Battle of Philippeville

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Coordinates: 36°52′22.2″N 6°54′35.9″E / 36.872833°N 6.909972°E / 36.872833; 6.909972

The Battle of Philippeville
Part of Algerian War
Date20 August 1955
Result French military victory but breakdown in inter-communal relations
FLN  France

The Battle of Philippeville was part of the Algerian War between France and Algerian rebels, primarily the National Liberation Front (FLN) The battle took place on August 20, 1955 and centered on the Algerian town of Philippeville, though the FLN also made attacks on surrounding areas.


Algeria was officially part of France from 1848 onward.[1] During the 19th century, there had occurred a massive immigration of French, Maltese, Italian, Spanish and other European settlers to Algeria who were known either as the pied-noirs or the colons, and who enjoyed all the rights of being French citizens.[2] French policies during the 19th century encouraged the dispossession of Muslim farmers who were pushed off their land to allow their land to be handed over to European settlers, who usually took the best land for themselves.[3] This led to much resentment on the part of the Algerian Muslims who complained the prosperous farms owned by the pied-noirs had once belonged to their families. Within the pied-noir community, there was always in the words of the British historian Martin Evans a "siege mentality" where the colons saw themselves as surrounded by a hostile Muslim population that was perpetually ready to massacre them at the first chance.[4]

The Muslim population of Algeria, whether Arab or Berber, were treated as second-class citizens and despite the fact that Algeria was considered an integral part of France were not allowed to vote.[5] Even after the Muslim population was given the right to vote in 1944, many Muslims complained of widespread discrimination with the electoral districts gerrymandered to ensure the Pied Noirs held the majority of the seats despite being a minority. Increasingly many Algerian Muslims started to reach the conclusion that the French would never allow them real equality, and the solution was independence for Algeria. By mid-20th century, the pied-noir families had been living in Algeria for over a century, and for them Algeria was the only home they had ever known; the place they had been born in, grew up and where they planned to spend the rest of their lives. For the colons, the possibility of Algerian independence was regarded with horror as they feared what their fate would be under Muslim rule. Relations between the pied-noirs and the Muslims were unfriendly at best, and despite the harmony on the surface, both communities believed the worse about the other.


The Algerian War had begun on November 1, 1954 when the first major attack of the FLN was launched, consisting of "scores of scores of spectacular attacks".[6] The conflict began to escalate, as evidenced by the remarks of the Socialist Minister of the Interior, François Mitterrand: "I will not agree to negotiate with the enemies of the homeland. The only negotiation is war!"[7] The French adopted an increasingly aggressive policy in Algeria, and in early March 1955, the French government of Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France was replaced by that of Edgar Faure.

To help combat the insurgency, General Paul Aussaresses was dispatched to restart the intelligence unit from scratch, which had been disbanded during peacetime.[8] Aussaresses set up the unit and started to collect intelligence and establish a network of informants and field agents. The FLN had been hard-pressed by the relentless attacks on the French Army, and two leaders of the FLN, namely Zighoud Youcef and Lakhdar Ben Tobbal decided that a spectacularly brutal operation in Philippeville would not only relieve the pressure on the FLN forces elsewhere, but also attract worldwide attention to their cause and create a situation in Algeria where one could either be for the FLN or the French.[9] Even as late as 1955, there still moderates within the Muslim community were not prepared to give up on the French, and who believed it still possible for the Muslims to become French citizens in practice as well as in theory. Youcef and Tobbal wanted to create a situation to polarize the Muslim community between those who supported the French and those supported the FLN, and to discredit the moderates who still believed that if Paris changed its policies the Muslims could become full French citizens.[9] The Philippeville region had been chosen because tensions between the Muslims and pied-noirs were especially intense in the area which was well known in Algeria as a hotbed of ethnic and religious hatred and because many Muslims had lost family members during the Sétif and Guelma massacre of 8 May 1945 in the adjuring Constantine department.[10]

The battle[edit]

Aussaresses was surprised by a set of attacks the FLN launched on June 18, 1955, which his intelligence unit had not heard anything about beforehand. Aussaresses knew that the FLN was planning something when one of his informers, an Arab baker in Philippeville, told him that he used to sell on average a sack of flour every three days, but was now selling two tons of flour everyday, to men whom he did not know and only paid cash.[11] From this, Aussaresses deducted that the spike in flour sales must have been because the FLN was concentrating men in the hills above Philippeville, which only mean an operation was due to start soon.[11] After this, a more proactive policy was adopted, which resulted in the discovery of the FLN's plan to launch a massive frontal assault on August 20 at noon, with the primary objective of taking Philippeville. The FLN was not powerful enough to capture a large city, such as the capital at Algiers, but Philippeville was a mid-sized town and an important port city.

In the days immediately before the attack, FLN commandos took up positions in cellars within the town, while several thousand more fellagha prepared to attack the French garrison troops in Philippeville, which numbered about 400.[12] The French quietly prepared for the anticipated attack, not even acting against the commandos who they knew were there, for fear that the FLN would realize their plan had been discovered.

Fighting first broke out during an hour before the planned attack, when the deputy police commissioner in charge of public safety, Superintendent Filiberti, took four of his men outside the town to make an unrelated arrest. The small police detachment was ambushed by about 500 fellagha, but was able to escape to Philippeville. The main attack began on the town around noon, and the fellagha.[citation needed] attacked without any regard for their own safety. The FLN had informed the local Muslims that an Egyptian force had landed on the coast and soon the French would be expelled from Algeria.[9] Chanting "jihad!" over and over again, thousands of local Muslim peasants armed with clubs, sticks, axes, knives and pitchforks descended upon Philippeville with the intention of killing as many of the French as possible.[13] The FLN attacking forces and hidden commandos came up against unexpected French defensive positions both within and around the town. One hundred and thirty-four fellagha were killed in the streets of Philippeville, and several hundred more wounded. Seventy-one French civilians were killed by the FLN as well as were 52 Muslims. The latter included prominent local politicians as well as other Muslims considered as collaborators by the FLN.[14]

While the main assault was going on, there were also side actions in the countryside around Constantine. One was an attack on El-Halia, a sulphur-mining community where 130 Europeans had lived with about 2,000 Algerian Muslims in peace. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was an outspoken supporter of the FLN and Radio Cairo regularly broadcast messages calling on the Arabs of Algeria to rise up against the French. Shortly before noon on 20 August four groups of fifteen to twenty FLN commandos each, accompanied by local Muslims went from house to house in the European quarter of the village. Thirty-seven European civilians were killed, including ten children.[15] [15] A further thirteen were left for dead.[16] The men were off working in the mines when the fellagha attacked and some were dragged from their cars and killed as they returned home for their midday meal. Only six families who barricaded themselves in a single house with sporting weapons escaped unscathed. Weapons at the mine were locked up because the person in charge of the key had gone to the beach.

Three hours later, French paratroops from Philippeville arrived in El-Halia supported by military aircraft. Initially ordered to take no prisoners, the paratroops subsequently gathered about 150 Muslims together and the next morning carried out a mass execution of them.[17][18] After the French forces had crushed the FLN, a series of killing of Muslims broke out with French troops summarily executing 80 Muslim Algerians at Philippeville in public who were suspected of being involved in the killings of the pied-noirs.[15] At the funeral of one pied-noir woman killed by the FLN, her husband gave an emotional eulogy about his love for his wife followed up by an explicit description of how she was first gang-raped, then had her vagina mutilated before being allowed to bleed to death.[failed verification] After the funeral ended, members of the funeral party as they left the church lynched the first seven Muslims on the street that they encountered.[15] The lynchings were the beginning of a pogrom where the pied-noirs went about revenging the massacre committed by the FLN by killing as many Muslims as possible while the French Army stood by and watched.[15] The massacre of hundreds of Muslims by pied-noir vigilantes in Philippville's football stadium was the highlight of the killings with many colons coming out to watch the killings.[19] Hundreds of Muslims fled to the mountains to escape the massacre and many of the men joined the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), the armed wing of the FLN.[19] The French Army made no attempt to stop the killings and afterwards, the French authorities made no effort to prosecute those colons who killed Muslims during the pogrom.


The effect of the killings by both sides in Philippville, El-Halia and elsewhere was to destroy any hope of inter-communal reconciliation. For many in the Muslim community of Algeria, the massacre committed by the pied-noirs against the Muslims with the French Army standing by indifferently, proved the FLN's claim that the French were all irredeemably racist and that there was no hope of the French ever extending equality to the Muslims of Algeria.[15] One prominent Algerian Muslim leader, Mohammed Bendjelloul who had long believed it was possible for the Algerian Muslims to become French citizens just like any other traveled to Paris on 3 September 1955 to tell the French Premier Edgar Faure that almost nobody within the Algerian Muslim community now believed that the French would ever treat the Algerian Muslims equally, and that thousands of young Muslim men were now joining the FLN.[20] A group of 61 prominent Algerian Muslim leaders, who had were considered to be moderates who believed it was possible for Algerian Muslims to become French by adopting the French language wrote a public declaration "condemning the blind repression" in Philippeville, declared that French government's policy of integration of Algerian Muslims to be a fraud, and wrote that thanks to the massacre of Muslims in Philippeville that the vast majority of Algerians were now nationalists who believed in the "idée nationale algérienne" ("Algerian national ideal").[20]

The colons of Philippeville produced a pamphlet about the "French Algeria's martyrs" that was sent to all of the mayors in metropolitan France.[15] The pamphlet included gruesome photos of the pied-noirs killed in Philippville with pictures of men castrated, women disemboweled and children mutilated before being hacked to death along with the simple message that to negotiate with the FLN would be an insult to those pied-noirs butchered in Philippville.[15] For the pied-noirs who were the most fervent believers in Algérie française, there could be no negotiations with the brutally terroristic FLN, which they wanted to see ruthlessly crushed. Already there were fears within the pied-noir community that not everyone in metropolitan France was as committed to the ideal of Algérie française as they would have liked. The French administration allowed pied-noir settlers to arm themselves and form self-defense units, measures which had been vetoed by the reformist governor-general Jacques Soustelle a few months earlier. Visiting Philippeville Soustelle recorded that now "the Europeans saw terrorists in every Muslim, the Muslims feared reprisals by the Europeans."[17] European vigilante groups are reported to have subsequently carried out summary killings of Muslims. A defeat in military terms, the Battle of Philippeville was politically a great victory for the FLN as the operation achieved its purpose, namely in the words of the French historian C.R Ageron it "provoked the desired split between Muslims and Europeans...the latter regarding all Muslims as rebels while the Muslims came to regard...the ALN as Mujahadin [The term Mujahideen or mujahadin in the Algerian dialect of Arabic means "warriors of Allah", describing those who in fight in jihad].[19] In 1959, in a survey of literature written about the Algerian War from 1954 to the present entitled A Survey of French North-West Africa, the British journalist Neville Barbour described a "moat of blood" created at Philippeville that made any sort of understanding between the Muslim and pied-noir communities almost impossible.[21]

Death toll[edit]

The French authorities stated that seventy-one Europeans and fifty-two Muslims were killed by the FLN-led mob on 20 August, while 1,273 Muslims died in what Soustelle admitted were "severe" reprisals. The FLN subsequently claimed that 12,000 Muslims were killed[22]


  1. ^ page 164, Volume 13, Encyclopædia Britannica Macropaedia, 15th Edition
  2. ^ Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 pages 20 & 25-27.
  3. ^ Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 pages 23-24.
  4. ^ Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 pages 32-33.
  5. ^ Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 page 20.
  6. ^ Aussaresses, Paul The Battle of the Casbah, New York: Enigma Books, 2006 page 1
  7. ^ Aussaresses, Paul The Battle of the Casbah, New York: Enigma Books, 2006 page 2
  8. ^ Aussaresses, Paul The Battle of the Casbah, New York: Enigma Books, 2006 page 11
  9. ^ a b c Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 page 140.
  10. ^ Githens-Mazer, Jonathan "The Blowback of Repression and the Dynamics of North African Radicalization" pages 1015-1029 from International Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 5, September 2009 page 1019.
  11. ^ a b Brass, Martin (November 2001). "Torture to Prevent Terrorism? Interview with a French Master Torturer". Retrieved 2016-10-25.
  12. ^ Aussaresses, Paul The Battle of the Casbah, New York: Enigma Books, 2006 page 35.
  13. ^ Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 pages 140-141.
  14. ^ Adam Shatz, “The Torture of Algiers,” NY Review of Books, volume 49, number 18, 21 November 2002.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 page 141.
  16. ^ Horne, Alistair (2006). A Savage War of Peace. NYRB Classics. pp. 120–1. ISBN 978-1590172186.
  17. ^ a b Horne, Alistair A Savage War of Peace, New York, NYRB Classics, 2006 page 121
  18. ^ Gisèle Halimi, Milk for the Orange Tree, page 114
  19. ^ a b c Githens-Mazer, Jonathan "The Blowback of Repression and the Dynamics of North African Radicalization" pages 1015-1029 from International Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 5, September 2009 page 1020.
  20. ^ a b Evans, Martin Algeria: France's Undeclared War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012 page 142.
  21. ^ Brett, Michael "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: The Algerian War of Independence in Retrospect" pages 217-235 from The Journal of African History, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1994 page 218.
  22. ^ Horne, Alistair A Savage War of Peace, New York, NYRB Classics, 2006 page 122.