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.
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 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 being 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.
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 Winston 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 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 Micheals 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 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. We went out for a couple of beers I told him what I was doing, and he wished me luck.
I bought some civilian clothes, took a weekend pass and on a Friday evening went by car with two girls I’d met to Avignon, and then took an overnight train to Paris. That avoided going through Marseille station were I might have met someone I knew. From Paris, I went 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.
After a bit of an adventure just outside Lille, I eventually got a lift across the border from a family who were going shopping in Ypre. 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!