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The Consummate Warrior

Marcel Bigeard, 1916–2010.

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40 • By MAX BOOT
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Bigeard’s role was immortalized in the 1966 movie The Battle of Algiers; he was one of the models for the dashing Colonel Mathieu who broke the National Liberation Front (FLN) campaign of terrorism in the colonial capital. (Bigeard was also the model for Colonel Raspeguy in Jean Larte-guy’s bestselling novels The Centurions [1963] and The Praetorians [1964].) By the time he arrived in Algiers, Bigeard had proven his combat worth yet again leading his 3rd Regiment of Colonial Parachutists in the mountainous bled (countryside). These were unmotivated reservists whom he quickly whipped into shape. Their effectiveness was heightened by their then-novel use of helicopters. During one of their battles, on June 16, 1956, Bigeard was shot just above the heart. Evacuation by helicopter and airplane saved his life. A few months later, on September 5, 1956, while jogging alone and unarmed in a seaside town in Algeria during his recuperation, Bigeard was shot twice more at point-blank range by three young Arabs. Again he just barely survived, but he was in fine fighting form by the time he led his paras into Algiers in their distinctive “leopard” camouflage uniforms and the high-peaked “lizard” forage caps designed by Bigeard himself.

Bigeard and his regiment were given the most daunting task. They were assigned to the Casbah, the Arab quarter, where amid 100,000 inhabitants lurked the leaders of the FLN who were sending out their operatives—often pretty young women who could pass for Europeans—to place bombs in the cafes and gathering spots favored by the pied-noirs, the settlers. The paras confronted this threat in a brutal and effective manner. They cordoned off the Casbah with barbed wire. A curfew was imposed and orders given to fire on anyone caught outside. The bodies were left in the streets until the following morning to impress upon the inhabitants that they had met a force “even more extreme than the FLN.” 

Inside the Casbah the paras conducted a census and created a map showing who lived in which house. A preliminary list of targets was then drawn up using police files. In early January 1957, the strike teams fanned out into the Casbah, breaking down doors, and dragging suspects in for vicious questioning. A favorite interrogation technique was known as the gégène: electrical wires running from a small generator were clipped to a detainee’s privates and the electrical current increased until he talked. Waterboarding was also commonplace. Once a suspect had been “broken,” any compatriots he named were quickly rounded up and given the same treatment. Afterwards many of the detainees were summarily dispatched under such euphemisms as “killed while trying to escape” or “committed suicide.” In all, during the Battle of Algiers, 24,000 Muslims were arrested and 4,000 disappeared. 

In recent years, the myth has become prevalent that torture doesn’t work, that suspects simply tell their interrogators whatever they want to hear. In fact, while torture may be morally reprehensible, there is little doubt that, at least in Algeria, it was tactically effective. By forcing captured terrorists to identify their confederates, the paras were able to dismantle the FLN structure inside Algiers within a matter of months. By the fall of 1957 the last FLN leaders in the city had been either captured or killed.

Bigeard was by no means the worst offender in the use of torture. After his men arrested Larbi Ben M’hidi, a top FLN leader, Bigeard refused to torture him. Instead over the course of two weeks the two men developed a personal rapport, one warrior to another. Bigeard supposedly said to him: “Aren’t you ashamed to place bombs in the baskets of your women?” 

Ben M’hidi replied: “Give me your planes. I’ll give you my baskets.” 

General Jacques Massu, the commander of 10th Parachute Division, finally got tired of this ongoing dialogue, and he sent a more ruthless officer, Major Paul Aussaresses, to do the foul deed. When Aussaresses took the FLN chief out of Bigeard’s custody, he was amazed to see Bigeard’s paratroopers presenting arms to send off the FLN leader with full military honors. “It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend,” Aussaresses wrote. Ben M’hidi was driven to an outlying farm where he was hanged “to make it look like suicide.” 

But, even if he was soft with Ben M’hidi, Bigeard was no innocent. Rumor had it that his troops flew suspects over the Mediterranean and dropped them out of airplanes to drown; the victims were called Shrimp Bigeard. Many years later Bigeard admitted that torture had been a “necessary evil.”

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