Distant Lessons from Algeria, 1954-1962

 “The moment despair is alone, pure, sure of itself, pitiless in its consequences, it has a merciless power.”

– Albert Camus

The trajectory of how I came to read Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (1977) began decades ago with my father, who read and re-read Horne’s The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916 while sitting in his favorite chair. He even drew his own battlefield map so he could follow Horne’s meticulous detail more closely.  My father died in 1985, but I kept the weathered trade paperback on my shelves for several decades before picking it up a few years ago. If I couldn’t read this book about World War I during its Centennial year, would I ever?

But what seemed like a “magnanimous” gesture in memory of my father turned out to be an introduction to a favorite historian. Horne is more than a strategy and military maneuvers guy; he is a master at pulling out the personalities of historical figures and tightly inserting them into the narrative not unlike some of my other favorite writers of history — Rick Atkinson, Shelby Foote, and B. Liddell Hart. Horne excels at taking a seemingly specific topic or engagement and broadening it to include its worldwide implications.

This is especially prevalent in Horne’s Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century published in 2015, a few years before his death at age 91. In this book, Horne introduces us to the Greek concept of hubris, which is the fallout from a seemingly easy military victory followed by a dramatic downturn. Horne examines several military campaigns (some relatively obscure) and their far-reaching effects. One of these military campaigns is the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which certainly played into France’s mindset with its policies towards Algeria.

The Algerian War

The French takeover of Algeria, the tenth largest country in the world in terms of square miles (and largest country in Africa), began in the 1830s, when France tired of the raids on their shipping by the corsairs operating from the rugged Algerian coast and took action against the Turkish military that ruled the area. (The Turks had followed the Spaniards, who followed the Arabs, who followed the Byzantines, who followed the Romans of Carthaginian fame.)

While the French took the lead in colonizing Algeria, the region was also undergoing a mass migration from other Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy.  The Arab population grew rapidly from 1.5 million in 1830 to 4.5 million shortly after the turn of the century to 9 million in 1954 (Improvements in public health and an increasing Arab birth rate.). In contrast, the pieds noirs, a slang term for the Algerians of European descent, did not grow nearly as rapidly, topping out at about one million at the outbreak of the war. The economic and educational equality between the pied noirs and Arab population was equally disparate. In 1954, an average Arab farm holding was 11 hectares in size and generated an annual income of 100 pounds (£). This is a stark contrast to the average size of European farm holding of 123.7 hectares with an annual income of 2800 pounds. (62)

The seeds of the eight-year war for Algerian independence were first sown in the fertile ground in inequality soon after World War II. Though the Allies unseated the Vichy French government in its 1942 North African campaign, this change resulted in little improvement for the Arab populace, even though Algerian soldiers later fought for France with distinction in Italy and Western Europe (as depicted in the 2006 Oscar-nominated film Days of Glory).  

On V-E day May of 1945, the small market village of Saket erupted in violence as Muslim citizens slaughtered over 100 of their European-descended neighbors. The French army retaliated by bombing the town and killing an estimated 1,000 Muslims. This was just a brief taste of the civil war ahead, which eventually claimed the lives of 1 million Muslims and forced nearly 1 million pieds noirs to eventually leave the country, despite the fact that many had lived there for several generations.  The gerrymandering of the 1947 and 1948 elections further disenfranchised the Muslim populace. Political tampering of this magnitude led to greater skepticism about democracy in Algeria and allowed Muslims to be more easily influenced by radicals.

The war “officially” began on All Saints Day, 1954 when the Front de Libération Nationale (F.L.N.) issued a proclamation via Cairo radio and pamphlets with their demands for independence. It was a war that was to drag on for eight more years, characterized by relatively small engagements, guerilla attacks, bombings and assassinations down to the level of village officials who happened to be on the wrong side at the wrong time. One exception is the battle for the country’s largest city Algiers.  

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers depicts the war’s most notable but relatively short (January to March 1957) engagement. Told from the twin perspectives of a dangerously active Algerian resistance cell and the colonel of a regiment of French paratroopers that has arrived in the city to crush them, the Battle of Algiers captures the maniacal zeal of those willing to stop at nothing to overthrow their French oppressors and the will of the French government to keep what they fully believed was theirs. Though the engagement ended in the French control of the Casbah sector, the French’s willingness to use torture for interrogation later proved to be its on undoing, as news of the atrocities became known in Paris and began to shift public opinion about French involvement in Algeria.

The book is filled with innumerable examples of the brutality:  the slaughtering of innocents, bombing and displacement of civilians, slashing the throats of traitors, assassinations, bombings of Europeans in milk bars and casinos, and the widespread deprivation of the Muslim populace, who suffered as much as the combatants.  Horne’s title description as a “Savage War of Peace” — a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem — was not an understatement in the least.

The Many Warring Factions

Under normal circumstances, a reader has little hope of keeping straight all the different warring factions led by an ever-changing list of leaders, but Horne is nothing if not a patient writer. After the book’s initial publication in 1977, more source materials and some of the actual participants became available to Horne, who went on to revise the book in 1996.  Horne admitted to the difficulty of addressing the Algerian side of the war because of the lack of formal documentation (e.g. military archives), newspaper reportage, and the very nature of the resistance cell networks.


The resistance group made their initial proclamation with specific demands, and according to Horne, “the remarkable feature of the F.L.N. proclamation as a document was that its basic principles were to be adhered to with absolute fidelity during seven and a half years of war, right through the final settlement.” The F.L.N. was uncompromising in its resistance to the French military and towards the pieds noirs – but the worse of its brutality was saved for “the loyal Muslim element: employees of the state were murdered, their tongues cut off, their eyes gouged out, and a note from the  ‘F.L.N.’ pinned to their mutilated bodies,”  writes Paul Johnson in Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (1991).  Equally important, the F.L.N. set up an “Algerian” government in Cairo to broadcast their views to their comrades in Algeria and lead the diplomatic fight for Algerian independence in the fledgling United Nations. The F.L.N. courted the favor of international opinion and persuaded then- Senator John F. Kennedy in 1957 to voice a need for Algerian independence. The F.L.N. also worked within the borders of France itself, shaking down the hundreds of thousands of poorly paid Algerian workers living in France to provide money to be used in the war effort abroad.

The French Military

Not all French army combatants were the same.  After the first line of defense of civil police, the gendarmes, tried in vain to contain the unrest, France quickly escalated by sending 200,000 French troops and additional regiments of paratroopers, the toughest and best trained men of the French army.  Many of their commanders were seasoned veterans of World War II (including members of the French Resistance), and the campaigns in French Indochina, with the latter anxious to redeem their French military honor after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

At times, the French Army was very effective in controlling the independence movement. It blocked the flow of arms and men from Tunisia into Algeria along a 200-mile, eight-foot electric fence known as the Morrice Line. The army had been successful in controlling the Casbah in the Battle of Algiers (aided by torture in its interrogations) and in using attack helicopters in search and destroy missions they were successful in controlling the Armée de Libération Nationale, or A.L.N. — the internal guerrilla forces that controlled the mountains and deserted areas of Algeria away from the coast. Though the A.L.N. and the F.L.N. were both fighting for Algerian independence, the A.L.N. received more of the direct wrath of the French military. Adding to their difficulties, when leaders of the A.L.N. tried to negotiate a peace with the French, the F.L.N found out about it and had the negotiators murdered.

The army was in constant disagreement with the French government and the colonial Algerian government. The army remained loyal to France but as the politicians and the population in France began to vacillate, the commanders felt betrayed and sought to take matters into their own hands, culminating in an unsuccessful six-day putsch by four French generals in Algiers in April of 1961.

The Pieds Noirs or Colons

Another major player were the colons (colonists) or pieds noirs (a reference to the black shoes of the French military, and a disparaging reference made by citizens in France to the black feet of colonists burned by the African sun). Not all the pieds noirs were better off economically than the Arabs in terms of land ownership and Horne draws a parallel to the poor pieds noirs and white working poor that was violently opposed to Civil Rights in the American South. As the war progressed, the pieds noirs would take matters into their own hands, culminating in the uprising by colon extremists known as the Ultras, who barricaded the streets in defiance of the French military in January of 1960. Later, these Ultras formed the nucleus toofan even more violent sect, the Organisation Armée Secrète, or the O.A.S.

The burden of the Algerian war claimed France’s Fourth Republic as one of its casualties leaving the country without a government for 37 days in May of 1958 and bringing World War II hero Charles d Gaulle out of retirement (which he orchestrated).  De Gaulle was made Prime Minister and then President after he wrote a new constitution – the framework of the Fifth Republic.  

A Savage War for Peace provides an excellent opportunity to become reacquainted — or, rather, acquainted (as the case as it was with me) — with the enigmatic de Gaulle, who assumed responsibility for the problem and had already decided in his own mind in 1958 that Algerian independence was inevitable. His plan, which he revealed only in bits and pieces, was that France (especially the army) still had too much emotionally invested in Algeria just to leave and that he had to withdraw slowly. He explains:

Were I to announce my intentions point-blank, there was no doubt there that the sea of ignorant fear, of shocked surprise, of concerted malevolence through which I was navigating would cause such a tidal wave of alarms and passions in every walk of life that the ship would capsize. I must therefore maneuver without changing course, until such time as, unmistakably common sense broke through the mists… (380-1)

Of course, the army and the pieds noirs, were not quite so understanding. By December of 1960, there had been two attempts on de Gaulle’s life, followed a few months later by a serious attempt to overthrow the government in the aforementioned generals’ putsch.  

It wasn’t until 1962 that the de Gaulle government reached a ceasefire settlement with the F.L.N., but not before a newly formed extremist group, the O.A.S., made up of pied noir Ultras and angry soldiers stepped up murders and bombings to a new level of violence in both Algeria and a weary France. By the time de Gaulle reached an agreement with the F.L.N., he had no leverage to negotiate with the victors – no protection for the pieds noirs, no protection for Muslims who supported the French (known as harkis), limited access to the newly discovered oil in the Sahara, and a short lease for Mers-el-Kébir, a major French naval base on the Algerian coast.  It was complete defeat and the pieds noirs were left with no choice but to leave a country many of them had lived in for generations. In one of the greatest betrayals, the harkis had no opportunity to leave, and the French essentially sealed the fate of an estimated 30,000 to 150,000 people who subsequently were murdered by the new regime.  

Distant Lessons

What vaulted A Savage War of Peace to prominence in recent times was Horne’s relationship with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who considered Horne to help him write his biography (which ended up as Kissinger, 1973: The Crucial Year). In vetting Horne, Kissinger read A Savage War of Peace and then recommended it to George W. Bush for its parallels to the current war in Iraq.  One takeaway from Horne is that he thinks the use of torture, most notably by the French in the Battle of Algiers and other engagements, was bad strategy. (Of course, framing it this way risks trivializing the suffering of the victims.) Torture galvanized the Algerian populace against the French and often the information extracted was dubious in its accuracy, at best. Also, once word of the abuses got back to France, it caused the home front to reassess what exactly the French were trying to accomplish, and at what price.

The most important takeaway is the concept of Interlocuteurs Valables or acceptable representatives. In short, if moderates or those who can see both sides of the picture do not survive, the conflict extends. This was true in Algeria as the F.L.N. eliminated compromising opposition (as with the A.L.N) and how Ultras pushed the French government and the army in delaying the decisions that would bring the peace or at least a settlement. Paul Johnson writes throughout Modern Times in the history of the 20th century that a common terrorist or revolutionary tactic was for radicals to eliminate the moderates because it paved the way for their own agenda and Algeria was no different.

It is important to grasp that the object, from start to finish was not to defeat the French army. That would have been impossible.  The aim was to destroy the concept of assimilation and multi-racism by eliminating the moderates on both sides.

Algeria serves as another example that in a polarized political landscape – to some degree that we are experiencing in recent U.S. history —  that those on the opposite end of the spectrum share only one common belief: drowning out the moderate voices in the national discourse.

For both Horne and Johnson, the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature winner the Albert Camus (1913-1960) characterized the voice of the moderate in Algeria. Born of French parents in a small coastal town in Algeria, Camus enjoyed the privileges of full French citizenship unlike the Arabs, but lived in suffocating poverty, nonetheless. (His partially completed autobiography The First Man – published posthumously in 1994 – provides a glimpse into this world). Though a pied noir himself, Camus had still long advocated for more rights for Algerians before the war (albeit somewhat blind to the plight of the Arabs in his literature, Horne argues).   In 1958, while on one his last visits to Algeria Camus was shouted down by both the F.L.N and the pied noir mobs – such of the plight of the moderate – and he realized there was no hope that a civil truce could be reached before a the country reached a full-scale civil war. “I thought myself to speak in the name of reason,” Camus wrote a friend in 1958, “but all that is out of date and passion carries everything before it.”

Final Thoughts

For the past three years, I’ve selected as my offering to the Dog Days Classics catalog a long definitive history of some long, dreadful war that I knew relatively little about. Two years ago, it was Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988), and last year it was David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2007).  Both filled in major gaps in my understanding of how the United States’ misguided policies have had devastating and lasting effects on a particular part of the world.

The Horne book is especially dense and challenging because, except for Charles de Gaulle, I knew next to nothing about any of the principals. Fortunately, Horne is a patient and thorough writer. His prose and ability to pull out these minor heroes and step back to see the bigger picture keep the narrative moving. Reading aides include a glossary of terms and abbreviations, a detailed index, maps, and a chronology of events are very much appreciated. Because of its seemingly distant topic, the complex history, the endless slaughter and cruelty, The Savage War of Peace, Algeria 1954-1962 sometimes requires a little more will to read than want to read.  But that willingness is what it qualifies it for a Dog Days Classic – the wherewithal to grind through another story of human suffering in hopes that, maybe, we can learn something that can help us avoid the next human catastrophe or recognize the one looming right in front of us.

Murray Browne lives and writes in Decatur, Georgia. His latest book Down and Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire is available on Amazon.