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Marcel Bigeard

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Title: Marcel Bigeard  
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Subject: Battle of Dien Bien Phu, North Africa Security and Order Operations Commemorative Medal, Indochina Campaign commemorative medal, The Centurions (Lartéguy novel), 1st Foreign Parachute Heavy Mortar Company
Collection: 1916 Births, 2010 Deaths, Commanders of the Legion of Merit, Companions of the Distinguished Service Order, French Generals, French Male Writers, French Military Personnel of the Algerian War, French Military Personnel of the First Indochina War, French Military Personnel of World War II, French Military Writers, Grand Croix of the Légion D'Honneur, Members of the National Assembly of the French Fifth Republic, People from Toul, Recipients of the Croix De Guerre (France), Recipients of the Croix De Guerre Des Théâtres D'Opérations Extérieures, Recipients of the Croix De La Valeur Militaire, Recipients of the Cross for Military Valour, Recipients of the Insigne Des Blessés Militaires, Recipients of the Insignia for the Military Wounded, Recipients of the Médaille De La Résistance, Recipients of the Resistance Medal, Union for French Democracy Politicians
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Marcel Bigeard

Marcel Bigeard
Bigeard (aged 80) in his home in 1996 before a photo of him some 40 years earlier
Nickname(s) Bruno
Born 14 February 1916 (1916-02-14)
Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle
Died Did not recognize date. Try slightly modifying the date in the first parameter. (aged 94)
Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle
Allegiance  France
Service/branch French Army
Years of service 1936–38
Rank Général de corps d'armée
Unit 3rd Thai Battalion
Indochinese March Battalion
6e BPC
3e RPC

World War II

First Indochina War

Algerian War

Awards Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur
Croix de Guerre 1939–1945
Croix de guerre des TOE
Cross for Military Valour
Resistance Medal
Escapees' Medal
Colonial Medal
1939–1945 Commemorative war medal
Indochina Campaign commemorative medal
North Africa Security and Order Operations Commemorative Medal
Insignia for the Military Wounded
Order of the Dragon of Annam
Order of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol (Laos)
Distinguished Service Order (UK)
Legion of Merit (US)
Order of Merit (Senegal)
Order of Merit (Togo)
Order of Merit (Comores)
Order of Merit (Mauritania)
Order of Merit (Centrafrique)
Order of Merit (Thailand)
Other work Bank clerk, Author, Deputy

Marcel "Bruno" Bigeard (14 February 1916 – 18 June 2010) was a French military officer who fought in World War II, Indochina and Algeria. He was one of the commanders in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and is thought by many to have been a dominating influence on French 'unconventional' warfare thinking from that time onwards.[1] He was one of the most decorated soldiers in France, and is particularly noteworthy because he rose from enlisted as Second Class, the lowest possible rank, in 1936 and ultimately finished his career in 1976 with the rank of Lieutenant General (Général de corps d'armée). He was particularly controversial for his defense of the use of torture in counter-insurgency operations in the Algerian War.


  • Early life 1
  • World War II 2
  • Indochina 3
  • Algeria 4
  • After Algeria 5
  • Death 6
  • Honours 7
  • Legacy 8
    • Influence on counter-insurgency doctrine 8.1
    • Popular culture 8.2
  • Works 9
  • Notes and references 10
    • Footnotes 10.1
    • References 10.2
    • Media links 10.3

Early life

Marcel Bigeard was born in Toul,[1] Meurthe-et-Moselle on 14 February 1916, the son of Charles Bigeard (1880–1948), a railway worker, and Sophie Bigeard (1880–1964), a domineering housewife. He also had an older sister, Charlotte Bigeard, fours years his senior. Lorraine instilled a strong patriotism in him and his mother a will to win; those two would remain his strongest driving forces. At fourteen, Bigeard quit school to help his parents financially by taking a position in the local Société Générale bank, where he did well.[2]

He was called up in September 1936 to do his military service in the French Army; initially Bigeard had no enthusiasm for what would become his calling. He served on the Maginot Line with the 23rd Infantry Regiment at Haguenau in Alsace. Returning to civil life after the required two years with the rank of caporal-chef, Bigeard returned to Toul and his work as a bank clerk at the local Société Générale bank.[2]

World War II

In 1939 he was recalled to active duty and served, initially as a sergeant, with the 79e Régiment d'Infanterie de Forteresse (79th Fortress Infantry Regiment) in the fortified sector of Hoffen.

Bigeard rose quickly through the ranks and reached the position of adjutant as a warrant officer, but in June 1940, during the Battle of France he was captured and made a prisoner of war.[1] After two unsuccessful attempts he managed to escape from a German POW camp on November 11, 1941. Bigeard eventually made his way to Africa to join with the Free French.[1] In 1943 he was commissioned as an officer with the rank of Second Lieutenant. In 1944, after special service training by the British, he was parachuted into occupied France as part of a team of four with the mission of leading the resistance in the Ariège département close to the border with Andorra.[3] One of these audacious ambushes against superior German forces gained him the British DSO.[1] His nickname of "Bruno" has its origins in his radio call sign of this period. By the end of the war he had attained the rank of captain.[4]


Bigeard was first sent to Indo-China in October 1945 to assist with French efforts to reassert its influence over the former French colonies. He commanded the 23rd Colonial Infantry and then volunteered to train Thai auxiliaries in their interdiction of Viet Minh incursions around the Laos border along the 'road' R.C. 41 (Route Coloniale).[4] In 1947 he returned to France and commanded a company in the newly forming 3è BPC (Bataillon de Parachutistes Coloniaux). He returned to Vietnam in 1948 for combat duty in the Tonkin delta with the 3è RPC then the 3rd Thai Battalion and finally back to the Tonkinese highlands in command of an Indochinese battalion.[4] In July 1952 (his third Vietnam posting) as a major commanding the newly created 6th BPC (Colonial Parachute Battalion) with whom he established his fame and reputation.[1][4] He was a keen self-publicist, welcoming journalists among his troops, which assisted his cause to get the materials needed to help him succeed. His units were noted for their dedication to physical fitness above the normal requirements by the army.[1] This unique style included creating the famous 'casquette Bigeard' cap from the 'excess' material of the long shorts in the standard uniform.[1] He participated in many operations including a combat drop on Tu Lê in November 1952.[4]

On 20 November 1953 Bigeard and his unit took part in Lieutenant Colonel. This was in some way seen as a reward for his valiant command of his troops before the expected massacre at the end of the battle. Bigeard entered captivity after the main garrison fell on 7 May 1954 and was repatriated three months later.[1]


Colonel Bigeard, commandant of the 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment (3e RPC), in Algiers.

During the block warden) on the Algerian population. The use of torture by all four parachute regiments as an extension of interrogation was no secret and General Massu (the divisional commander), himself, wrote[9] about its use and him testing it on his own body. The arrests, interrogation and detention were sanctioned by the then legal authority.

Soldiers of the 3e RPC in Algiers wearing the "Bigeard" field cap.

Quadrillage was used to identify suspects who were then subjected to interrogation and sometimes the systemic use of torture. Aside from breaking the FLN's local organization, the harsh methods used by the Paras (and numerous instances of suspicious deaths while in the hands of the authorities) alienated some of the native Algerian population and particular groups in France. During this time, Bigeard's name was associated with the death flights carried out by members of Massu's 10e DP in the Battle of Algiers. The victims, who were dropped from aircraft into the Mediterranean Sea, were known as "Bigeard's shrimps" (French: crevettes Bigeard) because they had weights attached to their feet sending them straight to the bottom.[10] [11][12]

After the initial apparent victory in Algiers, in April 1957 Bigeard moved the 3e RPC back into the Atlas mountains in pursuit of FLN groups in that province. In May he was in the area near Agounennda to ambush a large force of about 300 djounoud[13] of the FLN group Wilaya 4. This group had already attacked an Algerian Battalion on 21 May causing heavy casualties. From a 'cold' start Bigeard estimated the attacking group's probable route of withdrawal and laid a wide ambush along a valley of 100 km². The ensuing battle and followup lasted from 23 to 26 May 1957, but resulted in 8 paras killed for 96 enemy dead, 12 prisoners and 5 captives released. For this exemplary operation he was nicknamed "Seigneur de l'Atlas" ("Lord of the Atlas mountains") by his boss General Massu. After other urban, desert and mountain operations Bigeard was replaced as the commander of 3e RPC by Roger Trinquier in March 1958.

In 1958 Jacques Chaban-Delmas ordered the creation of the École Jeanne d'Arc in Philippeville (modern day Skikda) to provide field officers with a one-month training course in counter-insurgency techniques. Bigeard created the school and was placed in charge [Bigeard, (1975)].

In 1959 Bigeard was given command of his own sector in Ain-Sefra. Bigeard, unlike many fellow officers who were closely associated with the war, did not take part in the Algiers putsch in 1961.

Bigeard was later drawn into the controversy in France around the use of torture in the Algerian war. The admission by senior military people who were involved of the long accepted belief that torture was used systematically has put the spotlight on all figures involved. He justified the use of torture during the Algerian War as a "necessary evil" in Le Monde newspaper, and confirmed its use. He also claimed that he had not personally used torture.[14]

After Algeria

In 1967 Bigeard was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of ground forces in Dakar, Senegal. He commanded all forces in the French Indian Ocean Territory from 1970–1973. He was appointed State Secretary in Ministry of National Defence by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1975 and served until the following year, when he resigned from the army.

From 1978–1988 Bigeard sat in the National Assembly as deputy for the region of Meurthe-et-Moselle.


Bigeard died on 18 June 2010 at his home in Toul. He was accorded full military honours on 22 June in la cour d'honneur at Les Invalides.[15] His last request to have his ashes scattered at Dien Bien Phu was denied by the Vietnamese Government who stated that they did not wish to create a precedent.[16]


Bigeard's decorations plate

French Honors

Foreign Honors

  • Distinguished Service Order (UK)
  • Commander of the Legion of Merit (US)
  • Grand officier du Mérite Sénégalais
  • Grand officier du Mérite Togolais
  • Grand officier du Mérite Comorien
  • Grand officier du mérite Saoudite
  • Officier du Million d'Eléphants du Laos

General Bigerad was awarded a total of 27 citations, including 19 palmes and 8 stars.


Bigeard invented the tactics of heliborne warfare that continues today.[17]

Influence on counter-insurgency doctrine

A key participant in the destruction of the FLN's organization during the battle of Algiers 1956, Bigeard applied concepts of counter-insurgency warfare which he articulated in his work Le manuel de l'officier de renseignement (Intelligence Officer's Handbook). Among these concepts was the acceptance of the use of torture against suspected insurgents to gain information. Many of these same concepts would later appear in the seminal book La Guerre moderne, by Roger Trinquier.

Popular culture

A Portuguese reproduction of the "Bigeard" field cap (casquette) which is generally associated with the French soldiers serving in the Algerian War.

The character of Pierre-Noel Raspeguy in the novels The Centurions and The Praetorians by Jean Larteguy is modeled largely on Bigeard, but also Paul Ducournau.[1] In Lost Command, the 1966 movie adaptation of The Centurions, Raspeguy was played by Anthony Quinn.[18]

The character of Colonel Philippe Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, in the film The Battle of Algiers is widely believed to be a composite of Bigeard, Jacques Massu and other prominent officers.[19]


During his career Bigeard authored or co-authored a number of books. In retirement he continued to write, his last work was published in 2010, a few months after he died.

  • Contre guérilla (English: Counter guerilla), 1957
  • Aucune bête au monde..., Pensée Moderne, 1959
  • Piste sans fin (English: Tracks without end), Pensée Moderne, 1963
  • Pour une parcelle de gloire (English: For a piece of glory), Plon, 1975
  • Ma Guerre d'Indochine (English: My Indochina War), Hachette, 1994
  • Ma Guerre d'Algérie (English: My Algerian War), Editions du Rocher, 1995
  • De la brousse à la jungle, Hachette-Carrère, 1994
  • France, réveille-toi! (English: France, awake!), Editions n°1, 1997 ISBN 2-86391-797-8
  • Lettres d'Indochine (English: Letters from Indochina), Editions n°1, 1998–1999 (2 Volumes)
  • Le siècle des héros (English: The Century of the Heroes), Editions n°1, 2000 ISBN 2-86391-948-2
  • Crier ma vérité, Editions du Rocher, 2002
  • Paroles d'Indochine (English: Words of Indochina), Editions du Rocher, 2004
  • J'ai mal à la France (English: My France is sore), Edition du Polygone, 2006
  • Adieu ma France (English: Good-bye my France), Editions du Rocher, 2006 ISBN 2-268-05696-1
  • Mon dernier round (English: My last show), Editions du Rocher, 2009 ISBN 2-268-06673-8
  • Ma vie pour la France (English: My life for France), Editions du Rocher, 2010 ISBN 2-268-06435-2

Notes and references


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Horne 2006, p. 167.
  2. ^ a b Singer, Barnett, p.269
  3. ^ Windrow 2004, p. 237
  4. ^ a b c d e f Windrow 2004, p. 551.
  5. ^ Windrow 2004, p. 241
  6. ^ Windrow 2004, p. 416
  7. ^ Fall, Bernard B. (2002), Hell in a very small place: the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Da Capo Press, pp. 176–179,  
  8. ^ Windrow 2004, pp. 441–444
  9. ^ La vraie battaille d'alger, Jacques Massu, Librarie PLON, 1971
  10. ^ Film testimony by Paul Teitgen, Jacques Duquesne and Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc on the INA archive website.
  11. ^ Des guerres d’Indochine et d’Algérie aux dictatures d’Amérique latine, interview with Marie-Monique Robin by the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH, Human Rights League), January 10, 2007
  12. ^ Prise de tête Marcel Bigeard, un soldat propre ?, L'Humanité, June 24, 2000 (French)
  13. ^ Pour une parcelle de gloire, Marcelle Bigeard, Librarie PLON, 1975, p 295
  14. ^ Guerre d'Algérie : le général Bigeard et la pratique de la torture, Le Monde, July 4, 2000 (French)
  15. ^ "Adieu mon general! Honneurs militaires au general Bigeard". Armee de Terre. 8 July 2010. 
  16. ^ "Vietnam rejects French officer's ashes request". BBC News. 27 Jul 2010. 
  17. ^ helicopters during the war in Algeria, Military History
  18. ^ Internet Movie Database, Lost Command (1966). Retrieved on 11 February 2008.
  19. ^ The American Conservative, French Lesson: Battle of Algiers by Steve Sailer . Retrieved on 11 February 2008.


  • Aussaressess, General Paul (2010). The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957. New York: Enigma Books.  ;
  • Fall, Bernard B. (1966). Hell in a Very Small Place. Da Capo Press (published 2002).  ;
  •  ;
  • Singer, Barnett; John Langdon (2004), Cultured Force: Makers and Defenders of the French Colonial Empire, The University of Wisconsin Press,  
  • Windrow, Martin (2004), The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, Weidenfeld & Nicolson,  ;
  • Simpson, Howard (2005). Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot. Potomic Books.  

Media links

  • (French) General Bigeard interview on the battle of Dien Bien Phu, 3 May 2004
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