Thursday, September 23

And the List goes on.......


Well now they don’t call it "La Légion Etrangére" for nothing, you know! Drawing on official statistics, the Legion is comprised of soldiers hailing from a whopping 136 countries. All the major players are well represented, such as Brasil, China, Madagascar, Romania, Bulgaria and of course France. Despite this, a slightly comical ignorance reigns over the classification of some recruits. A Moldovan friend of mine was surprised at the end of basic training to find he’d become a naturalised Russian on the Graduation Rankings, due to him constantly conversing in Russian with the other "Russians" (ie. Ukranians, Kazaks, Belorussians, Estonians, Mongolians and Georgians). I’ve actually met very few true Russians. Of course, that particular Moldovan friend spoke Russian, Romanian, French and Portuguese fluently, and finished top of our training section, so he didn’t mind too much (fucker)! Similar to the "Russians", anyone at all who comes from the orient or resembles an east Asian is immediately labelled "Chinese". Many a time have I heard the distinct discontented grumblings of Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese and Mongolians. Sorry lads, Geography is even further down the priority list than military tactics here in Loopyville.

In my particular 9-man-strong Combat Group heading out to Afghanistan, we shall be quite the colourful collection of flag-wavers indeed. The group sergeant is French, the driver is Bulgarian, the gunner an Algerian, the two team leaders hailing from South Korea and our good ol’ Emerald Isle respectively, with the two guys under my command having trekked from Hungary and Congo (DRC) to sign up, and the Korean’s team containing a Brazilian and an Ukrainian. Lots of exotic vulgarities to be learned over the next 6 months so!


The FAMAS (Fusil d'Assaut de la Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Étienne) is our most trusted tool of the trade. This French-made rifle isn’t the worst of sidekicks, nor is it the finest. There exist lighter assault rifles, with longer range, less moving parts, more easily disassembled, cheaper, etc, but once it’s made in France it becomes OBLIGATOIRE!!! (just like that God-awful cassoulet in the canteen. After a session on the firing range, one can expect to spend anywhere between 2 and 6 hours standing (no sitting allowed) around a table scrubbing every last spring and pin before the sergeant passes inspection. But be careful - Ce n’est jamais propre, c’est que nettoyée!


The Devil makes work for idle hands. Indeed, inactivity is the most heinous crime imaginable here in the Legion (technically, it can be argued that Facebook qualifies as activity). And so, when all is said and done, the one thing left to do is SCRUB!! On several occasions during basic training we were over 40 young green-gilled recruits packed into the toilet. My God, wall tiles, floor tiles, urinals, pipes leading to urinals, pipes leading from urinals, pipes pointed at urinals (Woo now, steady!), toilet seats, toilet rims, light fixtures. There wasn’t a cleaner toilet in the world. At regiment, however, away from the idiocy of basic training, it’s far more rational. Here we brush the dry dirt off stones, individually dust leaves on the plastic trees dotted throughout the building, among countless other acts of perpetual Spring cleaning.

The vehicles are another kettle of bananas altogether. Now I’m no mechanic, but removing every last drop of grease and oil twice a week, only to replace it with fresh grease and oil can’t be necessary or good for the machine in question. But hey, as long as one remains a lowly private first class, one must shut one’s mouth and display unquestionable loyalty to the......

HIERARCHY (for which, er, H is, er, for)

Welcome to the army - the closest thing imaginable to a human pyramid scheme. You coax in the new recruits until they reach a sufficient number so as to require a leader, and so you move up a rank. And so on and so forth, Hi ho! In 5 years service, a soldier can not progress any higher than the rank of Corporal, UNLESS they have already committed to a contract extension, in which case achieving the rank of Sergeant is possible inside 4 years service.

While spending last Christmas in the deserts of East Africa, our then-Commander-in-Chief gave a startlingly blunt but essentially incontestable analogy of things as they stand. He said (and I translate as accurately as the Franco/Anglo transition allows):

"We, the officers, are the shepherds. You, the sergeants and corporals, are our little sheepdogs. And the Legionnaires are the sheep."

Of course we, the shee....sorry, Legionnaires were not invited to this little bar-room, fire-side reunion.

Well Baa Ram Ewe very much!

More luscious letters to come, stay tuned!


Sunday, September 19

Easy as 1-2-3

Bonjuor encore, mes amis. As the countdown to lift-off continues (getting ever more adrenaline-pumping closer), I have decided upon a self-imposed sabbatical from the zany, murky tales of life in the Legion in order to bring you the new, revised Alphabet (according to la Légion Etrangére). So sit back and enjoy as I delve deeper than ever into the facts, figures and folklore surrounding this brave, noble and truly insane establishment.


The ever-larger looming destination for me and my merry band of international misfits, Afghanistan is the epitome of 21st Century war. Billed by some as our generation’s Vietnam (albeit a more multi-national affair), the current war in Afghanistan has been raging for almost 10 years. France (incl. the Legion) have been in the thick of it from the start, and today serve as the 4th-highest contributor of coalition troops after the US, Britain and Germany. Approximately 3,500 French soldiers are currently stationed in Afghanistan, with the French having suffered a total of 49 casualties since the beginning of the conflict. France typically deploy their soldiers on 6-month missions, which compares favourably with Britain (9 months) and the US (1 year). My own role over in Taliban Town shall be that of mine-sweeper/detector. Flanked on all sides by ground infantry, my boys and I will be charged with securing principal routes and sniffing out all semblances of roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.). One must be sure before the green light is given, as anything over-looked could result in a big boom and an early flight home.

B is for BANDES

Ah, les bandes. Translating roughly as "band" or "group", countless numbers of Bandes exist within the Legion’s ranks today. Membership is far from exclusive, with many Legionnaires (myself included) laying claim to populating the ranks of several Legion Bandes. Here is a select example of the more elite Bandes existing within the ranks of the French Foreign Legion today:

Bande de Branleurs (Bunch of wankers/dossers)
This applies to any Legionnaire caught sitting down for more than 4.5 seconds during the working day, or sufficiently injured so as to be excluded from work-detail.

Bande de Chiffons (Bunch of slobs/messy bastards)
A speck of dust on your boots? Bed-covers not correctly folded in the morning? A button undone on your combat vest? Congratulations, you’re now a full-fledged good-for-nothing Chiffon, obviously completely unconcerned with your physical appearance or personal hygiene.

Bande de Chiffreurs (Bunch of desk-jockey calculators)
I’m sorry, but no-one cares about your tours of Chad, Kosovo, Rwanda, Ivory Coast and Afghanistan, nor your 20 years of service, completion of numerous punishing assault courses and walls of medals. If you’ve since decided to hang up your combat boots and work more towards the administration side of Legion life, you qualify as a chiffreur and therefore forfeit all knowledge of weapons, tactics and physical fitness, as well as any right to order young, petulant, inexperienced Legionnaires (the REAL warriors, grrrr!!) about the place. Bloody pen-pushers!

Bande de Gamelles (Bunch of Cooking pots…….seriously)
Anyone caught displaying any sort of urgency en route to lunch.

Bande de Terroristes
Anyone with a beard.

Bande de Tracteuristes (Bunch of Tractor-ers…?)
Anyone behind the wheel of a military vehicule, instead of progressing on foot like a real soldier!

And my personal favourite.....

During basic instruction, myself and a few lads were hanging around outside the Treasury waiting to be called in for confirmation of our bank details. A Chief Sergeant passed by, unnoticed by our gaggling gang of gossiping grannies. Outraged by this glaringly insolent show of insubordination, he proceeded to unleash a flame-tinted toe-curling diatribe upon us unwitting legionnaires. Finally, he finished up by venomously spitting out the eternally classic
"Bande de Fascistes".
I, for one, felt extremely proud.

C is for CAMERON

The Battle of Cameron is by far the Legion’s most famous battle, spawning an annual day of celebration held in higher regard than Christmas, Bastille or even Pancake Tuesday! Encapsulating the very essence of what it is (or rather, should be) to be a Legionnaire, the 30th April every year sees such wacky traditions as the youngest legionnaire at the company taking command for the morning, with the officers forced to deliver us breakfast in bed, mop and clean our toilets, pick up cigarette buts around the building and of course, do push-ups on account of their shoddy efforts. A quite enjoyable, amiable atmosphere prevails in general throughout the day. For the whole spiel regarding the ancient battle itself, see here.


Following the fall of Berlin and termination of hostilities between the Germans and the Allies, many former S.S. officers and soldiers sought refuge in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion, thus profoundly altering the culture, history, and traditions of the Legion. In the years to follow the end of World War 2, the Legion were to embark on their fateful mission to Indochina, losing over 10,000 souls (the Legion’s ranks had been swollen to a staggering 72,000), the majority of which were Germans and Austrians. Today, various companies in various regiments throughout the Legion sing various songs introduced by the post WW2 German contingent. Titles such as "Schwarze Rose", "Kamaraden" and "Westerwald" are all treated to regular outings by unphased Legionnaires, blaring out lyrics in the German language already fully acceptant of their place in our family’s chequered history.

Tune in next week for letters E to H, as we continue our Legion Alphabet.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Wednesday, September 8

Marche ou Grève

For those of you who don’t follow international current affairs too enthusiastically (or are not in any way familiar with French culture), last Tuesday 7th September saw Sarko‘s Republique take to the streets in mass nationwide protest. Their gripe lies with ol’ Saint Nic’s plan to raise the national retirement age from 60 to 62. Over 200 separate protests nationwide, more than 1.5 MILLION protesters, and all for an measly 2 additional years in a country where asking someone to work on a Sunday is like asking a builder to keep the tea-breaks in the single figures. It just ain’t gonna happen folks!

Still, the French love their traditions and, at a time when Sarkozy is getting hammered on all sides, the thought of a pension policy put in place by the revered Monsieur Mitterand being mutilated by their current Public enemy No.1 provided the people with hedonistically ample opportunity to partake in La France’s favourite past-time - STRIKING. On Tuesday it was mainly rail networks affected, but in the past we’ve been witness to bemusingly impressive truck blockades, fishing boat lock-downs, the whole shebang. No-one dared mention that Germany recently raised its retirment age to 67 without half the fuss, the Brits not far behind with plans to bump it up to 66 and the ever-reliable Irish will soon be set to work towards a whopping 68 years of age before packing it in (an attempt at a Celtic Tiger re-incarnation, perhaps?). I know there are a good few Romanians who’d jump at the chance of 2 years work as cogs in the Big Bad Gallic Machine, but Sarko’s on such a roll now that he seems quite unstoppable in his quest for assassination (political assassination of course, HA ha…… hmmm).

All of which had me playing ever so gently with the novel idea of a strike right here in the Legion. I mean, surely we’d have significantly more gripes (significant gripes an’ all) to warrant dusting off of the placards and taking to the streets. Low pay, unappetising food, antiquated materials, severe lack of gender equality (that’s to say, there’s only the one there, like). Add to the list illegal (yes ILLEGAL) imprisonment for breaches of discipline and I think we’ve got ourselves at least half a dozen "What Do We Want?" chants to challenge the passing car horns on a busy weekday morning. Imagine if every legionnaire and his family took to the streets in defiance of the derogatory, undignified status quo forced down our throats on a daily basis and we’d have……. well, feck all really.

The Legion’s total force today is a mere 7,699 honourable and brave men. About half of these are either grizzled NCOs or elitist, prissy little officers who would immediately team up AGAINST our poor, toe-trodden band of rank-and-file rabble, haranguing us endlessly with laments to the Legion of old, and how our own atrocious "Generation Playstation" have it too easy. What about the ickle lickle Legionnaires’ families though? Ah, well numbers WOULD be swelled IF the majority of families actually knew where their darling babies were (it appears we didn’t all have a massive going-away party in a city-centre bar before heading off to lay claim to our destiny…….). So, the strike’s been well and truly struck down then. Shame, but I suppose it could be worse. It could always be worse, so I guess I’ll stick with pretty crap for now. After all, who’d want to be forced to work in a normal job until the ripe ol’ age of 62!!?

I’ll leave you with an interesting little Legion fact, poking through to the surface after light-hearted (HA ha….. hmmm) references to assassination earlier. Today, the French Foreign Legion regiments based in mainland France are all situated in the south of the country. "Pourquoi?" I don’t quite hear you ask. Well, following Charles De Gaulle’s signing of the proclamation of independence for Algeria in 1962, a militant wing of the Legion mutinied (as you do), with advanced plans almost coming to fruition regarding the continuation of armed conflict in Algeria, a parachute drop on Paris itself and even an assassination attempt on De Gaulle. A legion sniper had reportedly been arranged and, but for a last-minute change in one of the former president’s parade routes during a national celebration in Paris, who knows? De Gaulle - genuinely spooked by rumours of said attempt - nonetheless decided to stick with the Legion and continue its repatriation, but ensured that those crazy foreign bastards stayed as far away from Paris as possible. Today, with blistering sun and a private hotel on the beaches of Marseille for the holiday season, no one can complain too much. Unless, of course, you’ve got milky-white skin like mine and manage to sunburn watching old Baywatch re-runs. Honestly, the money spent on sun-creams is extortionate. Maybe that’s another thing I could go on strike about.

Monday, September 6

Double, Double, Tanks and Rubble

So I finally took the plunge. I finally got "inked" (Oooooohh the excitement!!!). Amazing, how it took me so long to commit to my first tattoo having been in the Legion over two years. That’s considered "delayed adaptation" chez nous. You see, while not technically a contractual obligation, a tattooed Legionnaire forms quite the agreeable clichéd image. Not that I’m a fan of clichés, nor of being considered one. But this particular tattoo conveniently presented me with a dual opportunity of expressing a philosophy and further-integrating myself into my ever-more-familiar, eternally bizarre surroundings. Duality itself is a rather prominent player in these parts, or at least it is when I send it sprinting out on to the field.

Now, being proven wrong is never nice (unless it involves under-estimated shopping budgets), and finding a cosy spot on the fence is becoming evermore appealing when laid bare beside making blood-rushed, panic-fuelled decisions to form opinions faster than Anti-Sarkozy protest groups in Romania. I spent a long time deciding to go under the artist’s needle, and while weighing up the pros and cons of having an indelible mark voluntarily imprinted on my skin, I found myself unconsciously procrastinating over another permanent print hovering dauntingly over my shoulder. My guys. My lads with whom I share every waking moment, every slumbered snore and fart, every under-heated ration tin and over-stuffy APC. These fellas provide the backdrop, the foreground, the lead and support , the props and make-up (sorry, did I say "make-up"? - I meant WAR PAINT), and yet I can’t seem to bring myself to consider them outside of the candy-striped big top.

Recent talk of relationship building, dismantling and purgatorial indecision shone a personal light on my negligence towards the other legionnaires in my world. Held at arms-length from the beginning, I never honestly envisaged myself forging genuinely lasting friendships with my fellow brothers in arms beyond our service together. It’s funny really; you’d happily fly off for a 6 month mission to Afghanistan with these guys, immersed in cramped conditions, stressful environments and every explosive substance under the sun, but wouldn’t for a minute consider inviting them round for dinner due to a lack of table manners. Guns cracking and table-side lip-smacking should indisputably be kept apart, but I’m beginning to think that certain characters in here deserve their chance to shine somewhere outside of this grand, spiralling mental projection I’ve painted myself into. The train ride down south after 3 weeks holidays spent out of the Legion, out of the country, out of my mind with doubts and considerations was far from pleasant. I was so unsure of my plans, desires, my future in general. Mindlessly allowing my vacant stare burn a hole in the carpeted corridor between the rows of seats while listening to blaring heavy metal on my Mp3, several passengers could have been forgiven their apparent sense of bemusement and unease. But as soon as I stepped off that TGV and descended the steps to find two camarades seated on a bench, warm smiles and open arms greeting me (more out of relief due to my arrival further diluting the shared taxi fare back to base), I knew where my head was at, where I was at, and where I’m going on this crazy rollercoaster ride. I feel like I’m suffering from bi-polar disorder in here at times, but it’s all part of the game I guess.

Going back to my very first entry in this blog, I quoted Van Gogh as saying how "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together". With under two months to go until that plane departs bound for Afghanistan, I’m gradually rubbing the eyes a little harder and subsequently finding increasing numbers of not-so-small but quite great things right at the end of my own nose. Whether that greatness will return intact and stay as such after the mission and beyond remains to be seen, but for now I’m sure as hell enjoying the company.

Speaking of Van Gogh, his suffering from bi-polar disorder is rather interesting given that said disorder had been thoroughly researched and re-imagined in its more contemporary guise by French psychiatrists during the early to mid 1800s. Coincidentally, that was right around the time that King Louis-Philippe created the French Foreign Legion. I wonder what ever happened to all the test-subjects used in their "research"……….. VIVE LA LEGION ETRANGERE!
(for now.........I think).