In 1917 Ély entered the French military academy at Saint-Cyr, from which he graduated in 1919 as a second lieutenant. Assigned to the army General Staff, in 1928 he attended the École de Guerre. He was promoted to captain in 1930 and major in 1939.
In June 1940 during the Battle for France, Ély was so severely wounded in his right hand that it was permanently disabled. Again awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery, he joined the Resistance in 1942, becoming a lieutenant colonel and deputy head of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), the military arm of the French underground. In 1944 he was promoted to colonel and served as liaison between the National Resistance Council in France and Charles de Gaulle's Free French government, making a number of hazardous cross-Channel trips carrying military intelligence vital to the Normandy invasion.
In 1945 Ély was promoted to brigadier general, and in 1947 he was advanced to major general in command of the 7th Military Region. In 1948 he became chief of staff to the inspector-general of the French Army, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. In 1949 Ély was advanced to lieutenant general and was sent to Washington as the French representative to the three-man Standing Group of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In August 1953 he returned to Paris as chief of staff of the French Army. That December he also became president of the military committee of NATO.
In February 1954 Ély and Defense Minister René Pleven undertook a fact-finding mission to Indochina. Convinced that France could not win the war there without massive military assistance, Ély arrived in Washington on 20 March 1954 in an effort to secure that aid. He candidly informed his American counterpart, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, of the likely fall of the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu and the dire consequences that this would have for the Indochina War and perhaps for all of Southeast Asia. It quickly became apparent to President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the only way to save the French would be massive U.S. military intervention, possibly including nuclear weapons. With the British government opposed and the battle apparently too far gone, Eisenhower decided against U.S. intervention, although he did agree, after Ély's return to Paris, to supply twenty-five additional B-26 bombers.
After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, Ély again went to Indochina with Generals Raoul Salan and Pierre Pélissier to prepare a military report on which the French government might base requests to its allies for aid. Ély returned to France three weeks later to recommend that France immediately evacuate northern Vietnam and replace General Henri Navarre as commander in chief. On 3 June 1954 the French government named Ély to succeed both Navarre as military chief and Maurice Dejean as French high commissioner. On 11 June French and Vietnamese troops in the southern Red River Delta began Operation auverge, the last major battle of the war, in which they fought their way toward the Hanoi-Haiphong lifeline. On 17 June 1954 Ély returned to France to present alternate military plans to the government of Premier Pierre Mendès-France and then returned to Indochina. The 21 July 1954 Geneva Accords brought the Indochina War to an end.
The pro-American Ély contributed much to State of Vietnam Premier Ngo Dinh Diem's consolidation of power, and the training of the Vietnamese Army came under Ély's overall authority. But friction between the French and Americans as well as the presence of French troops wounded the nationalist sensibilities of the Diem government. Ély departed in 1955, and the last French troops left Vietnam in April 1956.
During 1956–1958 Ély was president of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. In 1958 during the Algerian War (1954–1962) when French settlers and army professionals in Algiers made common cause against the French government in order to keep Algeria an integral part of France, Ély resigned to resolve his conflict of loyalties. De Gaulle brought Ély back as chief of the National Defense Staff in 1960 and sent him to Algiers to sound out French Army leaders there about a truce and proclamation of an autonomous Algerian government. Ély retired in 1961, the year before Algeria became independent. He died in Paris on 16 January 1975, widely respected for his high principles, modesty, ability to work with others, and capacity for hard work.
Spencer C. Tucker
Fall, Bernard. The Two Viet Nams. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger, 1964.