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Le dictionnaire

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BIGEARD, MARCEL (BRUNO, 1916–2010)

Undoubtedly France’s best-known soldier of its ill-fated colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. And yet nothing, at the outset, suggested a distinguished military career for this bulldog of a man. After completing his military service in the army along the Maginot Line (1936–1938), reserve sergeant Bigeard returned to civilian life without much thought. World War II, however, changed all that. He was called back to arms in March 1939 and rejoined the 23ème Régiment d’infanterie de forteresse. He saw combat for the first time during the German invasion of France in May–June 1940. Though taken prisoner by the Germans during the French debacle, Bigeard finally escaped his captors on a third attempt in November 1941 and made his way to French West Africa (Vichy), where he joined the Régiment mixte d’infanterie coloniale. In October 1943, following the Allied liberation of North Africa about a year earlier, he moved to Morocco and volunteered for commando training under the British in Algiers in order to conduct clandestine missions into occupied France. He parachuted into France in August 1944 to run and train resistance networks as a specialist in military affairs. He served as an officer in the Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI). The end of World War II found Bigeard in Germany, a captain in the 23ème Régiment d’infanterie coloniale.

No sooner was World War II over than France’s colonial one in Indochina began. In October 1945, Bigeard participated in the French reoccupation of southern Vietnam under the direction of General Philippe Leclerc, still in the 23ème Régiment d’infanterie coloniale (now Extrême-Orient). Bigeard led audacious operations into enemy territory, from which the “Bigeard legend” would spring. “Bruno” was his radio code name. He returned for two more tours of duty. In October 1948, back in France, he was one of a handful of special operations officers involved in creating the 3ème Battaillon colonial de commandos parachutistes (BCCP). He helped lead it on his second tour of duty in Indochina. He also commanded the 3ème Bataillon Tai and the Bataillon de marche indochinois. In July 1952, on his third tour, he led the 6ème Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux (BPC) which he would command during the battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. He was named lieutenant colonel during the battle. Together with Pierre Langlais, Bigeard would become legendary for fighting with his men until they were taken prisoner at Dien Bien Phu in early May 1954. He and his men were marched hundreds of kilometers to internment camps where they were held in insalubrious and deadly health conditions until their liberation in 1955. Bigeard would serve again in Algeria at the head of his paratroopers during the battle of Algiers before taking up politics upon his retirement.

Marcel Bigeard published numerous books on politics and France’s heroic soldiers of its colonial wars. However, Bigeard also recognized the valor of his Vietnamese adversary. Writing in 1975, as Saigon fell to Vietnamese communist forces, he recalled how he felt following the French colonial debacle at Dien Bien Phu 21 years earlier: “Here I am now a prisoner of these little Vietnamese whom we used to consider in our French army to be good only for working as nurses and drivers. While these men with an extraordinary morale started out with nothing in 1945 but an ideal, irregular armaments and a goal to get rid of the French, in nine years Giap had defeated without a doubt our Expeditionary Corps”.

France’s unlikely soldier was named brigadier general in August 1967. Bigeard remained strangely silent during the Boudarel affair. See also ALGERIAN WAR; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS ET AMIS DE L’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS PRISONNIERS ET INTERNÉS D’INDOCHINE; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES COMBATTANTS DE DIEN BIEN PHU; ERWAN BERGOT; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; JEAN-JACQUES BEUCLER; MYTH OF WAR.