The Consummate Warrior
Marcel Bigeard, 1916–2010.
Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By MAX BOOT
In English-speaking countries, the French armed forces have become a joke. Literally. Entire websites are devoted to one-liners like: “How many gears do French tanks have? Six: five reverse and one forward.” This is a gross slander of a nation that, back in the days of Louis XIV and Napoleon, was synonymous with military excellence. Those skills, that courage, that panache did not suddenly disappear in the 20th century, notwithstanding France’s string of humiliating defeats. There is no better reminder of that than the career of General Marcel Bigeard, who died on June 18 at age 94.
Bruno Bigeard. Reviewing the troops in Madagascar, 1973
Born in 1916 to a railway worker, he left school at 14 to work in a bank. Called up when war came in 1939, he was a lowly warrant officer when captured on the Maginot Line in 1940. The following year, after two failed attempts, he escaped from a German prison camp and made his way to French West Africa to join the Free French forces. In August 1944 (using the call sign Bruno, which became his lifelong moniker), he parachuted back into France to work with the Resistance and help the invading Allied armies. In the process, he earned the Legion of Honor and Britain’s Distinguished Service Order.
Once World War II was over, the French army turned its attention to imperial wars, starting in Indochina where the Viet-Minh under Ho Chi Minh were trying to expel the colonial power. Captain Bigeard arrived in Saigon in 1945. By 1952, he was on his third tour, a major, and newly installed commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion (“Bataillon Bigeard”). By then everyone in Indochina, wrote French journalist Jules Roy, “knew his high forehead, his fair crew-cut hair, his bird-of-prey profile, his touchy independence”—and the extraordinary combat record that would one day earn him four-star rank without benefit of a St. Cyr education.
He was famous for his fitness and his austerity—both qualities which stood out in an army that valued its luxuries; French troops were issued a wine and cheese ration even in the field and were accompanied by mobile brothels. Bigeard’s visitors, noted American diplomat Howard Simpson, could expect “a thin slice of ham and one small, isolated boiled potato” washed down with “steaming tea” rather than the multicourse banquets accompanied by wine and brandy that were de rigueur in most French messes. Bigeard, who had nothing but contempt for office-bound superiors, preferred to fight lean, “à la Viet.”
The paras were the elite of the French army, a quick-reaction force that went wherever the fighting was the heaviest. In 1952, Bigeard and his men were dropped into the village of Tu-Lê in the northern highlands to stop a Viet-Minh offensive and allow the evacuation of French garrisons in the region. The battalion was soon encircled by an entire enemy division. Outnumbered ten to one, they fought their way out through dense jungle, walking nonstop for days and carrying the wounded. Entire companies were wiped out en route but Bigeard and a small group of survivors managed to elude the enemy.
The peacocky personification of paratrooper panache, Bigeard entered battle without a personal weapon and always led from the front. “If it’s possible, it’s done,” he said. And if it’s impossible? That “will be done” too.
On November 20, 1953, he and his men (half of them Vietnamese) were part of the paratroop force dropped into a remote valley of northwestern Vietnam at a place called Dien Bien Phu. They chased off the local Viet-Minh troops and established a French stronghold. Three weeks later they left for other fights. They did not return until March 16, 1954, by which time the garrison had been cut off by the Viet-Minh, which had positioned artillery on the surrounding slopes. Bigeard and his men parachuted into this “jungle Verdun” and continued fighting until the end. They fought brilliantly and heroically but to little avail. The defenders were ground down by relentless artillery fire and frontal assaults that were driven home by the Viet-Minh with total disregard for losses.
The end came on May 7, 1954, when the French commander, Christian de Castries, decided to surrender. The Viet-Minh were only a few hundred yards from his command post, and he had lost nearly half his troops killed, wounded, or missing. Of Bigeard’s 800 men, only 40 were still alive. More than 10,000 men were taken alive at Dien Bien Phu, many wounded; of that number fewer than 4,000 survived a death march and four months in Communist camps where undernourishment, lack of medical care, and brutal brainwashing were the norm. Bigeard, by now a lieutenant-colonel, was one of the most fit upon his release, thanks to his rigorous program of calisthenics. Far from broken, he was determined to do better “next time.” He got his chance soon enough in Algeria, where another independence movement was getting under way.