In the 1950s, Algerian rebels fought the French for independence, losing nearly every battle, but winning the war.
Glasses tinkled and voices rose and fell with laughter at the Milk-Bar, a soda shop in the European section of Algiers, the capital of the French département of Algeria. As families crowded inside, a few eyes roved over a beautiful young Muslim woman, fashionably dressed, her hair lightened to make her look European, sipping a drink. The woman knew that the French army’s 10th Region headquarters was across the street, and vivid in her memory was a bomb, planted by European terrorists, that had recently demolished a Muslim neighborhood and killed 70 people, including women and children. Discreetly, she slipped her bag under the table and left. Moments later there was a blinding white-yellow flash as the bomb inside her bag ripped through the place, killing 3 and wounding 50. Almost simultaneously, a second bomb destroyed another café and took more lives. It was September 30, 1956, and a grim new stage in the Algerian war of independence had begun.
Cruel and protracted, the Algerian Revolution was a wrenching event in 20th-century history. Beginning in 1954 and lasting eight years, it turned from a colonial revolt against French rule into a political revolution inside France. A prototype for modern insurgency and counterinsurgency, and a cauldron of the terrorism, torture, and asymmetric warfare prevalent throughout the world today, the war has become a model for those seeking to break free from oppressive regimes—and those attempting to thwart them.
The Algerian Revolution was unique in its ferocity because Algeria was unique to France. Seizing this strategic outpost from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, the French allowed Spanish, French, Jewish, Maltese, Corsican, and Italian settlers to occupy Algeria’s verdant Mediterranean coast in the north. Known as colons (colonialists) or pieds-noirs (black feet)—a pejorative variously meaning those who shoveled coal, wore soldiers’ boots, or were “white men” in “black” Africa—these hardy people built France’s largest colony, and one, unlike many others, with parliamentary representation. By 1954 there were 984,000 colons, 80 percent of whom had been born on Algerian soil.
But away from the cool sea breezes, in the blistering Sahara to the south, the scene was radically different. Seventy percent of the native Arab and Berber population was forced to live there, barely subsisting on arid lands and largely divorced from the rich political, economic, and social life on the European-dominated coast. These Muslims existed “with no future and in humiliation,” said Nobel Prize–winning author Albert Camus, himself a pied-noir. Yet by the mid-1950s, thanks largely to improvements in health care, the Muslim population had exploded to eight times the number of colons, half under the age of 20.
Although they occasionally challenged French rule, Muslims fought bravely in the world wars for France and its cherished notions of liberty and equality. Their duty and sacrifices, however, piqued their own desire for self-rule.
On May 8, 1945, at a victory parade for the Allies in the town of Sétif, a Muslim demonstration for independence turned violent, and protesters murdered 103 Europeans. The French army and enraged colons responded in brutal fashion, systematically killing some 6,000 Muslims. Several Algerian nationalists, including Ahmed Ben Bella, a highly decorated Muslim sergeant, responded by forming secret groups to agitate for independence—by any means necessary.
Over the next decade, election fraud and infighting among these nationalists left the pieds-noirs firmly in control, but France’s struggles in Indochina helped reignite aspirations for independence. In May 1954, the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, one of the first times in modern history a “colonized” people had destroyed a colonizer’s army. Meeting secretly in Berne, Switzerland, one day after the French surrender, Ben Bella and 21 other Algerians founded what became the National Liberation Front (known as the FLN, the acronym for its French name, Front de Libération Nationale), and a date was fixed to begin their own revolution: November 1, 1954.
The Liberation Front opened the war desperately short of guns, mortars, and artillery. Most of its weaponry consisted of World War II–era rifles and MG 34, Lewis, and Bren machine guns; bombs were largely handmade. Though the number of rebel fighters and part-time guerrillas would eventually reach between 30,000 and 40,000, the FLN initially had only about 500 soldiers and 1,200 auxiliaries— women and men who carried bombs, operated safe houses, or otherwise supported the cause.
France had 60,000 French troops and tens of thousands of loyalist Muslim troops stationed in Algeria under General Paul Cherrière, commander of the 10th Military Region. French forces were technologically advanced, their columns bristling with motorized units and M4 Sherman and M24 Chaffee tanks. Troops could radio in air support from P-47 Thunderbolts, B- 26 Invaders, and later, A-1 Skyraiders and T-28 Trojans.
Knowing they were outmatched, FLN leaders crafted a deft two-prong strategy. Outside Algeria, they used world opinion to pressure the French to abandon their colony. Ben Bella, the leader of this effort—and later the Algerian Republic’s first president—traveled to Egypt to try to enlist the support of its nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Within Algeria, Liberation Front commanders established strongholds in the northeast in the beautifully rugged Aurès Mountains and Kabylia massifs. They divided Algeria into six wilayas, autonomous politico-military zones where leaders recruited and trained fighters. From these commands the FLN would spread terror and mayhem by launching armed attacks and propaganda campaigns. The decentralized command structure attracted talented leaders but also bandits, and revolutionary commitment and fighting ability was to vary accordingly.
In the early morning of November 1, 1954—as the French prepared to celebrate All Saints Day—FLN operatives fanned out across Algeria, shooting up police and military facilities, killing collaborators, and destroying colon private property. Leaders instructed fighters not to target women and children and to “popularize the movement.” The plan was to cut off the Aurès region from the rest of Algeria and ignite an uprising that would form the heart of the rebellion.
The fighting ranged across the Aurès and Kabylia, which are punctured by deep caves, slashed by narrow canyons and jagged gorges, and dotted with remote villages perched on steep cliffs. Additional small-scale battles unfolded in the graceful cities on the coast, each containing a casbah (old city), a medieval network of alleys and white cascading stairways with flat-topped houses so densely packed that one could jump from rooftop to rooftop. Within these serpentine strongholds, Liberation Front leaders planned their attacks and directed operations.
Amateurishly carried out, the FLN’s opening strikes delivered little of the hoped-for havoc or property damage; many were aborted. French officials described them as isolated “events.” The colons, however, demanded reprisals. Police rounded up Muslims indiscriminately, instantly converting many outraged bystanders into rebels.
To help crush the incipient rebellion, the 25th Parachute Division was ordered in and General Cherrière deployed tanks and troops to the Aurès on punitive sweeps, supported by air strikes that featured napalm and high explosives. Though lacking firepower, the tough, ingenious Algerians knew and loved their land. They would not give up. Before the rebellion, remembered a French soldier, the Arabs’ eyes showed little emotion. Now, he said, “hatred flashed there, like fire.”
A miserable hit-and-run war unfolded as French troops sloshed through the winter mud after the guerrillas, who would slip into army camps at night to murder Muslims loyal to the French. From the start, the fighting was merciless. “We don’t take prisoners,” a French sergeant told his troops. “These men [the Algerians] are not soldiers. Besides they don’t take any either.”
Vietnam veteran Colonel Paul Ducournau, commander of the 25th Division, planned to smash the revolution with a few fierce blows. But it wasn’t going to be that simple. Toward the end of November rebels ambushed a detachment of paratroopers—known as paras— in a ravine, killing four and wounding seven. Still, Ducournau’s men rapidly encircled the FLN fighters and killed 23. Ducournau kept the pressure on throughout the winter of 1954–1955; the number of guerrillas in the Aurès dropped to about 350.
The Liberation Front simply adjusted its tactics, avoiding large-scale battles and striking in small, flexible units of 15 to 50 fighters who would vanish into caves, swamps, or ravines when confronted. On May 24, 1955, one of these units destroyed a convoy of 30 supply vehicles, capturing much-needed arms and transports. The FLN also hit “soft” targets—anyone working for the government, along with Muslims loyal to the French. It banned wine and tobacco to break the power of those industries, which were controlled by the pieds-noirs. Violators had their lips slashed off; repeat offenders were found with their throats slit, their bodies mutilated.
Early in the conflict, Algeria’s governor-general, Jacques Soustelle, had introduced a reform program to address Muslim concerns. Appalled by the poverty in Muslim areas and the army’s unrestrained use of force, he had established the Specialized Administrative Section, composed of units of Arabic-speaking officers that negotiated directly with Muslims. Now, however, Soustelle realized that his campaign to win hearts was not working. It was time to go to war. Ten fresh battalions were sent to Algeria, increasing the number of French troops to 100,000. Soustelle ordered Sikorsky H-21 “Flying Banana” and other helicopters from the United States. General Cherrière was relieved of duty, and a state of emergency was declared in the Aurès.
In one of Cherrière’s last orders, he declared that Algerians— regardless of their political sympathies—must be punished collectively for the actions of the guerrillas. A village damaged by an FLN raid, for example, was forced to pay for repairs. The village’s young men were also held accountable: They were rounded up and placed in what would later be called “regroupment centers.” Similarly, if a single French soldier was killed, the army often responded by destroying an entire village.
Such disproportionate responses, according to writer Yves Courrière, who interviewed FLN leaders, handed the revolution one of its “principal psychological trump cards,” as droves of recruits joined the Liberation Front.
Meanwhile, outside Algeria, the revolutionaries brilliantly played the world stage. In April 1955, FLN leaders went to Indonesia to attend the historic Bandung Conference, where 29 emerging African and Asian nations met to protest colonialism. Algeria’s struggle became a symbol for universal freedom and self-determination—a powerful moral and public-relations victory.
Yet the war’s ferocity increased. In August 1955, rebels massacred 71 Europeans and 52 Algerians—men, women, and children—near Philippeville, a port on the Mediterranean. Limbs were hacked off, heads stove in, mothers disemboweled. The elite 18th Parachute Regiment was dispatched, arriving to find bodies everywhere. “Our company commanders,” recalled one para, “gave us the order to shoot down every Arab we met. You should have seen the result….There were so many of them that they had to be buried with bulldozers.” The paras were joined by colon vigilantes. When their work was done, as many as 12,000 Muslims had been slaughtered, according to some estimates. Extreme as the atrocities were on both sides, they made everything crystal clear: This was total war, to the end.
In France, however, the public began to grow restless over the increasingly heavy hand of French commanders in Algeria, which contradicted the ideals of a modern democracy. The depredations of the Nazis during France’s occupation were fresh; the incommensurate reprisals and tales of French forces torturing Algerian prisoners began to shift the political winds against retaining the rebellious département at all costs.
After raucous general elections, yet another government came to power in France, and as 1956 dawned, Soustelle was recalled and eventually replaced by France’s former minister of economic affairs, Robert Lacoste, who supported a push to substantially increase French forces. In March, the Liberation Front received a crucial boost when France granted independence to its protectorates Tunisia and Morocco. Neither had been considered as integral a part of France as Algeria, but now the rebels could use the newly freed territories to set up training camps, create a regular army, and establish supply lines. Meanwhile, Ben Bella and his team secured support from Nasser and Egypt—this on the heels of a United Nations vote to discuss the crisis, yet another political victory for the revolutionaries.
Now nearly two years into its revolt, the Liberation Front was becoming a hardened, disciplined organization. It conducted ruthless purges of the disloyal. “Kill any person attempting to deflect the militants,” Ben Bella had ordered his operatives. So far, the Front had terrorized its own people more than the colons, killing 6,352 Muslims and 1,035 Europeans.
In September, the rebels targeted Algiers. “Is it preferable for our cause,” asked Ramdane Abbane, FLN’s ideological chief, “to kill ten enemies in some riverbed in Telergma, which no one will talk about, or rather a single one in Algiers, which the American press will report the next day?” Led by the charismatic Saadi Yacef [see “The Rebels’ Bold Bomber-in-Chief,” page 86], the Liberation Front wreaked havoc in the pieds-noirs’ stronghold, led by modern young Muslim women toting purses filled with deadly explosives.
Many in France concluded that it was time to strike a deal. Lacoste began secret negotiations with the FLN to reach a settlement. But on October 22, as Ben Bella and other rebel leaders flew to peace talks with French representatives, their DC-3 was hijacked on orders from Colonel Ducournau, the parachute division commander. This sabotaged the talks and landed the FLN leaders in prison for the next five and a half years—a “major instance,” writes historian Alistair Horne, “of the French military acting…in disregard of the civil authorities.”
Universally chastised for the hijacking, France was again condemned when, in November 1956, a combined French, Israeli, and British force failed in its attempt to invade Egypt, recapture the Suez Canal, and topple Nasser, who had been elected president in June. FLN popularity, meanwhile, soared. In the wake of these debacles, France once again responded not with a consistent, practical policy but by shaking up its military command in the colony. General Raoul Salan, then France’s most decorated soldier, became commander in chief in Algeria.
Working from their base in the winding, narrow streets of the casbah, Yacef and his operatives carried out 100 bombings and assassinations in Algiers in January 1957 and simultaneously launched nearly 4,000 support attacks nationwide. In a sophisticated strategy, FLN representatives asked the United Nations to broker negotiations on Algerian independence while instructing Yacef to prepare a general strike “to demonstrate that all the people are behind us and obey our orders to the letter.”
French officials responded by giving the 10th Parachute Division, led by Brigadier General Jacques Massu, a free hand. Massu’s division boasted outstanding officers, including the flamboyant Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard, whose crack 3rd Regiment of Colonial Parachutists was “one of the most effective [units] in the Western world,” according to historian Horne. [See “The Battle of Algiers, Torture, and Marcel Bigeard,” next page.] The paras arrested an astounding 30 to 40 percent of the casbah’s men, hanging many and subjecting others to water and electricity torture. Coldly indifferent to the fate of the victims—and to the outcry in France against torture and other hard-line tactics—Massu broke down the terrorist cells. Within two months, he had decisively won the Battle of Algiers.
Total French forces in Algeria now numbered about 400,000. They constructed the “Morice Line” a 286-mile web of barbed wire, electrified fence, and minefields sealing off the Tunisian frontier. Patrolled from the air and defended by 12,900 soldiers, it was designed to prevent the Front’s exterior troops from entering Algeria. The Moroccan border was closed in the same manner and guarded by 9,500 troops. The rebels repeatedly tried to break through these fortifications in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Increasingly, however, the battlefields were the world media, university campuses, and the United Nations. Heavyweight intellectuals such as Franz Fanon and JeanPaul Sartre contributed powerful arguments about the struggle for freedom and the immorality of torture. Unbeatable militarily, France was losing the war on moral grounds.
Sensing this shift, on May 13, 1958, crowds of pieds-noirs chanting “Algérie française!” (French Algeria!) stormed government buildings and demanded that former prime minister Charles de Gaulle, hero of World War II, take power in Paris. General Massu declared what amounted to martial law. Once returned to power via what historians call a “legal coup,” de Gaulle visited Algeria, where he told the ecstatic mob, “I have understood you.” The new leader, however, envisioned a France liberated from its colonial holdings. He announced a “Peace of the Brave,” including an amnesty, prisoner release, and a cessation of executions. It was designed to coax the FLN to the negotiating table, although the rebels, with political momentum on their side, remained wary. The colons and many soldiers, meanwhile, felt utterly betrayed by the man they had thought would be their savior.
In December, de Gaulle became president of France. He sacked General Salan, whom he distrusted, and placed General Maurice Challe in command in Algeria. Challe relentlessly pursued the rebels in the spring and summer of 1959 while simultaneously courting Muslims with new schools and other enticements. But once again the whip hand negated these goodwill gestures, as more than a million Muslims were dragged from their homes and placed in regroupment camps.
The rebels continued sabotage operations, but on a small scale. De Gaulle now spoke of “self-determination” for Algeria. The FLN, perceiving a massive political victory at hand, astutely played a waiting game while rebuilding its shattered forces.
But the colons made one final, bloody attempt to hold on to Algeria. In January 1960, they rose in open revolt, barricading streets and firing on police. During what became known as Barricades Week, paras arrived to restore calm but refused to fight the pieds-noirs, with whom they sympathized. In November, de Gaulle began to talk of an “Algerian Algeria.” A month later, the United Nations ruled that Algeria had the right to self-determination. Alarmed, conservative European extremists in Algeria known as “ultras,” including disgruntled soldiers and right-wing colons, founded the Secret Army Organization (OAS, Organisation de l’Armée Secrète) and launched a campaign of terror against anyone considered a threat to “French Algeria.” On April 21–22, 1961, retired general Challe and others, supported by some para units, led a coup d’état in Algiers, causing panic in France; there were rumors of air force units preparing to bomb Paris. After de Gaulle made an emotional appeal on behalf of the French people, Challe surrendered. Other elements of the OAS, however, went underground and continued their bombings and shootings. De Gaulle himself was the target of as many as 30 assassination attempts. In this heated atmosphere, peace talks started at Evian, France, in May 1961 and continued until the summer, amid savage OAS murders.
On July 3, 1962, France finally recognized the Republic of Algeria. In the first year of independence, at least 800,000 colons and roughly 15,000 French-supporting Muslims left for France. Ironically, such a rapid exodus belied the claim that Algeria had ever truly been an integral part of France. Today’s fiery riots in France by North Africans demanding jobs and respect have their roots in this unfulfilled promise.
With the war concluded, de Gaulle realized his vision of France as a modern power; the era of empire was over. He developed its nuclear capability and pulled out of NATO, putting strains on the Atlantic Alliance during the Cold War— a radical reordering of international relations directly linked to the Algerian conflict.
Meanwhile, Algeria began the painful recovery from a vicious war. Exact figures are impossible to calculate, but according to French sources about 153,000 Algerian fighters were killed, plus more than 66,000 Muslim civilians—many liquidated by the FLN. As many as 12,000 Liberation Front members died in internal purges. An estimated 18,348 French soldiers perished as well as roughly 10,000 European civilians, including those killed by the OAS. Thousands more died when the Liberation Front took power in 1962 and carried out vengeance killings. In addition, about 1.8 million Muslims were relocated from their homes.
The Algerian Revolution was hugely influential militarily and politically. It is studied as the harbinger of “fourth generation” warfare, which pits conventional armies against loose networks of insurgents. The goal of such campaigns, explains one expert in strategic warfare, is to attack “the minds of the enemy decision-makers to destroy the enemy’s political will.” It is typically accompanied by insurgent use of the media and world forums and a struggle to differentiate civilians from combatants.
The war in Algeria raised questions of how victory and defeat are measured. How small are “small wars”? Can they be “contained” and won by counterinsurgency tactics? And which is more effective in the long term: destroying enemy forces or gaining the allegiance of a state’s citizens? The conflict also spurred a debate—still raging—about the wisdom of torture.
Finally, the Algerian Revolution is a stark reminder that while wars are easy to begin, the social, economic, and political forces they unleash, like the currents of a powerful river, are virtually impossible to direct, and their consequences are difficult to foresee. They sweep over land and people, leaving both forever changed. In the end, this war illustrated how a subjugated people—marginalized, tortured, and beaten by a foe wielding immense technological might—can summon enormous reserves of strength and, through great sacrifice and feats of endurance, wrest their fate away from their oppressors and take their destiny into their own hands. Was this a clean and clear-cut conflict? No. Was there any other way to obtain liberty? For the vast majority of Algerians the answer is obvious: Total war was the only way to achieve total independence.
Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.