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LANGlAIS, PIERRE CHARLES ALBERT MARIE (1909–1988)

French officer who commanded hundreds of French Union soldiers during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Born in Brittany, Langlais graduated from Saint-Cyr and made a career in the army. During World War II, he saw combat in Italy, France, and Germany, before transferring to Indochina in October 1945 as part of the 9th Colonial Infantry Division. He participated in the French reoccupation of southern Vietnam before transferring to the north where he took part in the street fighting in Hanoi following the outbreak of full-scale war on 19 December 1946. In 1949, he returned to Indochina for a second tour of duty and witnessed from the northern border the Chinese communist decimation of their nationalist rivals. He also served in central Vietnam and northern Laos before returning to France where he took over from Jean Gilles at the head of the 1st Colonial Half-Brigade of Paratrooper Commandos. This also meant that Langlais had to become a paratrooper himself, which he did. Around 1953, he returned to Indochina for a third tour of duty and found himself commanding not just his paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu, but hundreds of other soldiers who looked to him for leadership as the battle turned into a defeat. He provided it until the camp went down on 7 May 1954.

Langlais was famous for his temper and no-holds-barred directness. He was also unique among French officers for his capacity after the war to recognize the extraordinary feat which the adversary had achieved at Dien Bien Phu. Unlike so many left bitter by defeat, especially in the army, Langlais credited the Vietnamese, communist or not, for what they had done in 1954. He also refused to blame others for French mistakes. He reserved a particularly harsh criticism for the likes of Charles Lacheroy and the proponents of “revolutionary warfare”. The problem with Lacheroy and the anti-communist ideas his acolytes would apply in the Algerian War, Langlais concluded, was that they failed to understand the reality and the power of another ideology, modern nationalism: La guerre d’Indochine fut une guerre d’indépendance contre la France et si l’outil de combat fut forgé par des méthodes marxistes, il n’en reste pas moins vrai que le soldat Viet Minh qui montait, et avec quel courage, à l’assaut des positions de Dien Bien Phu, luttait pour nous mettre à la porte de chez lui où nous n’étions pas chez nous. See also AID, CHINESE; EXPERIENCE OF WAR, DIEN BIEN PHU; MARCEL BIGEARD; MYTH OF WAR.