YET MORE—THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION (continued)
The full story of what happened in Corsica (rather a lot) will have to await my memoirs—but suffice to say that we did track down both the Legion and some bandits.
The bandits were something of an accident—and I wasn’t sure they really were bandits until I noticed that everyone in the room of an inn rather high up in the mountains was unshaven and armed. However, the leader of the group was charmed by Bunny, amused by our relationship, and left us entirely unscathed. Indeed, he bought us drinks and we chatted for some time in bad English and worse French.
Were they really bandits? I have really no idea. However, I have never come up with any other explanation for why the entire group of about twenty—all in rough civilian clothes—should be carrying weapons. But perhaps they were hunters? With handguns and automatic weapons? I rather think not.
They could, of course, have been freedom fighters trying to gain independence for Corsica. Either way, I’ll never forget that evening and a frisson of fear when I realized that perhaps we had got in too deep.
We found the Legion by asking a policeman in Ajaccio, Corsica’s capital. These days I am familiar with Public Affairs departments, and the protocols of inquiry. Back in those days, at the tender age of twenty, I favored the direct route. It did get me arrested on a few occasions, but normally it worked—and fortune often favors the young and ignorant.
The policeman said that the bandits were now mostly in the towns because it was more convenient for both bandits and policemen (very droll) whereas the Legion was a bloody menace and was kept as far away from civilization as possible. He explained that if you tried to arrest one legionnaire for being drunk and disorderly, he would then call his comrades and the results would be ugly. Accordingly, if we wanted to find the Legion, we should head for Corte in the mountains where we would find a Legion barracks—hopefully full of troopers so tired from training that they wouldn't cause us any trouble. However, I’d be wise not to take anyone’s photo.
Corte is a truly dramatic spot because it sits in a bowl of mountains and it is dominated by citadel built on a rocky outcrop. The town itself was small, in my day, and though the Legion occupied the citadel, the main barracks was outside the town. Training took place in the surrounding mountains and was, by all accounts, brutal. The Legion tries to keep its soldiers busy and astonishingly fit. The body fat of a typical legionnaire is in single figures.
Why am I going on about the Legion? Well, of two reasons: Firstly, they left an indelible impression on me. And secondly, because they keep on popping up whenever there is trouble. Currently, they are in Mali—which features broadly similar terrain to that which they used to be associated with in Algeria.
In a way, the Legion is returning to its roots. As to whether a few thousand can be successful in a country the size of France, against an enemy that is extremely hard to identify—because its fighters rarely wear uniforms—I have to wonder. However, where they do manage to close with the enemy, I have no doubt but that they will prevail.
To be continued…