Born Pierre-François-Marie-Louis Boulle in Avignon, France. He was baptised and raised Roman Catholic. He studied and later became an engineer. From 1936 to 1939, he worked as a technician on British rubber plantations in Malaya. While there he fell in love with a French woman who was seperated from her husband. She later chose to return to her husband and at the outbreak of World War II, Boulle enlisted with the French army in French Indochina. After German troops occupied France, he joined the Free French Mission in Singapore.
Boulle served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma, and French Indochina. In 1943, he was captured by the Vichy France loyalists on the Mekong River. While a prisoner, he was subjected to severe hardship and forced labour. He was made a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur and decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance. He described his experiences in the war in the non-fiction My Own River Kwai (1967).
For a while after the war, Boulle returned to work in the rubber industry, but he later moved back to Paris and began to write. While in Paris he moved into his widowed sisters apartment. She had a daughter whom Pierre helped raise. Using his experiences in the war, he wrote Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952; The Bridge on the River Kwai), which became a multi-million worldwide bestseller, winning the French "Prix Sainte-Beuve". The book was a semi-fictional story based on the real plight of Allied POWs forced to build a 415-km (258-mile) railway which became known as the "Death Railway" and passed over the bridge. 16,000 prisoners and 100,000 Asian conscripts died during construction of the line. His character of Lt-Col. Nicholson was not based on the real Allied senior officer at the Kwai bridges, Philip Toosey, but was reportedly an amalgam of his memories of collaborating French officers.