Edward Said on Albert Camus (1994)

A brief introduction to Edward Said

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Palestine. His father was from Palestine, his mother from Lebanon. They were both Christians, not Muslims, so he was already an outsider in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Said attended British Anglican schools in Jerusalem and Alexandria, which further detached him from the surrounding Muslim culture and Arab language, before being sent to an elite school in Massachusetts. He went on to earn a BA (1957) at Princeton University, and Master of Arts (1960) and Doctor of Philosophy (1964) in English Literature from Harvard University, before joining Columbia University in 1963 as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculty.

A privileged private education and a prodigious academic ascent.

At Columbia Said taught the classic 19th and 20th century novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Graham Greene. His thesis was on Conrad, the novelist of colonial disillusion and pessimism. He produced several works of straight literary criticism which show awareness of the new intellectual winds blowing in from Paris, an awareness of the theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on, but all these pale into insignificance before his epoch-making work, Orientalism (1977).

Orientalism examines the little-read works of 19th century ‘orientalists’, men who claimed to be experts on the peoples, the histories, cultures and languages of the Middle East, India and North Africa. The book’s thesis is straightforward – that the writings of all these ‘orientalists’, even the most sophisticated and erudite of them, are soaked in a set of clichés and stereotypes about the native peoples of the places they studied, which helped their European imperialist masters – in most cases Britain or France – to rule them, to dominate them, to subjugate them.

Orientalist discourse portrays ‘the natives’ as lazy, corrupt, decadently sensualist or fanatically religious, as economically or culturally backward – however you cook it, as needing the beneficent intervention and rule of our glorious, civilised, law-bringing empires.

Said reviews the rise and development of ‘orientalism’ as a field of knowledge and shows how riddled it is from top to bottom with offensively racist clichés which allowed the imperialist powers to pursue their aims of control and exploitation with a clear conscience.

Although you can criticise various aspects of the book (and many critics did, very fiercely) there is no denying that it opened minds to a completely new way of seeing European culture – from the outside, as an instrument of domination and control – and that this radical new perspective led quickly to the birth of a new discipline, ‘post-colonial studies’.

The book caused much controversy, especially among contemporary experts on ‘the Orient’ (mostly meaning the Middle East) who felt insulted and undermined. Said defended his thesis in journals and in the media, his TV and radio appearances raising his profile.

His public profile went up further when he began to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1967 War onwards, assenting to Israel’s existence but calling for equal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, including the right to their own territory and the right for the large Palestinian diaspora to return home. His ongoing involvement with Palestinian politics, to the extent of becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council, ensured his position as a leading public intellectual, frequently subject to furious criticism.

Anyway, back to his books, Said followed up Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism (1993). This was based on lectures he gave applying the insights of Orientalism to specific authors from the canon of 19th and 20th century literature, including Jane Austen (with her famously casual mention of Caribbean sugar plantations in Mansfield Park), Dickens (the role of Australia as the destination for Mr Micawber at the end of David Copperfield and as the site of Magwitch’s reformation in Great Expectations), Conrad’s florid depictions of colonial despair in his Far Eastern novels and, especially Heart of Darkness.

And there is a chapter about Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria to European parents. His father died when he was small and he grew up in great poverty in a suburb of Algeria, mostly looked after by his strict grandmother while his mother went out to work. He showed intellectual precocity and studied philosophy at Algiers university. There he will have been exposed to the latest European thinking of the early and mid-1930s which was uniformly pessimistic, typified by Spengler’s masterpiece The Decline of the West (1922) and the grim existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, summed up in Being and Time (1927).

But unlike most writers and philosophers, Camus was a very physical being. He was good looking and fit, played football professionally, swam in the Mediterranean and had many girlfriends.

This dichotomy, between physical activity, sunbathing and swimming – Joyful and happy – and thinking – Negative and troubled – comes across powerfully in his early essays such as Summer in Algiers and underpins a lot of his ‘philosophy’.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (if I understand it correctly) the thinking mind is afflicted by the absurd disconnect between the human wish for order and meaning in the universe and the distressing absence of that order and meaning in the universe as we experience it. The anguish of feeling disconnected, ‘abandoned’ in a ‘godless universe’ is so distressing it leads some people to contemplate suicide, which is the subject of the essay.

But Camus revolts against this option, because it destroys one half of the absurd proposition Man + World. It is an absurd solution to an absurd predicament. Absurd man is saved from despair by his revolt against his situation:

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.

‘Passion’. Maybe I’m over-simplifying but it seems to me that Camus had to struggle all his life just to allow the joyous physicality of existence to triumph. I feel like I’ve experienced the same kind of struggle between being a bookish depressive appalled by the history of our species, and a guy who likes to go running, swimming, cycling and walking. Maybe lots of bookish people feel the same. Although his terminology and his prose style are often impenetrable, I think it is centrality of this common dichotomy, and Camus’s passionate defence of Life, despite all the arguments to the contrary, which made him so popular in his day and such an enduring figure.

Said on Camus

Pages 204 to 224 of Culture and Imperialism are devoted to a study of Camus. It opens with a brief recap of the way the French Empire expanded exponentially after the French defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – overseas conquest against technologically backward countries compensating for their humiliating defeat to the all-powerful Germans. This huge expansion (between 1880 and 1895 French colonial territory shot up from 1 to 9 million square kilometers, p.205) was accompanied by an explosion of new writing, not only factual descriptions of the new colonial acquisitions – mainly in Africa – but also expanding and justifying France’s vision of itself as a uniquely privileged exporter of civilisation and culture – what came to be known as its mission civilisatrice.

The essay takes the history of the Algerian town which the French named Bône as an example, a settlement which the French expropriated from the native Algerians and where they recreated French architecture, law and culture. And then Said points out that Camus was born to immigrant European parents in the small settlement of Miondovi, just outside Bône.

Said starts his critique by quoting from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s long essay about Camus, written for the old Modern Masters series back in 1970. O’Brien critiques aspects of Camus’s writings but nonetheless praises Camus for his achievement in depicting ‘Western consciousness’, for being the most representative intellectual of his day, in his troubled quest to establish and preserve humanist values in the unfavourable circumstances of the Cold War.

Said criticises O’Brien, and by implication all other fans of Camus, for precisely this evaluation, claiming that making him a universal representative of the Western intellectual effectively erases the profound and vital Algerian roots of his writings.

Let’s look at the novels in terms of their Algerian setting. Of Camus’ three novels – The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956) – the third one is immediately excluded because it is about a Paris lawyer now living in Amsterdam. It was published two years after the Algerian War of Independence began (November 1954) and so Algeria was no longer available as a neutral backdrop for a fable about human consciousness.

This simple fact already sheds light on the other two novels – it brings out how the Algeria of their setting (Algiers and nearby villages in The Outsider, Algeria’s second city, Oran, in The Plague) is prior to the war of independence. Camus’s Algeria is a blank canvas, a neutral backdrop against which the European heroes act out their allegorical stories.

Only three Arabs appear in The Outsider, none of them are named or speak, and the role of the central one (the brother of an Arab woman who is regularly beaten up by the protagonist’s friend, Raymond, and who seeks to avenge her) is to be shot dead on a sunlit beach by the novel’s anti-hero, Mersault.

It requires little effort for even the casual reader to see that the Arabs are merely the toys or mannequins or wordless puppets which exist solely to provide fodder for the adventure and agonised musings of the central, European figure.

Likewise there are no named Arabs in The Plague. It is a novel entirely about Europeans. The majority of deaths from plague in The Plague must, logically, be the deaths of Arabs, since they made up nine tenths of the population of Algeria and of Oran, the city where the story is set – but there is no sense of this in the novel, no sense, for example, that the Algerians might have had different cultural and religious ceremonies and traditions surrounding their Muslim dead.

To be harsh: in Camus’s two most famous novels, nameless faceless Arabs have to die in order for Europeans to have fancy philosophical reflections.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see that Camus’ reputation as an embodiment of ‘Western consciousness’ can be regarded – when seen through a post-colonial lens – as more of an indictment than a tribute, in that this wonderful ‘Western consciousness’ is in fact the consciousness produced by, and which benefits from, wide-ranging and brutal imperial exploitation.

The accusation is that Camus’s fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonised native people. Seen from this harsh perspective, far from promoting a universal anything, Camus’s fictions – no matter how troubled and questioning they may appear to be – in actual fact, by virtue of their assumptions and subject matter, continue the racist, colonial project of imperial France.

This is despite the fact that Camus himself, when working as a journalist before the war, produced powerful and well-researched reports on the miserable poverty of many Algerians which he regarded as a direct result of imperial exploitation. He may well have done; but in the fictions – which is all that anyone reads – Camus is, despite his best intentions, an accomplice.

Said’s prose style

Said’s aim is admirable, it is a shame that his prose is so wordy and pretentious.

What I want to do is to see Camus’s fiction as an element in France’s methodically constructed political geography of Algeria, which took many generations to complete, the better to see it as providing an arresting account of the political and interpretative contest to represent, inhabit, and possess the territory itself. (p.213)

To resituate L’Etranger in the geographical nexus from which its narrative trajectory emerges is to interpret it as a heightened form of historical experience. (p.224)

Culture and Imperialism is mostly made up of this kind of bombastic grandiloquence which often produces relatively little insight. Said’s prose preens and grandstands. Also, he spends a lot of time promising detailed close readings of the texts which he then often fails to deliver. Both these characteristics quickly become pretty irritating. Nonetheless, just pondering the colonial position of Camus for the time it takes to read these twenty pages, prompts powerful reflections.

My overall conclusion on Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, both of which I’ve read in their entirety – is that the bombastic style routinely fails to deliver the kind of nuanced text-based insight it promises – but that, despite the pretentious literary-critical style, Said’s thorough-going post-colonial approach is a revelation, a real eye-opener, and prompts a complete re-appraisal of everything you thought you knew about the literature of the European imperial powers.

Paralysis

Sometimes Said’s contorted prose style throws up unexpected phrases which strike a chord.

I was struck by Said’s phrase that Camus’s was an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (p.213). That notion of ‘incapacity’ is fruitful. As I mentioned above, from his earliest essays Camus appears to be stricken, caught, torn between the healthy outdoor joys of the body which are continually ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (Hamlet), by the bleak indoor climate of 1930s philosophy and intellectual enquiry to which he was also passionately attached.

It adds an extra dimension to Camus’s essays and novels if we overlay this body-mind dichotomy with the additional idea of a late-imperial guilty conscience. Camus wants simple pleasures – he wants life to be simple – but it isn’t because Algeria is a colonised country, the great majority of its population are downtrodden and exploited. How can you not feel guilty living there and seeing the poor and exploited every day? How can you join in the great European debates about ‘freedom’ and ‘being’ and ‘communism’ and all the rest of it, while you pick your way between the ragged street beggars or avert your gaze from the Arab Quarter, the squalid lanes of the Casbah?

On this reading, the paralysis of his characters – trapped under the pitiless sun like Mersault, or imprisoned inside the quarantined city of Oran – reflects not only the overt issues of exile and rebellion, but also the ideological dead-end of French colonialism, which fully understands its time is up, that it has no future repressing an entire people, but simply can’t conceive the possibility of handing over power to the natives and thus abandoning the hard work of a century of colonising effort. The French colonial mind is trapped, stuck, paralysed, stricken, incapacitated.

The plight of Camus’s fictional characters may well be the plight of stricken 1930s intellectuals – but, seen from Said’s perspective, it is also the plight of last-gasp late-colonialism.

On this reading, absolutely everything Camus wrote is compromised, holed beneath the waterline, by his unwilling, reluctant, and barely acknowledged acquiescence in French imperialism. The recurrent longing for union with the sun, the sea, the desert, is an impossible longing by the writer to be free of French colonial history and commune directly with the Algerian landscape, for a moment forgetting that it is a landscape made safe for Europeans to have great philosophical epiphanies in as a result of 100 years of expropriation, land clearing, and forced resettlement of its original peoples. It is a longing to forget that guilt.

Said analyses a story from Camus’s late collection Exile and the Kingdom to bring out how all but one of these late stories are nostalgic for a simpler, less conflicted world, in that they are about French people seeking ‘to achieve a moment of rest, idyllic detachment, poetic self-realisation’.

These are not stories about existentialist man (and woman). They are stories about late-imperial men and women, seeking a peace and harmony with their colonial setting which is ultimately impossible, an impossible dream.

The literary critic Roland Barthes described Camus’s prose as écriture blanche, which translates as ‘white writing’, but also has overtones of blank or empty writing. Said’s post-colonial perspective helps us see that the tone of The Outsider is not just blank because the lead character is almost psychotically disconnected from society and his own life (the obvious interpretation) – but because the entire narrative blanks out the native population, the colonial setting, France’s imperial presence. What makes the novel so blank and empty is the complete absence of the violent history and oppressive imperial structure in which it operates.

Camus and the Algerian War of Independence

After the war of independence broke in 1954 out Camus found himself in an impossible position. His entire childhood, his identity and that of his poverty-stricken mother and all the friends he had seen around him struggling to survive, were all entirely derived from their setting in Algeria. He couldn’t tear his entire personal and social history out of his identity. And so the great defender of humane liberal values found himself attacking the Algerian freedom fighters and opposing the war for independence. Camus went back to Algeria (from Paris where he’d lived since 1945) and tried to set up a movement for peace, to organise local truces to end the appalling bloodshed on both sides, but these all failed.

It was a war of extremes and Camus’s well-meaning liberalism was a drop in the ocean, a drop of dew which evaporated without trace in the fierce Algerian sun. It is no accident that in his last few years he turned from either political essays or novels back to his first love of the theatre, for the most part writing dramatisations of other people’s novels (winning prizes for his stage adaptations of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky). The blank unpeopled background of Algeria which underpinned his most famous works was no longer available.

Camus’s tragic death in a car crash in 1960 aged just 46 has a poetic justice about it. His identity had been torn apart, his ability to write the nativeless allegories set in his homeland had been removed. As a late-colonial writer, the death of his colonial setting signified his own writerly – and then literal – death.

To summarise in a sentence: whenever you read anyone saying that Camus’s writing in some way addresses ‘the human condition’, Said’s wordy but invaluable contribution is to force you to add that Camus’s writing just as much or more, and whether he wanted it to or not, reflects the late-imperial, colonial condition.


Credit

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said was published in Britain by Chatto and Windus in 1993. All quotes & references are to the 1994 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

The Algerian war of independence

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958, solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by both the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, and as the Soviet bloc became friendlier with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that France withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the levels of wanton brutality to revolting new heights, as French fanatical right-wingers launched attacks in mainland France and in Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful in rounding up the O.A.S. leaders but, ironically, this only increased the level of murder and terrorism because the psychopathic ordinary members were now headless and unchecked.

In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood), Horne shows how the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent.

Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… and then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve this chaos was through random outrages, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect, in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities. And this had toe effect of destroying forever any hope that the pieds noirs would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Ever since the French Revolution back in the 1790s, the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War, France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. with arms and munitions (they and everyone else were given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notably unhelpful in the early part of the war, refusing to supply the rebels anything – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the (supposed) supplier of their enemy in Algeria. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed public opinion, all realised – with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt – that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to do in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was an electrified fence stretching along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line formed a barbed-wire barrier lined with minefields and a sophisticated alarm system which alerted rapid response units to attempts to breach it, and who could be quickly helicoptered to the breach to intercept and kill F.L.N. fighters.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. Seeing themselves as sold down the river, abandoned by their fatherland, and terrified of the reprisals in store once an F.L.N. government took over, the result was panic and a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in a matter of weeks! There were many heart-breaking and panic-stricken scenes which Horne describes. Because of the demand on ships and planes, the pieds noirs were only allowed to take two suitcases of belongings with them. So they made bonfires of all their other goods, mementoes and belongings, then left their homes, which had often been the homes to families for many generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. The refugees arrived in a France which was completely unprepared for them and which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years to come.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French Army and administration. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline being called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to escape to France. The rest, over 200,000, were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N. which means that very many of thyem were tortured and murdered.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes a few of the horror stories which later emerged. Hundreds were used to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and get blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In some barracks French officers were ordered to take away the harki‘s weapons, promising them replacements, but then departing the next day, leaving the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. As you’d expect, many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror – but reading it gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give a proper account of the Algerian side, but there is page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and to disentangling the hugely complex machinations both among the F.L.N. leadership, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups.

Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could track down. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians under French colonialism and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system, which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks by all sides, and the execution of ‘traitors’ within the F.L.N. or to the civil war between Arab and Kabyle. But he accompanies these with clear-headed explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t view the conflict as an academic would (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures – but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent plea, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channelled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘It’s all the West’s fault’, that ‘There are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, machine gunning sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France out of a total population of 67 million. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many are temporary migrant workers, and many are refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheaply built high-rises and equally high unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: