France's Imperial Legacy

By Singer, Barnett; Langdon, John | Contemporary Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview

France's Imperial Legacy

Singer, Barnett, Langdon, John, Contemporary Review

When in 1997 one of the present authors wrote to General Marcel Bigeard, France's most decorated living soldier, he received a surprisingly prompt reply from a busy man. Bigeard was the last of a line who distinguished themselves in a once great French colonial empire and who had character and culture unmatched by today's degreed hordes. Bigeard hastily scribbled that he had just published France: Reveille-toi (France: Wake Up!) and that he was 'being drowned' under piles of letters, as well as myriad TV, radio, and newspaper interviews. It was understandable that a man who had fought tenaciously and innovatively in Vietnam and Algeria should feel that today's France has lost its 'punch' and that the National Front of Le Pen only attracts attention because other political stripes fail to address issues that matter. In enclosed interviews Bigeard deplored France's recent cancellation of compulsory military service and said that he wrote the book as a kind of warning to his country and presumably, the West.

What better man to do the warning? One of the commonalities of French imperialism was how much maturing influence it had had on many of those who succumbed to its pains and paradoxical pleasures. From Vietnam and Algeria Bigeard had truly learned to respect enemies and their ways, as well as to inspire the French soldiers he led.

Partly due to suffering, he demonstrated a noblesse oblige (albeit that he was from a humble background), a devotion to something larger than oneself, and a courage that the best and brightest outre-mer had always had to locate inside. Many of the soldiers Bigeard describes in an extraordinary memoir of the 1970s also 'grew', due to imperial exigencies. The majority were, however, killed, and Bigeard's narrative humanizes and renders palpable a discussion of this last era of French colonialism.

Born in 1916 in Lorraine, Bigeard's domineering, demanding mother and nice, ineffectual father were part of the psychological recipe for a great military leader in the making. At the Maginot Line in the late 1930s he witnessed French sloppiness and defeatism, yet in the Battle for France he fought well until the humiliating armistice of June 22, 1940.

Imprisoned in Germany Bigeard got to see these Nazi 'gods of war' up close, but in each stalag he inhabited thought of nothing but escape. His first attempt on the patriotic date of July 14, 1941 ultimately failed, rating him bread and water and considerable weight loss. His second failed as well. Escape number three, with a French pal and help from a German woman, began on another significant date, November 11, 1941, and this time, via a teetery bike they left at the Rhine, a filched boat hand-paddled across a strong current under their own power, and a tramp across Luxembourg, the pair reached a final Nazi-guarded bridge. In the dark they crawled across, tentatively using German on the other side and heard delicious French in reply!

That was the first of a series of Bigeardian exploits that would make him legendary in the colonial milieu. After World War II, this great assessor and developer of talent spent much time in Vietnam, putting each aggregation he headed there into top shape. Paratroop warfare became his trademark, and indeed, he signed his letter 'Votre vieux para'. Whenever Bigeard left an area to put out another fire, the Vietminh soon came back to inflict damage - they knew who to avoid. The many deaths of men who had become like brothers took their toll, as did his own injuries, prior to the final collapse at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. After a series of Dantesque combats, a 'great calm, the silence of death, [hung] over the Citadel, under a beautiful, clear blue sky . . .' Wiry little Tonkinois led French captives away, many of whom expired on the death march; but of course Bigeard, psychologically imprinted by a mother who demanded the impossible, survived.

In Algeria he became a celebrity, too much so for other grandes gueules of the French army, including Massu. …

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