Who would have thought that, a month after signing up to the French Foreign Legion, I would be lining up on a soccer pitch with my mates in shorts and tee shirt on a cool, dry summers eve? Team-building, cohesion-inspiring activity you say? Alas it wasn’t exactly the jumpers-for-goalposts fantasy entering some of your minds at this point in time. Instead, there we stood - 46 young (and some not-so-young) green recruits - all waiting in single file to pass before half a dozen half drunk corporals. The nature of the inspection? - why, our singing abilities of course. You see, songs play an enormous role in the history and traditions of the Legion, often recounting famous battles (very few victories, mind) and/or characters of note in Legion folklore. Therefore a core element of basic training involves the learning of songs sung either in French or German, depending on the song and its origins. And so, one by one, we marched up to the scrutinising corporal in question, and launched into a verse of "J’avais un Camarade" - a quite poignant song about a soldier recounting the fall of his best friend in battle. Ironically, by the end most of us found ourselves sprawled out on the ground with our faces in the dirt. The only ones left standing were of course those who COULDN’T sing correctly, watching from the sidelines as the rest of us golden voiced killing machines did countless push-ups, all the while being encouraged to scream "thank you" at our camarades who so mercilessly (and dissonantly) squawked us into such a predicament.
Bienvenue à la ferme, bande de chiffons!
The first month of the Legion’s basic training takes place in a small isolated property in the French countryside, affectionately known as "The Farm" . Here, recruits are taught how to lose 10 kilos in 4 weeks (not as great as it sounds, ladies), tackle radically changing bowel conditions brought on by the introduction of military rations into our diet, combat classroom drowsiness by performing handstands while simultaneously dipping our heads into a bucket of freezing water, and of course, the age old Sun Tzu-approved art of singing. It may seem like a slice of intolerably cruel surreality, but all in all it was.....well, exactly that. At this point in our fledgling commando careers, desertion wasn’t entirely impossible, but was certainly made trickier by the banishment of our leather boots from 10pm - 6am each evening, leaving us to perform guard duty in our trusty, standard-issue flip flops. Thank God it was September in the south of France.
During this month of "instruction", we also learned how to set-up camp (not necessarily correctly), how to manipulate our rifles (not necessarily correctly) , survive smoke-grenade attacks (not necessarily correctly) and sing (see above). As it was the very first month of training, levels of French ranged somewhat spectacularly from Proust to Popeye. I was comfortably median and content in my relative anonymity. Respite was had on several isolated occasions when large fires were lit, mulled wine was downed and recruits were asked to belt out a tune from their homeland. Songs ranged from a barnstorming rendition of the Bulgarian army’s "Whiskey BOOM" to the Iranian national anthem and delicate, Chinese pop-chart toppers. A rather moving unplugged recital of U2's "With or Without You" by yours truly went down a real treat with the boys, unlike "God Save The Queen" (no, not the Sex Pistols' version) which was bawled out by a tag-team of Barnsley and Coventry‘s finest. All in good spirits, of course. But such occasions, as I said, only provided momentary respite from the sadistic shenanigans that were to dominate our daily schedules for a whole month.
I suppose it would defeat the purpose (that of trying to profit from a published memoirs in 10 years time followed by appearances on Irish morning television) by delving too deeply into individual instances, but looking back on our time in the farm almost 2 years later, it almost brings tears to the eyes. Most are laughter-induced, but some stem from something a little more jaggedly poignant. We were seriously reduced to starved, semi-delirious animals out in that remote country outpost. But then again, it’s precisely for that reason that we find ourselves here; stronger mentally than ever before, and able to take temporary set-backs or previously-considered harsh circumstances in our stride, forever only a brief shut-eye away from conjuring up enviable relativity to appease any apparent suffering. Out of the 46 guys lined up on that football pitch frantically clearing their throats on that Summers eve, 34 remain within the walls of our beloved asylum. Of the 12 departed, some quit due to medical reasons, some raised their hands to leave and stayed the rocky path until formally released, and some just simply vanished. But for all those who’ve left, and for all of us who remain, none will forget the relevance (or melody, I hope) to that fateful line
"J’avais un Camarade".