Native uprising in the Department of Constantine.
Refere to Algieris No. 165 of 17th May (Z 6050/200/69) and gives an account of serious distrurbances in the Departement of Constantine on 8th May and during the following week.
Encloses copy of the letter dated 8th May from representatives of the Moslem population of Setif to the Britain an allied autoriti in the district.
States that no accurate figures for the loss of life are known. Copie paris, rabat and Tunis.
With reference to my telegram No : 165 of May 17th I have the honour to report on the serious disturbances which took place in the department of Constantine on May 8th and the following six days. The troubles started in the town of Setif and then spread to an area some 150 miles in extent and 50 miles in depth lying between the ports of Bougie and Bone and a line running thought the towns of Sétif, Constantine, Guelma and Souk-Ahras, in the comparatively thickly populated Berber territory known as the ‘petite Kabylie’. The official accounts have, as might be expected, alleged that the outbreaks were premeditated attacks by natives on the European population, and were instigated by a few misguided leaders of the nationalist movement. The account, witch follows, is based on information obtained from the British military authorities and unofficially from French governmental sources.
2. On the morning of May 8th some Noslem Boy Scouts who with official permission were marching down the main street of Sétif to lay a wreath on the War Memorial as part as part of the Victory Day celebrations were followed by a procession of about 2,000 natives amongst whom were women and children and some Europeans. This procession which had been obviously organised by the local branches of the ‘Parti Populaire Algérien’ and the ‘Amis du Manifeste’ carried banners bearing inscriptions such as “Pour la Charte de l’Atlantique” : “Démocratie our Tous”, “Vive l’Algérie libre et indépendante”, “Liberez Messali Hadj”, “ A bas la colonisation fasciste”, etc. When the procession which was quite orderly and under police control arrived opposite the office of “A” Compagny, 44th Infantry Battalion of the South African Air Force, a policeman attempted to seize the banner bearing the inscription “Liberez Messali Hadj”. A scuffle then took place and a policeman drew this revolver and shot a native. More shots were fired both by the police and by French civilians who were watching the procession from balconies overlooking the street. Pandemonium then ensued. Indiscriminate firing by French and natives took place ; unarmed natives seized chairs and anything on which they could lay their hands, and persons were attacked regardless of race, colour or creed. In Sétif and its immediate surroundings 49 Europeans including the Mayor, and the Headmaster of a school, both very popular with Europeans and natives alike, were killed. The secretary of the local branch of the Communist Party had both his hands cut off by an axe. A copy of a letter addressed by the representatives of the Moslem population of Sétif to the British and allied authorities in Sétif is annexed to this despatch. The statements made as the cause of the original disturbance have been substantiated by the officer commanding “A” Company, 44th Battalion S.A.A.F. and French eye-witnesses.
3. The news of the events in Setif quickly spread eastwards by ’bush telegraph’ and the whole of the area between the sea and line running from Sétif to Souk-Ahras flared up in open revolt. Armed attacks were made on the representatives of French authority such as gendarmerie posts and forest guards. Farms were brunt and their occupants murdered. Europeans encountered on the roads were attacked and killed. There were happily no attacks on British subjects or indeed on any-French Europeans. Two members of the British Economic Mission who were travelling by car were stopped more than once but were allowed to proceed unmolested when it was seen that they were Britain. Italian prisoners working on French farms were not touched. There were instances of rape and mutilation of corpses. A priest was killed and this heart was cut out and strung round his neck in nockery of well-known religious pictures. Nearly all the European casualties took place in the areas around Sétif (49 killed), Perigotville (21 killed) and Guelma (27 killed). The Governor-General informed me on May 17th that in all 102 Europeans had been killed and I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of this statement although other official French sources have estimated the number to be as high as 300.
4. The French authorities took immediate and strong counter-measures. Troops, including a Senegalese battalion, and armoured cars were despatched from Algeries, Sidi Bel Abbes, Biskra, Bougie and Constantine. At the request of the French authorities a detachment of 75 men of the Foreign Legion were converted from Sidi Bel Abbes in four Royal Air Force transport planes to a landing ground near Constantine. A French cruiser and a sloop were despatched from Algiers to Bougie and bombarded concentrations of rebels in the Souk El Taine area. 1,200 men of the 13th Infantry Regiment entirely composed of former members of the ‘Forces Françaises de l’Interieur’ from the Dordogne and the Creuse were brought over by air 100 B.26’s. Considerable air activity took place, it being estimated that approximately 300 sorties were made by B.26’s amd P.38’s during the period May 8th -14th. While it is said that 250-Ib. bombs were used, it is thought that action was mostly confined to machine-gunning and the use of anti-personnel bombs. Reports from aerial observers indicate however that whole village (Douars) have been destroyed. By May 10th the situation was in hand, rebel activity being confined to the uplands situated South and South-West of Djedjelli, the hills surrounding Guelma and the mountainous region of Sedrata. By May 13th order had been generally restored although isolated armed bands were still holding out in the mountains. On May 15th whole villages formally submitted en masse, delivering up their arms and surrendering their leaders. Many nationalist leaders, including Ferhat Abbas have been arrested and it is reported that 13 who were directly implicated have been tried by court martial and condemned to death.
5. The extent of loss of life amongst the natives will never be accurately known. No public reference has been made to this matter. The Governor-General told me that the number of killed was between 900 and 1,000 but the French medical authorities have estimated that least 6,000 were killed and 14,000 wounded. Other estimates are very much higher. The situation called for drastic action on the part of the authorities and the measures employed although ruthless were certainly effective and in the circumstances may have been justified.
6. The fact that disturbances were limited to this one region of Algeria would seen to show that, contrary to the official view, the uprising was not premeditated or directly instigated by the nationalist movement but was a spontaneous revolt of always turbulent section of the population caused by the provocative shooting by the police Setif. There is no doubt that the stage was set for a revolt witch the authorities had expected. This region suffered severely from lack of clothing during last winter witch was unusually cold and has had to put up with food conditions not far removed from famine. For some time there has been no regular distribution of cereals ; some localities have had none for more than two months at a time and have been obliged to subsist on roots. It is certain therefore that the nationalist propaganda of the ‘Parti Populaire Algerien’ and ‘Les Amis du Manifeste’ had found a fertile field. It may well be that a widespread revolt throughout Algeria was being planned, the statements made in the leaflet issued by the P.P.A. in Algeries after the incident on May 1st (see my despatch No : 84) are in this respect significant, and that by unwittingly provoking this localised revolt the authorities have forestalled nationalist plans, and prevented something much worse. The measures taken to repress the uprising will undoubtedly serve as a deterrent at any rate for the immediate future. But the situation is tense and general uneasiness will remain for some time even if there are no more disturbances.
7. I have confined this despatch to a factual account of uprising and propose to discuss the political aspects in a separate despatch. I am sending copies oh this despatch to H. M. Ambassador at Paris and H.M. Consults General at Rabat and Tunis.
I have the honour to be,
With the highest respect,
Your most obedient, humble Servant,
H. M. Consul General