French Marines were manning observation posts on either side of the Vrbanja Bridge. They were UN peacekeepers, the first to arrive in the decimated city of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in May 1995. But their day was to begin in humiliation and end in bloodshed as their mission to hold the observation posts quickly escalated into the first UN combat mission of the war.
When they first began their occupation of the bridge, one side was overtaken by Bosnian Serb commandos. Dressed in French uniforms and donning French weapons, the commandos took one side of the bridge without firing a shot. They even pulled up to the post in a stolen French armored personnel carrier. For many of the Serbs, it was the last thing they would ever do.
A lot of them, like Serbian commander Ratko Mladic, were busy committing war crimes.
At gunpoint, the 10 French marines were disarmed and taken captive, and driven to another location. The other two were to be used on the bridge as human shields. The other side of the bridge didn't even know their comrades had been overrun and captured. When the other unit didn't check in with headquarters, their platoon commander came to check in on the Marines – he then sounded the alarm. When their fellow marines discovered their friends had been taken captive, they decided to move quickly on the Serb commandos.
"When the Serbs took our soldiers under their control by threat, by dirty tricks, they began to act as terrorists, you cannot support this," Said Col. Erik Sandahl, commander of the 4th French Battalion. "You must react. The moment comes when you have to stop it. Full stop. And we did."
French APCs on the ground in Bosnia, 1995.
When French President Jacques Chirac found out about the captured French marines, he went around the UN and ordered his troops to retake the bridge and find the missing men. The French sent 30 more Marines, 13 APCs, and 70 French Army soldiers to the bridge. But they couldn't just blow up the observation post or do a regular infantry assault on the position. There were still hostages inside. They were going to have to do it the old fashioned way.
The French marines mounted their first bayonet charge since the Korean War.
François Lecointre, now a general and France's Chief of the Defence Staff, led the bayonet charge.
After the bayonet charge, a 32-minute firefight ensued that saw one of the French hostages shot by a Bosnian sniper, the other hostage escaped, three Frenchmen killed in action and another ten wounded, along with four Serbs killed, three wounded and another four taken prisoner. The 10 French hostages were later released. The Serbs soldiers captured were treated as prisoners of war and held by the UN peacekeeping force.
It was the last time the French Army ever launched a bayonet charge, but for the rest of the time the French were participating as UN Peacekeepers in Bosnia, the Serbian forces kept a clear, noticeable distance from them.
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