Louis-Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey was born in Nancy, France, on November 17, 1854. He was brought up in the aristocratic and intellectual society of Nancy as well as in the simplicity of country life. When Lyautey was only 18 months old he fell from a balcony of the family house, which resulted in a spinal injury. Until the age of six he endured a long period of enforced inactivity, passing the time by reading.
In his teens he attended several schools, and at age 18 in 1873 he entered the French military academy, Saint-Cyr. In 1876 he enrolled in the military staff school and joined a cavalry regiment that was posted in Orleansville, Algeria. For the next two years Lyautey learned about Islam, North Africa, and colonial administration; he also began studying Arabic. Lyautey was promoted to the rank of captain in 1882 and was then ordered to join the IV regiment of the Chasseurs Legers at Epinal.
When Lyautey was about 33 he published an article on military reforms that ultimately changed his career. He was considered one of those rare men who enjoyed both the sword and the pen. As a reprimand for his article, Lyautey was transferred to Indochina; however, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He arrived in Saigon in 1894 and met with Colonel Joseph Gallieni, who became his inspiration; Gallieni also promoted him to chief of staff. While under Gallieni, Lyautey learned a core lesson in colonization, namely, not to offend local traditions nor to change customs, and to use the elite class to the benefit of the empire. Lyautey also learned tactics involving taking, securing, administering, and developing areas that were in enemy hands or subject to enemy attack. His principles concentrated on the well-being of the indigenous population, providing them with security in everyday life and administering their affairs with understanding, respect, and generosity.
In 1897 Lyautey followed Gallieni to Madagascar, where he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and had the opportunity to construct a city how he saw fit. By 1900 he was promoted to full colonel, and by 1903 he returned to Algeria as brigadier general. After the French took several cities in Morocco in an attempt to quell resistance to their occupation in neighboring Algeria, the Treaty of Fez, establishing a French protectorate over Morocco, was signed on March 30, 1912. Lyautey was then appointed the first resident general of Morocco. One of Lyautey’s greatest qualities was his ability to adapt to new situations, and he did not adopt a specific or rigid formula in his administration of Morocco. He had qualities that appealed to Moroccans, Berbers, and Arabs alike, as he was a man of decision, integrity, and justice. In contrast to many of his peers, Lyautey did not believe it was the mission of Europeans to force their civilization and religion on the peoples of colonized countries. He believed it was important that the French understand Islam and the values of the Muslim world. He also believed that a mass migration of European colonists into Morocco would cause problems (as it had in Algeria) but did not object if the colons were willing to contribute to the country.
As resident general, Lyautey maintained local customs and architecture and established so-called flying columns of soldiers to move quickly from one location to another in order to put down any local rebellions. The establishment of local health clinics in remote areas helped to encourage Moroccan support of the French administration. Lyautey also modernized and enlarged ports, especially in Casablanca, and supported economic development projects in mining and trade. With the outbreak of World War I, he managed to control Morocco with very few troops.
In 1916, in the midst of World War I, Lyautey was offered the post of minister of war. After some reluctance he accepted the post but soon clashed with other high-ranking military officers. He opposed Commander in Chief Robert Nivelle’s plan for a new offensive against the Germans, but the plan was implemented over Lyautey’s objections. Just as Lyautey had foreseen, the offensive failed and resulted in massive numbers of French casualties. Furious, Lyautey tendered his resignation and was asked to return to Morocco to resume his old post as resident general, which he happily accepted. After the war in 1921, Lyautey was promoted to the nation’s highest military rank of marshal. He was 66 years old.
Lyautey was plagued by liver attacks that affected him for years that would force him to stay in bed for several weeks and for which he had to endure several operations. During the 1920s, plagued with ill health, Lyautey attempted to resign from the residency, but he was constantly persuaded to remain in Morocco.
During the early 1920s the successes of the Rif rebellion under Abd el Krim against the Spanish enclaves in the north of Morocco threatened French rule in the rest of the nation. By 1925 Lyautey was reluctantly engulfed in military operations against Abd el Krim and his army. In the midst of the struggle, Lyautey was removed from the military command of Morocco, and Marshal Philippe Petain, with whom he had previously clashed, replaced him. On September 24, 1925, the colonial veteran, now 70 years old, asked to be relieved of the supreme command in Morocco. His resignation was accepted, and in October Lyautey left Morocco for France. As he left Rabat, a large crowd gathered to see him off. To the surprise of many, it was the British, not the French, who honored Lyautey with a naval escort of two destroyers through the Strait of Gibraltar. Lyautey spent most of his remaining years at Thorey, in his beloved Lorraine, preparing a few volumes of letters for publication.
Some of the developments in Morocco that Lyautey can be credited with are construction of roads, cities, hospitals, schools, dispensaries, and railways. Hubert Lyautey died in 1934, and his ashes were conveyed by a French naval squadron, accompanied by 14 ships of the British Second Battle Cruiser Squadron, to his mausoleum in Rabat, Morocco.
- Bidwell, Robin. Morocco Under Colonial Rule: French Administration of Tribal Areas, 1912–1956. London: Frank Cass, 1973;
- Scham, Alan. Lyautey in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.