Marcel Bigeard was born in Toul, 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. Bigeard's working-class family were staunchly patriotic, and believed France was the greatest nation in the world; Bigeard's often stated belief that France was worth fighting for stemmed from this upbringing. He also had an older sister, Charlotte Bigeard, four 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.
Following a 6-year career in Société générale, Marcel Bigeard conducted his military service in France at Haguenau at the corps of the 23rd Fortress Infantry Regiment, Incorporated in the regiment as a soldat de deuxième classe in September 1936, caporal-chef, he was relieved of duty and military obligations with the rank of reserve sergent in September 1938.
Six months following his relief of duty, in anticipation of imminent conflict, he was recalled on March 22, 1939 to duty at the corps of the 23rd Fortress Infantry and promoted to the rank of sergent.
In September 1939, with the arrival of the reserves, the battalions of the 23rd Fortress Infantry Regiment 23eRIF, served each in a chain link to form new Fortress infantry regiments of « mobilization », Brigeard was assigned to the 79th Fortress Infantry Regiment in the under fortified sector of Hoffen and the Maginot Line. Volunteer for the franc corps, he led a combat group at Trimbach in Alsace and became quickly a sergent-chef then adjudant (warrant officer) at the age of 24.
On June 25, 1940, he was captured (post-armistice) and made prisoner of war spending 18 months in captivity in a stalag. Following his third attempt to escape on November 11, 1941, he managed to make his way to the unoccupied zone in France, and from there, he went to Senegal.
Volunteering for the French Occidental Africa, he was assigned in February 1942 to a camp in Senegal, in a Senegalese Tirailleurs Regiment of the Armistice Army. Promoted to sous-lieutenant in October 1943, he was directed with his regiment to Morocco.
Recruited as a paratrooper of the Free French Forces, he conducted a military formation, with the British Commandos, near Algiers during three months, then was assigned the preliminary rank of Chef de bataillon (major) at a directorate. In 1944, after paratrooper training by the British, he was parachuted into occupied France as part of a Jedburgh team of four with the mission of leading the resistance in the Ariège département close to the border with Andorra. One of these audacious ambushes against superior German forces gained him a British decoration. His nickname of "Bruno" has its origins in his radio call sign.
At the beginning of 1945, Bigeard created and managed during a scholastic semester, the regional cadres school of Pyla, near Bordeaux, destined to form officers issued from the French Forces of the Interior. Decorated with the Légion d'honneur and the British Distinguished Service Order for his actions in Ariège, Bigeard was promoted to an active captain in June 1945.
Bigeard was first sent to Indo-China in October 1945 to assist with French efforts to reassert their 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).
In the middle of 1945, captain Bigeard was entrusted with the command of the 6th company of the 23rd Colonial Infantry Regiment. Designated to participate to the expeditionary corps in Indochina, the regiment dismebarked in Saigon on October 25, 1945 and served until March 1946 in various sectors of operations. During this epoque, the "Bruno" surname started to circulate.
On March 8, 1946, a detachment of the 2nd Armored Brigade 2e DB and 9th Colonial Infantry Division, which the 23rd Colonial Infantry Regiment 23e RIC was part of, disembarked in Tonkin. As a paratrooper, Bigeard was legendary in the French Army for his toughness and physical endurance as the American diplomat Howard Simpson noted that anyone who visited Bigeard could expect only “a thin slice of ham and one small, isolated boiled potato washed down with steaming tea”.
On July 1, 1946, Bigeard left the 23e RIC and formed south-east of Dien Bien Phu, a unit constituted of four commandos of 25 volunteers at the corps of the autonomous Thai Battalion. At the return of his men in metropole, mid-October 1946, he assumed command of the 3rd company, constituted of almost 40 men. He then left Indochina on September 17, 1947 and reached France three days later.
Volunteering for another tour in Indochina, Bigeard was assigned on February 1, 1948 to the 3rd Colonial Parachute Commando Battalion 3e BCCP.
On October 1, 1949, Bigeard set on foot the 3rd Thai Battalion, consisting of 2530 men divided in five regular companies and nine companies of civilian guards with military supplementaries. Relieved from this post, he assumed on April 5, 1950 the command of an Indochinese marching battalion who received, in August, the regimental color of the 1st Tonkin Tirailleurs Regiment which was decorated by the croix de guerre with palm. On November 12, 1950, Bigeard embarked on a paquebot and left again Indochina.
In the spring of 1951, Bigeard was assigned at Vannes, the colonial demi-brigade of colonel Jean Gilles and was confined with a passing battalion. In September 1951, he was assigned the command of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion 6e BPC at Saint-Brieuc. He was ranked then as a Chef de battaillon in January 1952.
On July 28, 1952, Bigeard, at the head of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion 6e BPC, disembarked at Haiphong for a third deployment in Indochina. Over half of Bigeard's men were Vietnamese while the other half were French, thus requiring considerable leadership on his part to tie together a mixed unit to allow it to function effectively. On October 16, 1952, the battalion was parachuted on Tu Lê and confronted during eight days the opposing regimental divisions. During the Battle of Tu Lê, the battalion was encircled by an entire Vietnamese division, being outnumbered ten to one. In the course of extremely fierce fighting, Bigeard fought off the attempts of the Vietnamese to destroy his unit and led his men into a successful break-out into the jungle marching for days and carrying all of their wounded until finally reaching a French fort. The 6e BPC distinguished savoir-faire again during the Battle of Nà Sản, during an operation on Lang Song July 17, 1953 and during Operation Castor on Dien Bien Phu November 20, 1953. 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. This unique style included creating the famous 'casquette Bigeard' cap from the 'excess' material of the long shorts in the standard uniform. A fitness fanatic known for his austere lifestyle and working out several hours every day, Bigeard was famous being one of the fittest men in the entire French Army. Bigeard extruded a peculiar sort of French machismo as he always led from the front while refusing to carry a weapon, never asked his men to do anything that he would not do and was well known for his saying: "It is possible, it will be done. And if it is impossible, it will still be done". A colorful man, Bigeard was extremely popular with the troops under his men for his courage and for always leading from the front, but his contempt for superior officers who did not suffer the same hardships as ordinary soldiers, the "generals with middle-aged spread" as Bigeard called them, made for tense relations with his commanding officers. He participated in many operations including a combat drop on Tu Lê in November 1952. It was also in 1952 that he fully qualified to be a flying pilot of a military transport helicopter so as to be fully capable of commanding a paratrooper battalion. An extremely able military tactician, Bigard was called by the British military historian Martin Windrow the "intuitive master of terrain, who could conduct a battle by map and radio like the conductor of an orchestra."
On 20 November 1953 Bigeard and his unit took part in Operation Castor, the opening stage of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Bigeard and the 6e BPC returned to Dien Bien Phu on 16 March 1954, parachuting in to reinforce the now besieged garrison. He acted as deputy to Pierre Langlais, and was a member of the "parachute mafia" – a unit of the high-ranking paratroopers at the camp who oversaw combat operations. Historian Bernard Fall asserts that an armed Bigeard, along with Langlais, took de facto command of the camp from General Christian de Castries in mid-March. Both Langlais and Bigeard were known to be on good relations with their commanding officer.
On December 31, 1953, Bigeard took command of the Airborne Groupment constituted of the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment 1er RCP and the 6e BPC, intervening to intercept opposing divisions.
Parachuted on March 16, 1954, while the outcome of Dien Bien Phu was being sealed, Ranks in the French Army Commandant Bigeard was promoted to lieutenant-colonel during ongoing fighting, making of him a recognized figure while leading his battalion on points Éliane 1 and 2, specially co-directing intervention troops of the retracted camp of colonel Langlais. This was in some ways seen as a reward for his valiant command of his troops before the expected massacre at the end of the battle. Bigeard called Dien Bien Phu a "jungle Verdun", the final and most intense battle in Vietnam as the Vietnamese used their Soviet-built artillery on the hills above to rain heavy fire on the French positions; every day the Vietnamese staged huge "human wave" attacks, sending thousands of infantrymen to try to storm the French lines, only to be repulsed time after time. Bigeard's paras were engaged in the heaviest fighting at Dien Bien Phu, and of his 800 men, only forty had not been killed by the end of the battle.
Lieutenant-colonel Marcel Bigeard was made a prisoner of war on May 7 1954, during the fall of the camp. After the battle, the Vietnamese forced the French prisoners on a death march to POW camps, making them march through a hot, humid jungle while refusing to provide food, water or medicine. It was a tribute to Bigeard's intense physical fitness regime that he emerged from Vietnamese captivity in relatively good health. He was liberated four month later, leaving Indochina for good on September 25 1954. Upon returning to France, Bigeard told the French press he "would do better the next time".
In 1956, Bigeard was sent to the bled (countryside) of Algeria to hunt down the FLN using helicopters to rapidly deploy his men. On 5 June 1956 during a skirmish, Bigeard took a bullet to his chest that narrowly missed his heart. On 5 September 1956, Bigeard was the victim of an assassination attempt by the FLN, being shot in the chest twice by FLN assassins while jogging alone by the Mediterranean. The American historian Max Boot wrote it was a tribute to Bigeard's toughness and the robust state of his health that he could take three bullets in his chest over the course of four months in 1956 and still be back to duty shortly afterwards. At the beginning of 1956, the regiment participated at the corps of the elite 10th Parachute Division of général Jacques Massu in the battle of Algiers. The mission of the paratroopers was to re-establish peace in the city in the autumn of 1956 and until the summer of 1957. In late 1956, the FLN had launched the Battle of Algiers, a campaign of assassinations and bombings targeting civilians designed to be the "Algerian Dien Bien Phu" The FLN had decided to deliberately target pied-noir citizens as a way of breaking French power. As one FLN directive put it: "A bomb causing the death of ten people and wounding fifty others is the equivalent on the psychological level to the loss of a French battalion." As such, the FLN set off bombs almost daily at restaurants, cafes, bus stops, football stadiums, and marketplaces, and anybody known to be pro-French was murdered. The FLN favored murdering pro-French Muslims and pied-noirs by making them wear the "Algerian smile" - cutting out the throat, ripping out the tongue and leaving the victim to bleed to death. As the carnage mounted, the 10th Parachute Division was deployed to Algiers as the police simply could not cope.
In March 1957, the 3e RPC made way south of Blida and participated in numerous operations in Atlas and Agounnenda. The regiment relieved the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment in July 1957 in Algiers. Bigeard revitalized the unit by weeding out laggards and the uncommitted and then put the remainder through an intense training regime. He led the 3e RPC through numerous operations, the most famous being the 1957 Battle of Algiers. It was known that the FLN was conducting its bombing campaign that was terrorizing Algiers out of the Casbah, the overcrowded medieval quarter of Algiers with narrow, serpentine streets. Bigeard had the 10th Parachute Division build barbed wire fences around the Casbah and imposed a curfew where anyone found on the streets of the Casbah would be shot down and their bodies left out to rot until the morning to show the people of the Casbah that the 10th Parachute Division was a force “even more extreme than the FLN.” In January 1957, a map was drawn up of the Casbah, a census was conducted and using files from the Algiers police department the paras started to staged raids to capture suspected fellagha. Over the course of the Battle of Algiers, the 10th Parachute Division arrested about 24,000 Muslims of whom about 4,000 "disappeared", as those who were murdered were euphemistically described. During the Battle of Algiers, Bigeard captured Larbi Ben M'hidi, one of the FLN's top leaders, but Bigeard refused to torture him on the grounds that M'hidi was a warrior who deserved respect. During the course of a dinner with his enemy, Bigeard asked M'hidi if he was ashamed that he had bombs planted in baskets at restaurants and cafes designed to kill the patrons, saying "Aren’t you ashamed to place bombs in the baskets of your women?," leading to the reply “Give me your planes. I’ll give you my baskets.” When Massu ordered M'hidi executed, Bigeard declined the order, and instead Major Paul Aussaresses was sent to take M'hidi away to hang him.” As Aussaresses was taking M'hidi out to the countryside to hang him, Bigeard had his paras give the doomed M'hidi full military honors as he was led away.
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 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 eight paras killed for 96 enemy dead, twelve prisoners and five captives released. For this exemplary operation he was nicknamed "Seigneur de l'Atlas" by his boss General Massu.
Promoted to colonel in January 1958, Bigeard directed the 3e RPC with others to the Battle of the frontiers from January to June. After other urban, desert and mountain operations, Bigeard was replaced as the commander of 3e RPC in March 1958 by Roger Trinquier. In 1958, Time magazine wrote of Bigard that he was "a martinet, but the idol of his men, who made them shave every day, no matter where they were, and doled out raw onions instead of the traditional wine ration because 'wine reduces stamina'." The senior officers of the French Army, most of whom had graduated from Saint-Cyr, made no secret of their dislike for Bigeard, whom they viewed as a "jumped-up ranker" who disregarded orders if he thought them to be stupid. As a punishment, Bigeard was removed from his front-line duties in Algeria and sent to Paris to train officers in "revolutionary warfare".
Accordingly, Bigeard went back to Paris where, the minister of the armies, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, asked him to establish a center of instruction for cadres that opened at the end of April near Philippeville. The École Jeanne d'Arc in Philippeville was to provide field officers with a one-month training course in counter-insurgency techniques. Bigeard created the school and was placed in charge. He did not take any part to the events of May 13, 1958.
After fourth months in Toul, Bigeard went back to Algeria, taking command of a sector in Saida and Oranie on January 25 1959. Under his disposition were around 5,000 men, formed from the 8th Infantry Regiment, the 14th Algerian Tirailleurs Regiment, the 23rd Moroccan Saphis Regiment 23e RSM, one group of DCA, one artillery regiment, and two mobile groups.
Following a meeting with de Gaulle on August 27 1959, he assumed command on December 1 of the Ain-Sefra, with an effective strength of 1,500 men. In 1959 Bigeard was given command of his own sector in Ain-Sefra and, 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 over the use of torture in the Algerian war. The admission by senior military people involved to the long-accepted belief that torture was used systematically put the spotlight on all figures involved. Bigeard justified the use of torture during the Algerian War as a "necessary evil" in Le Monde newspaper, and confirmed its use while also denying any claim of his involvement in personally using torture.
From July 1960 to January 1963, Bigeard took command of the 6th Colonial Infantry Outremer Regiment 6e RIAOM at Bouar in Central African Republic.
Following a brief passage by the École supérieure de guerre from June 1963 to June 1964, he took command of the 25th Parachute Brigade which included the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment 1e RCP and the 9th Parachute Chasseur Regiment 9e RCP at Pau on August 31, 1964. Following, he also held the command of the 20th Parachute Brigade succeeding général Langlais and which included the 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment 3e RPIMa, the 6th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment 6e RPIMa and the 9th Parachute Chasseur Regiment at Toulouse. Accordingly, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general on August 1, 1967.
Following an encounter with général de Gaulle, he was designated to the post of superior commandant of terrestrial forces in Senegal, which included 2000 men (French Army 1100, French Navy 500, French Air Force 400) and accordingly joined Dakar on February 7, 1968.
In July 1970, Bigeard was back in Paris and was assigned for ten months at the CEMAT headquarter staff. On August 7, 1971, he took command of Area Forces present in the Indian Ocean at Antananarivo and obtained on December 1, 1971 his third star. He left Madagascar on July 31, 1973 with the total ensemble of French Forces present in that sector. Bigeard was known for his unusual way of taking command, namely by parachuting in to his post while saluting his men, which nearly led to disaster in Madagascar when the wind blew him into the Indian Ocean that was full of sharks, thus requiring his men to dive in to save him. Sharks will attack an individual, but never a group.
Following his return to France, he became from September 1973 to February 1974, the second adjoint to the Military governor of Paris. Promoted général de corps d'armée on March 1, 1974, he assumed command of the 4th Military Region, that is 40000 men out of which 10000 paratroopers.
He met on January 30, 1975, President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing who proposed the post of secretary of state attached to minister Yvone Bourges. He held that post from February 1975 to August 1976, date on which he leaves the service.
Following a brief retirement at Toul, he presented himself to the elections and became a deputy of Meurthe-et-Moselle from 1978 to 1981. During this first legislation, he would also be the assigned the function tenure of président de la commission de défense. He was reelected to the first round in June 1981 then to the proportionnelle in March 1986. In 1988, following the dissolution of the assembly, he retired. During his retirement, he spent much of his time writing his memoire and wrote books on his military career while proposing reflexion thoughts on the evolution of France. In his last book, Mon dernier round, published in 2009, Bigeard strongly denounced de Gaulle for his treatment of the harkis (Algerian Muslims who served in the French Army), writing that de Gaulle shamefully abandoned thousands of harkis and their families to be slaughtered by the FLN in 1962 and even those harkis who did escape to France were shunted aside to live in the banlieues, writing that these men and their families who sacrificed so much for France deserved better much. In a memoir published in 1999, Bigeard admitted to using "muscular interrogations" to make FLN suspects talk, but denied engaging in torture himself while at the same time justifying torture as an interrogation method writing "Was it easy to do nothing when you had seen women and children with their limbs blown off by bombs?".
On 15 June 2000, Louisette Ighilahriz, a woman had been a member of the FLN accused Bigeard and Massu in an interview published in Le Monde newspaper of being present when she was tortured and raped by the French Army at a military prison in 1957. Ighilahriz had come forward with her story as she wanted to thank one "Richaud", an Army doctor at the prison for saving her life, saying that Dr. Richaud was a most gentle man who always treated her injuries and saved her life. Bigeard rejected Ighilarhiz's claims that she was tortured and raped and he been present, saying that Ighilarhiz's story was a "tissue of lies" designed to "destroy all that is decent in France", and going to say this "Richaud" had never existed. Bigeard was contradicted by Massu who confirmed the existence of "Richaud", saying that Ighilahriz was referring to Dr. François Richaud who had been the doctor stationed at the prison in 1957. Bigeard stated in his defense that Ighilahriz's claim she had been tortured by him was part of a "network of lies – destroying everything that remains decent in France", waged by the same left-wing intellectuals whom Bigeard blamed for undermining the French will to win in Algeria. Bigeard always denied having engaged in torture himself, but he also maintained that the use of torture against the FLN had been a "necessary evil". The Canadian historian Barnett Singer came to Bigeard's defense, writing that Ighilahriz was a terrorist whose account was full of "fabrications" and Bigeard was off hunting the FLN in the bled at the time she was held by the 10th Parachute Division in late 1957.
Bigeard died on June 18, 2010 at his home in Toul. His funeral procession was held at the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toul on June 21 in presence of former président de la République Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and the ministre de la Défense, Hervé Morin.