh before nightfall.” Saleh, ever the impatient one.

Ahmed looks back over the column stretching off behind them in the darkness, about to speak when he sees something in the sky – a star, a moving red star, then two, now more. Aircraft, moving north to south, several kilometers distant. “Down and hold!” he orders in a stage whisper that is quickly carried along from man to man as the katiba halts, silent. The stamp of boots and sandals on sand and gravel silenced, Ahmed catches faint hints of the thundering engines carrying across the still desert. Saleh reaches for a pair of binoculars carried around his neck.

“I make it four planes from the running lights, flying in line,” he says quietly to Ahmed. “They’re flying low.” Saleh pauses. Paras?”

Ahmed does not reply, following the lights, watching as the aircraft turn and gain altitude to return over the bulk of the mountains looming in the darkness. Both Ahmed and Saleh had seen paratroopers in action during their service as tirailleurs in Indochina, where Ahmed was a young sergent and Caporal Saleh his assistant section leader. If Saleh was right, the planes were transports, American-made Dakotas or tri-motored Junkers Toucans taken from the Luftwaffe after the war.

Judging precise distances in the night is difficult at best, but Ahmed makes them to be about five to seven kilometers distant. There is a flat plain, a good landing spot, he thinks. We were there less than two hours ago...

“We should send out...” Saleh begins, then falls silent as he feels Ahmed’s hand on his shoulder. “First we need to move the company into the hills and get them undercover,” says Ahmed, “then we can decide on a scouting party.” Could they be sending paras to follow us? he wonders. “Pass the word to the other platoon and section leaders personally. No talking in the ranks, keep all weapons and packs from rattling,” Ahmed tells Saleh, his eyes following the aircraft as they disappear among the stars.

The Shaman

First Post
Chapter 2

The moudjahiddine arrive at the ravine as the stars are disappearing into the blue haze that signal the sunrise. A narrow passage worn by the infrequent but violent rains that sweep across the Saharan Tell, it is filled with scattered acacia brush, roots reaching deep in the parched soil for the scarce moisture collected by the defile. Ahmed settles the men in after setting up an observation post and ordering one of his sergeants to rotate the lookouts, then joins Saleh under an knob of rock near the mouth of the gap.

“I’ll take two men and set off at once,” Saleh begins as Ahmed sits beside him. The lieutenant raises a hand.

“Give them a few hours rest,” replies Ahmed. He looks out of the mouth of the slot canyon across the desert, pensive. “Do you think it’s paras?” he says quietly.

Saleh nods. “ Four Dakotas. Maybe a hundred paras.” the sergeant replies. “Two platoons? Or an under-strength company.”

“Do you supposed they’re looking for us?” Ahmed asks.

Saleh shrugs. “Can that fat bastard Rashid keep his mouth shut?” he answers, the venom clear in his voice.

Ahmed looks darkly at the sergeant. “Not in front of the men. Not ever.” His voice is low. “We’re an army, Saleh, and we will act like it, with discipline and respect for rank.” Saleh looks away. “Do you understand?” Ahmed says softly.

Saleh says nothing, but glances toward Ahmed and sighs. “Can you leave in three hours?” Ahmed continues, the indiscretion passed. The sergeant doesn’t move, just stares across the lightening plain as he replies. “Two hours. If they’re following us, they’ll be here by then. If they’re moving west toward Boussemghoun, or south, I don’t want them to get too far ahead.”

Ahmed reaches out, squeezes Saleh’s shoulder. “Get some rest.” He glances at the sun. “I’ll get you in two hours.” The sergeant salutes and moves up the ravine toward his platoon.

Ahmed watches as Saleh talks with his section leaders then settles back against the rocky edge of the ravine, using his pack as a cushion. The air is cool in the gap, shaded from the rising sun, and the lieutenant takes a little water from his canteen. Rashid.

- / -​

The battalion chief sat across from Ahmed, dressed in leopard fatigues, the red, white, and green patch of the ALN on his shoulder, his stars of rank embroidered on his epaulets. The appearance was meant to be inspiring, but the snug fit of the uniform on Rashid’s plump body rendered the look somewhat comical, an effect heightened by his imperious manner.

Rashid had been a lieutenant of tirailleurs in Indochina where he served with modest distinction as a platoon leader. Now his family connections and his military service landed him in charge of a failek, at least on paper: the battalion had yet to reach full-strength, and of the men counted as part of the failek over half were moussebiline, part-time guerillas with rudimentary training and indoctrination, not regular moudjahiddine. This didn’t stop Rashid from acting the part of the great commander, Ahmed noted to himself.

“You’ll need to reach El Abiodh in two days,” Rashid said, studying a map hanging from the wall of the cellar that served as his command post. “Aside from a small number of gendarmerie and soldats du train, you will encounter little resistance.”

“How current is that intelligence, sir?” Ahmed asked, earning a perturbed glance from the rotund officer. No point in caution now. “And how small is that number of troops?”

“Small enough that your katiba can handle the mission, dhabet el-aouel,” Rashid replied evenly, the thick dark mustache under his nose twitching. “I’m sending two men from the village with you – they will help you to plan your action. Ambush the gendarmes if possible, or drive them off, then kill the caid and the other MNA members in the village, along with any who resist. Is this understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Ahmed replied. He remained seated on the small chair. Rashid exhaled noisily. “Is there something else?” he asked impatiently.

Ahmed sat quietly for a moment. “Sir, the caid stands judged for his crimes, but are we to forego re-education for the other MNA members? Maoist doctrine states...”

“The death of the other party members will serve as an example to the rest of the villagers in the area,” Rashid interrupts. “And you will bring back ten recruits as well. No less.” He stares at Ahmed, his eyes cold. “You have your orders, lieutenant.”

- / -​

Ahmed caps the canteen and returns it to its holster on his U.S. Army issue web belt. He moves up the ravine, checking in with his other platoon leaders before finally taking a break, nibbling some couscous from a tin container in his pack. Paras.

An hour passes, then another. Ahmed checks in with his observation post, but no sign of activity is reported. Making his way carefully down the ravine again, he wakes Saleh. The moudjahid comes awake instantly, a trait that saved him several times in Tonkin. He smiles at Ahmed, gathers up his machine pistol and rucksack, and wakes the two men who will accompany him. Ahmed walks with the trio past the sleeping forms of the moudjahiddine to the mouth of the ravine where a sentry crouches. “Use caution, sergeant,” Ahmed instructs Saleh. “This patrol is no good to us is you don’t report back. Watch for aircraft.”

Saleh grins wolfishly. “Yes, sir.” He salutes then with a tilt of his head the three scouts set off. Ahmed’s face does not betray the knot in his stomach to the young sentry standing next to him.

Ahmed moves back into the ravine and after briefing another sergeant, he settles down on the floor of the ravine, his head resting on his pack. Sleep doesn’t come easily. He sees the faces of his men, of grinning Saleh, of fat Rashid. Must we kill Muslims? he thinks to himself. Is this how we win our freedom?.

The Shaman

First Post
La chat et la souris: Chapter 3

Ahmed wakes to a gentle shake from one of the men. “Sir, Sgt. Boupacha is back.” Ahmed nods, blinking back sleep, and the moussebiline withdraws deferentially. The lieutenant notes the man’s shotgun slung across his back, a bandolier of shells stretched across his chest. Shotguns against tanks and aircraft, he thinks, but we’re not entirely without teeth. He stands and stretches, ignoring the gaze of men already awake.

The sun has climbed high into the sky, the cool shadows of the ravine broken by sunlight reflecting off the rock wall. The air is warm and still, the shade provided by the acacias thin and mottled. Many of the men recline in what shadows remain, talking quietly amongst themselves – a few are up and about, pulling at straps on rucksacks, adjusting rifle slings, preparing for the night’s march. Ahmed’s gaze lights on Ali Poujad, the katiba’s machine gunner – another Indochina veteran, he’d served under Ahmed in the 1er Regiment de Tirailleurs Algerienne. Ali is resting quietly, the MG-34, the katiba’s only ‘heavy’ weapon, sitting on the ground beside him. Ahmed wonders how Ali is holding up under the march – possibly the strongest man among the moudjahiddine in the company, Ali suffered a badly broken leg in March 1954 and spent the next two months in a hospital in Hanoi while the rest of the 1st RTA remained in the cauldron of Dien Bien Phu. He’d never complain if he was hurt, thinks Ahmed. Remind Saleh to keep an eye on him.


Talking a short pull from his canteen, Ahmed first checks on the observation post, to make sure that the men are rotated and getting enough rest for the night’s march. Then he finds Saleh, covered in dust and dripping sweat, leaning against his pack once again. The sergeant smiles when Ahmed approaches and holds out his hand – a dusty green beret with a silver wing-and-sword badge. Legion paratroopers.

Saleh takes a long swig from a canteen. “About sixty or seventy paratroopers. A bataille de marche perhaps, or maybe a training jump – we saw red berets, too, coloniales.” The sergeant wipes his face with his sleeve. “They’re moving southeast, toward Oued Baraba. Taking their time. They won’t cover more than about ten or twelve kilometers before dark.”

Ahmed nods slightly, his face thoughtful. “We can avoid them.”

Saleh’s eyes narrow slightly. “Do we want to avoid them?” he asks.

“These paras are not our mission,” the lieutenant replies firmly. Saleh says nothing – he recognizes the tone in Ahmed’s voice, one that will not condone challenges. “It’s another few hours to sunset,” Ahmed continues. “Get some rest. I’ll make sure your platoon is ready to march.” Saleh nods and closes his eyes.

Ahmed briefs his other platoon leaders individually. Hs mind is racing as he watches the men eat a meal of couscous mixed with olive oil into a paste, bits of unleavened bread, and tin cups of strong coffee brewed over tiny fires of dead acacia branches. Walking along the ravine, the lieutenant spots the two men from El Abiodh Sidi Cheikh, one carrying a light hunting rifle resting on his knees, the other an ancient Lebel M1886 slung over his shoulder, sipping their coffee with the other moussebiline in their section. Their names escape him – he simply hasn’t had time to get to know the local guerillas.

He squats down on one knee beside the men. “You two are from El Abiodh, yes?” Ahmed asks. Both men nod. “Tell me again about the French soldiers in the village.”

The older of the two, the one with the Lebel rifle, says quietly, “There are nineteen soldiers with three trucks and a jeep. They are mechanics. They fix broken-down vehicles on the road.” He thinks for a moment. “They patrol with the gendarmes sometimes, but mostly they stay in their garage. They have a radio, and there is an adjudant in charge.”

Ahmed looks closely at the man. “What about paratroopers or Legionnaires? Do they come to the village?”

The man considers the question. “From time to time a line of trucks with soldiers comes through the village. I’m told there are legionnaires. They don’t stop, most times.”

“They come from the south?” Ahmed asks. The man nods. “Most times,” he answers. Ahmed leaves the men to their coffee and conversation.

One of the men gives the call to prayer by moving along the ravine and speaking to the groups of soldiers individually. Some of the men pull prayer rugs from their packs and bundles – others simply kneel on the floor of the ravine. One of the section leaders, compass in hand, indicates the direction of Mecca and for several minutes the katiba acts as one. As prayers are completed, Ahmed passes the word for the platoon leaders. Saleh is the first to arrive, still dusty but much more alert.

“Sir, I request permission to take my platoon...” Saleh stops as Ahmed raises his hand. “In a moment, Sgt. Boupacha,” Ahmed replies. “Wait for the others.” After the leaders are assembled, Ahmed begins.

“The paras that we saw landing this morning are likely somewhere south of us, possibly in the oued, perhaps someplace between these hills.” His finger traces the terrain in the dirt. “They’ve been moving all day in the open. I don’t expect them to march all night, so they’ll likely make camp somewhere in here.” Ahmed’s finger stabs an indentation in the earth. “Our mission is to attack the garrison at El Abiodh. It appears that these paras will travel through the village in the next day or two. We may have an opportunity to set an ambush for them.”

His finger slides through the dust. “The road crosses the oued just south of El Abiodh. I’m told the crossing is steep, leaving trucks little room to maneuver.”

Saleh speaks up. “Like R.C. 4,” he adds.

Ahmed glances at Saleh. “Perhaps. In any case, if we have the opportunity to stage an ambush, this is the best point of attack.” He looks around at the platoon leaders. “We will need to first know of the paras movements. We’re going to march to here,” he draws another point in the dirt, “along Oued Baraba and take up a defensive position to block an advance from the south. Sgt. Yazid, you will take a section of your platoon to locate the paras and report back on their direction of travel as soon as it’s known, probably at first light.” Yazid, a graying WWII veteran of the campaign in Italy, nods as Saleh shifts position, a shadow of frustration crossing the younger man’s face.

Ahmed can’t restrain a small smile at his old friend’s discomfiture. “Sgt. Boupacha, you will be our rearguard when we stop so that your platoon can lead the advance to El Abiodh. You will have responsibility for setting the ambush once we reach the road crossing, Saleh.” Saleh nods, his eyes bright.

The lieutenant looks closely at his platoon leaders. “This operation will require quick action and absolute obedience to orders by your men if we are to gain surprise. It will require a daylight march along the oued. You will need to be aware of finding cover for your men at all times.” He pauses. “They have the advantage of firepower. We have the advantage of numbers and if we are careful and blessed, we will have terrain and surprise on our side as well.” Ahmed pauses. “Questions?”

Sgt. Yazid speaks up. “Sir, one of my men, one of the Kabyles, says that often the paras leave important equipment on their drop zones. He suggests scouting the site at first light.” Ahmed is about to say no when Saleh chimes in, “They could scout the drop zone then head straight for the oued. We’ll pick them up on our way to El Abiodh.”

Ahmed is still as he answers. “Three men only. Use one of the two from the village so he can guide them back.” The lieutenant studies Sgt. Yazid. “You trust this man?” Yazid nods. “He’s a veteran, sir, of the Liberation,” the old sergeant replies. The last is said without irony.

“All right, sergeant, send out your scouts.” Ahmed stands, brushes the dirt from his hands. “We advance by column. Sgt. Kaci, you will place security on our flanks. Sgt. Boupacha, you will trail and are responsible for overwatch. Sgt. Yazid, you will have the point – avoid sudden contact with the paras. Assemble the company.”

The Shaman

First Post
La chat et le souris: Chapter 4

Under the starry sky the moudjahiddine march across the desert. Ahmed accompanies Saleh’s platoon at the rear of the column – the katiba is under-strength, and rather than assign men to a headquarters section, the lieutenant simply uses a handful of Saleh’s soldiers as orderlies and runners as needed. Ninety-two men make up the ALN company marching through the darkness – most are Arabs, a few Kabyles from the north sent as FLN commissars, a couple of Moroccan Berbers, and one Algerian Jew, Abraham Sfez, another former tirailleur serving as a section leader in Sgt. Yazid’s platoon.

Sfez is a curiosity among the moudjahiddine, tolerated if not wholly accepted by most of the Muslim soldiers – a few object to the presence of a Jew in the company, but Sfez’s loathing of the French is deep and virulent. Sfez had served in an infantry battalion and was captured during the blitzkrieg in 1940 – he spent the war in forced labor, working in a clothing factory near Wiesbaden, producing striped prisoner uniforms for the Germans. Unbeknownst to the Jewish tailor from Äin Sefra, those uniforms would end up on his daughter and son-in-law before they died at Bergen-Belsen; his other daughter, also living in France at the outbreak of the war, never made it to a concentration camp, expiring from pneumonia in a Vichy transit camp. To Sfez, the French spat on his sacrifice – few can match his cold hatred of the French soldiers sent to ‘pacify’ Algeria, the home of his family for more than five centuries. Ahmed doesn’t care why Sfez joined the ALN – he is merely grateful for the veteran’s experience.

Of the four score and twelve that comprise the katiba, slightly less than half are moudjahiddine, the rest moussebiline raised from among the villages of the Sahran Tell to participate in operations for a couple of months before returning to their homes and flocks and fields. Of the regulars, roughly two-thirds have prior experience in the French Army – others served as local militia which offered some weapons familiarization but little real drill and no actual combat experience. The lieutenant relies heavily on his veterans like Saleh and Sgt. Yazid and Poujad the machine gunner and Sfez the little Jewish tailor to train and indoctrinate the others in the unit.

Deep in the bottom of Ahmed’s rucksack is a dog-eared copy of a book. It is badly translated into Arabic and French from its original Chinese, but at present it is more Ahmed’s bible than the Koran.

- / -​

From the mouth of the bunker Ahmed listened to the sound of heavy firing in the distance – the rattle of machine guns, the thump of artillery shells. The flashes lit up the inky blackness of the overcast, moonless night. The withdrawal from Isabelle had begun some three hours earlier, along the banks of the Nam Youm, the river that flowed through the heart of the valley of Dien Bien Phu, now a corpse-filled cesspool. Ahmed’s section waited in darkness in their sodden, muddy trenches for the word to move out, all thoughts of counterattack gone, only flight remaining.

The II Batallion de Marche of the 1st RTA arrived at the strongpoint in mid-December, five months earlier. Isabelle, the southern-most outpost of the French firebase situated on the west back of the stream, was situated in a barren marsh devoid of cover – the high water table turned the bottoms of the tirailleurs’ shallow trenches into mud immediately, and the youthful sergent couldn’t remember the last time his boots were dry, or intact for that matter. Since the Viet Minh attack began in earnest in March, the men of Isabelle had known little peace or quiet. For months the artillery supported the other French strongpoints – Huguette, Elaine, Claudine, Lilli, Dominique, and the others – while the infantry, composed of an assortment of Algerians, Moroccans, legionnaires, and Thais protected the guns. Now General Giap’s divisions were overrunning the last bastions, and the survivors of Isabelle were ordered to slip away under the cover of the May night. Ahmed waited and waited for the order to leave, his men crouched in the bunker or the nearby trenches, unaware that the Viet Minh had infiltrated their lines, unaware until the human wave swept over their position. The Algerians in the trenches died quickly as Ahmed and the others in the bunker kept up what fire they could, but it took no time to realize that resistance was hopeless – rather than sacrifice the remainder of his men, Ahmed accepted an offer to surrender from a Viet Minh officer who spoke impeccable French.

The efficiency of the Communist soldiers surprised Ahmed. The first day the prisoners were marched en masse about ten miles to a sort of transit camp, then segregated into different columns by rank and national origin – Ahmed found himself in a group with about fifty other North African non-coms, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. From there the march continued along route provinciale 41 deeper into the northern highlands, away from the Delta and the remainder of French soldiers on Tonkin. The prisoners walked day after day, covering ten to fifteen miles a day, subsisting on husked rice with occasional salt or a few peanuts. Men dropped by the dozens, while those that managed to keep marching suffered from untreated wounds and sores. The march to the camps in the Viet Bac took two months, and it was all Ahmed could do to keep his feet moving most days.

The camp where Ahmed finally stopped did not look like the sort of stalag he expected – it looked more like a village of flimsy shacks, without wire or guard towers, for indeed, there was nowhere the prisoners could go that they would not be quickly found and returned. Life in the camp was as harsh as he expected, however – the prisoners were expected to labor, and so they did, strong or weak, healthy or ill. Dysentery, malaria and other diseases killed more of the prisoners, their immune systems wrecked by malnutrition and exhaustion.

To the physical privations was added a psychological assault on the prisoners as Communist propagandists harangued the men daily, to admit their crimes against the peaceful people of Indochina, to accept the Marxist-Leninist dogma – Ahmed was forced to participate in call-and-response as well as individual conversations with the commissars. The latter sought not to instruct but to break down resistance to indoctrination by probing the ‘errors’ in thinking instilled by the capitalist war-mongers, forcing Ahmed to make concessions to the skill of his interrogator. The most adroit that the Algerian encountered was the one the prisoners nicknamed “Uncle Ho.” Uncle Ho was in his mid-forties, short even by Vietnamese standards, his black hair graying quickly. His breath smelled of the awful Chinese cigarettes that were always protruding from the corner of his mouth – he had the curious habit of taking a long draw of smoke after making an important point.

Summoned to his session, Ahmed sat on a small wooden stool as Uncle Ho stood behind him. Sergent, you are from Algeria, correct?” he asked. His voice was soft, only slightly above a whisper, and rarely changed its volume or timbre. Ahmed nodded. “Tell me why you fight for the French even as they oppress your own people, the people of your faith?”

The question caught Ahmed by surprise. “My father was un soldat,” he replied, uncertain.

“And why did he fight for France, fight for the tormenters of his own people?” Ahmed could smell the smoke of Uncle Ho’s cigarette hanging in the air. Ahmed shook his head. “I don’t know. He died when I was young, fighting the Germans in 1940.”

“Are you a citizen of France?” asked Uncle Ho. Ahmed shook his head again. “Are your Muslim laws recognized as binding by the French? he continued. Ahmed made no response – to claim French citizenship he would be forced to renounce Islamic law, to deny his faith, the faith of his fathers.

Uncle Ho’s voice came from just behind Ahmed’s ear – he could feel the Vietnamese officer’s breath on his skin. “Why do you fight? Why do you fight?”

Ahmed lay awake the whole night, and the next, and the next, struggling to answer the question.

- / -​

Ahmed realizes that Saleh is walking near him as the column advances. “You’re surprised at my orders?” Ahmed says softly, his voice barely audible over the crunch of their boots on the desert’s rocky floor.

Saleh considers the question before answering. “I know your courage, sir, and I know your strength,” he says at last. “You are more cautious then I am.” Saleh stops, unsure of how to continue.

“We will not win our struggle by killing our own people indiscriminately,” Ahmed says softly. “We must make their re-education our priority and focus our military efforts on the system that keeps us from self-determination.” He pauses for a moment. “We need an R.C. 4, to give the French people pause and to inspire our own through the love of freedom, not fear. This may be our opportunity to strike such a blow.”

Saleh is quiet. Ahmed the idealist. If it means killing the French, I will do it, he thinks.

Ahmed also falls silent. The words in Mao’s book, deep in his rucksack, repeat themselves in his head. Attack with a sure blow, advance at a steady pace. If we are sure to win, fight to the end; if not, resolutely refuse combat. How sure am I? he wonders.

His thoughts are interrupted by a runner, accompanied by one of Saleh’s section leaders. “Sir,” says the runner, “Sgt. Yazid told me to tell you that his scouts have found the paras.”

The Shaman

First Post
La chat et le souris: Chapter 5

Ahmed listens as Sgt. Yazid describes the paras’ position. “They are camped about a half-kilometer ahead of where we are now, sir, on the opposite side of the oued,” the sergeant explains. “My scouts reported sentries but no other activity. I think they will continue south in the morning. The oued here is very steep – if they do attempt to cross I doubt it will be before dawn, but they would do better to travel south where the two riverbeds meet.”

Ahmed nods in the dark. Allah, thank you for watching over your servants. The silent prayer is followed quickly by orders in a hushed voice. “Sgt. Boupacha, your men are now in the lead. We’re going to fall back for about another kilometer and take up a defensive position in the oued. If there are aircraft in the morning, or if they send out a patrol, we want to be under cover as much as possible.” Saleh acknowledges – there’s a reassuring quality in the timbre of his voice, the man of action. “Sgt. Yazid, can you and your scouts find a position where you can observe and not be seen in the morning? We will need to know where they are going as early as possible.”

The veteran grunts his assent. “We won’t be seen, and we’ll report as soon as we can.”

“Good. We’ll bed down the company for a few hours so we can make the march during the day along the oued to reach El Abiodh, if the paras don’t come toward us. If they do...” Ahmed pauses a moment before continuing. “If they do then we will evaluate an ambush here or slipping away. Pass the word quietly – no noise, no lights. Our lives depend on stealth. Understood?”

The tough Algerians have no problem bedding down in the rocky streambed following the short march – after sentries are posted the moudjahiddine settle quickly. Saleh offers to spell Ahmed, to give him a chance to close his eyes, but Ahmed refuses – better that his sergeants sleep if possible. Yazid won’t get any sleep tonight, he corrects himself. His wily veteran. Where Saleh was intrepid, Yazid was methodical. As useful a pair of sergeants as a commander could hope for.

Sergeant Kaci was the only question mark. A caporal in the tiraillerus, he had not seen action in either Europe or Indochina. He was a sergeant because he had held a rank in the service, and because his family was connected to Rashid, the battalion commander. I will need to watch him, Ahmed thinks unhappily. Yazid will be fatigued in the morning. Better to put him second in line behind Saleh – let Kaci’s platoon take the rear.

We must be ready to strike decisively. Our lives will depend on it. Ahmed steels himself for the reality of his plans – if Allah wills it, men will die by his hand tomorrow. It is not the first time, but in this he will set the wheels in motion himself. As a sergeant in Tonkin, he followed the orders he received from his company or platoon commander – his role was to see that they were followed. Now he is giving the orders himself. The responsibility lies with him now. Allah give me wisdom and strength.

A strange thought forms in the corner of his mind: Did the officer who ordered my father to his death have doubts? he wonders. Did he cower in a foxhole as the German tanks thundered toward him, as the artillery shells crashed down on the trees overhead, when he ordered the tirailleurs to charge the panzer grenadiers? Did he scream, “For France!” as the machine guns rattled and the exploding shells rained deadly splinters from the treetops on the frail, mortal bodies of his men? There was simply no way to know – Ahmed’s father’s platoon was wiped out to the last holding an unremarkable patch of forest in the Ardennes. Sixteen years ago.

For France.

Ahmed rubbed at his eyes. Too many other things to do. Arms and ammunition are short – remind the men to choose their targets carefully and to take French weapons and magazines whenever possible. Water conservation will be crucial – marching during the day increases consumption. First aid supplies – a few of the men have wound kits taken off the bodies of dead soldats, but most make do with rolled pieces of clean cloth and whatever home remedies they know for treating infection. We will need to designate stretcher-bearers, he realizes grimly. Grenades – the moudjahiddine possess only a handful, including the two on his own belt.

A rustling catches his ear and he looks down in time to see a tiny form scurry between his boots and into a cleft between two rocks. A gerboa. Ahmed can picture the tiny mammal in his mind. He and his brother used to make elaborate traps to catch the little rodents, the more elaborate the better, in the desert behind their village. A coffee can, a cardboard box, a small cage woven from acacia branches – each tried to outdo the other in demonstrating his prowess as a trapper.

There had always been competitiveness between the two brothers. After their father’s death, the war no longer intruded directly on their lives and yet still they lived under its shadow – in the half-light that defined their world after his passing, the boys grew distant and strained, the friendly competition less cheerful, more desperate as each grasped at the shades of memory like a drowning man might a floating barrel. His brother has left in 1944 to look for work in the towns, he said, though Ahmed believed it was to escape life in the village. In April 1945 he received a letter – his brother was working in a mine near Setif, making a poor wage but living as a man on his own. Ahmed, while sad for his own loss, was pleased that his brother had found a place for himself.

In May he received another letter.

His brother had been among those killed in the riots, it said simply. He was mutilated by the French soldiers. He is buried in the Muslim cemetery.

For France.

“Why do you fight? Why do you fight for your oppressor?”

Ahmed glanced up at the strip of sky visible between the walls of the oued. The stars would be fading soon, replaced by the harsh white light of the sun, and perhaps a day of death and destruction would be at hand.
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The Shaman

First Post
The stars to the east are dimmed by the approaching sunrise when Sgt. Yazid returns with his scouts. “They are continuing south, lieutenant, as surmised.” the veteran tirailleur reports. “They broke camp and deployed for a march – no patrols.” Ahmed nods but says nothing as Yazid waits, imperturbable. Saleh shifts from foot to foot expectantly, like a small boy, unable to contain his nervous energy.

“Sgt. Boupacha, you will lead the column along the oued. Get your men up and bring in your observation post. We move in ten minutes.” Ahmed’s orders are clear once they come/ “Sgt. Yazid, your platoon will be second in line, and Sgt. Kaci, your men will be our rear guard.” His gaze bores into Kaci’s watery eyes. “The security of the column will depend on you and your men, sergeant. See to it.” Sgt. Kaci salutes, and excuses himself to ready his platoon. Saleh has gone as well, not waiting for additional instructions, perhaps mindful that Ahmed could change his mind.

Only Sgt. Yazid waits. “Sergeant, was there something else?” Ahmed asks. The old soldier purses his lips slightly, as if carefully considering his choice of words. “Lieutenant, sir, traveling in the oued – we’ll be blind, sir. We’ll need scouts, on our flanks,” he says at last, quietly, so that just the two men can hear.

Ahmed looks up the high walls of the wash. “We’ll check periodically, sergeant,” he replies, “but I don’t want to risk men getting separated from the column or exposing themselves to observation.” He looks veteran hard in the eye. “Surprise is our only opportunity, Yazid, as you know.” Attack with a sure blow. “If we can set up an ambush, Saleh will lead the assault with Kaci in support – I will need you to prepare to cover our withdrawal. Our escape will depend on you, Yazid.”

The former tirailleur studies Ahmed for a moment, unabashedly, without regard for rank or responsibility. Another man might find the look insubordinate, but Ahmed stands quietly, his face blank. “Yes, sir,” Yazid replies at last. The sergeant salutes, and turns on his heel, to see that his sections are ready to advance.

Ahmed looks up to the ribbon of sky above the oued. The shade will keep the men cooler during the long march, and make the katiba harder to find, and yet.... Yazid is right, of course he thinks. We must cover this ground quickly. Again he hears Mao’s words in his head. Advance at a steady pace.

The moudjahiddine rise from their hasty bivouac among the shrubs in the wash, shouldering their gear. There will be no coffee this morning, no halts for prayers – either there will be time to beseech forgiveness later, or there will be the gates of Paradise waiting. Ahmed readies his own equipment, shoulders his rifle. When Saleh reports that he’s deployed scouts ahead of the column and that the rest of the platoon is waiting, he orders the march.

- / -​

The day grows warm as the column snakes its way along Oued Baraba. The sandy and rocks alternately tug at the men’s feet or deflect them in odd directions. There is little conversation – a sense of expectancy hangs over the moudjahiddine and moussebiline as they march, and the weight of it seems to stifle even nervous conversation. Ahmed moves along the column, head to tail and back, checking with his sergeants, watching the men. Fatigue is settling in just behind his eyes, making his feet feel heavier and larger, but it is nothing like the weariness that settled in his bones like molten lead at Dien Bien Phu, so Ahmed simply opens his mouth and clears his ears, and forces himself to lift his feet a little higher as he walks.

Every twenty to thirty minutes, he orders one of the platoons to deploy scouts, to scramble up to the rim of the oued and peer out across the desert for signs of activity. Each time the report comes back negative. It is during the interval between scouting parties however, as the column marches past a bend in the wash, that first two, then three sets of eyes, camouflaged and practically invisible in a thicket on the rim overlooking the floor of the oued, see the katiba pass.

The ALN warriors continue toward El Aboidh, the legionnaires unnoticed in the scrub.

Ahmed marches near the head of the column for a time, with Saleh. “I’ve been talking with that one man from the village,” Saleh informs his lieutenant. “I believe we can separate the paras and destroy them in detail if we stop the column as it climbs up the far side of the oued. There is a bend, he says, not sharp, but enough to force them to slow down on the steep bank. We’ll use grenades to take out the lead truck, then hit the trucks in the middle of the column at the bottom of the oued with the machine gun.”

“Assuming we actually reach the crossing before the paras,” Ahmed replies, “and assuming they actually come that way to fall into our ambush.”

Saleh waves a hand impatiently. “We will, we will,” he answers. “I have ten men, hand-picked, to move ahead of the column in a couple of hours, to scout the crossing and the approaches. A couple of them will move into El Abiodh as well, to make sure the garrison there hasn’t been strengthened.” He glances at his wristwatch, a cheap Spanish timepiece on a worn leather strap. “The scouts will be deployed in about three hours, and should be in position an hour before we reach the crossing.”

Ahmed nods his head. “Will that give us enough time to withdraw if necessary?” he asks. He looks closely at his friend, his face deadly serious. “We must be able to retreat undetected if we don’t achieve surprise, Saleh. This is not open for discussion.”

“There will be enough time, but it will not come to that,” Saleh replies, a hint of edginess in his voice. “Ahmed, you must not hesitate when the time comes, or we will be lost.”

There is no tone of rebuke in Saleh’s words, only a candid assessment of his commander and friend that nonetheless hits Ahmed hard. The lieutenant knew he was right, that Saleh’s fearlessness had saved their platoon from the viets on more than one occasion, that though he urged Saleh to be more temperate, it was perhaps Ahmed that erred too far on the side of caution. If we are sure to win, fight to the end.

Along the eastern wall of the oued a gap appears, a slight ramp carved by a small streambed entering the wash from the desert above, to carry the infrequent rain. It would be easier for the scouts to access the rim from here, and with a tap on Saleh’s shoulder, Ahmed stops and allows himself to drift back through the column to Sgt. Kaci’s platoon, bringing up the rear of the katiba. He finds the sergeant, orders him to deploy scouts to the rim – “Send a runner to report to me with Sgt. Yazid’s platoon when you’re done here, sergeant,” he orders, then turns and moves forward with the rest of the column.

- / -​

Sergeant Kaci receives the orders and motions to one of his section leaders, then to the rim of the oued. The section leader, an Arab from named Yusef from Äin Sefra, takes his small formation and clambers up the side of the wash. As they near the top of the wash, scampering between shrubs, there comes a noise, faint at first, then louder and clearly mechanical. Yusef raises his hand to cover his eyes as he searches for the source – his men, heedless of their surroundings, search for the source of the sound as well.

- / -​

Marching along the oued, Ahmed sees Abraham Sfez, the Jewish section leader at the head of his men. The lieutenant picks up his pace slightly to catch up to the veteran when the desert quiet is shattered by a cascade of rifle and machine pistol fire from the rear of the column. Ahmed’s head whips around as a cold hand suddenly grips his heart.

The Shaman

First Post
“Corporal Sfez, you and your men follow me!” Ahmed yells. The section falls in behind the company commander as they work their way along the wash to where Kaci’s scouts were deployed. The sound of gunfire dies away for a short time, then returns with even greater intensity as Ahmed and Sfez’s section come upon a scene that sends an icy dagger into Ahmed’s chest. A wounded man, one of the irregulars, cries piteously as he clutches at his bleeding abdomen – another, a djoundi, one of Ahmed’s regulars, is being treated for a head wound, his face a mask of blood. Others cower behind rocks and bushes while up the steep slope another moujahid crawls painfully down from the rim of the oued dragging his legs behind him like a rabbit snared in a trap.

The fire continues from above, punctuated by shouted orders and the wails of the dead and dying. Ahmed reaches down to grab one of the men hiding in a clump of shrubs, yanking him roughly to his feet. “What’s happening?” he says, holding the man by his shoulders.

The young Arab’s eyes are wide with fear. He simply shakes his head uncomprehendingly at the lieutenant’s questions, and Ahmed lets him go, reaching for Sfez instead. “Get a scout up there and find out what’s going on, and send a runner for Sgt. Boupacha and Sgt. Yazid – tell them to bring their men back quickly.” The veteran soldat nods and sets about the task.

Above the gunfire Ahmed hears another sound, a buzzing coming from the sky. He looks up to see a scout plane, tricolore roundels on its wings, flying overhead. They have us, he thinks, his heart sinking further. As he watches the plane, he also sees more wounded coming painfully down from the rim of the oued now, some supporting their comrades, others limping or crawling in agony. Sergeant Kaci is among them, the shoulder and chest of his fatigue blouse soaked with bright red blood, a field dressing hastily jammed in place to control the bleeding. Ahmed scrambles up the slope to the wounded man. “Sgt. Kaci, report,” he says, forcing a composure into his voice that he doesn’t feel.

Kaci licks his lips – his face is ashen, a sickly grey that contrasts with the crimson stain on his tunic. “I deployed scouts as ordered. They spotted a scout plane, then came under fire. A patrol. Paras.” His eyes roll back and he closes them tightly, grimacing.

Ahmed reaches out to the sergeant, supporting his arm. “How many, sergeant? How big is the patrol?” He looks about as he speaks, trying to get a sense of how many of the platoon remains.

“A platoon, maybe,” Sergeant Kaci replies, “with automatic weapons. Maybe mortars.” Ahmed feels a hand on his arm – Sfez, shaking his head. Ahmed lets Kaci go, and the wounded sergeant sinks in a heap on the ground, breathing heavily.

Ahmed and Sfez take a few steps away. “No more than a section, sir, with submachine guns and grenades. A dozen men at most.” The corporal takes a knee and draws his bayonet. “At the top of the wash is a streambed running east, like so,” he says, tracing in the sand with the tip of his knife, “and a cluster of rocks here. The paras are in the streambed here, and more behind that cluster of rocks providing covering fire.” Sfez looks up at the lieutenant. “Kaci attempted to flank the paras in the streambed and came under fire from there.”

“Casualties?” Ahmed asks.

The older man shakes his head. “Perhaps half the platoon dead or wounded, others scattered.” replies Sfez. “A few are covering the retreat of the rest. Sir, the patrol looks like it’s falling back with its wounded, along the streambed. There’s a low hill here.” He places a small stone near the line of the stream in the sand.

Ahmed’s face is a mask as he listens to the Jewish corporal, concealing the turmoil in his heart and mind. The firing is dying away, each falling away from the contact. The paras will attempt to evade, he thinks, his mind spinning, to guide in the rest of the company. But they headed south, not north. He considers for a moment. A battalion? One company south, one or two more in the north, maybe in El Abiodh?

His thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of the rest of Yazid’s platoon, with Saleh close behind. Both sergeants come to Ahmed directly. Saleh’s face is red, his eyes alight with their own fire. “No need to wait until El Abiodh,” he says, a barely controlled rage in his voice. “We must fight them here instead.”

“We don’t even know what unit we’ve contacted,” Ahmed replies. He quickly recaps Sfez’s report. Saleh speaks as soon as Ahmed stops. “A section? A patrol? We must destroy them, Ahmed - lieutenant. We must. Now, before they can get back to rest of their unit.”

“It’s too late for that,” Ahmed answers, tossing his head up in the direction of the spotter plane buzzing overhead. “They know where we are.”

“All the more reason to attack!” Saleh replies savagely.

“He has a point, sir,” Yazid interjects. “If we wipe out the patrol, it will slow the French down. They will take the time to consolidate their forces before they come after us. They always do.” The predictability of the French officers was a tactical advantage which the ALN sought to exploit at every opportunity – all three men had experienced this first-hand.

Ahmed is still as a statue, as the fire dies away from above the rim, leaving only the buzzy whine of the scout plane keeping watch overhead and the moans of the injured and dying. Attack with a sure blow, advance at a steady pace. If we are sure to win, fight to the end; if not, resolutely refuse combat. A company against a section. We are engaged now. We can no longer refuse combat. “We need to recover our weapons, and take theirs. The spotter will call in more aircraft. We must destroy the patrol and then scatter before the rest of the paras come up. Evade until dark, then rally at the ravine.”

The lieutenant bends down and hastily re-sketches Sfez’s diagram in the sand. “They’re falling back toward a hill here. If we stay in the streambed I believe we can get close enough to overrun them. Yazid, your men will advance to here and provide covering fire as qwe advance. They have men in these rocks here. We will drive them back or cut them off and destroy them, then occupy the position for ourselves. Put Ali and the machine gun here, along the streambed to establish fire superiority.”

Ahmed looks up to Saleh. “Take a section and move on our left flank. Once we have fire superiority, move up quickly along their flank, force them off-balance. Assuming they move for this hill, we will assemble your platoon and take them as Yazid’s men cover our advance.” He looks up at the two sergeants, veterans of fighting Vietminh and Nazis on behalf of the army they now sought to kill. “Tell the men to stay low, short runs. Short runs. Use the cover in the stream bed as much as possible.”

Ahmed orders the men into line, Saleh’s platoon first, Yazid’s men following. A corporal from Kaci’s platoon is ordered to round up survivors and tend to the wounded, and to recover whatever weapons and ammunition they can. Ahmed moves to the head of the column, just below the rim of the oued. He looks down on the faces of his men. He swallows hard before he speaks.

“Follow your orders, and do your job. Stay low and move quickly. Use the cover of the streambed. Do as I do. Listen for the whistle when it’s time to charge. Allah be with you all.” A low murmur of “Inshallah!” passes down the line of men, hands tightly gripping rifle stocks or wiping away perspiration as the sun arcs high in the sky. Saleh stands to one side, the German MP-40 cradled in his arm. He says nothing, only smiles at Ahmed, that wolfish look again. Ahmed nods, then turns to the man behind him. “Let’s go!”

The Shaman

First Post
Breaking over the edge of the oued like a wave, the moudjahiddine spill up the shallow streambed. Gravel crunches beneath the boots and sandals of the men as they surge forward in short bursts, dropping to the ground, then rising and running again.

Ahmed races forward, crouching low, and falls prone at the stream bank. A cluster of paras are just a hundred meters ahead, a wounded man carried on the shoulders of two of his comrades. Almost as soon as Ahmed’s men break from cover a second cluster of paras open fire from among the rocks on the right.

As Saleh’s men advance, Yazid’s platoon swarms to the edge of the streambed and begin laying down a base of fire on the paras concealed among the rocks – the crack of the rifles fills the desert air, drowning out for the moment the buzz of the spotter plane overhead. Ahmed hefts his own rifle, dashes forward and throws himself to the ground as a legionnaire’s bullet whines overhead. They’ll adjust for the down-slope, find the range, he thinks grimly. Then he’s up and running again.

One of the moussebiline, a young fellow with brown-and-white kufi and an old Spanish Mauser in his hands, rises in front of Ahmed – as he does so, the young Arab’s head snaps back and he collapses to the floor of the streambed, like a puppet with it strings cut. Ahmed keeps his stride, stepping over the body. A jagged hole marks where the man’s right cheek had once been. A boy, he corrects himself. Not a man. The ALN rifles crash in reply.

Glancing back to check on the progress of his men Ahmed sees Saleh’s section move out of the cover of the stream bed to a position among the rocks on the left. He drops to the ground and looks around the battlefield. The cluster of paras in the streambed have broken apart now, a handful racing for the low hill to the east as another carries the wounded man on his back along the shallow gully. Saleh will take care of those two, he thinks. Yazid needs to clear those rocks on the right. As if on cue, Ahmed feels a hand on his leg, hears Sgt. Yazid’s voice above the gunfire.

“I’ll need covering fire, sir,” the veteran says, “and my boys will take those rocks and cover your advance from there.” Yazid glances back along the gully. “Ali will put his fire on that hill,” the old sergeant finishes.

Ahmed grips Yazid’s arm, feels the iron underneath the sleeve of his fatigues, and rises again to advance. Paras are scrambling up the rocky slope of the low rise now – only a handful, it seems, as Ahmed weaves forward and once again drops to the sandy bottom of the streambed. The lieutenant grabs a man in front of him – “Fire on those rocks, now!” he orders, then pushes himself to his feat and runs to the next man, giving the same order, and again.

The MG-34 roars to life as Ali fires on the rocks – sand spits into the air around the paras, and Ahmed permits himself a moment to watch the tongue of flame emerge from the barrel of the old German gun. The moment quickly passes, however, as the paras respond with fire of their own from the rocky hill. Another of his men goes down, clutching at his throat and uttering a gurgling cry, and he can feel a tremor among moudjahiddine as the advance wavers. Ahmed rises and grabs one of the cowering men by the back of the shirt, pulling him to his feet and pushing him forward, then does the same with another as the paras’ fire buzzes around the insurgents in the streambed.

The machine gun roars again and out of the corner of his eye, Ahmed sees movement – the paras in the rocks have had enough as they break from cover and race for the hill. Rifle fire from Yazid’s men chases them across the hammada. The lieutenant has no time to observe the effect, however, as a guerilla suddenly drops his rifle and runs headlong for the oued. A second man looks back, and a third. “Forward!” Ahmed yells above the din, rising from the ground, motioning to his men, willing them to follow him into the paras’ fire.


To his left come a dozen men, charging hard across the desert on the far side of the streambed, running all out, Saleh in the lead – Ahmed can see the fierce smile on his friend’s face as he sprints, the MP-40 close to his chest. “Forward!” the lieutenant cries again to the men around him in the gully, “Follow me!”

As the machine gun tracers reach out toward the hill, Ahmed rallies the men in ones and twos, shoving them, kicking them, driving them into the teeth of the paras’ fire. He catches a glimpse of paras diving for cover, the same men who’d been running from the rocks a moment ago. The lieutenant utters a soft curse – Yazid’s platoon, and the machine gun, should have fixed them in place, cut them off and killed them. As he looks up at the hill, however, he realizes how spread out the paras are across its top. We must roll up the flank, he thinks, and sweep them off the hill.

Unable to pin down the paras, Sgt. Yazid wastes no time moving for the rocks, however, breaking from the cover of the gully and lumbering across the stony ground. The MG-34 is silent again as Ali moves forward with the other half of Yazid’s platoon to take up a covering position for Ahmed’s own advance toward the hill. The lieutenant looks for Saleh, sees him and his men crossing the streambed, closing on the flank of the hill...

The moudjahiddine are lost in a cloud of dust as a grenade explodes, followed quickly by a second blast. Ahmed drives his legs forward, then dives to the ground, his eyes searching the swirling dust. Only a handful of men remain from the section that charged up the flank, and submachine gun fire rakes the survivors. Saleh is nowhere to be seen.

Attack with a sure blow, advance at a steady pace.

Ahmed watches as two more of the men are cut down as they flee. A dozen men, gone in seconds. An ambush. Somewhere in the streambed lay the body of his friend. Saleh.

If we are sure to win, fight to the end; if not, resolutely refuse combat.

Ahmed swallows hard, stands up, and dashes forward again.

Next week, the conclusion of the battle at Oued Walah...

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