Camerone, 30th April 1863. Sixty brave Legionnaires led by the legendary Capitaine Danjou stood against two thousand Mexican troops - 1,200 infantry and 800 mounted cavalry. Fighting until sixty had been whittled down to five with each man possessing a solitary cartridge in his rifle, the quintet of unrelenting Képi Blancs discharged their final round before bulldozing their way in to an insurmountable mass of Mexican soldiers, their bayonets hungry for one last kill before the inevitable. Two Legionnaires fell before a Mexican officer intervened, sparing the lives of the remaining three. Surrender was only agreed after the remaining Legionnaires had secured the right to retain their weapons and seek aid for their wounded. Undoubtedly the Legion’s most famous battle, la Fète de Camerone has since become our most important and cherished celebration, surpassing even Christmas.
Skip forward 148 years or so, and yours truly finds himself a long way from either Mexico or his beloved France. Not to be discouraged though, the Legion never fails to mark the anniversary of Camerone regardless of the location where it’s being celebrated. That much we knew. We expected "some sort" of acknowledgment of the day that was in it, sure. What we hadn’t counted on was one of the most sensational days of fun-filled revelry in living memory, Camerone or otherwise.
It all began, as Camerone always does, with breakfast in bed. Ah yes, for on the 30th April every year, an amusing role-reversal takes place. The Lieutenant, the platoon sergeant and the two squad leaders came into the cubicles of each legionnaire with a selection of croissants and pain au chocolat at about 7am. Wishing us all a Happy Camerone Day, we were then cordially invited to pile into the living area where a massive pot of coffee had been prepared. Now I’m not a coffee drinker……at all! But on the day of Camerone, morning coffee is mandatory. Partly because it inspires a bit of cohesion amongst the soldiers, partly because it’s laced to industrially toxic levels with rum. Actually, it’s mostly the rum that makes it mandatory. 7am lads, 7am!!
The role reversal then continued with the delegation of corvée ("corvée" is the daily chores such as sweeping, mopping, emptying the trash and general tidying-up). Some of the more dedicated rank-and-file even forwent the eating of their delicious pastries in favour of breaking them into numerous parts and flinging them on the floor.
"Chop chop Mon. Lieutenant, this place is filthy!!!"
One sergeant was sent to stock up on bottled water, carrying back a whopping forty eight litres in one trip. The other was set to work on the legs of the table and stools in the living area. Some of the lads had given them special attention with shoe polish the night before, and nothing short of gleaming would do this morning. After several passes with the mop by our dear Lieutenant (somehow, someone always forgot something they’d left in their cubicle, forcing a re-mop every time they left footprints on the wet floor), we finally quit our building to go rejoin the company for morning assembly. Spirits were already soaring as we converged on the other sections, themselves having succeeded in an active morning’s workout for their commanding officers. The ritual for company assembly is that the youngest Legionnaire (in terms of service) takes the Captain’s place, the next youngest the deputy, and so on. On this occasion, the Captain was a small Hungarian chap from our section. Having joked around with the state of our uniforms and made the actual captain and his posse do a few push-ups, he suddenly announced an impromptu morning run. The faces on some of the bigger-boned Caporal Chefs dropped sharply as off we went around the entire FOB, screaming our lungs out like a pack of deranged inmates escaped through a hole in the hospital walls. Heads turned a full 360° as we passed. Indeed the poor Afghan soldiers hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening. I’m sure some of them might have asked if teaming up with the Legion to help stabilise their country was really such a good idea after all. Run eventually over, the real captain took the reigns to wish us all a Happy Camerone before sending us on our way. The day was ours to enjoy until that evening when the real fun and games would begin.
Ladies of the Legion - UNITE!
With a spectacular setting sun slowly swallowed up by the imperious surrounding mountains, the crunching and hissing of beer cans echoed out across the twilight sky. The pre-meal party was underway. A selection of invited guests from the French army dropped in to wish us well, and amiable mingling ensued. I teamed up with an American friend, wasting no time in asking why he himself wasn’t drinking.
"Dude, I’... I'm fuckin’ high dude! What? Hmmm"
Indeed his pupils were the size of the afore-mentioned decorous mountains as slowly, oh so slowly, he explained his recently administered (self-administered, naturally) cocktail of painkillers to combat a back spasm from earlier in the day. Suddenly my party-sized can of Heineken was looking rather tame by comparison. Fighting not to become disheartened on this joyous occasion, I sensibly decided that nothing combats size like sheer quantity, and so the crunching and hissing gathered frightening speed as the hour of the grand buffet approached.
Now the meal was grand, the meal was fine
The singing flowed as did the wine
But towards the end, before spirits sank
The show kicked off - Ms. Képi Blanc
I’d never experienced a Ms. Képi Blanc competition before, but had at least seen photos and videos. Most came from the 3REI in French Guyana where the talent was top and the tropical backdrop rounded off what seemed like the pinnacle of Camerone celebrations. Here in Afghanistan, one might be allowed wonder just where the willing ladies might be found to participate in arguably the most beer-fuelled, testosterone drowned beauty pageant in existence. Enter the nurses......
To the disbelief of many (myself more than included), the personnel from the infirmary actually agreed to take to the specially-constructed catwalk in the dining hall for the entertainment of 120 goggle-eyed and increasingly uncoordinated Legionnaires. The first round set off proceedings nicely, each doing a single run up and back. Wearing standard military uniform, it was a gentle yet promising introduction. Then the temperature rose a notch. One lieutenant strutted out with a band of ammunition traversing her.....frontal.....area to maximum effect, with the tightest of combat shorts rounding off the outfit. Massive cheers all round. Aiming to go one better, the little secretary - a corporal by day - strutted out still wearing her normal uniform. Tepid cheers greeted the apparent lack of imagination but decibels soon increased tenfold as she briskly whipped off her vest to reveal a rather revealing sports top underneath. That the sports top was one of our very own company’s proved the icing on the cake, as she wiggled cutely away to deafening cheers. As the contestants progressed, the ranks and stakes rose simultaneously. A corporal and a lieutenant are all well and good, but throw a couple of high-flying Captains in the mix and things start to get really interesting.
The first of the two, a well known and appropriately adored member of the gang over here (let’s call her Jessica) hit the stage. The table-thumping began. "Jess-ic-a, Jess-ic-a, Jess-ic-a" rising to a cacophonous marvel of acoustic splendour as, totally unphased, she leapt up on to a free chair and began her tour along the long horseshoe of tables. The crowd loved it as she daintily sauntered before the skinhead slack-jawed masses. Arriving before me, I simply felt compelled to hold up proceedings just long enough to slip a fiver in her pocket. The lads threw up a cheer, she smiled and saw out her little circuit. The winner, it seemed, had all but been decided. But wait? We still had one more little captain to go.
And the winner is.....
This last entry, a relatively recent arrival at the FOB due to certain personnel changes, hadn’t made herself too known around the FOB. A formidable runner for those who came across her in the mornings, she couldn’t be more than 5"4. Still, the personality far outgrew the frame on the night of the 30th as she too came flying out of the traps. The stage having been set by "Jess-ic-a" earlier, our little pocket rocket leaped up on to the stage. Only this time, approaching our own Captain and a Commandant from our regiment (who admittedly had the best seat in the house), she dropped on to all fours and performed the splits in front of the gob smacked duo. I should have brought my ballistic earplugs. The place went fucking crazy. I mean, off the charts crazy. Tables were overturned impeding the end of her journey. Glasses of wine went flying, guys dropped down on the floor begging to be resuscitated. There was NO doubt. The new queen had been crowned. The wolf pack poured out of the dining hall and back to the tents to continue the party.
I got in to bed at 5am. I don’t remember much. Apparently I wowed the lads with an improvised song about "Jess-ic-a" before heading out back to smash the guitar into pieces Kurt Cobain-style. Others slept outdoors, on walls, in shower cubicles, you name it. The finer details must, understandably, be kept under wraps but suffice to say a lot of sheepish heads avoided eye contact the following day. Congratulations go to the lads from the French Cavalry regiment who hosted the after-show party and provided beer, deeply profound drunken conversation and, of course, a rapturous audience for the afore-mentioned song.
Two days on and the head/stomach are only starting to get back in to normal working order. Mercifully, the earlier threats of "never drinking again" have proved ridiculously hollow as already attention is turned towards Camerone 2012.
Some say it’ll be the end of the world. If we Legionnaires continue to fight and party as our reputation demands, it just might well be.