Conduct of the War
From its origins in 1954 as ragtag maquisards numbering
in the hundreds and armed with a motley assortment of hunting
rifles and discarded French, German, and United States light weapons,
the ALN had evolved by 1957 into a disciplined fighting force
of nearly 40,000. More than 30,000 were organized along conventional
lines in external units that were stationed in Moroccan and Tunisian
sanctuaries near the Algerian border, where they served primarily
to divert some French manpower from the main theaters of guerrilla
activity to guard against infiltration. The brunt of the fighting
was borne by the internals in the wilayat; estimates
of the numbers of internals range from 6,000 to more than 25,000,
with thousands of part-time irregulars.
During 1956 and 1957, the ALN successfully applied hit-and- run
tactics according to the classic canons of guerrilla warfare.
Specializing in ambushes and night raids and avoiding direct contact
with superior French firepower, the internal forces targeted army
patrols, military encampments, police posts, and colon farms,
mines, and factories, as well as transportation and communications
facilities. Once an engagement was broken off, the guerrillas
merged with the population in the countryside. Kidnapping was
commonplace, as were the ritual murder and mutilation of captured
French military, colons of both genders and every age, suspected
collaborators, and traitors. At first, the revolutionary forces
targeted only Muslim officials of the colonial regime; later,
they coerced or killed even those civilians who simply refused
to support them. Moreover, during the first two years of the conflict,
the guerrillas killed about 6,000 Muslims and 1,000 Europeans.
Although successful in engendering an atmosphere of fear and
uncertainty within both communities in Algeria, the revolutionaries'
coercive tactics suggested that they had not as yet inspired the
bulk of the Muslim people to revolt against French colonial rule.
Gradually, however, the FLN/ALN gained control in certain sectors
of the Aurès, the Kabylie, and other mountainous areas around
Constantine and south of Algiers and Oran. In these places, the
ALN established a simple but effective--although frequently temporary--military
administration that was able to collect taxes and food and to
recruit manpower. But it was never able to hold large fixed positions.
Muslims all over the country also initiated underground social,
judicial, and civil organizations, gradually building their own
The loss of competent field commanders both on the battlefield
and through defections and political purges created difficulties
for the FLN. Moreover, power struggles in the early years of the
war split leadership in the wilayat, particularly in
the Aurès. Some officers created their own fiefdoms, using units
under their command to settle old scores and engage in private
wars against military rivals within the ALN. Although identified
and exploited by French intelligence, factionalism did not materially
impair the overall effectiveness of ALN military operations.
To increase international and domestic French attention to their
struggle, the FLN decided to bring the conflict to the cities
and to call a nationwide general strike. The most notable manifestation
of the new urban campaign was the Battle of Algiers, which began
on September 30, 1956, when three women placed bombs at three
sites including the downtown office of Air France. The ALN carried
out an average of 800 shootings and bombings per month through
the spring of 1957, resulting in many civilian casualties and
inviting a crushing response from the authorities. The 1957 general
strike, timed to coincide with the UN debate on Algeria, was imposed
on Muslim workers and businesses. General Jacques Massu, who was
instructed to use whatever methods were necessary to restore order
in the city, frequently fought terrorism with acts of terrorism.
Using paratroopers, he broke the strike and systematically destroyed
the FLN infrastructure there. But the FLN had succeeded in showing
its ability to strike at the heart of French Algeria and in rallying
a mass response to its appeals among urban Muslims. Moreover,
the publicity given the brutal methods used by the army to win
the Battle of Algiers, including the widespread use of torture,
cast doubt in France about its role in Algeria.
Despite complaints from the military command in Algiers, the
French government was reluctant for many months to admit that
the Algerian situation was out of control and that what was viewed
officially as a pacification operation had developed into a major
colonial war. By 1956 France had committed more than 400,000 troops
to Algeria. Although the elite airborne units and the Foreign
Legion received particular notoriety, approximately 170,000 of
the regular French army troops in Algeria were Muslim Algerians,
most of them volunteers. France also sent air force and naval
units to the Algerian theater.
The French army resumed an important role in local Algerian administration
through the Special Administration Section (Section Administrative
Spécialisée--SAS), created in 1955. The SAS's mission was to establish
contact with the Muslim population and weaken nationalist influence
in the rural areas by asserting the "French presence" there. SAS
officers--called képis bleus (blue caps)--also recruited
and trained bands of loyal Muslim irregulars, known as harkis.
Armed with shotguns and using guerrilla tactics similar to those
of the ALN, the harkis, who eventually numbered about
150,000 volunteers, were an ideal instrument of counterinsurgency
Late in 1957, General Raoul Salan, commanding the French army
in Algeria, instituted a system of quadrillage, dividing
the country into sectors, each permanently garrisoned by troops
responsible for suppressing rebel operations in their assigned
territory. Salan's methods sharply reduced the instances of FLN
terrorism but tied down a large number of troops in static defense.
Salan also constructed a heavily patrolled system of barriers
to limit infiltration from Tunisia and Morocco. The best known
of these was the Morice Line (named for the French defense minister,
André Morice), which consisted of an electrified fence, barbed
wire, and mines over a 320-kilometer stretch of the Tunisian border.
The French military command ruthlessly applied the principle
of collective responsibility to villages suspected of sheltering,
supplying, or in any way cooperating with the guerrillas. Villages
that could not be reached by mobile units were subject to aerial
bombardment. The French also initiated a program of concentrating
large segments of the rural population, including whole villages,
in camps under military supervision to prevent them from aiding
the rebels--or, according to the official explanation, to protect
them from FLN extortion. In the three years (1957-60) during which
the regroupement program was followed, more than 2 million
Algerians were removed from their villages, mostly in the mountainous
areas, and resettled in the plains, where many found it impossible
to reestablish their accustomed economic or social situations.
Living conditions in the camps were poor. Hundreds of empty villages
were devastated, and in hundreds of others orchards and croplands
were destroyed. These population transfers apparently had little
strategic effect on the outcome of the war, but the disruptive
social and economic effects of this massive program continued
to be felt a generation later.
The French army shifted its tactics at the end of 1958 from dependence
on quadrillage to the use of mobile forces deployed on
massive search-and-destroy missions against ALN strongholds. Within
the next year, Salan's successor, General Maurice Challe, appeared
to have suppressed major rebel resistance. But political developments
had already overtaken the French army's successes.
Data as of December 1993