War in Algeria — Ending French colonialism in North Africa

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The Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), brutal and long, was the most recent major turning point in the country's history. Although often fratricidal, it ultimately united Algerians and seared the value of independence and the philosophy of anticolonialism into the national consciousness. Abusive tactics of the French army remain a controversial subject in France to this day. ~ Wikipedia


It would be a conceit for me to assume that in a few thousand words and a handful of images I could explain the entirety of the Algerian War. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to make the effort, for in its horrific details it helps to explain the beleaguered 21st Century. Selected philatelic items in my collection — stamps and covers — serve to illustrate the story.1

French commandoes wait to board a Sikorsky H-34 helicopter, south of Oran during the Challe Plan operations in April, 1961. The Challe Plan, named after the French general, Maurice Challe, was a series of major operations by the French army during the Algerian War, using speed and concentration of force to keep insurgents of the Algerian Armée de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Army) in constant retreat and disorder. This is a hand-coloured black-and-white photograph; the appearance of red scarves is apparently artistic license, as the commandos wore red epaulettes and berets, but not red scarves and not in combat. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and Saber68.

The Algerian War was rooted deeply in French colonialism, and especially in the First Vietnam War, which could be considered as the first act of the tragedy that the Vietnamese call the Resistance War against America or simply the American War, which I call “My war”.

In January 1966, serving with the U.S. Marine Corps, I waded ashore in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, then marched across pristine white sand dunes and into a stand of small evergreen trees. We were told that those trees had been planted by the French in an effort to stop the inland march of the sand dunes we had just marched across. My olive green combat fatigues provided a measure of camouflage: there was every possibility that a Viet Cong or North Vietnamese soldiers were waiting to kill me and my fellow marines.2

U.S. Marines of Headquarters & Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division move inland in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, on January 28, 1966. The trees in the background were said to have been planted by French colonizers — colons — to prevent the sand dunes from encroaching on coastal farmland. ~ Photo by Bob Ingraham
A 1956 North Vietnamese stamp celebrates the 1954 victory of communist Viet Minh forces over a French army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The stamp pictures a Vietminh soldier standing atop the French command bunker.

I didn’t know if, in fact, the French were responsible for planting those trees, but the story made sense. France had colonized Vietnam in the 19th Century.3 In 1940, when France was defeated by Nazi Germany, colonial administration of Vietnam passed to the Vichy France, a puppet state of Nazi Germany; the Vichy government ceded control of Hanoi and Saigon to Japan in 1940, and in 1942 lost control of the whole of Vietnam to Japan.

By the end of the Second World War, European colonization was coming unglued. Fifty countries had signed United Nations Charter in 1945, confirming the principle of self-determination of peoples; between 1945 and 1960, three dozen new states in Asia and Africa achieved autonomy or outright independence from their European colonial rulers. Vietnam was among them.

After the Second World War, France had managed to hang onto Vietnam, but only with the collusion of the British, who first occupied Vietnam in 1945, after the end of the Second World War.4 In 1954, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu resulted in the humiliating defeat of the French army and led to the end of Vietnam as a French Colony.5

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  1. Covers are the philatelic term for used envelopes, which are considered to be postal artifacts. Through their stamps, addresses, cancellations, postmarks, and other attributes they reveal much about their provenance. 

  2. I was not a marine, but a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman. I had been seconded to the U.S. Marine Corps in the summer of 1965 for service in Vietnam; I had been trained as a combat medic at Camp Pendleton in California, the home of the First Marine Division. Our landing in Quang Ngai Province took place at the beginning of Operation Double Eagle, which was intended to interdict North Vietnamese forces and root out South Vietnam’s National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong). 

  3. The independence of the Kingdom of Vietnam was gradually eroded by France — aided by large Catholic militias — in a series of military conquests between 1859 and 1885. By 1887, the entire country had come under French rule as part of French Indochina, which included Laos and Cambodia. 

  4. The British army entered Vietnam at the end of the Second World War, ahead of the French, who would resume governance of the colony. Among their first tasks was the disarmament and internment of Japanese soldiers who had essentially been abandoned. Almost immediately, the Viet Minh insurgents of Ho Chi Minh began to put political and military pressure on the British, who responded by releasing and arming the Japanese internees, who fought alongside the British to force the Viet Minh into hiding. The die was cast for the First Vietnam War (1945-1954) and the Second Vietnam War against America. 

  5. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought between French and Viet Minh forces for control of a small mountain outpost on the Vietnamese border near Laos.

    In late 1953, French forces, who had been rapidly losing ground to the popularly supported Viet Minh for eight years, occupied the town of Dien Bien Phu in a valley in North Vietnam in an attempt to cut the communist supply lines into Laos and to maintain a base for operations. Although the Vietminh quickly cut all the roads into Dien Bien Phu, making it suppliable only by air, French confidence remained high. That confidence was based, however, on the failure of the French to recognize the vulnerability of their base and the willingness of Vietminh soldiers to die for the cause of independence from France. (The French soldiers themselves, although they fought valiantly for each other, had almost universal contempt for the French government and for many of their commanders, and wanted nothing more than to go home.)

    The Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap dragged heavy artillery near the top of the hills surround the French base, and began pounding it with nearly constant barrages, and sent 40,000 men and used heavy artillery, situated high on hills surrounding the valley, to break the French lines. Despite airdrops of French paratroopers and supplies, from unmarked U.S. transports flown by un-uniformed American crew, the base was overrun on May 7, 1954 and several thousand French soldiers became POWs.

    With French forces in disarray, the French government negotiated an end to its occupation of Vietnam at an international conference in Geneva. French humiliation, particularly acute within the army, had lasting repercussions on French public opinion and contributed — along with later events in the Algerian War of Independence — to the downfall of the Fourth Republic in 1958.