Yesterday, I was saddened to learn from Jean-Luc Synave’s French blog “bir-hacheim.com” that the celebrated author, soldiers’ friend, and journalist, Jean Lartéguy, had passed away. He was ninety years old at the time of his death on 23 February 2011.

Jean Lartéguy
Jean Lartéguy was born Jean Pierre Lucien Osty in the small French hamlet of Aumont-Aubrac, just outside of Paris, in 1920. The young Frenchman’s early years were uneventful. However, with the fall of France in 1940 the trajectory of his life changed, and changed dramatically. The young Lartéguy, along with his fellow countrymen in metropolitan France, was forced to suffer the indignities of the German occupation until finally, in March 1942, he was able to escape into Spain. After a brief stint in a Spanish jail, the future writer joined the Free French army and became an officer with the First Commando Group. While fighting with the First Commando, Lartéguy saw action in Italy, southern France, and Germany. When the war ended, Lartéguy opted to continue in the army, ultimately serving seven years and rising to the rank of captain before finally leaving active duty to join the reserves.

Upon his return to civilian life, the combat veteran Lartéguy embarked on a new career as a war correspondent, travelling from one hot spot to another to cover conflicts in Korea, Indochina, Algeria, and Latin America. It was during this period that the former soldier developed both his writing skills and his clear-eyed understanding of the rapidly evolving phenomenon of “asymmetrical warfare” that was only then beginning to ignite in communist insurgencies around the globe. One of the first western observers to recognize the threat posed by this new type of conflict, the writer’s early insights about the nature of revolutionary warfare in the twentieth-century are still considered valid to this day.

Jean Lartéguy, 1944
In the course of his long career as a writer, Jean Lartéguy wrote some fifty books as well as countless articles on military and political affairs for various publications including Paris Match. Without doubt, however, his most famous work was “The Centurions” which drew heavily on his own experiences covering the anti-European wars in Indochina and French West Africa. In this breakthrough novel, Lartéguy looked — through the unsentimental eyes of a hard-bitten French paratrooper, and the men he commanded — at the seemingly irresistible tide of anti-colonialism, nationalism, and communism that was then sweeping through one European colony after another. It was, in the eyes of soldiers and critics alike, a minor masterpiece.

For my own part, I read Lartéguy’s classic war novel “The Centurions”, which dealt with the doomed French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, when I was deployed in Vietnam during the mid-1960s. I thought then, and I still do, that the author wrote with a genuine understanding and appreciation of the men (whatever their nationality) who volunteer to take up arms and to go into harm’s way on behalf of their (often unappreciative) fellow countrymen.

General Marcel Bigeard
Fortuitously for its author, “The Centurions” was a commercial success and, thanks to its strong narrative arc and the timeliness of its subject matter, a big budget version of the book was brought to the screen in 1966 with Anthony Quinn and Alain Delon in the movie’s leading roles. Understandably, however, because certain studio executives worried that the classical roots of Lartéguy’s choice of title might lead some members of the viewing public to assume that the movie was another “sword and toga” epic, the studio’s marketing heads decided — prior to the movie’s theatrical release — to change the film’s marquee title to the “Lost Command”.

Col. Lewis L. Millett
Interestingly, the central character in Lartéguy’s novel about the paratroopers sent to fight in France’s post-World War II colonial possessions, Lt. Col. Pierre Raspeguy — although originally based on French General Marcel Bigeard — reminded me a great deal of an American officer under whom I myself served for a time: Col. Lewis L. (Bayonet) Millett. Like Lartéguy’s hard-driving professional soldier, Col. Millett had come up through the ranks and was a “bigger than life” figure; he was also an exceptional combat leader, and a fine and honorable man. Regrettably, my onetime commander passed away on 14 November 2009. Colonel Lewis L. Millett was an inspiration to the men who served under him; and, for what it’s worth, he was also the only Medal of Honor winner that I ever actually met during my active duty service in the army.

General David Petraeus
Finally, and perhaps most fitting of all — after decades out of print — it appears that “The Centurions” is soon due to be republished; moreover, the critically-acclaimed novel will return to print, it would appear, mainly because of the personal lobbying efforts of American general David Petraeus. America’s commander in Afghanistan, according to the publisher, has been a keen admirer of Lartéguy’s writing since his youth, and “The Centurions” has long been one of General Petraeus’ favorite books.


  • Thanks for "Larteguy souvenir"! Solider, journalist and writer, quite unusual !

  • Greetings Jean-Luc:

    Don't mention it. I am just grateful that you mentioned Jean Larteguy's passing on your blog; otherwise, I might not have learned about it for days, if not weeks!

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Thanks for the notice, though this is sad news.
    I found my copy of The Centurions for 50 cents in a used bookstore a long time ago. Getting a copy of The Praetorians was a lot harder, but it has been put back into print by Hailer publishing (http://www.hailerpublishing.com/praetorians.html)

  • Greetings Itmurnau:

    Yes, it is probably very good news to those who would like to read some of Larteguy's earlier works: a number of those books -- due to scarcity -- had, of late, become absurdly expensive. Actually, now that I think about it, I am pretty sure that it was the head of Hailer Publishing who was lobbied by General Petraeus to reissue "The Centurions", as well.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • I am so glad to find that there are still a few people out there who appreciate Lartéguy as much as I do (aside from price-gouging internet thieves, of course, who probably don't read the books they sell for such obscene prices...). I had begun to suspect that I was the last one. I have worked long hours to compile the most complete information on his work at goodreads.com, so please take a look if you like.

  • Greetings Anon:

    Thank you for visiting; I sincerely appreciate your interest.

    Yes, there are a surprising number of students of military affairs who -- in spite of the years that have passed since his best-known books were written -- still both remember and admire Jean Larteguy's work.

    Good luck with your project and

    Best Regards, Joe

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