Legionnaire: Five Years in the French Foreign Legion
Merde! The French Foreign Legion is tough. I had seen a passing reference to the Legion in another book - something along the lines of "a legionnaire will drop dead before he stops marching." These guys were supposed to be the hardest of the hard-core. There doesn't seem to be much decent written about the Legion in English, but Simon Murray's "Legionnaire" seemed to get reasonable reviews.
And I've got to confess - I loved this book. Murray's unflappable, deadpan commentary livens up a book which would otherwise be overwhelmingly bleak. Murray's time in the Legion had its fair share of boredom, brutality and close calls with death (although fewer than I would have expected). He doesn't shy away from describing the senseless violence of the Legion, but he also always seems to find a bit of good in every bad experience.
His writing style and perspective seem to be those of a much older man. Throughout his 5 years, he portrays himself as maintaining an aloof manner and a stiff-upper-lip British sensibility that I find a bit difficult to believe... but who am I to judge? The guy ran away from home and joined the French Foreign Legion at age 19 - and thrived.
But man - is the Legion rough. I hadn't realized it, but anyone can join the French Foreign Legion - you don't actually have to be French. But, given that joining the Legion is like volunteering to get a burning poker jammed into your spleen... recruits end up mostly being criminals fleeing from justice. They hail from all over the place - but predominantly Western Europe. But your fellow soldiers aren't the ones to worry about - it's your commanding officers who can really make your life hell. The sadism of some of these guys is incredible. Murray spends a lot of the book detailing his adjustment to the brutality of his first year in the Legion.
Murray was also in the Legion during a critical period of its history. During Murray's 5 years, Algeria was agitating for its independence and the Legion staged a putsch to try to prevent the French government from allowing Algeria to break away. Although Murray wasn't actually involved in any of the violence, it's fascinating to hear his perspective on the chaos and confusion that sloshed around the Legion at that time.
It's a pretty incredible story, made even more so by the fact that Murray went on to found Orange (the telecom) and became chairman of DeutscheBank Asia. His life story is nuts - although it made a bit more sense when I found out that his family was super wealthy. But still!
There were long periods of boredom in the Legion, and sometimes that was the hardest part of all.
PART ONE - Incubation
There are supposedly fifty-two different nationalities in the Legion, but the Germans are certainly in the majority, followed in order by the Spanish, Italians, Hungarians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Greeks, and the rest, and last of all the English.
The principal aim of the NCOs is to get our denims filthy, as this will ensure that we are kept busy washing them during our fleeting moments of free time.
The Sheriff finally had a go at my kit this evening because he decided the underside of my boots had not been polished properly. He’s got quite a long throw when it comes to chucking stuff out of windows — the bastard!
And tonight who should be on duty of all people but the dreaded Sheriff. It was murder! Thank God I wasn’t too smashed. But one or two of the lads were paralytic, and when they returned from their happy carousing, they were suddenly alarmed to find themselves swaying in front of Nielsen’s black beard. He slaughtered them.
I must say, I think the French attitude to military brothels is enlightened. Every regiment in the Legion has its own brothel, which goes with it on operations into the interior.
Crepelli has been somewhat relaxed recently. He was quite chatty the other day and told us something of his family background. His mother runs a brothel in southern Italy. He says the business is profitable and he intends to go and take it over someday. Now that is really an inheritance.
PART TWO - Sully
De Graaf has also run into problems in the medical world; he claimed he had a bad foot and was sent to bel-Abbès to the quack. The doctor said there was nothing wrong and he has been given eight days’ prison (standard for shamming) for his pains. That’s one remedy I suppose.
For openers they were given three hours of la pelote. This takes the form of the prisoner being equipped with a sack of stones on his back (the sack has wire shoulder straps), and a steel helmet on his head without the interior, and then he runs. A sergeant (in this case Wissmann) stands over him with a whistle and a rope’s end, and according to the number of blasts on the whistle, one, two, or three, the prisoner punctuates his running by doing a forward roll, crawling on his stomach, or marching with knees bent. When there is a slow in the pace, then the rope’s end comes into play. So it was this evening with Wissmann holding the rope and the whistle and every time they slowed or collapsed — as they did many times — he beat them with his thong. When they were exhausted with not an ounce of strength left in their bodies, they were made to crawl through an open sewer, and finally, as the last indignation, they had to crawl on their bellies around the barracks room, gasping and grunting, while we stood to attention, each man beside his bunk. As they crawled past our feet, covered in slime and filth, they no longer resembled human beings. This was the punishment for deserters, and it was a lesson to us all. There was not a man among us who had not considered desertion, and there was not a man among us now who for all his feelings of revulsion and hatred against this meaningless barbarism was not also secretly afraid at what he saw, afraid at such brutality; that it could be administered by a sadist like Wissmann, with no control and no appeal to any authority except that of the Legion — and in the Legion there is no appeal, and the authority is in those in whom it is vested, and it starts at the rank of corporal.
Less than 10 percent of men here have not done time for robbery or at least been scheduled to have done so, which is the reason they are here. Yet at the top of the list of Legion codes of ethics is “Thou shalt not steal.”
There is something special in being in an open truck at night, roaring along the lonely roads — I love it. The feeling of mystery is prevalent when men are moving quietly in the night. There is a combination of something sinister and yet romantic about it all.
The effectiveness of torturing people to make them betray their cause cannot be disputed. But with all the good results — the “fingering” of many fellagha, the betrayal and subsequent capture of many of the rebel leaders — was a steady buildup of hatred against the French, a hatred that comes from living in fear and terror. And this antagonism drew the Arabs, so often before divided among themselves, into a common cause; it made them feel the necessity of combining for survival, and it made them finally aware of their own strength. The French became the foreign intruder and the concept of nationalism was born in the Arabs, which was never there before. By their shortsightedness the French have forced nationalism on the Arabs, and despite de Gaulle’s avowed intention to keep Algeria as part of metropolitan France, it is doubtful that he will succeed.
Those who were foolish enough to wear socks on the march suffer badly at this point, as when the socks come off, skin and pus come as well in a putrid, sticky mess. Bare feet go better in leather in the long run. There are many theories about footwear — one interesting idea is that if you fill your boots with urine and then march in them, they will fit you perfectly for life. I haven’t tried this out but it might be worth following up.
The moniteur in charge of our stick is a Sergeant Lejeune. None better, he’s a terrific guy, and full of sound advice like, “If your chute doesn’t open when you jump, remember to keep your left hand held high.” “Why?” asks innocence. “In order not to damage your watch, which could be useful to the guys on the ground.”
Ten people refused to jump at the door at the last second, the moment of truth. One of them was a legionnaire. For these people it is a terrible experience that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. For in that moment that they failed to overcome their fear they became cowards, not just to everybody else but to themselves. That is the tragedy.
PART THREE - The Regiment
This is the army. There is a reason for all this, and it has been done since the armies of Alexander, but no one has ever discovered what the reason is.
There then followed an incident that I will recall to my dying day with a shudder, but which at the time caused an uproar of laughter. Some Spaniards in the 2d Section had prepared a small cauldron of soup by adding water to the dehydrated-soup packets in our ration. The équipe had eaten, and there appeared to be a considerable amount left in the pot, so they called over a German and invited him to fill his tin mug. Just as he was about to put the cupful of soup to his lips, one of the Spaniards, with a mighty guffaw, reached his hand into the cauldron and pulled out by the hair one of the Arab heads, which he had retrieved from the bushes. On looking up at the noise, one could see the scene and follow the story at a glance — the Spaniard stood there with the ghastly head dripping soup, dangling by the hair from his outstretched hand, while the German, standing aghast and white as a sheet, froze for a second and then promptly turned and threw up. This gave rise to another guffaw from the Spaniard and his chums. There is no accounting for people’s sense of humor — though I must confess at the time l laughed like hell; so did we all — that is, except for the fellow who had received the soup. He never actually touched a drop; it was the nearness of the thing that made him ill, as it does when you narrowly miss having a bad accident in a motorcar.
PART FIVE - The Djebel
But that moment seems long since past. It was the beginning of a great evening but it became a nightmare. It seemed to be the aim of one and all to drink themselves into a stupor as fast as possible and very soon the whole place had degenerated into a sink of pig swill. This was not merriment, it was a disastrous chronic abuse of a festive occasion that could have been something quite magnificent.
It was brief but good, snatching a piece of the past, reliving a day in the sunshine; the feeling that one has friends fortifies the spirit like nothing else can.
She drove behind my truck out of town. I was in the back and we looked at each other, a lifetime apart, seeing, feeling, but not even the touch of a finger — a fork in the road and she was gone. Time, the master, had won as always. Rigolot and Patricia were both people with whom I needed more time. God knows when I’ll see them again. Patricia and I were ships passing in the night. Nothing happened — the excitement is what might have happened.
And then the incredible coincidence. He said, “Because I went on the Saint Arvans, too, and I was also the galley boy. It was the first ship I ever sailed on.” He had sailed there before me. So here we were, two ex–galley boys from Saint Arvans, a dirty little insignificant tramp steamer, sitting on the back of a truck outside the brothel in a nondescript, unknown North African town — and surely not another Englishman within miles. If that doesn’t prove the world is round, then I don’t know what does.
The day following was my twenty-first birthday and I spent it digging latrines and drains in a blizzard.
To be remembered by friends in a godforsaken spot in the Aurès Mountains is really something.
As Churchill once said, “There’s nothing quite so exhilarating in life as to be shot at without result.”
PART SIX - Treason
It appears that the 1st Legion Para Regiment has taken over Algiers and occupied all the key government offices and annexed the radio.
The prospect of being involved in a putsch, a coup d’état, a civil war almost, has a certain fascination to say the least and is hardly an everyday occurrence.
PART SEVEN - A Taste of Liberty
We sat on the hillside in the cool of the evening with a sea breeze from the Mediterranean fanning us and looked at the rooftops and the blue sea and each other. I think we are in love — it feels so to me. Twenty-one years old and in love; can it ever get better than this?
The body’s condition is determined by the condition of the mind.
Those who had done time in civilian life said generally that a Legion prison is ten times worse than anything one could expect to find outside — but, in fact, on reflection, I think there was something good about it.
Very good reception when I got back, everybody delighted to see me. I think the prison sentence has really made me one of the boys!
PART EIGHT - Back to the Front
The Arabs’ lives are without a trace of color and they move from day to day like human rats in a world of dehydrated poverty. The French say they will not help themselves and God says something about it, too; but in truth, what chance have they of cutting out a slice of French cake? The hot dry sirocco blows across the village, burns the nostrils, and stings the eyes, and the dust is whipped up into a thousand eddies. It finds its way into every little cranny, every sore, and every wrinkled brow, and their whole world is brown and moistureless, poor devils; but I wonder if it will be any better when the French leave.
The final summons has probably come to him as something of a relief. There is nothing that strains a man more than uncertainty in front of knowledge that something bad is coming. When the worst is known and recognized, then and only then can one begin marshaling the inner strength required to face it.
We climbed up and down the hills all day today and I had a terrible stomachache. The medic has diagnosed it as rien. It’s probably appendicitis, but why should he worry, it’s my gut not his.
Christ, how life can suddenly take a turn. I’ll remember tonight when things are going well.
French military tactics are sometimes difficult to follow, but I suppose they did produce Clemenceau and Napoleon.
This is the moment when one needs morale; this is the time when it pays to hold on to yourself, when everything is perfectly bloody and conditions are impossible, when one is an inch from letting go completely. Character comes through in moments like this, and those without fiber bend.
This year has been a long one — my twenty-first! One year in the regiment. So much has happened, it feels like a thousand — and I thought that five years would fly; time does not fly — it moves like a winter’s night when you are lost on the ocean and there are no stars in the heavens.
PART NINE - Interlude
I felt nothing. My emotions were dead and yet my mind told me that I had witnessed a scene of unimaginable horror. I cannot believe that this is me; that my senses have been dulled to this extent, that I am so past caring about anything or that my values have disappeared. What are my values? Christ, what a thought.
I remember thinking that Alister was going to be able to dine out on this one for the rest of his life. Who could possibly trump a story like this?
The ending was fine, but I know from experience that it could have turned out very differently. It taught us one thing, that there was some mileage to be had from this “English officer” bit. They didn’t know how to handle it.
Anyway, we were eventually paraded in front of this regular army colonel to whom Hall sold a line about being an English officer on leave with a particular interest in studying the French bordello system, which he was planning to introduce into the 21st Lancers. The fellow bought the whole thing and gave Alister a special pass and in we went. I should record for the benefit of the lovely Julia waiting for him in southern Italy that nothing happened inside. We merely had a look and a few drinks.
I think they were all good to Alister because they were curious, because they are by nature not deliberately unkind, and above all because he was my friend. This I will appreciate always, and many of the harsh words I have used about the people here I regret. One cannot generalize and one must be slow to judge.
We have lost 136 deserters in the last four months. Discipline is on the wane, drinking is on the up. Alcoholism is a real problem now. Before, we were always on the move in the mountains and there was never time to stop and think, to assess. Now time is something we have too much of without any means of filling it.
I think it was Hugo who said, “The greatest happiness in the world is the knowledge that one is loved.” I am a happy man.
These boys meant business, and I was expecting to feel a knife go between my ribs at any moment. That is a very unpleasant feeling when you are pinned down on your back. I think it was the numbers that saved us, paradoxically. There were so many of them that they could not see clearly enough to put the knife in.
PART TEN - The Peloton
In the Legion if you cannot march further than your men, you will never have their respect and you will never lead them.
Piva has shown why he came fourth in the exams; he has a creative mind and today he excelled himself. At appel, Winter sent him to collect seawater in his water bottle, for having dust on the underside of his boots. He told Piva to wake him on his return in the early morning. Piva went off into the night but returned ten minutes later and declared he was damned if he was going to get seawater and instead peed into the bottle, added some cold water from the tap, set his alarm for two o’clock, and went to bed. At two in the morning he reported to Winter. Winter put his finger in it and tasted it to make sure it was seawater and that was that. Winter has drunk Piva’s pee and Piva becomes immortalized among us all. It is a major coup and morale has been uplifted a mile.
We are all very sober tonight. The peloton is in mourning. Our spirits have been jarred with shock and I think something has died in all of us. Collectively we can always keep going and most of us have the inner strength and fiber to sustain this kind of treatment for a long time. But what happened today was something that we cannot take. It has not frightened us, but it has scarred our minds and taken away all the meaning at one blow. When there is no meaning the spirit dies, and when that happens it’s all over. There is no will and force to carry on.
We jumped today over the forest of M’sila. Amazing experience descending to the trees. At first the trees look like a thick-pile carpet, but when you get closer it all looks like what it is, a nightmare. There is little evasive action that can be taken, because as you come down you are swinging side to side like a pendulum and being blown horizontally at the same time. The main thing is to keep one hand over your nuts and the rest is with the gods.
Some signs of Loridon’s recklessness came through today. We were practicing throwing grenades. He stood in a gun butt surrounded by sacks of sand with the grenades and we took it in turns to stand about ten yards in front of the butt and wait for him to throw them at us. The only problem was that he pulled the pin out before he threw them. Once the pin is out there is a seven-second time fuse before the bang. If you catch it, you don’t spend too much time aiming before you throw it. If you drop it, you get the hell out of there with a flying dive into the butt. It’s much more tricky than catching cricket balls.
I was first. What to say other than I am amazed and delighted and I am unashamedly proud of myself. This was a great day for the English. Pitzer was second, half a point behind. He was a good loser and in the moment of shaking hands we became good chums.
PART ELEVEN - Rewards
He is terribly chuffed at having what he calls “the best corporal in the regiment” in his section and thinks I’m a hell of a fellow. This indicates that he is perceptive if nothing else.
PART TWELVE - Le Dénouement
He was trying to persuade me to take up the offer to do a year at Strasbourg and then I could probably do the final year at Saint-Cyr. It sounds attractive in some ways but the problem is that as a foreigner I would never get beyond the rank of captain, and to adopt French nationality is not on as far as I am concerned. I am a son of England and whilst I may at this moment be taking time out to give the French a helping hand, I could never surrender my British nationality voluntarily. So I think the proposition is a nonstarter because I have no wish to be a captain in the Foreign Legion for the rest of my life.
The senior NCO here is Sergeant Westhof. He is as tough as steel and totally impersonal in all his dealings with the men. He is therefore straight and there is no deviation from the path. He is a permanent shit. Funnily enough I quite like him.
I think I’m a bit soft for this sort of thing. In some ways I would rather do the pelote myself than be the man with the whistle.
Everybody now knows about Molotov cocktails and other forms of homemade incendiaries, mines, rockets, antitank grenades, booby traps, and 150 other ways of making life miserable for a tank. In fact, I would never volunteer for a tank regiment having seen what I have seen. A tank is a mobile coffin.
Maidec started by giving us two things: first, the knowledge of explosives and what could be done with them, from which we learned respect; second, endless practical use, particularly at night, so that we were constantly handling explosives, and this gave us confidence. These two elements of respect and confidence are the beginnings and essentials of a successful career in sabotage.
There is a man here who is just starting again after a break of eighteen years. He deserted from Morocco after six months’ service eighteen years ago and the other day he was picked up by the police for drunken driving and somehow it was discovered that his name was on a wanted list. Poor devil, that’s a really bad start to 1965.
When I think that from the age of nineteen to twenty-four, I didn’t make a single telephone call to anyone — not one — and today all my children seem to have five telephones each — and for that matter neither did I ever sit in an armchair - difficult to imagine — but that’s the way it was, a very different world.
I joined the great merchant house of Jardine Matheson in 1966 and went to Asia, where we have lived our lives ever since. After fourteen years with Jardines, I had my own finance company for a while, which was a joint venture with Rothschilds. I sold it to Li Ka Shing, the richest man in Asia, and I became the CEO of his flagship company Hutchison Whampoa. We had ten wonderful years including the creation of a mobile telephone company in England called Orange, which was ultimately sold for $35 billion (and all those years without a telephone!!). I then became chairman of Deutsche Bank in Asia for a few years and finally started my own investment company again. This time with Deutsche Bank and a few old friends. We have fun.
There was a moment when Vignaga and Soto and I sat down in my library and Vignaga told us why he didn’t make it to the Manneken Pis — but that is another story. It was certainly not because he had forgotten.
They were rough, those old Legion days, and they took some crucial years of my life. But looking back now I do not regret it for a single second. It was a magnificent experience. We had a camaraderie that was unparalleled and the world was a much freer place in which to move than today. There was more time to wander off the path, so that a boy of nineteen could run off and climb a mountain if he wanted to. The corridors of life today seem narrow by comparison and the materialistic ends we seek require a constant progression along the path from the moment we take our first examination. But there is time. And to those that totter on the brink, my advice is to go and climb the mountains of life, and do so while you are young and you will be happy at sixty.
Danjou’s wooden hand now rests in the Legion Hall of Honor in Aubagne. It is a symbol of Legion durability — for the Legion never surrenders.