Dossier 1914-1918

Algerians and the First World War

Throughout the First World War, Algeria has provided the French colonial power not only substantial material support, but especially thousands of “indigenous” soldiers. Zouaves and “tirailleurs”, praised for their bravery, yet never had access to full citizenship. Conscious of having helped France to the hour of danger and frustrated by unfulfilled promises, they opened the way to a national liberation claim that World War would confirm twenty years later.

Algerian riflemen made prisoners by the German army.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-2004-0194, 1914.

Of all the French colonies, Algeria represented the largest supplier of material resources and manpower for France along with West Africa. During the First World War, Algeria was asked to contribute more than any other country in what is called “French North Africa.” It responded by providing that which was expected by the colonial power. In other words, it provided capital, products and men for the war and factory work.

The most substantial material aid in the French colonial empire came from Algeria (with the exception of French West Africa). Over four years, the military stewardship sent its buying commissions, which had a de facto monopoly on buying products, and which proceeded with requisitions: most notably of grains, wine, tobacco, and sheep. These products were bought under conditions that were more advantageous than those of the minerals and other bulk items whose exportation was hindered due to the crisis of maritime transportation between Algeria and France. One is able to calculate that from 1915 to 1919 the savings for agricultural products equaled 770 million francs when compared to the cost of purchasing these items at market prices. In short, Algeria helped to feed France cheaply.

Thus, in a country of limited labor power due to military conscription, with falling production, and that was struck by drought during the spring and the catastrophic harvest of 1917 (which occurred at the peak of the requisitions of food goods 1917), the first major famine occurred in the winter of 1917–1918. This event was without precedent in recent history and ravaged the central and eastern part of the country. It served a prelude to the famine of 1920, which was even more catastrophic and killed tens of thousands of victims. Wheat farming was even more affected in the years to follow, and livestock farming increasingly suffered. Only commercial products like tobacco and especially wine did well since the official prices were substantially augmented. Despite the congestion of barrels in the ports of Rouen and Sète, the boom in tobacco and wine continued to mark the economic life of Algeria during, and even more so after, the war.

Some timid attempts to construct industrial units in Algeria were undertaken to in the context of the crisis of maritime relations that radically diminished the import of manufactured products. These rare innovations of a few French capitalists ceased as soon as the exceptional circumstances of the war had dissipated. For example, three blast furnaces were removed in 1918, having even been set on fire. The colonial bourgeoisie continued more than ever to privilege property and commerce.

Yet they were not destined to turn into a dynamic pack of industrial captains. For the Algerian economy, despite some secondary squeaks of the system relative to the temporary problems of exchange between Algeria and the metropole, there was no question that peace would bring anything other than increased dependence—either before or after the war. The new military and political arrangements caused by the war had a different impact altogether.

A kind of sacred union

Penetrated by the colonial intrusion earlier, and to a greater extent than Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria was thus more managed and disciplined. The French had not instituted obligatory military service in Morocco: neither had they done so in Tunisia where the system of conscription under the Bey had also applied to Algeria.

The French Republic only instituted obligatory military service in Algeria, where it was introduced by decree in February 1912. Most Algerians had shown hostility to this measure, even while a small group of “Young Algerians” (“évolués”: culturally assimilated elites) was favorable. They saw the measure as a way of attempting to obtain political rights in exchange for the blood-tax of the citizen. Many French officials made grand promises in this vein at the beginning of the war—sometimes sincerely—such as in the cases of the Minister of War Adolphe Messimy or Abel Ferry.

There was no general hostile reaction visible at the mobilization, recruitment and deployment of the Algerian troops for the French Front. We can perhaps explain this by the existence of a kind of sacred union “à l’algérienne,” which was exalted by the colonial masters and repeated by the “évolués,” understandable due to the glimmer of hope these individuals helped for liberation from oppression and discrimination.

French officials, followed by the “Young Algerians,” called on all “civilized” individuals to block the path of “Teuton (=German) barbarism” in official discourse. With few exceptions (such as the revolt of Beni Chougran near Perrégaux/Mohammedia, to the north of Mascara in West Algeria), the first departures of the conscripts occurred without difficulty from the perspective of the colonial power. But the mothers and sisters of the young individuals mourned and recited prayers for the dead.

As a matter of prudence, the French had only called a fraction of the contingent to battle since 1912. Half of the Algerian standing army (around 175,000 men) was composed of “volunteers,” at least theoretically. As a result, Algeria did not feel the most significant human losses until the decrees of September 1916.

These decrees were passed in the context of the total incorporation of those who were eligible for duty in 1917. Even if only half of the contingent was deployed to active duty (the other men were exempted or affected to auxiliary campaigns), the emotion in Algeria was intense in the face of this widespread recruitment.

Millenarism and “loyalism”

Terrible news regarding the condition of the Algerian soldiers came from the front. The war went on. Millenarian hopes took over Algerians, which was linked to the propaganda from Berlin or Turkey announcing the liberation of Muslims that were under the yoke of the infidels. Protests against recruitment occurred and some departed for the maquis. A large insurrection swept the northwest of the Aures Mountains (Belezma, Betlili) in East Algeria. The “Boublique” (from Republic, which is to say, “we also want to be free, which is to say dominate”), a symbol of liberty, was proclaimed by conspirators. The revolt was contained due to the methodical repression carried out by two divisions under the orders of the General Deshayes de Bonneval from October 1916 to the spring of 1917.

Nevertheless, for most of the war, the colonial power could mobilize a considerable number of men for the French war and recruit more than 100,000 workers for the machines of national defense. This is why Algeria was considered “loyalist” in official French discourse. In Algeria, especially in the eastern part of the country, human sympathies reinforced the weapons of the Commander of the Faithful, the sultan-caliph that called Muslims to jihad by the Shaykh of Islam in Istanbul in November 1914. The more that the French propaganda denounced the Turks as the “Boches1 de l’islam”, the more that their combat was legitimized. Thus, for the Algerians, engaging without hesitations under the Ottoman banner was a step that most would not attempt. The large majority of Algerian prisoners regrouped in the Berlin camp of Zossen-Halbmondlager refused to serve for the Ottoman army. Even in Algeria, or among the Algerian workers in France, if sympathy for Turkey was widespread, it did not immediately lead to organize political action. Because of the French presence, the millenarian expectations of a Turkish landing had been disappointed; in short, the mass of Algerians took refuge in a prudent policy of wait-and-see. It was this state of non-hostility that the French took as a sign of “loyalism.”

That being said, there were other forms of so-called “loyalism”: the loyalism of those notables or agents of the administration who expected to be rewarded for their good conduct and their effectiveness in the recruitment campaigns. This hope was sincere among these young “évolués” that were sensitive to the Republican discourse of citizenship, the rights of man, and the tax of blood. This was particularly the case among the young students and teachers of the École normale2 of Bouzaréa in Algiers. It was a situational loyalism that responded to the calls for a sacred union by France during a moment of combat, which was a hasty stereotype like that of civilization against barbarism. Having been cast as barbarians for such a long time, or having been judged as such by the colonial masters, finding themselves suddenly grouped with those who were civilized could explain these atypical attitudes. One might imagine that they were taken aback by the novelty of the situation: it was the first time that that the colonial power solicited the population of Algeria in such an insisting manner.

From colonialism to militarism

Once they had been transplanted in France at the beginning of the war, the young recruits suffered a great deal. The war of movement of 1914 produced carnage. These young men, often without any experience of gunfire were in a black disarray. The dead, the mutilated because of frozen feet, and other tuberculosis patients cleared the next row on the battlefield. There were numerous moments of panic, desertions of the battlefield or refusals to march. Summary executions in the form of decimation also occurred and are substantiated by the archives in at least three cases—the 45th division, the 37th division and the 38th division. The victims were Algerian Jews, Algerians and Tunisians. We do not know if such atrocities also occurred after the beginning of the war of positions (trench warfare). In any case, from then on, the archives of divisions diminish in volume since orders were increasingly given by telephone so that orders in writing were increasingly rare.

In any case, the reports of the command no longer had the same tone concerning the Algerians after the spring of 1915. Confined to the rear after the reports of the massacres of 1914, the men were taken in hand and better instructed. While in 1914 reports described the Algerians as a troop that had been bled dry and terrorized, they were increasingly praised, whether in the Artois, on the Somme, at Verdun or at the Chemin des Dames. The morale and offensive spirit reached an all-time high, particularly in 1918 when the recruits engaged for the class of 1917 revolted in the region of South Constantinois in 1916–1917. The regiments of Algerian infantrymen (tirailleurs algériens) were among the most praised and decorated during the war, even if this emphasis could not avoid being a seductive “native policy” at the same time.

Though it is difficult to adequately distinguish the comportment of the French soldiers of Algeria from the other French soldiers since the evaluations of them vary depending on the observer, the Algerians were undoubtedly well integrated into the French army. This phenomenon was not due to the myth of French as an adopted country. More than anything, for those asked to participate in the war, the military order reveled itself to be less oppressive and less discriminatory than the colonial order. Not that the discrimination had disappeared (it continued most notably when the Algerian soldiers were on leave because the command feared relations with French civilians —male or female— that were not surveyed). Instead, discrimination was lessened due to the increasing sentiment that, in the midst of butchery, one skin was equal to another. In addition, there was the favorable, and sometimes enthusiastic, welcome of French civilians for these exotic individuals who had come to help France. There was the appreciation for the careful care received in the health facilities that resembled those in France. There was also widespread admiration for the nuns and nurses, the white sheets and the paternalist attention of the commandment. Indeed, all of this was not without effect.

The operating spirit of solidarity that occurred with the transposition of the clannish order with a regimental order, created a seductive image of a commander with uncontested authority for the Algerians: nostalgic fossilization of a golden age of rigorous segmented solidarity or a forerunner to national solidarity?

Syndrome of the “liberated tirailleur”

For the Algerians, the First World War was fundamental in that it offered 300,000 young men a whiff of the winds coming from elsewhere for the first time in their lives, for better or for worse. There had been fewer than 15,000 Algerian workers in France in 1914. From 1914 to 1918, around 120,000 “conveyors” (the name given to them in Algeria) came to work in France, mostly for military purposes, in a framework that evoked the ambiance of the “commune mixte”3. Yet, during the first fifteen months of the war, thousands of young men could legally leave Algeria and be hired in France by private enterprises; as a result, an undetermined number of clandestine Algerians avoided military control. The situation, miserable for the workers administratively recruited, who were sometimes young adolescents designated by their caïds4 as “volunteers,” is evoked by the reports. One of them, by the senator from the Rhône Paul Cazeneuve in 1917, recalls the inquisitions of another age, an age that was certainly relevant for these young uprooted colonials.

The men became accustomed to the worker’s life and the world of the factory, which is to say, to protest and strikes. They could sometimes get to know and visit French men and women. In any case, they assumed certain habits that were not compatible with the maintenance of the former colonial order. They adopted the spirit of the “French worker” and the syndrome of the “liberated tirailleur” (infantryman), meaning that they increasingly dared to argue back and contest authority. This caused shudders for the authors of the reports, who evoke the new condition of the “natives” in the aftermath of the war. In fact, a notable part of the future cadres of the North African Star (l’Étoile Nord-Africaine) were former members of the Communist party and/or the Confédération générale du travail unitaire (CGTU) in France.

Ultimately, France would both oppress and liberate. The rules of factory life, military technology and the images of military and industrial efficiency were made known to those who had been transplanted to France. All the while it gave them the ability to grotesquely reinvest in their acculturation: take for example the infantryman from Sétif, Mohammed Mekdoud, presented to the court-martial in 1917 for having sent his mother an instruction book for automatic rifles, asking her to carefully keep it carefully since “it might be useful later.”

(Low) price paid in blood

The price paid in blood for the Algerians was, proportionally, about the same as that paid by the other soldiers, even if they were the soldiers that were most often killed during assaults. One might say that the commanders had the habit of not letting the Algerians get bored: instead, they had the reputation of being those troops used in assaults.

It was to a subject of pride for Clemenceau to have gone against the advice of his colonial specialists and the French elected representatives from the colonies, in prescribing equality between the war pensions for colonial and French troops. Later, the Fifth Republic showed itself to be more ungrateful: the pension for the Algerian soldiers of the war of 1914–1918 remained the same after 1962, while those of the French Wars were regularly reevaluated. In France, the image of the “turcos”4 was more or less positive. Their warlike and conscientious qualities, recognized in the official imaginary, was inscribed in the stereotype of the ultimate warrior, a warrior whose energy should be contained in order to prevent ardent overflows outside of war. Reified in battle, the Algerian “native” did not, however, stop being a “native.” Even while integrated into the French army, the Algerians did not lose their crucial sense of their Algerianness, a feeling that did not rely solely on the sorrow they felt for their absent homeland.

These Algerians recognized the force of the French and were tempted by the possibility that the feelings and experiences they had witnessed on the other side of the Mediterranean might be transported to Algeria. As a result, after the war, the French schooling system had made serious gains in Algeria: the schools now turned students away, even if previously one had to actively search for students to get them to register. But this occurred at the same time that the culturally Islamic proselytism of the ulama had been welcomed with such success.

After the war the image of the Algerian remained solidly that of the ragged, disoriented, sub-proletariat who was keen for French women and a dangerous carrier of tuberculosis and small pox. The war of 1914–1918 anchored these pejorative stereotypes in French consciousness. Not that there had not been real benefits of having this population in France, notably for the French workers movement. Moreover, there were real exchanges that occurred between Algerians and French, exchanges that surpassed the ordinary distrust of inter-communal relations. Algerians also found some useful aspects to this configuration, even if they had a different kind of investment: For example, it was among the Algerian workers in France that Emir Khaled5 found success during his stay in Paris in July 1924. And it was in Paris, two years later, that the North African Star, emanating from the Communist orbit, emerged from the Intercolonial Union (l’Union Intercoloniale).

Return to the “native” political stage

In any case the overflow of promises from the time of war ran dry. Some benign measures wore down some of the roughest edges of colonial discrimination, most notably in regards to financial matters. There was a distribution of “tips” or gratuities, as for example authorizations for opening a Moorish café. But the grandiose promise of the rights of the citizen in exchange for obligatory military service was never seriously contemplated in Paris. It was reduced to a few minor clauses regarding citizenship, none of which modified the existing procedures that were ruled by the senatus consult (imperial law) of 1865. In other words, Algerians were still relegated to the existence of a category of semi-citizens who were able to vote at the lowest level of local elections (the elections of jam’a[s]—native assemblies—which had no real power). The reforms hardly increased the participation of Algerians in other elections: they were still seen as unsuitable to elect representatives to the French parliament.

In truth, the colonial lobby hardly needed to influence the government in Paris in order to maintain the status quo. In August 1920, the House renewed the “native code” (Code de l’indigénat), the application of which had been suspended in July 1914. The Algerians were pleased to celebrate the end of the war as a mythical time of an anticipated liberation. Or so they had been promised. The protesting accents of Emir Khaled, the grandson of Emir Abd El Kader and once native-captain of the French army, had seduced the Algerian masses and had propelled Emir Khaled to the front of the “native” political stage.

A newspaper that was openly pro-native before the war, Le Temps, did an about face. It became the unconditional defender of the status quo in the context of Bolshevism, the strikes of 1919 and 1920 that had continued in Algeria, and the spreading fear of a trans-communitarian class alliance. The colonial power was given a fright: it stiffened, quickly closed the chapter imprudently, partially contemplated a few “native reforms,” and managed to get rid of Emir Khaled in the summer of 1923.

Age of maturation

The frustrations were great. Conscious of having helped France in its hour of danger, the Algerians felt valorized. Between the two wars, the idea had taken hold that without American equipment and the brave Algerian combatants, the French would not have won the war. During the crisis of Munich, a popular poet of Miliana addressed verses to the minister Édouard Daladier to assure him that, if Adolf Hitler attacked, the spiritual son of Clemenceau would have nothing to fear since the “banu Hâchem,” those brave Algerian soldiers, would be present.

A dress rehearsal for the Second World War, the First (World War) unleashed the cycle of illusions and promises that were not kept. It strongly contributed to revealing Algeria to itself, raising the country to the age of maturation and, thus, contemporary political decisions. It is thus difficult to agree with those who continuously see the evolution of Algeria in the 20th century as punctuated by so-called “missed opportunities.” Is it necessary to indicate that, in history, like in other subjects, opportunities can only be missed if they were first attempted. Even if history is never pre-written, and even if it is on the corners where decisions hesitate before being made, the system of blockages and refusals carry their own logic.

1A condescending term used in France for Germans.

2A specialized school for training primary school teachers.

3French administered municipalities reserved for the “ native ” population.

4So-called native soldiers.

5Grandson of Emir Khaled found success during his stay Abdelkader and captain in Paris in July 1924. the French army, leader, after the First World War, of the movement demanding increased political rights for Algerians.