Lieutenant Colonel Jean Pierre Bissey

The 5th of August 1933 marks the day when Lieutenant Colonel Jean Pierre Bissey, a lesser-known officer of the French Foreign Legion, was killed in a battle with local rebels during the French Pacification of Morocco. All but forgotten nowadays, he remains not only the highest-ranking officer of the Foreign Legion killed between the two world wars but also during the long campaign in Morocco. The following article was written in his memory.

Jean Pierre Bissey was born on July 20, 1882, in La Sauvetat-du-Dropt, a small commune in the Lot-et-Garonne department in southwestern France. Raised in the same commune, young Jean decided to pursue a military career and enlisted, in August 1900, as a simple soldier in the 65th Infantry Regiment in Nantes, western France. Seven years later, he entered the well-known Military Infantry Academy (École Militaire d’Infanterie, EMI) in Saint-Maixent, allowing qualified non-commissioned officers a chance to become officers. He graduated as a second lieutenant a year later, in 1908. The same year, he got married.

Again promoted in April 1910, now Lieutenant Bissey was assigned, in late December, as a platoon leader with the Foreign Legion’s 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE) in Algeria, French North Africa. He served in the Saharan regions of Algeria’s South Oran.

In mid-1914, the First World War broke out in Europe. The young officer immediately volunteered to defend mainland France and was accepted in the 144th Infantry Regiment. Shortly afterward, in September, Jean Bissey was promoted to captain. He spent three years on the battlefields of the Western Front. After being awarded the prestigious Legion of Honor order in July 1917, he returned to the 1er RE in Bel Abbès, Algeria. In 1919, he volunteered for the ongoing campaign in neighboring Morocco. He again was accepted and joined the Moroccan Tirailleurs (French light infantry units consisting of Moroccan natives).

In September 1925, Captain Bissey was assigned to the Legion’s 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (3e REI), a unit also stationed in Morocco. However, he spent only a few months with it. In July 1926, he left North Africa to be assigned to the 11th Chasseurs Machine Gun Battalion (Bataillon de chasseurs mitrailleurs, BCM, “Hunters”) in France-occupied Germany. There, Bissey was promoted to major in late March 1927. In mid-1927, he returned to Morocco to command the 1st Battalion, 63rd Moroccan Tirailleurs Regiment.

In May 1931, still in Morocco, Major Bissey rejoined the Foreign Legion and was transferred to the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (2e REI), stationed in Meknes. He commanded the 1st Battalion. In March 1932, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became the second-in-command of the regiment, led by Colonel Richert at the time. This period of time was characterized by an intensification of operations to pacify the country (carried out since 1907) and the occupation of the last isolated rebel enclaves, located in the High Atlas Mountains.

In 1933, the French troops, including legionnaires, fought first in the Djebel Sagho, then moved north and — from July to August — conducted operations between Agoudal and Tinghir, to chase the last rebels hiding in this part of Morocco.

During these very last battles carried out by the French in Morocco, Lieutenant Colonel Jean Bissey was killed in action on August 5, 1933, at the head of his combined arms regimental team. This team, making part of three such formations involved in the operation, consisted of Moroccan Tirailleurs (two battalions) and a 2e REI battalion (2nd) and attacked the Djebel Hamdoun (also called Tizi N’Hamdoun), a mountain range/peak occupied by a strong group of rebels. Along with their lieutenant colonel, shot through the heart by a rebel sharpshooter, 16 legionnaires were killed and another 30 officers and legionnaires wounded. However, the rebels were eventually defeated, and their position seized.

Lieutenant Colonel Jean Pierre Bissey was buried in Meknes a week later, on August 12. Father of five, he earned twelve citations (mentions in dispatches) during his admirable service and was awarded, among other accolades, the Officer of the Legion of Honor, the War Cross 1914-1918, the Foreign Theater Operations War Cross, the Colonial Medal with clasps “Morocco” and “Sahara”, the Order of Ouissam Alaouite (Moroccan), and the Medal for Peace in Morocco (Spanish).

Later, the headquarters of the 2e REI in Meknes, Morocco, was named after him: Quartier Bissey. The Legion units occupied it until the mid-1950s.

Unfortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Bissey is all but forgotten in France nowadays, despite being the highest-ranking officer of the Foreign Legion killed between the two world wars, as well as during the entire campaign in Morocco (1907-1934). He also remains the highest-ranking officer of the post-WWI 2e REI killed in action.

As a matter of interest, his son Jean-Pierre (born 1917) defended France during the German invasion in 1939-1940, then became a paratrooper commando with the British and jumped over France during the Liberation of the country in 1944. He had never served with the Foreign Legion, however. Retired from the French Army as a colonel in 1972, he died in 2015.

Lieutenant Colonel Jean Pierre Bissey - 2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion - 1930s
Lieutenant Colonel Jean Pierre Bissey (1882 – 1933).
Quartier Bissey - Meknes - Morocco - 2e REI - 2 REI - Foreign Legion - 1930s
Quartier Bissey in Meknes, Morocco, 1930s. The barracks served as the HQ of the 2e REI until late 1940. Following WWII, it was occupied by the 4e REI.



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