This Week in History

Algerian War ends (19 March)

This bloody war started in 1954 and ultimately cost the lives of almost half a million Algerians, along with 25,000 French troops and 3,600 European settlers. Close to 1.5 million settlers also suffered exile at the end of the war, and about 100,000 Muslims were slaughtered by the FLN as revenge for perceived ‘collaboration’. The effects of the war in France were also dramatic, as the country teetered on the brink of military coup d’etat and the Fourth Republic fell. The repercussions continued into the late twentieth century, as various fundamentalist Islamic groups clashed with the Algerian government, leading to civil war between 1991 and 2002. The following extracts from Men at Arms 312: The Algerian War 1954–62 describe the background and harsh reality of one of the most bitter conflicts of modern times.

The Algeria of the 1950s


By the early 1950s Algeria had enjoyed for nearly a century the official status of ‘France overseas’ — a constitutional fiction to which many Frenchmen clung passionately, ostensibly justified by the parliamentary representation in Paris of her three departments (from west to east, Oran, Algiers and Constantine, popularly called the Oranais, Algerois and Constantinois). However, only a tiny minority of the Muslim population held French citizenship rights or significant property. Since the initial French landings in 1830 on a coastline under the nominal authority of the decaying Ottoman Empire, a vast, unexploited, and more or less chaotic tribal hinterland had been transformed into France’s largest colony: a source of cheap agricultural produce, and a captive market for French manufacturers.

The Muslim population had exploded to some eight million, at a time when France had a weak economy and runaway inflation. Some 75 per cent of Muslims were illiterate; they suffered chronic unemployment, poor health, and real hunger. The great majority of those who did have work were peasant farmers or urban labourers scraping a subsistence in more or less abject poverty.

Although outright banditry was far from unknown in remote areas, few Muslims were involved in politically motivated subversion. Rural villages accepted the authority of traditional community elders, whose obedience to the often distant French administration was rewarded by petty privileges. The older generation were often genuinely loyal to France, the
caids (chieftains) and rural constables wearing their World War medals with pride; activists contemptuously dismissed this class as the Beni Oui-Oui, the ‘Yes-Yes Tribe’. The urban poor were more restive; trade unions provided some focus of discontent, although the Communist Party was never strong. However, pressure for Muslim rights — either internal self-government, independence, or even complete integration with France — had long been building up among the small but significant academic and professional class which had benefited from French education.

Although the strains had become more mixed in the towns, an age-old suspicion persisted between the highland Berbers of the Aurès and Kabylia and the lowland Arabs. The Berbers were the poorer and more warlike of the two communities; but Algerians in general have been characterized by their own writers as tough, stoic, proud, stubborn, secretive, violently quarrelsome, and unforgiving — ‘a people of right-angles, without curves’.

They were also given to extreme physical cruelty. Torture was commonplace; the knife — to cut throats, and to inflict appalling mutilations as a warning to others — was the weapon of choice (throat-cutting is associated with sheep-killing, and is thus a deliberately insulting death). Throughout the war many more Muslims died at the hands of their fellow Algerians than of the French.

The great majority of productive land, commerce and industry, and virtually all political and administrative power lay with the long-established 1.2 million-strong European settler community (known as
colons or pieds noirs), mainly of Spanish, Italian, Corsican and Alsatian stock. Apart from a small liberal intelligentsia the colons were politically and racially conservative, their attitudes to the Muslims ranging from paternalism to callous bigotry. Although there were many colons and Muslims whose shared love for their often stunningly beautiful country brought them together in friendship, the twin walls of religion and racial injustice would always ultimately separate them.


Representative Action, Airborne Troops


An early benchmark for the tactical use of helicopter lifts was the fight between ALN [Army of National Liberation] Cdo.41 (‘Ali Khodja’) and the 3e RPC on 23-25 May 1957 near Agounenda, in the foothills fringing the great agricultural plain of the Mitidja south of the capital. In early May Cdo.41 had routed a Spahi unit, killing 60 for the loss of only seven; a fortnight later they ambushed the 5e BTA, killing a captain and 15 men and persuading others to defect. Intelligence suggested that Cdo.41 would now head west, escorting Wilaya 4 commanders to a rendezvous with other forces near Médéa; and Lt.Col. Bigeard picked Agounenda on the Oued Boulbane, a known ALN route, for an ambush. Trucked from their base at Sidi-Ferruch to Hill 895 by 0130hrs on 23 May, Bigeard’s 700 paras made a cold, four-hour night approach march over rough terrain under strict noise and light discipline. Before dawn they were in place and concealed. The HQ and mortars were on Hill 1298; the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cos. and the Recce Sqn. (on foot) were spread over 10km on four crests overlooking the enemy’s probable route; the 4th and Support Cos. were in reserve, and helicopters and ground-attack aircraft were on stand-by at Médéa.

At 1030hrs the most northerly and exposed company (3rd, ‘Blue’, under Capt. Llamby) radioed sighting a large ALN force approaching his position above the north bank of the Oued Boulbane from the east; at 1045 he opened fire. Already warned by a shepherd, Si Azzedine — leading a column of at least three companies — was attempting to outflank the paras from the north. Llamby, his 100 men outnumbered three to one, came under fierce pressure. The helicopters were already on their way; Bigeard immediately ordered the Support Co. lifted onto high ground north of 3rd Company. The first sticks jumped from the doors at 1055; the whole company was in action by 1130. While the 1st and 2nd Cos. force-marched across country to the support of the 3rd, the Sikorskys lifted the unengaged Recce Sqn. and 4th Co. slightly north-east of Llamby’s battle.

Unaccountably, the ALN took to the low-lying Oued Boulbane, dominated from higher ground by the paras — 3rd, 4th, Support and Recce north of it, and 1st, 2nd and HQ to the south. In a series of running battles over some 30 square kilometres, which lasted 48 hours, Cdo. 41 and at least two other katibas made several vigorous counterattacks which came to hand-to-hand fighting. Despite the support of tactical aircraft the paras were too thinly stretched to maintain a tight cordon, however, and some 200 ALN eventually managed to slip away. They left 96 dead and a dozen prisoners, but carried off all but 45 weapons and most of their wounded; the paras lost 8 dead and 29 wounded.

If the French were encouraged by the success of battlefield air portability, the ALN took from Agounenda the lesson that large-scale confrontations in the heart of the countryside must be avoided at all costs. Even when they did occur, however, the paras did not always pay such a low price for victory. For instance, during the ‘Battle of Souk-Ahras’ just inside the Morice Line on 29 April 1958, the 3e Cie./9e RCP, air-lifted onto the Djebel Mouadjene, was surrounded by superior numbers in thick brush which hampered air support, and suffered nearly 30% dead and 30% wounded.


Further reading

Men at Arms 325: French Foreign Legion 1914–45 describes the uniforms, equipment and history of these elite troops during the two World Wars, illustrated with rare contemporary photographs and full-colour artwork.
Men at Arms 322: The French Indochina War 1946–54 is a detailed examination of French troops in the first of their colonial struggles of the later twentieth century.
Elite 6: French Foreign Legion Paratroops tells the story of the creation of the famous paratroops who were to play such a key role in the Algerian War.

Treaty of Paris (30 March)

In 1853, Russia drew the Ottoman Empire into a war on a superficial pretext: the Ottomans had granted Catholic France, rather than Orthodox Russia, the right to protect Ottoman controlled Christian sites in Jerusalem. The Russians claimed this was a provocation of war by the Ottomans – however their true intentions were to claim Ottoman territory.

Anxious to annex territories in Eastern Europe, particularly the provinces of Moldavia and Walachia (now in modern day Romania), Russian troops found themselves near the banks of the Black Sea, occupying parts of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks officially declared war. On 28 March 1854, looking to prevent Russian expansion, and in order to protect their lucrative trade interests in the region, Britain and France (with Austrian backing) also declared war on Russia.

The Crimean War lasted until 1856 and took place mainly on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. The war became infamous for military and logistical incompetence, epitomised by the Charge of the Light Brigade, but was one of the first conflicts to introduce tactical use of railways.

In September 1854, Allied troops invaded the Crimea, having overcome an outbreak of cholera that took a particularly heavy toll on French troops, hampering their preparations for the attack. Within a month, however, French and British troops were besieging the Russian held city of Sebastopol. The siege was to last for a year.

On 25 October 1854, the Russians were driven back at the Battle of Balaclava, despite the foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade. Eleven days later, the Battle of Inkerman was also fought with high casualties on both sides.

Notably, a violent storm on the night of 14 November 1854 wrecked nearly thirty allied vessels carrying a precious cargo of medical supplies, food and clothing. There followed a desperate winter, pitifully short of supplies, where wounded soldiers lay hungry and gravely in need of medical assistance. This ill-treatment was reported by war correspondents for newspapers from Europe to America. It prompted the work of Florence Nightingale, and led eventually to the introduction of modern nursing methods, but did little to help at the time.

British and French troops suffered immense casualties before a peace treaty was finally written. Over 111,000 British men reached the Crimea of whom, official figures state, 21,097 men died in the theatre of war and 16,323 succumbed to disease, figures that do not include those who died after returning home. The French sent out over 300,000 men of whom 30,240 were killed in action or from wounds, and possibly a further 75,000 died of disease

The French and British finally forced the fall of Sebastopol on 11 September 1855 and peace was subsequently concluded at Paris on 30 March 1856.

The final stages leading to the Treaty of Paris are described here in an extract from Essential Histories 2: The Crimean War 1854-1856

Apart from occasional, ritual exchanges of fire from batteries facing one another across the bay and occasional skirmishes in the Baidar Valley around Sevastopol, 1855 came to an inauspicious close. An enormous explosion in the French lines on 15 November, which killed 80 and wounded almost 300, resulted from mishandling of ammunition not enemy action.

In the opening weeks of 1856, typhus and cholera struck once more, especially among the French, who suffered over 50,000 cases, of which one-fifth died. Paymaster Dixon recorded in January: ‘The French are dreadfully badly off, much worse than last winter, they are dropping off in scores, nay hundreds.’ The British now had an abundance, and in some instances a surplus, of clothing and huts, and as the weather improved they began organising drag hunts and race meetings. Regimental theatres put on plays and a range of speakers delivered educational lectures, too. Militarily, the allies undertook musketry training and field exercises. But it all lacked purpose. In Dixon’s words, ‘road making here and I suppose diplomacy at home have taken its [fighting’s] place’. Soldiers and sailors were marking time until the small print of peace could be fashioned into an acceptable document. French fantasies about attacking Russia’s Polish provinces through Germany and British dreams of reducing Kronstadt and Helsignfors (Helsinki) in the Baltic provided the unrealistic backdrop for negotiation.

Almost throughout the entire war, fitful attempts at securing peace had been going on in Vienna, but during the autumn of 1855 clandestine bilateral contacts were also established between Paris and St Petersburg. Discovery of these prompted Austria to take the initiative. On 16 December 1855, Count Esterhazy led a mission to St Petersburg, which conveyed conditions for peace: confirmation of autonomy for Moldavia and Wallachia; freedom of navigation for all nations on the Danube; neutralisation of the Black Sea, with abolition of military installations on its shores; guarantee of the rights of all Christian subjects in Turkey. A fifth condition, allegedly added on British insistence, provided for further matters to be raised during subsequent talks ‘in the interest of lasting peace’. The Holy Places in Jerusalem, the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits or Sevastopol were not highlighted. In that respect, the Tsar would not be humiliated. However, if Russia did not accept the submission by 18 January, Austria threatened war.

Despite some reluctance and opposition among his ministers, two days before the deadline Alexander II accepted these terms. Count D. N. Bludov recalled Louis XIV’s resignation at the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763: ‘If we no longer have the means to make war, then let us make peace.’ The news reached Sevastopol eight days later. There was still time for forces on both sides to make military points. On 29 January, Russian guns in Sevastopol’s northern suburb let loose a vast cannonade against the Karabel and on 4 February the French destroyed Fort Nicholas. Honour seemed to be satisfied. Hostilities petered out.

The peace conference gathered in Paris on 25 February 1856, and three days later an armistice lasting until 31 March was signed. The following morning, 29 February, allied and Russian representatives met near Tractir Bridge to discuss the new situation amicably. Reviews of one another’s troops were arranged to celebrate peace, and on 24 March the British commander, Codrington, invited Russian officers to a race meeting near the Tchernaya.

The Treaty of Paris, formally bringing the Crimean War to a close, was signed on 30 March, signalled by a 101-gun salute in the Crimea on 2 April and finally ratified by signatory nations on 27 April. Its provisions referred to ‘the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire’ and the Sultan’s ‘generous intentions towards the Christian population of his empire … ameliorating their conditions without distinction of religion or race’. The Black Sea was to be neutralised, ‘in consequence [of which] His Majesty the Emperor of All the Russias and His Imperial Majesty the Sultan engage not to establish or to maintain upon that coast any military–maritime arsenal’. The principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia were to enjoy ‘the privileges and immunities of which they are in possession … under the suzerainty of the Porte … without separate right of interference in their internal affairs … by any of the Guaranteeing Powers’. The principality of Servia would ‘preserve its independence and national administration, as well as full liberty of worship, of legislation, of commerce, and of navigation’.

Prince Albert commented: ‘It is not such as we could have wished; still, infinitely to be preferred to the prosecution of war.’ Queen Victoria consoled herself with the thought that England had saved Europe from ‘the arrogance and pretensions of that barbarous power, Russia’. She ‘disliked the idea of peace’, Lord Clarendon noted, but was ‘reconciled’ to it. France had no such qualms. The Crimean War was a triumph for Napoleon III, who had ‘given France a glorious victory of arms and peace to Europe’.

Further reading

Essential Histories 2: The Crimean War 1854–1856
This bitter war between Russia and Turkey, aided by Britain and France, was the setting for the stuff of legends of which the gallant Charge of the Light Brigade is probably the best remembered, This richly illustrated book covers the battles of Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman and Sebastopol, and also offers first hand soldier and civilian accounts.

Men-at-Arms 27: The Russian Army of the Crimea
This book examines the uniforms, equipment, history and organisation of the Russian Army that fought in the Crimean War. Field army, infantry, artillery and cavalry are all covered, together with details of High Command and summaries of key battles. Uniforms are shown in full illustrated detail.

Men-at-Arms 40: The British Army of the Crimea
The British Army’s involvement in the Crimean War of 1854–56 is often remembered only for the ill-advised ‘charge of the Light Brigade’ during the battle of Sevastopol as memorialized in Tennyson’s poem. Nevertheless, the British Army, together with the French and Turkish armies, posed a formidable threat to Russia’s expansionist ambitions. This book examines the uniforms of the various branches of the British Army involved in the conflict, including general officers and staff, artillery, infantry and the most colourful branch of all – the cavalry. Numerous illustrations, including rare contemporary photographs depict the army's uniforms in vivid detail.

Men-at-Arms 196: The British Army on Campaign (2) The Crimea 1854–56
In 1854 the British Army was committed to its first major war against a European power since 1815. The ‘Army of the East’ was despatched to check, in alliance with France and later Sardinia, Russian ambitions for an outlet to the Mediterranean.

Campaign 6: Balaclava 1854: The Charge of the Light Brigade
The port of Balaclava was crucial in maintaining the supply lines for the Allied siege of Sevastapol. The Russian attack on it on 25 October 1854 therefore posed a major threat to the survival of the Allied cause. John Sweetman looks at the events, including the immortalised charge of the Light Brigade.

Campaign 51: Inkerman 1854: The Soldiers’ Battle
The third major action of the Crimean War (following Alma and Balaclava), the British victory in heavy fog at Inkerman proved to be a testament to the skill and initiative of the individual men and officers of the day: yet the Russians, although defeated, also successfully stalled a crucial allied offensive.