Algerian War (1954–1962)

SS 11 missiles on a Dassault Flamant – Algerie

In 1956, using helicopters in a ground-attack role in the Algerian War.

First Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment, Algeria 1960


The Algerian War (also known as the Algerian War of Independence and the Algerian Revolution) was fought between Algerian nationalists known as the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front, FLN) and the French military between November 1, 1954, and March 19, 1962. The war led to a considerable expenditure of blood and treasure, saw some 1 million Frenchmen serve in the French Army in Algeria, claimed more than a score of French ministries, and brought the end of the French Fourth Republic, replaced by the Fifth Republic. The war also did not bring peace in Algeria.

France had established its control over Algeria more than a century earlier. On June 14, 1830, a French expeditionary force of some 34,000 men commanded by Marshal Louis Auguste Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont, landed near Algiers. The pretext for the invasion was the insult to French consul to Algiers Pierre Duval, who had been struck with a flyswatter by Dey Husain in 1827. The French also sought to remove a threat to their Mediterranean trade, but the real reason behind French king Charles X’s plan to take Algiers was to shore up his unpopular French government, headed by Prince Jules de Polignac, and enable it to win the 1830 national elections.

Algiers was duly taken on July 5, although Charles X’s political gambit failed, as France experienced a revolution on July 28–30. In this July Revolution of 1830, Charles X was forced to abdicate in favor of his cousin Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, who nonetheless decided to continue French military operations in Algeria.

French control was initially largely limited to the coastal areas and cities. A succession of French commanders proceeded to fight a variety of opponents and campaigns in widely differing terrain, from the Atlas Mountains to salt marshes and the bled (interior). Beginning in 1835, Abd al-Qadir, emir of Mascara in western Algeria, declared jihad (holy war) and fought the French. Following a number of battles, he was ultimately forced to surrender in December 1847 to French general Thomas Robert Bugeaud de la Piconnerie, who also proved to be an adroit colonial administrator.

By 1847, some 50,000 Europeans had settled in Algeria. French control over the Algerian interior was not accomplished until the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852–1870), however. European settlement increased following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and the German acquisition of Alsace and Lorraine. Many of the French who had lived in the two provinces chose to settle in Algeria rather than be under German rule.

While more Frenchmen immigrated to Algeria, the imbalance between them and the Muslim population ballooned. The Pax Franca brought finis to the tribal wars and disease that had kept the population relatively static. Another factor in the burgeoning Muslim population was the greatly improved medical care that dramatically decreased the infant mortality rate.

Unique among French colonies, Algeria became a political component of France, as the three French departments of Algiers, Constantine, and Oran all had limited representation in the French Chamber of Deputies. Nonetheless, the three Algerian departments were not like those of the Metropole, as only the European settlers, known as colons or pieds noirs, enjoyed full rights there. The colon and Muslim populations lived separate and unequal lives. The Europeans controlled the vast majority of the economic enterprises and wealth, while the Muslims tended to be agricultural laborers. Meanwhile, the French expanded Algeria’s frontiers deep into the Sahara.

While the colons sought to preserve their status, French officials vacillated between promoting colon interests and advancing reforms for the Muslims. Pro-Muslim reform efforts failed because of political pressure from the colons and their representatives in Paris. While French political theorists debated between assimilation and autonomy for Algeria’s Muslims, the Muslim majority were increasingly resentful of the privileged colon status.

World War I helped fuel Algerian Muslim nationalist sentiment, but the first Muslim political organizations appeared in the 1930s, the most important of these being Ahmed Messali Hadj’s Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties, MTLD). World War II brought opportunities for change. Following the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942, Muslim activists met with American envoy Robert Murphy and Free French general Henri Giraud concerning postwar freedoms but received no firm commitments. However, 60,000 Algerian Muslims who had fought for France were granted French citizenship.

It came as a great shock to the French when pent-up Muslim frustrations exploded on May 8, 1945, during the course of a victory parade approved by French authorities celebrating the end of World War II in Europe. A French plainclothes policeman shot to death a young marcher carrying an Algerian flag, and this touched off a bloody rampage, often referred to as the Sétif Massacre. Muslims attacked Europeans and their property, and violence quickly spread to outlying areas.

The French authorities then unleashed a violent crackdown that included Foreign Legionnaires and Senegalese troops, tanks, aircraft, and even naval gunfire from a cruiser in the Mediterranean. Settler militias and local vigilantes took a number of Muslim prisoners from jails and executed them. Major French military operations lasted two weeks, while smaller actions continued for a month. Some 4,500 Algerians were arrested; 99 people were sentenced to death, and another 64 given life imprisonment. Casualty figures remain in dispute. At least 100 Europeans died. The official French figure of Muslim dead was 1,165, but this is certainly too low, and figures as high as 10,000 have been cited.

In March 1946 the French government announced a general amnesty and released many of the Sétif detainees, including moderate Algerian nationalist leader Ferhat Abbas, although his Friends of the Manifesto and Liberty political party, formed in 1938, was dissolved. The fierce nature of the French repression of the uprising was based on a perception that any leniency would be interpreted as weakness and would only encourage further unrest.

The Sétif Uprising, which was not followed by any meaningful French reform, drove a wedge between the two communities in Algeria. Europeans now distrusted Muslims, and the Muslims never forgave the violence of the repression. French authorities did not understand the implications of this. A number of returning Muslim veterans of the war, including Ahmed Ben Bella, now joined the more militant MTLD. Ben Bella went on to form the Organization Speciale and soon departed for Egypt to enlist the support of its leaders.

Genuine political reform proved impossible, as granting full representation to Algeria would have entailed giving it a quarter of the seats in the National Assembly. The result was the compromise Algerian Statute, approved by the French National Assembly in September 1947. For the first time, Algeria was recognized as having administrative autonomy. The heart of the statute, however, was the creation of an Algerian Assembly consisting of two coequal 60-member assemblies. Although all Algerians were classified as French citizens, the first college included all non-Muslim French citizens and those Muslims French citizens who had been so defined by virtue of military service or education. The second college provided for all other Muslims. A total of 469,023 Europeans and 63,194 Muslims were eligible to vote in the first college, and 1,301,072 Muslims were eligible to vote in the second college. Thus, for all practical purposes, the first college represented the 1.5 million Euro-peans, and the second represented the 9.5 million Muslims.

The deputies, while elected separately, voted together. To prevent the Muslims from having a majority by securing only one vote in the first college, a two-thirds vote could be demanded by the governor-general or 30 members of the Assembly. Designed to give the Muslims some voice in their governance while ensuring European control, the Algerian Statute proved to be a poor compromise. Still, it might have worked were it not for the fact that the mandatory elections, commencing in April 1948, were rigged. As a result, the period from 1948 to the start of the rebellion in 1954 was marked by increasing bitterness and conflict between the two Algerian communities.

Proindependence Algerian Muslims were emboldened by the May 1954 Viet Minh victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu during the Indochina War (1946–1954), and when Algerian Muslim nationalist leaders met Democratic Republic of Vietnam president Ho Chi Minh at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, he assured them that the French could be defeated. Ben Bella and his compatriots, having established the FLN on October 10, 1954, began the Algerian War on the night of October 31–November 1.


Early on November 1, 1954, armed members of the FLN carried out a number of small attacks across Algeria. The French government, which was then dealing with independence movements in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco, had not anticipated a similar development in Algeria. After all, Algeria had been French territory since 1830 (Tunisia had been acquired only in 1881 and Morocco in the period 1904–1911). Unlike Morocco and Tunisia, which were classed as protectorates, Algeria was held to be an integral part of France. Indeed, for some months the French people and press failed to recognize the significance of what was happening and chose to characterize the rebels as fellagha (outlaws).

There were valid reasons for the French to fight in order to retain Algeria. Unlike Indochina, it was in close proximity to France, just across the Mediterranean. The French had largely created modern Algeria, as the deys had only controlled a narrow coastal strip around Algiers itself. There were more than 1 million Europeans living there, and they would be unwilling to concede place to Arab nationalism. Finally, there was the French Army. Its professional soldiers had almost immediately been transferred from Indochina to Algeria. Believing strongly that they had been denied the resources necessary to win the Indochina War (1946–1954) and in the end had been sold out by their government, they were determined that this would not be the case in Algeria.

Ultimately France committed a force of 450,000 men to the war, and upwards of 1 million Frenchmen would serve there. Unlike the Indochina War, this included draftees. As the conflict intensified, French officials sought support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), arguing that keeping Algeria French would ensure that NATO’s southern flank would be safe from communism. As a part of France, Algeria was included in the original NATO Charter, but the French government position did not receive a sympathetic response in Washington or in other NATO capitals. Only too late did a succession of French governments attempt to carry out reform.

The FLN goal was to end French control of Algeria and drive out or eliminate the colon population. The FLN was organized in six military districts, or wilayas, along rigidly hierarchical lines. Wilaya 4, located near Algiers, was especially important, and the FLN was particularly active in Kabylia and the Aurés Mountains. The party tolerated no dissent. In form and style, it resembled Soviet bloc communist parties, although it claimed to offer a noncommunist and non-Western alternative ideology, articulated by Frantz Fanon. The FLN military arm was the Armée de Libération Nationale (Army of National Liberation, ALN).

Any hope of reconciliation between the two sides was destroyed by a major FLN military operation on August 20, 1954. On that date, its personnel, having infiltrated the port city of Philippeville, killed 71 colons and 52 pro-French Muslims (mostly local politicians), while the French police and military killed 134 ALN troops. On the same day, the ALN attacked and slaughtered European women and children living in the countryside surrounding Constantine while the men were at work. At El-Halia, a sulfur-mining community with some 120 Europeans living peacefully among 2,000 Algerian Muslims, 37 Europeans, including 10 children, were tortured and killed. Another 13 were badly wounded. Several hours later French paratroopers arrived, supported by military aircraft. The next morning they gathered about 150 Muslims together and executed them.

The French administration now allowed the settlers to arm themselves and form self-defense units, measures that the reformist governor-general Jacques Soustelle had earlier vetoed. European vigilante groups are reported to have subsequently carried out summary killings of Muslims. Soustelle reported a total of 1,273 Muslims killed in what he characterized as “severe” reprisals.

The Arab League strongly supported the FLN, while Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a source of weapons and other assistance. The French government’s grant of independence to both Tunisia and Morocco in March 1956 further bolstered Algerian nationalism. When Israeli, British, and French forces invaded Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, the United States condemned the move and forced their withdrawal. The Algerian insurgents were emboldened by the French defeat. The French now also found themselves contending with FLN supply bases in Tunisia that they could neither attack nor eliminate. Also in 1956, the government of socialist premier Guy Mollet transferred the bulk of the French Army to Algeria.

The major engagement of the war was the battle for control of the Casbah district of Algiers, a district of some 100,000 people in the Algerian capital city. With the guillotining in Algiers in June 1956 of several FLN members who had killed Europeans, FLN commander of the Algiers Autonomous Zone Saadi Yacef received instructions to kill any European between the ages of 18 and 54 but no women, children, or old people. During a three-day span in June, Yacef’s roaming squads shot down 49 Europeans. It was the first time in the war that such random acts of terrorism had occurred in Algiers and began a spiral of violence there.

Hard-line European supporters of Algérie Française (French Algeria) then decided to take matters into their own hands, and on the night of August 10, André Achiary, a former member of the French government’s counterintelligence service, planted a bomb in a building in the Casbah that had supposedly housed the FLN, but the ensuing blast destroyed much of the neighborhood and claimed 79 lives. No one was arrested for the blast, and the FLN was determined to avenge the deaths.

Yacef, who had created a carefully organized network of some 1,400 operatives as well as bomb factories and hiding places, received orders to undertake random bombings against Europeans, a first for the capital. On September 30, 1956, three female FLN members planted bombs in the Milk-Bar, a cafeteria, and a travel agency. The later bomb failed to go off owing to a faulty timer, but the other two blasts killed three people and wounded more than 50, including a number of children. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Battle of Algiers (September 30, 1956–September 24, 1957).

Violence now took hold in Algiers. Both Muslim and European populations in the city were in a state of terror. Schools closed in October, and on December 28 Mayor Amédée Froger was assassinated.

On January 7, 1957, French governor-general Robert Lacoste called in General Raoul Salan, new French commander in Algeria, and Brigadier General Jacques Massu, commander of the elite 4,600-man 10th Colonial Parachute Division, recently arrived from Suez. Lacoste ordered them to restore order in the capital city, no matter the method.

In addition to his own men, Massu could call on other French military units, totaling perhaps 8,000 men. He also had the city’s 1,500-man police force. Massu divided the city into four grids, with one of his regiments assigned to each. Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bigeard’s 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment had responsibility for the Casbah itself.

The French set up a series of checkpoints. They also made use of identity cards and instituted aggressive patrolling and house-to-house searches. Massu was ably assisted by his chief of staff, Colonel Yves Godard, who soon made himself the expert on the Casbah. Lieutenant Colonel Roger Trinquier organized an intelligence-collection system that included paid Muslim informants and employed young French paratroopers disguised as workers to operate in the Casbah and identify FLN members. Trinquier organized a database on the Muslim civilian population. The French also employed harsh interrogation techniques of suspects, including the use of torture that included electric shock.

The army broke a called Muslim general strike at the end of January in only a few days. Yacef was able to carry out more bombings, but the French Army ultimately won the battle and took the FLN leadership prisoner, although Yacef was not captured until September 1957. Some 3,000 of 24,000 Muslims arrested during the Battle of Algiers were never seen again. The French side lost an estimated 300 dead and 900 wounded.

The Battle of Algiers had widespread negative impact for the French military effort in Algeria, however. Although the army embarked on an elaborate cover-up, its use of torture soon became public knowledge and created a firestorm that greatly increased opposition in metropolitan France to the war. It should be noted, however, that the French employed torture to force FLN operatives to talk, and some were murdered in the process. The FLN, on the other hand, routinely murdered captured French soldiers and civilian Europeans.

In an effort to cut off the FLN from outside support, the French also erected the Morice Line. Named for French minister of defense André Morice, it ran for some 200 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the north into the Sahara in the south. The line was centered on an 8-foot tall, 5,000-volt electric fence that ran its entire length. Supporting this was a 50-yard-wide “killing zone” on each side of the fence rigged with antipersonnel mines. The line was also covered by previously ranged 105mm howitzers. A patrolled track paralleled the fence on its Algerian side. The Morice Line was bolstered by electronic sensors that provided warning of any attempt to pierce the barrier. Searchlights operated at night.

Although manning the line required a large number of French soldiers, it did significantly reduce infiltration by the FLN from Tunisia. By April 1958, the French estimated that they had defeated 80 percent of FLN infiltration attempts. This contributed greatly to the isolation of those FLN units within Algeria reliant on support from Tunisia. The French subsequently constructed a less extensive barrier, known as the Pedron Line, along the Algerian border with Morocco.

Despite victory in Algiers, French forces were not able to end the Algerian rebellion or gain the confidence of the colons. Some colons grew fearful that the French government was about to negotiate with the FLN, and in the spring of 1958 there were a number of plots to change the colonial government. Colon and army veteran Pierre Lagaillarde organized hundreds of commandos and began a revolt on May 13, 1958. A number of senior army officers, determined that the French government not repeat what had happened in Indochina, lent support. Massu quickly formed the Committee of Public Safety, and Salan assumed its leadership.

The plotters would have preferred someone more frankly authoritarian, but Salan called for the return to power of General Charles de Gaulle. Although de Gaulle had been out of power for more than a decade, on May 19 he announced his willingness to assume authority.

Massu was prepared to bring back de Gaulle by force if necessary and plans were developed to dispatch paratroopers to metropolitan France from Algeria, but this option was not needed. On June 1, 1958, the French National Assembly invested de Gaulle with the premiership; technically he was the last premier of the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle ultimately established a new French political framework, the Fifth Republic, with greatly enhanced presidential powers.

De Gaulle visited Algeria five times between June and December 1958. At Oran on June 4, he said about France in Algeria that “she is here forever.” A month later, he proposed 15 billion francs for Algerian housing, education, and public works, and that October he suggested an even more sweeping proposal, known as the Constantine Plan. The funding for the massive projects, however, was never forthcoming. True reform was never realized and in any case was probably too late to impact the Muslim community.

Algeria’s new military commander, General Maurice Challe, arrived in Algeria on December 12, 1958, and launched a series of attacks on FLN positions in rural Kabylia in early 1959. The Harkis, Muslim troops loyal to France, guided special mobile French troops called Commandos de Chasse. An aggressive set of sorties deep in Kabylia made considerable headway, and Challe calculated that by the end of October his men had killed half of the FLN operatives there. A second phase of the offensive was to occur in 1960, but by then de Gaulle, who had gradually eliminated options, had decided that Algerian independence was inevitable.

In late August 1959, de Gaulle braced his generals for the decision and then addressed the nation on September 19, 1959, declaring his support for Algerian self-determination. Fearing for their future, some die-hard colons created the Front Nationale Français and fomented another revolt on January 24, 1960, in the so-called Barricades Week. Mayhem ensued when policemen tried to restore order, and a number of people were killed or wounded. General Challe and the colony’s governor, Paul Delouvrier, fled Algiers on January 28, but the next day de Gaulle, wearing his old army uniform, turned the tide via a televised address to the nation. On February 1 army units swore loyalty to the government, and the revolt quickly collapsed.

Early in 1961, increasingly desperate Ultras formed a terrorist group called the Secret Army Organization (OAS). It targeted colons whom they regarded as traitors and also carried out bombings in France and attempted to assassinate de Gaulle himself.

The Generals’ Putsch of April 20–26, 1961, was a serious threat to de Gaulle’s regime. General Challe wanted a revolt limited to Algeria, but Salan and his colleagues (Ground Forces chief of staff General André Zeller and recently retired inspector general of the air force Edmond Jouhaud) had prepared for a revolt in France as well. The generals had the support of many frontline officers in addition to almost two divisions of troops. The Foreign Legion arrested commander of French forces in Algeria General Fernand Gambiez, and paratroopers near Rambouillet prepared to march on Paris after obtaining armored support. The coup collapsed, however, as police units managed to convince the paratroopers to depart, and army units again swore loyalty to de Gaulle.

On June 10, 1961, de Gaulle held secret meetings with FLN representatives in Paris, and then on June 14 he made a televised appeal for the FLN’s so-called provisional government to negotiate an end to the war. Peace talks during June 25–29 failed to lead to resolution, but de Gaulle was set in his course. During his visit to Algeria in December, he was greeted by large pro-FLN Muslim rallies and anticolon riots. The United Nations recognized Algeria’s independence on December 20, and in a national referendum on January 8, 1962, the French public voted in favor of Algerian independence.

A massive exodus of colons was already under way. Nearly 1 million returned to their ancestral homelands (half of them went to France, while most of the rest went to Spain and Italy). Peace talks resumed in March at Évian, and both sides reached a settlement on May 18, 1962.


The formal handover of power occurred on July 4, 1962, when the FLN’s Provisional Committee took control of Algeria, and in September Ben Bella was elected Algeria’s first president. The Algerian War claimed some 18,000 French military deaths, 3,000 colon deaths, and about 300,000 Muslim deaths.

The Europeans were encouraged to leave (la valise ou le cercueil, meaning “the suitcase or the coffin”), and some 1.5 million did so. Perhaps half relocated in Metropolitan France, and most of the remainder went to Spain or Italy. Some 30,000 Europeans remained in Algeria. Ostensibly granted equal rights in the peace treaty, they instead faced official discrimination by the FLN government and the loss of much of their property. The FLN-led Algerian government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Ben Bella, promptly confiscated the colons’ abandoned property and established a decentralized socialist economy and a one-party state.

The Harkis, those Algerian Muslims who fought on the French side in the war, suffered terribly. Some 91,000 and their family members settled in France. At least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 150,000 Harkis and their family members, including young children, who remained in Algeria were subsequently butchered by either the FLN or lynch mobs.

Ben Bella’s attempt to consolidate his power, combined with popular discontent with the economy’s inefficiency, sparked a bloodless military coup by Defense Minister Houari Boumédienne in June 1965. In 1971, the government endeavored to stimulate economic growth by nationalizing the oil industry and investing the revenues in centrally orchestrated industrial development. Boumédienne’s military-dominated government took on an increasingly authoritarian cast over the years.

Algeria’s leaders sought to retain their autonomy, joining their country to the Non-Aligned Movement, and Boumédienne phased out French military bases. Although Algeria denounced perceived American imperialism and supported Cuba, the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, Palestinian nationalists, and African anticolonial fighters, it maintained a strong trading relationship with the United States. At the same time, Algeria cultivated economic ties with the Soviet Union, which provided the nation with military equipment and training. When the Spanish relinquished control of Western Sahara in 1976, Morocco attempted to annex the region, leading to a 12-year low-level war with Algeria, which supported the guerrilla movement fighting for the region’s independence.

Diplomatic relations with the United States warmed after Algeria negotiated the release of American hostages in Iran in 1980 and Morocco fell out of U.S. favor by allying with Libya in 1984.

In 1976, a long-promised constitution that provided for elections was enacted, although Algeria remained a one-party state. When Boumédienne died in December 1978, power passed to Chadli Bendjedid, the army-backed candidate. Bendjedid retreated from Boumédienne’s increasingly ineffective economic policies, privatizing much of the economy and encouraging entrepreneurship. However, accumulated debt continued to retard economic expansion. Growing public protests from labor unions, students, and Islamic fundamentalists forced the government to end restrictions on political expression in 1988.

The Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) proved to be the most successful of the new political parties. After victories by the FIS in local elections in June 1990 and national elections in December 1991, Bendjedid resigned, and a new regime under Mohamed Boudiaf imposed martial law, banning the FIS in March 1992. In response, Islamist radicals began a guerrilla war that has persisted to the present, taking a toll of 150,000 or more lives. Although Algeria’s military government managed to gain the upper hand in the struggle after 1998, Islamic groups continue to wage war on the state, which maintains control through brutal repression and tainted elections.

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