A New Front

Mohamed_Boudiaf Wiki commons
Mohammed Boudiaf in his younger years. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The original architect of the FLN was in some senses Messali Hadj, the now twenty year veteran of nationalist campaigns who had little to show for it.[1] His newest party the MTLD was still mostly chasing independence through direct action and the ballot, but Hadj was aware the younger generation was frustrated by his approach. As a way to keep more volatile elements inside his tent, Hadj formed a new militant wing known as the Organization Specionale (OS). Never more than a thousand strong, the OS quickly attracted the attention of Naegelen and the French authorities. In 1950 they struck hard, jailing more than half of the OS. Rather than stand by his beleaguered party members Hadj cut ties with them. This left survivors like Mohammed Boudiaf alone to forge their own way. Together with a handful of friends, all young, many army veterans, he broke off completely and founded the somewhat Socialist FLN.[2] Before long, other members from the OS like Ahmed Ben Bella broke out of prison or reemerged from hiding to form the core membership of the new group.

Boudiaf didn’t have to look far to find other governments who saw uses for a militant organization like his; and the first in line was Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser, the new leader of Egypt. Nasser had recently overthrown Egypt’s western leaning king, and was beginning to foster ideas of pan-Arab state that appealed to nationalists like Boudiaf and the FLN. With Nasser’s blessing, Boudiaf organized his assets into two distinct groups. The ALN would fight the war inside Algeria, and the FLN’s leadership would broadcast defiantly from safe havens like Cairo and Tunisia. November 1st was their launch party, and the first time that every region in Algeria had come under simultaneous attack.

The six founding chiefs of the FLN. Rabah Bitat (back left) and Boudiaf (back right) would become presidents. Three would die before the war’s end, and the fourth was assassinated in 1970. Boudiaf was also assassinated, mid speech, in 1992. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The French reaction was initially horrified, and a little confused. Intelligence from the night before had told the authorities that “something” was coming, but the details had been too hazy to act. Nor had there been any suggestion of the grand lens the FLN saw the conflict through. Hadj’s newly remade National Algerian Movement (MNA) was targeted for a mass roundup of arrests, likely something he provoked by insinuating he had a role behind the attacks.[3] Others like Ferhat Abbas claimed no credit, but tried to capitalize on the event with their own calls for independence. As for the French and their current iteration of leaders, Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France and Algeria’s Governor-General Jacques Soustelle, there was no question of ceding Algeria. As then Interior Minister and future Prime Minister Francois Mitterand would put it, “I will not agree to negotiate with the enemies of the homeland. The only negotiation is war!”[4] With that in mind the French made their first downpayment of 50,000 troops towards the suppression of Algeria.

Soon French troops were rolling around the Algerian countryside in a perpetual game of whack-a-revolutionary. Arrayed against them the ALN commander Abane Ramdane stuck to the tactic of avoiding a direct confrontation and striking at military targets when the French had their backs turned.

As 1955 ground on Prime Minister Mendes-France’s (French) government collapsed after eight months in power. But Mendes-France didn’t have far to look for his next job. The new coalition incorporated both him and Soustelle as ministers, and the campaign against the FLN continued to ramp up accordingly. Accompanying the military operations Soustelle also launched a more sophisticated campaign aimed at capturing “hearts and minds” of the Algerians. An Arabic speaker and academic, Soustelle wasn’t as removed as many of the French Algerian settlers, and calibrated his outreach to showcase what France could really do for Algeria in the future, including provisions for healthcare and infrastructure.

Paul Aussaresses in his later years. When he admitted to, among other things, torturing and personally murdering detainees in 2000 he was stripped of his former rank and medals. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

Needless to say, a weightless conflict and France’s more obvious commitment to Algerian’s welfare didn’t exactly fit the narrative the FLN were hoping for. Hard pressed from the start, the commander of the Constantine region decided it was time to expand the conflict in the most polarizing way possible. They picked the mid-sized town of Philippeville for a target, and began seeding the community and the surrounding countryside with commando units. The buildup didn’t go unnoticed by the region’s new intelligence officer Paul Aussaresses,[5] and the French began to quietly prepare their own defenses inside the town.

Even as the FLN found their attack on August 20 mostly contained by the French, their strategic goals were achieved in a series of horrific attacks on pieds noirs in the region. Some of these killings were done by the FLN themselves, but others were the product of the mob violence the FLN had actively encouraged; in some cases by suggesting the Egyptians had landed an army to support the liberation of Algeria. Within Philippeville proper 123 pieds noirs and Muslim authorities were murdered. In Constantine proper one of the victims was the nephew of Ferhat Abbas.

In the town of El-Halia 37 civilians, including ten children, were found brutally hacked to death before French reinforcements could quell the violence. One woman, Marie-Jeanne Pusceddu, had just been married the week before,

“We locked the house, but the fellaghas [FLN troops] broke the door down with an ax. To our amazement, it was C., the taxi driver, our ‘friend’ who had attended my wedding. I still remember this as if it were yesterday. He followed us to the bedroom, to the living room, then into the kitchen and we were trapped. C., with his shotgun, harangued us. He immediately shot my poor mother in the chest, she tried to protect my little brother Roland. She died on the spot with Roland in her arms, also severely injured. My sister Rose was killed with a shot in the back. She kept her baby against the wall, my younger sister Olga threw herself in hysterics on the gun he fired at close range, wounding her badly.”[6]

It was equally clear that many of the women had been gang raped before they had been killed, often while their husbands had been at work in the nearby mines. As one grieving husband relayed this story in graphic detail at his wife’s funeral, the attendees stormed out in a rage and murdered the first seven Muslim Algerians they found. The French army’s reaction was no more restrained. Crowds were indiscriminately shot by French troops. In Constantine hundreds of men between 14 and 70 were herded into a football stadium and massacred. As one soldier later relayed, “for two hours all we heard was fire into the crowd”.[7]

As with Setif and Guelma, the horror of the atrocities inflicted on the pieds noirs and their allies had prompted an even more vicious French response. Even by Soustelle’s admission, the backlash had been “severe”, with anywhere from 1,200 (French guess)-12,000 (FLN guess) Muslim Algerians killed. Nor did the Muslim community fail to note that the French response to any pieds noirs exacting their own, equally violent, brand of vigilante justice was muted at best. No matter what carrots were offered now, the FLN had irreparably severed the already tenuous relationship between the European and Algerian communities. As the French declared a state of emergency and called in the first reserve troops, the war began to spiral out of control.

[1] First President of Algeria Ben Bella would later write an ode to Hadj, long after the former rival had died.

[2] “Somewhat” is important here. One of the many criticisms thrown at Hadj was his rigid secular revolutionary stance. The FLN would embrace a modernistic interpretation of Islam as a third peg in their ideological tent, both to bring in new blood and to distinguish their case from the French.

[3] Hadj had come round to the idea of violent revolution, which may have helped the French decide he needed another stint in jail at this point.

[4] Aussaresses, P. 2000. Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957. New York Times Books. Paul Aussaresses’ memoir of the fight for Algiers, which was read closely by U.S. intelligence prior to the invasion of Iraq. Not read as closely: Aussaresses’ suggestion that French supporters of Algerian independence would have to be assassinated, or the fact that he personally admitted to executing 24 FLN prisoners.

[5] “new” in this case meaning both “new to the unit” and also “new to the job”. Aussaresses had pretty much arrived on the scene and been told he was an intelligence officer. He took to the role with unsettling talent.

[6] Beach Combing. 2013. Blood at El-Halia. Strange History, Available at: http://www.strangehistory.net/2013/06/13/memories-of-el-halia/

[7] Horne, A. 2006. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962.


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