Fort Nogent as it is now and where I enlisted in 1982
I believe that we all have a different story to tell about our time in the Legion. Each of us had a different experience depending on who, when and where we served. The Legion is about shared experiences and comradeship between the men who were there at that time.
What all Legionnaires have in common is they’ve all walked up to a door, asked to come in, and signed up for five years to fight for the Legion and France. In that order.
The Legion is an embodiment of the Regimental System taken to the extreme. As a recruit, any support structure you may previously have had is brutally excised. It is replaced by a new “family” which is the Legion. You are forced to live, breathe, eat, run and shit the Legion 24/7. You are expected to measure up to the past – “More Majorum”. You are also conditioned by your treatment to privation, pain (both physical and mental), hunger, making-do with very little, constant striving for perfection and immediate obedience. You do this in the company of fellow men, with whom you build up a bond. This is similar to the British Army, but the Legion takes it to the extreme. (And remember it’s not only a different country but also different language and a ‘way of thinking’ – that lasts for 5 years)
You end up inured and inoculated to things that an average person would be horrified or baulk at and I learned that man’s inhumanity to man can know no bounds. After time in the Legion, nothing men do will surprise you ever again.
I’ve got a few photos of this time, and I will use each one to tell a story about what was happening at that time. A bit like Sergei Dovlatov’s short stories about the contents of a suitcase, but not as good.
His story about the lead-filled belt buckle is pure Legion.
In January 1982 I caught the ferry to France and made my way to a Legion recruiting base at Fort de Nogent in Paris. It was late in the evening by the time I got there, and the main gate was closed, so I knocked on the gate and just said to the guy with a White Kepi who appeared from a small door set in the gate, ‘Legion?’ He signalled with his head for me to follow him, and I was taken to a room to sit with about nine others and watch TV.
The room was a real mix of types from different walks of life. Two black guys had on purple and yellow suits with large velvet fedora hats and looked like they had stepped out of an episode of Shaft. There were some poor looking Italians, some French and another Englishman. No one made eye contact with anyone else or talked, and we just watched the TV until we went to sleep in a large dormitory. The other Englishman was Kerry Pountan, who had arrived about half an hour earlier to me. He was an ex English Para, and we stuck together through induction, training and on to the REP. Here he had a severe parachute accident and was invalided out.
After a few days they gathered us up, and we made our way by train to Marseille and then on to Aubagne for induction.
This journey was one of the most embarrassing of my time in the military. We were taken to the railway station as a group of the most badly dressed soldier ever in the history of military experience. The boots and uniforms were second hand and used again and again for the new recruits. We had green berets but no cap badges and no laces in our boots -they were done up with buckles – and we had not had hair cuts, yet. So, if you can imagine the Italians swaggering down the platform with third-hand uniforms, no laces in their boots, and with long hair like a hippy, with the beret pulled down over their heads, then just imagine the 3 black french gangsters! They looked like a french version of the black panthers but with no guns or style. I cringed my way down the platforms and for the whole train journey kept as far away as I could from these ‘soldiers’.
At Aubangue you can change your name if you wish and start a new life. There could be an issue with what you choose as your name though. One poor Frenchman thought it would be good to change his name to ‘Cheetah’ as in scary wild leopard thing. Trouble was that when you pronounce this in French it’s not Che its shi – so all the English started walking up to him and saying ‘Hi shitter’. Even now it makes me laugh. After a while, he asked why the English were all being so friendly to him and changed it to something less ‘warlike’.
A very close friend and ex Sargent from the Scots Guards changed his name to Winston x. As in Winston Churchill. The trouble was the French guy in the office recorded it as Wonston. From then on he was Wonston – not Winston- and it didn’t take long to wind him up about it over a beer or two!
The induction took about three weeks and then we were taken to Castelnaudary to start training.
‘Castel’ the main gate
‘Castel’ as we called it was an awful place, unsanitary, overcrowded, the food was crap and there was very little of it. It was the training base for recruits, junior and senior NCOs of the Legion. I did four months at Castel as a recruit and then back again for two months as a junior NCO.
My time there was not a ‘happy’ one and I don’t know anyone who had a good time there. The training was carried out by sergeants who had a lot of experience were good at what they did and respected. The corporals were the opposite and as thick as they come. None would ever make sergeant and chose the job because it was a cushy number. Some had not even served in an operational Regiment but had just stayed on after training because they were good at bullshit.
The corporals in the Legion regulated your daily life from dawn until dusk. If yours was a bad one or they had it in for you, it could make life very unpleasant.
Violence usually went down the chain of command from senior and junior NCOs to the ordinary legionnaires. When I joined, you could get slapped, punched, kicked or head-butted for any small infraction depending on the state of mind of the person who had power over you and what you had done. It was always part of our lives. In our version of ‘naming of the parts‘ by Henry Read, when you named them and if you got one wrong, the Corporal would hit you with it!
These are two examples from my time in 2 REP.
On my Parachute Induction, I got kicked in the bollocks for not crossing the thigh straps on my parachute. I never made that mistake again.
From that day forward whenever I bent over to check I’d tied my straps properly all I saw was that Sargeant’s boot coming towards my nuts.
If you listened to an order and then carried it out to the best of your ability, you were usually ok. If you didn’t, the response could be quite extreme.
Another example at the other end of the spectrum is when we had been detailed to clean our room, again, and a Spaniard I shared the room with just said out loud ‘I’m not doing this shit anymore’, and lay down on his bed, lit up a fag and started smoking. Boots on the bed and smoking in the room, that was two reasons to get a slap, never mind the deciding to ‘stop doing this shit’.
The duty Corporal as it happens was an OK type of guy, a Kiwi and part Maori, half as wide as he was tall. When he came in, he stared in disbelief at the guy lying on the bed smoking. We all stood stock still as the Spaniard told him that ‘he wasn’t doing this shit anymore’.
The Corporal stood there for a couple of seconds, and I think he couldn’t believe what someone had said to him. Then he just exploded and grabbed the nearest broom and broke it over the Spaniard’s head. Broke the broom handle, never mind the Spaniard’s head. He was hit so hard he came off the bed and landed unconscious on the floor, and not surprisingly there was blood everywhere. The Corporal glared around the room and asked if there ‘was anyone else who wasn’t going to clean today.’ The five of us immediately started acting like cleaning was all we lived for, we loved it and were happy to do it all day long. He told us to ‘take this piece of shit to the infirmary and clean this mess.’ When I picked up the broom handle it still had the skin and hair from the Spaniards head attached to it.
The Spaniard had stitches put in his head and when he came out of the infirmary the next day he went straight to jail, where I heard he obeyed every order given to him – no matter how trivial. Nothing was said against the Corporal as it was just the Legion way. It was ‘correct’.
And, sometimes it went the other way, as I know of at least one Sergeant’s body found buried in the sand of the 9mm pistol range at the REP in Calvi. Everyone thought he’d deserted but instead, someone had ‘enough off doing this shit’, from him at least.
It did harden us up.
On a lighter note, there was always the potential for a ‘carry on up the Legion’ moment.
When going through Castel I observed an opportunity for the NCOs to get one back on the ‘system.’
On a main gate Guard detail, the Corporals in charge would select some of the least Francophone recruits they could find. They would then ‘T’ them up to answer a specific type of question that the Colonels would ask. Like:
How is the food?
What time is it?
How are you finding it in the Legion?
The trouble was that the recruits could only remember one response, and no idea what the Colonet was asking. So on the day of my first guard the Colonel walked up and asked the first legionnaire;
‘How is the food?’
‘It’s 9.30 mon Colonel!’
The Colonel blinked, and then moved on (and taking his cue from that answer) ‘What is the time?’
‘The food is very good mon colonel!’
This went on down the line and as he came to me, I’m pissing my pants, counting the bricks on the wall in front of me to stop myself from laughing my head off. He looked into my face and with almost a sigh, moved on to the next guy and started again – ‘How is the food?’
On another occasion in Castel, when we arrived, they took us behind the main block and did the standard ‘kick your kit around stuff’ to haze recruits.
Next to me was a Scottish guy who was shitting himself about the whole ‘Legion beat the crap out of you for one wrong word’ thing. Our Captain comes up to him and asks him to ‘Present”
He says ‘Legionnaire Mackenzie, 3 months of service 1st Company section of Lt …
The Captain looks at him and says ‘Plus fort’
He then does the same thing ‘Legionnaire Mackenzie, 3 months of service, section Lt etc.’
The Captain looks at him in the eye and says, with a gentle punch in the stomach, “Plus Fort!’
Mackenzie says, ‘Legionnaire Mackenzie, 3 months of service, etc.’
At this, the Captain thumps in the stomach and says at the top of his voice “Plus fort!!”
Mckenzie looks in a swivelled eyed way for any support from me or the guy on the other side of him, and then blurts out “Legionnaire Plus Fort, 3 months of service etc.”
So to you non-French speakers – that is the man presenting himself as ‘Legionnaire Very Loud.”
The Captain looks in disbelief at this and then moves on to me, and I am again – trying to control my face and wetting myself at this comedy moment. He moves on down the line without asking me anything.
The parade square at Castel
My room with some of the three-tier bunks we had to use because of the overcrowding.
While I was there a TV show was made with Simon Murray, to publicise his book. As we had some English in our platoon, they shot some sequences of us being counted and inspected at night. I thought nothing of it, but I appeared on TV in the UK about a year later.
The startled look on my face was because no NCO had talked to me in English in four months in the Legion. And if I had talked to an NCO in English I would have got a punch in the face.
After training, we were separated out into what we would do next, and the top 10 out of our 30 went to 2 REP. The rest either to the infantry, cavalry, some overseas directly for personal reasons or believe it or not we had one guy that was an artist in a previous life and went to draw cartoons for the Legion magazine – the Kepi Blanc.
In the Legion, we were all given a score for our physical ability and also an intelligence test. These scores dictated to some extent what you did, and your promotion prospects. I had a 19 out of 20 for my physical ability and 19.5 out of 20 on the intelligence tests and was marked down to be a senior NCO and after seven years service, be given a chance to become an officer. That was never going to happen as I would have to give up my British citizenship and become French. But it was nice to know.
This is me on my parachute course and induction into the REP.
As you can see, I’ve lost a lot of weight and I’m a ‘little’ undernourished but pretty fit. This compared to Castel was a good time. It was summer, we were well fed, left alone from any crap duties and every morning we’d go a for a long run of between 12 to 18 k and then finish with a swim in the sea. All we had to do was learn to parachute the Legion way.
This next photo is on one of our training jumps, and it’s a sequence that shows what can happen when things go wrong. That’s Wonston and me and then below another with Kelly and Pounton in the same stick.
Two friends who became locked in a spiral
The Legion had the rule to get out of the plane as fast as possible so we would land close together in a tight group. The problem with this is you sometimes meet underneath the aircraft and smacked into each other, or you got tangled up in the chute of the guy in front or behind you. In the British Army, the loadmaster counts you out, makes sure there’s a gap between you and the next guy. And, you don’t go out the door at the same time as the jumper on the opposite door.
Pounton and Kelly got tangled up in each other’s chutes, spiralled down and smashed into the ground. I went over to the accident expecting to find one of the French lying there, but it was Pounton. Kelly was OK. Luckily we were only 6 miles from the main hospital at Bastia, so he made it. He had broken both legs, a knee and his pelvis. That was the end of that, and he was invalided out a long time later. I couldn’t take a photo of my friend injured and possibly dying, so I knew that I would never be a professional photographer and got rid of my camera.
2eme Regiment Etranger de Parachutistes (2 REP or REP)
I joined the 4th company and trained as a sniper and in explosives. I also became a combat medic as my specialisation. This is me with a little more weight, in one of the small blocks that made up our sections accommodation. The Spaniard was in the same room – and he is not lying on his bed.
The GR20 is a trekking route down the spine of Corsica, and this was one of our training grounds. Me on the GR20.
We would go up and down it all year round. I served with every type of ex-soldier there was from Europe, the USA, Japan and Russia, you name it we had it. But we all found this hard. The Legion is very proud of its reputation of ‘march or die’. To fall out on the GR20 for whatever reason was an open invitation for the NCOs to make your life as difficult as possible when we got back to base. If you couldn’t cut it you were transferred to the infantry. We had a Texan in my company who hurt his foot on the trail, he tied his boot tighter, didn’t take it off for three days and limped the whole way to Calvi carrying an 80mm mortar tube – as he couldn’t be seen to use this as an excuse to drop out. Got to Calvi, had an X-ray and found he’d broken his foot.
14th July Bastille parade
The 2 REP marching down the Champs Elysees. This was a good day out and the night was even better. I’m in the third rank of the first company as we marched down to take the salute from President Mitterand.
Marching down the Champs Elysees as part of the 2 eme REP, with the band playing the Legion March is an experience that I will never forget.
At the time we were the best the French army had. They knew it and so did we. All we wanted to do in life was go somewhere and fight someone – we didn’t really care who or where. We would fight until we had killed our enemies or been killed.
I’m in the third row.
Because I could be trusted not to get drunk too soon I was sent with five others to have lunch with Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris. He had invited six from each regiment in the parade and after the meal canvassed the room for votes. I told him he couldn’t have mine as I was English. He just kept on smiling and moved on down the table followed by two stunning french girls giving out presents to the soldiers. I got a pair of sunglasses.
We were in Paris, money in our pockets, with a pass until seven the next morning and we were going to have fun. And we did. That afternoon we ‘hit’ Paris dressed in our best uniforms, fit, young and off the leash. It was; drink, eat, fight any French soldier we didn’t like the look of, and – women, until the next morning.
What was right about the Legion is a lot of the jumps were done as though on an operation. Many times we landed in what turned out to be just a part of France, not very flat and not very safe. They just chose somewhere away from a city and out we went. This picture is of one of those jumps. You can see from this shot the terrain and it was a bit like the farmland on Dartmoor. Added to this the wind was too strong for a jump but we went ahead anyway. Out of 300 men jumping we took almost 30 casualties, most minor breaks and sprains but one guy hit a barn and broke his back. If that had been in the UK there would have been a Board of Enquiry and it would have been in the press. Not with the Legion. We just got on with the job in hand.
On this jump, I hit the ground and the wind instantly inflated my chute and began to drag me across a field. Nothing new with this, and I waited for the rope with my equipment on the end of it to play out, so the combined weight of me and it would bring me to a halt. Not on this day. I took off across a field, went through a river and came out the other side. It was only my reserve catching on the lip of the stream that stopped me and allowed me to collapse my chute.
I made my way to the rendezvous point, and after a reorganisation, we set off by helicopter to the next part of the exercise. As we flew across the landing zone, there were these small groups of soldiers standing around someone lying on the ground, waving their white reserve chutes in a vain attempt to get us to land to help them.
This is one of me as a Corporal ready to go out into Calvi for a night out.
We didn’t have any civilian clothes and weren’t allowed to wear them if we did. Calvi was great fun in the summer as it was a holiday resort and the uniform seemed to have a positive effect on the women who came here for a holiday. It was bloody awful in winter as most of the bars and restaurants closed. The local Corsicans wouldn’t talk to us and look at us almost as an occupying force.
On a night out I usually went with my friend Michael to a bar called Les Palmiers, owned and run by a very camp guy called Emile. He loved Michael. We would then go on and enjoy ourselves at a nightclub called the Calypso. Here Micheal and a few others would play some Northern Soul records and dance in a little group by themselves, which I thought was a bizarre way to pick up women. All you had to do after that was be back and on parade to be counted at 7.00 the next morning. Micheal took it as a point of honour of staying out until way past that time, just because he could. He was ‘a free spirit’ or a ‘pain in the arse’ – depending on your perspective.
My Captains leaving parade.
We called him ‘le Gros’, and he was a good man and a leader. Hard and fair. He was an ex-French Para who had then gone to officer school and transferred to the Legion.
He could walk any of us into the ground, and when out on exercise he would take his turn to carry the radio. Can’t say fairer than that. The senior Sargeant with him in this photo went on to serve as an officer in the Croatian army during the last Balkan war. (He was one tough bastard, who you would never think of mixing it with and had jumped into Kolwasi)
This is my last jump
It was one of those where you got a truck to the airport, grabbed a chute and got on the plane. You could quickly do three of these in a day if you could get the transport to the airport. Relaxed with no gear and just a way to keep you trained.
This is taken by me on that jump and shows the landing ground below with a view out over Calvi bay. The shadow is my thumb over the aperture of the camera.
About this time I had decided to leave the Legion. My Lieutenant and a senior NCO in my section had both got it in for me and I decided it was time to leave.
One day when we were getting ready for an ‘intervention’ in Africa and the Lieutenant asked me what I thought of going to war with him leading us. I said what we were all thinking and that ‘he was useless and best left behind.’ In retrospect, I think he thought his rank would protect him and it showed how insecure he was – by asking that sort of question of one of the men he was supposed to be leading – and then asking the Captain to deal with it rather than doing it himself.
That didn’t go down too well, and I did eight days in jail for insulting an officer. Jail time was something we all eventually did, and in the Legion, you kept your rank when you came out, so it wasn’t a big deal. The Captain had asked for a month and as we walked back to the block I will always remember the shock on the Lieutenant’s face that I had got off so lightly.
But I was a marked man and they made things difficult for me by doing things like giving me two jobs to do at the same time – Corporal of the week for the Company and also Corporal of the day for the section – so I would fail at one of them. The failures would be noted, not the successes.
At the same time, there was also an episode that nearly resulted in the ending of a friend’s life. This was due to the actions and then subsequent inactions of the officers of his company and in what Nelson Mandela called the ‘searing white-hot heat of the crucible of life’ you make decisions as a human being that are based on your values. This was a very dark time in my life and I came close to killing an officer and would have done so if things had turned out differently.
I carried the anger of this moment for a long time after I left the Legion.
After this event, I decided that the Legion and in particular the officer class of the Legion had broken any bonds of loyalty I had and I ‘wasn’t going to do this shit anymore.’
We didn’t have our passports so I was going to have to make the journey using bluff and by facing down anyone who tried to stop me.
Most deserters just went nuts one day and jumped out of a window and ran away and then got picked up at the ports or an airport, as Corsica was an island. I had served in the Regimental Military Police for a while and had seen how this worked, so I decided on another route. To get off Corsica, I volunteered to go to the 13th DBLE in Djibouti, East Africa, as this allowed me to go to Marseille on the French mainland. We went there to get processed, have a full medical and then be sent on to Africa.
When in Marseille I met up again with Pountan who was just getting out of hospital nearly two years after his accident. I told him what I was doing, and he wished me luck.
I had bought some civilian clothes and took a weekend pass for some time out in Marseille but intended to leave over the weekend, go to Paris and then to Belgium and eventually home.
Kerry and I met up with two girls who were looking for a night out with some company. The problem was, because of his injury Kerry had no interest in women. Broken pelvis. And no matter what they did he would be unable to ‘rise’ to the occasion. So we parted company on Massaile harbourside with him returning to barracks and me going on with the women.
The girls and I had a meal in the port and there was a small ‘incident’ where a complete ‘fuckwit’ of a Frenchman decided to entertain me and the two girls with his wit and repartee. Just being and arse. He knew I was a Legionarrie but still decided to push it – as a lot of the French don’t believe the stories – until they meet the reality. I eventually told him to ‘fuck off’ and that if he didn’t take his hands off our table I’d stick my steak knife in his hand. He said ‘go on then’ and put his hand down in front of me. So I did. We made our excuses and left with him screaming like a stuck pig holding his hand up in a look of disbelief.
We then went on to various dives in the town meeting up with various plastic gangsters and an ex Legionnaire I knew who was running guns in from Italy as a living. Eventually, we ended up at the girls flat, where I told them what I was doing and asked for their help. They thought it a great idea and the next morning we set off by car to Avignon. At Avignon station, the girls got a little weepy, as we had an adventure together and saw their little act of helping me as a small rebellion, not in the same light of 68, but something. Being with the girls had avoided the need to go through Marseille station – where I might have met someone I knew and was a big risk.
From there I took an overnight train to Paris. I crossed Paris by the Metro and I must admit this is the one part of the journey that concerned me a bit. At any point, I could be stopped by anyone with a badge and asked for my Carte de Identitate, which was my legion one. Then I could be asked for my leave pass and the whole world would unfold from there. And in a tunnel, there would be no way to escape so it would be a fight or give up – and going back as a failed deserter was something I was determined not to have to go through.
I wasn’t stopped and at the GUard Du Nord I left my old life behind me. At a point near the pillars to the main entrance, I left my travel sack with all the things that would have allowed me to return to Corsica and just be ‘late’ for roll call. I walked back around a couple of minutes later and as I thought it was gone.
I went from the Guard Du Nord straight to Lille and spent Saturday night in a scummy hotel that didn’t care about asking for passports. Here I planned to cross the Belgium border on foot and if stopped by anyone say I was an English soldier looking at the war graves.
I set off by bus down to the French border with Belgium and got off the bus near to where I could try to cross the border on foot. I walked down the road for about 5 miles looking for an unmarked crossing point on my map and eventually hitched a ride with a lorry going my way.
The driver was the ‘questioning type’ and guessed I was military – so started telling me how he was a socialist, hated the military, even to the point of refusing to do his military service. I took this as my prompt, and asking a few more questions thought it OK to tell him my story. I asked would he drive me over the border in the truck and let me out on the other side where I could walk away and return home?
No, he couldn’t as it would cost and they might search his cab. So he said he would drop me at a bar and come back with his wife and kids and drive me over the border later in the day in their car. We came to a bar that had been converted out of an old farm building and he told me to wait there until he comes back and toots his horn. I said goodbye to my new companion in arms and walked into a room half full of french farmers – and two gendarmes at the end of the bar drinking coffee and cognac!
The whole room turned to look at me when I walked in. And then a second later got on with their lives and conversations. The owner behind the bar can only be described as a larger than life character with a bosom to match. She looked about 60 and the sort I’d met working behind bars across the world – to be trusted to be on your side in any disagreement with the law – until the chips were down.
I asked for coffee. She decided at this point to have some sport with someone new in ‘town’ and to have a conversation with this, lean, suntanned, close-cropped, arrival in her little domain. Out loud and asking others their opinions of my answers!
‘What brings you to our little place’
I’m just an English soldier visiting the graves of my forefathers’
‘Your French is to good to be an English soldier – it cannot be’ ‘Hey Arno do you believe this story’
Arno looked up and saw it was just her way and then carried on drinking his beer. I glanced at the cops and they had stopped for a second and again just carried on drinking.
This went on for about 5 minutes with me becoming the centre of the conversation between me, her and the ‘audience’ until she had to go and cook something. The cops left during this and I relaxed a little.
Just as she came back to start again with her questioning and with my answers getting flimsier and flimsier. I heard the toot of a car and looked out the window and saw my lift. Just before leaving I leaned over the bar and told her she was right and I was a deserter from the Legion. She exclaimed ‘See I knew you were different’ gave me a kiss and sent me on my way. Got to love the French women who run these types of bars.
As they were locals the Gendarme waved us through with no checks. They sat in the front and I sat in the back between their two young daughters trying to look as small as possible. It was Monday morning and I was out of France before I would be missed in the count, back at Aubagne!
I went by train to Ostend and told the customs police my story. I had my French Military ID card so they were OK with it. The policeman in charge pointed at the ferry and said ‘be on that boat and gone by morning, or I will arrest you.’ So I sat down under the watchful eyes of these three policemen and waited patiently to get on the boat.
At English passport control, I had what I call an ‘Ealing comedy’ moment. I went up to the desk and again told my story. I was half expecting to have the police called and be taken in for questioning. But all she did was look at my Military ID and after a pause said,
‘that’s all right you can go through – as you are Britsh after all.’
So that was that, and I was standing in Dover docks with £100 in my pocket, no more soldiering and the start of a new life.
Just for the record, I’ve had my military service ‘regulated’, with the French authorities and I’m not a ‘wanted man’. In fact, in 2002 I was working in Paris for a company that eventually became part of Yahoo!