General Marcel Bigeard: Soldier who served in three conflicts and became an expert on counter-insurgency

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The Independent Online

General Marcel Bigeard was one of France's most adored and decorated military commanders and was a veteran of three wars who became the doyen of counter-insurgency. A veteran of the Second World War, France's colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria, Bigeard rose up from the lowest rank to become a four-star general. Much to the annoyance of the top brass, he was loved by the troops and gained a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense commander who led by example, being wounded on five occasions and escaping captivity three times. A 1958 profile of him in Time magazine captured his tough-as-nails persona: "A martinet, but the idol of his men, Bigeard whipped them into shape by running them as much as 15 miles at a time. He made them shave every day, no matter where they were, doled out raw onions instead of the traditional wine ration because 'wine reduces stamina.'"

Born into a staunchly patriotic working-class family in 1916, Marcel Bigeard was the son of a railway worker. He left school at 14 to help the family financially and began working as a bank clerk at the local Société Générale before being called up for military service in 1936; he served on the Maginot Line. In 1939 he was recalled to active duty and served, initially as a sergeant, during the invasion of France in the fortified sector of Hoffen in Alsace.

In June 1940, Bigeard, now a warrant officer, was captured by the Germans and interned, but later escaped. He made his way to Africa to join the colonial infantry in Senegal, in what was then French West Africa, where in 1943 he was commissioned, with the rank of second-lieutenant into General Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces.

In 1944, Bigeard made his first combat jump when he was parachuted into the Pyrenees mountains of south-western France to lead Resistance fighters in the Ariège département. He was awarded the British DSO for the bravery shown in an ambush against superior German forces and ended the war with the rank of captain and the nickname "Bruno" – his radio call-sign.

From 1945 to the early 1950s Bigeard was the head of a newly formed parachute battalion, the 6th BPC in south-east Asia, where France was struggling to regain control of its colonies in Indochina after the Japanese war-time occupation. This unit became famed for its supreme physical fitness and ferocity in combat. In May 1954, Bigeard and his unit were dropped into Dien Bien Phu to reinforce the besieged French garrison that was trying to stave off the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese Communist and nationalist forces. Although his unit fought bravely they were heavily outnumbered and the French were ultimately surrounded and defeated. Bigeard, now a Lieutenant Colonel, was captured along with nearly 11,000 troops. This was the end of French military influence in Asia and paved the way for direct US involvement in what later became the Vietnam War.

Martin Windrow, a British military historian, described Bigeard's exploits during the battle in his book The Last Valley: "Bigeard was personally fearless, tactically brilliant, and an intuitive master of terrain, who could conduct a battle by map and radio like the conductor of an orchestra. He inspired the absolute loyalty of his officers and men."

After several months' captivity, Bigeard was repatriated in time to become involved in the escalating conflict in Algeria, where he commanded a parachute regiment. His unit took part in the Battle of Algiers of 1957, regaining control of the capital city, and was then entrusted with destroying the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). However, his ruthless methods and the French forces' wide use of torture against the FLN brought him into conflict with others. During the operation, using a system of intelligence garnered through quadrillage (sector-based surveillance) and other non-approved methods, the military situation stabilised.

In one of his several volumes of memoirs, Bigeard confirmed that the French military had used what he called "muscular interrogations" during the Algerian war. Referring to bomb attacks carried out on French civilians by the FLN, he wrote, "Was it easy to do nothing when you had seen women and children with their limbs blown off by bombs?" In an interview a few years ago, he said, "Whatever we did was much less brutal that what the Americans did in Iraq, or the Russians in Chechnya."

None the less, Bigeard always vehemently denied having been involved himself, but said it had been a "necessary evil". His denials, however, looked less convincing as survivors came forward. Then Paul Teitgen, the former secretary-general of the Algiers prefecture, revealed that Bigeard's troops had thrown Algerian prisoners into the Mediterranean from helicopters (their corpses were nicknamed "crevettes Bigeard" – Bigeard's shrimps). In 2001, another general revealed unashamedly that "the use of torture had been widespread, systematic, and largely approved by the French government." During the conflict General de Gaulle had returned to power and soon recognised that Algeria should be given independence, which it duly received in 1962.

In 1976, Bigeard resigned from the army a four-star general, serving his final year as State Secretary for Defence under Giscard d'Estaing. He returned to Toul and subsequently served as the deputy for the region of Meurthe-et-Moselle in the French parliament.

Bigeard was known for his acerbic comments and quick wit. Once, when asked whether he wanted to be addressed as "General" or "Minister", he replied, "It took me 30 years to become a general, and 30 minutes to become a minister, so I prefer General." Bigeard died at home in Toul, aged 94. President Nicolas Sarkozy described his "deep sadness" at Bigeard's death, calling him an "ardent patriot". Bigeard wrote 15 books about his career and about counter-insurgency warfare and received many honours including the Grand Croix de la Légion d'Honneur, one of France's highest distinctions, as well as the Medal of the Resistance.

Martin Childs

Marcel Maurice Bigeard, general: born Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France 14 February 1916; married (one daughter); died Toul 17 June 2010.