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date: 19 July 2019

Algerian independence war

The Oxford Companion to Military History

Peter MacDonald

Algerian independence war (1954–62), 

one of the most bitter post-war conflicts fought between former colonizers and nationalists. From 1945 onwards there was growing tension between the colons or pieds noirs, as the settlers were known, and the longer-established Muslim majority, many of whom hoped that their support for France during WW II would bring political concessions. In March 1954 Ahmad Ben Bella, a former NCO in the French army, together with another eight Algerian exiles, formed the revolutionary committee which later became the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, FLN) in Egypt. From November 1954 the FLN, using bases in neighbouring Tunisia, launched co-ordinated strikes on public buildings, communications installations, police, and military posts, in its first real bid for Algerian independence. Guerrilla attacks escalated over the following two years, compelling the French to reinforce. Ultimately, although Algeria was considered to be constitutionally part of France, 400,000 French troops were stationed there to support French rule.

The FLN strategy, which combined the guerrilla warfare of Abd al-Qadir with provocative acts of terrorism, was met by the French doctrine of guerre revolutionnaire, developed following experience against the Vietminh in Indochina. Indiscriminate kidnapping and killing of Europeans, Muslim supporters, and non-activists by the FLN elicited brutal ‘counter-terrorist’ measures from the French military. Remote villages in pro-FLN areas were raided and their inhabitants butchered. By 1956 warfare had spread to Algiers, where FLN targets included schools, shops, and cafés, striking at the heart of colon society. Again, French suppression was ruthless and effective. Gen Jacques Massu's 10th Colonial Parachute Division won ‘the battle of Algiers’, effectively wiping out the FLN infrastructure there albeit at the price of resorting to torture which diminished France's standing in the world and the army's in French society. Outside the cities, suspect or vulnerable groups were relocated to ‘model villages’ and electrified fencing and fortified posts were strung along Algeria's borders with Tunisia and Morocco to stop infiltration. While largely conscript garrison units held down the countryside—their action was likened to that of a wet blanket over a fire—élite units of the general reserve, making increasing use of helicopters, mounted specific actions against insurgent forces.

Although effective in the short term, French military action was unable to provide a satisfactory political solution. France was under growing pressure from the international community and the war was generally unpopular at home. The war was more complex than a simple struggle between nationalists and colonialists. There was a political struggle for the middle ground in Algeria; a civil war among Muslim Algerians themselves (many of whom fought bravely for the French); a dispute within the FLN's leadership; and a battle, in the wider world, for international support. The conflict also induced elements of the French army, influenced by settler opinion, to oppose their own government. On 13 May 1958 French officers in Algeria rose against their government, an action which brought de Gaulle to power. However, once in power he offered self-determination by referendum, a move which forced dissenting officers underground and the creation of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS).

Unsuccessful military revolts against de Gaulle were mounted in 1960 and again in 1961. However, the bulk of the army remained loyal to the government, with the notable exception of some parachute and legion units, though France was perilously close to civil war. The OAS continued attacks against both the FLN and French authorities. In March 1962 a ceasefire was agreed between the FLN and the government at Evian in France. This resulted in a mass exodus to France by the colons and by the year's end the majority had departed to the mainland.

Independence was achieved on 3 July 1962 with Ahmad Ben Bella as premier. The FLN offered full civil rights and protection to the colons who chose to remain. France in turn ceded the commercially developed oil-rich Sahara and established an aid programme to counter the damage of the eight-year war. The devastation to Algeria was immense. In human terms the cost was high: French casualties were around 100,000 to 1 million Algerian, with a further 1.8 million displaced. Things were particularly bad for the Harkis, Muslims who had supported the French, and about 150,000 of them were killed in post-ceasefire revenge attacks.

The war in Algeria marked the French army, which was to take many years to recover from the strains of the fighting and, even more significantly, the internal divisions it produced. Many of the returning pieds noirs felt betrayed, while Muslims who had supported France and were fortunate enough to escape there found their loyalty ignored, and eked out a poverty-stricken existence: their children, often alienated and without hope, constitute the last casualties of this bitter war.

Peter MacDonald


Horne, Alistair, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962 (London, 1977).Find this resource: