Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962)

Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: France vs. Algerian nationalists



MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Algerian rebels sought
independence from France, which fought to defend its
colonial hegemony.

OUTCOME: Algeria won independence, and many French
military leaders, especially in the army, were discredited

France, 500,000; Algeria, 40,000 troops, plus at least
21,000 guerrillas and terrorists

CASUALTIES: Approximately 1,000,000 total, including

TREATIES: Treaty of Evian, March 18, 1962 (France
and National Liberation Front) and cease-fire of
May 19, 1962

A French colony since 1847 (see ABD EL-KADER, THIRD
WAR OF) Algeria renewed its efforts toward independence
as soon as World War II ended in 1945. By 1949 the
demand turned violent, and in a skirmish between nationalists
and French colonial troops at Oran more than 1,000
Algerians and 88 French were killed. Afterward, the Algerian
nationalists splintered into factions, which organized
political arms and sought to attract revolutionary leaders.
One of the more charismatic and powerful of those leaders
was Ahmed Ben Bella (b. c. 1918).
Ben Bella’s underground revolutionary activities garnered
him the attention of the French authorities, and he
was forced to flee to Cairo in 1952. From there, and with
the tacit support of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul
Nasser (1918–70), Ben Bella formed the Revolutionary
Committee of Unity and Action (CRUA), which immediately
began preparing for armed insurrection in Algeria.
Between March and October of 1954, it created an effective
military organization by dividing the country into six
military regions, which allowed CRUA to make better use
of localized forces and gave a semblance of order and discipline
that helped when seeking foreign support and military
aid. In October CRUA changed its name to the
National Liberation Front (FLN) and that of its military
arm to the National Liberation Army (ALN). While the
FLN, under the influence of Ben Bella and others, ran the
revolutionary struggle politically from Cairo, the ALN
fought the revolution on the ground in Algeria.
At dawn on November 1, 1954, FLN guerrillas raided
French military installations, police stations, communications
facilities, and public utilities throughout the country.
From Cairo the FLN broadcast a message to the people of
Algeria demanding a unified struggle against the French
colonials. They sought, said the FLN, to restore the Algerian
state to the social democratic framework of its past.
The French response was swift and decisive. Minister of
the Interior (later French prime minister) François Mitterrand
(1916–96) declared “the only possible negotiation is
war.” The French had not learned the painful lessons of
Indochina, where they had suffered one of the worst military
defeats in history at Dien Bien Phu (Dienbienphu)
almost a year to the day before the Algerian uprising (see
Within Algeria the FLN was now the predominant
rebel faction, and as its power became more obvious almost
all the other revolutionary and nationalist groups courted
its leaders and offered their support. The one exception was
the National Algerian Movement (MNA), which opposed
the FLN at every step, seeking to gain control of Algeria
through its own campaign of violent revolutionary activity.
The more experienced revolutionaries of the FLN quickly
tracked down and destroyed the MNA guerrillas, which
would have effectively closed down the MNA organization
had it not gained a sizable following among Algerian workers
in France. The Union of Algerian Workers became a
potent terrorist arm of the MNA in France. To combat the
MNA’s growing influence over the Algerian struggle, the
FLN organized its own Paris-based organization, resulting
in the so-called cafe wars, during which the two factions
battled each other on the streets of Paris.
In 1956, with the FLN now firmly in control of the revolution,
its leadership began a violent liquidation of all
those it considered potential traitors, which meant in effect
any Algerian deemed acceptable to the French community.
The escalation in terror caused French loyalists, known as
“colons,” to form vigilante groups. With the passive cooperation
of the local police, colon vigilantes launched operations
in the countryside against suspected FLN strongholds.
They demanded the declaration of a state of emergency from
Paris and the imposition of capital punishment for politically
motivated crimes. In 1956 the colons pressured the
French government to replace Algeria’s governor general,
and Paris succumbed, bringing in Robert Lacoste (1898–
1989). Lacoste attempted to rule by decree, granting the
army exceedingly broad police powers, stepping up military
action, and giving commanders an increasingly free hand, all
measures not only of dubious legality but also ones that had
failed to work in Indochina. What upset the colons, however,
was Lacoste’s proposed measures to limit Algeria’s
autonomy, which called for dividing the country into five
districts, each governed by an elected territorial assembly.
Although Algeria as a whole would remain a French colony
controlled from Paris, the colons objected to what they
judged a dangerous level of home role.
France, meanwhile, began to take a hard line toward
those outside Algeria supporting the FLN, particularly in
Egypt. France joined Great Britain in the Suez Canal campaign
of November 1956, aimed at deposing Nasser.
Although the Anglo-French campaign failed, the intent
was clear enough, and relations between France and Egypt
were severely damaged by the exploit. A month earlier, in
September, there had been yet another indication of the
new French hard line and its effectiveness. Ben Bella and
the other hard-core leaders of the FLN boarded a plane for
Morocco where they would meet with Sultan Mohammed
V and Tunisian premier Habib Bourguiba to solicit support
for the FLN. En route the pilot turned the plane around
and landed instead in Algiers, where it was surrounded by
French troops. The FLN leaders were imprisoned for the
rest of the war.
By 1957 the ALN had evolved from a small, illequipped,
undermanned force into a disciplined, organized,
strong army of about 40,000 troops. In 1956 and
1957 the ALN perfected the classic tactics of guerrilla warfare,
striking small targets at night in ambushes or surprise
raids. FLN terrorists also exercised a ruthless revenge on
civilians suspected of collaborating with the French or
those in the revolutionary movement whose zeal was
insufficient or whose consciences were too strong to allow
them to execute ritual killings and mutilations when so
ordered. During the first two years of the war, more than
7,000 civilians were murdered. Although the majority of
Algerians certainly feared the FLN, that fear did not
always translate into support, even within the Muslim
community, which was thoroughly committed to independence
by whatever means necessary.
In an effort to take the fighting directly to the French
merchants and the French-controlled government, the
FLN began a systematic campaign of urban terrorism
within Algeria that hit almost every large city in the country
but was specifically aimed at the capital of Algiers. The
so-called Battle of Algiers commenced in the summer of
1956 and continued for several months, averaging more
than 800 terrorist attacks a month. While the Battle of
Algiers raged, the FLN staged general strikes within the
Muslim workforce to coincide with debates on Algeria in
the United Nations General Assembly. To save Algerian
cities from complete paralysis, the French launched a ruthless
and indiscriminate crackdown, and their brutal methods
brought many more Muslims into the FLN fold. At the
same time they also caused French citizens at home to
question their government’s continued role in North
By 1956 the French could no longer credibly claim
they were engaged in a campaign of pacification. France
had deployed more than 400,000 troops—army, navy, and
air force—to the region, and both the rest of the world
and, more importantly, the French public saw the Algerian
conflict as a full-scale colonial war. With the defeat of fascism
in World War II and the subsequent breakup of the
traditional European empires, colonialism had gone out of
favor with the general public and was increasingly looked
upon by average citizens as greedy and unconscionable.
Now, more than a decade after fighting a war in Indochina
that resulted in its having to be rescued by its powerful
allies, France remained the only European power attempting
to hold on to its imperial past. Worse yet, it was doing
a frighteningly poor job of it.
Refusing to grant Algerian independence, Paris became
determined to crush the revolution in any way possible.
The French command, now led by General Raoul Salan
(1899–1984), hoped to bring the FLN to its knees in the
outlying areas, thereby robbing it of both political and
material support. Late in 1957 Salan developed the system
of quadrillage, whereby the country was divided into four
quadrants with large permanent garrisons stationed in each
to keep track of FLN and ALN activity. The move was successful
in dramatically suppressing rebel terrorism, but it
tied up a significant portion of the army, so that many
troops were now unavailable to pursue and destroy the
rebels moving about the country out of range of the permanent
garrisons. In addition, the French began their own
program of coercion and harrassment in the Algerian villages,
brutally enforcing collective security in areas they
believed friendly to the rebels. Those Algerians, mostly
peasants, who failed to comply with the security arrangements
were punished either by execution or by saturation
bombing. France also instituted a program of relocation in
instances in which the coercion and harassment were
unsuccessful. From 1957 to 1960 more than 2 million
Algerians were relocated by the French and hundreds of
villages destroyed. It was all a grim harbinger of the United
States’s involvement in Vietnam (see VIETNAM WAR) in the
following decades—and the parallels would continue.
The system of quadrillage obviously failing, Salan was
replaced in the fall of 1958 by General Maurice Challe
(1905–79). Challe’s tactical plan was one of search and
destroy; he would worry about the village people later.
Though Challe appeared, at least initially, to be enjoying
some success, others in the military had plans of their own.
Many within the military hierarchy dreaded what might
well become the fourth military disaster for the French
army in the past half century—the others being the French
military’s performance against German invasions in WORLD
WAR I and WORLD WAR II and against the communists in
Vietnam. Wary that a precipitate troop pullout from the
quadrants would only endanger the remaining forces, as at
Dien Bien Phu, as well as sacrifice the already heavily damaged
French honor and its sense of élan, the military hierarchy
decided it would take matters into its own hands. On
the night of May 13, 1958, the military staged a coup in
Algeria and deposed the civil government, instituting the
Committee on Public Safety (CPS) led by General Jacques
Massu (1908–2002) and Salan. The CPS demanded that
Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) return to power in Paris
and that he prevent the abandonment of Algeria.
In Paris, Premier Pierre Pflimlin (1907–2000)
demanded that aid be cut to the military, but the National
Assembly refused to act. The French people seemed
enthralled with this show of patriotic nationalism, bringing
back memories of what was popularly regarded as a
more glorious past. De Gaulle was appointed president on
June 1 and given carte blanche powers to deal with Algeria.
He called on the FLN leadership to agree to a ceasefire
so representatives could be elected to discuss Algeria’s
future. The FLN quickly rejected de Gaulle’s offer, and for
good reason. While Challe’s new search and destroy policies
may have allowed the French army to turn the military
momentum against the insurgents, everyone realized
that only a protracted and costly effort could completely
root out the guerrillas. And a long war was something that
the French electorate would not tolerate and that France’s
elected officials could not afford.
External pressures were also beginning to mount
against France, including demands from the United
Nations for a resolution of the conflict. NATO allies
resented having to assume France’s NATO duties, because
its military was committed to Algeria. In September 1959
de Gaulle abandoned his previous position and announced
that he would give consideration to Algerian self-determination.
However, it was not until January 1961 that de
Gaulle called for a referendum to give him a free hand in
dealing with the FLN. The referendum passed, but before
official communication could open between de Gaulle and
the FLN, a directorate of generals, led by Salan, Challe, and
Edmond Jouhaud (1905–95), staged an insurrection in
April known as “the General’s Putsch.”
The putsch brought to public attention the existence
of the well-armed Secret Army Organization (OAS), run
by a cadre of army officers intent on hanging onto Algeria
at any cost and who had been secretly coordinating colon
activity. As rumors spread throughout France of a military
takeover of the homeland itself, perhaps even a return to
the monarchy, the French people and the government
panicked. De Gaulle called up reservists and surrounded
the National Assembly with tanks to defend it against an
OAS attack. The fear was exaggerated, at least as far as
France was concerned. Both the air force and the navy
refused to cooperate with the OAS, and loyal French
forces seized Salan in Algeria. The putsch failed, and
within four days Challe was captured and sentenced to a
lengthy prison term but escaped and continued to direct
the OAS terrorist activities. As the French-OAS war continued,
the Algerian rebel leaders and French officials sat
down in May for talks that resulted in a French promise to
end all offensive operations within Algeria. Eventually, the
two sides agreed to a cease-fire set for March 19, 1962,
and to a referendum for all Algerians to vote on independence.
Before the referendum could take place, the OAS
renewed its terrorist activities. Literally hundreds of
bombings took place daily in Algiers, and thousands were
killed in perhaps the most brutal chapter of the war.
Challe and Jouhaud were finally captured, and the OAS
ended operations in mid-June.
On July 1, 1962, more than 92 percent of the Algerian
people voted in the referendum, and they voted overwhelmingly
for independence. Two days later Charles de
Gaulle proclaimed Algeria an independent country. The
war had cost nearly a million lives, and almost a million
and a half colons—having lost their citizenship—fled
Algeria for France. Only a few of the colons had been born
in the mother country and most had never even seen it.

Further reading: Mouloud Feraoun, Journal, 1955–
1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 2000); Hugh Roberts, The Battlefield:
Algeria 1988–2002, Studies in a Broken Polity (London
and New York: Verso Books, 2003); Martin Stone, The
Agony of Algeria (New York: Columbia University Press,
1997); Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830–2000: A Short History
(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001); Martin
Windrow, The Algerian War, 1954–1962 (London: Osprey,

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