Obituary: General Georges Buis

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LIEUTENANT GEORGES Buis joined the forces of Free France in May 1941 and fought against the Vichy army in Syria and the Lebanon. He joined General Leclerc's tanks at Temara in Morocco and moved with them to England, from where he landed in France at the so-called Utah Beach, and proceeded to the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, then from Paris to Strasbourg and eventually to Hitler's eyrie at Berchtesgaden. After 1945 there were further wars in Indo-China, Morocco and Algeria.

He was thus an experienced soldier who had taken part in difficult battles. But he was more than this. He was an intellectual of war. The complete military man with a gift for observation and analysis, he expressed himself with a subtle use of language. He was a commanding officer who wrote novels. He could always find a use for his talents but he could also be troublesome. He once explained his career as one where he caused upsets and therefore was moved on. He has often been compared to Lawrence of Arabia.

He used to tell a typical story about the manoeuvres held by tank units in Champagne before the Second World War. As was customary, when they were concluded a meeting was held where the various commanders reported in public to the representative of the Commander-in-Chief, General Gamelin. As one of the field commanders was speaking, Buis observed a strange figure emerge from the ranks of those listening. He was "un immense bonhomme", wearing the long overcoat of the cavalry officer, together with boots and spurs.

He was, said Buis, a character from a painting by El Greco. He interrupted the speaker and accused him of having committed faults in his manoeuvring of tanks which the most junior of officers would never have committed. When the commander of the opposing side started to intervene, the colonel turned on him. "You should not have drawn attention to yourself," he said scornfully. "You did nothing." The representative of the Commander-in- Chief at this point called everyone to order. The colonel saluted and, doing a correct about-turn, "with a certain noblesse" returned to his place.

This was Buis' first encounter with de Gaulle, in 1937. But the point of the story so far as he was concerned was to show how the French army was ignorant about tank warfare. Many of the observations that Buis makes about his war experience concerned the personalities with whom he worked, Generals Catroux and de Gaulle in Syria, subsequently Leclerc, but much of the interest, not only for us but for Buis himself, concerned his comments about the French.

In Syria, the Vichy French were passionately in favour of Petain and consumed by a hatred of de Gaulle and the Free French forces. When an important French official gave a dinner party, Buis recorded, the hostess would begin proceedings by taking her guests to see the latest photographs of the Marshal that had just arrived from France. The Commandant Garbit was in the Free French forces and carrying the French flag and shouting that he was French. He advanced towards the forces of the Vichy General Dentz. An officer in command of a Senegalese unit gave the order, "Shoot that fool carrying the flag." He was mortally wounded.

Buis spent his first night in liberated Paris, sleeping on the pavement in the rue de Rivoli. He was woken up and given a copy of the resistance paper Combat. This was exciting. Then a fellow officer took him to have lunch with a wealthy uncle. This uncle congratulated them on their wisdom. They had, he said, chosen the right side.

The English sometimes fare better in Buis's recollections. As Leclerc's tanks were passing through Daventry, one of them skidded and crashed with all its 20 tons into the dining room of a cottage. The officer in charge, who had nearly been decapitated, emerged from his tank and contemplated the English family who lived there. "I'm sorry." he said. But everything went smoothly. A fortnight later the family invited the tank crew to tea.

Georges Buis was born in Saigon in 1912. He was the son and the grandson of army officers, his father being in the colonial army. He was educated at Toulon. His dream was to become a student at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Instead he went to Saint Cyr, which he hated. He adored literature and was attracted to the world of art. Only in rugby did he excel in an activity that seemed suitable for a future officer. He was sent to Syria in 1938 and was therefore absent from France in 1940.

Appointed as the head of General Catroux's office in Beirut after the difficulties of French relations with the French, and French relations with the British, he played a conciliatory and tactful role in the various personal quarrels. On one occasion an exasperated General Catroux wrote to de Gaulle resigning all his offices. He gave it to Buis to codify and transmit. The next day Buis returned to Catroux's office and gave him the message book. "This was not sent," he said. Catroux took the message, put it in his drawer and talked of other things.

During the war in Algeria, Buis (by now a Colonel) commanded French forces in the difficult area of the Hodna, lying between Kabylia and the Sahara proper. He discovered traces of a large number of rebels. By taking swift action, he led paratroops to the unit that was serving under the man who was regarded as the most dangerous of the rebel commanders, Amirouche, and set in motion the action that led to his death. In Buis' 1961 novel Le Grotte, there are certain echos of this incident, although Buis always said that in Kabylia he felt he was really in his home department of the Drome. The countryside, the people were the same. He could not become friends with the villagers in Kabylia because it was a time of war and revolution. But he claimed to understand them.

In 1962 Buis became chef de cabinet for Christian Fouchet, who was preparing for Algeria's becoming independent. In 1966 he became military governor of Paris with the rank of General. He went on to be the Director of the Institut des Hautes Etudes de Defense Nationale and played an important role in similar establishments (including the Royal Institute of Strategic Studies in London). Amongst his many distinguished military decorations he was proud to be a Commandeur des Palmes Academiques.

In May 1945, after the armistice, Captain Buis came from Berchtesgaden to present General de Gaulle with Goering's armed Mercedes, which had been found in Hitler's garage. De Gaulle looked at him quizzically. "Well, Buis, you're still alive? You're lucky."

General Buis died in Paris this month.

Georges Buis, soldier and writer: born Saigon 24 February 1912; married 1946 Huguette Franquin; died Paris 12 June 1998.