General Marcel Bigeard, who died at the age of 94 in 2010, was by anyone’s reckoning, an amazing fighting man. And yes, he was French.
This excellent article and tribute to Bigeard, written at his death almost two years ago, chronicles his military career and describes some of his exploits and accomplishments. These days, Americans have a pretty low view of the French military. It is an unjustified and totally uninformed view. The notion that the French army is made up of a bunch of cowards is, honestly, a laughable one. The reason why Americans have this incorrect notion is that the French refused to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Remember “freedom fries” and “freedom toast”? We sure showed them, didn’t we?
The French, for most of European history since the establishment of the Frankish kingdom under Clovis in the sixth century, have been among the most efficient and feared fighting forces on that continent. Have they lost some battles, and even some wars? Yes, indeed. That can happen when you have a history that goes back to the fall of the Roman empire. Americans (est. 1776) would do well to remember that. It would also help Americans to remember that, if not for the French fleet under de Grasse and the French army under Lafayette, the American Revolution would have likely ended with George Washington swinging from a British gibbet.
When I think of the French army, I remember what they accomplished at Verdun in 1916. The plan of the Germans at Verdun was “to bleed the French army white” in the words of General von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff. After ten months of fighting the vaunted German army, the French defeated them, inflicting over a half million German casualties and suffering that many themselves. The French would go on to defeat the Germans in World War I. They had the help of the Americans and the British, without a doubt. But it was French territory, French industry, French agriculture, and French cities and towns that the Germans seized in World War I, not British or American. And the Americans did not engage the Germans in battle on a large scale until well in 1918, and suffered just over 100,000 casualties for their part. The French lost 1.4 million.
Americans have never sustained that many casualties in any armed conflict in its history. Not even close. In the Civil War of 1861-1865, there were just over 600,000 casualties on both sides, but even these tremendous losses are nothing compared to French losses in World War I. In five months at the Somme in 1916 (while simultaneously fighting the Germans in Verdun), the French lost a third of what the Americans lost in four years of civil war. To have prevailed over the Germans despite those kinds of losses is nothing short of awe-inspiring. We Americans could never stomach losses on that scope.
The French have a long and storied military history spanning many centuries. It is certainly worth the effort of getting to know it.