March Or Die - Life In The Legion

MARCH OR DIE - LIFE IN THE LEGION - Ramblings of "Slash Roberts"

You should write this down, they said, so I did. Ever happy to oblige I plumbed the depths of my rapidly fading memory and drinking deep at the well of erudition I thought of my interest in linguistic anthropology, especially the bit about how we communicate with those of another tongue when neither of the parties have a common language. Sign language, gestures and mime can work to a certain degree but these have their limitations. One of the favourite ploys of the Brit abroad is steeped in our Imperial past; keep on shouting louder until Johnny Foreigner understands. Alas, this seldom works and only serves to antagonise and erect barriers.

Such thoughts set the memory meandering back some three decades – if you want accuracy, 1962.

“Pick up your musket Michael” said the Squadron Leader “We're all off to sun ourselves in the south of France”. Oh! Joy be unconfined. Juan les Pins, Cote d'Azur, Nice? No chance, never happen. We were despatched to the Pyrenees, just north of the Spanish border in a military exercise area near a one-cheval town called Caylus. At that time I was a member of the RAF 38 Group Tactical Communications Wing, an air mobile outfit tasked with popping up anywhere in the world that communications were required. This time our role was to provide Dropping Zone (DZ) and base comms back to the UK during a big Anglo-French parachute drop. On this occasion our clients were to be a Parachute Brigade from Aldershot and the Regiment Etranger Parachutiste, the elite airborne element of the French Foreign Legion. To the last man a hard case and all veterans of the OAS/Pied Noir conflict in Algeria.

So, all aboard our rickety old Hastings and Beverley aircraft, along with our equipment and the Para Brigade. Bringing up the rear was a Squadron of Belvedere helicopters, most of them destined to conk out and make forced landing in various parts of France, remarkably always within easy reach of a rather good restaurant and a fine cellar. The fixed-wing aircraft did not fare much better. Because of widespread fog throughout most of France we spent most of 24 hours being diverted to various airfields in a hope of finally reaching our destination, Toulouse,. Firstly we landed at Paris Orly, waited some hours for good news and then took a shot at Toulouse which, whilst en-route became claggers. So, we diverted to Orange, which wasn't much better so tried for Pau, a small airport which serves Lourdes and assorted pilgrims. Success! We landed on. There, so overtaken by hunger, the aircraft Captains broke out their imprest, a big box of money for such unexpected emergencies. It was at Pau we dispersed to various eating establishments and enjoyed a magnificent meal, compliments of HM Government. After some four courses and a selection of fine wines some of the Paras were even beginning to master the use of the knife and fork.

A rather languorous and pleasant evening was interrupted when one of the keener aircraft Captains announced the sad news that a weather window had finally been found at Toulouse and we had better get shifting. So, off we go into the wide blue yonder, eventually reaching Toulouse, our original destination. From there on it was by open truck to the exercise area, higher and higher into the Pyrenees. Have I mentioned it was November? Brass monkeys come to mind.

What has all this got to do with linguistics I hear you ask. Well, those familiar with the military mind and the acronym SNAFU will understand when I explain that our British Liaison Officer could speak no French. Not to be out done, the French Liaison Officer could speak no English. Big problem. Surely, we thought, there must be a French-English speaker in the Foreign Legion, after all, we had all seen the movie Beau Geste, and some of us had even read the book. No way; unlike the British Legion the Foreign Legion consisted of all sorts of cranks and oddballs; Germans, Hungarians, Albanians, Indo-Chinese and North Africans, but no Beau Geste.

We sought to organise messing and accommodation, and mostly heating for the squalid shacks in which we were to be housed, Remember, this was November and high in the hills.

The RAF doesn't do discomfort. If that's what we wanted we would have joined the Legion ourselves. There is an old adage; The Army digs in, The RAF checks in. That says it all. How then could we convey our plight to our French “hosts”? Prior to TacComms I did a 3 year tour in Gibraltar I had a reasonable command of Spanish, learnt most in the bars of La Linea and Algeceiras. Surely, being only a few miles from the Spanish border someone must have knowledge of Spanish. It was an idea doomed to failure. Mon Capitaine gave only a haughty sniff, a Gallic shrug, a cloud of Gitannes smoke and an insouciant flick of the hand, which I took to be a salute. Still, no coke or coal with which to light a fire and warm ourselves. Our pinched and wan faces must have tugged at a heart string somewhere, for we were ushered into a barn like structure which turned out to be a mess hall. Despite the Spartan conditions, French culinary excellence came to the fore. Delicious dishes were produced and served by Legionnaires who had changed from combat fatigues into white jackets, morphing from hard case soldiery into obliging mess-waiters and stewards. French messing, as we were soon to learn, consisted of almost unlimited quantities of wine, but as we were Brits and in the mind of the catering officer, unredeemable beer drinkers, he kindly laid on beer should we not care for the wine. As if!

Lunch became very convivial and when the Duty Frees were produced (mostly Senior Service and Capstan Full Blast in those days), our New Best Friends the Legionnaires became quite approachable and amiable. Even more so, when our supply of spirits were broken out. Somehow linguistic inhibitions fell away and schoolboy French was dredged from the deep recesses of the mind. An East German defector to the Legion kept repeating “Farkin Yolly Gut Show”, whatever that may mean. Perhaps the most enduring linguistic memory was one of our number rejoicing in the name of Paddy Flynn. Paddy had recently completed a tour in Aden where he picked up a fair amount of colloquial Arabic. Whilst half-way down a bottle of scotch he attempted to engage an Albanian Legionnaire in conversation. When English and Gaelic didn't work he tried Arabic. As luck would have it, the Albanian had served in Algeria and he too had a limited knowledge of Arabic. We now had the bizarre spectacle of an Irishman and an Albanian half way up a French mountain speaking Arabic.

After that, there were no further problems; we got our coke and coal and kept warm whilst the Paras rolled around naked in the snow. The rest, as they say, is history. The Paras made their big drop and broke the requisite number of arms and legs and we all went home. We never did make comms with the UK, probably because we erected the aerials in a valley. Communications were established with base by a Royal Signals major inexplicably attached to us in some tenuous capacity. He went to the local post office and sent telegrams. He fell in love with the post mistress and as far as I am aware is probably still out there, if not in body, in spirit.

As you can see from the foregoing; linguistic communications can become relatively easy when you put your mind to it, it's just the electronic communications that doesn't always work. Finally, for what it's worth, at the bottom of my ditty-box, so full of memorabilia, there reposes a silver cap badge. It features a clenched fist clutching a winged dagger, the insignia of the REP. It would be interesting to know where my RAF cap badge lies; probably in the sand outside the walls of the fort at Sidi-bel-Abbes.