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THE FEAR

 

 

Christian Fiset

THE FEAR

A Memoir

By:

Gerard Fritsch

 

 

 

Copyright2017.Gerard Fritsch

Shakespir Edition

Self-Published at Shakespir. Any use of the book without the author’s consent is strictly prohibited.

 

CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

About the Author

Author’s Note

 

The story begins in the army barracks of the 6th Regiment of Pioneers posted in Angers, France.

 

 

CHAPTER 1

SENT TO WAR IN AFRICA

 

In our company, everyone’s tension had risen dramatically as we were all anxious to know where we were going to serve in Algeria. But before being sent to Africa we were all given three days’ leave to see our family. It would be a long time before we saw them again.

In the meantime, a batch of new conscripts had arrived to take our places in our company. We looked at them with curiosity. They were exactly like we were when we had arrived four months ago and this made us feel superior because we had survived and finished our basic training.

“Wait till you meet the Sergeant, Chief Ledru, boys!” Maillet said to them, and the whole company of new conscripts looked at us with fear.

 “Who is he?” asked a shy boy who had left his mother just a few days before.

“Do not worry son, you will soon know him and you will not forget him. He is the biggest bastard in the company. Just make sure you don’t cross him. Still, we managed to send him to jail for four weeks, you know. Bonnemaison helped us to do it.” Maillet proudly exclaimed.

The whole group of new conscripts were petrified when they heard this story and wondered what the future held for them. Then, as quick as we could, we left in the direction of the railway station for our three–days leave.

As usual, my parents were waiting for me at the railway station when I arrived. My father had served the army in the two World Wars. During the Second World War, he was in the French resistance and knew well what war meant. When I was sitting with him he just looked at me intensely and didn’t say much. He already knew, without me saying anything, what I was going to go through and what could happen to me in Algeria.

These three days of rest with my family were wonderful and the weather was still warm and balmy. It was so comfortable and quiet compared to the mad house of the army barracks of Angers. My mother had planned evenings with the family. All my uncles came with their wives and children, and also many friends joined us.

“So, when are you leaving for Algeria, you lucky boy?” asked one of my cousins.

“Going to Africa on holidays… the hot sun… and all this at the expense of the French government. I never had this luck in my time. We just went as occupation forces in Germany,” my uncle Bernard added.

It was strange because everyone envied me going there. The amazing part about this war was that the people of France were tired of hearing about it. They no longer took much notice of it and they certainly didn’t know exactly what was going on there. Perhaps it was because the newspapers were not telling them the truth or perhaps, also, because no one knew that Algeria was just a blood bath as, almost every day, coffins of young, dead national servicemen were brought discreetly back to France to be returned to their families. The newspapers had been told by the Government to cover up the truth. All they could tell the public was that we had complete success in our operations and how many dissidents we had killed, but rarely were people in France told what the Arabs had done to us.

No one talked about the fact that we could be wounded or even killed in Algeria. As far as everyone here was concerned, we were just going on holidays at the expense of the French Government and we would be passing our time looking at the young Arab girls.

“Keep your eyes off the ‘Fatma’, my boy!” my friend, Andre, said.

Fatma is the Arabic name for women.

One afternoon my parents took me to a photography shop to have my photo taken, just in case something dreadful happened to me. Then we all went to the cinema. How wonderful it was to be there in the comfortable theatre chairs, surrounded by my family. All the walls and chairs were covered with red velvet material. A young woman with a basket full of ice cream was wandering around. What an atmosphere. How much I would have liked to have this time last forever and not to have to live in fear like I did in the army, and I wished I would not have to go back to the barracks.

My friend, Andre, had been in Algeria and had finished his military duty a few months before I was called up.

“Yes, Christian, it is tough there. I spent over two years sitting in the Djebel, watching a Berber village and going on operation almost every night. We had to transform a farm into a fort, to survive. The worst part was loneliness and boredom, and then at night you never knew what would happen. We were all happy when the sun rose on the horizon. In winter, it was freezing cold in the mountains, and for many months the farm disappeared completely under snow. I didn’t like it at all, so good luck,” he said.

Then he shook my hand. This was not something I really wanted to hear, but I had already heard all sorts of stories during the four months of training and it didn’t worry me that much anymore.

On the last night of my leave, my mother surpassed herself by preparing an elaborate dinner for which the Michelin Guide would have given her stars. On top of this, she invited our best friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lechevallier, and their two daughters, Marielyn and Jeanne, to join us for the evening. We had known them for a long time and I had grown up with their daughters. Jeanne, in particular, was beautiful and sweet and I had been in love with her for a long time, and the love I had for her was reciprocated. She was such a smart a girl that she made young boys’ hearts beat fast. Jeanne was 18 years old and a typical example of a Norman girl, with long, blond hair floating around her shoulders, and blue eyes like our Viking ancestors. She was a fine and cultured young lady and her outstanding beauty, of course, attracted many admirers. She always spoke in a soft and enchanting voice, and she seemed to be genuinely interested in what others had to say. I was always completely captivated by her presence and she felt the same about me. We could not say much to each other as her parents were always there but, with our eyes, we said everything. It would have been such a delight to be married to a girl like her.

When she arrived with her parents this particular evening, I was fantasising about kissing her. I managed to sit next to her at the table. We had to be careful as everyone was watching us, particularly her father. It was such an enormous joy to be next to her and looking at her discreetly, even touching her hand which was close to mine, under the table. How much I would have given to be with her far away from her family and to be able to talk to her and, above all, to kiss her.

When the dinner was over, my sister, Marie Noelle, who had just been given a record player for Christmas, put on some music and, as the older people were talking and drinking, we decided to try and practice dancing. The record we were playing was by an American group called ‘The Platters.’ It was beautiful music and we all tried to dance as we had just begun to learn how. Naturally, I made sure I only danced with Jeanne. What strong emotions she stirred in me. Our hands clutched together, moist with tension and excitement as she looked at me. It was a moment I wanted to last forever. I was attracted to her like a magnet to metal.

“Would you like to write to me in Algeria, Jeanne?” I managed to whisper to her.

“Yes, I would. I would love to do that,” she replied.

I felt like kissing her when she said it. I looked at her enticing mouth and lips but everyone was watching and her father was a difficult man who kept a hawk–like eye on his daughter. I wished to myself that I could keep the memory of this short moment with Jeanne forever, especially during the two long years which I would have to spend in Algeria. Quickly I slipped a note into her hand, with the address of my company in Algeria written on it. Then, with my arm around her waist, we danced together as long as we could, because I knew that it was going to be a long time before I would see her again. How cruel life is and why is it so difficult when all you want to do is to love someone in complete peace? It was late and it was time for them to go home. The party was over and, to my great distress, my beautiful Jeanne left with her parents. Again, I was on my own and there was nothing I could do about it.

I had to do all I was told to do, and this meant going to Algeria, fighting a war which had nothing to do with me whatsoever, and trying to kill people who had done me no harm. And to top it all off, it meant trying to stop people who just wanted to be free from a foreign oppressor. Two years is a long time to sit in the Atlas Mountains away from your family and not have the chance to win Jeanne’ hand. There were so many who were trying to marry her. I had absolutely no possibility of competing with them, and the only contact I would have with her would be by letters. I recalled the proverb, ‘Far away from the eyes, far away from the heart’. The only comfort I would have would be my army friends as all of us were in the same tragic position and unable to do anything about it.

I watched her and her family get into their car and disappear. I kept my eyes on Jeanne for as long as I could as she looked at me through the back window of her father’s car. How sad it was.

Tuesday 2 p.m. I was ready to go back to the Barracks, just like every other time when I came home on leave. Except this time there was a difference. I was going to a war in Algeria. My mother, in total silence, had filled my little suitcase with clean, spare clothes and tightly packed foods of all sorts. She also gave me the rosary which I got when I had my first communion, and which was supposed to protect me in Algeria. My mother had also washed and pressed my uniform as, once more, I had to leave my white shirt and black trousers behind and put on the khaki clothes which I would be wearing for a long time.

It was time to go and, all dressed up again in my uniform, I left with my parents for the railway station. I had done this many times before when my brother was in the Navy, but now it was my turn. In the car, my mother started to cry. No one could talk or say anything as our throats were too tense with emotion. It made me so sad to see my mother like this again. While driving the car, my father was silent but I knew he was thinking a great deal. My two sisters joined my mother and were also crying. I wished that we had already reached the railway station and that I had already left. It was just so hard to part from my family.

The 6 p.m. train to Lemans had not yet arrived and the railway station hall was full with families and young conscripts, all in the same situation as I was, leaving for Algeria. All the parents were with their sons; the boys were beside their mothers, holding them tight, or sometimes by their fiancés, girlfriends or their wives. A few of my friends who were married were holding babies in their arms. Fathers were giving plenty of advice to their sons.

“Above all, John, never ever volunteer for anything,” a father was saying to his son.

“Stay quietly in your corner and look after yourself,” was reiterated by most of the mothers.

“Do not forget to write at least twice a week!”

 “All we ask you to do is to come back as soon as you can. Write to us and don’t worry about anything – we will cope well on the farm.”

Older brothers gave pieces of advice and hints to their younger brothers. Most of us were trying as hard as we could to put on a good face, so we laughed and sometimes waved to another fellow from our regiment. Mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives held tightly onto their boys for as long as they could. They knew that they wouldn’t see them again for a long time, or perhaps, even worse – never again. Maybe the next time they saw them, their boys could have been badly wounded.

There were so many people and there was so much tension and sadness in the waiting hall. All my friends were hiding their sadness as best they could by putting on bravado and even by telling jokes to make everyone laugh. Chretien was there with his family and his girlfriend, and so were Joncquet and Briard. Bazo was with his father only, as his mother had died when he was born. All of us were putting on an air of confidence in front of our parents and families but in reality, all of us were feeling insecure about our future. Other boys from different regiments had joined us in the hall and the crowd in the station started to move out as the steam train from Cherbourg pulled in along the platform. The train was already full of servicemen re–joining their barracks. The station master blew his whistle and it was time for all of us conscripts to board the train.

Again– our throats were tight with emotion, but we hid it by joking, laughing and pretending we were ok… till the last minute. Last kisses, more tears, more crying, continual holding and hugging or looking at each other without saying anything. We did not know what to say anymore as we were so upset about going, and also about seeing our own mothers in such a state, most of them having tears running down their faces. The great hall of the railway station was a place of total sadness.

Some of us were waiting till the last minute to board the train but some had already taken over the window spaces, holding the hands of their loved ones standing on the platform. I stayed as long as I could with my mother but there was nothing left to say and our throats were dry with tension. I just wanted to go as quickly as I could and put an end to this heart– wrenching experience. I couldn’t bear to see my mother weeping and to be in such state. I loved her so much. She had seen five of her family go to war and I was number six.

The station master, wearing his white cap and holding his baton in one hand, gave the signal for the engine driver to move on, and as he blew his whistle for the last time, the doors of the wagons had to be closed. But some of us were still on the platform with our loved ones, putting on a brave front up until the last second, laughing and holding them.

Blowing black smoke from its boiler, the train slowly moved out, and it was the last minute for all of us and our families to see each other. One of my friends was running along the side of the train and some others were standing outside on the footsteps of the wagons, holding the doors and waving to their parents until, finally, all the people on the platform disappeared in a cloud of steam and smoke. I will never forget the sight of my parents on the platform and, above all, my mother, a pale and frail figure wrapped in her coat, a scarf on her head and her eyes full of tears. My father was standing behind and holding her, his face sober and expressionless, as he had seen so much suffering in his life. My two sisters were holding my mother in their arms, both weeping like she was.

Us recruits were now all together again, piled up in the narrow passage way of the wagons. The night had already fallen but we were still gazing out of the windows, craving for one last look at our city. Most of us were tearful and sad. Thank God, we were all facing the same situation. We had learned to know each other so well during the four months of training. All of us were sitting on the floor of the passage way, tight against each other like sardines. It was extremely uncomfortable but we were all together like brothers. After a few minutes sitting there, someone passed a bottle of Calvados around and this made the depressing situation change quickly. Almost instantaneously there was conversation, followed by laughter, and soon after that, loud jokes and even some singing from one group. Our morale had recovered and we were together again bound for a new adventure.

“Algeria, here we come!” yelled Briard. “Watch us, Fellaghas! We are coming to meet you. Be ready for us.”

Then a general laugh came from everyone.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 2

GOODBYE ANGERS

 

15 September 1960. We had re–joined our company in the barracks. We had to prepare ourselves for our departure to North Africa and we were all waiting with impatience to find out where we were going, and when we had to give back all the equipment we had received during our training and were only allowed to keep our outing uniforms. New kits fit for African conditions would be issued to us when we arrived in Algeria.

Everyone was relaxed as the discipline that was fundamental to our training had now completely disappeared. There was no more fear of punishment or cancellation of leave from the barracks, or even of being sent to jail for forgetting to salute an officer. No one cared any longer about our behaviour. But the strangest thing was that our Officers were speaking to us as human beings. The permanent yelling and screaming had disappeared and the officers did not care if we saluted them or not. What an enormous change.

After giving back our equipment to the stores, each of us were given our marching orders, which came in the form of individual official papers telling us where we were to be posted in Africa. Everyone was excited, quickly ripping open their envelopes to find out their destination.

“My destination in Algeria is Guelma, which is a city situated in the province of Constantine,” yelled Bourget.

“Where are you going, Joncquet?” I asked my best friend.

“Guelma, also. Where is this place? I’ve never heard of it,” he replied.

“It is next to Constantine, close to the Barrage of the Tunisian border,” said Bonnemaison.

“Don’t worry about it, boys. I am also going to Guelma. Just follow me everyone. Here we go – direction Guelma!” shouted Legrand.

“I am going there too,” said someone else.

After a few minutes, we found out that almost everybody in our section, including me, was going to the same place in Algeria, Guelma, and also to the same battalion which was called the 37th Battalion of Pioneers. I was happy to find out that Joncquet, Bazo, Vanoli, Chretien, Maillet and many others who had gone through the same dreadful experience as I did during the four months of training, were going with me to the same place in Africa.

“Let’s all go to the foyer to see on the map exactly where Guelma is situated,” said Legran.

Indeed, in the foyer on one of the walls was pinned a large, coloured map of North Africa, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. After a brief search on this map, someone pointed to the city of our destination.

“Guelma! Here we are boys! Here it is,” said Maillet, putting his index finger on the right spot of the map.

“Guelma is in the Constantine area, about 70 kilometres from the sea and the harbour of Bone, and about 100 kilometres from the Barrage (an electrified fence) and the Tunisian border,” said Bonnemaison, who was reading it from the map.

We were all happy to be leaving the barracks where we had more bad memories than good, and we were all excited about our new posting in Africa.

16 September 1960. In the morning after the last ceremony of the flag, Captain Rivoal, our Commanding Officer, was standing on the steps. He wished us all good luck in our future posting in Algeria. Sergeant Chief Ledru was there also, wearing his full parade uniform with all his medals pinned on it, for the occasion.

“He must have had to buy a new uniform after we took our revenge on him,” said Bonnemaison, with a smile.

“Well, my children, I wish you a good journey and, above all, a safe stay while doing your military duty in Algeria. I hope you perform as well there as you did here during your training. Thank you all,” said Ledru.

Very surprisingly, he was smiling as he was saying this. What a changed person. We could barely recognise the sadistic chief whom we had to obey during all those months of training, and who had made our lives so miserable.

“I cannot believe it! Did I hear it properly, or not? He called us ‘children’. Something must have gone wrong somewhere! Perhaps he knows he can’t do anything to us now.” said Bonnemaison.

“He’s lost all his power. He’s like an old wolf that has lost his teeth,” someone else said.

The GMC trucks had arrived in the yard of our company and, with great effort we were loaded into them, with all our equipment. Then we were driven to the army depot where we exchanged our equipment for different gear. We were told that we were free until the following morning’s departure. So, with both hands in our pockets, Chretien and I walked to the city of Angers for the last time, passing the guards at the gate without having to produce any papers whatsoever. What a change from the past. It was a world turned upside down.

Annick and her girlfriend, Evelyn, were waiting for Chretien and me, outside the army barracks. They had managed to change their shifts at the hospital in order to spend the evening with us. They did not know that we were going to Algeria the following morning and we did not have the courage to tell them. Both of them were always happy and keen to meet with us when we had some free time from the barracks. We, in turn, enjoyed spending time with them in the city. They were always such a comfort to us and to be with them, even for a short time, was such a delight. After our initial meeting at the ball of the Green Cross, we had developed a steady relationship with them. Annick and Evelyn were both beautiful.

During our training, Chretien and I sometimes left the barracks when we didn’t have signed leave papers. We would jump the high wall, then, when outside, change into civilian clothes in one of the nearby cafés where we knew the owner. After that we would meet Evelyn and Annick for dinner. The four of us went to cinemas, dances, festivals and even to the fireworks in the evening of the 14th of July, sitting on the grass by the river Loire. What a great time we always had and we would have liked each evening to last forever. Of course, each evening did end, as we had to take the girls back to their parents’ homes before 12 o’clock. Then Chretien and I had to run at full speed back to the barracks and jump the wall again, in complete darkness.

But this night was not the same as usual. We did not have to jump the wall to meet them. We just walked to the city. On this occasion, we had invited them to a beautiful dinner in the best restaurant of Angers, situated on the main square. They were waiting for us and they were both smartly dressed, more attractive than ever. It was almost as if they knew of our new posting beforehand. It was during this dinner that we told them about our forth–coming departure.

“Tomorrow, Evelyn and Annick, both of us will be leaving with our company for Algeria,” we told them.

Upon hearing our news, the girls fell silent. They looked at each other with sadness and they had tears in their eyes. They had grown accustomed to spending the evenings with us after their work in the hospital and they had never thought about us being posted away. They had even made plans for a future life together, after we had finished our military duty. With a regiment of 1,200 men living in the barracks, it was quite difficult to find girlfriends in the city of Angers, so we had been lucky to meet them both. But unfortunately, there was nothing whatsoever we could do to change this current situation, nothing at all. The girls had become quiet and what had started as a happy evening was now like a wake for the dead. We exchanged photos as souvenirs and carefully wrote addresses on a notebook for them. For Evelyn and Annick, it was a much more difficult situation than for many other girls because they were both working as nurses in a hospital that, every day, received many wounded conscripts from Algeria. They had a much better idea than most of what we were going to face.

This night our routine was different and, instead of going to the movies as planned, we walked in silence to the Botanic gardens of the city, holding hands with them. What could we say? There, sitting close to each other on the benches of the park, we just kissed and held hands for a long time without saying anything. They did not want to let us go and so they waited till the last minute before walking with us back to our barracks. They knew they would not see us again for a long time. We tried to comfort them by saying that our stay in Algeria was going to be a short one and that we would be back soon, but it was only to make them optimistic and lift their spirits. Holding them tight by their waists, we walked slowly towards our barracks, stopping from time to time to kiss them, our hands gripping each other’s in the dark street. What a moving moment it was. We hated this long and painful farewell as both of them were so beautiful and so genuine. They insisted on walking us right to the gates of the barracks. Near the main gate, in the dark, were many others couples like us who were embracing their loved ones for the last time Annick and Evelyn, their eyes full of tears, finally let us go. The time had come and after giving us some timely advice, they slowly disappeared down the dark streets of Angers. We watched them until they disappeared from sight, so sad to leave them behind. How many young hearts like ours had been broken because of this senseless war?

Back in our company, the strict military regime had broken down and we walked through total chaos to our dormitory. Most of the fellows had gone to Angers and a considerable number had come back absolutely drunk, trying to forget their sadness by over indulging in the well–known sweet, white wine of Anjou. Some were lying on the floor of the dormitory, having vomited all over the place. So, still fully dressed, Chretien and I lay down on our bunks for the last few hours left of the night.

17 September 1960: Six a.m. We did not need the usual trumpet blast to wake us up as it was impossible to sleep in the chaos that prevailed. Within minutes, the whole company was a beehive of activity and everyone packed their belongings and headed for the trucks. We had no time for breakfast as we were leaving for the railway station without delay. I was happy to be finally leaving the barracks where I had all suffered greatly during preliminary training.

“Everyone in the trucks at once!” yelled an N.C.O. in the court yard.

“Very strange,” said Joncquet, “They’re not making us walk to the railway station as usual!”

“No! This time they cannot wait to be rid of us!” answered someone.” And they’re making sure we do not miss our train to Marseilles.”

The train was completely full of conscripts from many different army units and all of them were going in the same direction – the harbour of Marseilles. Sitting next to each other on the floor of the corridor in the wagons, we made ourselves as comfortable as we could because we knew we would have to spend the whole night in the same position till we reached Marseilles.

18 September 1960. It was 6 a.m. and the first rays of sunshine had invaded the passageway of our wagon. We were relieved to know we were coming close to the end of our journey through France. We had passed through Avignon and the train was going through Provence, one of the most beautiful areas in France. It was so different from the harsh weather of Normandy. The climate in Provence was mild and the country looked stunning with all the little villages painted in warm colours and their roofs covered with Roman tiles. Looking at a provincial village which we were passing through, I thought that I would like to jump from the train and settle there instead of being taken to Algeria, like sheep going to the slaughter house.

After going through Salon de Provence the train slowed down. We were only a few kilometres from Marseilles.

“I can see Notre Dame de la Guarde,” yelled someone, excited at the sight of the cathedral of Marseilles standing proudly on top of a hill and dominating the city.

Unfortunately for us, the train stopped before reaching Marseilles and, for some unknown reason, we were told to get off the train at once. Some huge army trucks were waiting for us at this spot, ready to take us to the transit camp called the ‘Camp Saint Marthe’, where we would have to wait all night to board a ship the following morning.

“I know where we are, Christian!” Loti said to me. “As soon as we are in the camp, you and I will escape this place as quick as we can. We’ll go to dinner with my family – they live in Marseilles. They want to see me once more before leaving,” he added.

“How do we get there?” I asked.

“You just have to follow me. I know the place well – I was born here!” Loti assured me.

“What a camp,” said Joncquet, as we arrived in it.

We could not help but agree. It was, perhaps, the largest army camp in France, catering for thousands of servicemen who were waiting for ships to take them to fight wars in the French colonies. The camp was an endless row of army barracks standing next to each other, all of them painted white and each with a huge number painted on it with black paint.

As soon as we left the trucks the fellows started complaining. Echoes of, “I am not staying there!” could be heard. The Camp Saint Marthe looked more like a grim prison or a concentration camp than a transit place.

Our barrack was number eighty–seven, so we all walked together towards it, loaded with all our belongings. As we came near to it, we heard a terrible noise coming from inside and we discovered, to our great surprise, that we had to share it with a group of hard–core parachutists who were going back to Algeria for the second time. They were wrecking the chains and rigging the wooden bunks so that no one could sleep in them. They made it clear that no one was welcome in this building unless they were a ‘Para’.

“This is the welcoming committee of the Camp Saint Marthe,” said Bonnemaison.

“Well, let’s get out of here now,” I whispered quietly to Loti.

There were so many people in this camp that no one knew who was who, and before anyone realised it, we had made our way to the outside world, not by the front gate, as we didn’t have any papers, but by the kitchen. We knew that in every army refectory the kitchen always had a delivery door at the back, to bring food in from the outside world. So as quick as we could in order not to be spotted, we disappeared into the kitchen, crossed it and opened the delivery door at the back. There was no problem doing it. Once outside, Loti knew the place well. He knew which bus to catch on the main street to get to his family quickly. I had come to the realisation that, after this experience in the Camp Saint Marthe, speed was our best friend in the army.

Loti’s family lived in a suburb of Marseilles called Castellane and when we arrived there they were all waiting for us. What a welcome we received. Andre Loti was part of a large Corsican family. His parents and grandparents welcomed us with open arms. Knowing he was coming, they had called all his uncles and cousins to join them. This was a lovely experience for me and, after drinking Anisette with them, I was invited to sit at an immense table loaded with Mediterranean food, under a pergola covered with vines. I was a friend of Loti and, as such, I was received like a son. His mother was emotional and never left his side. The men, who didn’t want to show their emotions, were bombarding us with advice and, above all, his father kept repeating to him, “Do not take any risks, Andre. Just wait quietly in your corner and, above all, do not ever volunteer for any mission whatsoever.”

It was funny. I had already heard this advice from my own family, over and over again. Loti just smiled and agreed with them. We all laughed and joked the whole evening. What an atmosphere. What a family and how much love there was between them. All too soon it was time for us to leave as we wanted to be back at the camp before midnight. Loti’s mother, sisters and cousins each hugged him and took turns to kiss him, all of them sobbing. This was a sad end to such a beautiful dinner and evening. Loti and I left them as quickly as we could, cutting short the emotion and the sadness. We ran to the bus which took us to the old harbor of Marseilles.

La Canebiere was the main avenue of Marseilles and was lined with shops and people. Amongst these people mingled thousands of army men, killing time, waiting to board their ships for Algeria, like we were. In this crowd, we bumped into three friends from our unit and made our way together towards Camp Saint Marthe. We walked towards the camp by going through smaller, adjacent streets full of prostitutes who were yelling at us, “Come on boys – have one on us before you go to Algeria. It’s free for you.”

We could not believe it. They were so nice and so concerned, and they wanted to give us what we, at our age, were all looking for. It was their way to show us their love.

That night, similar to the night before on the train, we slept on the broken bunks amongst a troop of parachutists, all roaring drunk and, unfortunately for us, some of them had vomited all over the empty bottles that covered the floor of the room.

18 September 1960. The sun was up in the sky. It had been a difficult night to get through. The ‘Paras’ had left early in the morning, upturning the bunks and throwing their leftover food all over the dormitory before they departed.

We were all anxious to leave this place as soon as we could. The whole Company was up and ready to go to the wharf. Holding our personal belongings, we tried, in this chaos, to have an aluminium container of watery coffee and a piece of bread. Once more, long files of GMC trucks had arrived in the main yard of the camp and were ready to carry their load of conscripts to the wharf. Meanwhile, the enormous mass of khaki clad conscripts were standing in the main courtyard, all of them loaded with bags, suitcases and boxes to take to Algeria. The Officers in charge of the camp had appeared and were surrounded by their watch dogs. Each of the Warrant Officers held a board on which thousands of names were written. The huge gates of the camp were closed, and the guards on duty made sure that no one would escape and desert to Spain, only a few kilometres away. Some officers were blowing their whistles and the N.C.O. started to yell out names. All of them were trying to create some order amongst this herd of frightened sheep.

The camp officials grouped thirty or more men together, and then pushed them into one of the waiting trucks. It was with great difficulty that my group of friends managed to avoid being split up. We had to stick together to survive this odyssey. When finally loaded, the long endless columns of trucks crossed Marseilles in the direction of the main wharf, near the cathedral. At the wharf, ships were tied from one end to the other. Truckload after truckload, thousands upon thousands of army personnel from different army groups were unloaded and then boarded on different ships going to various parts of Africa. The whole wharf, right to the warehouse, was full of noisy and exuberant soldiers, all eager to leave as soon as they could. Gangplanks were completely full and blocked by the mass of khaki uniformed men carrying bags and equipment, as they boarded the ships. Discreetly, but with their machine guns at the ready, gendarmes made their appearance on the wharf, watching the loading of the ships, just in case some conscripts tried to desert the army.

“I don’t think there is much difference between us conscripts and the convicts they used to send to Devil’s Island,” said Loti.

“No, you can see how they’re treating us! They are so scared of deserters. They just want to make sure all of us go to the killing fields and no one escapes it,” added someone.

Holding our army bags full of spare clothes, our suitcases, plus our army equipment, we managed to force our way on to the gangplank up to the deck, which was occupied by hundreds of long chairs, already taken by those who had arrived before us. These conscripts were already writing letters to their loved ones.

“Another good night is coming,” said some–one in the group.

The loading of the ship was finally completed and each deck was absolutely choked with thousands of passengers. There was no room to move whatsoever. It was just like it had been on the train, the night before last. A long, sinister horn blew, indicating that we were finally going. The ropes holding us to the wharf were released and two harbour tugs came to drag us to the open sea. We were finally on our way to the war.

Conscripts forced their way to the side of the ship which headed out, following the jetty in the harbour. They were trying, till the last minute, to spot a loved one, for hundreds of people had lined up along the outer jetty for a last farewell. As the ship passed by, everyone waved frantically to anyone that they had spotted on the jetty. It was euphoria, but it was the last farewell for a long time for some of us, and, for some unlucky ones, the last good bye.

As we reached the open sea, the two tugs cast off their ropes and our ship started to move at full speed towards the high seas. The people standing on the jetty had disappeared from our sight and the city of Marseilles was also disappearing, along with the mountains of Provence and Notre Dame de la Guarde, the cathedral standing on top of the mountains. As this all slowly disappeared on the horizon, everyone who was still looking became silent, and even anxious. Some became so emotional that tears ran down their cheeks.

Soon the French coast disappeared completely and everyone on the deck started organising themselves for the rest of the day and the coming night. In our group, we were considering what to do when Joncquet, who had disappeared for a while inside the ship, came back with a surprise.

“Good news!” said Joncquet, “I have found a sailor on the ship who is willing to rent us his cabin for the night. How about that?”

“How much?” someone asked.

“Nine thousand Francs! But there are only four berths, and we are six!” Joncquet replied.

“No worries. Anything is better than spending the night here on the floor. We will make two extra beds with blankets on the cabin floor,” we assured him.

The cabin was fantastic, with a toilet and a shower, and it was all we needed to spend the night comfortably. We would reach Algeria the following morning.

During the night, it was warm and we had great fun on the ship. On the deck, most of the fellows were completely drunk. The boat bounced on the waves as the sea became rough. And so, on the top deck, the drunks started vomiting. Bazo was so drunk that he could not find our cabin again and spent the night on the deck.

We did not sleep all night, but just rested. We were too anxious about where we were going to go the next day. It was, for all of us, a great adventure and we felt like the crusaders who had done the same trip as we were doing on the Mediterranean Sea, to combat the infidels in the holy land.

At four in the morning, the boat seemed to stop its progress and just bob slowly along on the waves. Some of us tried to see if we could spot the African coast through the porthole of the cabin, but it was still too dark and there was nothing to see on the horizon. We were all very curious and were waiting to see Africa for the first time.

“There it is!” yelled someone.

Just in front of the ship, you could start to distinguish a darker line on the horizon. We all got up and pushed each other in order to see it. A wider, darker line appeared on the horizon. It was our first look at the North African coast. We were going to arrive there soon so everyone got dressed quickly and went up on deck to watch the coast line, which was growing larger on the horizon. Everyone was talking about their future adventure and others were wondering what would happen to them there. We had been hearing tales about the war in Algeria since we were thirteen years old, and now we were finally facing it. No one on the deck would have, in their wildest dreams, imagined that they would be going to Africa to fight, like their older brothers had. We were so badly informed about what to expect that we made jokes about it, and each of us thought that if anything bad happened, it would be to someone else, not us.

Some warrant offices appeared on the deck, coming from their cabins and trying to make themselves decent after their drinking orgy the night before.

“Come on everyone! Move to your own units now and get yourselves ready for landing!” yelled an Adjutant.

The coast was now close and we could see some of the lights of the city and also the crane, standing tall, on the harbour. The sea had become calm as we approached the harbour, so the ship had stopped rocking from one side to the other.

“Can you hear something?” said Bonnemaison, to our group.

“No! We can’t,” answered some fellows from our platoon.

“Well, I can hear the Fellaghas firing their guns in the Atlas Mountains,” replied Bonnemaison.

We were all so glad to have Bonnemaison in our group; he had such an endless sense of humour.

We could now clearly distinguish the whole city of Bone, the harbour installations in particular, and the city behind the tall cranes. We also had our first view of the Atlas Mountains which we had heard so much about, including terrible stories about what happened there. Bone was a busy city because of the harbour. From there, all sorts of products, but especially iron ore and wines, were exported to France. We had read about Bone.

It was a typical French colonial city, with the usual large boulevard down the middle, lined with trees and three storied buildings all along, and with arcades at the street level, specially designed for the shops. In the middle of this wide avenue was, as always, a kiosk to entertain people with music, at weekends.

Everyone was sitting on their small suitcases which held their most precious possessions, photos of loved ones, pencils, paper, books, cameras, food from home, envelopes and stamps, and the like. All of the men on the deck became quiet and everyone would have been thinking the same. How long am I going to be here before I see my family again? And my country? What exactly am I going to do here in this foreign land?

At last the ship was tied to the wharf and the gang plank was lowered, ready for disembarkment. There was no way to desert or to try to escape the ordeal which was in front of us. Our ship had crossed the Mediterranean Sea in twenty–five hours, carrying over 1,200 men, who were part of the reinforcement for the French army that was battling on a front of over 700 kilometres. We started to move along the deck, joining our own group who were distinguished from other groups by its regimental colours of red and black. As soon as the ship was tied to the wharf, the whole mass of khaki uniforms on the deck started to move under the barking orders of Warrant Officers. Then a group of fat and unfriendly Warrant Officers barged onto the deck of the ship, followed by an Officer from the transit camp, once more carrying lists and more lists of names and units.

“151st Regiment of Infantry!” yelled a red–faced Adjutant.

“Yes sir, we are here!” answered a young Lieutenant.

“Disembark with your men now,” the Adjutant ordered.

As soon as he said this, part of the mass of men on the deck got up and went, like donkeys, in the direction of the gang plank. Then the roll call went on.

“9th Regiment of Chasseurs!”

“Yes, Sir!” answered their Captain.

And his regiment all moved on in a block. Regiment after regiment were called, and then proceeded immediately to the gang plank, and from there, to the trucks which were waiting to carry them to the transit camp. In the meantime, the whole wharf below was starting to be covered with another mass of men in khaki uniforms, brought there by dozens of trucks before we had arrived.

“They are bringing the fellows who have finished their time in Algeria, to take our place on the ship. They will be back in France tomorrow, the lucky fellows!” said Loti.

“37th Battalion of Pioneers!” yelled an Adjutant.

Our turn had come and, like the others before us, we dragged all our equipment and stumbled down the gang plank to the wharf. Further along the wharf, a platoon of Zouave soldiers were playing a military marching song, a welcoming gesture, a pleasant ambience and perhaps a boost to our spirits, for most of us were sad and feeling low. We had finally arrived at our destination.

Our ship, the Sidi Ferruch, had offloaded its cargo, so the mass of khaki people who had finished their time in Algeria started to move in to take our place. We looked at them with envy. They had done it and most of us wished to be in their shoes but there was no choice for us. We had to go and take over their camps.

The returning servicemen waiting on the wharf were a strange sight indeed to see. None of them were dressed the way we had to be – no ties, no buttons done up, their shirts all dirty and full of stains. Most of them were not even wearing their berets. They were unshaven and appeared not to have washed for weeks, but they did not seem to care anymore, and no Officers were daring enough to tell them off. The Officers just wanted to be rid of them as quickly as they could by pushing them onto the ship. They all looked tired and skinny with their skin burnt by the African sun. Most of them, if they were not drunk, were looking sad and troubled, as if they had had a terrible time in the Atlas Mountains and suffered a lot of loneliness, boredom and fear of attack. Nearly all of them were wearing a wooden skittle around their necks, signifying that they had completed their required 851 days’ service. Any of them who had broken army rules and had been punished, would have served even more time than this. The servicemen’s wooden skittles were completely covered by written messages from their friends who were still in service.

As this army of derelicts walked towards the gang plank, they sang for us, the new ones who had arrived to take their places, this song.

The skittle has come!

The blues will come!

To wash the dishes!”

Then they started again.

The skittle has come!

And the blues will come!

To wash the saucepans!”

They all burst out laughing together and continued on their way to the boat, dragging all their belongings behind them. They had considerable more luggage than we did. Most of them had souvenirs which they had found in the Arab shops before embarking, things like copper trays, and carpets.

“It looks like they do not want to forget the horrible time they had in Algeria,” said Loti.

“Yes, but after few years they will forget that they have been in the Djebel and, in the cafés of their villages, they will talk to their friends only about the great fun they had among themselves,” remarked another fellow.

Another file of GMC trucks had appeared on the wharf. They were coming to take us to another transit camp like at the camp of Marseilles. We noticed, immediately, that the army here were all armed, including the driver of the truck.

When we arrived at the transit camp, we found that it was heavily fortified and we were not allowed to venture outside of it into the street. We were getting used to being herded, like a flock of sheep, from place to place, always waiting for orders to tell us where we had to go next.

In this massive transit camp, a Warrant officer appeared, and, holding another list in his hand he said, “Are you the people for the 37th Battalion?”

“Yes, Sir!” said Pouzache.

“OK,” he continued,” I am Sergeant Chief Durand and my job is to bring you to the 37th Battalion rear base at Guelma, today, so I’d like to remind you, in case you forget, that you are now in a war zone. You’ll have to listen carefully when we tell you something. Does everyone understand?”

“Yes sir!” said everyone.

“So, stick together right there. You will not receive any ammunition for your guns today because the train will be protected all the way to Guelma, by the infantry,” he explained.

We all looked at each other, surprised. This was our first taste of Algeria and we realised that the fun was over. It was real war.

Sergeant Chief Durand was a typical N.C.O. in the army, an Officer who had served for twenty years, and who had spent interminable hours in the Officer’s mess drinking the famous Algerian red wine which was known to be very strong. It was good to know that during the forthcoming months, we would have this wine on our tables. It was cheap to buy so many soldiers overindulged to the point of being permanently drunk.

“As soon as I call your name, climb in the wagons with all your gear. The train will leave as soon as we are all boarded, and if everything goes normally we should be there before 4 p.m.,” Durand ordered.

The train was made of heavy steel plate covering the engine and the wagons.

“Where do we go from here, Chief?” asked a conscript.

“Well, first we go right to Mondovi and then we take another train to Duvivier and then Guelma. We will have the protection of infantry. They are in the last wagon, in case,” Durand replied.

“In case of what, Chief?” ask a worried conscript.

“The territory we go through is one of the worst in Algeria, after Mondovi. It is in the Atlas Mountains and there the Fellaghas are almost in charge, but you don’t need to worry as there are army units all along the train line to protect us,” he explained.

Everyone was listening in silence to what Durand was saying. Then we got ready to go, and the laughing during our training in France was over.

Sitting on straw in the wagon, we kept looking at the country side, the place where we were going to spend so much of our time. The train was going slowly and was moving between two high cyclone fences and barbed wire.

“Those fences are there to stop the rockets of the Fellaghas’ bazookas from hitting the train,” said an older soldier in the wagon.

We had our first introduction to the war in Algeria, a country literally covered in barbed wire, Barrages, mines fields, forts, cyclone fencing, and concertina wire, all amongst burned down villages. The electric posts along the line were all cut down and burned.

“The Fells did this; it is what they do at night,” said Durand.

Further along the line, a whole train was in a steep ravine. It had been derailed a few weeks before, and all of its occupants had been murdered.

Finally, we arrived at the small city of Mondovi, which must have been a lovely place to live before the war, but now it had been bombed so many times that most of the houses had been destroyed. The few still standing had been transformed, by the army, into fortified buildings.

“We have to change trains here to enter the mountains next,” said the chief.

Indeed, the next train was waiting for us. There were two flat wagons full of bags of sand in front of the engine in case of mines on the track. They would be blown out before the wagons.

“We will be going through a dangerous zone – class zone 3,” said an old serviceman.

It was a dangerous zone indeed. The last wagon of the train was now manned by an infantry escort, a platoon heavily armed and ready for any attack during a particular trip. Far away in the distance stood the first mountains of the Atlas ranges. They were imposing mountains and bloody battles had taken place there only a few weeks before. This particular area was a resting place for the Fellaghas who had passed the Tunisian border and were going towards the centre of Algeria, carrying weapons and ammunitions for the rebels who were fighting there. The army was trying to intercept them, particularly around a mountain called the Nadhor, not far away from where we were going. Many French soldiers had been killed during the operations in these particular Djebel. (‘Djebel’ is an Arabic name for mountains.) Hundreds of Legionnaires had also died there. The most famous of them was Colonel Jeanpierre, the Colonel of the First REP, the most famous regiment in the French army. He had been killed a few months before. Nothing was left of the villages along the train line. They were all burned down, with only the odd wall still standing. There was no life to be seen, no life anywhere in this area except for some army forts and tanks in operation, and a company of Legionnaires carrying their weapons.

All of us on the train had become silent at the sight of the surroundings. We were all starting to realise that we had not been told the truth about this war. These small bands of dissidents, or Fellaghas, as we called them, were a real and organised army that was very difficult to control, even with the country’s most imposing forces and modern armament.’ The Fells,’ our so called enemy, were, we had been told during our training, “armed only with old German Mausers from the Second World War, and shot guns. They were a disorganised band of rebels hiding in the Atlas Mountains.”

After seven years of daily fighting, the French army was still unable to wrestle them down completely.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 3

GUELMA ALGERIA

 

The train had entered a long canyon and was winding its way through a hand– made, narrow corridor of solid rocks. It was the perfect place for an ambush. This sort of canyon was guarded from beginning to end by units of Marines stationed in forts that were made of stones, and were built in strategic positions. When we entered this canyon the speed of the train dropped alarmingly and we were travelling so slowly that you could almost move faster on foot. Everyone in the wagon had become quiet and some of us were quite anxious. It was with great relief that we reached the other end of the canyon. A few minutes later, on a metal sign riddled with bullet holes, we read the name of our posting in Algeria ‘GUELMA’. We had finally arrived at our destination. This was the place we had been talking about so much in the barracks. From the wagon windows, we discovered, once more, a typical sleepy French colonial city. All the houses were painted white and had red, tiled roofs, like those in the French Provence. All of them bordered a main avenue that was lined by trees to provide shade. And there was the usual kiosk standing in the middle of the main plaza.

“We have to be fast,” said Durand. “The roads are all closed by 5 p.m. and we have to sleep at Millesimo, another town three kilometres from here.”

Millesimo was the headquarters of the 37th Battalion, so once more we jumped in some waiting army trucks and headed in the direction of the town, with another platoon of infantry escorting us for protection.

“Millesimo is situated in the middle of Fellaghas’ territory. There is not a single settler left there. This is why the 37th Battalion have taken over the town,” said Durand.

The 37th battalion had indeed taken the town of Millesimo and had transformed it into an army barracks with stores, warehouse, dormitory, hospital, hair dresser and kitchen. Everything required for an army to survive was there, and it was from this base that stocks of mines and ammunitions, food and drinks were sent to the four companies on the front line, hundreds of kilometres from Millesimo.

We were told to walk with all our gear to the town hall which had been made into a dormitory for soldiers who were passing by. Before the war this huge room of bunks was the town cinema. Only a few years ago, the people of Millesimo would have been sitting here, happy and laughing, watching films with their children.

“You’ll spend the night here and tomorrow morning you’ll be posted to one of the four companies on the Barrage,” said Durand.

So we opened our box of rations and got ready to spend the first of many nights in Algeria.

18 September 1960. At seven o’clock, Sergeant Chief Durand stormed into the dormitory.

“OK, everyone must be in the trucks in twenty minutes. You are to meet the Commanding Officer of the 37th Battalion at headquarters.”

The Commandant of the 37th Battalion, de Bourdezel, had chosen an abandoned farm, only ten minutes from the centre of Millesimo, to be the headquarters for his battalion. It was an enormous property in the middle of an endless plantation of vines which would have produced, in the past, the much–appreciated Algerian wine. This particular farm looked more like a castle in the south of France than a winery. It had a double story building, all painted white. The roof was made of red Roman tiles and the windows were blocked by wrought iron screens. All around the farm was an oasis of amazing trees and shrubs, and peacocks wandered around a fountain in a pond.

“I understand why the Commandant chose this place,” said Maillet.

“Indeed, it is two hundred kilometres from the Barrage where the whole battalion are working and fighting,” answered someone, with a smile.

“We could not afford to lose our Commanding Officer!” someone in the group sarcastically blurted out.

Actually, de Bourdezel had made his headquarters there because the farm was free of its occupants. They had all been murdered by the workers. They had tried to defend themselves as best they could, but the large number of Arabs finally overwhelmed them.

The Commandant was living like a king. The farm had all the modern facilities you could think of, and to make it safer from the Fellaghas, de Bourdezel had fortified it completely, piercing the surrounding walls with small openings to shoot through. A high, steel gate kept the farm closed at night and a whole platoon of infantry was on duty day and night to keep it secure. A wide, barbed wire fence had been built around it and, in some vulnerable parts, it had been mined. Every window was blocked by bricks with small slits cut for placement of rifles. They would be used by the infantry in the event of an attack. In addition, all the farms in the area were in contact with each other to report any attacks. The leader of our battalion was making sure that he would reach the mandatory age of retirement.

“So this is where our new leader lives!” said Bonnemaison, with a laugh.

“That’s right, and you are lucky to be seeing him today, for you might never see him again. The Barrage it is too risky for him so he keeps himself as far away as he can,” someone added.

“And to think, during Napoleon’s time the generals were leading the charge in front of their regiments!” said another.

In front of the farm, which had been built by settlers, was the usual open space and in the middle of it the French flag was flying.

“Line up on that spot now!” yelled Durand.

Then a bugler played a tune like they do in France, and our busy leaders appeared from the main door of the farm.

“Stand at attention!” yelled an N.C.O.

The Commandant was the usual type of officer who had spent all of his life behind a desk, writing reports to superior authorities. He had waxy, white skin which had rarely been exposed to the African sun, and he was wearing spectacles with gold frames, and a clean and freshly– ironed uniform.

“I bet he has never touched a mine in his life,” whispered Legrand.

Surrounded by two of his Officers, the Commandant stood next to the flag.

“I am Commandant de Bourdezel, the Commanding Officer of the 37th Battalion. You are going to be sent to your company tomorrow morning. All the four companies are stationed on the Tunisian Barrage and I am hoping that each of you will serve your time in Algeria with honour and fidelity,” he proclaimed.

Then he turned on his heels and, as quickly as he had come, he disappeared again, to his comfortable desk in his air–conditioned office. He had done his duty for the day. So much for the introduction. Indeed, it was the first and the last time that most of us ever saw him.

“Everyone back to Millesimo! Now!” yelled Durand.

Then a service man from the farm came towards us and yelled, “Is there someone in your group called Fiset?”

Everyone looked at me with surprise.

“Present!” I said, with apprehension.

The first thing that everyone thought was, what did he do?

“Fiset, follow me to the Commandant’s office now!” said the serviceman.

I was wondering why, after only one day in Algeria, I had been singled out from my friends.

“The Commandant wants to see you now!” said the serviceman.

“Why?” I asked.

“You will know soon,” he replied.

The Commandant was sitting behind his desk, compiling a stack of reports. I stood at attention in front of him but he did not even lift his head to look at me. Then, in a disinterested, monotonous voice he said, “I believe, from our records, that in your civilian life you were a draftsman in architecture. So you will be working here as a draftsman with Vigot, the Corporal. He’ll explain what you’ll have to do here.”

“Yes Sir!” I said.

“Thank you very much. Dismissed!” he barked.

This important person had addressed and dismissed me without even lifting his eyes to look at me. He himself looked tired and sick.

“So, did the Commandant explain the job to you?” asked Vigot, when I came out of the office.

“Yes! He just mentioned my job in civilian life and he told me that I will be a draftsman here,” I replied.

“OK, you will be replacing me in two weeks. I just have finished my time in the army and I am going home for good. I’ll show you what the job is all about and where you’re going to live from now on,” he explained.

The inside of the house where I would be living was magnificent. All the antique furniture had been left there by the settlers. Hand– made, oriental carpets covered the floors, and the walls of the house were hidden behind well–known paintings.

“The farmer who originally lived here made wine for the French export market. Do you realise that he had over eight hundred workers to make his wine? And there is not much difference between the plantations in America during the time of slavery, and this plantation,” Vigot said. “The farmer made a fortune by making his workers toil for eighty hours a week, for just a pittance, barely enough for their family’s needs. I know, because I have talked to some of his former employees. This is why he could build such a place.”

“It’s hard to believe that such things went on here. I would’ve thought they were French citizens like us, with the same rights,” I said.

“Oh no!” responded Vigot. “They were treated as third class citizens, or even fourth. They did not have many rights at all. They were just treated as slave labourers, to be exploited as much as they could be, and, if they dared to rebel, they were punished by the settlers – beaten with whips! A common punishment was to be beaten with a bull whip. On one farm near this camp, one of the settlers bragged to others about how he treated his poor workers. He said that he hung them, by one arm or one leg, in the barn for a few hours to teach them a lesson. He laughed as he told them how, one evening, he forgot that one of the workers was hanging in the barn, and when he found him the following morning, the worker could not walk, and could not do so for a week! If the workers, or more accurately, slaves, were absent one day out of six, they would not get paid at all for the days that they had already toiled. However, not all settlers were cruel to their workers. Some thought that if the workers were treated as human beings, they would perform much better. But these rare, good settlers did not last long. They were warned by the other settlers to treat the Arab workers harshly, or something unfortunate would happen to them.”

I followed Corporal Vigot through the house. He wanted to show me the place where I would be working during my time in Algeria. We started at the main lounge which was an immense room with an expensive carpet on the floor and a grand piano sitting in the middle of it. This was a rare luxury, even in France.

“Here you are! This is where you are going to work,” he said, pointing to two large and modern drawing tables near the French windows. “One of them will be yours.”

The table was facing the settler’s garden and, on the right side of it, was a table covered with all the pens and equipment needed to draw plans. There was nothing missing.

“You will be my replacement so in two weeks you will have all my equipment. So let me show you the rest of the house and where you are going to sleep tonight,” said Vigot.

I followed him up the imposing, spiral staircase leading to the bedrooms on the first floor.

“This is your room,” he said, pointing to a door at the end of the passageway. “Nothing has changed since the settlers left. You will have their son’s bedroom.”

“Where did they go?” I asked, even though I had heard stories about this.

“Well, actually, they did not go anywhere,” explained Vigot. “They left it too late to run away to France. Like many others settlers here, the farmer wanted to stay in his house. He trusted his Arab workers and espoused that he was brought up with them. He knew them well and even went to school with some of them. He didn’t believe that the workers would dare to come and make trouble for him and his family. Why would they? They were paid for their work and without this pay, they would starve to death. This had been the case for generations. The farmer considered the Arab workers to be a bunch of lazy, ignorant, dirty bastards, and had no qualms about saying so.

A few weeks before this, the farmer had reinforced the defence of his mansion by putting steel shutters at every window, with a few slits in them for his guns. He had replaced the wooden door with a thick steel one. Also, he had bought a few automatic guns and boxes of ammunition and had trained his family to use them.

One evening, the settler found his farm surrounded by hundreds of his own workers. He had misjudged their loyalty and their anger at his remarks. The five people in the family defended their farm as best they could, but one Arab, with the help of the others, managed to push a window open and get inside. It was the usual bloodbath. All of the family members were found with their throats cut from one ear to the other, the women were raped and the young son was butchered here in the bathroom,” Vigot said, pointing to the floor of the bathroom next to my assigned room. “You can still see the stain of his blood on the floor.”

I felt sick when I heard this story but Vigot did not seem to be affected by it. After 28 months spent in Algeria, he had become completely callous.

“OK, added Vigot, “Here is something for you, just in case.”

He handed me a hand gun full of 9 mm. bullets and a helmet.

“You don’t need to carry it on the farm as there are men on duty day and night to protect us. You’ll only need to carry it if you go to Guelma. It is dangerous there,” explained Vigot.

Then Vigot and I sat outside the house next to a swimming pool, and had a cup of coffee. The sky was blue and the scenery was fantastic and so peaceful, a real postcard. You would not think, even for a moment, that the Medjerda Mountains in the background were the location of a raging war.

“You are a lucky devil,” said Vigot, “You’ve won the best job available in the battalion. Do you realise that? Anyone would be willing to do anything to get a job like this one – no duty to do at all, not even guard duty, nothing. You are treated the same as if you were an Officer. You have dinner with the Officers every day. You have films in the evening, the use of a swimming pool, and even a servant to wash and iron your clothes. What else could you want? And at the weekend you can, if you wish, take a jeep to go and see a film in Guelma! But the best part of the job is that ‘God’ himself is your only boss. You don’t even need to salute the Commandant or the other Officers. You have landed yourself the dream position in the whole battalion, my boy!”

“Yes,” I replied. “I understand, but I would still like to be with my friends.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” said Vigot. “Your friends are on the front line. I’ve been there a few times with the Commandant and its hell. They are bombarded by the ‘Fells’ every night and they repair the Barrage under fire in the morning. Then they build kilometres of mine fields in the day time. Do you know what this means? The conditions there are incredibly bad. They sleep in tents and have no amenities at all, no water to wash, nothing. They eat rubbish, literally burn in summer and freeze in winter, and are eaten by mosquitoes and flies. And some unlucky ones go back to France in an aluminium coffin and with a medal for bravery. All you have to do here is to draw mine fields and nothing else. Do you realise that? You have hit the jackpot, my boy Lucky you!”

My future in Algeria was already settled. All I had to do was to sit on this farm for twenty–four months with all the comforts in the world that I could dream of, and wait patiently till my time was finished. However, as I sat on my bed in this mansion, I thought of all my friends who had been with me during the difficult basic training in France and who were now facing the real fighting. I had survived the basic training because they were with me. We were all together, facing the same hardships, and then in the space of a few days, I had landed myself this incredible job but would have to pay for it with boredom and loneliness. What a price to pay. What a downfall. There would be no one here to talk to.

Vigot called me to the office to show me exactly what I had to do. The main room of the office was covered with many plans of the area where our battalion was stationed. They were pinned carefully on the walls, and drawn to a large scale. From time to time, the Commandant emerged from behind his desk, with a rough drawing of a new minefield and our work was to position this drawing onto the mass plan. Then we had to draw the minefield in its precise position, ready for the battalion in the Djebel to build it.

“At present the battalion are in a part of the Atlas Mountains called the ‘Mounts of Medjerda’. It is hard to plan the minefield there as the mountains are 1,300 meters high. The battalion are camping next to the nearest mountain to the border of Tunisia,” Vigot explained.

Sitting on a stool, facing the drawing board, and with a pencil in one hand, I had all but returned to civilian life and was doing what I used to do a few months ago, with Mr Lefevre, the architect. The only difference was that my work in France had been to design new schools for small children to learn in, and here my job was to design mine fields to kill them.

“I believe,” said Vigot, “we have now laid something like 8 million mines on the borders of both Morocco and Tunisia. What an achievement indeed! Can you believe it? Over a thousand kilometres of mine fields!”

“But in France we were always told that this war was just a police operation of no significance,” I stammered.

“Bullshit!” barked Vigot. He was angry at my remark. “We’re using the mighty Barrage and heavy artillery everyday to keep the enemy at bay. We repel attack after attack on the Barrage with our air force, mortars and the Legion. All the armies are there. It’s like the Western Front of the First World War. The Legions are engaged in battle almost all of the time. You’d better believe it. But, instead of being in trenches like during the First World War, our army are protected by an electric Barrage of 5,000 volts and countless mine fields and forts. All of this giant fortification is manned by infantry and tanks ready to intervene at anytime of the day or night. Can you imagine something like 700 kilometres of Barrage stretching across the country from the Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert? I will give you an example of what happens there. Three weeks ago the First Company had to build a fortification on Hill 121, which overlooks the Barrage and the border of Tunisia. This platoon had 18 men who worked on the fortification all day, every day, in full sun and without any weapons as the area had been classified as safe. They worked there for three weeks and at the end of that time, in the evening when they were tired and ready to go back to their trucks, a large group of Fellaghas appeared in front of them. With their knives in their hands and smirks on their faces, the Fellaghas had been waiting on the road for the platoon. They slaughtered the soldiers in exactly the same way that they kill their sheep in the Muslim tradition.

At 7 o’clock, when the platoon had not arrived back in the camp, the Captain of the company sent another platoon to see what had happened to them. In the lights of their trucks, this platoon saw eighteen naked bodies lined up on the dirt road, their throats cut from one ear to the other, their bodies opened and filled with stones, and their sexual parts cut off and stuck into their mouths. If you’re unlucky enough to fall into their hands, this is the way you’re usually killed.”

I became silent and frightened at hearing Vigot’s story.

“Why were they sent to such a place without their weapons?” I managed to ask him.

“Oh,” Vigot explained, “After a while, the men became careless, the guns got dirty on the job, and it was also difficult to do the work while armed. But they had also been told that there was no danger as the Legion had ousted all the Fellaghas from the area.”

Vigot’s story was one that was repeated from time to time all over Algeria, and it made me aware of the fact that, if I wanted to come out alive at the end of my 851 days’ ordeal, I would always have to be careful and never let my guard down.

22 September 1960. Working on the farm was a comfortable and easy life, but the loneliness was terrible. I was completely on my own and the only human contact I had was with Officers who did not relate to me whatsoever because I was not one of them. The Commandant appeared from time to time to give me something to draw but he never talked to me. There was absolutely no warmth or friendship whatsoever between us. I was just an object, doing their work for them. I was locked in a cocoon where there was nowhere to go and no one to talk to. I could not visualise myself being in this situation, with these people, for over two years.

One morning I was given an order to draw a plan of a mine field which was to be built in the Medjerda Mountains – over one thousand meters high. Amazingly, I was in a beautiful place with my drawing board facing a large, open, bay window, allowing branches full of flowers to poke through it. Behind this stunning garden, you could see, far away, the mountains of the imposing Medjerda chain. This day, they were a deep blue and looked mysterious. There, somewhere on the top of those mountains, were all the friends that I had done my basic training with – Loti, Bazo, Joncquet, Maillet, Bonnemaison, Michaux, Peignan, and many more. Through hardship during our training, a bond of friendship had developed between us all and this had sustained us. Now, they were all together, living in tents and fighting on the mighty, electrified Morice line, but I was completely on my own. Furthermore, I had not received any letters from my family as yet, so my morale plunged very low.

24 September 1960. I had decided that I was not going to spend my time in Algeria with a bunch of snobby officers. I would ask the Commandant if I could be sent to one of the companies on the Barrage immediately. I did not like hiding all the time like everyone else here was doing, avoiding, at all costs, being sent to the Barrage. I recalled Vigot saying to me, “Everyone is too petrified to even go there for a visit. Here it is life in a castle and there it is life in hell.” Could I stay hidden all the time, when every one of my friends was facing death on a daily basis? No, I couldn’t do it.

So with all my courage, I went to see Vigot and told him that I wanted to be sent to one of the companies of the 37th Battalion that were in position near the mighty Barrage. I wanted this to happen immediately. Vigot was stunned at my request and stared at me, wondering if he had heard it right.

“Why? Are you mad? Do you know what you’re saying? People would kill to have a job like you have. Furthermore, the Commandant is pleased with your work. You have picked it up so quickly. Why do you want to go there now? Please, just think it over before I inform the Commandant of your request,” he gasped.

“No,” I responded. “I’m sorry but I’ve made up my mind. I want to go there now.”

Vigot shook his head in disbelief.

“OK,” he agreed. “I will tell the Commandant about this. However, should you change your mind, let me know quickly.”

A few hours later, Vigot reappeared in the office and said, “I have told the Commandant about your request and he wants to see you immediately in his office.”

The Commandant was as before. He was sitting behind his desk working on some administration papers.

“Yes? Oh! It’s you – the fellow who likes to look the Fellaghas in the eyes. Why do you want to go there? Do you want to be a hero, or what? You will receive the same medals here as the ones given to those who are fighting on the Barrage. There’s no need to go there to earn one!”

“I like the work here, Sir” I said, “but I want to be on the front line with my friends.”

“Do you realise what you are saying?” he roared. He looked at me, red with anger. “Living under a tent in the mud, repairing the Barrage at night and putting down mines all day long, and, as a reward, you might finish up in an aluminium box being sent back to France. Are you crazy, or what?”

I remained silent.

“OK,” said the Commandant, when he could see that I wouldn’t change my mind. “You’ll be transferred this afternoon to the First Company, and I can tell you one thing, you’re going to regret it very much. Thank you. You can go now.”

As soon as I was dismissed, Vigot came into my room to reclaim all the materials he had given me, including the hand gun.

“You’ll need something better where you’re going, you stupid fool,” he said.

Then, throwing all my equipment into a jeep and without uttering another word, he drove me at full speed to the rear base of the Third Company, situated on the other side of Guelma.

The rear base was a farm built in the middle of a huge orange tree plantation. It was called the Bauzel farm. Like the other farms that were in a defensive position, it had been transformed into an army base. About twenty men of the Third Company were permanently stationed in it and a Warrant Officer in his forties was in charge – Sergeant Chief Fillon.

When I arrived at the farm at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, I found Sergeant Chief Fillon sleeping behind his desk, trying to recover from the previous night’s drinking orgy. He was a typical example of a fellow who had spent twenty years in the army and had reached the rank of Sergeant. This particular fellow had served during the war in Vietnam and in Algeria. He looked like he was an easy going N.C.O. whose only interest was drinking anything he could get his hands on.

Immediately, I was issued with new equipment. I was to be taken, by the liaison truck, up to the Barrage. My morale went up. On the farm I met two of my best friends, Pouzache and Maillet, who were going to the same company on the Barrage as I was. It was like meeting my family again and I was not on my own anymore. The liaison truck was not leaving for four days so, in the meantime, we were employed building various defence positions on the farm. The platoon that was living there was relaxed. There was almost no discipline as Fillon just wanted to be left on his own, drinking himself to death in his office. So leadership was left in the hands of a truck driver by the name of Guinoiseau. He was a big fellow from the north of France and he had become the strong man. Everyone feared him and he was always moving around with two offsiders who were ready to bash anyone who would dare to disagree with him. I quickly summed up this new situation and I didn’t like it at all.

Lunch in this particular place was served in the dormitory which was a long building set on the side of the farm and made of corrugated iron. Guinoiseau normally sat between his two offsiders at the only table in the room. No–one else in the platoon dared to touch the container of food before Guinoiseau’s group had served themselves. After they had loaded their plates with the food they liked, they let the rest of the men have their share. The whole platoon was treated like they were dogs that were starving and waiting to be fed.

“How long has this situation been going on, Maillet?” I asked.

“Since we’ve been here it’s been like this every day and no one dares to complain about it,” he replied. “Who is anyone going to complain to? There’s no one here who wants to listen. He is the real boss of the farm.”

The Bauzel farm was regularly attacked at night by the Fellaghas, and we were on duty in different places at night. The entrance to the farm was defended by a blockhouse, and the back by a high tower made of concrete blocks with a M50 machine gun chained to the concrete wall, in case the Arabs tried to steal it. The farm itself had been fortified on its four sides and the balcony on the first floor was further fortified with sand bags. To complete the defence of the farm, numerous rolls of barbed wire and concertina wire had been rolled out around it. The Fellaghas didn’t like us being on the farm, so they continually tried to shift us from the area. You couldn’t even cross the road to pick some oranges in the plantation unless you were armed. We had to be on the defensive at all times. No one dared to venture outside.

After doing some work around the farm in the morning, the men started drinking steadily until late into the night. The boredom was killing them and the alcohol made them forget. It was hot inside the dormitory and our meals were served in this building, with each of us sitting on our stretchers to eat. Everything in the place was absolutely filthy. No one cleaned anything and no one cared. We were invaded by millions of huge flies coming directly from the toilet trench near the dormitory.

Everyone in the place talked about the driver, Guinoiseau, and all his exploits. No one dared to cross him and it was only when he left the farm on his duties that everyone started to breathe easily.

One night I was on guard duty in the blockhouse from 12 midnight to 2 a.m. This particular night was pitch dark and it was my first night on duty in Algeria. I was listening to every little noise around, clutching my new MAT49 which was loaded and ready to shoot. My finger rested on the trigger as I patrolled quietly outside the bunker. I had drawn deeply into my own thoughts when I was startled by the relentless rattling of a machine gun, emptying, without a break, its 250 bullets. This was followed by more firing, rifles this time, and I ran into the bunker for protection. Our soldiers were firing their weapons from positions behind the sand bags on the balcony, and in the blockhouse, they were firing through the windows. The noise was unbearable and, in all this chaos, we could hear Sergeant Chief Fillon screaming, “Ceasefire! Ceasefire now! Stop firing!”

“What happened last night?” I asked Pouzache the following morning.

“Maillet, who was on duty on the tower at the back of the farm, saw something moving on the railway line and, in a panic, decided to fire at it with the machine gun. He intended to fire a round of 50 but he couldn’t stop the machine gun and the whole band of 250 bullets went right into the toilet block opposite,” he explained.

The toilet on the farm was just a trench surrounded by corrugated iron for privacy, and now it had been transformed into a giant sieve.

“Thank God, there was no one in it at the time,” said Pouzache, looking at it.

Fillon, red with anger at Maillet, screamed at him, “Next time you’re on duty at night I want you to remember, you do not shoot! If you see something on the railway line, it’s just a few Arabs carrying their goods on donkeys – so don’t do it again!”

We came to understand that the people on the farm had a mutual agreement with the Fellaghas in this area, which was, ‘do not shoot at us and we will not shoot at you.’

“Thank God that no one had dysentery last night, Maillet!” snarled Sergeant Chief Fillon.

“I did what I was told to do, Sir!” explained Maillet.

“No–one asked you to empty the whole band of bullets into the toilet block, you bloody fool. On top of that, you’ve wrecked the barrel of the machine gun completely. The end of it is all chipped from the heat and we can’t use it anymore. How am I going to explain that to the Captain?” hollered Fillon.

After that, it was bizarre to go to the toilet as the iron all around it was pierced by hundreds of bullets holes, leaving the rays of the hot African sun shining through. Furthermore, no one went to the toilet at night, no matter what.

“At least you can now see the green lizards hiding in the toilet,” said Maillet, laughing.

26 September 1960. I was sent, for the first time, to the city of Guelma on a mission to pick up two of our servicemen who had been punished. All dressed up in my new uniform and carrying my MAT 49, I rode with a couple of other fellows in a jeep to Guelma. Guelma was a beautiful city, well–planned and designed, first by the Romans two thousand years ago, and then by the French settlers. It would’ve been a pleasant place to live before the war. It had long boulevards shaded by ever–green trees, and all along it there were open cafe’s, with people sitting on the terrace, as if there was no war going on.

After a cup of coffee in one of the cafés, we went looking for the Legionnaires’ camp in one of the side streets. The Legionnaires had built this camp themselves which meant that it was well– constructed and ultra clean.

“Yes, we have your two fellows here,” said one of the Legionnaires, with a strong Germanic accent and who was standing on duty at the gate.

“I don’t know why your friends are in such a hurry to leave us,” another of the Legionnaires said, and then they all burst out laughing.

After they were released from the Legionnaires’ hands, Lerond and Paturel jumped in our jeep as quickly as they could. They would have had a terrible time during their two week stay, being put through the same harsh everyday regime as the Legionnaires. They had been sent to the Legion because they’d been fighting. Under the influence of alcohol, they had fought each other almost to death. Paturel had torn Lerond’s face with his sharp nails and Lerond had almost strangled Paturel.

Looking at our two released prisoners, I was determined that I would never be sent to the Legion for punishment. Lerond had been sent there once before, but he had not learned his lesson. His love for alcohol was so great and he would do anything to get some. A few weeks before I had arrived and during lunch time when everyone had to lie down because of the sun, Lerond had discreetly escaped the dormitory and had climbed a four–meter wall covered with barbed wire in order to access the basement of the farm. There he had drunk as much red wine as he could put his hands on. The problem was, he was so drunk that he could not climb back over the wall and so was reported missing for two days. They had searched everywhere for him except in the basement. Sergeant Chief Fillon had had to report it to the headquarters. Lerond was officially missing in action, but a few days later he was found, by luck, still lying in the basement of the farm, still drunk and snoring, having consumed almost the whole month’s ration of wine for the company.

One lunch time, the usual two aluminium containers holding lunch and the wine were on the table in the dormitory, but only three men were sitting at the table – Guinoiseau and his two offsiders who were wearing their dirty, greasy, unwashed uniforms, were unshaven, and were ready to laugh at any joke Guinoiseau would tell. The rest of us sat on our bunks and waited for the bullies to give us the sign, so that we could eat too. The three men sitting down looked at the container and, with their dirty forks, shoved the food in every direction taking whatever they liked. Meantime everyone else was starving but had to wait. Slowly I started to boil, my anger getting greater and greater every second from having to witness this injustice and cowardice. Then the trio, to amuse themselves, picked up some potatoes on the ends of their forks and, with a lot of laughs, propelled the potatoes across the room. My anger was rising even more as no one dared to say anything. Guinoiseau and his offsiders kept going, using up what was left of the potatoes in the container, throwing them one by one across the room and laughing without stopping. The potatoes landed everywhere, on the floor, on our stretchers and even on top of the lockers. When one of the potatoes landed in my lap, I could not contain my anger any longer. It was like a match thrown into a barrel of powder. I exploded.

I stood up and screamed, “I have had enough of it and I’m going to shoot these three bastards now.”

As I screamed this, I ran across the room to the gun rack where the guns were held by a steel cable going through the trigger and locked with a padlock. Wild with anger, I screamed to the Corporal in charge of the rack, “Come on. Give me the keys! Quickly! Hurry up!”

The dormitory had become completely silent. Guinoiseau and his two offsiders were so surprised by this unexpected reaction that they stood up but didn’t know what to do next. The fun was over. They could not believe that someone was defying them.

“Give me the keys, now!” I roared to the hesitant Corporal and he finally threw me the keys. I grabbed them quickly.

Seeing my determination to carry out my threat, the three bullies, still holding their forks in their hands, panicked and ran outside. They did the right thing as I had a UTS M1 with fifteen bullets in it, ready for them.

“Quick Fiset,” said Pouzache.” They have gone to get Fillon.”

Maillet grabbed the gun from me and threw it back inside the rack, taking the charger out and locking the gun again. It was just in time because Sergeant Chief Fillon barged into the dormitory, followed by the three frightened bullies.

“What is going on here?” Fillon screamed. “Who wants to kill Guinoiseau? Are you crazy, or what?”

“He is the one, Chief, the one who wants to shoot us!” said Guinoiseau pointing his fingers at me. “He took a gun from the rack to kill me.”

“No Chief!” said Pouzache, “No one wanted to kill anyone. It’s just that these three fellows have been bullying us for weeks. That’s all it is.”

Fillon, still groggy from imbibing a litre of red wine and being woken from his afternoon siesta, didn’t know what to do next. He was in a foul mood.

“OK, I have had enough of your bullshit stories for today. Each of you will write a report about what happened. I want all of these reports on my desk before 2 o’clock. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!” answered eighteen happy men.

As soon as Fillon had gone back to his room, each man grabbed his writing pad to record details of what he had gone through at the hands of Guinoiseau. We all enjoyed writing these reports, and each of us knew that Guinoiseau’s daily bullying was definitely over. He had no friends here and he did not have a hope of surviving this incident. The three bullies had long faces because they knew very well that everyone would be writing a report about the bullying and that they would be telling the truth. They were astonished at how quickly things had turned against them.

With great joy, Pouzache collected the eighteen reports that had all been completed in a few minutes, and dropped them on Fillon’s desk. Everyone was waiting anxiously to hear the verdict. At 2 o’clock a whistle blew in the yard, calling us to the afternoon assembly. Fillon was going to tell us the results of his investigation.

“Attention everyone!” he said. “After reading the reports, and with the advice of Lieutenant Dufour whom I consulted, we have come to the conclusion that Private Guinoiseau is guilty of creating discord and undermining the morale of a troop in a war zone. So, on the recommendation of the Captain of the company, Guinoiseau will be sent to the Legion’s barracks at Guelma for two weeks. Thank you everyone.”

The whole platoon was thrilled and, looking at Guinoiseau’s face, we all laughed. His two faithful offsiders had lost their mentor and had immediately detached themselves from him. He was nothing to them anymore. But they did help him get ready to go, and everyone was in the yard to see Guinoiseau put into a truck which was heading for the Legion’s barracks. Unfortunately for his two offsiders, there was nobody on their side now and they had to compete for their dinner like everyone else.

“Guinoiseau is going to find out what it is to be bullied now,” said a skinny fellow in the dormitory.

I had become, in the eyes of the group, a hero. That evening at dinner, everyone sat in peace at the table and ate whatever there was to eat. The food was shared equally. What a relief, and, in the end, what a laugh Guinoiseau had given us.

“When he comes back from his punishment, he won’t be the strong man again. He’ll be a completely different fellow,” said Pouzache.

“Not only mentally, but physically. After a few bashing from the Legionnaires his face will change. I hope he’ll learn his lesson,” answered Petit.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 4

THE FRONT LINE

 

28 September 1960. We got up early in the morning, at 6 a.m. to wait for the truck to take us from Bauzel to the 37th Battalion, First Company on the front line. Pouzache and Maillet were going to the same company, and I was glad that we were going to rejoin all the friends who were with us in France when we were doing our basic training.

The GMC truck arrived and was then loaded with equipment, food and drinks for the company. This would last them for a week. The back of the truck was stacked with great metal boxes full of one litre bottles of beer called ‘Pills’.

“It also carries the most precious thing for the conscripts; the mail,” said the driver.

We managed to throw our equipment in the back, and there was just enough room for us. I sat in the cabin next to the driver. The driver was a young fellow who had been in Algeria for 12 months, and had been doing the liaison trip every week during this time.

“I’m going to ask you to keep your MAT49 loaded and next to you.” he said to me, adding, “You two in the back will do the same thing.”

“Isn’t the road safe?” I asked him.

“Yes, it is, but we’ve had some trouble the other side of Blandan,” he said.

“Which road are we taking?” I enquired.

“Well,” he replied, “if we could drive in the direction of Souk–Ahras, we’d be there in less than two hours, but we can’t do that because the road is unsafe so we have to go in the direction of Bone and then turn right towards the border of Tunisia. And from there we go to Souk–Ahras and then to Fedj el Ahmed where your camp is. We’ll follow the electrified Barrage for about a hundred kilometres.”

“Why do we have to take such a detour?” I asked.

“The Fells,” answered the driver, with a smile. “They are completely in charge of the Djebel all around Nador.”

Nador was a place often mentioned in French newspapers, so we had all heard about it. Many Legionnaires had been killed in this area and, recently, Colonel Jean Pierre of the First Regiment had been killed in Mermera. The Djebel were almost inaccessible to our army. There was no road to it and it was covered with a huge forest, making it an ideal resting place for the Fellaghas who were carrying weapons from Tunisia to the rebels in the Atlas Mountains. This area was classified as Zone 3 which meant it was Fellagha territory.

With the driver using all the gears, the heavily laden truck moved slowly towards Guelma. After passing the mighty river Seybouse, it started to climb the Medjerda Mountains. From time to time we passed an army patrol. We arrived at the ‘Pass du Fedjous’, and from there we could see the huge plains of Bone stretching right to the Mediterranean Sea. This was a magnificent sight. There were farms, plantations of oranges trees, fields of vegetables and rows of vines to produce the much–appreciated Algerian wine.

At Mondovi, we turned towards Morris. The towns that we passed through were fortified and surrounded by enormous fences and gates of barbed wire. Most of the houses had been deserted by the settlers and the army had taken them over, blocking the windows and doors.

Seeing that I was surprised at the scenery, the driver explained, “This is what the General in charge of this zone calls the ‘quadrillage’.”

From one end to the other, Algeria had been transformed into an enormous military camp. Because they could not reach the Fellaghas in the Djebel, the army planned to starve the rebels. To do this, they forced the civilians to go to ‘resettlement camps’ which could more appropriately be called concentration camps. The camps were closed at night and watched by the army so that the rebels had no access to food.

As we got closer to the famous electrified Barrage, the signs of war became more visible. On the side of the road there were burnt out trucks. Towns had been completely destroyed and the civilian population no longer existed. Only the army was there, hidden behind fortified houses came to realise that this was a terrible war.

After going through Blandan, we reached Toustain where we first sighted the mighty Barrage, the ‘Morice line’. After passing Letarf, our truck was barred from further progress by a barbed wire fence. A bulky Warrant Officer from the Foreign Legion stood in front of us.

“Stop! Where are you going?” he asked

“Fedj el Ahmed,” answered the unconcerned driver.

“Where is that?” asked the Warrant Officer.

“About 60 kilometres from here, just after Lamy,” explained the driver.

In the meantime another Legionnaire was busy recording our number plate and names.

Then the Warrant Officer came to the driver’s side and said, “You know the rules. You do not stop along the Barrage no matter what! Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir!” said our driver.

“Just drive as fast as you can to your destination,” ordered the officer.

It was ironic to hear this as, in France, we were always being told not to speed. We were now in the high Atlas Mountains and the road was barely three meters wide. I wondered what would happen if someone came in the opposite direction. Furthermore, our calm and subdued chauffer had transformed himself into a grand prix driver.

“Don’t worry! Twice a week for the past twelve months I have driven along this road and I know every bend by heart,” he said. But we knew that he was driving faster than normal in order to show off his skills.

The road climbing to the summit was very snaky, sometimes turning completely on itself. On my left, the valley deepened. On the right side of the road was a rocky cliff, for the road had been carved using explosives. The electric Barrage, buzzing with 5000 volts, almost touched the bitumen on the left side of the road. There hadn’t been much space to build this electrified fence.

As there was no door on the truck, I had to hold tight at every bend. The driver turned the steering wheel into each bend, but then he let the truck right itself. All this was done with the tires screeching on the bitumen. Everything on the back of the truck was sliding back and forth. Every minute felt like an hour. But during this wild, mad race through the mountains, I managed to ask the driver some questions.

“Why is there a cyclone fence all along the Barrage?”

“It’s for the Fell’s bazookas.” He went on to explain, “They were continually shooting rockets at us and, at night, used to crawl as close as they could to the Barrage and attack us with guns, machine guns and finally, bazookas. The cyclone fence was built there to take the brunt of the attacks.

“So, have you been lucky so far?” I asked.

“Yes, in one way I have, but if you’d looked closely at the truck this morning, you would have seen bullets holes at the back,” he said.

It was with great relief that we arrived at the next stronghold along the Barrage, a town called Lamy. Lamy looked like the other towns we had passed through, but there were no civilians living there because it held the Algerian record as the most bombarded town during the war. One of the regiments of the Legion had made Lamy their operational base. They had completely enclosed it with a thick barbed wire network, further reinforced after each attack. Each house had been fortified and even the roofs were covered with cyclone fencing. Lamy was the closest town to the Fellaghas’ territory and you could see their flags on the other side of the Barrage. Almost every evening at sunset, the Fellaghas would attack.

Our truck stopped in front of a building in the middle of the main street. There was a lot of smoke coming from the engine.

“What a ride,” said Pouzache.

Every time that the truck had made a turn along the winding road, he and Maillet had been battered by the heavy steel boxes on the back.

“I have to drop some parcels off. You can come and have a drink with me, if you want,” our driver said.

This was the only café still open along the Barrage and we were happy to leave the truck for a while, and we felt lucky to still be in one piece after the ride. In front of the café stood a crowd of Legionnaires, half–drunk and holding bottles of Kronenbourg beer in their hands. We had to work our way through them to get to the café.

The café was quite large but was enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke, making seeing difficult. It was crowded with Legionnaires, all yelling, screaming, laughing, drinking and smoking. They were in groups, according to their nationalities, but most of them spoke German. The long counter was blocked by another group of Legionnaires, fighting to catch bottles of Kronenbourg beer that the barman, in his haste to serve everyone, was sliding along the counter. Eventually, he threw the whole carton of beer on the counter so that everyone could help themselves.

“The Legionnaires live for Kronenbourg beer,” yelled our driver.

To our surprise, in this incredible chaos, a beautiful woman with long black hair reaching to her waist sat on a stool at the end of the counter. She had stunning make up and painted nails, and was wearing a tight black skirt and a white lace top. When she crossed her legs, we glimpsed a pair of high heeled shoes. She calmly held a cigarette in one hand, but she had no expression on her face. She was like a gazelle sitting in the middle of a herd of wild buffaloes.

“What’s this woman doing here?” asked Maillet.

“She’s the owner of the café,” replied the driver, with a smile, “and she is no more than thirty years old. The Legionnaires call her ‘Juliette Greco’, like the singer, and you can see why.”

“Isn’t she scared of living amongst a gang of men?” I asked.

“What would she be scared of? She is the safest woman in Algeria. She has over six hundred Legionnaires to protect her, and furthermore, they run the café for her. She just sits there and supervises the skirmishes over the beer. Also, she is the only woman left on the Barrage for over 600 kilometres,” the driver explained.

Although some of the Legionnaires invited us to have a drink with them, we felt like intruders.

“Come on Franzosen, drink now,” they urged.

“No one says ‘no’ to a drink with us,” said one of the Legionnaires.

“Sorry about that, but we’re in a hurry and have to go now. We’ll have a drink with you next time we pass through,” we promised.

Even though we had to brace ourselves for another mad drive through the mountains, we were happy to jump back in our truck and escape the Legionnaires. The truck climbed the narrow road which was full of holes, some with no bitumen left in them.

“The mortars of the Fellaghas did this,” said the driver as he manoeuvred his way through the potholes.

From time to time you could see blockhouses along the Barrage. They were there to defend it at night. I pointed out to the driver one of the blockhouses which was completely burned down.

“What happened to this fort on the left side?” I asked.

“Oh, that one,” he replied. “Well, you would not believe it, but it was here last Tuesday when I passed. But that evening the Fellaghas attacked it. The platoon of infantry that was on duty tried to defend themselves by using their machine gun but they couldn’t get the bloody thing going, so at the sight of a whole Katiba of Fells coming towards them, they panicked, left the fort and ran away.”

A ‘Katiba’ is a company of about 120 men.

“It was a stupid thing to do,” he continued, “as behind the fort is a mine field about one hundred and fifteen–meters wide. They had no choice but to cross it to escape the Fells. Of course, many were blown to pieces and the rest fell into the Fellaghas’ hands so the usual scenario followed. The following morning, they were found lying on the road next to each other, with their throats cut from one ear to the other and their bodies mutilated.”

As the driver was telling this story, he slowed his truck and turned left onto a steep and narrow dirt road. He used all his gears, pushing the truck to its maximum. The truck roared and shook, then slowly started to make its way up.

“Your camp is 1,300 metres high, right on top of this mountain,” he said. “You are going to like it as the view from the top is fantastic.”

The truck was going so slowly that it would have been faster on foot. The wheels sometimes slipped on the loose gravel as they tried to grip the hard ground. With great difficulty, the truck arrived at the entry to the second mine field. The driver turned down a small passageway which was not much wider than the truck itself. This passage had to be closed every night.

“You can see the mines on each side of our truck,” said the driver, with a smile on his face. Indeed, on each side of the passageway and no more than a few centimetres from the wheels of the GMC truck, I could see the small green detonators of the German mines sticking out of the dirt. The driver was holding the steering wheels as hard as he could with both hands and stones were shifting from under the wheels, sometimes being thrown backwards and spinning. After a few minutes we reached a flat deserted plateau and were at last able to drive at full speed.

“This is the camp of the 37th Battalion,” the driver said, pointing to a line of about 30 khaki tents pitched under large cork trees. Every tent was surrounded by horizontal walls of tree trunks, giving protection from the Fells’ bombs. In front of the tents was an open area with a flag pole and the French flag flying, as usual. The 37th Battalion First Company had been here for about six months, working seven days a week to build the second mine field and to repair the electric wires on the Barrage which were being cut by the Fells during the night. There were about 120 men in the company.

The camp was no more than two kilometres from the Barrage, was on the highest mountain of the Medjerda, and was about a hundred metres from another camp, the camp of the Third Legion Regiment. From this vantage point, we could see chains of mountains all around for kilometres. What an incredible post card picture.

“Fedj el Ahmed! Here we are!” yelled Maillet at the back. We had arrived at our final destination.

The truck stopped near the vehicle depot of the camp, and was immediately surrounded by the whole company. The fellows had come back to the camp for lunch, and had been waiting for one thing only, the mail from France. Nothing ever came before the letters from their families. They were the most precious things each serviceman had, and the only thing that kept them going. The conscripts around the truck were not the same as the ones in France. They were certainly a group of call up conscripts, but all of them were grubby and dirty, wearing their uniforms any way they liked, not buttoned, not cleaned, and probably never washed at all. Most of them looked more like a group of derelicts than Pioneers.

What a delight for me. Amongst all these men, I spotted Loti and my friends from our training days. Bazo and Joncquet were there, and many others. I was so glad to meet them again. I would not face adversity in Algeria on my own.

“Corporal Fiset!” yelled an N.C.O.

“Yes Sir!” I responded.

“You have to present yourself to the Captain, now!” he ordered.

The Captain of the company, Captain de Villers, was living in the middle of the camp in his own tent. A Captain never had to share a tent with anyone, not even one of the Lieutenants.

“Corporal Fiset, 6th Pioneers Regiment of Angers, Matriculate number 27706 at your orders Captain!” I said standing in front of his tent.

“OK, you can come in,” he said.

Captain de Villers sat on a folding chair behind a small portable table, with his stretcher just behind him. He was impeccably dressed. His battledress was clean and ironed and he proudly wore, on each shoulder, the three gold sticks that told everyone he was in charge of the company. He had the face of a real warrior, a face seemingly carved with an axe, a small moustache and a crew cut.

“Have you any brothers in Algeria?” he asked me.

“No Sir!” I answered.

“Good,” he said. “What we are doing here is building a mine field, but in the early mornings we repair the electric Barrage where it has been cut by the Fells. The work which you’ll be doing here is dangerous and there’s no room for mistakes. Do you understand?”

“Yes Sir!” I replied.

“A short minute of inattention and you’re history. You will be in the platoon of Lieutenant Lebrun, so be ready to start work tomorrow morning,” said de Villers.

“Yes Sir!” I again responded.

This was my official welcoming to the First Company of Pioneers at Fedj el Ahmed.

My new captain was a typical officer of the French army and, like most of them, he had a military background. Born in 1924, he started his military career at the young age of 16, working for the French resistance. His job was to derail trains and to stop convoys of tanks reaching the Norman beaches. Soon after the war and as a young twenty–year old sub– lieutenant, he was sent to French Indo China where, in dangerous conditions, he fought the new enemy of France, the Vietnamese. He fought them for the duration of the war – ten years, but was taken prisoner at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

As soon as he was liberated, he was sent to Algeria where a new war had started. This time his enemies were not the Boches or the Vietnamese, but the Fellaghas. Strangely enough, during all this time at war, Captain de Villers had found time to return to his village in France, and get married. Furthermore, during his scarce leaves, he managed to have two children but he never saw them growing up. He only knew them through letters. Captain de Villers was now thirty–seven years old and had spent twenty–one years fighting wars, most of them overseas. His life consisted of sleeping on stretchers in tents, eating everyday army food and living everyday as if it were his last.

We were standing at the flag and being addressed by a grinning de Villers. “Remember, in this company, funerals are cheap for the army, as our mines don’t leave much of your body.”

Was it a joke? Was he serious? I had to find my place in this new company.

I was a newcomer and at the beginning it was difficult to be accepted. In order not to upset anyone, I had to use much diplomacy, especially when entering anyone’s tent. In their spare time, the fellows had transformed the empty wooden boxes which had contained the mines, into furniture, and the ingenuity shown by each man was quite unbelievable. From these pieces of wood, they had built themselves desks to write at, mini wardrobes to hold their uniforms, stools to sit on, and any number of other items that not only kept them occupied, but also rendered their hard life more acceptable.

The first night, I was not sure where I was going to sleep. I wandered all over the camp to find a spare stretcher and a rope mattress, then I found an unoccupied tent containing boxes of mines so I unfolded my stretcher and it was here that I spent my first night in the Djebel. My comrades had suffered in the conditions at the camp, and had lost all manners and kindnesses. There was no woman here to soften their characters and none of them were ready to make room for a newcomer. It was not a place for the weak and innocent. Once more, it was survival of the fittest. But in the morning I was ready to face the day.

29 September 1960. A trumpet blast at 6 o’clock in the morning reminded me that, even here in the Djebel, the army customs were kept. Impatient to discover who I was going to be with, I dressed quickly and ran from the tent to join the first platoon and Sub Lieutenant Lebrun.

“You are the new Corporal in the platoon?” asked the lieutenant. His voice was harsh and he looked right at me.

“Yes Sir!” I said.

“OK. You will be in Labrosse’s tent. It is an eight–man tent and today you can shift into it and tomorrow you’ll start work,” he ordered.

“Yes Sir!” I replied.

Sub–Lieutenant Lebrun was a national serviceman like us, was 26 years old, and, in civilian life, was an engineer in road construction. Because of his engineering background he had been sent to the officer’s school for six months to become a Sub–Lieutenant and subsequently, our Officer.

Dragging all my equipment, I searched for the Labrosse’s tent and found it well–hidden near low cork trees. There was no–one around as they had all gone to the mine field. Inside, the tent was choked with all sorts of equipment, from stretchers, boxes of clothes, stools, tables, buckets and left–over food, to wire and ropes dangling from the canvas roof and holding clothes and other gear. It looked more like a second–hand furniture shop than a military dormitory. In the middle of the tent stood a wooden table which was covered with dirty, unwashed aluminium containers, mugs, forks, plates and the like. And all of this was crawling with big blow flies. Above this, and attached to the canvas of the ceiling, were strings which held mosquito netting and dangling electrical wires. With great difficulty, I made my way around this bedlam. I managed to find a narrow gap between two stretchers, so I pushed things aside until I had just enough space for my stretcher and for my gear underneath it’s I was completing this, the whole platoon, covered in dust and mud, came back for lunch.

“Good afternoon!” I said, with a smile. No–one looked at me, but I did receive some grunts which must have meant, ‘OK. We know who you are.’ I was happy to discover that my stretcher was next to that of my friend, Pouzache and that Joncquet was in the same platoon as us, but was in the next tent. The stretcher on the other side of me belonged to Peignan, a fellow who did his training with me and whose sense of humour was typical of the people from the north of France.

“So, what happens next?” I asked Pouzache.

“It’s lunch time and we have it here in the tent. Someone brings the food in an aluminium container and puts it on the table outside. Then we help ourselves to it,” he replied.

Indeed, two aluminium containers, one of food and one of red wine, along with two loaves of army bread, promptly arrived. As soon as it was delivered, the whole gang, equipped with their containers, dived towards the table outside and helped themselves as quickly as they could. Seeing this, I realised that it would be survival of the fittest and fastest, much like during our training in France.

As soon as each man had grabbed whatever he could, he retreated to his stretcher, sat across it and gulped down his meal. There was total silence in the room and everything was devoured in a few minutes. We were each entitled to a quart of red wine from Algeria, but you had to be fast to get it.

“There are two choices,” Pouzache explained to me. “Either you have something to drink or you have something to eat, but you cannot have both.”

These depressed men had reached a point in their behaviour that was way below normal manners and habits. It had become the law of the strongest. The Officers in charge never went to the men’s tents to see how they lived. They didn’t care.

Directly opposite my stretcher was that of a strange fellow who had no expression at all. His eyes were completely glazed and he would rarely talk to anyone in the platoon.

“Hello! How are you? What is your name?” I asked, smiling at him.

“Deschamps!” he said.

I followed with the usual question. “How long have you been here?”

“27 months and seven days or, if you like, 824 days,” he replied coolly. I was amazed by the precision of his answer and by the number of days he had spent in such an environment. Then he pointed to a piece of carton, hooked to the canvas of the tent and hanging behind his stretcher.

“Look – you can check it for yourself,” he said to me.

Soon after, I discovered that everyone in the company had a reckoning device, a paper mounted on a thick piece of carton and sporting 851 little squares, each representing a day for the precise time one had to spend in the army. The few fellows in the camp who had reached the magic number of only one hundred days to go were called the “Quillard”. Each morning they were saluted by everyone, and addressed with the words, ‘Soon the Quille’, which meant, soon you are going home, lucky man. These conscripts were treated differently to the others. They were no longer subjected to punishment and were not given risky jobs on the Barrage. Everyone envied them, envied their achievement, and could not visualise reaching this stage themselves but every evening, each man religiously crossed one of his squares, indicating that another day had been served. The men compared charts. Deschamp’s was almost full: he only had 25 days to go. It was quite depressing when, later, I looked at mine with 750 days to go.

Deschamps was, of course, one of the coveted ‘Quillards’. He had, like many of the men, grown up on his parents’ farm in the heart of Normandy and had been trained by his father to take over the farm when the older man retired. The day he turned twenty he was called up by the army, like all of us, and was sent directly to Algeria to do his initial four months training. Then he had been posted to the First Company of the 37th Battalion to do the remaining twenty–four months of service. What a transition for him, from the green pastures of Normandy to the bare, dry and hot Atlas Mountains, without his family and friends. What a shock indeed. The only way he had learned to cope was by trusting that the liaison truck would bring him his mail every Tuesday.

For most of us the mail was the only thing that gave us the will to live. Everyone counted the days and even the hours until the liaison truck’s arrival. As this time drew nearer some of us kept watch from our position in the mountains, wanting to spot the truck coming across the plain below us. It always left a long trail of thick dust behind it and as soon as it was spotted, the men became tense and anxious, each one wondering whether or not they would have letters from their family. When the truck arrived it was immediately surrounded by most of the company and nothing else was important at that time, not even food or drink. The driver of the truck was in charge of the mail bag and he knew his job well. He did not try to taunt the men as had a Warrant Officer in France, who held the letters in his hands until the men went wild. Jumping on the platform at the back of his truck, the driver would open the mail bag as quickly as he could and call the names of the lucky recipients. During this time there was complete silence. This situation reminded me of the time at school when the teachers read the names of those who had passed their exams. Some names were called many times, some only few times and a few were never called at all, which was a sad thing to see. There were some fellows who had resigned themselves to missing out on mail, and did not even come to the truck. This way they were not disappointed. The difference in the mood of the men after the mail delivery was noticeable. Some fellows were happy and laughing but others were depressed. As soon as they had their letters in their hands, the men would disappear quickly into their tents, lay on their stretchers and take all the time in the world to open their letters, one by one, making the enjoyment last as long as they could. For them, the camp disappeared and the war stopped. Each recipient was stepping back into a world they had been missing so much; their parents were talking to them, their brothers and sisters, their grandparents, friends, girlfriends and, for some, their wives and children. On mail days, lunch was not important for the lucky ones. They didn’t care about food and were not even interested in a glass of wine. This was a bonus for the ones who didn’t have mail: they didn’t have to fight for the food and the wine. Deschamps was typical of the conscripts. For over two years the only contact he had with his family was through letters. He was with his family all the time, mentally, but physically he was with the Pioneers in the war zone. Over time, through sharing the stories, celebrations and sorrows that our letters held, we got to know the families of our friends, but we had never met them and probably never would.

At seven a.m., the next day I was ready for departure for my first day of work on the Barrage and I listened carefully to advice given to me by the older conscripts.

“Do we have to take our guns with us when we’re working there?” I asked.

“No, we never take them. The spot where we are working has been completely cleared of Fells,” answered Peignan.

Our work was to destroy a forest which had been there for thousands of years and to replace it with a mine field. The twelve huge bulldozers, working next to each other, attacked the forest with all their might, their powerful steel blades destroying everything in front of them. With a giant roar, they pushed aside trees, dirt and rocks, leaving a strip 50 meters wide and 2 kilometres long completely bare of any vegetation. Not even a blade of grass was left. The ground had to be flat enough to play bowls on. The army was indifferent to what was standing in their way: nothing stropped them. For this particular project, we had to go through the high mountains of the Medjerda, the steep hills, creeks, forests, rocky outcrops and even rivers, which had to be crossed and blocked with concertina wire. Nothing was to be left unmined.

But I was curious. “Sergeant Chief, why do we have to build another mine field here? There are already two others to defend the Barrage.”

“This one is different to the others,” he explained. “If the Fells manage to get through the electric Barrage and the other two mine fields, this one will stop them in time for the army to fight back and prevent them from reaching the forests of the Medjerda.”

“In France, we were told that there was only a small troupe of Fellaghas left behind the Barrage, so why build a wall of China?” said Pouzache.

“Pouzache! You are going to be in trouble one day. You ask too many questions. Our generals in Algiers know what they are doing. Do you understand?” countered the Sergeant.

Pouzache stood up and left the room, shaking his head. He knew there was no point arguing with him. In an infernal system, to shut up was the best policy.

The work which we had to do was hard. Firstly, the weather was hot and dry, and a burning wind from the Sahara Desert blew across the mountains continually. The hot flying sand found its way into all our equipment, our tents and our weapons. Secondly, the food was of poor quality and the quantity insufficient. Consequently, the whole company was weak, extremely tired and had little energy for work. To help us to accomplish our work, we recruited Algerian civilians from the resettlement village close by, Arabs and Berbers. They were keen to work for us as they had no other income. These civilians were put into groups of between eight to ten, were set to work building the protective fence of the mine field, and were supervised by a Private from the platoon. Four fences, using star posts, had to be built parallel to each. One star post had to be driven into the ground, every two–metres. This task was undertaken in pairs, one holding the post and the other hammering it into the hard ground using a sledge hammer. Sometimes terrible accidents happened, especially when the pairs of conscripts competed with the others, forcing the Arabs to go as fast as they could. The civilian workers were the old men of the village, most of them over the age of 65. The army could not recruit younger men as most had joined the Fellaghas in the Atlas Mountains. It was ironic that these old men were helping us to build a mine field to stop their own sons, and sometimes their grandsons, from passing.

We spent up to ten hours a day in these fields and among kilometres of barbed wire, so in the evening it was always a great relief to reach our tents, throw ourselves on our stretchers and fall asleep. I found that my first day of working in these conditions was absolutely exhausting and I couldn’t wait to get to my tent, to my stretcher, and to sleep. I was so tired.

My first night at the camp had been quiet, so I was unprepared for what happened. I made myself as comfortable as I could with the bedding I was given, and was almost asleep when a tearing noise shook the tent violently. All of us were thrown from our stretchers by a tremendous explosion near our tent. But the noise did not stop; it was like an earth quake shaking everything about. We all clasped our hands over our ears, trying desperately to block the incredible noise.

“It’s the artillery!” yelled someone behind us.

Indeed, it was true. Two batteries of 155 mm guns were stationed no more than a few metres behind our camp. They were the biggest guns that the army had, and, I discovered, would send a few volleys of deadly shells towards the Barrage almost every night.

“The shells travel eight kilometres,” said Joncquet.

As we were just in front of the guns, a few tons of high explosive shells, one by one, passed over our tents. We could hear them leaving the barrels of the guns and then whistling in the air like a high–speed train going through a railway station at full speed.

“When the infantry can no longer contain the Fellaghas behind the Barrage, they call the artillery for help, so these cannons start anytime,” explained someone in the tent.

After a few days I got used to it but we were all ready to block our ears with improvised ear plugs when the firing started. I learned that, at night, you could hear the artillery men screaming orders, and this was followed by the metallic sound of them adjusting their guns for their target. And I came to know that a few minutes later the holocaust would start and we would have to block our ears till it was over.

2 October 1960. I had moved all my belongings to the tent which had been allocated to me and soon after, I started to do what everyone else had done. Amongst a pyramid of empty wooden mine boxes of different sizes, I found materials to make myself some furniture. Like everyone else, I used the biggest box as a desk and a smaller one to sit on. A third box was used to store my clothes and the last box I found was the most important of all. It was used to store all my private belongings; paper, pen, books, photos and, of course, all the letters I had, and would, receive. And when loneliness struck I would read these letters over and over, just like everyone else did.

Sharing a tent with eight fellows meant you had to fight for enough space to put your boxes and to make yourself comfortable. Everyone was entitled to exactly 2 metres by 1.2 metres of floor space but some men exceeded this, forcing those around them to carefully push their neighbour’s boxes back until they had their correct allocation. This was checked, to the centimetre.

Above his allocation, each man had a mosquito net. The nets were suspended over the stretchers by an array of strings mixed with the electrical wires which, in turn, were attached to the tent posts. The nets were made of heavy material, so it was very hard to breathe under them, especially during hot weather.

Amongst all these dangling wires and strings there was a cable that we could plug a lamp into, lighting our desks and enabling us to do something in the evenings. But the electricity was turned off after two hours.

“Be careful not to put your gear too close to the canvas,” Pouzache said to me. “The creepy crawlies reach your bed by climbing along it.”

Scorpions, spiders, centipedes and all sorts of unwanted guests tended to climb onto our stretchers during the night, so to stop them we had to make our beds in a special way. Our sleeping bags had to be tucked in with our blankets. Nothing could be hanging on the side or touching the ground. The whole lot was then covered with a waterproof canvas which was tucked all around the stretcher, and then the mosquito net was lowered. This combination protected us, not only from the ‘creepy crawlies’, but also from the wind and the dust coming from the Sahara Desert. Our beds were like cocoons and we had to meticulously slip into them. So going to bed was an experience in itself; a strange, step by step procedure. Firstly, we had to make a small opening in the mosquito net and slip our loaded, MAT 49 under our pillow, in case of an alert during the night. We then removed our boots and put them at the end of our stretchers. Then, fully dressed, we had to slip through the opening. Once there, we had to undress ourselves and put on a tracksuit. And once in bed, we could not move, as doing so would shake the whole set up, and disturb everyone else. But, at the same time, we had to be prepared to get up at any time during the night.

There were rules concerning our guns. At night, our guns had to be under our pillows, the safety catches had to be on, and the loaders had to be folded back, for double security. All of this was necessary because wild boar, foxes, rats, even donkeys and deer often went through the camp during the darkest hours, and the noise they made caused most of the men to panic. Some of them would release the security locks on their guns in readiness to fire. Hearing the clicks of the safety catches undermined the composure of those sleeping near the entry to the tent, as a light touch on the trigger of a gun could transform them into a sieve. But the fatigue was so great that very few worried too much about the consequences. We all just wanted to sleep as much as we could.

Actually, there was not much difference between us and previous armies in Africa. The Roman Legions, for example, camped on this same site over two thousand years ago. They also lived in tents, as did the great armies in Napoleon’s time when he was campaigning throughout Europe. But the soldiers most similar to us were those of the First World War. They camped in tents in order to defend a line of trenches about six hundred kilometres long, akin to what we were doing defending the seven–hundred–kilometre electrified Barrage. They were also fighting in horrific weather conditions, but whilst we had to stay in the trenches for two years, they were relieved every two months or so. Also, they were, when possible, granted leave to see their families. However, our forebears were fighting an enemy which was in front of them and they were fighting to defend their own country from the invaders. Here, we were the invaders and our enemies were everywhere.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 5

BRANLE BAS DE COMBAT

 

After spending a few days in the tent, I fully claimed my spot and I was accepted by my colleagues. I also caught up with my friends from France, not only Joncquet, Maillet and Pouzache, but many others as well.

6 October 1960. By this time the temperature had dropped alarmingly and was now minus 4 to 5 degrees centigrade at night. To keep the cold wind from the Atlas Mountains and the heavy rain from blowing into our tent, we had to lace it entirely with ropes held by steel pegs, deeply and solidly hammered into the ground. Only a small passageway to crawl through was left open. When the rain started, it continued for days and the deep gutters which had been dug all around the tent filled rapidly with water. Then the gutters overflowed onto the floor of the tent, sometimes creating a small pond and transforming it into a mud bath. Some ingenious fellows pulled apart the empty, wooden mine boxes and built themselves false floors so that their spots in the tent were dry. But the biggest problem we now faced was the toilet trench. It was over 50 meters from our tent and, at night, we were not allowed to go to it alone. So if we needed the toilet we had to extract ourselves from our cocoon, a difficult manoeuvre. Then we had to wake up one of our friends, get them up, take our guns and torches, and, most importantly, warn the guard on duty in case he didn’t realise we were in the toilet and, thinking the Fellaghas were coming, fire a round of 25 bullets in our direction. Imagine the problem when any of us had dysentery. With the heavy rains, the toilet trench filled with water, and the wooden planks that spanned the trench and that we squatted on, disappeared. Day by day the toilet problem increased.

8 October 1960. Life in the camp completely drained our strength. The lack of nutritious food and the fatigue from the heavy work transformed the company so that they looked more like people coming out of a concentration camp than a unit of the French army. The average man weighed little more than 60 kilos and some even less. The lack of energy was evident. Many would fall asleep in the truck bringing them back to camp, and some even fell on their knees when the truck made a turn as they did not have enough strength to hold themselves up. Every move took extreme effort and was painful. More and more of the fellows reported in sick each morning. They could hardly stand on their own two feet. The Captain noticed this and realised that the situation was serious, but when one of his Sub–Lieutenants reported in sick, he recognised that the whole company was in bad shape.

Every morning a truck took the weak and sick people to the nearest military hospital in the mountains.

“What do all these people want?” the military doctor asked when he saw us sitting on the ground and waiting for him.

“They are all weak, sir!” a nurse explained.

“What? Weak? No, they are just lazy! They do not want to work, the little bastards! Give each of them an injection of Cacodilic,” he ordered.

“Yes, Sir!” she replied.

After one of these injections we could work for about 2 hours before returning to our original state of health.

The[* 12 October 1960*] was our first experience of war on the Barrage. The Captain selected our platoon to complete the fortification on hill no.121 which was next to the Barrage. According to older fellows who had served considerable time at the camp, another platoon had started the work, and, rather than just being sent to finish the task, we were being sent to replace the platoon. The unarmed platoon had been attacked by the Fellaghas and ritually slaughtered.

“It is too difficult to work with the guns and they get too dirty after a while,” said one of the fellows in the platoon, explaining why the men were unarmed. “And the area had been declared safe, anyway.”

“When they did not come back, we went there. It was already dark and in the light of our truck we saw them on the dirt road, all lined up next to each other, their throats cut from one ear to the other and completely disembowelled. Their bodies were filled with stones and their sexual organs were cut off and stuffed into their mouths. It was a sight which I will never forget!” said Gougeon.

I remembered being told by Corporal Vigot at Guelma, that a platoon had been slaughtered by the Fellaghas and this confirmed his story.

“Do we take our weapons with us this time sir?” I asked the Sub Lieutenant.

“No, there is no need,” he said. The Legion completely cleared the area after the attack. Nothing is left. All the villages have been burned to the ground and the inhabitants shifted into a concentration camp. You can work in peace now but, to reassure you, the drivers will take their MAT 49’s. Our officer will stay in the camp doing paper work and Sergeant Chief Pujol will be in charge of this operation.”

As the other platoons moved on to their work, they yelled jokes to us from their trucks. “Good luck, boys!” “Make sure you come back with your balls tonight!” And they all started laughing.

“I am glad the people here have a great sense of humour,” said Maillet.

“I hope to see you at lunch time today,” called another joker, “if you are lucky!”

I did not find these remarks amusing or reassuring, especially coming from the fellows in our own company.

We set out for our work place, about a kilometre before Laminator driving slowly down a dirt track to reach the Barrage and the bitumen road, the driver started to drive like a mad man.

“Never stop on the Barrage!” he yelled, taking each bend at full speed.

To my great relief, he soon left the bitumen road and took a small, hardly visible track that was full of deep holes. The truck started to struggle, slowly climbing the steep slope leading up the hill.

“The fort is on top, on my right. Can you see it? I’ll stop the truck here, half–way up. There’s no further track to the top,” the driver said.

He drove into a bushy area, hiding his truck under some trees. The country was absolutely beautiful and so peaceful that you would never think it was in a war zone.

“OK everyone,” said the Chief, “The job is on top of the hill, so you have to carry all the materials and tools that we need.”

The view from the top of the hill was breath–taking. We could see the whole of the Medjerda Mountains, far away in Tunisia. We were just on top of the Barrage and we could see kilometre after kilometre of it, going in the direction of Lacalle. It was like sitting in a plane, looking at the scenery below.

“From here,” said Pujol, “you can see the Fellaghas’ forts and even their flags. This is the closest fortification that they have to the Barrage and to our base. This place is called the ‘duck bill’ because the Tunisia border reaches in and is flush with the Barrage. If you look on a map you can see that it has the shape of a duck’s bill.” We could now understand why the army was building a fortification here.

On this side of the Algerian Tunisian border the electrified Barrage was named after the General who had ordered its construction, hence it was called the Morice Line. It was an incredible construction, one that the Romans would have been proud to call their own. The Barrage was built on both sides of Algeria and was over 700 kilometres long. It encompassed all the mine fields, and was, in places, doubled for additional security. It was a great feat of engineering and quite an innovative military strategy.

The Barrage was built to help control the Algerian rebellion. Algeria was trying to win its independence from France, just as Morocco and Tunisia had done. But Algeria was using these two countries as bases to train and to shelter their liberation army. Morocco and Tunisia were both Muslim countries and considered it their duty to help their brother Algerians.

Even though the mighty French army was equipped with modern weapons they were unable to control the Algerian rebellion and, at a conference, had considered other strategies.

“There is only one way to keep Algeria French,” said one of the most prominent Generals of the French army.” I propose to completely enclose Algeria on all its four sides. If we want to win this war, we have to cut the rebels’ supply of troops, weapons and ammunition from Morocco and Tunisia, so we are going to build a gigantic fence all around Algeria.”

The Officers looked at each other, amazed.

“But General, that would–be hundreds of kilometres long. Can you imagine the work to be done and the cost of it?” said one of the Officers.

“Yes, I have thought of this, but I have a plan. The sea side will be controlled by the French navy and then the bottom side, or the Sahara, will be easily blocked by patrols of Foreign Legionnaires. Along the Moroccan border we will build an electric fence, from the Mediterranean Sea right to the Sahara Desert and we will build the same on the Tunisian side,” explained the General.

The officers looked bewildered.

“General, before the Second World War we built a Barrage like this, the Maginot line, in France to stop the Germans invading us but they just walked into France by detouring through Belgium. They were in Paris in three weeks. The Maginot line didn’t work, Sir,” said one of the Officers.

“Yes, true, but the Maginot line did not work because it didn’t go right to the sea. A gap was left near the Belgium border so the Germans went through it. But the Barrage in Algeria will be complete. We will build it starting in the sea and going through to the Sahara Desert. Nothing will stand in the way of the Barrage, not rivers, mountains, rocky outcrops, sands or forests. There will be no gaps. We will do the same on the Tunisian side,” the General explained. “The Barrage will be manned by the French army who will defend it day and night. Then the Fellaghas will not have access to ammunition or reinforcements outside of Algeria and will be choked to death.”

“But it will require an army of over half a million men to keep Algeria French, Sir!” exclaimed an Officer.

“The cost of maintaining such an army will be staggering!” said a high–ranking Officer who seemed to be concerned.

“So what?” said the General. “Instead of thousands of conscripts dreaming in barracks throughout France they will be guarding the Barrage. It will keep them busy.”

This incredible plan to keep Algeria French, was put into action. The Barrage started, not on the borders of Tunisia but several kilometres inside Algeria, creating a ‘No Man’s Land.’ To ensure the success of the overall plan, hundreds of villages throughout Algeria had to be burned down and their inhabitants moved to ‘Resettlement camps’, a polite term for ‘Concentration camps’. These camps had no amenities, were surrounded by barbed wire, and were continually patrolled, particularly at night, to ensure that the Fellaghas had no access to food. Because of the fear of being locked in these camps, nearly half a million Algerians escaped to Tunisia and Morocco. Those left in Algeria were treated as prisoners in their own country. Tens of thousands of Algerians died in the process, thus the decimation of Algeria and its inhabitants began on a large scale.

Once the Barrage was in place, thousands of Fellaghas tried to get through it, but it was difficult. They cut the wires with isolating pliers, but this triggered an alert to all the forts along the line, and army tanks were dispatched, converging on the damaged area from each side. And if they did manage to survive this, there were two mine fields to cross. Thousands of Fellaghas lost their lives trying to pass the Barrage. But this did not deter them. Every evening they attempted to cross, using many different strategies. A few lucky ones manoeuvred their way through the wires without giving the alert or being electrocuted. Others dug tunnels under the Barrage and some even dug under the mine fields as well. Sometimes a strong Katiba would attack the Barrage by blowing a huge gap in it using ‘Bangalors’, and then hastily cross it, before the tanks arrived. Those that did get through took weapons to the rebels in the Atlas Mountains. But the cost to them was heavy. Between January and May, 1958, the Fellaghas lost over three thousand soldiers trying to get through the Barrage. And in the mountains, at Djebel Mouadejene near Souk–Ahras, they lost 624 men in one day and hundreds of others were wounded or taken prisoner. The courage shown by the rebels in such adversity was unequalled. They were extremely resistant fighters and even the French Foreign Legion found them difficult to deal with.

The Legion was vastly superior in terms of numbers, equipment and support. They had astonishing fire power and the backing of the air force and the artillery. Algeria had been transformed into an enormous army camp of half a million soldiers, trying to control the 30,000 Algerian rebels who were equipped only with old guns left over from the Second World War. Each year the French army undertook numerous and massive operations involving thousands of men and, although they won many battles, they could not manage to win the war. We wondered why.

Meantime, standing on Hill 121, we inspected the work that had to be done. Most of the heavy work had been completed by the previous platoon. They had dug the base of the fort by using explosives, and the heavy steel sheets to form the shelter had been put into position and bolted together.

“So all we have to do here,” said Pujol, “is to cover the steel sheets with thirty centimetres of reinforced concrete and then, on the top of the shelter, install a powerful searchlight to light the Barrage at night. The electrical system will be in the bunker underneath and, when completed, will be controlled by the men on duty.”

As we were getting ready to do the job, someone pointed to the concrete mixer which had quite a few holes in it. Seeing our surprised faces, Pujol said, “The Fells did it.”

“What do you mean, Chief?” asked one of the men.

“Well, you might find out soon enough for yourself. Come on Morin, start the mixer. We are ready,” replied Pujol.

After winding the rope around the shaft, Morin pulled it with all his strength. The engines coughed, stopped, started again, and finally began to roar, ready to receive the gravel and sand. The first batch of concrete was ready to be poured when, all of a sudden, Sergeant Chief Pujol who had been quietly smoking a cigarette while he watched us, dropped it and yelled to us in a panic, “Mortars! Mortars!” Without waiting another moment, he dived to the ground inside the bunker and, without question, we joined him.

“Quickly, everyone take cover! And keep your head down!” he yelled.

He had barely finished his sentence when we heard a loud whistling noise in the sky. It got louder by the second, as it came closer to the ground. Then there was a tremendous explosion about ten meters from us, spraying the whole area with dirt and stones. We made ourselves as small and as invisible as we could.

“Keep still!” yelled Pujol. “The next one’s coming so stay as flat as you can.”

More whistling in the sky was followed by a much louder explosion as a shell fell near the concrete mixer and sprayed us with dirt and pieces of concrete. Razor–sharp shrapnel hit the steel sheets of the bunker, making a terrifying noise.

“Someone got hurt!” yelled Chevalier. “Get the first aid box, Kuntz is bleeding.”

“No! Do not move yet!” screamed Pujol. “The next one could be a direct hit. Just wait. I’ll give the signal when it’s time leave.”

The shells kept falling, one after another. Sergeant Chief Pujol had experienced mortar fire in Indochina and he was able to recognise the sound of the shells hitting the bottom of the tubes and starting their deadly journey towards us.

He warned us, “They might throw us another volley of five. Be ready for it.”

As he was saying this, Bazo stood up and picked up the bags of cement we had been about to use. He piled them tightly next to and on top of each other in front of the open side of the bunker, to give us protection. He was a giant of a man and could pick up a bag of cement in one hand.

“Come on, Bazo! Don’t be a fool! Lie down immediately,” yelled Pujol. “Quick! They are coming again!”

Whistling closer than before, a shell tore apart the thick steel front of the bunker and ripped open the bags of cement. We were covered with a spray of dirt, metal, mud and sand, and everyone began to cough and choke in the cloud of powdered cement. We could barely breathe. It was a total nightmare.

“OK!” yelled Pujol. “One by one, run towards the trucks, now! We’ve only a few–minutes respite before they start again!”

As he said this, some of the fellows jumped to their feet, left the shelter and ran down the hill towards the trucks, at full speed. Others helped their lightly–wounded comrades to the trucks. But then we realised that Bazo was not moving and that his face was twisted in pain. “Bazo has been hurt!” cried Maillet.

Sergeant Chief Pujol looked at him quickly. “OK. Four of you grab a piece of canvas and carry him down the hill to the trucks, as quickly as you can. Hurry up! There is not much we can do for him at the moment!”

Bazo looked up at us, his eyes wide open. He was petrified and in great pain. We slipped the piece of canvas under him as best we could, grabbed it on each side and carried him from the bunker towards the trucks. The mortars had resumed their deadly search for victims. When we got to the trucks Chevalier had the first aid kit out and had already bandaged Maillet’s cut hands and Kuntz’s wounded head. Both of them were lying on the floor of one of the trucks and we quickly slipped Bazo in, as well. But as he was lying there, a large pool of blood began to form on the canvas and spread to the floor. We looked at each other without saying a word.

Bazo was like an older brother to us, a knight in shining armour. With a gentle and genuine smile, he would always help those who were weak or who could not defend themselves. And that was exactly what he had just tried to do again – protect us from the shells by building a makeshift wall.

Bazo seemed to be in great pain and was starting to look grey. Chevalier was cleaning the cement powder and mud from him so that he could cut his trousers away and expose his wounds. When the dirty material was finally removed, we found a very large wound, a mass of blood and flesh mixed with cement and mud. It was bleeding profusely. Chevalier looked at us in silence and we all understood that there was not much that could be done for Bazo. One fellow took his long army scarf and gave it to Chevalier who, after bandaging the wound as best he could, tied it around Bazo’s legs to try to slow down the haemorrhaging.

“We have to get him to the military hospital as quickly as possible, Chief!” said Chevalier.

“OK!” said Pujol. “You take the wounded to the hospital at Souk–Ahras in one truck and I’ll take the rest of the platoon back to the camp in the other. Hurry up!”

We jumped in the back of the truck, sitting on each side of the wounded to stop them rolling from one side to the other.

I yelled to the driver, “Go as fast as you can… please!”

He was an experienced driver and at first he drove slowly trying to avoid the deep holes full of water and mud, but as soon as he reached the bitumen he drove as if in a grand prix, changing gears and taking bend after bend at an incredible speed. Holding the seat with two hands, I tried not to think about the consequences of someone coming in the opposite direction.

“How far is the hospital?” I yelled to him.

“Souk–Ahras is about 40 kilometres from here. I’ve been to the hospital before so I know where it is. We should be there in half an hour.”

Bazo was in terrible pain. His eyes were wide open and full of fear, and he was delirious, talking about all sorts of things. Chevalier held onto him and frequently took his pulse. As we drove many memories came to me. I remembered him at the railway station ready to take the train to Angers. He arrived with his father. His mother had died when   was only six years old. I remembered him hugging his father. Bazo was with us when we sailed to Africa, he shared the cabin with us and got lost on the ship during the night. I remembered our training when, because of his strength, he voluntarily carried the 14–kilogram radio on top of his own equipment. He never complained. But, there in the back of the truck, life was slipping away from him. Even though he had always helped us, there was nothing we could do to help him. Thoughts tumbled in my head. Why on our first day of work on the Barrage? Why the insanity? Wounded by people we did not know! Why Bazo? Why him? Does death have a plan for us? Who will death decide to take next? It is pointless for Bazo to die. Come on, God, you can’t do that to him and to us. Please let him live. You are a God of mercy, so help him. Please give him one more chance.

When we arrived at Souk–Ahras we found that a barrier had been erected across the road and was guarded by the Legion. The driver hit the brakes; smoke came from the truck, and the two hard–faced Legionnaires screamed, “Stop! Stop now!”

“Open the road now, and quickly! It’s an emergency!” yelled the driver of our truck. “There are wounded on board!”

But the Legionnaires on duty were German and had limited knowledge of French. They did not understand us. With their PM49’s at the ready, they moved to the truck. I jumped off the vehicle and pulled one of them to the back, showing him the wounded.

“Hospital! Hospital!” I screamed at him. “Quick, open the road please!”

“Achtung!” said the Legionnaire, surprised at what he saw. Understanding the situation he and his colleague shifted the barbed wire fence as quickly as they could.

“Good luck!” yelled the Legionnaire as our truck resumed its frantic course through the narrow streets towards the hospital, the engine roaring with acceleration.

Bazo had now lapsed into a coma and we knew there were merely minutes left to be able to save our gentle giant. Thank God, our driver had been to the military hospital before and knew exactly where to go. He drove at a frightening speed, crunching the gears and screeching the tyres. In a cloud of smoke, the truck stopped in front of the emergency section of the hospital. We grabbed the sides of Bazo’s canvas and quickly carried him inside, grabbed a free stretcher and put him on it. The hospital was already full of wounded men lying on stretchers, but no nurse. One of us ran to look for help. Two nurses finally came and assessed the damage.

Bazo was surrounded by people trying to save his life. A nurse cleaned the wound, and Maillet held his hand to comfort him. A military surgeon, still covered with fresh blood from previous operations, appraised Bazo’s condition, noted his weak pulse, ordered an intravenous drip, and told the nurse to prepare him for surgery. Two assistants put him onto a trolley and wheeled him into the operating room. Meanwhile, the nurses tended our wounded comrades.

We looked around us. Some of the men had been wounded by landmines and had limbs blown off. This was a terrible thing for us to witness as, in a few days, we would be laying minefields. When we were training in France we had no idea of the reality of war. In fact, when we were on the boat Bonnemaison had cracked jokes about the rebellion in Algeria and we had laughed about it.

After a while the surgeon, covered in fresh blood and looking more like an abattoir worker than a medical professional, emerged from the operating room. He looked at us and asked, “Who is in charge here?”

“I am, Sir,” I replied.

“I am sorry,” he said. “Your friend didn’t make it. We couldn’t do anything to save his life. He bled to death.”

We were all stunned and remained silent. Surely this was not right. The doctor must have made a mistake. Bazo could not be dead!

“Can we see him now?” Maillet managed to ask.

“Yes, but be quick. Ask the nurse on duty,” he said as he left us.

Shortly after, a nurse said, “Follow me, please.”

We followed her to another room, adjacent to the operating theatre. There we saw many bodies covered with white sheets ready to be put into their khaki aluminium coffins. Soon they would be on their way home to their parents in France. Their dog tags had already been taken away and broken into two pieces for exact identification. Bazo was amongst them, but still uncovered, his eyes closed and his face clean. He looked completely relaxed, as if he was in a beautiful place where there was no war and where people were not designing weapons to kill others. He had found peace. Without warning, his 20 years on earth had come to a brutal end. At least he had not died alone as we, his adopted brothers, had been with him. We took it in turns to kiss him goodbye and some of us prayed for him. In a few days, two policemen would be knocking on Baz’s father’s door, repeating the rhetoric that the parents of some 25,000 other young lads had already heard. “With deep regret we come to tell you that your son has died in the field of honour. He died for France.”

Maybe this could be said of those who had died in the two World Wars, when our armies were defending France against invaders, but not here in Algeria. This was a monumental lie. In this case the rhetoric should have been, “We come here to inform you that your son died to protect the interests of the rich settlers who have been exploiting the Algerians for the past 130 years. He did not die in the field of honour, but in the field of horror.”

Hundreds of thousands of parents with sons doing their twenty–eight months of service in Algeria lived in fear every day and prayed to God that the dreaded policemen carrying bad news would not stop on their doorstep.

14 October 1960. Our Sub–lieutenant gave me the unenviable task of preparing Bazo’s personal belongings for return to his family. Everything had to ready by 12 o’clock when the liaison truck arrived. What a terrible job. I had to invade his privacy – I had to transfer the precious contents of his personal wooden box to a suitcase. And to do this I had to force the padlock, as no one knew where the key was kept. I carefully took out the photos of his family, his parents and the aunt who had cared for him after his mother died. Among the photos was one of a beautiful young girl, his fiancée. He had never shown this photo to us but he had told us that he had known her since childhood and was going to marry her as soon as he got back from Algeria. I picked up the rosary which his father had given him for his first communion. All his letters were numbered. Bazo always replied to his mail with a letter headed by the number of days he still had to serve in Algeria.’663 days to go before I see you’ were his last written words, heading a letter that he had just started. With great care, I dutifully packed his suitcase. I knew that it would be taken to the wharf and, with his coffin, returned to France and discreetly given to his family. In his village a funeral ceremony would be held for him, a French flag and a medal adorning his coffin. During the church service, an officer would make a long speech, telling his distressed family that their boy had died doing his duty for France, that he had been willing to pay the ultimate price to keep Algeria French. What a lie to tell the grieving family.

31 October 1960. We heard great news. For the first time since the war had started in 1954, the French public were being told truths about the obliteration of the Algerians. The word ‘GENOCIDE’ had been used. The French communist party had adopted the principles set forth in manifesto number 121, which stated, ‘We consider the actions of Frenchmen to provide assistance and protection to the Algerian people or the F.L.N. (our enemy) justified.’

Some people in Europe were starting to realise how unjust and horrible this war was and that if the genocide continued, the Algerian people would disappear altogether.

1 November 1960. This was a great day for us as we were celebrating. Deschamps had only one week to go before he returned home, for good. Strangely, we were more excited for him than he was. He had suffered much during his time in Algeria and it seemed that he could not conceive that his daily nightmare was almost over. He had done 844 days in the Djebel without seeing his family once.

“Deschamps, next week you will be back in your village in Normandy, and back on your farm with all your family. You will be dressed in civilian clothes,” I whispered to him.

He looked at us and smiled. He was completely burned out and did not react to our comments or even seem to comprehend them.

We decided to have a party in his honour but we wanted it to be a surprise, so we kept to the usual routine and a platoon went to the mine field with him. Back in the camp, the conscripts converted one of the largest tents into a dining room. Everyone contributed by finding whatever resources they could, so we had tables lined up next to each other, covered with bed sheets, and set with plates, glasses and even flowers. The cook surpassed himself by preparing a fantastic dinner, and the Captain had ordered a delivery of a variety of wines. The camp was a beehive of activity, with everyone helping where they could. Deschamps was liked by everyone.

Everyone was back in camp by 5 P.M. and soon after Deschamps was called to one of the tents where, unbeknown to him, everyone was waiting. What a surprise as he entered. Everyone began to sing a song from his native land, Normandy.

‘J irai revoir ma Normandie.

C est le pays qui ma donner le jour…’

The words had special meaning.

I will go back to Normandy.

It is the country that has given me my life.

Deschamps stood there speechless. He could hardly believe that his comrades had planned a farewell party for him. He never expected itched became quite emotional: his face went red and his eyes filled with tears. After so much suffering in the Atlas Mountains, he could hardly believe that this special day had come. And he knew that he was one of the lucky ones. For two years he had worked in the mine fields and had carried out repairs on the Barrage, but had never been hurt, not even a small scratch. The only wound he had was an invisible one, a deep wound in his mind, but no–one would ever see it even though it would stay with him all his life.

After a large drink of Calvados, we all sat together and enjoyed a superb dinner, supplemented with fine wine which the officers had paid for. Even the Sub–Lieutenant was there. This had never happened before. During the dinner, everyone took turns to give a speech. It was very moving. When it was time for Deschamps to address the group, he became so emotional that he could hardly stand. He looked at everybody and smiled, but he was so lost that he could only mutter a few words.

“Thank you, everyone!”

He could say no more. He bowed his head and cried, and we all felt for him. For a moment, silence prevailed. But then the party resumed and went on till the wee hours of the morning. It was fantastic.

4 November 1960. We went to the mine fields and laid 200 mines, but a few of us had authorisation to return early and help Deschamps get ready for his departure. We didn’t think he would do anything himself as he didn’t seem to understand that his military duty was at an end. We all wanted to help and my job was to pack his suitcase. Sitting next to him on his stretcher I said, “OK Deschamps. I’m going to help you empty your box.”

He just smiled at me. His personal wooden box was bigger than normal, enormous in fact. It was full of letters, rows and rows of them, all numbered and lined up accordingly, and all read dozens of times. They were the only connection he had with his family.

“Back in France, he is going to have a tough time relating to his family again,” said one of the men. “I bet he’ll still look for his box for months, or even go to his room and keep writing letters to his family.”

Pouzache ironed Deschamps’ outing uniform. It had only been worn a few times during his stay in Algeria. Maillet cleaned his boots, removing twenty–four months of mud, and then polished them till they looked like new. Someone else polished the brass buttons on his jacket and checked that all his badges were sewn on properly. We all wanted him to be impeccably dressed when he left. As one of the men helped him to put on his uniform, Deschamps asked, “Why are you doing all this? What’s going on?”

We packed his dirty, muddy battledress outfit, which had not been washed at all during his Algerian service, into a canvas bag ready to be returned to the army depot. Then we gave him his black beret with the golden insignia of the Pioneer on it. He put it on and walked outside, looking like a king. We had never seen him dressed like this. He was almost unrecognisable.

“Deschamps, tomorrow you will be in Marseilles and after that you will be in Coutainville with all your family and friends again,” said Pouzache.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, with his broad Norman accent, but we realised that he still did not comprehend what was happening.

Everyone took photos of him, treating him as if he was a movie star.

“I bet if he looked at himself in a mirror he would not even recognise himself!” said one of the men, laughing.

Deschamps was invited into the officers’ mess for a farewell drink, but, not used to being dressed up, he walked around clumsily. However, it was a great honour for a private to be invited into such a ‘holy’ place. This type of recognition didn’t happen often, especially to conscripts.

A trumpet blast signalled that the liaison truck would be leaving in ten minutes, so we went to the assembly area and joined the four platoons. The Captain stood at attention, next to the flag.

“Private Deschamps, come out of the ranks,” he ordered. “For your valuable service to the nation, I have the honour of presenting you with the military cross.”

Then the Captain gave Deschamps an accolade, handed him his diploma, and pinned the medal on his jacket. The trumpeter played a tune and everyone stood at attention.

“A great reward for risking your life a thousand times over, “whispered Bonnemaison” What a joke! Life is not worth much here.”

Then the four platoons formed a guard of honour for Deschamps as he walked to the truck.

He sat next to the driver and held his small suitcase on his knees. As the truck pulled away, the trumpeter played a last tune, and amongst the men, silence prevailed. A feeling of sadness swept over us as we returned to our tents to cross off another day of service. Sitting on my stretcher I looked at the two empty spots. Bazo and Deschamps were now gone forever. Who would be next?

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 6

THE MIGHTY BARRAGE

 

8 November 1960. The 700 kilometres of the electrified Barrage, the Morice line as it was called, was guarded day and night by thousands of soldiers posted along its entire length and ready to intervene if the Fellaghas tried to cut it.

This army included over eighteen elite regiments of infantry and cavalry. Five regiments of the best French mercenaries were permanently stationed there. To back them up, another six complete regiments of cavalry patrolled, with tanks, the entire length of the Barrage on an especially–built road. Dragoons, Hussars, Moroccans, Marines; all of them were there. At the rear of this incredible task force were another six regiments of infantry embracing Senegalese, Marines, and Moroccans. As a final backup, there were five regiments of Paras who were used like firemen. They could move rapidly from one spot to another should there be any problem. The best of the mercenaries, the Foreign Legion, were among this group. From the sky it looked like an enormous spider web, making it almost impossible for any Katibas of Fellaghas to pass without being caught.

The Paras were the ‘cream’ of the French army and were highly trained to do the dirty work for France. They comprised five regiments, each led by a Colonel. But these Colonels did not hide behind desks in air–conditioned offices far from the battlefields. They were the complete opposite. They spent most of their time with their regiments, leading their men in assaults, always in front of them fighting fearlessly. The rest of the officers in the army despised them, calling them names such as ‘Burned Brain’ or ‘Nut Case’, but in–reality they were jealous and envious of them. The pinnacle of these particular regiments and therefore of the entire French army was the First Regiment of Parachutists of the Foreign Legion, commonly called the First REP (Regiment Etranger Parachutiste). The Regiment was composed entirely of the best fellows from the other Foreign Regiments and, of course, their Colonel was the best of the best. He followed in the footsteps of Colonel Pierre Jeanpierre, a prestigious commander, a warrior with no equal anywhere, and who had participated in every conflict that France had been involved in for the past twenty years. Pierre had been killed in 1958. The second REP was also a regiment of Foreign Legionnaires, all of them mercenaries who killed without hesitation or compunction. The two regiments who followed the First and Second REPs were the 8th and 9th Regiments of Chasseurs Parachutists, made up entirely of call–up servicemen like us, but who had volunteered for special training. They were all ‘hot headed’ boys, fully trained and quite prepared to kill anyone if ordered to do so. Their only goal was to kill Fellaghas. And the last of these Regiments was the 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs Parachutists. They were commanded by Colonel Marcel Bigeard, a man worthy of a place in the Guinness Book of Records as he was one of the most decorated soldiers in France. He fought like a knight from the middle ages and often engaged in unconventional warfare. He did not fight for money, but for the glory and for the love of France. He had enlisted as a private of the lowest possible rank, but rose to the rank of Lieutenant General.

The eighteen elite Regiments were made up of 22,000 of the best warriors. They were all well–trained, well equipped, and well backed up, not only by regiments of heavy artillery and modern air force bombers and helicopters, but also by the transmission and intelligence services, and by us, the Pioneers.

The Morice line, guarded by this enormous army and further fortified with garrisons, electrical posts, radar stations, tank depots, and search–light blockhouses, continued uninterrupted along the seven hundred kilometres of the Tunisian border. This modern Maginot line, designed to control about thirty thousand rebels stationed in Tunisia, was directed and controlled by a group of superior officers living in luxurious accommodation in the capital of Algiers, as far as they could from the actual battlefield. However, the irony was that the Algerian Army of Liberation wanted to cripple the forces of the French army by keeping them on duty on the Barrage. They were successful, sixty thousand soldiers in the French army were there, guarding it twenty–four hours a day.

Those in the Foreign Legion were all willingly engaged, and were first class killers, supported by being provided with everything possible to accomplish their task. The majority of them were Germans, running from justice because of crimes they had committed during the Second World War. They were fully–trained criminals having gained their experience in the SS German army. When the French recruited these killers, they did not ask too many questions. It was a bonus, a real saving as they were already trained to kill. And for their part, these recruits were rewarded for their dirty work with ranks, medals and even a retirement pension after five years’ service, if they survived.

We, the Pioneers, who were always on duty along the Barrage doing a poorly–respected job, were considered by the elite regiments as hopeless because we did not participate in battle. We were considered to be servants, good for nothing but laying mine fields and repairing the electrified network. The real work, killing people by the thousands, was done by the Foreign Legion who had signed a five–year contract with the French army. The contract stated, ‘We will give you a new name to protect you from outside justice and in exchange you will do the killing for us.’ What a good deal for both sides indeed. The French army was protecting itself against future accusations of committing Algerian genocide, as they could rightfully claim that the Foreign Legion did it.

Next to our camp, was a company of the Legion infantry. It was bizarre indeed as we were supposed to belong to the same army, but were not classified in the same way. Except for the officers, who were French, the rest of this regiment were foreigners coming from all over the globe. Sometimes in the evening, when they were not in operation or on duty, they used to drift to our camp and pay us a visit. We didn’t look forward to this as, even though many of them would arrive already drunk, they would bring cartons of Kronenbourg beer, and would continue drinking. It was difficult enough to understand them when they were sober, but when they were drunk they became unintelligible. They came to our camp for relaxation as the tension in their own camp was always at breaking point because of fights with each other and using weapons to settle their arguments. For them our camp was like a holiday place and they laughed with disbelief at how the French army operated.

In the evenings, most of us sat across our stretchers or at our desks and wrote letters. The doorways to our tents were left open, and the fellows from the Legion would walk in. They would greet us with “Guten tag, Franzosen!” as they laughingly sat on our stretchers and offered us bottles of beer.

“How is the French army going, these days? We haven’t seen you in operation in the Djebel with us yet!” one of them would say. They would all laugh, as this was one of their favourite jokes. “You spend too much time writing letters to your mummy and daddy!”

“Do you ever come out of your tents?” said an older German who had fought during the Second World War in the SS division, ‘Das Reich’. “What would happen if we were not here? The Fells would have cut your balls off a long time ago!”

The conversations we had with them were strange; they had a completely different view of the war to what we had. Of course, everyone had to be careful not to argue or disagree with them as this was likely, as had once happened, to result in a brawl, with guns being fired right there in the tent.

Although our ranks were insignificant in the French army, having these ranks helped to keep us out of trouble with the Legionnaires as they had a great respect for position, title and status. Conversely, in their own regiments, the Legionnaires could be promoted one day to the rank of Corporal or Sergeant but the following day, they could just as easily be demoted to a Private, and even sent to jail for a few weeks.

In our camp, that of the 37th Battalion, each day began as it had in France, with all of us gathering around the flag, platoon by platoon and with all the Officers and Warrant Officers of the company present. Our Captain would give orders for the flag to be raised and everyone would stand at attention. One morning as we were standing around our flag, we heard two shots coming from the direction of the Legion’s camp. To my surprise, no one took any notice of it. Apparently it was a common event, but that afternoon we were told that two of the Legionnaires had been shot dead by their own Warrant Officers.

“Why?” I asked with surprise.

“We heard that, during an operation last week, they raped two Berber women so they were punished,” one of the men explained.

“No,” replied someone else, “in the Legion raping is OK, but after they raped the women, they killed them by pushing broken bottles into their sexual parts. They were caught in the act, so as an example to the others they were shot.”

At the same time as we were hoisting our flag, the Legionnaires, all standing to attention, were listening to their Captain reading the rewards and punishments for the day. In the Legion, the Officers decided on punishments, on life or death. And death was chosen for these two fellows, not only as a warning about breaking the rules, but also to ensure that the Legionnaires were more afraid of their Officers than the enemy.

Gunther was one of the Legionnaires who used to visit us in the evening.

“Were you married in Germany, Gunther?” asked Maillet.

“Yah, yah! I was married. I have photos of my wife here,” he replied. Then he took his wallet, opened it, and showed us a picture of Adolf Hitler.

“Here you are boys! This is my wife,” he said.

Then the Legionnaires burst into laughter.

“No one could say that the Germans don’t have a sense of humour,” said someone in our tent.

Wolfgang, another of our visitors, was like many German Legionnaires, a real dog of war. At age ten he joined ‘Hitler’s Youth’ and in time progressed to the SS division.

“What were you in the German army, Wolfgang?” we often asked, because he would then jump to his feet, like a robot, and scream, “Panzer Gruppen Fuhrer, division Das Reich!”

This was the equivalent of a Colonel, but in the Legion, he was just a Corporal and he was proud to have reached this rank after several years’ service.

It was a relief for us when the Legionnaires were finally leaving to carry out an operation in the Djebel. Their camp was built in the same style as those of the Roman Legionnaires 2,000 years ago. It was highly organised with their two–man tents lined up on each side of a straight alley, filled with white–painted gravel and leading to a flag. So it was a mystery to us how, after visiting us one evening and getting very drunk, they had packed up and left by the next morning, leaving no trace of their occupation except that instead of gravel in the alley, it was strewn with metal tops from their beer bottles. And they did this in total silence – we heard nothing.

12 November 1960. The Commandant of the 37th Battalion, sitting in his air–conditioned office in Guelma, had received an order from the General to finish, once and for all, the fortification on Hill 121, which had been started by the unfortunate platoon before us.

“Yes, I am the Commandant de la Bourdezel of the 37th Battalion Guelma.”

“Good. Tell me Commandant, when are you going to finish the fortification on Hill 121?” asked the General.

“As soon as we can, General. I have a new platoon which is going to take over from the one which we lost, Sir,” answered the Commandant.

“What do you mean by the platoon which you lost?” asked the General.

“I mean, Sir, the one that was murdered by the Fells last month,” replied the Commandant.

“Ah! You have lost some of your Pioneers doing this work,” declared the General.

“Yes, Sir!” said the Commandant. “We lost a whole platoon while they were working on Hill 121, but do not worry sir. We are going to start again tomorrow morning and provided we do not have any more trouble with the Fells, it will be finished in two weeks.”

Then a few minutes later we received a message via the radio in our camp.

“Sergeant Chief Pujol, this is your Commandant speaking! I have just received an order from General Dugoin telling me to finish the fortification on Hill 121 immediately!”

“Yes Sir! I will send a platoon tomorrow morning to finish it,” promised Pujol.

“Why was it not finished last time?” asked the Commandant.

“We were bombarded by the Fellaghas when working on it and we had some casualties, Sir!” explained Pujol.

“So why did you stop the work? They would have stopped their bombardment after a while!” barked the Commandant.

Sergeant Chief Pujol, the man in charge of our platoon, had long ago resigned himself to doing anything that the Officers ordered him to do. His answer was always, “Yes sir!” “No sir!” was not in his vocabulary. Under his command we drove back again towards the dreaded Hill 121 but this time, as a result of Bazo’s death, we were given a radio to facilitate communication with the rest of the Company. It was somewhat reassuring.

As we had done the previous time, we approached the hill with great care, great apprehension, and in total silence. Our Chief suggested we mix the concrete by hand so that the Fellaghas would not hear the engine of the mixer and therefore would not bombard us again.

“Why didn’t he think of this before?” asked Lematayer.

We were working quietly when there was a roaring noise next to the bunker. We were about to take cover when, to our surprise, two AMX tanks from the Cavalry arrived. They positioned themselves next to each other on the side of the fortification, their 75 mm cannons facing Tunisia, and their officers at the ready and scrutinising the Barrage with their binoculars.

“Hello everyone! Lieutenant Legras, First Regiment of Hussars,” yelled one of the Officers.” Who is in charge here?”

“Sergeant Chief Pujol, Lieutenant,” answered our Chief.

“OK! You can start your concrete mixer now,” said Legras. “We want to see for ourselves what will happen.”

Both of the Officers jumped into their tanks, started the engines and prepared their menacing cannons for firing. They did not have too long to wait. As soon as the mixer started, the sound of the mortars was heard.

“Mortars! Mortars!” yelled Pujol.

We all dived into the bunker, sweating and trembling with fear. The 120 mm mortar shells hit the side of the bunker with all their force. We imagined them coming through the walls and shredding our bodies into pieces. There was complete silence: some of the men were praying and others were trying to hide their fear, so as to keep it from their comrades.

“Get ready for the next batch!” whispered Pujol.

We all flattened ourselves on the bottom of the bunker and waited with great anxiety, listening for the whistling of the deadly shells.

“Put your hands over your ears, boys!” yelled the Officers of the Cavalry as they locked themselves in their tanks.

The tank engines roared and the turrets on top, with their loaded guns, turned to face the Arab village behind the Barrage. With a deafening din, they fired. We looked out and to our amazement saw that some of the houses in the village had completely disappeared. A few minutes before they had been teeming with life, with chimneys smoking, women cooking and children playing. Now they were blown to pieces. As the Cavalry, could not shoot directly at the mortars which were hidden behind the hills, they were taking the Fellaghas’ village instead. Two more mortars were fired at us, and two more 75mm shells were fired from the tanks, obliterating a few more houses in the village. We could hear the women and children screaming. Two houses were on fire, but the fire spread quickly and soon the whole village was burning. The tanks had fired incendiary shells which spread fire when they hit.

“You can now work in peace, boys!” laughingly said the Officers of the Cavalry, popping out of their tanks. “We think the Fells have finally understood what will happen to them if they keep doing this.”

Under the protection of the Cavalry, we worked quickly, covering the steel bunker with a thick coat of concrete.

Our so–called enemy, the Algerians, were extremely resistant. They were born warriors, tough fighters, second to none, and their religious beliefs were even stronger. Unlike us, they did not fear death even though they knew they could expect no pity from us. And if they fell into the hands of the Foreign Legion, they knew they would have to suffer horrific torture before death. It had happened to their fallen brothers, and it would happen to them.

The courage and tenacity of the Algerian warriors was well known by the French, who had previously used them extensively in five major wars. French military graveyards are full of Algerian Muslims who were used as cannon fodder for the French army. One hundred and seventy thousand Algerians were sent to the Western Front during the First World War, the most dangerous part of the battlefield and where casualties were expected to be high. And they were, but not only casualties, for the number wounded was at least three times the number of those killed. The Algerians were faithful soldiers, willing to push the enemies of France back to their own borders, and never hesitating to risk their lives in the dangerous missions required of them. The barbarians tried to take France five times, but they did not succeed, largely because of the effort of the Algerians.

The French Marshall Juin once said about the Algerians, “We must never forget what France owes to the African army and we must always recognise it!”

The great Mosque of Paris was built to recognise their sacrifice. But now they were no longer allies; they were the enemy.

15 November 1960. Every day as we worked on the observation post on Hill 121 five AMX tanks protected us. Their menacing cannons were enough to deter the Fells from showering us with mortars, so we could use the concrete mixer without fear. Bazo would still be alive if the tanks had been sent in the first place. Still, we were lucky compared to the first platoon that had worked there.

Every morning the four platoons of the Company assembled around the flag as it was raised. Our Captain read the report for the day, including rewards and punishments.

In a solemn voice the Captain announced, “From Corporal Chief to Sergeant…”

Everyone was listening intently and with excitement.

“Christian Fiset!”

To my great surprise and everyone else’s, I was the only one promoted.

“Someone must have made a mistake at Guelma headquarters,” said one of the older, ten–year veterans of the army.

After only a few months in the army I had been promoted and joined the ranks of those that I had despised in France, those that made life difficult for the ordinary soldiers. But the great advantage was that I had to join the Officers and Warrant Officers in the mess and wouldn’t have to fight for food any more. Furthermore, I had to shift all my belongings to a Warrant Officers’ tent which only accommodated four people. What a difference.

That evening, I sat on my bed in my new surroundings, sewing the badges of a Sergeant onto my sleeves. My new position in the platoon put me in charge of ten men. The other Sergeant in the platoon, Sergeant Milhaud was on leave and I had never met him, but the fellows in the platoon had always talked about him.

“If Milhaud were here, this would not have happened,” they would say when working on the minefield. Or, “if Milhaud was here he would be angry.”

I was starting to wonder exactly who this Sergeant Milhaud was, so I asked a fellow who had been there for a long time.

“Debre, can you tell me something about Milhaud?”

“Milhaud is a conscript like us who joined the army at eighteen years of age before he was called up. He is a dedicated and daring fellow, the real force of the whole company here,” he explained.

It appeared that the men considered Milhaud to be the top dog, the fellow who makes the law and who is more powerful than the Officers. And I would be sharing a tent with him and two older Warrant Officers who had previously fought in Indochina. These two Officers, Sergeant Chief Pujol and Sergeant Chief Renard, lived for one thing, the beer or the red wine. You never knew if they were drunk or sober as they masked their passion well, especially in front of other Officers. However, Pujol’s face sometimes gave him away. If it was red like a lobster, he was drunk. I knew that sharing a tent with these four fellows was going to be different but I also knew that I would miss my friends.

One double tent overlooking the plain of Bone had been transformed into a dining room for the Officers and Warrant Officers. This mess hall was erected at some distance from the other tents and it was well–equipped. There was a bar stocked with a variety of drinks, and even a barman to serve them. In the middle were some tables and stools, but with a space between the Officers’ table and the Warrant Officers’ table. I no longer had to sit on my stretcher to have my meals. These meals were prepared nearby, in the mobile kitchen.

I knew that I would survive far more easily in this environment than the ‘everybody for himself’ situation that I had been in. What a luxury.

12 December 1960. Everyone had been waiting for this day. Milhaud was coming back. I concluded that, as everyone was so happy about it, he must be someone special indeed.

“He’s the toughest and most admired man in the First Company of the 37th Battalion,” Pouzache told me, “and everyone is looking forward to seeing him again. He’ll arrive on the liaison truck today. He’s just spent three weeks with his family in France.”

I was feeling quite intimidated by this Sergeant and I hadn’t even met him.

“Sergeant Fiset, I presume,” said Milhaud as he arrived in our tent, smiling and shaking my hand. “How are you?”

This reputedly tough guy from our company didn’t look at all as I had visualized. He was tall, slim, blond headed, blue eyed, and had the face of a sixteen–year–old boy, warm and extremely sympathetic. He looked more like a priest than a top dog. But he had more medals than our Captain who had been fighting in the army for twenty years. Milhaud kept his medals hooked on the canvas by his stretcher. In time I learned that he was a special person who lived entirely on his adrenaline glands. He always volunteered for any mission proposed by the company leaders and he never said no. The more dangerous his missions, the more he enjoyed them, and his popularity grew accordingly. Even so, each time his exploits were repeated they were exaggerated, and thus the legend was born.

“How did he become the top dog?” I asked an older, long–serving conscript. “Well,” he explained, “there was a chap here called Vassalo. He was born in Algeria. His father was Spanish and his mother was a Berber from the Atlas Mountains. He had dark skin and his neck was not visible – it was part of his powerful chest. He was built like a sumo wrestler, like a gorilla, and he used his strength to bully everyone. All he had was his strength. His intelligence was non–existent. He had spent fifteen years in the army before he was able, with great difficulty, to reach the rank of Sergeant.

 He usurped the previous top dog by smashing in his face. He became a law unto himself, but the only job he was capable of doing was being in charge of the materials used to build the mine fields. So each day he sat in the materials tent and made sure that the tools came back in the evening, all cleaned.

Then Milhaud arrived in the camp. For weeks he observed the bully, and Vassalo was aware of a dark cloud looming. Milhaud wanted the crown of top dog and Vassalo knew that he was trying to find a way to wrestle it from him. But any challenge had to take place when and where there were no Officers around to witness it. The moment Milhaud had been waiting for came one evening as the third platoon was coming back from a hard day repairing the Barrage. The men were absolutely exhausted and gave their tools to Vassalo as quickly as they could. They needed to lie down on their stretchers.

“These tools have not been cleaned properly,” yelled the gorilla, throwing them back violently.

No one dared to say anything except Milhaud. Milhaud quietly approached the bully and, in a subdued voice said, “They are cleaned.”

Then he gave them back to Vassalo. Vassalo could not believe that he had been defied in front of the whole platoon. His eyes became half–closed in anger. He looked like one of the bulls that enter the arena in a Corrida.

Milhaud continued, “If you don’t think the tools are clean enough, clean them yourself, smart ass. You have enough time to do it. You sit in your tent all day long!”

Vassalo realised that his position of power was in peril and that the whole platoon was watching his reaction. Silence prevailed in the camp. What suspense. Everyone stopped moving and waited anxiously to see what would happen. Vassalo grabbed the shovels and, with all his force, threw them back at Milhaud, shouting, “Listen dickhead, you do it, and do it now before I rub your nose in it.” Then he laughed.

The shovels found their mark and Milhaud’s face was bleeding. The men in the platoon squalled and retreated in fear, at the same time leaving enough room for Milhaud to move. This was the moment Milhaud had been waiting for. In a flash he bent down, grabbed a shovel by its handle, and swinging it around with all the force he could muster, he hit Vassalo on the head. The gorilla did not have time to react. He collapsed, falling backwards into his tent among all his tools, unconscious and bleeding.

“Well, here we are, boys,” said Milhaud calmly, wiping the blood from his face. “You’re all my witnesses. You saw Vassalo attack me and I had to defend myself. We all agree that it was self–defence, don’t we?”

“Yes Sir!” answered the whole platoon in one voice. “Yes, we all saw him do it.”

They were relieved and glad to see Vassalo lying in a heap amongst his tools. The gorilla had no friends in the company.

“OK boys! I am going. Call Chevalier to give him first aid treatment,” said Milhaud as he quietly returned to his tent, carrying with him the admiration of four platoons, and the undisputed title of the toughest man in our company.”

Then the serviceman went on to tell us what happened to Vassalo. “He could not do anything as the Officers did not interfere with skirmishes and were not interested in listening to petty complaints, so he resigned himself to the situation and, for weeks, he walked around the camp with a huge bandage on his head. He is still here in the camp, doing the same lazy job as before, but he is ignored by everyone. He is no longer a pit bull terrier but a Labrador. And he lives in fear of Milhaud.”

One of the most dangerous missions that Sergeant Milhaud volunteered to undertake was to blow up fort Mraou, a fort almost on the border of Tunisia and which had previously been a French army holding built by the Legion at the beginning of the conquest of Algeria. The Fellaghas had taken it over as a base and, because it was on the other side of the Barrage in no–man’s land, Milhaud’s task required not only expertise in explosives, but great courage and the protection of two companies of Legionnaires. Milhaud knew that by volunteering for such a daring feat in enemy territory, he would win the admiration of hundreds of soldiers, giving him even more prestige and honour in the platoon. And Milhaud lived for glory. But rather than a hero he was a show man, a circus performer with the army for his audience.

Fort Mraou was 12 kilometres from the Barrage but because of the risks involved, it had to be set with explosives and destroyed on the same day. It would have been impossible to spend a night there. Our company had a very small part to play in this mission. We had to stay on the Barrage and open the gates for Milhaud and the Legionnaires as they went out and when they returned. So we stood on top of our trucks with binoculars and watched the operation unfold. First the Company advanced slowly through the Arab lines, breaking down any resistance to their progress with artillery and a few salvos of heavy shells. When they reached Mraou, Milhaud came into his own. He was never better. Calmly, concentrating intently, and working slowly but surely, he set the charges of explosives, one after another. Realising what the aim of the mission was, the Fellaghas attacked relentlessly from every side. Their efforts were in vain. The Legionnaires held them back and after a short while, the fort was ready to be blown up. Milhaud, carrying the detonator with him, gave the signal to the Legionnaires to retreat. And then, from our position on the Barrage, we witnessed an enormous explosion and the subsequent rise of a huge cloud of stone, mortars, wood and dirt. Fort Mraou was no more. Everyone on the Barrage clapped their hands and shouted in admiration. Milhaud had done it again and once more he was received as an absolute hero. His mission had been completely successful.

Sharing a tent with him was not a dull and boring experience. Quite the opposite in fact. In the evenings, as Renard, Pujol and I wrote letters to our families, Milhaud, in his corner, quietly dismantled all manner of explosive devices, mines, shells, grenades, and even artillery shells and rockets. Explosives were his passion.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 7

MINE FIELDS

 

The corner of the tent where Milhaud slept was literally covered with explosives. His writing box was covered with detonators of all colours and shapes. On his stretcher there were explosives of many different varieties, including lightning mines with their phosphorous

still in place. By the side of his stretcher was a special box of tools to dismantle explosives that he found during the day. Some of the explosives were extremely sensitive to any shock so the three of us who shared the tent with Milhaud never knew what to expect, or when a huge explosion was going to send us all to heaven, torn into pieces or burned to death. There was certainly not a boring moment with our friend, Milhaud.

One night he came into the tent carrying eight mines of a kind that we had never seen before.

“Where did you get these, Milhaud?” I asked.

“Near the burnt down village of Mocra! I saw them in the minefield so I went in and dug them out,” he answered.

“What’s the difference between these and the others?” I queried.

“Well, you see, these are lightning mines. When the Fellaghas touch them, they go straight up into the sky, high like a rocket, and stay there for a while held in the air by a silk parachute. The phosphorous inside them lights the minefield like it is daylight,” he explained.

“So! What do you want with them?” I asked.

“Oh just the silk parachute inside! I want enough of them to make a wedding dress for my fiancée!” he replied.

So, equipped with screw drivers, hammer and chisels, pliers, and a special knife, Milhaud spent most of the night taking the mines apart and removing the parachutes. We were physically tired, and did not really care what Milhaud was doing. Even with the noise of his hammering, we fell asleep. In the morning, eight bright red parachutes were displayed over his stretcher and dozens of pieces of mines were added to the mountain of others.

“It’s lucky for you, Milhaud, that our Captain never comes into our tent and sees what you’re doing with the mines!” we told him. “If he knew that you were stealing his mines from the minefield, he would go completely mad!”

Milhaud was definitely the greatest Russian roulette player in the whole battalion.

16 December 1960. Our new minefield was almost completed. When we arrived a few weeks previously, the site was a magnificent forest. There were trees that were hundreds of years old, and thousands of animals had made it their habitat. It was a monument to nature, a precious part of the earth that should have been protected at all costs so that future generations could enjoy it. But it had been completely destroyed. There were no trees left and no birds singing anymore. It was a dreadful thing to see.

Our ten monstrous bulldozers had reduced the forest into a pyramid of dirt, bushes, trees, grass, and rocks, leaving a bare strip of land two kilometres long and thirty metres wide.

“To build a successful minefield you need a field as clean as a billiard table!” our Captain said. “Our bulldozers will do that in no time. It doesn’t matter what is in front of them. No one stops the army!”

“I wonder what he’ll do if we ever come across a village,” whispered Pouzache.

“He won’t have to face that problem. All the villages around here have already been burned to the ground,” someone commented.

Seven hundred kilometres of Barrage had been built from the beach at the city of Lacalle right through to the Sahara Desert. Nothing whatsoever had stopped its construction and nothing in its way was left standing. It took no detours. To add to this Barrage, we were building a mine field that connected two existing mine fields. Once the ground was flat and bare of any vegetation, protective fences had to be constructed. Five parallel fences would create space for four mine fields, to be laid with a variety of mines. Building the fences was difficult work and hundreds of local Algerians, all old Berbers, had been employed to do the work, while we supervised them. Teams of these men had to hammer steel posts into the ground at three metre intervals, and there was no opportunity for rest, as another team followed them closely, stretching barbed wire between these posts, tightening it by using the winch on our truck. A third team secured the perimeter fence of the minefield with metre high chicken wire to prevent small animals from entering and tripping the mines. Competition within and between the teams, fatigue, and the great age of the workers, often resulted in terrible accidents.

“You must remember that our minefields are designed to only kill human beings,” Lieutenant Carre reminded everyone, in a grave voice.

“That’s right, Sir. We are the nice guys and we certainly don’t want to kill rabbits, hedgehogs, or even tortoises, do we?” remarked one of my friends.

“You’re right! We don’t want to hurt animals, and neither do we want them to render our minefield useless,” Carre replied.

“But what about the wild boars and the deer?” asked one of the men. “If we separate them from their natural habitat and their watering holes, they’re going to jump over our fence into the minefield.”

“Oh yes! What about putting a sign on the protective fence saying that boars, deer, rabbits, tortoises, porcupines and bears must use the special passage in the minefield built for animals!” Pouzache remarked.

Everyone burst out laughing at the ridiculous suggestion and Lieutenant Carre, embarrassed by the retort, left us and went to the mess tent.

19 December 1960. Heavily loaded king size ‘Brookway’ trucks, usually used to pull 155mm cannons through the Atlas Mountains, arrived early in the morning and stopped near the flag pole. They had a delivery of thousands of wooden boxes of mines for us. The whole company helped unload the deadly cargo, stacking it up amidst the tents, so that it looked as if we were next to one of the Egyptian pyramids.

“Some weapons factory in France must be doing good business!” a conscript exclaimed.” These mines are worth a fortune!”

“Prepare yourselves. We start laying them tomorrow morning, boys,” said Sergeant Chief Pujol.

“Yes,” added our Lieutenant. “There are about 20,000 thousand ‘Ink Pots’ and 5,000 German S mines plus a number of others, and we have only three weeks to lay them all.”

“Three weeks!” exclaimed the men, in disbelief.

“General Corbeaux has told us that this minefield has to be finished by the 15th of January so we will have all four platoons laying them. Ten N.C.Os. will arm them.” said Pujol. “The job must be finished within the given time, so we’ll work at the rate of two hundred or more a day for each team. We start at 6 a.m.”

“Yes Sir!” the whole company responded.

That evening an extra guard was put on duty next to the mine boxes and our trained dogs were chained all around the newly–built pyramid to stop anyone from stealing our precious mines.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the Fellaghas sent us a salvo of mortars tonight and one of them fell in the middle of this pile?” Maillet reflected.

20 December 1960. It was still dark. The weather was freezing and a thin coat of frost covered the ground, while the fog limited visibility to less than two metres. But we had a job to do. Each of us grabbed two wooden boxes from the pile, loaded them into the truck, and then sat in front of them. As the trucks set off for the mine fields, each of us was thinking the same thoughts. How many of us are going to be hurt in this process? Who is going to be the first? Who will death choose? Furthermore, we were all aware that this was something new. It was not an exercise like those we did in France. It was real and no–one made jokes about it.

The task for the day was to lay the small French mines commonly known as ‘Ink Pots’ because they were shaped like the ink pots we had used at school. They were made entirely of plastic so they could not be recognised by a metal detector, and they were specially designed to wound, not to kill. Chief Pujol supervised the work and the men worked in teams. One conscript hammered a wooden stake into the ground. Then two others came forward and dug five holes around this peg. Yet another secured a tripping wire on top of the wooden peg and a fifth man then dropped a mine into each hole. When the field was completely laid in this manner, the teams left the field and it was our turn. We had to arm the mines, and this was where the danger lay. A slight lapse of concentration could mean the loss of a limb.

“OK, Kuntz, Fiset, Milhaud and Bal, start now and don’t forget to keep fifty metres apart,” ordered Pujol.

Milhaud had been involved in laying thousands of mines during his years in the army, and had even survived the explosion of a German mine in Indochina. Even so, it was just a routine operation for him and he viewed this exercise as a bit of a joke. He was able to arm two hundred mines in less than an hour, absolutely no competition for ordinary fellows who generally took two or more hours to do the same task.

The normal procedure was for one chap to enter the mine field. Another, on the outside of the protective fence, would hand him a box of detonators. These had to be handled with the greatest of care and had to be placed one at a time, into each mine. When five mines had been loaded with the detonators, the fellow on the other side of the fence would hand over another box, containing the starters. These had to be carefully screwed on top of the detonators. Finally, the mines had to be gently covered with dirt, leaving just the tiny button of the starter protruding above ground. Then the same process would be applied to the next batch of five mines.

Milhaud, of course, had his own way of arming the mines. He went to the boxes and loaded his right pocket with the fragile detonators and his left pocket with the starters. Then, jumping into the mine field, he ran from one batch of five mines to the next, dropping a detonator into each hole until all two hundred were in position. Then he retraced his steps, and at a suicidal speed, screwed on the starters and covered the mines. Not five at a time for him. He handled these deadly devices with the same aplomb as schoolboys with their marbles. ‘Danger’ had no meaning for him.

Sergeant Chief Pujol shook his head in disbelief as he watched Milhaud. He was a living bomb who moved like a ballerina dancing across the field, quite an extraordinary sight. And no–one could stop him.

“If one of those tiny detonators explodes in his pocket, we won’t find anything left of Milhaud,” said Bal.

I, on the other hand, diligently followed all the steps as I’d been trained to do. I made sure that I didn’t screw the starters on too tightly, and I scooped the dirt around the mines with great care so as not to touch the tiny protruding buttons. I took great care where I moved my feet and when I finished my first batch of five, I moved slowly to the next. I concentrated intensely, and, despite the bitter cold, perspiration ran from my body. When I had completed eight batches, I took stock. I had done well – forty mines were armed and I only had 160 to do to complete the task. It was then that Milhaud passed by on the outside of the minefield.

“I will see you at lunch time if you are still with us!” he called.

I could not believe it. He had finished his task and was going back to the camp for a rest. I tackled the assignment with great deliberation, but he undertook it as if planting potatoes in his garden.

I finally completed my last batch of five – I had armed my first two hundred mines. Back in the camp I made myself a cup of warm coffee. Milhaud was sitting on a stool with a mug of hot wine sweetened with sugar in his hand, and a smile on his face.

“Well done. I was worried when you didn’t come back to the camp because we have just heard that the Third Company has had four casualties whilst arming German S mines,” he said.

“What happened to them?” I asked.

“Stupid mistakes! They are almost dead, poor bastards!” he said.

Immediately I thought of the friends that I had trained with in France, particularly Sarassin who had taught us to sing, and who had been sent to the Third Company.

“Well! Lucky for us that it’s them and not the four of us,” said Milhaud, laughing.

At least he had some sense of humour.

22 December 1960. Even though we had the same sized army that Napoleon had when he invaded Russia in 1812, and despite all the modern equipment at our disposal, we were not winning the war. In fact, we were losing, and we were losing to what was considered just a handful of Fellaghas.

One of our most prominent Generals, Salan, had been barred, by General De Gaulle, the President of France, from serving in Algeria. This was because, on 25th of October, he had criticised the French army on radio.’ Algeria will remain French forever, and France is ready to make any sacrifice to gain victory’. Salan had then been threatened with house arrest and had escaped to Spain, like a common criminal, to hide from the police. But he was far from common. He had reached the highest rank in the French army and was one of its most decorated officers, in recognition of his heroic actions during the war with Indochina.

23 December 1960. For the first time since the war had begun, President De Gaulle made a televised speech.

“One day, there will be an Algerian Republic,” he announced.

Upon hearing this we were shocked. The reason we were in Algeria was to prevent this from happening.

“What is going on?” the conscripts were asking. “Are all our Gods now fighting among themselves?”

A few days later, De Gaulle, while on a visit to Corsica, broadcast another message. “The Algerian rebels or the F.L.N. have almost all of the Algerian population on their side! So what are we to do?”

Upon hearing this, General Juin, himself born in Algeria, was deeply saddened by the outlook for Algeria’s future, and refused to attend the Armistice day ceremony. And for us conscripts, the situation was getting more confusing with each passing day.

Notwithstanding these announcements, we were sent back to the minefield, but this time with boxes of German S mines. It was thought that by laying different types of mines it would confuse the Arabs.

“Today you are laying Germans S mines,” said Sergeant Chief Pujol, “and you will have to be much more vigilant because they are the most dangerous mines of all.”

Lieutenant Lubrun accompanied us this time, and, unusually for an officer, he insisted on helping to arm the mines. The work plan was that each of us would arm fifty of them, but not at the same time. If one of them exploded, anyone in the vicinity of fifty metres could be killed. They were loaded with hundreds of pieces of steel shrapnel.

When a calamity strikes, it sometimes comes from a completely unexpected source. Everyone had finished arming their mines except for Lieutenant Lebrun. He was still in the field, but the rest of us had retreated over a hundred metres from the danger zone and were sitting next to our trucks, waiting for him. Without thinking, one of the drivers opened the door of his jeep, and Horus, Lebrun’s faithful Alsatian dog, shot out of the vehicle to look for his master. Horus followed Lebrun everywhere, and even slept with him, and his loyalty to his master was so great that no–one else could pat him, or even approach him. We all realised what was happening and we screamed out, calling to Horus to come back. But it was too late. He was running at full speed towards Lebrun, and there was nothing we could do to stop him.

“Lay down quickly!” Pujol yelled to Lebrun.

“Come out of the minefield!” screamed others.

But Lieutenant Lebrun was too far away to hear, and he did not realise what was happening until he stood up and saw Horus jumping over the protective fence and coming towards him. We all threw ourselves on the ground in anticipation of the inevitable flying shrapnel, and within seconds Horus tripped a mine and detonated it. There was a loud explosion as the S Mine lifted from the ground and belched out its deadly innards. The ground shook and the razor–sharp shrapnel cut through the sky, passing our heads with a strange whistling reverberation, and cut through the canvas on our trucks. Then there was silence, except for the wailing of Horus. The dog was badly wounded, but still alive. And in the field we could see Lieutenant Lebrun, his hands covering his head, plastered in dirt, and lying motionless. He’d had no protection – like all of us, he wore no protective clothing, no helmet or bullet–proof jacket.

“Quick, Rouget,” said Sergeant Pujol. “Get me a gun from the truck.”

Rouget passed him a US M 1 automatic.

“OK! Kuntz and Fiset, follow me!” ordered Pujol, and he began to crawl quickly towards the minefield. We followed suit.

“The dog is badly wounded. We have to kill him before he trips another mine,” explained Pujol.

When he got as close as he could to the protective fence, he shot Horus in the head.

“I want you to listen carefully – both of you stay flat by the fence. I’m going into the minefield and I’ll drag our Lieutenant out. Be prepared to help me get him over the fence,” he said.

Fully aware of the danger and with cutting pliers in one hand, Pujol slowly and carefully got over the fence, making sure that he did not touch it as many of the tripping wires were attached to it. We all knew that dozens of mines could explode at any moment because the dog could have tripped many wires. Kuntz and I looked at Pujol in awe. We only knew him as an easy–going fellow who was more often drunk than sober, but he was proving to be a daring hero.

Then we felt some–one crawling next to us Chevalier and Joncquet, also willing to put their lives on the line, had dragged a foldable stretcher to the fence, ready to carry out Lebrun. Pujol was lying flat in the minefield surrounded by unexploded mines. He scrutinised them, looking for the trip wires which he duly cut, one by one, as he slowly made his way towards the Lieutenant. The suspense and tension were at breaking point and everyone was perspiring heavily Pujol made his way to the middle of the field and, at last, to the Lieutenant who was lying on his stomach and bleeding profusely, his battle dress in tatters. Pujol grabbed him by what was left of his jacket and, centimetre by centimetre, pulled him slowly towards us. We were expecting a huge explosion at any moment.

When Pujol got to within three metres of the fence, we were all taken aback by Joncquet who stood up and went over the fence into the minefield, to help. This action was almost suicidal, and we were petrified. We already considered Joncquet to be a knight in shining armour, but this was beyond our expectations. As they got Lebrun to the fence, Pujol and Joncquet, red with strain and drenched in perspiration, lifted him up and over, and Kuntz, Chevalier and I took him, put him on the stretcher and carried him back to the truck Joncquet and Pujol followed us.

Lebrun seemed lifeless, but Chevalier, assisted by Maillet, cleaned the Lieutenant’s face, and looked for vital signs. Lebrun was still breathing but his back had been badly lacerated by shrapnel. He had suffered little damage to his head because Horus, being in front of his master when the mine exploded, took the brunt of the flying metal. Perversely, the dog had saved his master’s life.

“Put him in the truck and take him to Souk–Ahras,” ordered Pujol as he gulped red wine from a water bottle, trying to recover.

When we got back to camp and the Captain heard our story, he flew into a rage.

“Sergeant Chief Pujol, write a report about the incident, immediately!” yelled the Captain. “I have told you all a million times, dogs are not allowed to run freely, and they must never accompany you when laying mine fields. Do you understand?”

“Yes Sir!” we chorused.

“Now, because of your stupidity, we’re short of an officer and the minefield has to be finished in two weeks’ time! What am I going to tell the Colonel?” he continued.

Everyone stood to attention and listened to the Captain cursing about the tragedy. Then Lieutenant Carre, in an effort to win favour with the Captain, addressed the platoon.

“You’ll go back to the minefield and replace the missing mines. If the Fellaghas learn about it, they’ll attempt to cross the field tonight, mark my word.”

“That’s right, Lieutenant Carre,” said the Captain, “and you will be in charge of the platoon, acting as their officer until we get a replacement for Lebrun. And don’t take your dog, Sultan, with you! We can’t afford to lose another officer.”

“Yes, Sir!” said Carre, realising that he had spoken too soon.

As Second Officer in Charge, he had not expected to be involved in the repair to the minefield. We all had a smug smile on our faces, tempered by the realisation that no mention had been made of Pujol’s courage, no appreciation shown to him for saving the Lieutenant, and there had been no inquiry as to Lebrun’s prognosis.

24 December 1960. Christmas! Christmas! It was Christmas and we were in the throes of winter. It was permanently cold and windy, rarely reaching ten degrees during the day and we could not get warm. The incessant rain transformed the whole camp into a sea of mud, further compounded when snow covered the whole area in a thick, white blanket, confining everyone to their tents. Even the trucks became invisible, and going to work was out of the question. It was Christmas and we were shivering in tents, 2,000 kilometres from our families.

We had heard that Lieutenant Lebrun had survived but was permanently crippled.

“He’s been sent to France to undergo further operations,” Pujol told us. “We’ll not see him in our company, again.”

“We will soon get another Lieutenant to replace him,” our Captain assured us.

Sad as it was, this news did not stop us from celebrating Christmas. In accordance with tradition, a black box, used by the accountant to stash monies saved during the year, had been opened and was used to pay for special food and drink that the Captain had ordered. He sent a truck to Bone for these supplies. A memorable dinner, supplemented with plenty of alcohol, was planned and Officers from near–by units had been invited to join us for a party, a drinking orgy. The morale of the whole company was at its lowest ever, and the Captain made a concentrated effort to relieve our loneliness and boredom at this special time of the year.

The men decorated their tents to reflect the Christmas spirit, and the mess tent was adorned with garlands of coloured paper and balloons. The steel tables were arranged into a horseshoe, covered with army sheets, set with plates and cutlery, and festooned with flowers and decorations. It was unrecognisable as the same dreary place we frequented each day. Our Captain had gone one step further and had arranged for a choral group to sing lewd army songs during the dinner, to entertain both us and our guests.

We were all trying to forget the war and we were hoping that the Fellaghas would do the same. They were suffering as much as us, but they also knew that on Christmas Eve the French army would be drunk, and would be completely incapable of repelling an attack on the Barrage.

The cooks were men seconded from each of the platoons. They only had a primitive mobile kitchen in which to work, but they had ingenious culinary skills and at 10 p.m. we sat down to a superb meal, served in huge army dishes. It was as good as any restaurant in France. Bottles of fine wine were lined up along the tables, and after a few drinks the atmosphere became charged. The Captain was as happy as we had ever seen him, surrounded by our special guests, other Officers who had been at the military academy with him. Bottle after bottle was opened as they toasted each other in a continual accolade, and the conscripted vocalists sang the revolting and lewd songs favoured by the army Officers. It wasn’t long before all the Officers were singing along, some of them standing up, laughing and sniggering at their efforts, while others fell from their chairs, drunk one of the Officers, with a glass in his hand, stood on a chair singing, but he lost his balance and fell across the table, taking bottles of wine, plates and cutlery with him. He found himself entangled in the table covering and lying flat on the muddy ground, but he still sang along happily. Lieutenant Carre collapsed into his plate, with his chin resting on the food. Everyone was laughing and things were being thrown across the tent. The Officers were completely out of control, laughing hysterically, swearing, singing, and collapsing into their chairs, completely drunk. We had never seen them like this – they were unrecognisable as Officers of the French army. And then, as a grand finale, one of the Lieutenants raised himself up and yelled, “Let’s sing some Christmas carols!”

Those who could, stood up, held each other and gave a rendition of those much–loved carols, Midnight Christian, Minuit Chretien, C est l heure solennel, and Ou Dieu, descend à genoux, parmi nous.

“What do we do if the Fellaghas decide to attack the camp now?” asked Maillet, beginning to worry. “Who is in charge?”

“I don’t know. We just have just to pray that nothing happens tonight,” said the barman.

“Well, who is in charge of the guards tonight?” asked Kuntz.

No–one knew, so, as I hadn’t had much to drink, I was nominated to undertake this duty from one until six in the morning. As I walked through the darkness to find the first guard, I could still hear the singing, yelling and roaring laughter from the mess tent. The snow was falling, but I was wrapped in my Great Coat. I found the first guard. He was drunk and fast asleep at the foot of a tree, his MAT49 clutched in his hands and the safety catch off. I walked on down towards the creek, and I found the second guard inside the cabin of a GMC truck, snoring loudly. But I could not find the guard who was supposed to keep watch at the entry of the camp. He had disappeared. I had to do this check every two hours, but approaching the guards was risky. A sleeping guard could wake suddenly, and, thinking that you were a Fellagha, fire a round of twenty bullets from his MAT 49.

At three in the morning a few conscripts from the invited Officers’ camp came to drag our guests back to their camp. No–one could stand up anymore, and the party was over. But my stint of duty did not finish until six, and by then I couldn’t wait to get back to my tent and lie down on my stretcher. Unfortunately, as I barged into my tent, I discovered a drunken fellow who obviously couldn’t find his own tent, lying on my bed and soaked in a bath of red, wine– induced vomit.

On Christmas morning our entire camp looked like it had been bombed by the Fellaghas. We walked through a path of empty bottles to the mess tent, expecting to get some breakfast. Surprisingly, there were no Officers there.

“Where are our Officers:” asked Milhaud?

“Don’t ask. After last night’s episode they will be snoring in their tents.” said one of the men.

Lunch time came and the same thing happened. We cleared a space amongst the plates and glasses and ate what we could find.

“No Officers yet?” remarked Riviere. “They must still be sleeping.”

“They might have been kidnapped by the Fells,” said Pouzache, with a grin.

“Well, Kuntz,” said Milhaud, “you’ll have to check their tents. We have to find out where they are.”

We had nominated Milhaud to be in charge of the company for the time being Chief Pujol was with us but he could not stand up. After a short while, Kuntz reappeared.

“Not one of them is to be found anywhere. Even Sultan, Carre’s dog, is not there. They have all vanished!” he reported.

“All right, Massy.” said Milhaud, addressing the radio operator. “I want you to contact the other units and ask if they went back there with our guests last night. But we have no choice now. We have to radio the rear base at Guelma and inform them of the disappearance of our Commanding Officers.” Then, addressing the rest of us, Milhaud gave orders. “Gather everyone at once, do another search around the camp, and then the first platoon will search the area towards the hills, the second will search the creek, and the third and fourth will search the road towards the Resettlement Camp”

Turning again towards Massy, he ordered, “Pass me the radio. I have to talk to the Officer of the rear base.”

“Yes, 37th Battalion, First Company, I am reporting the disappearance of all our Officers since last night.”

“What? All your Officers have disappeared? Are you sure you didn’t leave them at midnight mass?”

“No Sir! All six of them are absent. We are searching the whole area.”

“OK! I’m going to inform the Legion immediately. And continue your search!”

The platoons were following Milhaud’s orders when someone from the second platoon, searching in the lower creek area near the camp, yelled out, “Sergeant! Sergeant! I’ve found them!”

The Officers were all lying on a cushion of snow near the running water, snoring in harmony. Sultan was sitting next to his master, growling as we approached. What a sight for us conscripts. Here were our leaders, the men who made us tremble, lying in a self–induced helpless state.

“Do we have to salute them, when they are lying down?” asked Bal.

“Yes, we have to,” said Bonnemaison, as he stood at attention and gave an exemplary salute.

“What do you think happened?” asked one of the men.

Another gave his version of events. “Last night, as you know, they were roaring drunk. When they left the mess tent they must’ve lost their way and continued through the camp right down to the creek. They would have laughed and sang their way into enemy territory. I’ll bet that if the Fells had met them they wouldn’t have believed their eyes!”

“What a festival it would’ve been for them!” said Pouzache, laughing.

“And what are we going to tell headquarters at Guelma now?” asked one of the men.

“Well it is up to our Captain to find a good story, not us!” declared Milhaud.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 8

A NEW LIEUTENANT

 

1 January 1961. The fighting between the Algerian Army of Liberation and the F.L.N. had taken on a different turn and in many areas of Algeria it had intensified so much that the French army planned a huge military operation to control it. All the best regiments of the army and hence thousands of top mercenaries were assembled and given orders to surround an area in the Atlas Mountains where one or two katibas of Fellaghas were hiding. Helicopters dropped Paras and Legionnaires as close as they could to the enemy, and with support from the artillery, the regiments moved forward, meter by meter, advancing on the Fellaghas. But even with this strategy, and with this great display of force, most of the Djounids (Arabic word for warriors) managed to escape.

6 January 1961. “Next month we will get a new Sub Lieutenant to replace Lieutenant Lebrun. We have been told that Sub Lieutenant Legoubin is coming straight from the Officer’s School at Angers!” the Captain told our platoon one evening.

“I hope he will not be as careless as Lebrun,” said Lieutenant Carre.

“Yes. Well anyway, we have to think of a game before he arrives,” responded the Captain.

We’d heard about the ‘games’ played on new servicemen. Apparently some of them had turned out quite badly, but even so, we were keen to hear the details from anyone who had been directly involved.

“Once, the game that the Captain planned for a group of newly–arrived serviceman nearly turned out to be their last,” said Raignier.

“What happened?” asked the curious conscripts.

“Well, as soon as they arrived in the camp, an officer told them they were going on patrol up in the Atlas Mountains that evening,” explained Raignier.

“So at about 7 p.m. the ten newly–arrived conscripts, armed with their guns, were taken in a truck and dropped on a dirt road at the burnt–out village of El Ahras at Djebel EL Kebir. They were told to wait there until an Officer came with their orders. But of course, no Officer came. Night fell and they waited and waited until, at last, they realised it was a joke, so they tried to find their way back to camp. There was no moon and the conscripts had no torches, nor did they know the area. It was all new to them and, in a panic, they went in the wrong direction. They were lost in the middle of the night in a zone classified as S 3 which means extremely dangerous.”

“And what happened to them?” asked one of the listeners.

“Back in the camp, in the Officer’s mess, Lieutenant Carre and the Captain were in heaven, drinking and laughing at the joke they had played on the newly–arrived conscripts.

“So, where did you drop them, Lieutenant Carre?” asked the Captain with a laugh.

“Where you told me to, Sir, at the village of El Ahras.”

“What? I asked you to drop them at the village of Ain Zena, you bloody fool!”

The joke was not turning out the way the Captain had planned.

“Do you realise, Lieutenant Carre,” continued the Captain, “that Al Ahras is over ten kilometres from here and that the place is full of Fellaghas?”

“Yes sir, but I am sure you said…”

“No, I did not! We’ll have to take the jeeps and try to recover them before the Fellaghas do it for us. On the double, everyone!”

So by 10 o’clock, we found ourselves with a torch in one hand and a gun in the other, walking along a dirt road in a dangerous area of the Atlas Mountains, looking for the conscripts. The joke was not so funny anymore, in fact, it was a tragedy.

“Have you spotted them?” yelled the Captain to a jeep which was returning to camp,

“No, sir, we can’t find them. They’ve completely disappeared.”

The jeeps came back, one by one, with all our troops except, of course, the new conscripts. Ten young men were lost in the Djebel, in Fellagha territory, and the Fellaghas were always active at night. The Officers were worried and sat down to discuss the predicament they were in.

“What should we do now?” asked the Captain. “If we wait until morning to search for them it might be too late. Does anyone have any suggestions?”

“We could call the Legionnaires over the way to see if they can help us,” suggested a Lieutenant.

“And can you tell me, Lieutenant Rivet, what I’m going to tell them? Should I say that we’ve lost ten men in the Djebel and we can’t find them? They’ll laugh at us!”

“If we wait much longer it’s going to be too late, Sir” replied Lieutenant Rivet.

It was now 11 p.m. and the conscripts still hadn’t returned.

“Lieutenant Carre,” barked the Captain, “you are the one who made this mistake, so you ring the Legion.”

“Yes, sir, I’ll say their platoon was on patrol in this area and they disappeared, without trace, in the mountains”

“Ring the Legion now, Carre!”

“Yes sir!”

Massy brought the radio to the lieutenant.

“Yes, Third Company of the Legion, what is it?” asked the Legionnaire on duty, in a strong Germanic accent.

“Lieutenant Carre, 37th Battalion of Pioneers. We have ten men missing and we require your assistance to find them as quickly as possible.”

“What exactly has happened?”

“Ten men from our unit are missing.”

“I’ll pass you over to one of our officers,” said the Legionnaire

“What? You’ve lost ten of your men in the Djebel? Exactly where have you lost them?”

“The Djebel of EL Kebir, Sir.”

“The Djebel of El Kebir!” repeated the Legion Officer, his voice changing. “What the hell were they doing there at this time of the night? We can’t even go there in the day time. You do know that El Kebir is a Fellagha strong hold!”

The Captain was embarrassed and angry. His eyes were red and he was close to exploding. He glared at Lieutenant Carre.

“I’ll send you a platoon of our boys, immediately,” continued the Legion Officer.”

As Raignier related the story we started to visualise how this ‘game’ would finish. Perhaps like the platoon on Hill 121, all of them with their throats cut from one ear to the other.

Raignier continued, “A few minutes after calling the Legion, roaring engines, signalling their arrival, were heard outside our tents. All of them were heavily armed and sitting in their jeeps, ready for a rescue mission.

“Can three of your fellows come with us to show us the spot?” yelled a Warrant Officer.

“Yes Sir! Dubuc, Avril and Raignier, go with them now!” shouted Carre, then turned to acknowledge the Captain’s whispered instruction, “Don’t say anything about the joke, just say they were on patrol, understand?”

“Yes Sir!”

The Legionnaires drove to El Ahras, then up and down the dirt roads of the Djebel El Kebir but found nothing. All the while, Dubuc, Avril and I were expecting to see, in the lights of the truck, the mutilated bodies of the conscripts lying on the road. But we saw nothing. It was now 3 a.m. and they had been missing for over six hours. The Legionnaires searched every dirt road they could find, turning their lights on every bush and burnt–out building.

“I think your friends have been killed by the Fells,” said the Legion Officer. “We should’ve found them by now, so there’s no point in searching any longer.”

When we arrived back at camp the whole company was up. Everyone was worried, particularly the Captain as he was directly responsible for the disappearance of the conscripts. We all sat in the Officer’s mess, drinking cups of coffee and waiting until finally, daylight came.

“OK,” said the Captain. “The Legionnaires have gone back to their camp, but we will search the area ourselves.”

So the four platoons renewed the search. We combed the whole area, metre by metre, walking in a line. We went right to the top of the Djebel El Kebir, searching every creek and valley, forest and deserted village, but found nothing, not even a trace of them.

“I bet the Captain is conjuring up a report about this, one that ensures he’ll not lose any points for promotion to Colonel,” said Dubuc.

“Back to the camp, everyone. There’s no point in continuing,” said Pujol. “We’ve found nothing.”

So in one day we’d lost another ten fellows but this time it was different. No one knew where they were or what had happened to them.

“Are they going to tell the parents that their sons died in the field of honour, or that they disappeared without trace in the field of horror?” mused Bonnemaison.

The problem for the army was that they couldn’t return the bodies to their families, so the Captain had to invent a story about the conscripts being taken prisoner by the Fells.”

We were all intrigued by Raignier’s story, and wanted to know the final outcome.

So Raignier continued, “Two days later, as we were having our lunch, one of the young Arab shepherds who lived nearby in the mountains, barged into our camp, holding the hand of one of the missing conscripts. He was half–dead and staggering, obviously dehydrated, his battledress uniform ripped to pieces, and his face and hands cut and bleeding Grosjean asked him where he had been, but the man could not answer. He collapsed in a heap on the ground near our tents and Chevalier ran to administer first aid. Soon after, another conscript returned, then a few more staggered in, all guided by little Berber shepherds. By 2 o’clock, all of the conscripts were back, but they were all in a terrible state, hardly able to even walk. And the Captain now faced another problem. He had to write a second report to the Colonel, one that explained this new development.

“I have already told the Colonel that they were taken prisoner by the Fells during a patrol. Now that they are back, what am I going to tell him?” asked the Captain, addressing his Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Carre, who wanted to get back in the Captain’s favour, made a suggestion.

“Sir, I would say that during the night they all managed to escape and re–join their unit – that is all.”

“Or we could say that the Fells liked the boys from Normandy so much that they decided to bring them back to our camp!” said Bonnemaison.

It was lucky for him that the Captain did not hear his remark. This all happened last year,” Raignier explained.

Obviously the Captain had not learned his lesson, because just eight months after this disaster, he was ready for another ‘joke’ and he sat in the mess, surrounded by his Officers, planning pranks to play on the unsuspecting Legoubin.

“We have to pick him up from the airport at Bone tomorrow morning so on the trip back to the camp, we could scare him,” said Lieutenant Bizet.

“What do you propose we do, Bizet?” asked the Captain.

“Well, I thought that some of us could dress up as Fellaghas and stop the jeep at the custom house near the burned down village. We could take him to one of the ruins and scare him, and then another team of our men could arrive and ‘save’ him,” said Bizet.

“I like it!” said the Captain enthusiastically.

And because the Captain liked the ‘joke’, the Officers did too. Besides, it would relieve the boredom.

In the morning as planned, Sergeant Kuntz and Raignier, the driver, left for Bone to pick up the new lieutenant.

“Here we go again – another stupid joke,” said Pouzache, “and I hope for everyone’s sake, it turns out well.”

While at the airport waiting for Sub Lieutenant Legoubin to arrive, Kuntz and Raignier discussed the preparations.

“Have you made sure that our weapons are not loaded, Raignier?” asked Kuntz.

“Yes Sergeant. There’s no danger,” replied Raignier, “and furthermore I have locked them in the jeep. We don’t want our new Lieutenant to be shot dead in a moment of panic by our own Captain do we?”

It wasn’t long before a tall Lieutenant disembarked from the plane.

“Lieutenant Legoubin, I presume,” said Kuntz, as he saluted him.

“Yes, I’m Sub Lieutenant Legoubin, from the Officer’s School at Angers,” he replied.

Indeed, this tall, skinny, young man had graduated after just six months training, and he was proud of his achievement, smugly displaying his brand–new gold sticks, one on each of his shoulders. He had big, blue, innocent eyes and white skin that had never seen the burning sun of the African mountains but he was dedicated and ready to perform his duty to the best of his ability, just as he had been told during his training.

 As they travelled back towards the camp in the jeep, Legoubin had many questions.

“How far is our camp from here?” he asked.

“110 kilometres from here, Sir,” answered Kuntz.

“A long way, indeed”

“Yes Sir, and most of it is along our mighty Barrage.”

“Is it dangerous to drive there during the day?”

“It’s dangerous there all the time, Sir! But don’t worry – we are veterans. We’ve got weapons with us and in certain areas we keep them across our knees as we drive, in case of an attack.”

“I didn’t know it was that dangerous,” Legoubin admitted.

“Well, as I said, it’s always dangerous along the Barrage, Sir. The Fellaghas, with their bazookas and mortars, are always waiting for an opportunity to shoot at passing vehicles. But for now, relax. You have nothing to worry about until we reach Lamy.”

“Oh, I see,” said the Lieutenant, showing more and more signs of apprehension.

Spurred on by this, Kuntz continued. “In our area we have a problem with a gang of Fellaghas directed by an ex– criminal called Mohamed Si Abas. He’s a real curse.”

After passing the city of Lamy and its check point, Raignier stopped the jeep and he and Kuntz each loaded their MAT 49s with a charge of twenty–five bullets, then they put their loaded weapons across their knees. Raignier resumed driving, and Legoubin looked very worried.

“You never know, sir, where Si Abas is or what he will do. He has already killed quite a few fellows in our company and, in the past seven years, no one has been able to catch him, not even the Foreign Legion,” advised Kuntz.

“I see, I see,” said the concerned Lieutenant, looking about him warily.

“Here we are,” said Kuntz, pointing to a dirt track. “This is the road leading to our camp, sir.”

Moments later, when they were about to pass the burnt village, Raignier slowed down.

“Oh no, it’s Mohamed Si Abas!” yelled Kuntz.

Indeed, right in front of them were four men dressed in Djelabas and turbans, each of them pointing an automatic gun towards the jeep Raignier stopped the jeep, and he and Kuntz got out, threw their weapons on the ground, and raised their hands. Legoubin was frozen with fear, but Kuntz pleaded with him to cooperate.

“Come on Sir, get out of the jeep. Don’t make them angry,” he urged.

“Stand against the wall!” yelled the man who seemed to be in charge of the group.

He was, of course, Lieutenant Carre, playing the role of Mohamed Si Abas.

“We’re only interested in Officers,” he bawled, eyeing Legoubin’s stripes.

“I know absolutely nothing!” stammered the Lieutenant. “I’ve just arrived from France this morning, to join my unit.”

“We know the story,” said one of the ‘Fellaghas’. “That’s what you bastards always say when we catch you.”

And, using his gun, he pushed the new Lieutenant inside one of the burnt–out houses, threw him to his knees and began to interrogate him.

“Come on, stop acting the innocent and tell us what you know. Be quick, we don’t have time to waste.”

Legoubin’s response was immediate. “I know absolutely nothing at all. I’ve just finished Officer’s training in France and I’ve been sent here to join the First Company of the 37th Battalion.”

At his response, the actors released the safety catches on their guns. Legoubin was terrified.

“Once and for all, are you going to talk or not?” roared the interrogator. “If you don’t, we will…”

Legoubin burst into tears, begging for his life.

“Please don’t kill me. I am a conscript, just doing my military service like everyone else in France. I believe in your cause. I think this war is unjust.”

Just then, rifle shots from outside, rang out.

“The Legion is coming!” yelled Mohamed Is Abas, alias Lieutenant Carre.

“Quick everyone! Let’s go!” yelled another of the actors, as they jumped through what was left of the windows, leaving our new Sub Lieutenant on his knees, crying.

The Captain and his Officers had arrived, and they went into the burnt–out house to find the new Lieutenant in a terrible state of shock.

“Are you our new Sub Lieutenant Legoubin?” asked the Captain.

“Yes, I am, “stammered Legoubin, with tears still running down his face.

“Well, you’re lucky that we were on patrol in this area, otherwise you would’ve been history!” said the Captain, and then he burst into laughter, as did everyone else except Lieutenant Legoubin. It took the poor man some time to realise that he had been set up.

Our new officer had been ridiculed and had lost the respect of the men before he even got to the camp. And the situation did not improve because each time the story was retold, it was exaggerated by the storyteller.

15 January 1961. The genocide of the Algerian people was relentless. Thousands of Algerians died every day. Some were murdered, some were killed outright in army operations, and some died of their wounds alone in remote places in the Atlas Mountains. Some of them were burned in their own houses and some died under torture inflicted by the French Army. But after seven years of fighting, and despite the heavy loss of life that our enemy suffered, our huge, modern army was not winning the war. Each day we sat in our tents reading the army reports on the situation in Algeria, and were flabbergasted by the statistics.

“It doesn’t matter how many men we have, they’ll win the war because their cause is right, and the entire Algerian population is against us,” someone in the tent remarked.

He was right. Because of the discontent of the Algerians, more and more of their younger men were joining their brothers in the mountains, to fight for their cause. There was a three–pronged catalyst for this. One was the deep–seated belief that it was only a matter of time before Algeria won its independence from France. Another was to escape conscription to the French army. Dragging the young Algerians into the Barracks not only forced them to do their military duty, but, more importantly, it kept them far away from the rebellion. Ironically, there was no register of births in Algeria, so the gendarmes who went around the villages to collect these young men just guessed their ages. And the third motivation was that the general populace of Algerians considered those who were serving in the army to be traitors or enemy collaborators. So day by day, there were growing numbers of Algerians deserting the army, and we no longer trusted them as comrades. We heard about a whole platoon of Algerian Tirailleurs who had taken up their weapons against their French officers and killed them before deserting en mass.

“How can you blame them for doing this? They’ve had enough of being treated as third class citizens, of being treated as their fathers have been treated all their lives by the settlers,” Bal remarked.

In fact, many French soldiers believed in the cause of the Algerians, and there was one incredible ‘desertion’ story where the Algerians were assisted by their French comrades who then absconded with them, to join them in their fight.

25 January 1961. One of the supporters of Algerian independence was a French liberal lawyer, Pierre Popie. He was involved in organising the buying of illicit weapons for the Algerian F.L.N. but we heard that he had been caught and murdered by the French police. Even so, it was looking more and more like the Algerians would win the war and thus their independence. However, a new organisation, the O.A.S. (the Secret Army Organisation) had emerged. It had been initiated by an ex parachutist, Lagaillarde and its leader was General Salan, one of the most decorated soldiers in the French Army. The aim of this group was to keep Algeria French, at all costs.

But President Charles De Gaulle was talking about helping Algeria to become independent. After eight years of bloodshed, France could not continue to fight a war that showed no hope of victory and that was sending the country bankrupt.

De Gaulle announced, “The French taxpayer cannot afford it any longer. Algeria is now costing us much more than it is worth.”

The army was not happy about this new development and there was talk of mutiny in its ranks. And for normal servicemen like us, the war was becoming more and more confusing and complicated.

28 February 1961. The O.A.S. plastered the walls of villages and cities with their posters and we were bombarded with their leaflets, but nothing changed for us. We were still working on the Barrage, reinforcing weak spots and doubling, sometimes tripling the area of minefields. It was considered impassable.

“It is even better than the Maginot line,” said someone in our tent.

If we had a few hours to spare after returning from the Barrage, we worked on the small area around our stretchers, trying to make it as attractive and as comfortable as we could. It was all we had. Empty mine boxes continued to be pulled apart and transformed into furniture and floors, and it became a competition to see who could be the most ingenious.

The bitter cold continued and we no longer undressed at night. We slept fully clothed, with our great khaki coats on top of our blankets. It was the only way to keep warm. We wrote our letters with blankets draped around our shoulders and only when we were desperate did we brave the cold to go to the toilet. The coldness permeated everything and made our lives so much more miserable.

Most days we could not go to work as the camp was covered with a thick coat of snow that enveloped the landscape and the trucks alike, so we huddled in our tents, and the time passed ever so slowly. Even so, each evening we crossed off another day on our individual calendars.

1 March 1961. The snow continued to fall and started to accumulate on top of our tents which were in danger of collapsing under the weight. Because of the heat, we produced by being in the tents, the snow on top slowly melted and constantly dripped down on us. Everything was damp and we tied spare pieces of canvass over our stretchers, trying to keep them dry. Drying our clothes was almost impossible.

“Is this nightmare ever going to be over?” said Pouzache,

In this weather it was too difficult to Battle with the Fellaghas, and the whole army stopped its operations in the Atlas Mountains. But the Arabs were on home–ground. They were used to the climate, and they were physically much stronger than us. They could carry over forty kilograms of ammunition on their backs, and with only a small semolina pancake and some goat’s milk to sustain them, they could trek fifty kilometres a day through the mountains. They could fight in the most difficult of situations, and nothing could stop their drive or their fervour.

On the other hand, even the Legionnaires, our toughest soldiers, our Dogs of War, were immobilised, and not only by the snow–clad mountains and impassable roads. More often than not, they spent their days drinking cartons of beer, so they were in no physical form to face the Fellaghas.

The Arabs now had the upper hand.

2 March 1961. The thermometer had dropped even lower and the effect of the cold was visible on the whole platoon. It became an expedition, a real struggle, just to reach the mess tent to have our meals and even working our way under the canvas at the entrance took a formidable effort. Heavy snow fell every day forcing us to dig pathways through it to reach different places in the camp. The trucks were immobilised, so there were no fresh supplies coming in and we lived on boxes of cold rations and warm cups of coffee. Living in these harsh conditions and with nothing to relieve our boredom, we were all on edge, so there was great excitement when a special army truck managed to get through to us. What’s more, it was loaded with stoves, albeit very old fashioned ones, to put in our tents. They held the promise of warmth. As usual, Maillet had a comment.

“I think they are the ones Napoleon took with him when he invaded Russia!” he said.

Everyone laughed.

“There is one for every tent,” said the Captain, “and we have been promised a delivery of coal. In the meantime you can install them.”

“Yes Sir!” we chorused.

The stoves were made of heavy cast iron and they had a flu which had to be fitted through a special hole in the canvas. The men in our tent completed the installation and then, as we had no coal, we decided to use paper and magazines as well as the empty, wooden mine boxes to get the stove going. Fantastic. We got some warmth at last and we even heated coffee on the stove. It was amazing at what a difference such a small comfort could make. We were in our tent, sitting around this marvellous piece of apparatus, drying our clothes and drinking hot coffee. Life was good.

But then the tent started to fill with thick, dark smoke. We had difficulty breathing, and we started to panic, rushing outside into the snow and bitter cold to get some oxygen.

It was then that the problem became obvious. Someone from one of the other tents had thrown their coat over the flue that protruded from our tent, completely blocking it. As we stood under the falling snow, we could hear them laughing at our misery. Another source of fun had been inaugurated in the camp. It seemed that it was hilarious to see men almost dying of carbon monoxide inhalation.

“What some people do to kill the boredom,” sighed someone from our tent.

What definitely was not funny was our toilet problem. The officer who designed the layout of our camp positioned the toilet block at a higher level than the tents, so with the continual rain and the subsequent overflowing of the toilets, the tents were inundated with effluent. Problems with toilets are rarely mentioned in war books, but for us soldiers, this was of enormous importance, and contributed considerably to our depression. And this was exacerbated because a large percentage of the men had dysentery, and had to go back and forth in the night, in pairs, as per regulations, carrying two pieces of wood to squat on. Many dreadful stories transpired from this problem.

4 March 1961. Another problem of equal significance was boredom. None of us could move far from our tents so we spent our time reading books, writing letters and listening to the radio. But this in itself became monotonous. To overcome the tedium, a large majority of the men preferred drinking. It was the fastest way to forget their problems. One after another, boxes of Kronenbourg beer were emptied, to detrimental consequences. We could hear these fellows arguing, wrestling each other to the ground, and threatening each other with their guns. This behaviour was dangerous, even more dangerous than in civilian life as we were surrounded by easily accessible automatic guns and sub machine guns, and by massive stores of ammunition, grenades and mines. One day Bal took it upon himself to catalogue the weapons and ammunition.

“Can you believe it?” he said, and with a paper in his hand, read out the numbers. “In the camp we have 220 automatic weapons, over a hundred thousand bullets, a mountain of grenades and a pyramid of boxes full of assorted mines. We have enough here to survive a siege for a few weeks!”

But, alcohol and explosives do not mix, and conscripts who are normally like sheep became roaring tigers after a few drinks and no one could reason with them.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 9

MAIL IS IMPORTANT TO US

 

6 March 1961. Compared to other units we were lucky in that we had an endless supply of wooden boxes to fashion into furniture to personalise our two square metres of space in the tents. My personal space was well organised and set up in such a way that if at any time a Fellagha were to barge inside the tent at night I would have had enough protection to defend myself. Like everyone else I had made myself a desk for study or letter writing and a box for my precious possessions.

Our camp was like a small village in France but made up entirely of tents, and at night men went from tent to tent visiting their friends. Next to our tent was a double tent that housed sixteen men Bal was ‘lord’ of this tent. His word was law, and no one dared to defy him. He liked his tent to be a model for the others. It was always very tidy, and he would not allow admittance to drunkards or people who smoked. He loved silence, and the other men in the tent always whispered, so when he was writing letters at night you could hear a mosquito buzzing at the other end of the tent. He didn’t like loud music so all the radios were turned down low Bal slept in the middle of the tent and behaved like a Norman baron.

Each evening, unless we were on duty, we opened our personal boxes. This was the best part of the day because we would connect with our families at home by reading our old letters, over and over again. It was our favourite pastime and was crucial if we were feeling depressed. After reading our letters we always returned them to their correct envelopes, numbered in order of receipt, and meticulously put them back into their assigned rows. The number of rows of letters a fellow had in his box was an indication of how long he had been in the Djebel.

On the next stretcher to Bal was a fellow called Martin who had been in the camp for a long time. He had a fiancée in France and she wrote to him every day, in fact, she had never missed even one day. It was extraordinary. His bundle of letters was enormous, and he required a larger box than everyone else in the company, in order to store them.

“I wonder if Gabriella will write to him till his last day here,” said Bal. “But you never know what women will do next.”

Each time the liaison truck came Martin received a bundle of letters. Like the rest of us, he survived because of those letters. They were all we had to live for.

9 March 1961. We had to select one hundred Arab civilian workers from the resettlement village near us. We needed them to help us build another new mine field nearly two kilometres long that would reinforce and connect two others. It was physically very hard work, especially since all the materials, including over three thousand star posts and 25,000 meters of barbed wire, had to be manually carried to the site. Despite this, the Algerians were keen to work. There was no work in the resettlement village and they had no money to survive, so they queued at the gate of our camp from early in the morning in drizzling rain, waiting patiently for us.

The people in the resettlement camps lived in total and absolute poverty. They had no amenities except for just one tap at the entry, and they queued for a long time to get water for drinking and their meagre cooking. Before the war these people were farmers in the Atlas Mountains and survived well with their sheep and goats and a garden. But in the camps they had nothing. They had lost everything they had and were almost starving to death. And why? So that the army could ‘choke’ the Fellaghas. By shifting the whole populace to guarded resettlement camps, shooting any that resisted, and by burning down all the villages, the army had transformed the countryside into a barren and forbidden zone where no food or medical supplies were available for the Fells. The Algerians were prohibited from leaving the camps at night, and anyone caught in the forbidden zone was automatically classified as a rebel and was shot dead.

We, of course, sympathised with these people, and, seeing the old Arabs sitting in the rain eager to sign up for a truly terrible job, discussed their predicament.

“This certainly isn’t a representation of our motto which is inscribed on every Mairie in France and Algeria,” said Michaux. “LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY

“I can’t see any application of this motto here,” added Pouzache.

“We’ve been told that over three million Algerians were forced to leave their villages and were put into these resettlement camps, and another one million ran away to Tunisia and Morocco as war refugees,” said our Sergeant, Chief Pujol.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s almost half of the total population of Algeria, and they’re supposed to be French citizens like we are.” said another chap.

“Where does the word Liberty apply here? They are locked up, just like in the Nazi camps, for no reason whatsoever,” added another.

“What about the word equality?” piped up another chap.

The second word of our French motto was a total joke as the Algerians were all treated as third class citizens, and had been since the beginning of colonisation.

Pouzache continued this interesting discussion with the third word of our motto. “Fraternity, this word is the worst of the three. What a joke. There is absolutely no fraternity here at all, especially between them and the settlers. No wonder they’re all helping the Fellaghas, whenever they can, in their struggle to win their independence from France.”

“Yes! I can understand how they feel!” said Maillet.

“After a few months spent here and witnessing so much injustice, I feel like joining the Fellaghas myself,” admitted Joncquet.

Then Maillet came out with a brilliant comment. “I think the motto of our country should be changed here in Algeria and instead of the façades of every Mairie, spouting the words LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY, they should say EVICTION, OCCUPATION, and EXPLOITATION!”

Everyone in the tent clapped their hands in approval.

9 March 1961. Notwithstanding our concerns for the old Algerians seeking employment, we were only too aware that those who paid the heaviest price for the army’s strategy were the children, and in particular, the war orphans bare footed and dressed in rags, they scurried around the camps like rats, always looking for something to eat, and they were mistreated by many of the people as they had no one to protect them. Sadly, the conditions in these resettlement camps were appalling, and not only for the children. The houses were no more than shelters, similar to those used in Normandy to protect the farm animals. They were built with salvaged pieces of wood and covered with old, odd sized, rusted sheets of corrugated iron. Some of the shelters had an old bit of carpet to cover the dirt floor and a primitive stove, but apart from this there was no furniture, no table and chairs, nothing. The Algerians slept among piles of dirty old blankets thrown into the corners of their ‘homes’. We found it heartbreaking to see how they were treated by the motherland, and we were ashamed of our own country.

It was no surprise then that the Algerian Arabs queued outside our camp, hoping to get work. They had no other source of income whatsoever. They were all over sixty years of age, some much older. There was not a young one among them. The young ones preferred to fight the Foreign Legion in the Atlas Mountains instead of working for us. They wanted their independence from France and refused to beg for work like their fathers were doing.

“Form a queue now, you bastards!” screamed Sergeant Chief Fayard, as a form of the greeting, ‘Good morning, everyone.’

It was a sad sight, old men dressed in rags, waiting in the rain without raincoats, standing patiently and barefoot in the mud, waiting for us to make our selection. They were all desperate to get a job and pushed each other, trying to get to the front of the line. They would do anything to get work even though it was only for a pittance. We only wanted one hundred workers and there were three hundred of them to choose from.

My job was to record the names of those we employed, so that we could pay them. I sat behind a small, portable table with an army register in front of me (The army wanted to know exactly how much they spent building the mine fields.) Being French, I found it difficult to understand the Algerian names, so the solution was to ask them for their identity cards which they had to carry with them at all times. Three of our Alsatian mining dogs waiting to go on duty, growled and bared their teeth at the men in the queue. They had been trained by their handlers to attack the Arabs.

“Ok, Chief,” I was ordered. “Close the register. We now have our hundred workers so they can go to the trucks.”

So I addressed the desperate group. “We now have the number of people we need. Thank you. The rest of you may go home now.”

But the men who had not been selected were angry and started swearing. They didn’t want to go home. They desperately needed to earn a few francs so that their families could survive for another day.

“We’re not allowed to take any more of you today. Perhaps tomorrow morning, if you’re lucky,” I said to the menacing group.

The disgruntled mob started to threaten us with their fists.

“If you do not move now, I will let the dogs free,” screamed the Sergeant Chief to them.

At the same time he signalled the dog handlers to give the dogs a few metres of rope. At this provocation, the Arabs became angrier and refused to move.

“OK,” said Fayard to the dog handlers, “let them loose for a while. The bastards do not seem to understand French!”

At this command, two things happened. Many of the servicemen gathered around to see the fun, and, as they were set free, the Alsatian dogs went completely wild. The old Arabs panicked and screamed in fear, trying to run to their camp for protection but they lost their balance and fell into the mud, trampling each other in their haste to escape the dogs. But the dogs jumped on them, tore their turbans into pieces and their ragged clothing into shreds, and bit them everywhere they could. Watching this gladiator game and enjoying the show of force, the young conscripts clapped their hands. The dog handlers encouraged their dogs by screaming at them and Sergeant Chief Fayard laughed hysterically at the misery of the old men. Within a few minutes most of the Arabs had disappeared, but the dog handlers waited until the last minute to recall their dogs, making sure that our servicemen enjoyed the side show for as long as they could.

Some old men were still wallowing in a pool of mud, trying to get up. Pouzache walked towards one of them who had fallen flat and helped him to stand up again. The man must have been over seventy years old.

“If only the people of France could see how the Algerian French citizens are treated,” said Pouzache.

“And as they say in France, there is no difference between them and us. They have exactly the same rights as we have. They are all French citizens. What a joke!” someone in the platoon remarked.

Some of us found it hard to believe what we had just witnessed.

The old men who had been selected to work for us were only skin and bone. Their faces were deeply grooved by the sun and the daily hardship of trying to survive. They never smiled, and they looked at us with fear. These Berbers had spent their lives as beasts of burden, undertaking unbelievably hard physical tasks, but they were always criticised by the settlers as being lazy, dirty, stupid and sneaky. They lived with constant insults, and when France was in trouble, the army used the Berbers as cannon fodder. But the courage and endurance of these Algerians was well known by the army officers. In Monte Casino, in 1944, for example, they showed boundless courage and the Germans had a tremendous fear of them. It was with these men, men who could have been our grandfathers, that we built the fences in the mine fields. But because most of them did not understand our language, they were in a clearly disadvantaged position, and they worried about losing their jobs.

One section of the site of the new minefield was crossed by an imposing forest, but this did not cause a problem for the army. Six huge bulldozers arrived and cleared the area, creating a huge pyramid of debris. When we came across a large creek, we built a mountain of barbed wire in the middle of it, and whenever we came across masses of boulders, they were promptly blown out of the way. We advanced, leaving behind total destruction and a flat, desolate plain. The teams of Berbers followed immediately behind the bulldozers, and before the earth even settled, they drove the star droppers into it, at two metre intervals. If the ground was too hard to hammer the star posts in, they were drilled in by using a jack hammer.

Noon. It had been a gruelling morning, and by this time the Berbers could hardly lift the sledge hammers to hit the star posts into the ground. Their hands were in a pitiful state. We stopped for a lunch break, and sat down together in a burnt down village near our camp, the conscripts against one wall of a house and the workers along the opposite wall. The Berbers shared a meagre meal of a few tomatoes and pancakes, and washed it down with goat’s milk. Their turbans virtually hid their eyes from us, but they silently observed us the whole time.

Bal, our Corporal, liked to break the monotony by having fun and making everyone in the platoon laugh. Sometimes his jokes were funny but sometimes they definitely were not, and the one he played this day was not appreciated whatsoever. He grabbed his MAT 49 and loaded it with a round of twenty–five 9 mm bullets. Then he proceeded to shoot at the Berbers sitting along the wall, aiming his bullets a few centimetres above their heads. The bullets smashed into the plaster of the wall, covering the workers with white dust. To a chorus of laughter from his platoon, Bal continued his folly until the round was spent. But the Berbers did not laugh. In fact, not one of them made a single move, or uttered a single word. They had all served in the French army during the Second World War, and had been assigned to the most dangerous spots, so they were used to gun shots. But I was embarrassed by the Corporal’s attitude.

“Would you do this sort of thing if any of the workers was your own grandfather?” I asked him discreetly.

“Oh come on – this is just a joke. I didn’t want to hurt them. I just wanted to have a bit of fun. That’s all!” he replied.

“Do you call this a joke?” I asked.

Bal didn’t’ have the time to answer as our Lieutenant arrived in his jeep.

“I heard some rifle shots,” he said, looking at us.

We were embarrassed but did not dare to report Bal’s indiscretion.

“Someone saw a wild boar and fired a few shots. That’s all, Sir,” explained Bal.

“Well, don’t do that again. It is a waste of ammunition. Do you understand?” the Lieutenant directed.

If we had told the truth Bal would have been sent to the Legion’s camp for few days as a ‘guest of honour.’ During this whole interaction, the old Berbers sat motionless and silent, watching us. It made us feel humiliated and ashamed.

10 March 1961. Politically, things were changing in Algeria, and these changes were happening quickly. The French government had begun to negotiate seriously with the Algerian Temporary Government as it was obvious, both to them and to us, that they could not continue to subdue Algeria. The cost of maintaining the huge army was astronomical, and the French taxpayers could no longer support it. The war had literally ruined France.

12 March 1961. To my great despair, I had not received a letter from Jeanne. I was hoping that she would rebel against her father’s authority, but it appeared that she had not, so I had no choice but to accept it and try not to think about it too much. I had to learn to block out thoughts of her, but my heart was bleeding. I decided to confide in Bal, who had, the previous week, lost his steady girlfriend. He listened to my story with interest.

“Why don’t you write to her?” he asked.

“I can’t because her parents receive all the mail and would throw my letters in the bin as soon as they saw them,” I replied.

“I know exactly what you mean. I am in the same position as you are. What we have to do is to finish our time here in the army and then find another girl,” he commiserated.

“They are all bitches,” said Maillet, who had been listening to our conversation. “Look at me, I was engaged to Catherine before being called up, and after writing to her for over eight months, she informed me that she had found someone else in the village, and that someone else turned out to be my younger brother.”

“That’s nice. She likes to keep things in the family,” said Bal, laughing.

“But on the other hand, look at Passard. He’s writing to over twenty girls and he hasn’t met any of them. Can anyone explain how women think?” I asked.

“It’s easy, my friends. They love hearing bullshit and Passard has become a master of words. He knows what to tell them and they love to hear it. That’s why they write to him,” explained Bal. “You just have to look at what they read in their spare time –romantic novels.”

As he was saying this, we all look at Passard who was sitting behind his boxes writing to all his admirers.

“I bet he writes the same crap to every one of them, so for his sake, let’s just hope that they don’t know each other,” said Lecocq. Then he turned to our Romeo. “Hey Passard! Why don’t you use carbon paper to write your letters? You can send each one a copy – it will be quicker.”

Passard looked at Lecocq and smiled slyly.

15 March 1961. The conscripts in our company, more so than other conscripts, played with death every day. From time to time the infantry ventured into the Djebel where the danger was, but us Pioneers had no respite. We worked with mines, and we were fully aware that every day could be our last one, especially since we also had to repair the Barrage constantly because the Fellaghas cut the wires almost every night. And we did this work without weapons at the ready. We had to stand in the middle of the damaged section, potentially exposing ourselves to the direct fire of the Fellaghas. But it was the mines we feared most. From our first glimpse of them every morning, stacked in wooden boxes in front of our tents, till our last contact with them at the end of each working day, we were aware that any small, seemingly insignificant mistake, or a moment of inattention, could set them off, taking us to the other world. The most dangerous time was when we had been laying mines for a few months. We became confident, and then tried to go faster and faster as we laid them. Generally, this was when accidents happened.

The Privates who helped us lay them weren’t at great risk in the mine field because they only prepared the ground, digging the holes for the unarmed mines. The Officers rarely did any work in the mine fields at all. They were always in their tents, writing reports, so it was safe for them. The really dangerous work was carried out by us Warrant Officers. We had to arm the mines and pull the safety pins from them, and each time we did this, particularly with the German jumping mines, it was like playing Russian Roulette. We were never sure that the hammer inside the detonator would hold when the pin was taken out. Furthermore, we worked without any protective equipment whatsoever. The only regard for safety was that we operated in relative isolation. One person at a time armed the mines, and the rest of the platoon stayed some distance away. That way, if a mine exploded, only one person would be killed.

At one stage we were told to wear helmets, but they proved to be useless when a chap in the unit next to us fell on a detonator, and the German mine exploded. He was killed instantly. After this the helmets were no longer used.

Being concerned about our safety, I constructed what could crudely be called a portable shield. It was a piece of flat steel, no more than 50 cm wide and 40 cm high, and had a handle bolted to it. It was easy to carry and, in the event of an explosion, it could be held in front of the head. I thought it would be of real value to us, so I demonstrated it to the Officers, and suggested that we make some and use them when laying mines. The Officers looked at it but said nothing. They weren’t’ interested in my device as they did not arm the mines and they were not at risk.

To stop the men from pretending that they had removed the safety pins in the mine fields, a fifty–centimetre nylon cord was tied to every pin. We had to take the cords with the pins attached to our Officers, to be checked and counted. There could be no deception. But the Officers returned the cords and pins to us as souvenirs, and as proof of the number of mines each of us had armed. When we had 5,000 pins, we were awarded a medal. We had to risk our life 5,000 times for a three–dollar medal. But we kept our pins and hung them over our stretchers. They were an indication of our courage and a trophy of war. Our hero, Milhaud, had an enormous bundle of safety pins, over 20 centimetres in diameter, hanging over his stretcher. It represented thousands of German mines and was the biggest bundle of any Warrant Officer in the whole battalion. Everyone that saw it was amazed Milhaud had won the mines medal many times, but we all felt like we were in primary school, getting a star for being a good boy.

10 April 1961. France was going to implement a unilateral ceasefire in Algeria. This was fantastic news for us.

“Does this mean that we’re going to stop laying mines once and for all?” asked Maillet. Military operations were suspended and replaced by light patrols. It looked like the massive army operations in the Djebel, the 40,000 men armed to the teeth and looking to kill as many Algerian Fellaghas as they could, might be stopped for good.

“So from now on we have to be friendly with the Algerian rebels and if we pass them in the mountains, we have to acknowledge them and they’ll be doing the same, we hope,” announced the Captain to the Officers sitting in the mess.

We all burst out laughing.

“Are we allowed to shake hands with them in the Djebel when we pass by them?” asked Pouzache.

“Pouzache! For once, can you talk intelligently?” shouted one of the men.

“I don’t think the war is going well for us, Sir!” concluded Lieutenant Carre.

22 April 1961. Indeed, Lieutenant Carre was right. The war in Algeria was taking another dangerous turn. In the morning when Milhaud switched his radio on, we were stunned to hear that we were involved in a mutiny that had started the previous evening in Algiers, the capital of Algeria. This was not a small movement of disgruntled soldiers, but was instigated by the highly decorated General Salan, who had plotted with three other five–star generals, Generals Challe, Zeller, and Jouhaut, all heroes of the Second World War. A great number of other superior officers, and of course, their regiments, gave their support to Salan, and by default all the conscripts were forced to do likewise. Whether we liked it or not, we were part of it.

“This is unreal,” yelled Bal. “A mutiny in our own army and we’re part of it because we’re here in Algeria with them!”

The mutiny was directed against the policy of the French government, headed by General De Gaulle who had, of his own accord, decided to stop the war. He’d come to the realisation that it was futile.

“We can’t win a war against a people who refuse to live any longer as slaves,” he had proclaimed.

He was backed by a French Colonel who announced, “France can’t afford to send another 100,000 soldiers. We can’t have one soldier standing behind each Algerian citizen.”

The news spread like wildfire. Every single soldier knew what was happening.

Three p.m. The mutineers were backed by the regiments of the Foreign Legion. The first to join them was the elite regiment, the First REP, headed by the colourful colonel, Helie Denoix de Saint Marc. They’d already taken over the city of Algiers.

All of us were glued to our transistor radios listening for the news updates which came every few minutes. The situation was dramatic and was becoming even worse as more and more regiments joined the mutiny. As call–up servicemen we were, once more, the meat in the sandwich. We were not supposed to know anything. The Officers did not mention the mutiny and acted like nothing was happening. They didn’t’ realise that we knew everything, thanks to the radios in our tents.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 10

MUTINY

 

23April 1961. At seven fifteen p.m., we were listening to the radio. Our Generals were addressing the nation General Challe was the first to speak. “I am at Algiers, with General Zeller and General Jouhaut and I have had a conversation with General Salan. We all want one thing and that is to keep Algeria French, forever, so our dead will not have died in vain. Today our government, in an act of abandonment, is on the brink of delivering Algeria to the rebels. Would you like to see Mers el Kebir and Algiers become Soviet bases?

Our army will not fail in its mission again as it did in Vietnam, and it will never have any other goal but to succeed.”

“What a story! Now we have our generals fighting among one another,” said Bal. “The army is split in two. We do not even know who our real leaders are anymore.”

“It is a dramatic situation indeed. Can you imagine the Fellaghas? They must be having a good laugh about this!” said Jugagniere. “Can you imagine what they think about us now?”

24 April 1961. Despite the mutiny we still went to work as usual. Again I had been assigned the task of recording the names of the old men who we employed, relying on their identity cards to find out their names Maillet and Kuntz helped me to do this job. Each of the old Berbers carried their papers in a small bag tied to their waist, and when we looked at these papers we found that all of them had previously been called–up to serve in the French army, and had helped fight against the Germans during the two World Wars.

One old Arab was standing in front of my desk, trying desperately to make himself appear as young as he could. He was a typical Berber, with a face grooved by deep wrinkles from constant exposure to the African sun, a dirty turban covering his head, dressed in rags, with his trousers covered in roughly sewn patches, and barefooted. He was completely desolate, and his pale blue eyes looked at me, silently pleading for work.

“Can you give me your papers, please?” I said to him.

He looked at me and I could see that he did not understand my question, but he handed me the bag holding his papers, which were held together by an elastic band. Amongst his papers were his army records, and they were quite voluminous. Like most of the Berbers, he had fought for France in the First World War in an African regiment, the 9th Tirailleurs Algerians. To my amazement I discovered that he had participated in the Battle of Verdun, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, during which General Mangin had ‘used’ the Algerians mercilessly.

 “Just use the Algerian regiments as much as you want in battle, as they are expendable,” he had proclaimed, in 1916.

Mangin’s attitude and actions had earned him the nickname, the ‘Butcher of Verdun’. And because so many North African regiments fought on the Western Front during the First World War, hundreds of military graveyards are full of Muslim soldiers’ steles, all oriented towards Mecca.

The old man stood in front of my desk and I looked further into his military booklet. It had been meticulously kept and contained all the records of his actions during the war, all his feats and a list of the medals he had won. The battles that he had fought in were, for the most part, well–known and bloody battles, such as the ‘Mort Homme’ where thousands of men, fighting to retain a few metres of ground, died. The old man’s regiment, the 9th Tirailleurs, held on to their position under the biggest bombardment in history. Platoon after platoon were annihilated, but the few survivors regrouped and held their trenches under a massive bayonet charge by the German infantry. They refused to retreat, repulsing one bayonet charge after another. Even with the blistering cold of winter and in mud up to their knees in the trenches, with snow and constant rain, and with lack of food and water, the 9th Regiment of Algerians Tirailleurs refused to give one inch of ground to the enemy. And in each battle that they fought in, they showed the same grim determination and courage. The flag of the 9th Tirailleurs was covered in citations of battles, and the regiment was even given commendation, which was rare indeed, as it was an African regiment.

I read reports of the old man’s personal acts of heroism and why he was decorated. Once he was given a military honour by General Petain who was in charge of the Western Front. The report read, ‘Name: Fedda, Abdekader, soldier second class, worked as liaison between his forward trench and the Colonel in charge at the rear of the battlefield. He had to crawl from his trench to the rear to get the orders for his regiment, as the telephone line had been cut under tremendous bombardment. He managed to reach and receive the orders from headquarters, and then had to bring them back during the night, not knowing his trench had been overrun by the enemy in the meantime. Crawling back into his trench he found himself surrounded by Germans. He managed to escape after hand to hand fighting with his bayonet, killing 6 enemy soldiers and wounding many others. He then completed his mission successfully.’

Among his papers I found another report that read, ‘Between the 10th and the 16th of March 1916, Abdekader was wounded in action four times, refusing to abandon his trench under bayonet charge and incessant bombardment.’

Taken aback by what I had read, I handed him his bag and his papers with the greatest respect. I had a real hero in front of me, the first and only one I would ever meet in the army and one who deserved the greatest deference we could give him. I stood up and, taking his two hands in mine, I shook them. I would have liked to be able to tell him how proud I was of him, how honoured I was to have met him, and to thank him for helping my country to free itself of ‘barbarians’. But all I could do was to record his details and direct him to join the other workers where he would toil all day, without complaint, and try to hide his fatigue as he sunk star droppers. The small military pension he was receiving was much less than half of what his brothers in France were receiving from the army, and therefore he had to seek work so that his family could survive. This was our so–called Equality and Fraternity.

Hour by hour the mutiny was taking shape and General De Gaulle was in total panic. He sent messages on the radio to us, the conscripts, begging us for help. He knew that we all listened to the news on our transistors, and he also knew that we did not want to ally with the mutineers.

“It is absolutely unbelievable. President General de Gaulle is now asking for our help against the Generals; asking us, the conscripts, to help him stop them and to use force against them, if necessary, to get them to surrender,” said Boucher.

“When I was in our barracks in France, I never for a moment thought that one day we would be asked to take our own Officers as prisoners. It’s absolutely crazy,” added Bonnemaison. “What about if we go and put a gun under the nose of our Captain, Lieutenant Carre. You, Milhaud, could then be in charge of the company,” said another of the chaps.

“We are moving quickly into the world of anarchy. Do you remember, in France during our training, we were not even told how to salute a General because we would never meet one!” said Maillet.

By eight p.m. it was dark in the Atlas Mountains, and everyone was listening to their radios for the latest updates on the mutiny. President De Gaulle was once more begging for our help.

“I ask you, the conscripts in Algeria, once more to help me. You sons of France must disobey the orders of your Officers, Colonels, Generals and all those who are involved in this mutiny. I ask you to sabotage their arms and, at the same time, arrest them. Do everything in your power to stop them,” he announced.

“What a laugh! So what about going next door and arresting the whole company of Legionnaires, seizing their guns and taking them as prisoners! Can you imagine the faces of the Dogs of War?” guffawed Maillet.

Everyone in the tent burst out laughing.

“Now listen, everyone. The situation is extremely serious,” said Milhaud. “We might have to stick together against our Officers if they give us orders which we don’t want to follow.”

“So who’s going to be in charge?” asked one of the men.

“I think our Lieutenant should be. He is a conscript like us, so he must be on our side,” proffered one of the conscripts.

“No! I’m sure he won’t take sides. We have to have a call–up conscript to take over,” said another.

“We only have two career Officers in our company so if things get really bad we can arrest them and consign them to their tents. There will be no need for violence. We have no choice as our President has asked us to do this,” advised Milhaud.

“But what about the Legion?” asked one of the men. “We have a company of them next to us, and they have already taken many French regiments as prisoners.”

Milhaud brought the discussion to a close. “OK,” he said. “At this stage I am asking everyone to stay quiet. Just wait and see what happens tomorrow. Don’t do anything stupid. Consult me before you take any action whatsoever. Does everyone understand?”

“Yes, Milhaud, but I can’t wait to put a gun under this bastard, Lieutenant Carre. He likes to play jokes on people all the time and now it’s our turn to have fun with him,” said one of the Corporals.

25 April 1961. The French government were now faced with an army split in two, one part in France under General De Gaulle’s direct command, and the other part in Algeria, under the direct command of General Salan. We of course, being conscripts serving in Algeria, were automatically aligned with Salan, and were involuntary mutineers.

Salan and the other Generals had threatened to invade France and take over the French capital, and they had the support and force of the Legionnaires. General De Gaulle counter– moved quickly. He mobilised his army and he travelled to Germany to ensure the support of the occupation forces.

Our situation in Algeria was getting more confusing by the minute. I felt like I was on the ship the ‘Bounty’ during the mutiny on their trip to Tahiti. We had elected Milhaud as our leader, and Bal as his second–in–charge in the event of having to take over our platoon. Milhaud had made it clear to us that whatever happened, we would all be in it together, and that we were definitely, without any doubt, behind General De Gaulle, and the ensuing discussion showed that we all supported this stance.

“So if worse comes to worse, we will take over the camp and put all the Officers and Warrant Officers who support General Salan under arrest. In the meantime we will wait here to see what happens.” directed Milhaud. “But I’m asking you to have your weapons ready and to listen to my orders. And I want no stupidity!”

“We should be alright if we act in a proper manner,” said Bal. “Remember, there are a hundred and forty fellows in our company, all of us conscripts except for six professional soldiers.”

“Bal is right,” said Boucher “There is only one way to go – stick to General De Gaulle. Then the war in Algeria will soon be over and we’ll be sent home.”

“Can you imagine the face of Sergeant Chief Pujol if we put a gun under his nose?” said one of the men.

“He wouldn’t care, as long as we gave him his ration of wine!” answered Grosjean.

Then Milhaud put it to a vote. “OK everyone, raise your hand for General Salan!”

No one moved.

“Right. Nobody. Now raise your hand for General De Gaulle,” he said.

In one move, the whole company of conscripts put their hands up. There was absolutely no doubt where our allegiance lay.

As this meeting was drawing to a close, someone yelled, “Quiet everyone! General De Gaulle is on the radio!”

Then we heard the President’s demanding voice.

‘Again, I am asking the conscripts in Algeria to help me. In fact, I am commanding you to disobey the orders of the four Generals who are leading the mutiny against France. Sabotage their weapons! Stop them, even if you have to use force.’

Our military situation had turned completely since our time in France where we were sent to prison for a week if we forgot to salute an insignificant Warrant Officer. Now our own General De Gaulle was pleading with us to put our Officers in jail if they joined the mutiny. We could hardly believe it.

The whole company was in high spirits, so much so that it was un–nerving to consider what they could do. Some conscripts had their guns next to them, ready and loaded.

“Can I go to Lieutenant Carre’s tent and arrest him now?” Juhel, a hot– headed boy from Paris, asked Bal.

“No, you can’t do whatever you like,” said Bal. “We’ve all agreed; Milhaud is in charge and he is the only one who makes decisions, so for the time being, just wait and don’t do anything stupid.”

One interesting aspect of this new scenario occurred to me. We could no longer send any conscripts to the Legion camp for punishment because the Legionnaires were now our enemy. Actually, over the past few days we’d noticed that they no longer visited us and this brought us a sense of great relief.

In the evening, during dinner, we all watched and discreetly listened to what our Officers, sitting at the next table, were saying. But they only talked about the usual problems with the mine field. No mention was made of the mutiny or anything related to it. It was as if everyone was waiting for a new development to take place before they would declare which side they were on. Many of the Officers in other regiments were scared that if they made the wrong decision, they could lose their promotions, their pensions, their ranks and their medals.

Sergeant Milhaud had another meeting with us that night to clarify our position.

“We have to be organised as the situation is getting worse,” he announced. “We have four platoons in our company, so the first platoon will be commanded by Sergeant Kuntz, the second by Sergeant Lacroix, the third by Sergeant Fiset, and the last one by Sergeant Riviere. Remember, no one makes any decisions without going through me or Bal. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” we responded.

At six p.m. it was announced on the radio that General Challe had taken over the capital of Algeria, Algiers, by force, using the Foreign Legion to do so. The ‘Dogs of War’, the Legionnaires, were blindly following the mutineers as they wanted the war to continue. For the past twenty years, war was all they had lived for. They loved killing, murdering, burning villages, looting, stealing, raping women and torturing innocent people, even though much of this was against the code of honour that each of them had taken when they joined the Legion. They knew full well that if De Gaulle gave independence to Algeria the war would be over, and they would find themselves back in France, sitting in their barracks, facing boredom. No more killing, no more medals to win.

It seemed they didn’t have to worry for the mutiny looked as if it was going to succeed. One by one, hesitant regiments joined Salem, and the hard–core regiments of parachutists followed suit. It was only in our area near the Tunisian border that the regiments were ambivalent. In Algiers all the officials in the French government had been thrown into prison, like common criminals. The white settlers were ecstatic. They wanted to keep Algeria French so they backed General Salan. His success would mean that they could keep their enormous properties, and keep earning millions on the backs of their Algerian ‘slaves’.

When I woke the next day and looked at my calendar, I realised that I had served 365 days. It felt fantastic to know that I had survived a whole year in the chaos of war. I was still standing on my own two legs, and I felt fit enough to continue my service. Actually, I still had 486 days to go before the nightmare was over, but still, it was a beautiful day.

Almost all the foreign regiments were now on the side of the mutineers. The most notable of these were:

The 1st Regiment of Parachutist legion (1st REP)

The 2nd Regiment of Infantry Legion (2nd REI)

The 3rd Regiment of Infantry Legion (3rd REI)

The 4th Regiment of Infantry Legion (4th REI)

“I never ever thought that one day I’d have to face the fearsome threat of the Foreign Legion!” said Boucher.

However, not all the regiments of the Foreign Legion came out in support of the mutiny. The Second Legion Regiment of Parachutists (2nd REP) was held in check by their Colonel, although he agreed with the revolt in principle. The 1st Regiment of Cavalry Legion was even less forthcoming. The Officers agreed with the revolt but, instead of joining it, they escaped by going into battle against the Fellaghas in the Atlas Mountains. The Colonel of the Cavalry Legion was not a supporter at all and in front of all his Officers he simply stated, “If you wish to join the mutiny, gentlemen, there is a preliminary step to take. You will first have to get rid of me as your Commanding Officer.”

So another problem emerged for the mutineers. The Foreign Legion was divided, some for the mutineers and some against.

26 April 1961. Now, more than ever, the situation was complicated. France had its mighty Barrage, under continual attack by the Fellaghas, a divided army and a divided Foreign Legion taking opposing stances, and the settlers to deal with. But in the Djebel on top of the Medjerda Mountains, nothing much had changed and we kept to our usual work routines. The only difference was that we all carried our transistors with us wherever we went so that we had some idea of where we stood in this chaotic situation. This morning we learned that the Foreign Legion were having second thoughts about aligning with Salem, and some of their high–ranking Officers were distancing themselves from the Generals involved in the mutiny. Some of the regiments were refusing to cooperate with the mutineers, and they feared they’d made a grave mistake in initially supporting the rebellion. In desperation, General Salan had travelled to Algiers to direct the mutiny, for General De Gaulle was emerging as the winner. No conscripts had joined the mutiny and they were all on the French President’s side. De Gaulle was aware that the radio was his best means of communication, especially with the conscripts, so he kept broadcasting messages.

His latest message was:

‘Four retired Generals have decided to take it upon themselves to change the course of history, the history of Algeria. So once more I forbid all French people and above all, the conscripts, to obey any orders that they might issue in the name of France. I order you to do everything you can, and I mean everything including the use of force, to block the road of these four Generals.

We all looked at one another in silence. The plot was getting thicker and more dangerous.

“How long can we survive here with our meagre reserves of food if the liaison truck stops coming?” asked Fillon.

“Why don’t we ask the Fellaghas hiding in the Djebel around here to join us? They’re on our side now!” said Bonnemaison.

“Yes, and in the meantime we could all finish up with our ‘glaouis’ being cut off,” cautioned Fillon (Glaouis is a Berber word for testicles.)

“Perhaps the Fellaghas would be nice to us!” said Bal.

“Well,” replied Bonnemaison, “every day the ‘Dogs of War’ are deserting the Legion and joining the Fellaghas. I’ve seen the propaganda leaflets and it seems that the Fells are treating the deserters well, often promoting the Officers soon after they have left the Foreign Legion to join the Fellagha ranks.”

27 April 1961. Early in the morning Bal, who had been on guard duty during the night, came into our tent to tell us good news.

“At 2 a.m. this morning the company of Legions next to us left. I don’t know where they went but they’re not here anymore!” he said.

What a relief.

“At least we don’t have to worry about them taking us prisoners!” said one of the men.

Every transistor radio in the camp was switched on, and all the conscripts were glued to them, anxious to hear the latest developments. This morning we heard that the mutiny was slowing down. Apparently the four Generals in charge of it could no longer agree, and there was further reluctance from a number of regiments in the Foreign Legion, to support them. Furthermore, the regiments that had joined the mutiny had made a decision not to shoot the conscripts.

“We are lucky,” said Michaux, “that they only love to murder Arabs and not us. I always told you that the ‘Dogs of War’ had good hearts!”

No one knew whether to laugh or not.

28 April 1961. The titanic was sinking fast. The mutiny was running out of breath. The Legionnaires, realising that they’d made a terrible mistake by following the four Generals, returned to their barracks and some of them even went back to the usual slaughter of the Fells in the Djebel, acting as if they’d never been involved in the rebellion. The most heavily involved regiment in the mutiny was the Foreign Legion 1st REP. They had left Algiers in the morning, all of them singing a well–known song of Edith Piaf, ‘Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.’

No nothing, nothing at all, I do regret nothing of what I have done…

But the Foreign Legion respected their oath, and did not fire on French soldiers. However, before leaving, the First Regiment blew up their own barracks using tons of explosives. The four leaders of the rebellion fled Algiers and hid somewhere in the country side. Three of them escaped in the Legion’s trucks and General Zeller disappeared into the crowd in Algiers and hid on a white settlers’ property. What a downfall indeed.

Among the hundreds of Officers involved in the mutiny was Colonel De Boissieu, a cousin of General De Gaulle’s son–in–law, Alain Henry Marie Joseph De Boissieu, Dean De Luigne. There were so many Officers involved that only the worst offenders were imprisoned as punishing them all was not viable. The army in Algeria would collapse if all of them were incarcerated and furthermore, there was not enough room in the Algerian prisons to hold them. All the convicted Officers were transferred as quickly as possible to the more secure French prisons. But to cope with the influx of new inmates in the Algerian prisons, the government freed many of the Fellaghas. How ironic. Previously it was we, the conscripts, who were going to jail for trivial offences, and now it was the Officers who were being jailed, supplanting the Fellaghas who had been captured during operations. Of the 650 Officers in the Foreign Legion, over 200 of them were now in prison. To their chagrin they would not be able to parade on the 14th of July in Paris as they had done for the past 130 years.

The mutiny was now completely over. President De Gaulle had won and, in no small part, he owed his victory to the help of many of the conscripts.

When the liaison truck arrived in our camp we learned that at the onset of the mutiny, the Commandant of our battalion, Commandant De Bourdezel, had taken the picture of President De Gaulle hanging on the wall behind his desk and thrown it through the window of his office into the main yard of the headquarters. But because the mutiny failed, he had been seen picking up the picture of the French President and hanging it back on the wall behind his desk. He swore to everyone that his act of disloyalty had been a joke, and that he had, in reality, always followed De Gaulle because the President was in the right.

“Ah, what they say to save their retirement pension!” remarked Bal.

“I’m glad our Commandant has such a sense of humour,” said Maillet, sarcastically.

But apart from these private conversations, no–one mentioned the mutiny. No–one dared. During all these troubled times we had carried on as usual. Our Captain, with his only friend, Lieutenant Carre, had not taken sides, preferring to wait quietly to see how things developed before he took a stance. In our mess we had 14 Officers and Warrant Officers, but only six of them were career soldiers, so they had not been in a good position. They were fortunate that everything had become normal again, if there is such a thing as normal in the army.

The mutiny had only lasted four days and during this short time our leaders, our Generals and Colonels, had lost their status. They were now ‘nobodies’ and people had difficulty recognising them without their entourage and their uniforms covered in medals, gold sticks and stars. How proudly they had worn this regalia and how completely they had relied on it for recognition.

General Salan was still in hiding. It was rumoured that he was held up in a room somewhere in Spain, and, in order to avoid recognition by the police, he had dyed his hair black, grown a moustache, and adopted civilian attire. He was no longer a hero. He was a fugitive.

From our transistor radios we learned that six Generals and hundreds of Colonels, Captains and Commandants were in jail for mutiny. It was incredible that many of them were, or had been, heroes of the French army, men like Colonel Helie Denoix de Saint Marc, Colonel of the 1st REP of the Foreign Legion, and Brechignac, the hero of Dien Bien Phu. The regiments of these jailed Officers were disbanded.

Many Legionnaires, seeing their Officers jailed and thinking that it was the end of the Foreign Legion, deserted in droves Bizarrely, some joined the Fellaghas, and others joined the new army, the O.A.S., directed by the white settlers and, covertly, by General Salan. What a mix up.

The radio also kept us up to date with the sentencing of the rebels. General Challe, one of the four principal leaders of the mutiny had been sentenced to death but that was commuted to 15 years of imprisonment. Helie Denoix de Saint Marc, the Commanding Officer of the infamous regiment of the Foreign Legion, the 1st REP, received a ten–year sentence, as did hundreds of other Officers. Colonel Helie Denoix had also been completely stricken from all records, including the holy book. Historically, he ceased to exist. And, despite its incredible war record, his regiment paid a heavy price and was completely disbanded. President De Gaulle was not a forgiving man especially towards his ex–colleagues in the army. He had no pity for anyone who betrayed France and nothing could make him change his mind. He was not corrupt and he lived his life entirely for his country.

20 May 1961. As the negotiations towards Algerian independence progressed, General De Gaulle endeavoured to get the best deal possible for France, and to help his cause he freed 6000 Fellaghas from prison.

“It’s not because of clemency towards the Arabs, it’s because the jail had to be emptied for the French mutineers,” said Maillet.

Everyone laughed and we thought he might be right after all.

So these newly released prisoners rejoined their colleagues in the Atlas Mountains, ready to fight us again because, strangely enough, the war kept going as usual. Huge new operations were still planned and we were still building mine field after mine field.

In May, the top regiments of the army, the ones that had been spared in the mutiny, were sent on operation in the Djebel, ostensibly to keep them out of the city. These soldiers killed over 1200 Fellaghas and wounded thousands more. So blood kept pouring over Algeria, without an end in sight. Furthermore, the O.A.S. was killing Algerian sympathisers, and the F.L.N. (Fellagha army) was killing the O.A.S. militia. What a mix up.

In one way we were safer on top of the Djebel building our mine fields than in the city.

“So in the Djebel our enemy is the F.L.N., in the city our enemy is the O.A.S., and at work our enemy is the mines,” said Bal.

[
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p=. CHAPTER 11

GERMAN ‘S’ MINES

 

14 June 1961. It was extremely hot in the Atlas Mountains and we were literally choking in our tents, especially at night when we had to be under the mosquito nets. When the fellows were in the camp they spent most of their time drinking and this, in turn, led to numerous fights.

As the protective fences had been completed there was no more work for the Arabs and we had to tell them that we could no longer employ them. They were extremely disappointed because they depended on the income for survival. I knew that I would miss them as I felt comfortable with them, and even with the language barrier, had managed to befriend some of them. They would sometimes bring me gifts from their tiny garden plots, a tomato or a fig.

With the fences completed, the fields were ready to be mined. To confuse the Fellaghas, each of the four strips was set with different types of mines. One strip was filled with French mines, another with lightening mines, yet another with jumping or German ‘S’ mines, and occasionally a strip was left devoid of mines but there were pegs and tripping wires in place to make it look real. About every hundred metres we changed the order, so the Fellaghas never knew for sure what was in front of them. It certainly slowed their advance.

It was time to lay the 200 German ‘S’ mines, but the hot African sun beating down on us made the work difficult and dangerous. We set out before the sun rose but we had to climb a steep 45–degree hill and then descend into a deep valley to get there. It was hard labour even before the day’s work began. A team of soldiers went out to prepare the fields for laying the mines. They carried the boxes of mines to the site, dug the holes, placed the bombs in the holes and screwed the detonators in. Then the trip wires were attached to the protective fence, connected to the mines and tightened. But as the pins were still in place, the bombs were unarmed and there was no danger to the troops. The final task, removing the safety pins and thus arming the mines was extremely dangerous, and was undertaken by the Warrant Officers.

“Kuntz and Fiset, you will go and arm them,” said the Sub Lieutenant. “I am taking the platoon to a safe zone.”

“Yes Sir,” we responded, hoping that our trust in our colleagues to have put the correct tension on the trip wires was not misplaced. If they were too tight even a slight movement of the fence after we had pulled the pins could tug the prongs from the detonators and explode the mines. But in the back of my mind I knew that those fellows who attached the wires were not the ones who would be removing the safety pins. Did they really care?

“Why do we have to lay more mines when General De Gaulle is going to give independence to the Algerian people in a few weeks?” asked someone in the platoon.

“We have to finish the work we’ve started,” answered our Lieutenant.

“But there are already thousands of kilometres of mine fields and the Barrage to stop them,” the chap replied.

“You never know what they’ll do next. Of course, they know that they’ve won the war, but at the last minute they could try to demolish our Barrage,” said Legoubin.

He sounded as despondent as if the Barrage belonged to him, personally. He had worked hard with all of us to build this masterpiece of French engineering and he didn’t want the Fellaghas to wreck it.

“He’s fallen in love with the minefield,” said Schoen.

Eleven a.m. Two hundred mines were waiting for us, hiding in the ground. The sun was beating down and it was the hottest part of the day Kuntz and I were left on our own to do the job so that, in case of an accident only two people would be killed. The rest of the platoon were waiting in the truck, parked far away. They reminded me of people watching the grand prix, with their cameras ready to snap any terrible accident. A photo of someone killed in a mine field would make a great souvenir for their families back in France. I could imagine the conversation.

‘Look at this, dad. They were Warrant Officers in my platoon and they were both killed arming ‘S’ mines.’

‘Oh yes, I can quite clearly see them lying in the dirt. Good shot son! You had to do some dangerous work in Algeria!’

During my training in France I had learned how to arm the ‘S’ mines, but when it was real it was vastly different.

“You can go first,” I said to Kuntz.

For safety reasons, we had to leave fifty metres between us so Kuntz went ahead, removing the pins from the mines, one by one. Keeping to the regulatory distance I followed him over the protective fence and into the minefield. I was faced with fifty small green detonators. The main bodies of the mines, filled with deadly shrapnel, were well hidden in the dirt and I knew that I had to carefully crawl from one mine to the next, removing the small 3–centimetre pin with its nylon cord. I could still hear the sneering remark of one of the fellows in the platoon, echoing in my head. ‘You want to be a Warrant Officer? Well, you have to pay for it by taking the safety pins from the mines.’ And the fact that I had no protective gear to wear also played on my mind.

As I squatted by the first of the mines, I checked that the three wires were not too tight, and then I gently pulled the nylon string connected to the pin. Nothing happened. I pulled harder. Still nothing happened. So I pulled harder, and this time the whole mine came out of the ground. I was petrified. In a panic, I pushed the whole lot back into the hole, the best way I could, but then I remembered someone saying that the safety pin had a flat section and you had to turn it onto this side before pulling it. I tried it. It worked. I even remembered to put the nylon string and pin into my pocket so that the Officer could check them. I started on my allocation of mines. It was a draining job that required absolute care and concentration and, as the sun was getting hotter, I was drenched with perspiration. I am not a hero, and I was terrified that, at any moment, I would make a mistake and, at best, be pitted with the razor–sharp shrapnel. I worked my way down the hill towards the end of the field and I could see Kuntz ahead of me. He had almost finished his section. I was getting tired and the fear seemed to be rising within me. I had no desire to risk my life in this way for a medal. I just wanted to go back to France in one piece.

I had armed forty German ‘S’ mines and there were forty pins with their nylon strings pushed into the side pocket of my battle dress trousers. So far, everything had gone well but I was tense and wet with perspiration so I paused to look around me. The mountains were stunning, especially with the sun shining on them and I was reminded of Switzerland. The only sound was the chirping of the crickets hiding in the high grass. This was the sort of place that anyone would want to take their families for a holiday and I was here, completely on my own, and playing Russian roulette with my enemies, the mines. They seemed to look at me with their small khaki detonators sticking out of the ground, and I could almost hear them saying, ‘Come on, boy. Are you courageous enough? Be daring and pull our pins and you will see what we can do to you.’

Kuntz had finished arming his mines and I could see him walking towards the rest of the platoon and the trucks, his pockets bulging with the safety pins and nylon strings. I looked towards the last of my mines. These ten seemed to be the worst ones to arm, probably because of the fatigue and the tension. We had been warned by the older Warrant Officers that the biggest danger in the mine fields was when you were becoming confident in yourself, as this often lead to carelessness. One fellow in the third platoon had armed twenty–five thousand mines and held the record. He had almost completed arming another mine field when he lost his balance, tripped over a wire, and consequently put all his weight on a mine. Instantly, his foot disappeared. He got a clean cut just below the knee. I knew that I wasn’t as fast as Kuntz, nor was my concentration as good, but it did not concern me. I had made an oath to myself that I would not compete with anyone in the camp, that I would not aim to be the fastest on record or to seek the admiration of others. I promised myself that I would work safely at my own pace, and this is what I now had to do. I had to keep going carefully right up until the last mine was armed.

I finally completed the last ten mines, so I carefully buttoned the pockets that held my pins and walked carefully to the protective fence. I intensely eyed the tripping wires as I went over the fence. Any movement on the fence could discharge the mines.

As I returned to the trucks I could see the whole platoon eating their lunches while they waited for me. A few of them were packing up their cameras, looking rather disappointed that I had not provided them with a grisly photo souvenir Lieutenant Legoubin was sitting in his jeep, checking Kuntz’s pins and nylon strings to make sure that all the mines were accounted for and that he had not missed any of them. Officers like Legoubin checked our work, but they never undertook dangerous missions themselves. (From the army’s point of view, it cost more to train an Officer than a Warrant Officer, so they were assigned much safer tasks.) Never–the–less, each year Legoubin would still stand at attention at the French war memorial, proudly displaying his medals on his chest, and hoping to win more in recognition of putting his life on the line. It wasn’t his life that was in danger. In our platoon men were admired for their bundles of safely pins. They were trophies, status symbols and the catalyst for awarding of medals. It always amazed me how many men would risk their lives trying their hardest to win these coveted prizes.

1 July 1961. It was extremely hot in the Medjerda Mountains and a strong burning wind blew in from the Sahara Desert, forcing us to cover our faces with our scarves, which made breathing difficult. We had to wear dark glasses to protect our eyes from the fine sand. The only way to survive in our tents was to open both ends and hang our mosquito nets over our stretchers. But this allowed hundreds of huge blow flies coming directly from the toilet trench to swarm in all day, only to be ousted when the malaria mosquitoes made their entry at night.

“You can’t win,” said Joncquet.

To fight this new problem, we had to take a malaria tablet every day.

Most of us coped with the burning heat by constantly drinking beer or wine, not a good idea when engaged in laying mines. Cartons and cartons of Kronenbourg beer were opened and the men drank straight from the bottles, not bothering to chill them first. But this practice created havoc in the camp. A lot of the fellows who were normally well–behaved became extremely violent after a few drinks, and could not be reasoned with. One afternoon a shy man by the name of Watrin had too much to drink and became uncontrollable. He had a grudge against an Officer who was, at that time, inside the mess tent with the other Officers, reading, drinking and relaxing after their lunch. Watrin was a driver and he jumped in his truck and drove it towards the Officers’ mess, jumping off it before it reached the tent. By some miracle, the truck’s course deviated and hit a mound of dirt nearby. Luckily the Officers had no idea of what was happening outside.

Earlier in the day another drama had unfolded, again due to alcohol. A young chap, feeling depressed, drunk himself almost into oblivion, but he still managed to put a heavy M 50 machine gun sitting in the middle of the tent, into action. He pointed the gun towards another tent where he supposedly had an enemy.

“What are you doing Labrosse?” asked one of his friends.

“I’m going to kill the bastards next door, all of them!” he slurred as he struggled to screw the barrel onto the machine gun and adjust the tripod.

With encouragement from the other men in the tent, all of whom were almost as drunk as he was, Labrosse began loading the gun with a band of bullets. They were all laughing hysterically, but in the targeted tent the men were having a siesta.

“This is going to wake them up, the bastards,” grumbled Labrosse.

Just then Bal appeared in the tent.

“What do you think you’re doing, you bloody idiot?” he yelled.

“He wants to wake up the blokes next door Bal, because they’re all sleeping,” replied one of the men.

Labrosse was busy trying to engage the band of 250 bullets and took no notice of Bal.

“This is crazy!” said Bal as he unscrewed the barrel of the machine gun. He walked out of the tent taking the barrel with him, thereby rendering the machine gun useless and averting a potential disaster.

But it was not only loneliness, depression and the heat which drove the men to drink massive amounts of alcohol. There was an acute shortage of water. Every morning our cistern truck drove over 100 kilometres to get water. It carried about 1,500 litres and this was the ration for 140 men for the day. Each of us was allowed one helmet full of water. The steel helmets had never been used in action, and as they were the only containers we had, they were used for our water rations, ablutions, laundry, and even as night pots. Our captain had made it clear to us. “You can drink from it, you can wash yourself in it, or you can do whatever you like with it.”

As soon as our helmets were filled with the precious water we hung them on a low branch of a tree close to our tents. We were very careful how we used this water. Most of us used some of the water to wash, tipping a little of it onto a glove and wiping our bodies with it. There were no ablution blocks, no showers, nothing. Our clothes were never washed. Some of the men wore their singlets until they literally fell apart and then threw them aside.

The food was as scarce as the water. In desperation, we mined several nearby water holes to blow up some wild boar and deer. The problem was that the carcasses were riddled with shrapnel so during meals you had to be careful not to crack your teeth. However, I was always mindful of the wandering shepherds, hoping that they wouldn’t approach these waterholes.

Sergeant Chief Pujol had reached the stage of being perpetually drunk, only managing to stand up for the daily flag ceremony before returning to our tent and lying down again. The stifling heat made the situation worse as it sucked the energy from us, little that we had.

“Fiset, if you get me six Kronenbourg beers you can have an Orangina for yourself,” Sergeant Pujol whispered to me.

He could not even walk to the tent where the drinks were stored.

The mud bath of winter had been replaced with a foot’s depth of dust. Driving in it was hazardous, like driving in snow, and the dust swirled around us in a huge cloud, choking us. We had to roll our long scarves around our heads to protect us. But as soon as the burning sun disappeared on the horizon, the thermometer quickly dropped from 38 Celsius to as low as 5 Celsius or even zero, in a few minutes. When I was on night duty I had to prepare for the cold before the sun went down. Despite it still being hot, I had to dress warmly, putting on a thick jumper, my coat, and warm socks and rangers. I also had to wrap a two–metre scarf around my neck.

10 July 1961. We had to shift our camp as we were about to undertake a new project, and we had to do it quietly so that the Fellaghas wouldn’t know where we were going. Our new position was close to the Barrage, so we presumed that we would be working on it shortly.

Unfortunately for us, a while ago when the Legionnaires captured some Fellaghas they found maps on them, showing the location of all the French army units. They had the precise positions and number of units, and were better informed than we, ourselves were. They spied on us, using the shepherds in the mountains as their eyes.

Meanwhile, we were still listening to our transistors to get updates on the punishments metered out for taking part in the mutiny. Three of the four Generals who led the mutiny, Salan, Jouhaut and Gardy had been condemned to death by firing squad in absenteeism, as they, along with Colonels Argout, Broizat and Godard had not, at this stage, been caught. Captains and Sergeants received a 20–year prison sentence, and Generals Challe, Zeller and Bigot were each given 15–years jail Generals Nicot, Faure and Vaudy were given light sentences in comparison. They each had to serve a 12–year jail term. And the lists went on, with well–known Officers like Helie Denoix de Saint Mare, Colonel of the First REP, De la Chapelle and De Nelle interred. With so many Generals incarcerated the number of stars (the awards they wore with pride) behind bars was incredible. In the meantime, hundreds of Subaltern Officers were joining their superiors in the jails. The gold sticks on their shoulders joined the stars and no longer declared the glory of their bearers. We found it hard to believe.

“What a downfall for them, and to think that at one stage we were calling them Gods,” said Maillet. “What an army we belong to! We no longer know who we should look up to.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway. We’ve never met them and never will,” said someone in the tent.

“Just think about the Fellaghas. They must be having the laugh of their lives,” added Pouzache.

Lieutenant Carre informed us that our new mission was to construct a track in the Atlas Mountains to connect the higher road and the bitumen road on the Barrage, a few kilometres below. So the whole platoon, our trucks loaded with equipment, moved to the site of our new assignment. The sun was hot that particular day and a burning sand storm coming directly from the Sahara made our work even more difficult. We wore our long khaki scarves to protect our faces from the searing sand, leaving just enough space for our sun glasses. We looked like the blue men of the Sahara, the Touaregs.

The terrain around the site of the new track was deserted and almost bare of any vegetation. It looked like a lunar landscape, set high in the peaks and surrounded by grandiose chains of mountains, as far as the eye could see. The only obstacle in the building of this track was a scattering of huge granite boulders which must have been there for thousands of years, disgorged by an ancient volcanic eruption. Some of them were over five metres high and so big that even our largest bulldozers could not push them out of the way. After looking at them for a while our Lieutenant declared that the only way move them would be to use explosives, and then to push the rubble aside with our bulldozers.

11 July 1961. A 44–gallon drum of water had been put next to the new track to help us fight the heat. From time to time we plunged our bush hats into the water, enjoying the cool reprieve when we donned them again.

12 July 1961. It was a special day for our company: it was Milhaud’s 21st birthday. We did not normally celebrate birthdays but Milhaud was considered a ‘special’ person and even the Officers wanted to join in the festivities. This in itself was a rare event. The Captain had sent a truck to Bone the previous day to buy food and, of course, wine.

“I want a five–star dinner for Milhaud,” said the Captain.

So a great feast was prepared for the evening, and we all looked forward to the party but of course, it was to be a surprise for Milhaud.

“What will he do when he goes back to civilian life?” asked someone in the tent.

He was referring to the daring Milhaud.

“Well, he’ll have to face that in three weeks. I think his father is hoping that he’ll take over his chemist shop, Milhaud is a fully qualified chemist,” explained another chap.

“I can’t imagine him behind the counter of a chemist shop counting pills all day long. He’s not the type. He loves the life that the army provides,” said the first.

Milhaud was certainly in his element in the army. In a matter of months he had climbed the promotion ladder from Second Class Private to Sergeant, a leap of five ranks. He’d passed all his exams successfully but he could not climb any further for the time being because of his age. And the army rewarded him for his daring feats by showering him with medals, including the Military Valour, an award which was conferred on him several times over.

But before the party, we had a job to do. One of our specially equipped trucks arrived at the construction site with drilling gear and explosives. A few fellows began to use the pneumatic drills to bore deep holes at the base of each of the boulders. Some boulders were so gigantic that several holes were drilled around their bases. When they finished boring the holes, the next team came in and packed these holes with dozens of German gelignite cartridges. But just as we were getting ready to blow the boulders apart, a company of Legionnaires arrived.

“Sorry sir,” said Lieutenant Carre to the Captain of the Legionnaires as he walked towards us. “We’re in the process of blowing the boulders out of the way, and you’ll have to wait a little while.”

“We want to pass now,” said the Captain who looked like a sumo wrestler.

“Sorry sir. You’ll have to wait about twenty minutes. We are just about to explode them,” explained Carre.

“Well, you’ll have to be quick. We don’t waste our time like the French army does, so get on with it. We’re in a hurry!” snapped the Captain.

We were ready to set and light the fuses in each boulder and, because it was risky, the Warrant Officers were assigned this task. We heard the usual names called out. ‘Kuntz, Boucher, Fiset and Milhaud.’ Again, the training I had undertaken in France came to mind. I would have to use pliers to clip the fuses into the detonators and then split the other end of the fuses into two. Next, the detonators would have to be inserted into the gelignite and then, using a cigarette, I would have to light the fuses, making sure that they were burning before quickly leaving and seeking cover. I disliked this work even more than I disliked arming mines, but I had practiced it, even though I didn’t agree with the way we had to go about it. We were always told that there would be no problems as long as we rigidly followed the correct procedures.

A box containing the fragile detonators and fuses was brought from the trucks and Lieutenant Carre, as supervisor of this delicate operation, gave us detailed instructions.

“Now I want you all to remember a few strict rules. First, no more than four fuses are to be lit at the same time. The first one has to be about ten centimetres long, the second about 15 centimetres, the third about 20 centimetres, and the last one about 25 centimetres long. And make sure that you light the longest one first so that you have enough time to take cover. Are you ready?”

“Yes Sir!” answered the four of us at the same time.

Our trucks and the rest of the men had been moved further away from the explosion site, and the four of us would take turns to light our volley of four explosives. But I couldn’t help feeling that we were like trapeze artists in a circus, performing to amuse the crowd, the spectators, a platoon of the French army and a whole company of Foreign Legionnaires. Milhaud, of course, wanted to be the first one. He was as impatient as a young horse coming out of the stables in the morning. He could not resist an opportunity to show everyone how it should be done and to prove, once again, that he was the best.

“Start now, and hurry up!” yelled Carre. “The Legions don’t like to be kept waiting, so move your arses.”

After this refined order, Milhaud, with his cigarette already alight in his mouth, grabbed the roll of fuse, shoved a few detonators into his battledress pocket and tore around like a road runner. He was in action. At the speed of light he prepared each detonator, operating as though there was absolutely no danger in this delicate task. There was no doubt that he was highly skilled and we all watched from a safe distance as he used his cigarette to light the fuses. Then, with a nonchalant air, he walked back to us to take cover. As he lay down next to us, the first explosion boomed and the ground trembled under our bodies. The bolder was moving, literally shaking itself out of the ground like a missile. Then, with a tremendous force, it exploded, throwing hundreds of pieces of granite in all directions. It was amazing that such small cylinders of gelignite could, in a few seconds, split giant rocks that had been in place for millions of years.

“One!” yelled everyone.

Counting was imperative. We had to make sure that they all exploded.

There was another almighty bang.

“Two!” we all screamed. Then “Three!” and “Four!” They went off one after another with barely seconds in between them. Then to our surprise another one exploded. “Five!” Then another. “Six!” That was already two more than we were supposed to ignite, but Milhaud had to be different to everybody else. But the shout went up again. “Seven! and then “Eight!” It was incredible. In one go, he had lit eight of them, twice as many as the regulation number. It was hard to believe. As soon as the eighth explosion was heard, Milhaud jumped to his feet and saluted the audience. He was so proud of himself and the spectators burst into applause in appreciation of his skill.

“Well done!” said Lieutenant Carre. He was one of Milhaud’s fans. “You have done it again and you have beaten your own record.”

“Thank you, Sir!” said Milhaud with a smile.

“Come on, Fiset. It’s your turn Hurry up, and show us what you can do,” called Carre.

After Milhaud’s performance, I had to look like I was full of confidence. The audience was ready to watch the second part of the spectacle and I knew that I could not show any sign of fear, regardless of how I was feeling. If I had shown any trepidation, I would’ve been ridiculed by the whole company for months and I would have lost the respect of my platoon.

[
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p=. CHAPTER 12

DO NOT PLAY WITH EXPLOSIVES

 

I was performing the next act on my own to an audience of hundreds, so with an air of bravery I walked towards the huge boulders which had been resting in the earth for millions of years. Each of the boulders seemed to say to me, ‘We’ve been here from the beginning of time. Why do you want to destroy us? What right have you to do that?’ I felt I had to answer them. ‘I have nothing against you. It’s the opposite. I admire the masterpiece of nature which you represent. The one who is ordering me to destroy you is a thousand kilometres from here sitting in an air–conditioned office. He doesn’t know who you are and he’s never been here in his life, but he has decided to build a road to access the Barrage, and you are in his way. So I, a mere conscript, am here to destroy you with explosives.’

Kneeling next to the first boulder, I opened the tiny box holding the detonators and carefully attached the fuses, putting them in twice as deep as we were instructed. All I wanted was to be able to walk out of the field with my body in one piece so I continued working carefully. When I had inserted the four fuses into the gelignite, I was ready to light them, one by one, and then run for cover. I had been told, many times, to make sure that a fuse was ignited, fizzing, before going on to the next one. I found it fascinating that during preliminary training in France none of us took much notice of what the instructors were telling us, but now, when working in a real situation, I could remember everything we’d been told. When the fuses were all fizzing strongly, I ran for cover, throwing myself onto the ground next to my comrades, and waited for the explosion. But nothing happened. Lieutenant Carre looked at his watch. He was becoming impatient.

“Are you sure you lit them properly, Fiset?” he asked.

“Yes Sir!” I replied. “They were all burning!”

The Legionnaires behind us were starting to swear and grumble at the French army’s incompetence. “What a bunch of no hopers. Thank God these bastards are not fighting the Fells with us in the Djebel.”

Their complaints died as the first explosion shook the earth and the huge boulders disintegrated, along with my anxiety. Then the second one followed suit.

“Two!” yelled my platoon. “Three!” And finally, to my great relief, “Four!”

I had made it. The four boulders were no longer there but the whole platoon was laughing at my performance and no one was impressed by my work.

Kuntz ran to take my place and exploded his four boulders with precision.

“Well done, Kuntz,” said Lieutenant Carre.

Everyone applauded his performance. Now there were only four boulders left, waiting for the fourth artiste. Boucher, the school teacher, appeared on the ‘stage’. He was calm and reserved, he never swore and he spoke to us as if we were students in his classroom, but he had an incredibly dry sense of humour. He walked towards the boulders sedately and with an air of complete control. The Captain of the Legionnaires approached Lieutenant Carre, getting more impatient by the minute.

“This is the last four, I hope,” he snapped.

Meanwhile Boucher meticulously pinched the fuses into the detonators, split them and inserted them into the sticks of gelignite waiting in the boulders. One by one he lit them and then quickly ran for cover. The ground moved once more and, as an echo to the explosion, the mob yelled, “One!” The ground moved again. “Two!” Then, “Three!” But then, nothing. Everyone waited, looking at one another. The fourth boulder should have exploded by now.

“Are you sure you lit it properly Boucher?” asked Carre.

The ‘Dogs of War’ were again getting restless.

“Are we going to spend the night here?” yelled one of their Officers.

The clock kept ticking and still there was no explosion. We were all upset for Boucher, but still we waited. Five minutes went by and something had to be done soon.

“Boucher, you didn’t light the forth one, did you?” yelled Carre.

“Yes Sir. I did! I’m sure of it!” he replied, defensively.

“Boucher, we can’t wait here indefinitely. You’ll have to go out there and light it again,” ordered Carre.

Boucher visibly paled. He’d heard of the consequences of such actions. Accidents with explosives were frequent in the army.

“Boucher,” shouted Carre, “We can’t have the Legionnaires waiting much longer. Off you go and do your job properly this time!”

“Can we wait, another five minutes Sir? To make sure.” stammered Boucher.

“Yes – go and tell that to the Captain of the Legion!” sneered Carre.

But as they disputed, and before anyone realised it, someone left the group and ran at top speed towards the standing boulder. It was, of course, our hero, Milhaud. He had a reputation for this sort of daring feat, having done it many times before. Challenging the speed of light, he would have to pull the detonator from the gelignite and throw it as far away as he could. Silence prevailed as we anxiously watched him. This was Russian roulette at its best and Milhaud revelled in it. He had his audience, particularly the company of Legionnaires, and their recognition was far more important to him than the fear of death. And the bonus would be another medal or a star on his military cross.

With bated breath, we watched as he reached for the detonator, but as his hand touched the fuse, his Baraka (Arabic word for luck) abandoned him for the first time. The huge boulder heaved upwards and exploded with colossal force. The compressed gelignite shattered the rock into thousands of granite shards, spewing them into the sky. The ground shook and trembled and the debris fell to the ground with tremendous force. The noise receded, and a volcanic cloud of dust rose and obliterated the whole scene.

We were speechless. No one could believe it. But before the dust settled, our whole platoon broke into action. We all ran to the pyramid of shattered rock and frantically began to throw aside the granite. All of the Legionnaires and their Officers ran to assist us. Lieutenant Carre was in shock and peered at the cloud of dust as if expecting Milhaud to appear, smile at us and say, ‘You see boys! There’s nothing to it! ‘But there was no sign of life whatsoever, just a pile of broken stones and no one walked miraculously from it. Boucher was grievously distressed. He felt it was entirely his fault. And the rest of us, although we were in a panic and searching frantically for Milhaud, tried to resign ourselves to the inevitable. With our bare hands, we tossed aside the granite, but we found no trace of Milhaud. Then two Legionnaires, dripping with sweat, stood up and called, “Franzosen, come here! We have found him!”

They had indeed found him. He was lying on his back between stones and was unrecognisable as human, his body completely broken by the heavy pieces of granite. There was no sign of life whatsoever. The Legionnaires lifted Milhaud’s body and carefully laid it on a stretcher that they had fetched from one of their trucks.

“Put him in one of our trucks,” said Lieutenant Carre, obviously deeply affected by the catastrophe.

Before they could do so Chevalier ran up with his medical box and checked Milhaud’s pulse. Nothing. He looked at us in silence. Milhaud had been killed instantly. He did not suffer. Then Pouzache, with tears running down his face, used his own army scarf to clean Milhaud’s lifeless face. No one could believe that our show man was dead. We all thought he was invincible. Carre, trying to pull himself together, gave direction to the men.

“Oliver, take him immediately to Souk–Ahras. Chevalier, Fiset and Kuntz, you will accompany him.”

As we carried his body on the stretcher to the waiting truck, the Captain of the Legionnaires called out, “Legionnaires! Attention! Present arms!”

The whole company of Legionnaires stood at attention and saluted our hero. He had won the respect of everyone for his daring acts of bravery and this was their last opportunity to honour him.

Sitting in the back of the truck we held the stretcher on each side to stop it from sliding on the steel floor as we took the road to Souk–Ahras. We would accompany Milhaud as far as we could on his last journey through Algeria. It was a repeat performance. A mere few months ago we had done the same for Bazo. And just as he had on that previous journey, the driver undertook the trip at an incredible speed. Why? Did he think our superman could be saved from death?

During this trip I looked at Milhaud’s face, which strangely, had not been damaged by the explosion. He was smiling peacefully, an expression that gave the impression he had reached another world, a world where there was no war, no weapons, no fighting, and where you didn’t have to prove yourself in order to be accepted by the men in your regiment. This was a world where there were no medals for putting your life on the line, and no audience to watch you performing daring feats. A world where there was no applause. On the trip to Souk–Ahris, I wondered to myself how many more of our company I would have to escort on their last trip. Chevalier, Kuntz and I looked at each other and I’m sure we were all thinking the same thing. Who among us would be next?

The evening of the 12th of July 1962 was supposed to be a happy event in our camp. Every one of us had helped to prepare a fantastic feast for Milhaud’s birthday but death had decided otherwise. The large tent which had been converted into a reception and dinner hall for his party was dissembled and the food and hundreds of bottles of fine wines were all put away. We were all mourning our friend and even the Officers were grieving.

Some months before, Milhaud had given me his address in France and an invitation to meet and visit his family when passing through his village. Somehow, I could never imagine him taking over the running of his Father’s chemist shop, standing behind the counter, counting pills and giving medication to an endless queue of customers. And now he never would. Sitting on my stretcher I tried to write a letter to my parents but I could not find the words. I just kept looking at the corner where Milhaud’s stretcher was. His desk was covered with explosives and parts of mines. His bundle of nylon cords and safety pins hung over his bed and his medals were next to it. Was the glory worth the sacrifice? Then, I heard the familiar sound of someone walking outside. The entry to our tent opened and someone came inside. Thoughts raced through my mind. ‘It’s him, Milhaud, with his usual smile. He didn’t die after all. It was just a bad dream.’ But of course it wasn’t. It was Pouzache coming to undertake an unenviable task and he asked me to help him. We had to pack up Milhaud’s belongings so that they could be sent, along with his body, to his parents in France. His private box was filled with souvenirs and photos, and we selected the one that he treasured most to be pinned to the inside lid of his coffin. It was larger than the others, a coloured photograph of his fiancée, Gabrielle, wearing the beautiful red dress made of the silk parachute which he had recovered for her.

We knew that by the next evening Milhaud would be inside his khaki aluminium coffin with his metal tag screwed on it, and an army forklift would stack it in a warehouse on the wharf of Bones. His coffin would join hundreds of other coffins, hundreds of other boys who had been killed in Algeria and were waiting to be loaded onto a ship. There was no difference between him and the other conscripts except for the name tag on the coffin. All the glory was now gone forever. It meant nothing anymore and all Milhaud’s admirers would soon forget him. His medals would lay hidden in a box somewhere in an attic in France. But as far as our company were concerned, we had lost a part of ourselves. Something in each of us had died with the loss of Milhaud.

19 July 1961. We had not slept the previous night because we were all on edge. Our artillery had been bombarding the F.L.N. forces in ‘no man’s land’. The Arabs responded by firing shells into our camp, and they fell close to the pile of boxes containing thousands of mines. We were worried that our luck would not hold.

20 July 1961. It was four a.m. and no one could sleep because of the activities on the Barrage. We were all hoping that the duel between our artillery and the Fellaghas would stop, but our hopes were in vain. To the contrary, it got even worse. We heard the Officers running outside of the tents, yelling orders. “Branle bas de combat!”

“Battle ready in ten minutes!” yelled the Lieutenant, poking his head into our tent. It seemed that, once more we would have to repair the Barrage. I, like everyone else, only had time to jump from my stretcher, throw on my dirty muddy battledress, pull on my rangers and my bush hat, grab my MAT49 and ammunition, and run to the trucks which were lined up on the dirt road, their engines roaring and ready to go. Men were running to and from, loading an avalanche of materials into the trucks, dozens of wooden electric posts with their isolators already screwed on them, bundles of triangular steel posts, rolls and rolls of barbed wire and boxes of tools.

“It must be bad there!” said Maillet,

“Yes! We heard that the Fellaghas have blown out a huge part of the Barrage, and are attacking en masse!” said someone in the truck.

We had all seen this kind of operation before but this time it was different. Everyone was panicking, even the Officers. Obviously it was not a routine repair of an assault on the Barrage. It was a much more important and urgent operation.

The battle between the Katibas of the Fellaghas and our infantry posted along the Barrage was amplifying by the minute. We could hear the struggles between the two factions. The heavy artillery at the back of our camp was supporting the Foreign Legion who were bombarding the Arabs’ position just behind the Barrage. Volleys of heavy 155 mm shells were passing low over our trucks with a frightening whistling noise. The artillery below the hill joined in, targeting their 105 mm shells on the F.L.N. Katibas.

“In my jeep now, Fiset!” yelled Lieutenant Legoubin, in total panic. “We have been ordered to get to the Barrage as quickly as we can. They have demolished a few kilometres of it. There are many breaks in it. We have to be fast.”

I knew that we, the Pioneer Units, would be sitting, as always, in the first advance post trying to repair the network while a battle raged around us. The radio in our jeep was working nonstop, pouring out orders and counter orders for the infantry units. These units were trying to contain the massive Arab attack between the Barrage and the minefield two kilometres further on, but it was obvious that no one knew exactly what was going on or even exactly where the Fellaghas were. The chaos on the road was incredible as reinforcement units had been called from all over the area.

The driver of our jeep, a young man from the south of France, had joined the army at eighteen. On his arrival at our camp a few weeks before, he had loudly and clearly proclaimed, “I can’t wait to meet these bloody Fellaghas. I’ll cut their ears off and bring them to France as a souvenir! I want to kill all these bastards! This is why I joined up early. I didn’t want to miss the show.”

Well, his wishes were coming true. He was driving our jeep right towards the Fellaghas who were attacking the Barrage. The only comfort for me was that I was armed. We had been told to take our weapons with us. Then a message on the radio gave a little more reassurance. We heard that the Third Regiment of Legions had been sent to help us and had already reached their position. We would be able to work under their protection. Moments later we saw their trucks parked on the side of the road, bumper to bumper in a long file.

As we reached the first mine field, a group of Legionnaires appeared on the dirt road in front of us. Behind them, the road to the entrance of the second minefield was blocked by concertina wire and platoons of Legionnaires in defensive positions.

“Halt!” ordered an N.C.O. of the Legionnaires, pointing his torch in our direction. “Walk to our jeep. Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“Lieutenant Legoubin, 37th Battalion of Pioneers. We have received orders to be on the Barrage to repair the breaks in it!” responded our Lieutenant.

“What! Now! The Fellaghas are everywhere and they have demolished the Barrage in many places. They are trying to pass the second minefield and we are here to stop them by blocking the entry,” explained the Legionnaire.

“So do you know where they are?” asked Legoubin worriedly.

“No Sir. At this stage it’s too early to determine but the Second Company of Legions is on the bitumen road at the end of this dirt road. You can join them if you are daring enough,” said the Legionnaire.

Sitting in the back of the jeep, I was praying that our Lieutenant would decline the offer and wait here. Above us I could hear the rattling of an AA52 machine gun, firing bands of hundreds of bullets, one after another. Near us, the incessant explosions and the firing of the guns made a deafening racket, and it was difficult to converse.

“OK, Sergeant. Open the concertinas!” yelled Legoubin. “We’ll join them.”

“As you wish, Sir,” said the Legionnaire.

“We have two trucks coming behind us, so let them go through too,” instructed Legoubin.

I dreaded the situation we were headed for. At any time a mortar shell could hit our jeep and send the three of us to heaven.

As we approached the bitumen road leading to the Barrage, the fighting nearby became more intense. The explosions of shells were getting closer and closer and the Fellaghas matched our volleys, shell for shell. Our dashing young driver became more anxious and nervous each time a shell exploded near the jeep and he turned grey, his jaws set with tension, he gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and he was crippled with fear. Then, in the dim light of dawn, we distinguished the wooden posts of the Barrage in front of us. We had arrived in one piece.

On the side of the road the Second Company of Legions was lying in the deep gutters, seeking shelter from the bombardment. They carried an impressive armoury of weapons and they were waiting calmly for orders to move on, in silence. Most of them were smoking and listening to their radios. The Fellaghas were trying as hard as they could to push the Legionnaires from the dirt road and to dislodge them from the road junction. To reach the second minefield entrance, the Fellaghas needed to pass this point. But the mortar shells of a nearby infantry unit were searching for them in the dark, coming closer to them each time they fired. Then, just as we reached the junction, a mortar fell on the road right in front of our jeep, spraying it with shrapnel and pieces of bitumen. The noise was horrific and the windscreen of our jeep was wrecked. The three of us jumped off the jeep and rolled into the gutters next to the Legionnaires who were all laughing at our misfortune.

As the sun came up, it lit up the killing field and we put our torches aside Lieutenant Legoubin managed to recover his composure and started yelling at an Officer of the Legionnaires. “Where are the Fellaghas now?”

“Somewhere in front of us sir!” answered the Legionnaire, calmly smoking a cigarette. “We have to stay here to stop them coming this way but you can take the road to Souk–Ahras on the opposite side. It’s safe. The Fells have been and gone, but there’s a huge break in the Barrage for you to repair.”

“Thank you for the information. We’ll do that,” said Legoubin.

Back in the jeep we drove along the bitumen road towards Souk–Ahras and our driver regained his confidence as we moved further from the Fellagha shelling. But as we were driving inside a deep canyon we were surprised to see that the Fellagha artillery was shelling a French fort on the other side of the cliff. The fort was made of enormous tree trunks but they were being blown into the sky by the powerful shells. The French Colonial Infantry on duty were answering back with their own guns. The shells were passing back and forth above us. What a vision of hell, I thought to myself. I didn’t think that anyone in that fort could survive and I was wet with perspiration. However, I was in better shape than our driver. He stopped the jeep, shocked and pale, paralysed and incapable of making a move. The fear of dying had transformed him into a stone statue.

“Are you going to drive this jeep or not?” screamed Legoubin.

But I yelled out to him. “Sir, it is not safe to drive any further on this road. Can we turn back?”

“No Fiset. We have a mission to accomplish and we will do it!” he barked. “Help me to shift this fellow to the back of the jeep. I’ll drive it myself from now on!”

Together we grabbed the driver and managed to detach him from the steering wheel and move him to the back of the jeep. Legoubin took over the driving.

“Sir, we do not know where the Fellaghas are!” I ventured, all the time knowing that Legoubin would never listen to my counsel. He was determined to accomplish any mission he was given, no matter what it was. His will was stronger than his fear.

As we reached the protection of a hill, the Lieutenant stopped the jeep and said, “OK, Fiset, we’ll wait here for the other two trucks to arrive and then we’ll start from here and inspect the Barrage to find the breaks. “Soon more army units began to arrive behind us, Marines, Paras, Legionnaires and Cavalry units, but no one seemed to know what we were all supposed to do or where the Arabs were. Nevertheless, the Fellaghas knew where we were, our huge trucks parked bumper to bumper along the road providing them with an incredible target. Shells of all sizes begin to fall around our trucks.

“Everyone take cover!” yelled a Captain of the Infantry as he dived into the gutter on the side of the road.

“Our trucks have attracted them, sir,” said someone from his company.

Our platoon had arrived a few minutes earlier and the men were still sitting in the two vehicles but, because of the noise, they didn’t realise that they were being targeted by the Fellaghas. It was only when they saw bullets ripping through the canvas above their heads that they panicked and jumped from the trucks into the gutters.

Suddenly, a 120–mm shell hit an Infantry truck, exploding it and sending thousands of pieces of metal into the sky. Panic surfaced as everyone tried to escape to a safer place but a high fence of huge cactus trees blocked our getaway. The long hard prickly thorns were intended to stop cattle from wandering, but it was our only way to escape the killing field. So, with our battle dress jackets over our heads, we forced our way through the dreadful cactus fence. What a sight when we got to the other side. Most of us were bleeding from the face, hands, arms and legs. Our clothes had been torn apart by the sharp thorns and some men had lost their weapons. All around, men fell to the ground, exhausted and crying from pain. It was chaos. Men did not know where their units or their Officers were. The Officers did not know where their men were. One Infantry Captain tried to regroup his company by calling to his Lieutenants. To their credit, the medics had carried their first aid kits through the fence, and were already attending the fellows with shrapnel wounds.

I was with Pouzache, Magnen and a few other fellows from our platoon, and some others soon joined us as we gathered around Lieutenant Legoubin.

“Kuntz and Fiset, I want you to regroup the platoon. We have to go back to the road and on to the Barrage. We have to repair it right away,” he ordered.

“Has anyone seen our Captain?” asked Bal.

“He was in his jeep last time we saw him,” proffered one of the men.

We could not imagine him going through a fence made of cactus trees, so we figured that he must still be on the road. But it was too risky to venture onto the bitumen road to check. The Fellaghas used binoculars to watch our every movement, and they were in full attack. One group of them had crawled close and they were using their heavy weapons to bomb us. The noise of the heavy shells hitting the road was horrendous and we were constantly being sprayed with millions of pieces of bitumen. They were targeting our trucks which were still on the road in full view. We couldn’t retreat so our only option was to lie down next to the big trees near the cactus fence.

Someone, crawling on all fours, thought they had spotted our Captain, and told Legoubin.

“Fiset and Pouzache, go back to the road and see if you can find him” directed Legoubin.

Upon hearing my name I wanted to say, ‘Why don’t you go and search for him? He’s your Captain also! ‘But I knew that if I spoke my mind I would have an avalanche of punishments thrust upon me. So once more Pouzache and I crawled with great difficulty back through the cactus fence towards the bitumen road, guaranteeing the final demise of our battle dress. We then crawled along the deep gutter until we came to one of our trucks, but the cabin had been hit by a shell and all that was left was a mass of twisted metal. The road was a mountain of debris, scattered in every direction. A few wounded men were lying among the rubble, calling for help but incapable of making any move. Some were swimming in a pool of blood and one poor soul was lying there with his skull wide open. Still we crawled onward, looking for our Captain.

“This is his jeep,” said Pouzache, pointing to the right.

Indeed, his jeep was sitting there on the bombed road, completely intact. Pouzache went closer and then called to me.

“He’s underneath it with the radio telephone in his hand and yelling orders,” he informed me.

“Send the aerial reinforcements immediately? It is extremely urgent,” we heard him say.

“Yes! On road 84. We are pinned down by the Fells. Please hurry!”

While waiting for the air force to arrive from Telergma, our artillery started using all the guns they could muster. They retaliated, firing salvo after salvo at the Fellaghas and soon the sky was full of shells whistling over our heads. The noise was continuous and deafening, similar to a TGV train racing through a station at 300 kilometres per hour. As our shells fell onto the Arab positions in the hills opposite, they exploded with such force that the whole mountain shook and trembled. A huge chunk of a hill went up into the sky with the trees still standing on it. We lay on the ground, covering our ears with our hands and willing the bombardment to stop. But the French artillery was determined to demolish the Arab forces hidden in deep caves in the hills, particularly one known as ‘the Bird’s Hill’. They targeted it relentlessly.

The Arabs stopped their bombing. We assumed that they had withdrawn deep into the caves for protection. We had been told that the Fellaghas had transformed ‘Bird Hill’, a hill in ‘No Man’s Land’, into a veritable fortress, using the hundreds of deep grottoes there as a natural means of protection. Nevertheless, they had suffered a shocking assault.

“How can anyone survive such a bombardment?” reflected Pouzache.

During this short respite, our Captain and his driver turned their jeep around and sped to a more secure position behind the hill.

“Have you found the Captain, Fiset?” screamed Lieutenant Legoubin as we returned to our platoon.

“Yes sir. He was on the road and he’s taken his jeep to a more secure position,” I replied.

The fellows in our platoon burst out laughing.

“I’m glad that nothing has happened to him,” said Legoubin.

But the more recent recruits to our platoon were in deep shock, totally unprepared for what they had just experienced. One of them had joined the army before being called up at eighteen years of age. He looked like a fourteen–year old school boy and he was sitting on the grass crying like a child.

One Regiment of Marine Infantry had managed to regroup their company. Their Officers wanted them to go back to the road but the battle noise hampered their orders.

Some of the other army units were crawling to higher ground, as far away as they could from the trucks.

All of a sudden, someone came running from the direction of the Barrage and screamed, “Get ready. The Fells are coming!”

Imagine the panic. Everyone was shaking and grabbing their guns.

“We’re going to stay together along the fence,” said Legoubin. “Furthermore, no one fires his gun before I give the order.”

No one knew where the Fellaghas were or which direction they were coming from, but to our great relief two heavily armed companies of Legionnaires appeared behind us. They were from the toughest Regiment of the Legion, the REP, the most battle hardened of all. Then cavalry tanks arrived with their menacing 75 mm guns, ready to back up the Legionnaires.

The Fellaghas had resumed their fire, so the Legions and the tanks moved cautiously, but surprisingly quickly down the bitumen road. The artillery stopped firing but the reprieve was short lived for they soon resumed firing with increased vigour. Then the roaring engines of heavy bombers filled the air. The noise was unbelievable. The bomber squadron, flying at low altitude, headed straight for their target, ‘the Bird’s Hill’. They opened their bomb bay doors, releasing hundreds of tons of bombs and napalm, showering the Arab fortresses with their lethal cargo. The air resounded with an incessant series of explosions and the hills burst into flame. It looked like an earthquake, with the hills disappearing and everything burning. It was total hell.

The bombers returned to their base and were replaced by the light fighter planes which had been sent in to complete the destruction. As I watched, I had a vision of a circus where artists perform one after another, each one demonstrating what they can do. Meanwhile, the Legionnaires had reached the Barrage and were assembled where it had been cut. It seemed that the Fellaghas were no longer on our side of the Barrage and had returned to their base in Tunisia.

Overhead, the fighter planes formed themselves into a large ring, circling the hills with their rockets and machine guns ready for action. Then, one at a time, they nose–dived at incredible speed towards the entry to the grottoes, or what was left of them, and fired savagely before screeching away to rejoin their comrades, leaving the next plane to repeat the manoeuvre. But the Arabs were resilient fighters and as the planes dived towards them, they returned fire with their heavy machine guns. It was an incredible duel. Two of the fighter planes crashed on the Bird’s Hill. More explosions. More fire.

“Surely there mustn’t be anything left of them,” said Maillet. “Who could survive such a holocaust?”

In the interim, we waited nervously for our turn to ‘perform’. We knew that the order would come. But the best artists were called first, the Foreign Legion. Their Lieutenants, Captains, Commandants and even their Colonel were assembled, indicating that there would be considerable action. They loved to be there for the killing. Their Colonel, a giant of a man with a glassy look, scrutinised the hills with his binoculars. Crouching in the gutters, we were dumbfounded. A Colonel on the battlefield. The highest officer in our battalion, the Captain, had only ever appeared for a short time in a danger zone, and had then disappeared as fast as he could. The supreme leader of our battalion, the Commandant, would not even know what the Barrage looked like. But the ‘Dogs of War’ were different. Their name told the story. They lived for warfare.

“What can you see, Captain?” the Colonel asked one of the Legionnaire Officers.

“The place looks quiet, Colonel,” he replied.

“I agree. Let’s move in now!” said the Colonel.

As soon as he had uttered these words, the Officers conveyed his orders to the waiting Warrant Officers who immediately began to bark orders and group their platoons. The Legion was on the move.

“Be prepared to move to the Barrage as soon as the Legion is gone,” warned our Lieutenant. “We have to repair it before tonight. Kuntz and Fiset, take your fellows to the left of the break and I’ll take the rest to the right of it.”

“Legionnaires! In formation, ready to advance,” yelled a burly Warrant Officer.

The formation they exercised was known as the ‘steam roller. ‘The Legionnaires would position themselves into a long line, and then this line would move a few metres at a time, all of the men firing in front of them. If and when any of them met with resistance, every Legionnaire would kneel down and focus on the trouble spot, pelting it with a wall of bullets. When the resistance was broken they would stand and continue their advance in this fashion until they reached their objective. This technique had proved to be very successful, so they used it often. In this instance, the Cavalry was at the back of them, supporting their advance by firing direct shots from their long guns into the enemy positions.

As the Legionnaires moved out, we followed suite, but our progress towards the break in the Barrage was slow. Because of the melee we moved along in the watery gutters and our boots were soon soaked. We were all anxious, but our Lieutenant was more petrified of dying from a stray bullet than we were. Unfortunately for him, he was an Officer and could not admit his fear. He had to crawl in front and execute all the orders given him without question. He was squashed between us and his Superior Officers. He was the meat in the sandwich.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 13

BATTLE ON THE MIGHTY BARRAGE

 

More army units were arriving on the Barrage to back up the Legionnaires.

The Arabs, facing the Legion’s steam roller, put up a stiff defence. They sprayed the Legionnaires with machine gun fire and an unremittent bombing of heavy mortar. After the air attack, the Legionnaires were not expecting such an aggressive response, and they started to slow their advancement. Many of them were wounded and unable to continue and, in spite of the barking of their Warrant Officers, the whole company came to a standstill and took cover in the high grass.

Another company of Legionnaires arrived, and they passed us in single file as they made their way to assist their comrades, some of whom were being carried back on stretchers by the medics. Meanwhile, the Fellaghas doubled their efforts and cut down any Legionnaire who was daring enough to try to advance.one of the Legion Captains was insane. He deliberately stood in the field of death and yelled to his men, “Legionnaires, stand at attention!”

In one block the steam roller stood up.

“Legionnaires! Move on, now!” he screamed.

And the whole company moved ahead into a wall of bullets and to a certain death. Back on the road their Colonel stood on a jeep with his binoculars and watched his men follow these suicidal orders.

“It’s almost like they don’t know they’re under fire!” said Loti.

The Legion Officers were glued to their radios, listening to orders from their Colonel. Screaming to be heard above the increasing din, they yelled, “Move on now! It doesn’t matter about the cost!”

“Fiset, I want you to take four men with you and see exactly how many electric posts we need to repair the Barrage,” ordered Lieutenant Legoubin.

I was gripped by fear that I didn’t know how to control. Even my nervous energy was running out and I wanted to beg Legoubin to wait until the battle slowed down, or to tell him that if he was so keen, he could take four fellows and do it himself. Unfortunately I was part of a huge and complex system which neither I nor anyone else could go against. So gathering the little courage I had left I obeyed his orders. Maillet volunteered to come with me and handed me his water bottle full of strong, red, Algerian wine. What a thoughtful friend.

As Maillet and I crawled along the gutters past the men in our platoon I could tell what they were thinking. ‘Thank God it’s you, not me!’ Then Joncquet tapped me on the shoulder.

“Do you want me to come with you, Christian?”

Joncquet had always been a genuine friend and proved to be so again. Bal and Pouzache joined us and as we crawled along, dragging our weapons and making our way through the twisted barbed wire, posts and branches, everyone looked at us as if we were already dead. It was 10 a.m. and the hot African sun was already high in the sky. When we were close to the Barrage we paused while Bal took stock of the situation. He gave a hand signal when it was safe to come out and, in one jump, we all leapt out of the trench and started crawling through the network of wires on the Barrage. What a target for the Arabs.

The Legionnaires in front of us were supposed to be giving us protection, but they were trying desperately to hold their ground. One of their Captains stood up and yelled to his men, “Legionnaires, move forward…” He did not finish his sentence. The Arabs shot him down and he rolled into the high grass in the midst of his frightened Legionnaires. He was dead. The horrified and demoralised Legions then retreated, much to our amazement. This was something seldom seen in the army.

“The Legion is retreating from the enemy,” everyone was saying.

And as they were coming back towards us I made a quick appraisal of the damage to the Barrage.

“We need to replace twenty–eight posts,” I yelled to Bal as we hastily made our way back to the platoon. The Arabs, watching us with their binoculars, were trying to kill as many of us as possible.

Legoubin asked how many posts we needed to replace, and immediately sent the rest of the platoon to fetch the materials we needed from our truck. The break definitely had to be repaired before nightfall as it was doubtful that the Legionnaires would stay and protect the area.

In front of us we could see another terrible moment unfolding. The Colonel of the Legion was livid with rage.

“Why on earth are you retreating from this bunch of Fells?” he screamed. “If I’d been out there I would’ve shown you that Legionnaires never retreat from their enemy, even if it means death! You’re a bunch of useless bastards!”

“Sir, we have asked the artillery to push them back and then, before nightfall, we will go in again for a final assault,” rationalised one of the Officers.

Meanwhile our comrades were dragging heavy wooden posts fitted with isolators, through the deep gutters and crawling with them towards the break in the Barrage. Then someone pointed to a jeep coming towards us on a safe section of the road.

“I can’t believe it! It’s the Captain of the 34th Battalion,” declared Legoubin.

“Have you got your camera with you, Maillet?” asked Pouzache. “I have to take a photo of this because no one will believe it!”

Everyone was laughing at the Captain’s ‘daring feat’. Captains rarely came near a battlefield; our own Captain, de Villers, certainly didn’t. Captain Nicols, immaculate in his clean uniform, left his jeep and crawled along the gutters towards us. He looked ridiculous and completely out of place, and when he joined us he was out of breath.

“Where is your Lieutenant?” he gasped.

“Here I am Sir!” said Legoubin, saluting him.

“Right Lieutenant, the Colonel wants the Barrage repaired by six o’ clock tonight, with the electricity functioning. Do you understand?”

 “Yes Sir! It’ll be done before six,” promised Legoubin, and he turned to us and ordered, “Hurry up, get into action now. We don’t have time to waste!”

After completing his important mission, the Captain tried to get back to his jeep as quickly as he could. He was physically unfit and as he hurriedly climbed into the trench, he slipped on the wet grass, lost his balance and fell flat on his face into the muddy water, right where we were crouching down. Struggling to recover his composure in front of us, he tried to get to his feet, aided by Lieutenant Legoubin. He had turned into a mud soldier, and not even the three gold bars denoting his rank could be distinguished from the rest of his uniform. Everyone was trying hard not to laugh.

“I’m sorry about that, Sir!” apologised Legoubin, embarrassed by the incident.

“Bloody war! Bloody bastard Fellaghas! I hate them all!” the Captain bawled, and, wild with anger, he stomped back to his jeep.

“He might be able to win another medal for his courageous action.” suggested someone in the trench.” I can imagine him typing up a report about it. It will read something like, ‘After assisting the 37th Battalion to repair the network, we were caught by a heavy bombardment from the enemy, but as the break had to be restored before nightfall, I ordered them to get it done within the required timeframe. The repair was done successfully. “I’m sure you’ll agree that he is a hero.”

Everyone laughed at the fellow’s sarcasm.

Once more the Legionnaires were sent to the Barrage to protect us while we repaired the break. We had to dig holes and set the posts in them.

“I want the whole platoon at the break in the Barrage, now!” ordered Legoubin. So we all crawled towards it, dragging our equipment. Once there, we had to stay as low as we could and dig the holes deep enough to hold the posts. Positioning the posts and securing them was difficult, but no one could work upright as the Fellaghas shot anyone who even raised their head. It was slow work. The sun was going down and night was fast approaching. Our job was not finished and the Lieutenant was worried. He felt that he’d failed in his duty.

“The Legionnaires will have to stay here tonight and stop any Fells coming through the gap,” he said. “We can’t strain the wire now, so we’ll sleep here and finish the job early tomorrow morning.”

We faced the prospect of another terrible and sleepless night with the likelihood of the Fellaghas moving closer during the night, and knowing that they would definitely resume their attack on the Barrage in the morning.

Lieutenant Legoubin appeared to be extremely nervous. He didn’t lie down at all, but stood next to his jeep, his cigarette gripped in his mouth. He was worried about failing to complete his mission and displeasing the Colonel, and he couldn’t relax at all. No doubt he felt the full weight of his responsibility for he was the only Officer at hand and he was charged with making sure that the Barrage was repaired and fully operational. The onus of blocking the Fellaghas’ passage fell on him. As an Officer, Legoubin’s deal in the army was much worse than that of the conscripts. He had no friends that he could talk to and share confidences with, he couldn’t show emotion, particularly fear, and he always had to keep his distance from us. He was the victim of the single gold stick that he and every other Lieutenant wore on their shoulder. Looking at him, we all felt sorry for him. Joncquet took him an aluminium mug of hot sugary wine to warm him up.

21 July 1961. It was still dark and cold as we were called to duty. No one had been able to sleep much. The cold, the fear of attack and the disturbances as we changed guard duty was not conducive to deep slumber.

“We’ve just been told that six men from the marine infantry were killed yesterday, and many more were wounded,” reported the radio operator. The Legion had suffered even greater losses but they never publicised their fatalities, considering it bad for the morale of the Legionnaires. They kept everything secret and the French army was never informed about their casualties. Two men from our company had been killed and a few were wounded, three of them seriously.

By 6 a.m. the Legionnaires were in position waiting for their Warrant Officers to give the order to advance. We could hear their Officers yelling out orders. They had asked the Artillery to dampen the Arab force and we could hear the heavy shells resuming their assault, their whistling paths tearing the sky apart.

“I want the whole platoon in the network now and the repair completed before 10 o’clock,” ordered Legoubin.

Taking advantage of the relative quietness of the moment, we all crawled back to the Barrage, our tools in hand and our PM49s attached to our backs. The Legion, in their steam roller formation, was ready to move on again, and some of their platoons were already engaged in combat with the Fellaghas who had crawled closer to the Barrage during the night. We pulled rolls and rolls of barbed wire across the partially repaired section of the Barrage to provide a temporary barrier while we strained the wires and reconnected the 5,000 Volt electrical current.

The F.L.N. was supported by their Moslem brothers in Tunisia, and they were throwing all their forces at this section of the Barrage. They were firing at us with every weapon they could get in order to prevent us from reconnecting the electricity. With the money collected in France and that given by sympathetic countries, they could afford the best equipment available on the arms market. Contrary to what we had been told, their weapons were much better than ours. At least they were up to date. Our abundant supply of M1 American guns were over twenty–years old and were totally inaccurate. They were relics from World War 2.

Loti was not far from the truth when he said, “You could not kill a cow in the passage of your house with these guns.”

Even though we were still engaged in bloody battles, we all knew that the Algerians had won the war, that De Gaul had virtually granted them their independence. And therefore, not wanting to be on the wrong side when it was all over, a great many of the men serving with us had deserted to join the F.L.N. army. More surprising than French soldiers absconding was that many Officers followed suit, as did many Legionnaires, especially since the Arabs offered them a much better deal, one that included respect. So, despite the carnage on both sides, the Fellagha forces were growing.

Once the network was clear of debris, we were ready to strain the barbed wire between the posts and attach it to the isolators.

“Everyone – get ready to hook the wire onto the posts, two people on each of them!” yelled our Lieutenant.

I was positioned in the middle of the break, and was paired up with Lieutenant Legoubin himself to carry out this operation which involved one person holding the wire on the isolator and the other one using pliers to secure it with a special clip. We also had to leave a passageway through the network so that the Legionnaires could return later in the day. We worked as fast as we could because the Fellaghas realised what we were doing and started firing at us. Our Artillery counter fired, and salvo after salvo crisscrossed the sky above our heads. The tension made us more nervous than ever and I longed to finish securing the last nine wires to the posts and leave that deadly place as fast as I could.

Platoon after platoon of Legionnaires withdrew from No Man’s Land for a rest and two companies of Marine Infantry arrived to take their place at the battle front. one unit positioned their mortars behind us to protect us during our work. But we were sitting ducks in full view of the Fellaghas who had also witnessed the withdrawal of the Legion from their position between us and them. They started to crawl nearer to the Barrage, using their automatic weapons to bombard us.

Joncquet was at the post next to me. He looked at me as if to say, ‘Don’t worry. Everything will be all right! It’s just a bad moment to go through.’ Maillet passed us his water bottle full of wine. We needed it. Legoubin was working with us, wanting to prove that he was a good officer who undertook his share of the work, but there were nine wires to attach to each electric post and we were only doing the second one.

“Ready for the third wire!” yelled our Lieutenant, putting on a show of confidence.

His order was overridden by one of the men yelling, “Mortars! Mortars coming!”

We all dived to the ground, laying as flat as we could, hoping and praying that they would not find their mark. We listened to their familiar whistling through the sky and then braced ourselves as they crashed close to us, spraying us with debris. I held onto the wooden post in front of me with both hands, irrationally hoping that it would protect me. Lieutenant Legoubin was petrified, lost control of his fear, and held onto my arm with his two hands!

“Take your gold stick off your shoulders, Sir! They’ll recognise you as an Officer,” I said.

The Fellaghas were using machines guns to flood the damaged part of the Barrage with hundreds of bullets and the unit of Marines behind us fired back in a frenzied defence, trying to safeguard us and the repair work we had done.

“Call the artillery, quickly!” yelled a Captain of the Marines.

The terrible tearing noise of continuous explosions was sending us mad with fear, and drowned our efforts to communicate with anything less than screaming. Two posts further up from us one of our newly–arrived fellows was laying on the ground covered in blood.

“Taillat has been hit in the head,” screamed his comrade.

“Put him on the side. There is nothing we can do for him now,” someone yelled back.

Lieutenant Legoubin recovered somewhat and started to take control of the platoon.

“Ready for number three wire,” he screamed.

Carrying out his order would have put us in even more danger. We would be on our knees facing the deadly fire of the Fellaghas. What a target for them. They would not believe their luck.

“Sir,” I shouted, “Give us the order to retreat or we’ll all be dead before nightfall!”

But with all the explosions and firing, Legoubin could not even hear me. So under his direction we kept working, hooking up wire after wire. One of our men collapsed on the ground screaming in pain. He had been hit in the chest. Bouchard returned to the trenches, his arm broken by shrapnel. Staying on the Barrage was suicidal. A few of the Marines showed great courage by crawling into the network to assist us.

Lieutenant Legoubin was determined not to fail again in his duty, his fear of losing his honour overruling his fear of battle.

“Everyone ready for number eight wire!” he yelled.

No one moved. No one dared to stand up to do it. We were all paralysed by fear.

“Number eight wire!” he roared.

This wire was one of the most dangerous ones to put on the isolators as we had to stand erect to do it and some of the shorter fellows had to stand on top of rolls of wire to reach it. As we began to stand to carry out our orders, the Arabs became wild with excitement, their fire power so overwhelming that we dropped to the ground again. But Legoubin did not object. He had gone quiet and when I looked at him I could see that his face was distorted with pain. He had been hit!

“What happened, Sir?” I yelled.

“My arm! My arm!” he screamed.

I could see that his battledress had been torn apart by mortar shrapnel, exposing a mass of bleeding flesh, so I called some Marines to carry the Lieutenant back to the trucks. He was fading in and out of consciousness. As I was the most senior Warrant Officer in our platoon, I was now in charge of the repair to the Barrage, but I had no death wish for either myself or the men.

“Retreat!” I yelled’

I had barely given the order when I was struck by a terrible blow on the back of my head, followed by immense pain, a burning sensation and blood dripping all over my face. I had been hit. The blood covered my eyes and I could not see. I crumpled. Joncquet saw me collapse and crawled to my aid as quickly as he could, using his long khaki scarf to bandage my head and stem the flow of blood. Kuntz took charge of the platoon and, aided by Joncquet, I dragged myself to a safer position by the trucks. Chevalier, our medic, was attending the wounded, carefully laying the more seriously injured onto waiting stretchers. Loti was among the wounded and my stretcher was pushed between his and Legoubin’s on the truck.

“Take these fellows to the military hospital now!” yelled one of the Marine Captains, and the frightful journey began.

Taillat was delirious and Bouchoud had just died from a haemorrhage. Maillet had lost several of his fingers and was in terrible pain, while Lieutenant Legoubin was delirious and rambling about something or another. Next to me, I could hear Chevalier whispering to Loti.

“Taillat might not survive,” he confided. “A bullet entered under his cheek and come out the other side of his skull.”

Taillat was an architect in civilian life and had only been with us for three weeks.

I closed my eyes. I was totally exhausted and could not think anymore. I was so tired, so tired of everything. The roaring din of the battlefield receded as the truck sped towards the hospital in Souk–Ahras, and even though our stretchers slid back and forth on the steel tray of the truck, I fell asleep. I dreamt that I was back in Normandy. It was early in the morning and the French windows in the kitchen were open. Branches of white, blue and purple lilac nudged through it and permeated the kitchen with their beautiful scent. I was alone, sitting on my cane chair and looking at the garden. It was so beautiful and peaceful in the quietness of the morning. Then Jeanne appeared at the window, looking at me with her beautiful smile. She was stunning and I leaned closer to hug and kiss her, but she remained silent. Then she looked very sad and disappeared again without saying anything.

24 July 1961. I was at last able to walk around the hospital without any help. I considered myself lucky as the wound on my head was superficial, had been stitched and was healing fast. Maillet and Godefroy were also recovering well and both of them used walking sticks to get around. Together we visited a beautiful spot behind the hospital, a miniature botanical garden, specially designed for the patients to walk and rest in. A small creek ran through it and the water splashed from rock to rock creating a pleasing and relaxing sound, and birds of all sorts sheltered there. We loved it and went there each afternoon to sit on the benches and soak up the silence. I felt blessed to have been wounded only slightly, and to be able to enjoy that little piece of paradise far away from the Barrage and the mine fields. I was recovering slowly, not only physically, but mentally as well. This place was the best medicine I could have received.

In the hospital there were many female nurses who looked after us with devotion and patience. It was wonderful to be near them and to listen to their gentle voices as they asked us if we wanted a cup of coffee. They would deliver the letters from our families, opening them for the fellows who couldn’t do it themselves, and even reading them for a few of the men. But they were also well trained and removed bandages and stitches with expertise, minimising any discomfort that we might have felt. Not that we would have complained anyway: they were so beautiful and their dedication to their work was way above expectation. Being cared for in hospital by these softly spoken nurses was certainly a change from living with the screaming and yelling of the Officers in our camp, and the fear which pervaded our lives, faded into oblivion.

One particular nurse came from Normandy, as I did, and she had the blonde hair and blue eyes typical of girls from that area. She was so sweet and caring that she was the favourite of most of the men. Everyone vied for her attention and they made the most of every opportunity to talk to her. They were all smiles as she changed their bandages, and even when she had to administer painful injections, the men hid their discomfort by cracking jokes with her. She often brought me magazines and whenever she had a break, she would come to my room and talk to me about my life and my family. She reminded me of Jeanne and, in fact, they lived only a few kilometres from each other in Normandy. All of my friends were envious of me.

“I think you have the tick with Catherine,” said Maillet.

“I wish you were right. She’s so beautiful!” I answered, with a smile.

One morning I was walking through the hospital corridor when I noticed that the doors of one of the wards had been left wide open. I glanced towards it and then something grabbed my attention. All of the men were sitting in their beds propped up on their pillows, but the sheets of their beds were completely flat and I realised that none of these poor men had legs. They must have lost them in mine accidents or in battle, and I fell into a sad silence. It wasn’t often that we witnessed the terrible outcomes of war. So much was hidden from us.

Lieutenant Carre came to the hospital one afternoon to bring us the letters from our families. We were excited and we took our time opening and reading them, making the pleasure last as long as we could. Before he left, Carre smiled ironically at us and said, “You’ll be back with us soon. We’re all missing you.”

We could not, of course, tell him the truth. All of us would’ve liked to stay here forever, and never see the Barrage again.

“What do you do in your unit, Christian?” Catherine asked one afternoon.

“We just repair what the Fellaghas destroy during the night. Our job is to make sure that the Barrage stays in working order, and the rest of the time we build mine fields,” I explained.

She took my hands in hers and held them, in silence, looking at me with her eyes full of concern. There was no need for words – it was a wonderful moment, and I had a tremendous urge to kiss her. She was so beautiful.

One day I had to go to the kitchen to fetch my dinner tray. In doing so I had to pass some wards which were further along from the main building and as I walked by, my attention was drawn to an enclosed yard where there were dozens of soldiers, all dressed in white pyjamas and behaving strangely. Some were lying on the ground, some were cursing, swearing and shaking, and others were being assisted by male nurses to walk. This particular group formed a circle as they shuffled along, and they were making all sorts of grotesque gestures as they did so. It was a spectacle from hell, and I stood there in shock. Then I heard a soft and gentle voice behind me.

“Come on, Christian. It’s my lunch break so come with me and have a cup of coffee in the garden. You can have your lunch there also,” murmured Catherine.

She took me by the arm and gently guided me to our usual seat in the garden. Looking at me, she explained what I had witnessed.

“They are the soldiers who have been shell–shocked and it’s difficult to recover from this. They’re not wounded physically. It’s much worse. They are mentally–destroyed for life and there’s not much that we can do for them. They have invisible wounds.”

Catherine’s eyes were full of tears and I took her in my arms to comfort her, wondering how such a beautiful and sensitive person could work in such a sad and heart–wrenching environment. There were no more words between us as we were each lost in our own sad thoughts.

26 July 1961. In the morning after my bandages had been changed, I went straight from the communal room to the garden. The stitches had been removed from the cut on my head, and soon the wound would be barely discernible. Then I would have to return to the war. I sat there on my own with my eyes closed, far away from the roaring noise of the artillery fire; far away from the perpetual fear of being killed. I focused on the running water in the creek and the birds singing in the trees above me. And I wished for a miracle, one that would take me back to Normandy so that I could go to the river Orne and sit in the high, lush green grass forever. I never wanted to see the Barrage again. But my dream was disturbed when I heard Catherine’s soft voice. She was on her break and wanted to spend the time with me.

“You’ll soon we well enough to return to your unit, Christian,” she said, despondently, as she sat down next to me. Then she asked, “Why are you always so sad?”

What could I say to her? I had a head full of terrible memories that I likened to a photo album full of horrors, and which I relived as I turned each page. I took her hands in mine, and looked at her, but could not find a voice to answer her question. She was a picture of sweetness and we had been thrown together in the harsh world of Algeria.

I’d watched Catherine as she worked in the wards. I’d noticed how she moved from wounded to wounded, giving them comfort and support, and how she quickly went to those who called her, holding their hands and reassuring them that everything would be all right. She accompanied the fellows who were sent to the operation block, staying with them until they were anesthetised. Furthermore, when the critically injured and dying called for their mothers, she took the place of their loved ones and soothed their loneliness and fear. She was more of an angel than a mere nurse. She seemed to have time for everyone and she made no distinction between the French soldiers, Officers, Legionnaires, or even the Arabs.

On one occasion she didn’t come into the garden to have lunch with me because a young 18–year–old infantryman was dying. His chest had been blown open by a mortar explosion and nothing could be done for him, so she stayed with him, holding him until he passed away.

27 July 1961. Two GMC trucks pulled into the entry of the hospital. The backs of the trucks were completely closed in with canvas covers, but no injured were carried out. Something was amiss. The doctors went out to the trucks to see who or what they were bringing to the hospital. There seemed to be some panic and then all the nurses that could be spared were taken outside. Catherine was amongst those assembled. Stretchers were lined up and the canvases were pulled aside, revealing a horrific sight. Thirty–eight young soldiers had fallen into the hands of the Fellaghas. There were thirty–eight dead bodies, all of them naked and disembowelled. Their heads, and their sexual organs had been cut off and their dog tags were missing. The nurses had to go into the trucks and carefully slip each body into a special bag. Then all the heads were gathered up and taken into the hospital. Catherine was given the task of trying to match the heads with the bodies.

The day after this happened Catherine was abnormally quiet. She was used to seeing dreadful wounds, but this incident put her in a state of shock and she’d lost all her energy and stamina. She sat with me in the garden and held my hand, but she didn’t say a word.

29 July 1961. A jeep belonging to our unit pulled up in front of the hospital and Lieutenant Legoubin got out. He’d recovered from the wound on his arm, but it was still in plaster.

“Come on Fiset, you’re all right now! The bludge is over. Get Maillet and Godefroy and jump in the jeep. The mine field is waiting for you. You’ve wasted enough time here!” he said.

Reluctantly grabbing my personal belongings, I threw them in the back of the jeep and ran back to the hospital to find Catherine and say goodbye to her. I found her in a ward with a patient who was about to have an operation. As soon as she saw me she knew that the time had come for me to return to my unit.

“Thank you for everything!” I said to her as I took her hand and kissed her.

“Will I see you again?” she asked, looking at me with tears in her eyes.

“Yes! I would definitely like to see you again! I have left you a note with my address in the army and also my address in Normandy!” I replied.

“I’ll write to you, Christian!” she said as I quickly departed, leaving her to do her job. But she watched me leave and waved to me. I waved back. I hated farewells and never seemed to be prepared for them.

“I understand why you’d like to stay here, Fiset!” commented Lieutenant Legoubin as he turned the jeep towards our camp.

“War is definitely the worst thing on this planet!” said Pouzache.

We agreed. Whilst in the hospital at Souk–Ahras, we’d seen things that the people back in France would never see, and would find difficult to believe even if we told them. But, of course, no one would ever tell them. The reports hid the ghastly facts and our letters were censored, as they didn’t want us to tell our parents the truth about the war. Our Officers told us what we could and could not say in our letters, but it was photographs that most concerned the army. Most of us had cameras so photos of the daily killing were forbidden, and we had to be careful not to disobey these orders. The Officers were paranoid about photos falling into the hands of journalists.

The few journalists who were allowed to report on the war could only make commentary on the exploits of the elite French troops, particularly the Legion and the Paras. The Legionnaires were always described as warriors second to none, as knights in shining armour. And of course, the journalists were only permitted to give account of the French victories, never the battles that they lost or that the Fellaghas won. The French were always the winners, never the losers. The photos that were published to enhance these articles were fantastic and were better than those in films like ‘Beau Geste’. But the irony was that the Legionnaires didn’t want their photographs taken in case someone outside of the army recognised them and reported them to the civilian judiciary for the crimes that they had committed before joining the Legion. To their great dismay, some photographs had been accidentally published in a French magazine.

In the meantime the negotiations for Algerian independence had come to a standstill and would not resume for another month. It was planned to hold further discussions in Lugrin, and by all accounts the Algerian Army of Liberation had the upper hand. However, some people still hoped to win Algeria back and a group of soldiers, Officers, Legion deserters and settlers who did not want to lose their land, formed an army called the O.A.S. (Organisation of the Secret Army). Their aim was to spread terror among the Arab population so there was a new wave of slaughter. And we were still camping in the Atlas Mountains and building more mine fields.

“Why do we have to build more minefields now?” asked Bal.

“Look Bal, you have to do what you’re told. Do you understand?” answered Legoubin in an angry voice. “Did you consider that we might have to be ready to stop the F.L.N. army stationed in Tunisia from reaching Algiers before independence is granted? That way, their leader, Colonel Boumedienne, would be able to declare himself President of the new Republic of Algeria without any opposition. What a triumph for him!”

That night as we were completing the repair of a break in the Barrage we came under strong Fellagha fire. No one was expecting it and one of our Pioneers was killed on the spot. In the panic that followed, my old friend Bonnemaison met with a terrible accident while directing the trucks. Both his feet were crushed by the double wheels of a GMC that was reversing, but no one realised it at first. Without uttering a word, he collapsed next to me. We had no idea what had happened to him until we saw his feet. Chevalier and I grabbed him under the arms, put him in a truck, and held him between us as we sped, once again, to the hospital. I looked at my friend, a born leader, obvious even during our training in France, and a comrade who always kept us entertained. And he was extraordinarily courageous. He never lost consciousness during the trip and he never complained.

As soon as Bonnemaison’s shoes were removed and his battledress pants cut open, we could see that his socks looked like they were filled with sand. The doctor explained that all the tiny bones of his feet had been crushed and nothing could be done for him. His army days were over and we would never see him again. Bonnemaison would be missed by all of us. His sense of humour was unique and had sustained us through many bad situations, but none of us were laughing now.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 14

FUND COLLECTORS

 

1 August 1961. Even though friends and comrades kept disappearing from our ranks, we had to keep functioning as if nothing had happened. On this particular day we had to drive along a road which snaked its way through a narrow gorge, and which the army had not used for over 5 years. Until recently the Fellaghas had a stronghold in the area but the ‘Dogs of War’ had driven them away, but not before they demolished the bridge over a wild river at the bottom of the gorge. We’d been assigned the job of repairing it and we’d been given just two weeks to make it passable. Lieutenant Legoubin gave us the job plan. “We’re going to build pylons on each side of the river, using gabions. Then we’ll lay two pieces of Bailey Bridge from pylon to pylon. This will be strong enough for convoys of trucks to pass over.”

A truck delivered a pile of folded wire cages to us. They had to be unfolded and carefully filled with dry stones, then laced together and reinforced with more wire. Once the first gabion was finished, another wire cage would be put on top of it and the next gabion would be constructed.

“We’ll build three rows of gabions on top of each other before putting the Bailey Bridge on it,” said the Lieutenant.

“Yes Sir!” we all answered immediately.

Legoubin then returned to his jeep and his driver, and went back to the camp to write the many reports required by the army administration.

“OK everyone, you heard what the Lieutenant said. We only have two weeks to do the job so let’s get moving,” I told the platoon.

We employed some old Algerians to fill the huge wire cages with the stones, but it was difficult work for them to do especially since the young servicemen from our platoon were screaming at them to go faster all the time. Perhaps they didn’t want to work quickly. Tackling the job slowly would keep them employed for a longer time. But the irony of it was that these old men were repairing the bridge that their sons and grandsons, hiding in the Atlas Mountains, had destroyed.

The next afternoon we were all busy constructing the gabions when another jeep appeared on the road. We were surprised as the road was still closed, so we concluded that the jeep was looking for us.

‘Gendarmerie’ was written in large black letters on the front of the bonnet. It was the police.

“What’re these bastards looking for?” said one of the conscripts.

“They might’ve taken the wrong road,” said another.

“No, they’re coming to see us,” said a third.

The jeep stopped at the bridge and one of the two gendarmes got out, but with great difficulty as he was very fat and unfit. He was impeccably dressed and clean–shaven, and he held a folder in one hand.

“Who’s in charge here?” he asked, with authority.

“I’m in charge of the team! Sergeant Fiset, 37th Battalion!” I replied.

“Ah! Good!” he said, leading me to the side of the bridge away from the Algerian workers.

He opened his folder. It was full of documents and one of them had hundreds of names written on it, some of them crossed with a red pen. And then, whispering in my ear, he solemnly said, “Do you know that in your group of Fellouzes, there are three who’ve been collecting money from the others? They’re fund collectors.”

“That’s nothing to do with us,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he asked angrily. “Don’t you care about it?”

“Why would I care about it? If we start to brand them as fund collectors, we won’t have anyone working here! Our job is to employ them and not to judge them. They’re all willing to work for us and this is all we’re interested in,” I explained.

“Well, I came here specially to tell you that you have three men in this group who are collecting money from the others and then giving it to the Fellaghas hiding in the mountains so they can buy weapons and food. Do you understand the significance of this?” he asked.

“No. All I know is that they’re working for one common cause which is to gain their country’s independence from France!” I replied.

The gendarme stopped, shocked at my remark, and looked at me with bewildered and angry eyes.

“What! You’re a strange soldier indeed. I don’t like what you’ve just said to me. I could report you to the authorities,” threatened the fat little man. “But I’ve wasted enough time here with you! See that one wearing a maroon coat and piling stones into the gabion – his name is Houari Ben Keyda, and he’s the worst of the offenders.”

Then, with a movement of his chin, he pointed out two others.

“That one near the pile of stones and the one on the left wearing black trousers,” he said.

“So what?” I asked indignantly.

“Well, we don’t want them to be here tomorrow morning! Do you understand what I mean when I say this? It’s an order,” he snarled.

“No! I don’t understand what you mean,” I retorted. Then I stayed silent because I knew exactly what the gendarme meant. I felt like screaming at him, “Do you know that during the Second World War two of them fought the Germans at Monte Cassino, and that they were among the first soldiers to break through the German defence in Italy, and also that they fought to free Alsace in France?” I felt like showing the gendarme their papers and all the decorations they’d won during their tour of duty in the Algerians Tirailleurs Regiment. And I wanted to let him know the reality, “You were not even born when these old men were in the French army helping us to free our own country!”

But there was no point in saying anything. The gendarme wouldn’t listen. He was intent on giving me my orders, albeit phrased ‘politely’. The three old Algerians had to be shot that night, without questions asked. They’d already been judged and convicted.

This incredible procedure had been going on throughout Algeria during the seven years of war. It had become common practice, routine, and was carried out on a large scale by the French army. It was referred to as ‘Corvee de bois’, picking firewood, and was a method to quickly exterminate people that the army wanted to eliminate. The unfortunate victims, most of them innocent, were taken in a truck to a forest by young conscripts, and were then told to get out the truck and to start picking up firewood. As they did so they were shot like rabbits by the young conscripts who considered this to be great fun. In the evening, during dinner, they’d brag about how many they had shot. In some instances the conscripts fought over who would go on these assignments, but the Officers in charge who were giving the orders never participated in the killing. They wanted to keep their hands clean, but later on in their tents, these officers would type up their reports, always using the same stock phrases and which were of no importance as nobody was interested in reading them.

‘Four prisoners tried to escape from custody today and were shot dead by our forces as they tried to stop them.

Signed: Lieutenant de Beaulieu

31st Regiment of Infantry’

Many of the conscripts who were involved in these murders likened it to the fair in their village where they’d take a gun and shoot at plastic ducks moving on a conveyor belt. Some of them even cut the ears or fingers from their victims and preserved them in jars of alcohol, as a trophy to be taken back to France and boastfully shown to friends and family.

“What a beautiful souvenir of their time in Algeria!” Lecocq once said.

“I wonder what their family will think of that,” Joncquet had commented.

The two gendarmes, having discharged their responsibilities by putting the onus on us, then left. I’m sure that I was supposed to have said, “Yes Sir. I’ll do what you’re asking immediately,” regardless of whether it was right or wrong.

During the afternoon I kept looking at the three condemned Berbers, all over sixty–five years of age and dressed only in rags, with no shoes. They were working hard to fill up our gabions but the young soldiers persisted in insulting them and urging them to work faster. They did not answer back, as they didn’t want to lose the few francs that we paid them each day. They had no idea that a few minutes ago they’d been condemned to death. The only crime they had committed was to work for us to feed their starving families, and in some cases, their sons and grandsons who were fighting us in the Atlas Mountains.

What could I do in such a terrible situation? I went up to the oldest of the three and asked him for his papers. He gave them to me, but looked at me suspiciously, his eyes full of fear.

“Are you worried about something, Christian?” asked Bal.

“Yes, I am. I have a serious dilemma in front of me!” I confided.

“Yes, I overheard what the gendarme asked you to do, but what is the problem?”

“The problem is my conscience. I won’t be able to sleep if I do what they are asking,” I explained.

“Don’t worry Christian. Just tell Leger and Dubuc to do it for you. They certainly don’t care – they’ve done it many times before. They would enjoy it!” he advised.

“What about you? Would you like to do it?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied, “Look at it this way. It’s war time and no one cares if the Berbers live or die! The police have given you an order, so carry it out. You have nothing to worry about. You’re just doing your duty.”

“No, I can’t,” I declared. “Look at the old chap’s military record.”

I handed the military papers to Bal. He read the title in silence. ‘Houari ben Kheda: 1916: Verdun: 6 IEM Regiment of Tirailleurs Algerians. ‘Under this was listed all the great battles Houari’s regiment had been involved in during the First World War, battles that were known to be particularly bloody, such as ‘Corbeaux Wood’ where over 100 000 French soldiers died, and the worst of the lot, ‘Douaumont’, when these men had fought against the Germans, managing to reclaim the French fortress.

Bal, rather annoyed and somewhat embarrassed, handed me back Houari’s military papers.

“So, are you willing to murder them in cold blood?” I asked him.

“But we have to do what we’re told otherwise we’ll finish up in jail ourselves,” he said “All you can do to ease your so–called conscience is to deliver them to the Legionnaires this afternoon. They’ll do the job for us, no problems.”

“Listen to me, Bal,” I said. “This is my problem and I’ll deal with it the way I feel is best. It’s my responsibility and all I’m asking you to do is to keep your mouth shut!”

“OK,” he agreed. “I’ve heard nothing and I will say nothing to anyone. Are you happy with that?”

We finished work for the day and the Arabs, although exhausted, had each gathered a little bundle of twigs for a fire on which to cook their couscous. They had stacked the bundles carefully under the benches that they sat on in the back of the truck. But Leger, the driver, was a hard, cold and sadistic conscript who would not tolerate anyone touching or dirtying his truck, especially the Arabs. When he discovered the little bundles of firewood hidden under each seat, he screamed at the old men.

“What’s this? What do you think my truck is for? I’m not here to carry all this shit to your village! Get rid of this rubbish now, you bunch of Fellouzes.”

The old men were upset, as there was no firewood left in their village. There was nothing to cook with. All of a sudden, Bal, attracted by the commotion, appeared.

“No! The firewood stays in the truck, Leger,” he said, glaring into the driver’s face.

The Berbers looked petrified and didn’t know who to listen to and what to do next.

Leger, mortified at being defied by Bal in front of everyone, particularly the Arabs, retaliated. “It’s my truck and I do what I want with it! I don’t want their shit in it. Do you understand? You can get f*… “

Leger didn’t have the time to finish his sentence because Bal punched him in the face with such tremendous force that he fell on the ground, unconscious.

“OK, everyone in the truck now,” said Bal to the Berbers, some of whom had already started to unload their bundles of firewood. “Come on every one, enough time has been wasted. We have to go now.”

Two Arabs dragged Leger to the truck and laid him in the middle of the steel platform on the back. Bal drove the truck. He was an amazing person. On one hand, he was urging me to arrange the murder of three old Arabs and now he was taking their side. Had I woken his conscience?

Leger had one of the worst reputations in our camp and among the drivers in general. He was considered a sinister fellow and a nasty piece of work. He devised many cruel ploys to make the old Arabs suffer, and they dared not defy him. He played one of his favourite ‘games’ with them when he brought them back to their village in the evenings. He would open the back of the truck, then engage the lifting mechanism so that the tray tipped up, spilling the Arabs onto the ground. He delighted in watching in his rear–view mirror as they slid into a pile, one on top of the other, many suffering terrible injuries in the process.

“This is the only way I know to empty my truck quickly. It makes the Fellouzes move with haste.” he would often say.

Amongst the other truck drivers some admired him and thought that he was very funny, but others kept quiet, not daring to say anything. Something had to be done about Leger.

On our way back Bal kept looking at me, wondering what I was going to do to save the old Berbers. Then luck smiled on me. As we arrived at their Douars (Arabic word for village), two of them asked us if we would like to have a cup of tea with them. We had no weapons with us and we were some distance from our camp, but we had accepted their invitations in the past, and Bal urged me to do so again. It wouldn’t take longer than 15 or 20 minutes, and the few fellows left in our truck didn’t mind waiting. Chevalier came with us and we followed the Berbers through the narrow alleys. All the houses were made of stones and covered in dry grass and mud. Their village had no sewer, no running water, no electricity, and no school for the children. They were living as our ancestors did during the Middle Ages, in total poverty. At one time they had lived on fertile land in the valleys, but it had been forcefully taken from them by the white settlers, and the Berbers had been pushed further into the mountains where the soil was too poor to produce crops. So they survived as best they could, raising a few goats and sheep, and tending their tiny gardens.

When we arrived at our host’s house, we were told to wait outside until all the women were hidden from our sight. The door was a low opening in the dry–stone wall, and as there were no windows, it was almost completely dark inside. The floor of the Mechta (house) was made of beaten dirt and covered by a worn carpet. There was a stove in the middle of the room, but no other furniture, just a pile of dirty blankets in one corner. We all sat on the floor and tried to converse using, as interpreters, young boys who had been taught a little French by the missionaries. Nevertheless, the Arabs made us welcome and shared what they had with us.

I made the most of the opportunity at hand to solve my dilemma and Bal understood what I was trying to do.

“Tomorrow only twenty men will be required to work. There’s not enough work for all of you,” I said and the young boys translated this news to the older men. Their faces dropped with sadness. No work meant no income, and no income meant that they could not buy food for their families.

Then a young boy said, “The men are asking if they didn’t work hard enough Chief.”

“They did,” I assured him, “but the work is almost finished.”

I had formulated my plan. The next day we would pick up twenty men, making sure that the ten dismissed included the three who had been condemned to death. It was a way of saving their lives without making it too obvious.

“The gendarmes are unlikely to come back to check. They’re too busy going around looking for fund collectors, but if they should visit us again, these three will not be there,” I said to Bal.

3 August 1961. When we arrived at the Berbers’ Douars they were all waiting for us. I read out the names of those who would be coming to work for us. The others were begging us to take them as well, but I was not swayed. I was uncomfortable having to be so deceptive but it was the only way to save the three old men from death, and for me to be able to sleep with a clear conscience.

8 August 1961. President De Gaulle had survived another assassination attempt. This time a remote–controlled bomb had exploded as he passed by. The offenders were quickly rounded up and were, of course, French officers working for the O.A.S. movement. The leader of this group was a top French Officer, Colonel Bastien Thierry. In the meantime, two more French Generals had been arrested, Generals Vanuxen and Crevecoeur, as well as other well–known Officers, such as Colonel De Blignieres, a hero of the 1940 war.

“When is this going to stop?” Maillet exclaimed.

It must’ve been an odd feeling for the Officers who had been arrested. They were highly decorated men, honoured men, and they were now in prison, like common criminals. General Faure, who’d been sentenced to 10 years in jail, was now sharing a prison with the Fellagha chiefs that he had helped to put there in the first place.

12 August 1961. We’d been given orders to build another minefield but this one was different in that it was to be constructed on top of the highest point of the Medjerda Mountains. It was a dismal area, bitten by the wind and the constant rain. There were few trees for shelter, but the view was awesome. You could see almost right up to the city of Bone and the blue Mediterranean Sea. I wished that I was a tourist at this place and could sit and soak up the stunning scenery, but I was not a sightseer, I was a conscript whose job was to stop the people who tried to get from Tunisia to Algeria.

The few trees were quickly bulldozed leaving a strip of bare land 20m wide and about a kilometre long and we set to work laying thousands of German mines. We worked with little concern for the consequences if anything went wrong and, except for three fellows being slightly wounded by a mine, we had few problems. The project was completed in record time, which delighted our Captain as it reflected favourably on him, probably advancing his army career and winning him a few more medals. Needless to say, there would be no medals for the men who did all the work.

By 10 o’clock we were at the corner of the field ready to hammer in a sign that read, ‘Danger’ and sported a skull and cross bones, as a mine field warning. Suddenly, the Arabs who had been working on the fence became agitated and pointed to the plain below. There was a long convoy of heavy trucks covered in dust and driving up the narrow road leading to our site. It appeared to be a military unit on the move, but I could not understand why the Arabs were panicking and chattering frantically to one another in Arabic.

As they came nearer we could hear the engines of the trucks roaring as they climbed the steep road, carrying a whole company of infantry and tons of equipment. The Commanding Officers arrived first, their jeeps sporting the Legion’s flag and an array of guns that protruded from all sides. Next to the driver was an AA52 machine gun loaded with bands of bullets, ready for action. These warriors meant business. They were the Third Regiment of Foreign Legion, the Dogs of War. As soon as their jeeps stopped, the Officers leaped out and scrutinized the country side. One captain, with map in hand, studied the plain below and another one examined a spot close to the mine field. They ignored us completely. It was as if we didn’t exist.

“I suppose they’re going to camp here for the night,” said Bal, eying the long column of trucks which had pulled up on the road. The Legionnaires inside them were all asleep on the benches, holding each other in order not to fall. They must have been travelling all night.

It was like watching a circus on the move. When I was a young boy a circus arriving in the village signalled fun, but this was a circus signalling death. The only act the Legionnaires were trained for was murdering and killing, quickly and efficiently.

“Something’s going to happen around here or they wouldn’t be coming this way,” said Bal.

The Legionnaires went from trouble spot to trouble spot all the time, the ‘firemen’ of the French army. They had a reputation as first class killing machines, so we were not really surprised that our Arab workers had disappeared almost immediately after they saw them coming.

The Legion’s Warrant Officers left their trucks and gathered around the Commanding Officers, waiting for orders which, once given, started a chain reaction. The Adjunct Chief, who was built like a bull with a face as hard and dry as a rock, saluted them and turned towards the trucks, then started to scream orders to the waiting Legionnaires. In barely a minute, the whole company were out of their trucks and all lined up in their platoons, standing at attention and saluting their Captain. Another bout of screaming followed, and then, like a pack of wild dogs, the Legionnaires broke into frenzied activity, erecting their tents, digging ditches around them, and fabricating alleys leading to the tents, with stones.

“They only respond to screaming orders,” said Pouzache. “What a life! It’s hard to believe that there’s a queue of men back at their barracks in France, all wanting a five–year contract with the Legion.”

In less than an hour the Legion’s camp was set up and ready for the coming night, with the most important item, the flagpole, standing proudly next to the Officers’ tents, and with the flag floating at its apex. Their camp was designed exactly as the camps of the Roman Legionnaires were over two thousand years ago.

Despite the queues to join the Legion, after a short time in service, many of them found the daily bullying too difficult to bear and wanted to desert, but if they did so and were caught, they were shot by their own Warrant Officers. No explanations were called for – they had broken their contract with the Legion.

As soon as a man signed a five–year contract with the Legion, all his personal papers were taken from him, including his passport. He was given a new name and identity, a big drawcard for any ex–German SS criminal who had committed appalling crimes during the Second World War. He could no longer be traced. Thus, the Legionnaires were predominantly former German militia with a strong penchant for war, cruelty and killing.

The Legionnaires’ training was delivered by sadistic Warrant Officers and was tough, so tough that they ended up being more scared of their Officers than of the enemy. The recruits soon learned that they were to do whatever any of the Officers ordered them to do, immediately and without questioning or grumbling. If they didn’t, they were severely punished and this punishment was renowned world–wide for its sadistic cruelty. This training transformed the recruits into real Dogs of War. Their frustration was so great that when they were let loose on a battlefield they’d go completely wild, killing everything in sight and showing no emotion, compassion or pity. The Legion reminded me of a deer hunting party in England. The Officers were splendidly dressed and riding horses. The Warrant Officers were the handlers, holding a pack of hunting dogs, waiting to release them at the order of the Officers. The packs of dogs were the Legionnaires themselves.

Although these regiments were generally regarded as ‘legal criminals’, the French army had designed a ‘Code of Honour of the Legionnaires’, and at the completion of their training, the recruits, at a solemn ceremony, swore to follow and respect this code. The Code was divided into seven different articles, but in practice all of them were completely disregarded, especially the last one. It read, ‘In combat you will act without passion and without hate. You will respect the vanquished enemy and you will never abandon your dead or wounded, nor surrender your arms.’ What a joke.

When we read this Code in our tent Pouzache said, “It’s hard to believe! It’s the biggest lie in the world. It’s not a code of Honour but a code of Horror!”

In the Legion the most efficient and sadistic killers were rewarded with medals or promotion to minor ranks, usually Warrant Officers, which gave them reason to bully anyone of lower rank. Most of them spoke little French so they tended to congregate in small nationality groups.

One day as we left the mine field at noon to return to our camp for lunch, the sky turned dark, so dark that it appeared to be evening and the visibility was almost zero, and the truck driver had to use his lights.

“An African storm is coming,” said the Lieutenant. “We’re lucky to have finished the mine field.”

Indeed, we had completed the mine field a week ahead of schedule, much to the Captain’s delight as it increased his chances for promotion. In fact, he was so pleased that he’d organised free drinks and a special lunch for all of us.

“Well done, Lieutenant. We have beaten all the records of our Battalion,” he said, as the smell of the coming luncheon permeated the air.

It was wild boar, killed a few days before hand, and marinated in red wine and onions. We could not wait to eat – we were starving.

Then, suddenly, the storm broke. A very strong wind coming from the Sahara Desert shook everything in our tents, and the thunder, lightning and rain soon followed. The noise was so bad that it sounded like an enemy bombardment.

The wind engulfed our tents and blew everything from the table to the floor. Our wild boar, instead of floating in wine, was now floating in mud with the rest of our dinner.

“Hold on to the tent everyone!” screamed our Captain in horror.

But the storm got worse and hail the size of golf balls began to fall, hitting the windscreens of the trucks with tremendous force, shattering them. It was like standing on the Barrage during a mortar attack. And when we didn’t think things could get worse, they did. We started to hear the sound of strong, deep explosions, one after another and coming closer and closer to us, shaking the earth in their wake. “The Fells are coming!” someone screamed.

“It’s not the Fells, it’s the storm” shouted Pujol.

Then, a sharp metallic noise arose, and the canvases of the tents were being ripped by mysterious objects flying through the air. One of the men realised what was happening.

“Chief, our German mines are exploding under the impact of the hail on the detonators!” he bawled.

“Everyone on the floor, quickly!” yelled the Captain, and we all dived down into the mud, holding onto the tent posts to stop them flying away.

“Oh no!” wailed the Captain. “All of our mines are going to explode. What a catastrophe! All our good work will be destroyed in a few minutes!”

His distress was similar to what you would expect if his wife left him.

The shrapnel from the mines hit the tents and the trucks, rending large holes in them, but after a short while the explosions ceased.

“Hells bells! All our mines are gone now,” lamented the Captain. “What am I going to tell the Commandant in my report?”

 At the sight of such despair Lieutenant Legoubin reassured him, saying, “Don’t worry Sir. We’ll rebuild it again in no time.”

It was easy for him to say this. It wasn’t him who would be rebuilding it but he and the Captain would be receiving all the recognition when the job was completed.

While everyone was focussing on the loss of the mines, Kuntz was thinking wider afield.

“I wonder how the Legionnaires are. Their camp is next to the mine field,” he said. His observation was too terrible to contemplate and no one dared to comment, but in my mind, I could see a terrible scenario; the whole company of Legionnaires cut to shreds by thousands of pieces of razor–sharp shrapnel. I dreaded the time when the storm was over and we’d have to return to the minefield and face the carnage.

After a short time the storm abated and the rain almost stopped. Our camp looked like a swamp and out beautiful dinner was gone forever.

“The first thing we have to do is to check the mine field and find out exactly what has happened there. Lieutenant Legoubin, take some of your fellows and leave immediately. I need information about it before tonight!” ordered the Captain.

“Yes sir, I’ll do it straight away,” said Legoubin.

He, like most other Lieutenants, always said yes, no matter what the mission was. He’d been trained to obey every order given, so we were, again, sitting in the back of his jeep heading towards a spot where death lurked.

The whole countryside had turned into a quagmire, and the dirt road was barely discernible. At one point a fast–flowing creek was running across the track, the current so strong that the jeep was almost swept away. It was a difficult journey but we finally reached the mine field where we were faced with the terrifying problem of not knowing which mines had exploded, which hadn’t, and which were on the brink of blowing up. Repairing it would not even be a calculated risk. It would be pure chance – Russian roulette at its best. But for now, we continued on towards the Legions’ camp. Trees had been flattened across the track so we had to abandon the jeep and trudge, in single file, through the ankle–deep mud. When we reached their camp we were very much surprised, not by the devastation for we had expected that their highly–organised site would be completely demolished, but by the Legionnaires themselves. They were standing in their platoons, in perfect formation, next to what was left of their mast. The Officers were giving orders to the Warrant Officers, who were then yelling at their men. Within a few minutes the Legionnaires were at work, repairing their tents, unblocking the drains, and hoisting their flag once more. Everything in their camp would be back to normal in no time.

Lieutenant Legoubin approached one of the Officers, and after the usual ceremonial introduction, was told that they had experienced storms before and had moved their trucks away from the mine field and then lay down in relative safety until the tempest had passed. No one was missing and there’d been no casualties.

“Would you like to borrow some spades from us, Sir?” asks Kuntz, speaking to a burly–built Sergeant.

“Nein,” he said. “We carry everything with us. We don’t need anything.”

Then Legoubin, concerned about what had happened, asked, “Will there be problems because of our mine field?”

“Nein, it’s part of our job,” said the Legionnaire.

 “They aren’t very talkative,” Kuntz whispered to me.

So we left the Legionnaires and plodded carefully back to the protective fence by the mine field, to check the damage to it. It appeared that hundreds of mines had exploded, but any small movement of the fence could detonate any that were still intact.

 “It would’ve been a chain reaction, one mine setting off the next, and so on,” said the Lieutenant.

5 September 1961. We had a newcomer in the company. For some unknown reason, a sergeant from another battalion had been transferred to us. Marie was from Brittany and had the physique of a typical Breton, small and dark haired, with a perpetual sarcastic smirk on his face. His military record showed a shiftiness that led us, in time, to speculate that he’d been sent to us because of the animosity he’d created in his own company. Some of the chaps who knew him from their time together in the Barracks in France, started talking to him, but when he wasn’t around, they didn’t have anything good to say about him.

Sadly, Marie’s arrival resulted in Kuntz having to transfer to another company. We knew we would miss our cool and efficient comrade and great friend, especially since Marie would take Kuntz’s place, not only in our platoon, but in our tent as well.

10 September 1961. The extreme heat drained every last bit of energy from us, leaving us tired and facing the difficult problems that high temperatures brought. Millions of flies again invaded our tents, drawn by our unhygienic bodies. We had no access to water for ablutions. The latrines were close by and this compounded the problem, so we shared our lunch with swarms of these pests.

I wasn’t looking forward to the days ahead as our Captain had assured the Commandant at Guelma that the mine field would be repaired quickly, even if it meant working through the night. He had ordered boxes of German mines, but before we could lay them we would have to find any intact mines and render them inactive. No one talked about it but we all thought about it, constantly.

Most of us were in our tents, under mosquito nets, and writing letters when the order came to start the job. Lieutenant Legoubin barged into our tents, yelling,

“Everybody – be ready at 7 a.m. sharp tomorrow morning to go to the mine field to check it!”

“Excuse me Sir,” I said. “Could we use our mining dogs to do this? They never miss a mine.”

“No, Fiset. The dogs aren’t here to do this sort of work. They work on the open road or pathways through the network,” he replied.

“Of course,” murmured Pouzache. “The dogs cost more to train than new conscripts.”

The army obviously valued the mining dogs more than us conscripts.

After Legoubin’s response to my suggestion, everyone, except for one daring fellow, kept quiet.

“Would it be possible to run inside the mine field with one of our bulldozers?” he asked. “They would crush the mines which are on the brink of exploding.”

But Lieutenant Legoubin became angry.

“Why not ask the artillery to bomb the mine field,” he snarled. “That would be even better, wouldn’t it? No more stupid suggestions. Tomorrow. 7 a.m. sharp!”

“Yes Sir! Yes Sir” chorused the men in the traditional response.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 15

SOMEONE IS STEALING OUR MINES

 

11 September 1961. The four of us Warrant Officers were ready by 7 a.m. but Marie was exempt from working with or laying mines as his eyesight was not good and he had to wear spectacles. Bal had to take his place, but Marie would be watching us work from a good distance away. Lieutenant Legoubin and his driver had already left in their jeep and we followed them in our GMC trucks. I was feeling very apprehensive, and I likened my feelings to those of the nobles as they were being sent to the guillotine during the French revolution. I had had a nightmare during the night which left me with a bad premonition about the task in hand.

As we approached the gate to the mine field, a huge explosion rocked our truck and plastered the windscreen with stones and mud. In front of us the Lieutenant’s jeep lifted off the ground and broke into pieces which scattered in every direction.

“Hell, the Lieutenant’s jeep! The Fellaghas must have laid some mines during the night,” stammered our driver.

We all jumped off the truck to see if we could be of some help, but it was useless. Legoubin and his driver had been thrown from the jeep, and their faces burnt by the explosion. They were unrecognisable.

“They’re both dead. No need to call Chevalier this time,” said Bal, stating the obvious.

The second truck went back to the camp for help, and it wasn’t long before the Captain arrived. Without a word he inspected the site and then turned to us.

“Clear the road and take the bodies to Souk–Ahras,” he ordered. “I want the mine field to be cleared by 4 p.m. Lieutenant Carre will be in charge of the platoon until we have a replacement for Legoubin.”

We all responded with the standard, “Yes Sir!”

With the greatest of care and respect we wrapped the bodies of Legoubin and Poirier in a blanket, carried them to the truck and slid them onto the cold steel platform on the back. It was another terribly sad moment, and our throats were dry with grief. We didn’t speak. One of the men found a rosary amongst the scraps of uniform scattered over the area, and recognised it as Legoubin’s. Bal respectfully and solemnly put it on what was left of his battledress.

Two more victims of the war. Poirier, Legoubin’s driver, was well known to us. I had met him on my first day in the army Barracks in France. He used to entertain us during the evenings with his endless stories of female conquests. Lieutenant Legoubin, although an officer, was essentially a conscript like us. He had received officer training and had strived to do the job to the best of his ability. He tried to cover up any inadequacies that he felt he had, a legacy of the ‘joke’ the Captain had played on him when he first arrived. However, he was just as afraid of dying as we were, petrified really, but unlike us, he could not show it. His rank would not permit it, but I’m sure that had he prayed for help many times, as we all had.

“OK, everyone in the mine field now! We have wasted enough time already,” said our newly appointed Lieutenant Carre, a totally insensitive officer. “Bal and Godefroy, you start at this end. Fiset and Boucher, I will drop you off at the other end so you will be as far apart as possible in case of any problems.”

My friend Joncquet wanted to go along with me, and no–one objected.

 “In case of any problems Christian,” he whispered to me, “throw yourself on the ground and put your hands on your head. That way you may survive.”

What I disliked most was the way the words ‘in case’ kept coming up.

The sky was a soft blue and there was not a single cloud in it. Around us, nature was rejuvenating the countryside from the aftermath of the storm. The hot sun emerged, and the trees were full of birds, welcoming us with their song. What a beautiful place. What a terrible game of chance ahead of us.

We all walked along the protective fence, Boucher about ten metres behind me and Joncquet over fifty metres further back. We had to be careful not to touch the fence, because any movement could trigger unexploded mines. I was concentrating as hard as I could on the mines themselves, carefully checking, from a distance, if they had exploded or not and then recording the number that had. By the time I had done 100 meters of checking I was literally drained, physically exhausted. The heat was staggering and my breathing was laboured but the worst part of this job was the silence. Everyone was quiet, anticipating an explosion. It was with great relief that I saw the others coming towards me. On my side all of the mines had exploded. It was the same on the other side.

“They have all exploded during the thunderstorm!” Bal told Carre when we rejoined the others.

“OK! Let’s count them to check that we have the right numbers,” said Lieutenant Carre who had been waiting for us.

Marie was standing next to the Lieutenant, watching us with a callous smile, as usual.

“Good! Exactly 215 mines.” said Carre, “so all we have to do now is to re–lay another 215 as quickly as we can!”

“You’ll have a medal for that, my boys,” said Marie sarcastically.

No one responded and no one even looked at him. He was totally ignored.

That evening Lieutenant Legoubin’s stool in the Officer’s mess was empty. He was in the morgue at Souk–Ahras and none of the Officers seemed to care. They didn’t appear to be affected whatsoever, carrying on as usual, cracking jokes and laughing. They only mentioned him in terms of practicality.

“Lieutenant Carre, you will be acting in his place until the Commandant sends us a replacement,” said the Captain.

“What exactly happened this morning?” asked Carre.

“Well, our expert says that their jeep was blown out by a Fellagha mine, which they must have built,” replied the Captain.

“We have a big problem on our hands if these bastard Fellaghas can get as many explosives as they want,” noted Carre.

“Unfortunately for us this will only be the first mine that they have laid. We are going to find more mines on our roads soon!” announced the Captain, loudly and angrily. “We cannot have our mining dogs running in front of every truck to detect them!”

“What about clearing the roads in the morning with metal detectors?” suggested one of the Officers.

“Those bloody metal detectors are useless. They’re just a heap of rubbish!” said another.

Privy to this conversation, Ball whispered to me, “I believe they’re starting to be worried about themselves!”

Back in our tents, we were all subdued, thinking about the two men that death had claimed that day, and wondering who it would reach for tomorrow. Joncquet and Pouzache came to my tent for a visit. Their morale had been very low and this last episode had left them completely bereft. When Marie came into the tent, he glanced our way and said, “Well, you’re all just out to win medals, and this is what happens. It serves you right. “Then he lay down on his stretcher and laughed.

“That bastard is lucky that his rank protects him from us, otherwise I’d fix his face so that he wouldn’t be able to recognise himself in the mirror for months,” muttered Joncquet. “From now on I’m going to ignore him completely. He’s hiding behind his own inadequacy and he knows it.”

Not surprisingly, everyone felt the same way.

One evening when we were sitting on some wooden benches outside our tents, having our dinner, a group of little Berbers from the resettlement camp were watching us from a distance. Most of these children were war orphans, but a few of them still had fathers, albeit absent fathers, fighting in the Atlas Mountains with the Fellaghas army. They had been thrown into the camp and left to survive as best they could on their own, so they were always looking for food. Food was what drew them to our camp, and some of them had been caught searching for scraps in our rubbish bins. But they were scared of us. Whenever we passed near their camp, the women dropped their pots and pans and ran to hide. (Most of them had been raped at some time by the elite forces of the French army.) so the children, many of them witnesses to these horrendous crimes, had learned to be very wary of soldiers. The previous evening Joncquet had tried to approach them with some food, but they all ran away except for one small girl who stayed there and smiled at him. She would have been about four years old, too young probably, to remember the atrocities committed in their camp, so she was not so scared of us. Now he tried again to get the children to come closer. He spotted the little girl, approached her and squatted down next to her, handing her a piece of bread and jam. She smiled at him and started to eat it. She was starving. Joncquet had won her trust. She moved closer to him and he took her in his arms and sat her at our outside table. She looked up at him with her big brown eyes, and as she did so, we saw a side of Joncquet that we had not known before. Apart from being proud of himself for winning her confidence, he showed an impressive gentleness of nature, sharing his dinner with her and talking to her like a father would talk to his child. He explained all sorts of things to her which she obviously didn’t understand as she didn’t know a word of French, but she answered him in a Berber dialect, which didn’t concern him at all. It was incredible to watch them.

But it was not only us, Joncquet’s friends, who were swayed by the situation. Each evening, more and more of the children plucked up the courage to sit with us. And this, in turn, brought about another miraculous change. The brutal nature of the men vanished, and the normal harsh language, the swearing and foul remarks, was replaced with the soothing, gentle words that our parents had used with us. And these poor innocent children brought so much happiness into our harsh lives. Our evening meal was looked forward to with eager anticipation of sharing it with the children, and none of us were as depressed as we’d previously been.

We had found, in the children, a new family, and they had done likewise. Their struggle for survival in the resettlement camp, where they were treated like rats, had greatly eased under our care. The dreary atmosphere of our camp lifted and the children brought with them a ray of sunshine into the sinister conditions in which we all lived. The children were unschooled and most spoke no French, or at best, only a few words, but we finally learned their names – Halim, Farid, Mohamed, Leila, Farida and Yasmina. What we missed out on by sharing our dinner with them was nothing to what we received in exchange.

Halim was one of the oldest children who came to our camp, and was more affected by what he’d seen than the younger children. His face reflected the terrible life and experiences that he’d gone through. He, like all the other children, was dressed in tattered clothes that were too big for him, and he was barefoot. And he was just one of the three hundred and fifty thousand war orphans produced by the bloody war in Algeria.

It wasn’t long before each of us had a favourite amongst the children. Riviere, one of the toughest guys in the Company, ‘adopted’ a five–year–old Berber girl, barely 60 cm tall, called Yasmina. He was besotted with her, and she, unknowingly, helped him to cope with missing his wife and two daughters back in France. He was exceptionally attentive to her and treated her as if she was his real daughter. What a changed man. It was quite emotional watching him preparing a plate for her, next to him at the table.

Boucher was the happiest of all of us because he was a primary school teacher in France and he could now practice his craft again. He would sit four or five children on the wooden seat, and use an improvised blackboard to teach them how to write their names, or to count. He loved it. But the Officers didn’t know about any of this. They were always busy in their tents, playing cards and drinking. However, Marie had always joined us for dinner, so he knew about the children but he wasn’t happy about them.

“Why don’t you allow this band of little Fellouzes to sleep in your tents as well?” he jibed. “Are you all sick? Are we here to fight a war or run a kindergarten?”

But a look from Riviere warned him that, for his own sake, it would be better for him to keep his mouth shut. From then on, he no longer dined with us, but ate sitting on his bed and reading a book. And the children still came.

The child that I favoured was a little boy of about eight years old. He had no papers or identification at all, so this was really just a guess. I was drawn to him because his young face and eyes carried such a deep sadness. He never smiled. The terrible times and emotional experiences that he must’ve gone through had made him mute. No matter what we did, he would not speak, not even in his own language to the other children. After a few weeks I finally managed to learn his name, Fahim, and I gained enough of his trust that he would eat the food I gave him, albeit in silence. I gave him one of my spare jumpers to keep him warm and a few times I managed to hold his hand, but he never showed any reaction. He seemed to be emotionally dead. I had to be extremely careful not to move too quickly around him. Whenever I did so, he would run away, back to the resettlement camp.

Pouzache looked at him and said, “What can we do? This war has affected every one. What a mess!”

One Sunday Pouzache, Riviere and I walked to the resettlement camp to try to find out more about the children. Riviere wanted to know which ones were orphaned and which ones still had a parent alive, somewhere. He hoped to adopt Yasmina and bring her up with his other two daughters in France. When we arrived at the camp the women ran away to hide as usual, and we were left with a few older men.

“What can you tell us about these children, the ones who are on their own?” Riviere asked.

They looked at us, surprised at our question.

“All are orphaned, Sergeant. They have no parents,” said one old man.

“Does Yasmina have parents?” asked Riviere, anxiously.

“Her parents were both killed a few months ago, by the army,” the old man assured him.

This is what Riviere wanted to hear and he smiled, but he had to be sure.

“Yasmina. No parents? No mother, no father?” he asked again.

“No, Sergeant,” said the old man. “No–one. The army came one day and threw her into our camp. We don’t even know what village she came from.”

Then I addressed the old man. “Do you know Fahim? Does he have parents or not?”

At the mention of Fahim’s name the old man looked at me sadly. “Fahim,” he said. “He’s the only one in his village who survived. He was in the mountains tending his parent’s goats when the Legion arrived.”

“And then what happened?” I asked, eager to know what the boy had been through.

“They surrounded his village and blocked the exit so that no one could escape. They’d been told that some Fellaghas were hiding there, so the Legionnaires bombarded the thatched roofs of all the houses with incendiary grenades, setting fire to them. As soon as the villagers, including women and children, tried to escape from their houses, they were gunned down with automatic machine guns. The day after the massacre we went to see what had happened and we found Fahim sitting in front of his burnt–out house, holding his dead mother by the hand. War is horrendous, Sergeant.”

The three of us left the resettlement camp with mixed emotions. We were greatly saddened by what the children had gone through, but we were happy that it might be possible to take them back to our country and give them a better life.

13 September 1961. In the evening I wrote a letter to my parents about Fahim. I’d already told them quite a bit about him and now that I knew he was an orphan, I wanted to propose to them that I adopt him. Riviere also wanted to adopt ‘his’ child, Yasmina. We could not abandon them, leaving them to live a life of misery.

The story that the old man in the resettlement village had told us was, sadly, a common story in Algeria. We often heard how the elite troops, particularly the Foreign Legion, won their medals and honours. In a frenzied search for Fellaghas they would often destroy a village, burning and killing everyone, and then, to justify their barbaric act, they would plant a few guns on some of the dead men. Their Lieutenant, sitting in his jeep, would calmly write a report to the authorities:

We were under heavy gun fire when we arrived at the village of Ain Ahmed where the enemy had a stronghold. Under the direct command of Captain Dubuc, the Third Platoon counter attacked, and immediately began to break down the resistance of the enemy. The village was taken in less than 34 minutes.

Result of this operation:

52 rebels killed, including eight prisoners who tried to escape

18 guns, two pistols, 20 grenades and one machine gun

French army losses:

2 men wounded

Signed: Lieutenant De Courcelles.’

Accompanying this report would be recommendations for rewards, medals, citations and promotions to higher ranks.

Poor France. What crimes were carried out in its name.

15 September 1961. We were called to a meeting.

“Seven p.m. General meeting in the Officers’ mess,” began the Captain. “The Fellaghas are stealing our mines.”

Deadly silence followed.

“Yes,” he continued. “They’re dismantling our mines and using the explosives to make their bombs!”

We all looked at one another, surprised at this revelation.

“Our expert has discovered that Fellagha bombs are being made from the explosives of our mines. That’s right, our own mines! It’s unbelievable that they dare to steal our mines for the explosives!” he bawled, becoming louder and angrier with every word.

“The bastards!” added Sergeant Chief Pujol, angrily.

“Yes, it’s absolutely disgusting!” said Lieutenant Carre, in an effort to back up the Captain at every opportunity.

“No one is going to steal my mines!” screamed the Captain, red with anger and banging the steel table with his fists. “No one! Do you understand? No one steals the mines of the French Army, and above all, not my mines! Even the Viet did not steal mines.”

“Excuse me Sir. How can we stop them from stealing our mines?” asked Lieutenant Maillet in a subdued voice.

“Good question Lieutenant,” said the Captain, calming down a little. “What can we do? Has anyone any suggestions?”

“We could keep an eye on the mine fields, twenty fours a day, every day” suggested Carre, with a smile on his face.

Pouzache looked at me and whispered, “Another bull shit job for us.”

“Yes, yes,” said the Captain, “but what I propose is that before we start to re–lay the mine field, we call in a war adviser, and he will give us expert advice.”

“Good idea, Sir,” said Carre.

“Do you have any suggestions Marie?” said the Captain, noticing him waving his arm.

“Yes Sir. One evening as I was coming back from the artillery camp, I saw the thieves.”

Everyone looked at Marie, wondering what he was up to.

“Well done, Marie! So, who are they? The Fellaghas? The old Berbers in the resettlement village?” asked the Captain.

“No Sir, Not the Fellaghas. The children from the resettlement camp. They watch us lay the mines, then, after we leave, they steal them. I’ve seen them crawling in the mine fields, using a nail to neutralise the detonators. Then they dig them out of the ground and sell them to the Fellaghas. They use the money for food.”

“Well done, Marie”, beamed the Captain. “I never thought those little bastards would do such a thing. How dare they!”

At Marie’s disclosure, my friends and I all looked at one another. We were all thinking the same. Were our little friends involved in this?

After the meeting, Marie went back to his tent, whistling happily. His revelation had made us all worried and no–one could sleep.

“Trust that bastard to come up with something like this,” said Riviere.

After the meeting the Captain was in a shocking mood. When he arrived for breakfast the next morning, everyone kept out of his way. There was even a glacial atmosphere at the Officers’ table, and no one dared to say anything in case they upset him. He was extremely angry, incensed, that anyone would dare to steal his beloved mines.

As the days went by, the Captain became more vigilant and more troubled. He was worried about mines being stolen from the pyramid of wooden boxes where they were stored, so the mining dogs were chained up all around the stack each night. The fact that one of his Officers had been blown up by one of our own mines, played heavily on the Captain’s mind. So too did the reality of what he would have to say in the report he was writing. He would have to admit to the Commandant and the Colonel, that, under his watch, someone was stealing mines. And this, of course, led to worry about his own 20–year army career which could now be in jeopardy. Would he be able to serve long enough to reach retirement age and get a good pension? Would he miss out on further medals, or promotions? He probably had many sleepless nights, but we all doubted that he would’ve given much thought to his wife and children, or to Lieutenant Legoubin and his driver. He probably didn’t even know that the driver’s name was Poirier.

More boxes of mines arrived in the camp, and the Captain was faced with another predicament. He couldn’t give the order to start laying them in case the Arabs stole them from the mine field at night, but he didn’t want to let the Colonel down. He spent considerable time sitting in his tent, holding his head in his hands.

The minefield that the Captain was agonising over was the third in a trio designed to stop the Fellaghas coming from Tunisia into Algeria. The military hierarchy were obsessed with blocking this corridor.

“We’ve always been told that there’s only a handful of Fellaghas,” said Bal.

“That’s right,” said Maillet. “There are actually more French soldiers guarding the Barrage than there are Fellaghas attacking it.”

“Just imagine,” added Pouzache, “if the Fellaghas matched us in numbers, and if they had radio communications, artillery and an air force like we have, we would not last a week. No wonder we’re losing the war.”

But our conversation was cut short. Marie, sitting in his corner and smiling as usual, butted in.

“Be careful what you’re saying. It would cost you if you were reported as a defeatist,” he sneered.

Everyone looked at him, knowing that he could report us, and that the bloody bastard would be brazen enough to do it.

18 September 1961. We were faced with another dangerous job on the Barrage, re–laying the minefield. The African sun had already risen on the horizon and it was going to be another hot day. Everyone in the camp was up and dressed and on their way to the mess tent for breakfast, when a shiny jeep drove in, creating a cloud of dust. It stopped in front of the tents.

“Uh oh, what’s this?” said Maillet as a young army man leapt from the jeep. A quick look at the two gold bars on his shoulder told us that he was a Lieutenant, so we stood at attention and saluted him.

“Is he going to be our new lieutenant?” someone whispered.

“I’m Lieutenant Jean Marie Yvon De la Barthe, Special Section. Where’s the Captain in charge of your company?” he asked.

“In the officer’s mess, Sir, having his breakfast,” one of the men replied.

This new Lieutenant was so unlike us that it was laughable. He looked like he’d come directly from Officer’s school, impeccably dressed and spotless. His green battle dress looked new, the creases crisply folded, and his rangers were not covered with dried mud like ours were, but were polished and shiny. His shirt collar was clean and fresh and held together by a tie which looked as if it had never been worn before, and he sported the expression of a typical French Officer. We’d seen his type before. He was probably the son of an army Officer, sent to military school at the age of eight, dressed in a uniform and taught the art of war. He was perhaps 26 years old so he would’ve been in the army for eighteen years already. But this special breed of Officers never saw battle, or even heard rifle shots during their entire military service. They learned everything about war, but knew nothing about the realities or actual practice of it. Beginning their career as child soldiers, they progressed to military college and became Officers, then moved to Paris to the technical department of the army, and spent the majority of their time sitting behind a desk, like a bank clerk. However, as we looked at him we were aware that he was in the same army as we were, but he was fighting the Algerian war in a very different way.

“I understand why the Germans reached Paris in a few weeks in 1940,” grumbled Bal, looking at him.

“Lieutenant Jean Marie Yvon De la Barthe, Special Section, at your command, Captain,” he said, clicking his heels together and saluting.

The Captain looked at him sideways, as if to say, “What would this bloody idiot know about my mine fields? “We got the inkling that he wasn’t particularly impressed by the decorations the Lieutenant wore on his jacket as he had probably won them by sitting behind a desk planning a war strategy.

But the Lieutenant continued, “You’ve requested advice from headquarters about your mine field. They’ve sent me here to resolve your problems.”

The Captain looked at him suspiciously before replying.

“Do you know anything about German S mines and, if so, what are you going to suggest… that we shoot all the Arabs within a 10–kilometre radius?” he said.

“Oh no! There’s no need to be so drastic, Sir. That would be too barbaric. There’s a better way to do it and that’s why I’m here to help you,” touted the Lieutenant.

“Well,” answered the Captain, “I hope that you can suggest a strategy which works because we have to re–lay this particular minefield before the end of the month. This is an order from the General in charge of the zone.”

“There will be no problem whatsoever, Sir. This is why I’m here!” he assured the Captain, and he did so with a sanctimonious smirk on his face, full of confidence in himself. However, we were worried. Who knows what the army had planned, and we would have to action those plans.

“Maybe they’ll lock the Arabs in the resettlement camp and let them die of hunger. Why not?” muttered Bal, with a smile.

But our speculation was short lived. The Lieutenant spoke up again.

“Well, Sir, I’m going to call a meeting this afternoon with everyone concerned and I’ll explain what has to be done. I have to be back in Algiers this evening.”

“OK, this afternoon at 1 p.m. I’ll call the other unit in the area as they may be having the same problem that we have. Carre, get on the radio now and call the 34th Battalion,” ordered the Captain, asserting his authority in front of the Lieutenant.

“Yes Sir, straight away,” said Carre.

One p.m. in the Officers’ mess. The Captain, Officers and Warrant Officers of the 34th Battalion of Pioneers, had arrived, ready to listen to what the ‘guru of warfare’ had to say about resolving the problem that we faced.

“So, I’ve heard that the Fells are stealing your mines,” said the Captain of the 34th Battalion, striking up a conversation with our Captain.

“Yes, they are the bastards,” said our Captain. “I always knew you couldn’t trust a bunch of thieves like them.”

“I wonder where all of this is going to end. The bloody Fellaghas don’t even respect the rules of war,” the other Captain commiserated.

Listening to them talk, we got the impression that we were the good guys, always honourable and deferential, and that the Fells were the bad guys, insolent people showing no respect for the belongings of others.

Lieutenant de la Barthe was standing behind a desk, like a school teacher, with a ruler in his hand and a big poster displayed on a stand next to him. He had set up a display of German S mines on a steel table, no doubt for a practical demonstration.

“Okay, everyone.” he began. “Let’s start with what we know. The first question we have to ask is, what is the problem?”

He pointed to Sergeant Chief Pujol, expecting a response. Pujol, who was struggling to recover from the previous night’s drinking session, stood up.

“The Arabs are stealing our mines, Sir,” he said, almost in tears.

Many of the soldiers in the room had not previously been privy to this information, and the room vibrated with anger as cries of ‘Oh no,’ and ‘How dare they?’ arose.

“Yes, that’s right”, continued Barthe,” and we’re going to work on a strategy to stop them, immediately. But first we have to identify the thieves.”

“We know who’s doing it, Sir! It’s the children of the Fellouzes from the resettlement camp,” yelled Marie, revelling in the attention he was getting, and knowing full well that he was upsetting the Warrant Officers.

“Right,” interjected Barthe. “I’m proposing two options for you to choose from. The first is to post snipers near the minefield each night, and then shoot dead any enemy that approaches.”

He paused, waiting for a reaction.

Our Captain scratched his chin and indicated that he thought this was a good solution. All the Officers nodded in agreement.

Lieutenant Carre stood up and said, “We could also put our dogs on duty near the mine field during the night. That will deter the thieves. It’s well known that the dogs hate the Arabs more than we do!

“And then the Arabs might kill or poison our dogs,” yelled our Captain “We’re not putting our mining dogs at risk. Do you understand, Carre?”

“Yes Sir, but I thought…”

Lieutenant Carre wasn’t able to finish his sentence. Pandemonium broke out. Many of the men started yelling out suggestions. Someone proposed shooting all of the children in one mass execution, and another put forward the suggestion that we shoot a few of them, and that this would deter the others. Lieutenant de Bonne Terre suggested sealing the mines in concrete, but of course, he wouldn’t have to mix the concrete and carefully pour it around the mines. Laying mines was already a nightmare, and while it would stop the thefts, it would be a very hard task for us to undertake.

Proposals, counter proposals, objections – it was chaos, and Lieutenant de la Barthe stepped up to re–establish order. He tapped his ruler on the table until he had everyone’s attention, and then in a solemn voice he said, “Shooting all the children is a good idea, but it might give us a bad name, and it’s a messy business – blood everywhere, bodies to be removed. No, no. I don’t like it at all.”

Then someone’s voice pierced the silence. “The Legion could do it for us! They would love every minute of it.”

“No!” declared de la Barthe. “What I propose is that you booby–trap your mines.”

There was a murmur of appreciation in the room, and the Lieutenant continued explaining his plan with an air that suggested he was imparting a huge chunk of secret war knowledge. “Booby trapping is definitely one hundred percent effective. It’s a safe and easy way to secure your mines, and you don’t need to booby–trap the whole field.”

 Most of the Officers at the meeting had no idea of what booby trapping a mine involved, so they moved their chairs closer to listen to the ‘guru’. Pointing his ruler at the poster, an illustration of a German mine, he began.

“This is a jumping mine or, as you call it, a German mine.”

He was telling us about the type of mine that we had been handling for the past 18 months, and he’d never had to arm a real one in his life, nor had he experienced the feeling that death was ever present as you were doing so.

He continued, “Setting up the mines is very simple. You have to dig the holes twice as deep and put two mines into each hole, one on top of the other. You do this to about one mine in every ten. The Arabs won’t know which ones are booby trapped, and after trying to steal the wrong ones a few times, they’ll give up.”

“But of course, they would all be killed after the first one,” Pouzache remarked loudly.

All the Officers turned around and looked sternly at him. His remarks were not appreciated, and it was likely that he’d get another black cross on his military record. Undeterred and full of self–importance, Lieutenant de la Barthe then began to demonstrate the finer details of setting up the booby traps.

“Whatever you do Sir, do not remove the safety pin of the detonator,” advised one Officer, clearly concerned for everyone’s safety.

Barthe grabbed a mine, set it on the desk, and screwed a special detonator into it. Then he grabbed a second one, held it on top of the first, and with his other free hand tried to screw the detonator onto it. He had obviously never done this before, and he put so much pressure onto the mines that they tumbled to the floor, one of them hitting our Captain on the foot. The four kilograms of steel shrapnel crushed both his shoe and his toes.

“You bloody fool!” screamed the Captain. He was in great pain and was furious with the Lieutenant, who in turn blushed heavily with embarrassment at being insulted by another Officer in front of everyone.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” he whimpered, then turned to his chart and composed himself.

Pouzache and Maillet left the meeting in disgust.

“So, when the mines have been securely placed one on top of the other, all you have to do is to pull the safety pin from the bottom mine, steady the second mine and pull the safety pin from it. That’s all. It’s simple but effective!” he explained. “Does anyone have any questions?”

“Yes! I have a question,” said Marie, suddenly quite interested. “When you’re holding the second mine on top of the first one with your two hands, how do you pull the dirt around it?”

“Don’t worry about it, Marie, you’re exempt from laying mines!” shouted out Riviere.

Pouzache, who has just come back in the tent with Maillet, put his hand up to speak.

“We’re the ones who are going to be laying the mines,” he said, “so I’d like to know Sir, if you could give us a demonstration in situ. Our mine field is just next door, and is ready for mines to be laid.”

Lieutenant De la Barthe never expected a suggestion like that, and he certainly had no intention of dirtying his uniform in the muddy mine field, or of facing the possibility of being blown to pieces.

“I’m sorry. I’d like to but I can’t because I have an important appointment in Algiers tonight, and I’m already late,” he replied, excusing himself.

But the Captain, still holding his foot and obviously still enraged, bawled at Pouzache.

“Next time, open your ears instead of talking shit all the time. Your stupid suggestions are irrelevant. The Lieutenant has shown you what to do – you just had to listen to him! Do you understand?”

“Yes Sir. I understand very well,” said Pouzache, in a subdued voice.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 16

OUR BERBER CHILDREN

 

18 September 1961. It was 7 o’clock, dinner time in our camp and all of our ‘adopted’ children were sitting with us. We’d won their complete trust and they did not miss any opportunity to eat with us. Our lives had settled into a more civilised pattern, the swearing, fighting and saucy jokes having all but disappeared. Life had changed radically, both for them and for us, but since the meeting and Marie’s testimony we were all worried about the children. There wasn’t anything we could do to stop them stealing the mines, for it was impossible to explain the danger to them. Their knowledge of French was virtually non–existent.

“I wonder what we can do about it,” said Bal, who had become extremely concerned after Lieutenant de la Barthe’s visit.

Boucher, being a teacher, had an idea. He went to the pile of empty mine boxes and picked up a steel panel with the word ‘MINES’ stencilled on it in large black letters. Underneath was a drawing of a skull and cross–bones. Signs like this were always displayed at the mine fields as a warning. We sat the children on a long bench and they folded their arms across their chests and smiled, ready for Boucher’s usual lesson. He did his best to make them understand that they faced grave danger if they entered the mine field. Riviere held Yasmina on his knees and she looked at him with her big brown eyes and smiled. She didn’t understand anything that Boucher was trying to say. Riviere kept pointing to the sign and saying, “No! No! No!” to her.

When the children returned to the resettlement camp, a deep sadness pervaded our group.

“Why do we have to lay those bloody mines? Why? The war is finished,” lamented Pouzache. “The Algerians have won the war and will get their independence from France in a few weeks. Could we refuse to do it?”

“Yes, you can, but you have to be ready to go to the Legion’s camp as their guests for a few weeks,” said one of the men. “You’ll be charged with ‘disobedience and refusal to carry out a mission in a war zone and it will extend your stay in Algeria by a few months.”

Marie, with the usual sardonic smile on his face, was lying on his stretcher, his hands in his pockets. He was enjoying every moment of our anguish.

“Why don’t you get some chalk and mark the mines that are booby trapped, so your dear little Fellouzes will know which ones not to steal?” he sneered.

Lieutenant Marie had barely finished his sentence when Riviere, who was standing close by, mustered all his strength and grabbed him by his shirt, lifted him from his stretcher and threw him bodily outside the tent, as if he was a rag doll. The Lieutenant landed in the thicket of cactus which bordered our camp and his screams pierced the air. The sarcastic smile was gone and the man was in tears as the sharp barbs tore at his skin while he tried to dislodge himself. No one made a move to help him except Joncquet who, regardless of innate goodness or badness in a person, was always there to assist anyone who needed it. He dragged Marie from the cactus bushes, got him a drink of water, and cleaned all the gashes and scratches on his arms and face. Watching them, we could not help but wonder what made human beings so different from one another.

Marie seemed to get the message about us and the children. He didn’t say another word, just went to his stretcher and lay down but he couldn’t read as he usually did, because his spectacles had been broken in the skirmish.

21 September 1961. “OK. We’re going to re–lay these bloody S mines but before you start, Sergeant Chief Pujol will demonstrate how to booby trap one. I advise you all to watch him very carefully if you want to be here for dinner tonight,” announced the Captain. “Above all, you with the big mouth, Pouzache, I hope you’ll take notice!”

Pujol had experience in booby trapping mines in Indo China and we watched him do the first one.

“As you can see,” he said, “it’s easy to do but you have to be careful. Now get started on yours. Booby trap one in every five to start with. Just concentrate all the time as there is no room for mistakes, none at all.”

The other men in the platoon had already prepared the site, digging every fifth hole twice as deep as the others, and putting two mines by each of these holes. Then it was up to us, the Warrant Officers, to arm them all, screwing two detonators into each of the doubles, attach the tripping wires and remove the safety pins. Just as risky as this, was walking away without exploding them. Great care had to be taken with each step.

There were four of us arming the mines, and I calculated how many I would have to do. I had twenty mines to booby–trap and it would be the most dangerous task I’d ever faced. We spaced ourselves across the field, carrying our boxes of detonators and our pliers. Death seemed very close, even closer than usual. Which one of us would it choose to take today? How many of us would survive? Would I? The anxiety and pressure was at breaking point I rested my first booby trap mine on top of the one below, holding it with my perspiring and shaking hands. My forehead dripped with sweat, but despite my fear I managed to secure the three tripping wires to the detonator. If this mine exploded it would be twice as bad as a single one, a double explosion, and I doubted that anyone would find even a part of my skinny body to put in the coffin. But I had to stop thinking like this and concentrate on pulling the safety pins, first the lower one and then, after pushing dirt around both mines, the second one. Once I had checked that the three tripping wires from the detonators were fixed to the fence, I had to make my way to the next hole, and start again. My adrenaline was working overtime. I was walking in a mine field under the burning African sun, arming one mine after another, knowing that the one I had just set was a mere three metres away and ready to explode at the slightest movement of the wire. But just as unnerving was the silence in the mountains, everyone waiting with baited breath for a sudden trembling of the earth and a devastating eruption. Only the crickets in the grass were unperturbed, but even their chirping made me nervous.

By the time I had armed fifteen mines my legs felt like cotton, barely able to hold me up. But strangely, the fear abated and was replaced by a resignation to fate. Perversely, I almost wished that a mine would explode and put an end to the dreadful desperation that I felt. The Arabs were strong believers in destiny, claiming that Allah planned everyone’s life, and that no one could change it. I wanted to believe the same thing.

Riviere had finished laying his mines and the pockets of his battledress trousers bulged with the safety pins and nylon rope. He walked back to the trucks, silent and expressionless. Bal and Maillet soon followed him. I had just one mine left to arm, and as I looked at it I became paralysed with fear. It seemed to be saying to me, ‘Come on Christian, you’ve only got me to do. What is the problem with you? Come on, do it! Pull the pin quickly and then it’ll be all over, forever.’ However, my fear abated and I finished the task. Everything went well and all of us had survived, but as we sat in the truck, exhausted, we were only too aware that the mine field was now booby trapped and that tonight it would probably ‘catch’ the thieves, our ‘adopted’ children.

Later that afternoon the mood in the camp was sombre. None of us could shake the worry of the booby–trapped mines and the children from our thoughts.

“Perhaps it would it be a good idea to give the children some money each day, so they wouldn’t have to steal the mines.” said Boucher.

“They steal our mines because the Fellaghas make them do it. They give them money, but of course, they want the explosives,” added another chap.

“Why don’t the Fellaghas do it themselves?” asked another fellow.

They’ve trained the children to neutralise mines with a nail. Children are more agile than adults, especially in a minefield. They deliberately use the children for their own benefit,” some–one else explained.

“If you give the children money, the Fellaghas will take it from them anyway, and can you imagine what would happen if the army learned about it?” said one of the men.

The children came as usual, but we knew that once they left us, the real problem would start. Riviere was in total panic, trying to come up with a way to protect Yasmina. He decided to take an enormous risk and break all the strict army rules by keeping her in the camp until at least 10 p.m. He figured that she would be safe enough after that time, but we were forbidden to have civilian visitors after 6 p.m., so he needed both our cooperation and a plan.

“When you get to the mess tent, tell them that I’m sick,” he said. “None of the Officers must know what I’m doing.”

With this plan in mind, Riviere relaxed somewhat, but the rest of us were greatly concerned. After dinner the children left, but as we watched them go, we couldn’t help but wonder which ones would be back and which ones we were seeing for the last time.

By 8 o’clock it was almost dark and we were all tense. Our ears were well–trained to recognise the particular noise of a mine exploding, and we were all sitting in the Officer’s mess, listening fervently. Riviere stayed in his tent with Yasmina. Sergeant Chief Pujol pretended to know nothing and closed his eyes to what was happening. He didn’t want to get involved as he was a professional soldier. Marie had been warned to keep his mouth shut.

“If you say anything in the Officer’s mess tonight, the next time we are on the Barrage, I will take my MAT49 and personally deliver a whole charge of bullets into your body. Do you understand this, Marie?” Bal had threatened.

Marie had looked at him, livid with rage. He knew that Bal meant business.

At the table next to us the Officers were playing cards, and eventually we did the same thing, albeit in silence. The minutes went by slowly. By 9.30 p.m. there was still no explosion and we all began to relax a little. The children might not have gone to the mine field this evening after all. Then, just when we were not expecting it, there was an enormous explosion, stronger than anything we’d heard before. The tent shook and the tables vibrated.

“It’s one of our mines!” screamed the Captain, throwing his cards in the air and becoming wild with excitement. We’ve got the bastards! Yes, we’ve got them!”

“It worked! It worked!” yelled Lieutenant Carre. We had to agree with him. The force of the explosion confirmed that it was one of the booby–trapped mines. But we certainly did not agree with him when, trying to impress the Captain, he continued, “It’s fantastic! Well done, Sir.”

“It serves them right, the little bastards. They dared to steal our mines,” said the Captain. “It was worthwhile calling the Technical Officer. It was a quick and effective solution.”

“It’ll teach them to stay in their resettlement camp at night!” added Lieutenant Carre, becoming so excited that he dropped all of his cards.

Then he turned to us, the Warrant Officers.

“Well done!” he said, shaking our hands. “You have done very well indeed.”

If only he knew how we felt. Marie was in his corner grappling with keeping his mouth shut, but just a glance from Bal was enough to remind him that if he wanted to see France again, he would have to control himself.

One by one we left the mess and made our way towards our own tent.

“What’s wrong with the boys now?” Lieutenant Carre asked another of the Officers. “They’ve done very well. We’ve congratulated them but they’re definitely not happy.”

“Yes Sir,” he replied, “but you know what it is? Now they have to go back to the minefield and re–lay some of the mines. They hate that!”

“They’re a bunch of morons. You can’t win with them,” said the Captain. “You can never make them happy!”

Riviere, confident that Yasmina was no longer at risk, asked three of us to accompany him and discretely take her back to the resettlement village. We took our MAT49s and, after warning the guards on duty, broke all the rules and crept down the dirt road to take her safely home. It was extremely dangerous to wander about at night in Fellagha territory which was why we were forbidden to leave the camp after dark, but as the Officers were pre–occupied with their drinking and cards, we were confident that they would have no idea what we were up to.

It was moving to see Riviere, a brutal giant of a man, carefully carrying Yasmina in his arms, and I was reminded of the book, ‘Les Miserables,’ when Jean Valjean was carrying Cosette to Paris after escaping from the Thenardier family.

“What a story for Yasmina when she turns eighteen and Riviere tells her how he rescued her from the mine field in 1961!” said Bal.

It was well known that the Fellaghas had a tendency to take young orphans, some as young as four years old, and train them to replace the safety pins in our mines with rusty nails, rendering them useless. They were like rats, moving in the mine fields, unaware of the jeopardy they were in, and all for a few francs.

“We should’ve kept the children here like Riviere did,” said Boucher, sitting on my stretcher after we returned.

“No, you know we couldn’t do that. There were too many of them,” I replied.

But our consciences bothered us. What more could we have done? We had tried to tell the children that the mine fields were booby trapped, even though, were it known, we could be put on a charge of collaborating with the enemy and betraying the army. It would be considered as treason, and the punishment for this was, at best, automatic transfer to a Battalion somewhere in the Sahara Desert, and, at worst, death by firing squad.

None of us, except Riviere, could sleep that night. We were anxious to find out what had happened to the children. Boucher wanted to go to the mine field and check it.

“Maybe some of them are just wounded and lying there, trying to keep the hungry jackals away,” he said.

“But we can’t go there during the night,” I commiserated.

Boucher walked out of the tent into the cold night air and looked in the direction of the mine field for a long time.

As we lay on our stretchers in the dark, anxious and preoccupied with concern for the children, a lone voice penetrated the tent.

“You might not see your little darlings tomorrow night!”

It was Marie. He couldn’t wait any longer to spill out his sarcastic remarks.

He’d barely finished speaking when we heard fighting and struggling amongst the stretchers and the mosquito nets, boxes falling over, a coffee cup tumbling to the floor, and someone choking and screaming for help. We grabbed our torches and beamed them around the tent. There on the muddy ground was Godefroy, holding Marie’s neck with his two hands, strangling him slowly and hitting his head on the ground as hard as he could. Marie’s face was badly damaged and covered in blood, and his new pair of spectacles had been smashed.

“Let go of him, Godefroy! Let him go!” we yelled, but Godefroy was out of control.

He wanted to kill Marie, so we had to jump on him to restrain him, but our motive was not to save Marie. It was to stop Godefroy as he had ‘cracked’, and no longer realised what he was doing, what the consequence would be, or the severe punishment that would follow. We managed to pry Godefroy’s hands from Marie’s throat, but Marie was barely breathing. “Quick, help him to breathe!” yelled Boucher.

Bal, much to his disgust, had to pump Marie’s chest to get him breathing again.

The noise and commotion had brought others to the tent and Chevalier fetched his first aid box and repaired, as best he could, Marie’s deeply lacerated face, a consequence of the broken spectacles. Marie was in a terrible state and was crying unashamedly. What a night. The inside of the tent was in ruins, and Marie’s sobbing kept us awake until the early hours of the morning.

23 September 1961. When daylight came, we checked on Marie. Chevalier had bandaged the cuts on his face, and he looked more like an Egyptian mummy than a call up serviceman. The smirk was gone from his face and his broken spectacles were in the bin, so he couldn’t see where he was going.

“Anyway, Marie, you don’t lay mines so you don’t need spectacles anymore,” said Bal, laughing.

“You’re not going to get away with this!” bawled Marie to all of us. “I’m going to report you all to the Captain, particularly you, Godefroy.”

With this, Bal quietly took his MAT49, put a round of 25 bullets in it and pulled the hammer back, ready to fire it. He walked towards Marie, his cigarette dangling from his mouth, and looked at him, straight in the face. We all froze. Not another drama.

 “Come on Bal, don’t be stupid. Cool down,” said Pouzache. “Leave him.”

But Bal ignored us, and pushed the MAT49 into Marie’s chest.

“Listen very carefully, you scumbag,” he said. “You have given everyone in the company the shits for a long time, so I’m going to do something about it. I’ve got twenty–five bullets behind my index finger. Do you understand?”

Last night it was Godefroy, and now it was Bal whose anger was out of control. Marie started to shiver and turn grey. He knew that Bal meant what he was saying.

“You’re mad! I always knew you were all mad in this company!” Marie stammered.

“Now listen very carefully,” hissed a sinister voice. “We are going to report to the Lieutenant that you are sick and in bed, this morning. If you stay here quietly you might see France again. Remember, you have no friends here and no one will back you up with your story. You’re on your own completely, so if an Officer asks you what happened to your face, you will say that you had an accident during the night while going to the toilet,” warned Bal, constraining himself somewhat.

Marie’s anger surged again, his eyes flashed and he started to shake, but he was speechless. We had him cornered for good.

“Where is Marie this morning?” asked the Captain when we were all in the Officer’s mess.

“He’s reporting in sick Sir. He’s staying in his bed today,” said Bal.

“OK,” replied the Captain. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He had an accident going to the toilet last night, Sir!’ answered Bal.

“What? Don’t tell me the bloody idiot fell in the toilet trench full of shit,” scoffed the Captain.

The whole mess burst out laughing and nothing more was said.

We were kept busy all day and had no opportunity to get to the mine field, so by six o’clock we were waiting anxiously to see if the children would come. The first one who appeared for dinner was, of course, Yasmina. She trusted Riviere and acted as if he was her father. He beamed with happiness, grabbed her by the arm, and threw her up onto his shoulder. She laughed, very obviously happy to be with him. Then two more girls came walking up the dirt road, Farida and Rachida, but there were no boys yet so we waited for them before starting our dinner. Soon a small skinny boy, Omar, and his brother Khaleb arrived, but no Fahim. I watched the road leading to their camp intently, hoping he would appear. It wasn’t long before we could see another three boys walking towards us, and I was relieved and overjoyed as Fahim was amongst them, but as they came nearer I sadly realised that I was mistaken. It was not Fahim. We all waited a long time before we accepted that no more children would be coming.

“Some of them have been blown up by our mines,” said Bal, in a quiet voice.

Boucher tried very hard to find out about the missing children, but he could not make himself understood. If only the children spoke French.

Our spirits sunk lower and we knew that, once again, death had played his dirty game and had snatched a number of the children from us. I walked forlornly towards the forest with my mind in agony, repeating to myself over and over, ‘Why? Why him?’ Fahim never had a day of happiness in his short–tormented life, but he could’ve found peace and contentment in France. My parents had been told that he was coming and my mother had prepared a room for him and had found a place for him at a near–by school. I questioned why death would take him now. Was there another greater plan for him that I didn’t know about?

The children must have been torn apart by the steel shrapnel when the mines exploded. Their small bodies would’ve been thrown into the air and their remains mixed with the mud in the field. But they were orphans. There’d be no one to pick them up, no one to give them a burial place, no kinfolk to mourn them. Only the marauding jackals, always on the prowl looking for their next meal, would have been interested in them. But we, their adopted family, would grieve for them and I, in particular, would weep for Fahim. In the short time I had known him he had brought me so much happiness. All I had left of him was a photo which Boucher had taken a few weeks before and which I’d pinned to the inside cover of my wooden box. Fahim had gone to join his father and mother in another world where I was sure there would be no war and no killing. He was now in a better place than the one he’d left, but I knew that I would never forget him and that he would always have an important place in my heart.

That evening we were all lying on our stretchers, motionless and silently mourning. Marie, who had recovered somewhat from the previous evening’s beating, inexplicably seemed to realise how deeply we were affected by the death of the children, and even more amazingly, he walked over to my stretcher, took my hand in his and said, “I’m very sorry to see you in such grief and I’m sincerely sorry for the death of your little friend.”

What a bombshell. We couldn’t believe our ears. Marie had seen the light.

Except for Riviere, none of us could sleep. We kept churning the events of the last few days over and over in our heads. At 11 p.m. Boucher came to my stretcher with his torch in his hand.

“Listen,” he said. “We don’t know what happened in the mine field last night. We don’t even know if the children are dead or not, or which ones died.”

“So what do you suggest we do?” I asked.

“Well, I thought we could go there and check for ourselves. They could be wounded and needing help,” he replied.

“But we can’t do anything before tomorrow morning. You know we’re not allowed to leave the camp at night, above all to go to the minefield,” I faltered.

“Aren’t you worried about what could have happened to Fahim?” he asked.

“Of course, I am,” I replied. “Do you think we should go there now?”

“I’ve spoken to Pouzache, Godefroy and Joncquet.” he explained, “and they have agreed to go. Laurent is in charge of the guard tonight and he’ll cover for us. He won’t say anything to anyone.”

“OK.” I agreed. “The five of us will go. We’ll take our guns but, for our own sake, I hope that the Officers never find out.”

Boucher had obviously been thinking about our mission.

“The mine field is only two hundred metres from us if we approach it from the other side.” he said. “And luck is with us. We don’t need our torches as the moon is quite bright tonight.”

“I just hope we don’t meet a Foreign Legion patrol on the way,” I added.

We set out, silently and stealthily slipping out of the camp and walking briskly towards the mine field. We could see the steel posts and the barbed wire of the protective fence, and as soon as we reached it we followed it as quietly as we could. We walked down a valley, all the time scrutinising the field. So far, the mine field was completely intact.

“How far down do you think they went?” I whispered.

“I have no idea,” Boucher murmured. “All we can do is to follow the fence until we see where the explosion occurred.”

A short while later Bal stretched out his arm and signalled to us, indicating that he had seen something. Much further along and opposite to our camp was evidence of an explosion. When we reached the area, we found that a whole section of the fence was missing, the star posts had been flattened, and the ground looked as if it had been deeply ploughed. There were piles of debris scattered around the field.

“That’s where the mines must have exploded!” whispered Bal, pointing to an area of even greater devastation further up.

We approached this area with great apprehension, but it wasn’t with concern for residual, unstable mines, but fear of what we were going to discover. As far as we could tell, four mines had exploded, possibly more, but there was no trace of the children, nothing.

We had come too late. The jackals had already scourged the area.

We could only look from a safe distance as some of the mines could have been on the brink of exploding and it was too dangerous for us to go nearer. Here and there we saw scraps of clothing wedged in the mud, and then Pouzache pointed to a tiny shoe hanging in the barbed wire and moving with the wind.

“Here you are, it’s all that’s left of them,” he groaned.

We had to agree. No one could’ve survived such an explosion. They would’ve been killed instantly, so they wouldn’t have suffered, wouldn’t have felt the razor–sharp fragments shredding their tiny bodies, and wouldn’t have felt the mud entombing their remains. We had no idea who or how many of them had died and we would never know. No one in the resettlement camp would be even remotely interested in finding out.

Goodbye children.

We all staggered back to our camp in total silence, even more troubled than before.

10 October 1961. The French army was renowned for its complexities. Besides the usual divisions, there were discreet sections, and various groups and factions within each of these. The Foreign Legion was a unique militia as was the ‘HARKIS’, a detachment of Algerians who were fighting on the side of France against their own people, the Fellaghas. All of them had served in the French army even before the Algerian war. They loved France and were more French than the French themselves.

In our unit, there were two distinct groups, the conscripts and the professional army men or career soldiers. And each of these groups had their own agenda. The career soldiers didn’t want the Arabs to win their independence as this war was the means by which they could quickly climb the ladder to success. It was difficult to get a promotion during peace time. Furthermore, during war time their retirement pension doubled, they had opportunities to win rewards and medals, and there was also the possibility of making extra money on the side by setting up dubious deals with the settlers. Some professional soldiers much preferred to be with their units in the Atlas Mountains than to be with their wives and children in France. The conscripts, on the other hand, just wanted the war to be over and to return to their families, and the Algerian conscripts absconded at the first opportunity. Then there was the O.A.S., an army of Officers and deserters who wanted to keep Algeria under French control at all costs.

At times it was difficult to determine exactly who our allies were and who our enemies were. We had to contend with the Fellaghas, the O.A.S., the Legionnaires, the professional soldiers in our own platoons, the Algerians in the resettlement camps, the white settlers and even the mines. The war was dragging on even through De Gaulle had agreed to Algeria’s independence, the demise of the children weighed heavily on our minds, and our morale was very low. All of this took its toll on our physical health.

Every day we were getting skinnier, and many of us were quite ill. Dysentery was common and ravaged the troops. There was an endless procession of men going back and forth to the open latrines, and some poor chaps no sooner returned to their tents than they had to go again. At night it was worse. Despite the urgency of trips to the latrines, we still had to abide by the rules – take a friend with you and take your gun. We reached the stage of no longer bothering to get undressed at night, not even removing our shoes. We were treated with a small glass of pure apple brandy which we had to drink in one gulp. The alcohol was supposed to stop the dysentery immediately. It wasn’t particularly effective, and when any one reached the stage of passing blood, they were sent to the hospital at Souk–Ahras. Before long there were more empty stretchers in our tents, than occupied ones.

The Captain was getting worried about the dwindling number of men in the company. Each morning another truck full of sick men left the camp and went to the hospital for treatment.

“It’s not a working company anymore,” said Lieutenant Carre.

“I agree,” replied the Captain. “We don’t have the numbers here to undertake the work and the ones that are left are not only physically unfit, but mentally ill as well. What do you think we can do about it?”

“What about sending them on day’s holiday somewhere?” proposed Carre.

“Where would you send them?” the Captain enquired.

“Well, what about Souk–Ahras?” replied Carre. “They could go this coming Sunday.”

“What would they do there?” asked the Captain curiously.

“They’re all Catholics, so they could go to Mass. It’ll break their boredom,” said Carre.

All the other Officers in the mess turned and gaped at Carre, hardly believing what they’d heard.

“Mass!” spluttered the Captain. “Are you crazy? Oh no, I have a better idea. I suggest we take them to Mass in the morning and to the Arab bordellos in the afternoon.”

Shouts of ‘Yes Sir,’ and ‘What a great idea,’ rang out as the Officers voiced their approval.

“They haven’t seen a woman for months,” continued the Captain. “It would boost their morale and put them back in shape. Women are better than cactus leaves.”

Everyone burst out laughing and shrieks of, ‘Yes, yes!’ rang out.

“Perhaps we could have two trucks to go to Souk–Ahras next Sunday,” yelled out one of the men. “One for those who want to go to church and the other for those who prefer the bordellos.”

“OK, we’ll set it up for next weekend,” said the Captain, and then leeringly added, “If they have sex it will bring their morale up at the same time as their dicks!”

At this, everyone burst out laughing again. The Captain was obviously in a good mood, and we all relaxed and enjoyed the camaraderie.

“Lieutenant Binet,” hollered the Captain. “You will be in charge of this operation. Organise which fellows go in which trucks.”

Sunday in October 1961. A holiday. No work. The men seemed to have recovered somewhat from their fatigue and sickness and had made a tremendous effort to look their best, sprucing themselves up in their outing uniforms. Everyone was excited and eagerly looking forward to a day of relaxation in Souk–Ahras. The two GMC trucks were ready to go and Lieutenant Binet was standing next to them.

“Is everyone here?” he yelled.

“Yes Sir!” answered twenty–five voices, collectively.

“OK. Pouzache will be in charge of the first truck, going to Mass. Fiset will be in charge of the second truck, going to the bordellos,” announced Binet.

He had barely finished speaking when there was a scramble for the second truck. Three or four timid fellows got into the truck going to church, but the rest were jammed together in the second truck. After some deliberation, it was decided that both trucks would drive to the bordellos, drop off those who wanted to stay there, and continue on to the church with the few remaining chaps.

The two trucks left, following each other along the Barrage. The men were all laughing and making loud remarks but I was sitting next to the driver so I had the opportunity to quietly contemplate the day ahead. My thoughts turned to Catherine, the nurse who’d looked after me in the hospital. How fantastic it would be if I could see her again.

We arrived at the entrance to the city of Souk–Ahras and the trucks pulled up at the check point. There was a blockhouse on each side of the huge barbed wire gateway and it was permanently manned by the army. A barbed wire network, ten metres wide, surrounded the city and rolls of concertina wire were spread along many of the streets, a legacy of the town’s history and its proximity to the Barrage. Souk–Ahras had a sinister record. It had been the centre of the biggest battle between the Fellaghas and the Foreign Legion. Much blood had been spilled and many Legionnaires had lost their lives there.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 17

OUR SOUK–AHRAS AND BONE OUTINGS

 

When we arrived at the checkpoint at Souk–Ahras the Foreign Legion was policing it, as usual, and they told us that as long as we kept to the main avenue it was safe for us to wander around without weapons. As soon as the trucks stopped everyone jumped out, eager and full of anticipation, and headed towards the magic place where women could be found, the bordellos. It was great to be out of the mountains, walking on bitumen foot paths, and mingling with civilians. We took a passing delight in the street cafés and their patrons who were sitting on the terraces drinking beer with their friends. The men looked relaxed and happy to be with their wives and children. We felt we had discovered another world and we forgot the pile of wooden boxes full of mines, taunting us day and night. In fact, we forgot everything except for women. We’d been talking about them for so long, all those long lonely evenings in our tents, and now the fantasies were about to come true.

Leblanc knew where the bordellos were and we followed him like a herd of sheep, getting more and more excited with each step. The remarks and jokes were getting louder and louder and more–lewd. Leblanc led us down a narrow street near the Kasbah to an old white–washed building with barred windows. He turned and stood in front of the heavy wooden door which was studded with nails.

“Here we are boys! This is the bordello,” he announced.

Echoes of ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Great’ rang out.

Dubuc stepped up to the doors and laughingly proclaimed, “This is the gate of Paradise, boys.”

Paradise it may well have been, but hell didn’t seem too far away. The end of the street was blocked with rolls of concertina wire, and the buildings had barred windows. Even the door to the bordello had a little barred window in it.

Leblanc knocked using the heavy iron handle and the door opened to reveal, to our great surprise, two Legionnaires sitting behind a desk. I guess they were there to keep peace and order. One of them had a face which looked like it had been carved with an axe and his colleague looked like he was definitely drunk.

“Anyone have a gun?” one of them asked us, wobbling on his chair.

“Yes, we all have guns and they’re all loaded and ready to fire,” said Grosjean, referring to anatomy rather than weaponry, and we all burst out laughing. But the Legionnaires didn’t comment, or even smile. They didn’t understand the joke.

On the wall behind the Legionnaires was a rack stacked with dozens of confiscated weapons. We were to discover that in recent times there had been a few murders in the bordellos, and just two weeks previously a drunken Legionnaire had shot dead two prostitutes in their room. Since this incident, weapons were collected and held while the patrons were in the building.

From the foyer we entered a large room, decorated in typical Arabic fashion. There was a long bar on the right side, and this was lined with stools. The stone floor was covered in heavy Middle Eastern carpets, tables and chairs were liberally scatted around the room, and many alcoves dotted the walls and opened into smaller rooms. There was a grand staircase in the middle, presumably leading to even more intimate rooms. Hundreds of Moroccan leather poufs nestled in the alcoves and against the remaining wall spaces. At one table a group of Legionnaires were playing bridge. To our surprise, when one of them played his hand, he didn’t sit back and watch the game progress. He grabbed an Arab woman who was passing by and pushed her up the staircase leading to a private room. He returned after a few minutes and resumed his card game, as if nothing had happened.

The room was full of army servicemen and circulating amongst them were many Arab and Berber women. They were all dressed in similar fashion, a brassiere covered with pearls and precious stones, a wide belt covered with silver embellishments, and a skirt that could more accurately be called a veil, covered their lower half and reached their ankles. Their arms sported dozens of bangles, mostly made of silver and encrusted with semi–precious stones and they wore glittering rings on their fingers, silver diamantes on their nails, and even sparkling tattoos on their bodies. Most of them were in their thirties and had beautiful exotic faces, olive skin and long black hair. They wore heavy makeup, particularly around their eyes.

Most of our group were from Normandy, and this was an eye opener. We couldn’t imagine our villages housing anything like this, and we stared in awe as the women responded to an orchestra of pipes, drums and Arabic harps, and began to dance the mysterious, exotic and erotic oriental ‘danse du ventre’. Our noisy group became speechless. These girls were so different from the ones we knew, girls of Viking descent with blonde hair, blue eyes and pink skin. We were enchanted with their dark looks and seductive dancing, and we glanced at each other, seeing the excitement we felt in the eyes of our comrades. Our army life, the screaming and the bombs was vanquished from our minds, and the dreams that we had harboured for many months materialised before our eyes.

“I’m going to try to get on with the one in the pink veil,” said Letalandier as he undid his tie in an effort to cool the heat that had crept into his face, turning him red, like a lobster.

But none of us dared to approach these beautiful Berber women. All the talk in the tents about future conquests was forgotten and we turned into shy little boys. Even the Romeos among us, with their endless bragging of success with the women in their villages, had become silent. And the exotic Berber women would never know how much delight they had given us, even from a distance. They were the best medication in the world.

The ambience in the room was incredible, even though it was filled with servicemen and enveloped with their cigarette smoke. Cartons and cartons of Kronenbourg beer were guzzled, and the patrons became more and more vocal and more daring in their approach. Shyness was disappearing fast but there was one major inhibition. Any chap wanting to spend intimate time with a woman had to climb the staircase behind her, as she led him to her personal abode. Only the very bold could cope with the whistling, loud cat calls and jokes of his friends as they watched him climb to ‘heaven’.

As for our timid group, we were all drinking and trembling with excitement, but not daring enough to follow through with action. No–one made a single move. I was sitting on a stool by the bar with my report book open. I had the unenviable task of recording the names of the fellows who went with any of the girls. Later, if any of these men contracted venereal disease, this would be proof of an acceptable cause, and they would not be sent to the Foreign Legion for punishment.

Legras, our driver, a shy young boy from Brittany, was sitting on a stool between Leblanc and me. On a number of previous occasions, he had confided to us that he had never had intimate relations with his fiancée in France as she insisted on being married first. Suddenly Legras’s face changed. His eyes almost popped out of his head as two beautiful arms covered in bangles and bracelets entwined his body.

“Oh my God, what’s this?” he gasped, becoming red in the face and noticing the smooth olive skin, the tattoos and the silver encrusted fingernails.

A beautiful Berber girl, looking for customers, slid from behind him and draped herself across his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and nestling her scantily clad breast under his chin. Legras started to sweat, but seemed powerless to do anything but look beseechingly at us as if to say, ‘Help me! Do something! ‘She was not more than eighteen years old and we couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing in such a place. She had the profile of a Greek goddess, her long pure black hair was enhanced with circlets of pearls, and her heavy black eye makeup gave her an air of beauty and mystique. She held Legras tightly and moved against him in time to the Arabic music. Legras almost exploded.

“He’s going to stay cross–eyed for the rest of his life!” said Leblanc, laughing.

The girl kissed him and caressed his hair. He was in ecstasy. His whole world, his fiancée, all of us, slipped into oblivion and he closed his eyes in rapture and succumbed to orgasmic paradise. But then the girl stood up quickly, gave a teasing laugh, and moved on to another customer. She acted as if nothing had happened. Legras tried to recover his senses. He was so embarrassed.

“What’s the matter, Legras? You had an accident, or what? Don’t worry about it. We won’t tell your fiancée in France,” laughed Leblanc, “And we won’t tell the Captain either.” Legras, ashamed at having lost face in front of us, disappeared into the toilets, his trousers drenched.

In the meantime, Mahe had a few more beers, became enthralled with the seductive singing and belly dancing, lost his inhibitions, and followed a stunning looking Berber girl up the stair case, in full view of everyone. I, of course, noted it down in my book.

“Why do you have to record who goes with a woman?” someone asked me. “I don’t see the need as there’s a serviceman at the top of the stairs. He’s got a syringe and he injects antibiotics into everyone’s penis.”

The alcohol was taking effect and bolstered the men’s confidence and they began to seek out the women. They lost their shyness and began singing, upstaging even the Arab musicians who, by this time, were augmenting their music with lewd remarks, gestures and crude imitations of the fellows taking the staircase. The atmosphere in the room was electric and we forgot our suffering on the Barrage and surrendered to the charismatic charms that we had all missed, and that only women can give. Mahe came down the stairs, still buttoning his fly and with a smug look on his face, he announced, “She was tight, the bitch.”

Unfortunately, it was soon time to return to our truck and Leblanc and I had to go around the bordello and round up all the men. One of our young fellows with big blue innocent eyes was sitting on some cushions in a dimly lit side room, holding the hand of a beautiful young Berber girl, drawing her close to him and whispering romantically to her. She was covered with an alluring black veil and was looking at him with mysterious eyes, seemingly captivated, even though she didn’t understand French. We found Lebon in another dimly lit room. He looked up at me with his big innocent eyes and said, “Sergeant, I think I’ve fallen in love with her. What can I do?”

Leblanc answered for me. “I definitely think you have a tick from her.”

Then winking at me he said, “I can’t believe that, in only a few hours, these women have brought so much happiness to us in our wretched lives.”

By twelve o’clock we were all back in the main street of Souk–Ahras, looking for a place to have our dinner, with the words of the Captain still echoing in our ears. “When you’re in Souk–Ahras, make sure you all stay together.”

One of our drivers who knew the place well had reiterated his concern.

“It’s a dangerous place, an ant hill full of Fellouzes,” he warned.

But it was easier said than done to heed their advice. The streets were full of souvenir shops and two of our colleagues disappeared into one of them. A bit further on, another three fellows decided to cross the road to buy some souvenirs in another shop, and we couldn’t blame them because we had very limited opportunities to buy gifts or mementos from Algeria. A few fellows wandered into an area of the Kasbah where military personnel were not allowed. They completely disregarded the signs posted on the walls: ‘AREA FORBIDDEN TO TROOPS’. Leblanc tried to regroup the men a few times, but met with little success. By the time we reached the main square in the middle of the city, there were only six out of twenty–five of us left. We stopped and waited for the rest of the men to catch up, but no–one came, and two more of the men disappeared into a large shop selling carpets, while another two wandered away. It was now 1 p.m. we were starting to get very hungry.

“We can’t wait much longer for them,” said Bonnard, the only conscript left with me. “Let’s go and get something to eat now, Christian. They’ll join us later on when they’re hungry. If not, they know where the trucks are parked.”

It was very hot and the streets were deserted. Everyone was home eating their lunch.

“Here we are! This is exactly what we’ve been looking for!” said Bonnard, pointing to a restaurant in a side street of the Kasbah. “What’s wrong with this one, Christian?”

“Wouldn’t it be better to wait for the rest to come, so that we’d all be together?” I suggested.

“Why?” he said. “The place is cool and fresh, so let’s go inside. You see danger everywhere but the town folk are having a siesta right now, and it’s very peaceful in there. Let’s have a beer.”

We stepped inside and the place certainly looked like a normal Arabic restaurant. It was spacious with lots of tables surrounded by stools, and a bar at one end of the room. The thick walls, ceiling fans and limited windows made it cool inside. What Bonnard didn’t realise was that I was not so much worried about the group, as about the place we were in. Despite its appearance my instincts were telling me otherwise. It was as if a red light was flashing in my head saying ‘DANGER’. I didn’t like the place at all.

“Come on, Bonnard,” I urged. “Let’s get out of here. There’s no one to serve us anyway.”

Just then a tall Arab came in from the back door and stood behind the bar, drying glasses with a tea towel, but he totally ignored us.

“Excuse us. Can we have two bottles of Kronenbourg beer, please?” asked Bonnard.

But the barman didn’t respond at all. He acted as though we didn’t exist.

“It’s very strange place indeed. What do you think Bonnard?” I murmured.

Then another Arab appeared at a side window and sat on the sill, followed by another who sat down at the entry. The deserted street started to get lively, and heavily laden donkeys and their masters materialised out of nowhere. Groups of Berbers appeared and women covered with veils crowded together on the footpath outside the café. Some children started to play with a soccer ball in the middle of the street.

Within a few minutes the empty street was alive with people, and I was feeling very, very uneasy. Bonnard had gone to the toilet, so I was on my own, trapped inside the restaurant by the Arabs who by now had almost blocked the windows and the doorway. I realised we’d fallen into a trap, but if Bonnard was still with me, I was sure that we’d still have had time to break through their ranks. I decided to wait for him to come back, and tried to act as if nothing was wrong. I couldn’t let them see how scared I was.

“Can we have our two beers, please?” I asked the barman once more.

Five minutes went by and Bonnard was still not back. I was starting to panic – I was unarmed and on my own.

“Beer is coming!” grumbled the barman.

I glanced around me. At the window nearest to me were two young Arabs, casually cleaning their nails with a large flick knife, the type they used to cut the throat of sheep for festivals. They both looked over at me with malevolent smiles. Bonnard had still not returned from the toilet. There was nothing I could do except pray for deliverance and hope that my guardian angel would be with me till the end, which I had to admit, was starting to look sooner rather than later. Slowly the Arabs were starting to move closer to my table, flashing their menacing knives. I had a fleeting thought of picking up one of the steel stools and forcing my way out, but within moments I was completely surrounded by the Arabs. All of the empty tables were now filled and I was a ‘sitting duck’. I knew that if I dared to ask again for a drink, the Arabs would jump from the tables and murder me. I had made the biggest mistake of my life. For over eighteen months I had survived the minefields and the battles on the Barrage, and now I was about to have my throat cut in the backyard of an Arab café. I didn’t know what had happened to Bonnard. He hadn’t returned from the toilet in the rear courtyard.

One of the Arabs walked up to me, stared at me and asked, “What’re you doing here on your own?”

“I came here to have lunch with my friends. They’ll be joining me in a minute,” I stammered.

“No, you’re here on your own and your friends aren’t going to be joining you,” he said, with a leering smile.

He pulled his flick knife from his pocket and looked at me with an evil grin. He opened the knife and moved closer to me. One of his friends followed suit.

When cornered, a man has nothing to lose. I jumped up, grabbed a steel stool and leapt into an open space, determined to fight to the end. The Arabs were momentarily taken aback, but they no longer made any pretence about their real intention. They all opened their knives and held them ready to strike. As they moved in on me my eyes flashed with determination to defend myself.

Amazingly, under the circumstances, I became aware that the people in the street had begun to disappear as quickly as they had appeared ten minutes ago. Then I could hear singing, but not just any singing, German singing. At that crucial moment my prayers had been answered. The Arabs folded their knives and disappeared out of the back door of the restaurant, as quickly as they had come. In a split second the scene changed. I was still holding the stool when two Legionnaires barged into the café.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here Franzosen? Are you completely mad or what?” one of them shouted. “Ich kannesnicht glauben!”

The Legionnaires looked at each other and laughed.

“What’re you doing here with a stool in your hand, Dumkopf?” asked the other one.

I was still in a state of shock and completely incapable of answering them.

“Sit with us, warrior of the Franzosen army.” they both said, as they tossed their white kepis onto a table.

In my whole life I had never been as happy as I was to see these two Legionnaires. I could have hugged them.

They threw their MAT 49s across the table then banged their fists on it and shouted their orders to the arrogant barman, who had reappeared.

“Kronenbourg beer, now! Asma and Fissa!”

Even before they had finished speaking the barman was running to the table with a large tray of freshly opened cold beers and tumblers.

“So!” said one of the Legionnaires, addressing me. “You’re here on your own in this place. We know the Franzosen army is useless but you beat the record!”

“I have a friend with me,” I muttered.

“Oh! You have a comrade with you?” said the stony faced older man. “So, where is your friend Franzosen?”

“He went to the toilet and I’m still waiting for him to come back,” I replied.

The Legionnaires looked at each other in disbelief.

“What? Here, in this café?” they spluttered, as they dropped their bottles of beer onto the table, grabbed their MAT 49s and rushed out to the back yard.

The barman disappeared again, but I seemed incapable of moving. My body, my senses, nothing would respond. I was living a nightmare. Within a few minutes the Legionnaires were back with a crying and shaken Bonnard in tow.

“You’re lucky Franzosen.” they said. “Your friend was on the brink of being given the Kabyles smile!”

This meant that he was about to have his throat cut from ear to ear.

“Now Franzosen” they warned, “Don’t go anywhere. Stay with us and have a beer.”

So we sat there trying to drink beer, hardly able to believe what had just happened.

Then one of the Legionnaires said, “We patrol the streets of Souk–Ahras looking for dickheads like you. If we didn’t, idiots from the French Army would be murdered in back yards every day.”

“Yes, Wolfgang, you’re right” said the other. He turned to us and continued, “A short while ago we found two chaps in a souvenir shop, bound and ready to be killed.”

“It’s very strange, Heinrich.” said the Legionnaire that we now knew as Wolfgang. “This never happens to us Legionnaires!”

When we’d finished our beers, Wolfgang said, “Come on, we’ll give you a lift back to your truck just to make sure you don’t get into trouble again.”

Bonnard was still shattered and not thinking logically, so I picked up the copper tray that he’d bought as a souvenir for his parents, but I wasn’t much better myself. As I followed the Legionnaires out of the café, my legs turned to jelly and I couldn’t think straight. Two jeeps of Legionnaires were waiting for us outside, AA52 machine guns fixed to their bonnets, loaded and ready to fire. To my surprise, Lesveque and Dugoin, two of my colleagues, were with them. They’d also been rescued.

“Tell me Wolfgang, what would the French army do without us?” laughed Heinrich.

“Well,” replied Wolfgang, “they would’ve been thrown out of Algeria in a few weeks!”

We drove in silence, our near–miss death experience foremost in our minds. Our trucks were waiting in front of the Legion’s camp.

When the Legionnaires first arrived in Souk–Ahras, two of their men went missing within a few days. They disappeared in the Kasbah and were never seen again. We’d almost had the same fate. However, the Legionnaires reacted by sending their jeeps, machine guns attached, into the Kasbah, and they fired a whole band of bullets indiscriminately into the crowd, killing many Arabs. Since that time, no more Legionnaires had disappeared.

Our day of rest had turned into a nightmare and most of us were more than thankful to reach the relative safety of our camp in the mountains.

Sunday 22 October. I crossed another day off my calendar, as I did each evening, and realised that I’d served 538 days, with 313 to go – less than a year. Unfortunately, as the end of our military service drew closer, time seemed to go slower.

Monday 23 October. I had a reasonably pleasant task ahead of me. I had to go to Bone, about a hundred kilometres away, and pick up one of our men from the military hospital. He’d recovered from his wounds and had to return to duty. I’d also been given a long list of food to buy for the Officers. I put on my outing uniform, cleaned my rangers as best I could, then got into the jeep with my driver, a friend by the name of Bruno. The rest of the platoon had gone to the mine field and would be working all day in ankle deep mud, so I was happy to escape for the day. The drive to Bone was beautiful. The wide river, the Seybouse, was overflowing its banks and had spilled into the plains. It was a dream come true to be out of the mountains and the mud.

When we arrived in Bone, all the shops and cafe’s were open, the markets were packed with fruit and vegetable stalls, and the streets were full of people, talking, shopping and wandering about. I was almost mesmerised. I couldn’t get enough of watching people doing everyday tasks, probably because it was so different to my everyday life of being dirty, covered in mud, and working high in the mountains. Here, life seemed to go on as if there was no war even though it was only a hundred kilometres from the daily battles on the Barrage.

As we approached the crossroads by the fish market, Bruno stopped the jeep and signalled me to look to the right. A tall man, resplendent in a uniform with five gold bars on the shoulder, was standing next to the jeep and looking at us severely. He was a Colonel of the Infantry, a soldier of revered rank. I jumped from the jeep, stood at attention and saluted him, while the heavy traffic rumbled by.

“At your service, Colonel,” I said to him.

Without even acknowledging my salute, he began speaking in an arrogant voice.

“Your driver was smoking!” he drawled.

“Yes Sir!” I said.

“And you know that it’s absolutely forbidden to smoke when you drive a military vehicle?” he sneered.

“Yes Sir!” I agreed.

“And to top it off, you’re not even wearing a helmet!” he continued.

“We never wear helmets in the mountains, Sir!” I explained.

“I see that you’re insolent as well!” he said, as he moved to the front of the jeep and wrote down the number plate of our vehicle. “Ah! No wonder! I see that you’re from one of those famous Pioneer battalions,” he noted.

“Yes Sir!” I reiterated.

“OK,” he announced. “You’re going to hear from me, boy! Your insolence has guaranteed you a stint in jail.”

He took down our names, units and relevant details, and dismissed us with an abrupt, “You can go now!”

“Yes Sir!” I replied.

What a shame that the outing we were looking forward to had started on such a sour note.

Further down the main road, Bertagna Boulevard, Bruno spotted a French patisserie.

“You can stop here, Bruno. Cakes are on my list,” I said.

He pulled up in front of the patisserie.

“OK,” I yelled as I jumped from the jeep. “Stay here while I get the cakes. I won’t be long.”

The patisserie was wonderful. The glass shelves were filled with éclairs, rum babas, chocolate bread, almond croissants, and many other delicacies. The aroma was fantastic, especially since we seldom had the luxury of cake in our camp.

“Yes Miss,” I said, when the assistant served me. “I’ll have ten chocolate éclairs and ten caramel…”

I stopped. Bruno was standing by me, looking at the shelves of cakes. He had abandoned the jeep, and our two MAT 49s were in it. I looked out of the window only to witness, with great pain, several young Arabs in the jeep, taking everything they could put their hands on. I turned, pushed past the people in the shop and ran to the jeep. All our gear, the MAT 49 machine guns and about four hundred bullets were gone. What a catastrophe. Especially for me – I was in charge of the mission. I looked at Bruno.

“I couldn’t help it when I saw all the cakes in the window!” he stammered. “I haven’t eaten cake for a long time.”

The thieves had disappeared down the side streets, and there was no hope of finding them. I knew that they would sell the weapons to the Fellaghas before we’d even get back to our camp and the words of Sergeant Chief Ledru, when we were first issued with guns, echoed in my head. “It would be preferable for you to be killed than to lose your weapons in a war zone. A gun is more valuable to the army than you are. For your own sake, don’t forget this!”

I sat in the jeep, completely devastated and incapable of doing anything. This was by far the worst position I’d ever been in since joining the army.

“What’re we going to do, now?” Bruno asked in a subdued voice.

“What do you suggest?” I groaned. “You’re the one who put us in this situation.”

I was beside myself. I’d committed the worst offence possible in the army, and I could see myself being demoted, de–ranked by the Captain in front of the whole company, all of the four platoons standing at attention to see my demise. And I knew that this would be followed by a posting to the dreaded penal battalion in the Sahara Desert, never to be seen again.

Losing a gun to the enemy was as bad as losing the Regiment’s flag in a battle, and losing two automatic sub machine guns with over four–hundreds bullets in a war zone was even worse. I sat in the jeep, aghast.

“Who do we have to report it to, Sergeant?” asked Bruno.

“Look Bruno,” I gasped, trying to pull myself together. “We have two options. We could say that we didn’t take any weapons with us this morning but if they find out that we did, it’ll be even worse for us. Or we could report the theft to the military police here in Bone!”

“I think that’s a better idea! Sergeant,” said Bruno. “I know where to find them. They’re near the harbour and they’re on duty 24 hours a day.”

As he drove speedily towards the harbour I started to plan ahead.

“Listen Bruno,” I said. “I’m only asking one thing of you. When we get there you’re going to stay in the jeep. Under no circumstances are you to leave it! I’ll go inside and report the matter, myself. Do you understand?”

“But I could help explain what really happened!” he objected.

“No!” I shouted. “You’ve already done enough. We’re now in deep shit because of your stupidity. I don’t want you to come inside and I don’t want you to say a single word to anyone!”

“Here you are, Sergeant. This is the Military Police Office,” Bruno mumbled, when we arrived. He pointed to an old building near the wharf.

As I got out of the jeep, I warned him again. “Say nothing at all, to no one. Just pray to God that my report works, for both our sakes.”

As I pushed open the heavy wooden door, things got worse. The Legionnaires were on duty, not the military police. I stood in front of the desk, shaking and trembling with fear. The Legionnaire behind the desk was busily writing reports and he totally ignored me. I stood at attention and saluted him.

“Good afternoon Sir,” I proffered.

No answer. I glanced around the room. Dozens of Legionnaires were relaxing on chairs, quietly playing cards, reading newspapers and books, or snoozing, no doubt trying to recover from the previous night’s drinking binge. But I knew that looks were deceiving – they were ready for action.

In his own time, the Officer, without looking up from his report writing said, “Yes.s.s.s.” He was ready to listen to me.

“Sir, I’ve come to report that my driver and I are victims of a crime.”

“Yes.s.s.s,” he said, indicating that I should continue.

“We were mugged by a gang of young Arabs. At 1.30 this afternoon, near the Bertagna Boulevard, Sir,” I advised.

No reaction. So I continued, “We were attacked in a side street. They threatened us with knives and guns, Sir.”

“Yes.s.s.s,” came the response.

I hadn’t seen his face, but I was sure that this Legionnaire knew only one word.

“Well,” I continued. “They stopped our jeep and held us against a wall, and they threatened us with guns and knives. They took everything from our jeep, and then they ran away!”

For the first time the Officer lifted his head and looked at me.

“So can you tell me what these charming people took from you?” he asked, in a somewhat melodious voice.

Down to the nitty gritty. My throat went dry and I broke out into a cold sweat. Perspiration ran down my neck.

“They stole all our bags, the food for our camp, spare tools, and weapons!” I spluttered.

As soon as I said the word ‘weapons’, the Officer jumped up, leaned across his desk and with his eyes half–closed, screamed at me. “Your weapons! They stole your weapons!”

And his words started a chain reaction. All of the other men in the room sprang to life and repeated, like a well organised chorus, “Weapons! Weapons!”

This magic word touched a raw nerve with the Legionnaires, and they dropped their cards, their newspapers and their books, and turned towards me, ready to listen to my story.

“Do you mean they’ve stolen your weapons?” the Officer shouted. “Here in Bone?”

“Yes Sir, they did!” I admitted.

The Officer left his desk and angrily paced the room. Turning towards me, he resumed his screaming. “What sort of weapons did the bastards steal from you?”

“Two MAT 49s Sir!” I replied.

The room was in an uproar.

“Terrific,” the Officer sneered sarcastically. “Why does this type of thing only happen to the French army and not to us?”

All the Legionnaires burst into laughter, approving the Officer’s remark.

Turning briskly on his heels, the man screamed at me again. “Did they steal anything else with your weapons?”

“Ammunition Sir!” I replied.

“Why didn’t you carry them in your belt, like we do?” he barked.

“We did Sir,” I lied. “But they took them from us by force!”

“How many bullets altogether?” he demanded.

I was aware that all of the Legionnaires had stopped what they were doing, and were waiting with bated breath for my answer. Their cigarettes were hanging from their mouths and they looked like a fearsome bunch of gorillas, so I felt it was better to err on the side of lesser numbers.

“No more than fifty Sir!” I lied again.

The room broke into an agitated moan.

“Fifty! Fifty! There are now fifty bullets waiting for us in the Kasbah boys!” bellowed the Officer to his Legionnaires. “Thanks very much again to the French army.”

I felt as if I had thrown a rock into a pond, the military police pond, and the ripples were the spreading out across the room. The Legionnaires were remonstrating and cursing the Fellaghas and the French army alike.

The Officer puffed himself out with authority and addressed me once again. “We’ll drive to the place where you were mugged and try to recover your weapons!”

I had no idea how they could do this, but I certainly wasn’t in any position to object.

“OK everyone, let’s go,” he shouted, and the Legionnaires grabbed their weapons, raced through the door and jumped into their trucks. They reminded me of the bulls running through the streets of Pamplona each year, and I was sure that they welcomed the chance to ease their boredom. It was going to be action with a capital ‘A’. Bruno, because of his carelessness, had started something big. But I had spun a story to cover our backsides, and I had to follow it through.

The Lieutenant of the Legion ordered me and Bruno to sit in the back of his jeep so that we could guide him to the site of the mugging. I had to think fast. The Legionnaires could rival any grand prix driver, so I didn’t have much time.

“Straight up to the Bertagna Boulevard, near the cathedral, Sir,” I directed.

The jeep roared into action and two GMC trucks full of Legionnaires followed. I was feeling extremely nervous because of the lies I’d told, and I wondered what would happen next.

“Show me where you were mugged.” yelled the Lieutenant.

“In a side street at the top of the Bertagna Boulevard,” I said. “Here’s the street, rue Victor Hugo! This is the place.”

The jeep and the trucks screeched to a halt, and the street emptied. At the sight of the Legionnaires, the Arabs disappeared, running into buildings and side streets.

“Exactly where did it happen?” the Lieutenant shouted.

“Right here,” I said, pointing to a wall. “We were held against this wall, and the Arabs ran away into that side street with our belongings.”

“Did you see them go into any building?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, improvising as fast as I could. “They ran towards that building across the street.”

I pointed to a derelict hotel, three stories high.

The Lieutenant jumped out of the jeep, as did his N.C.O., Warrant Officers and the other Legionnaires.

He looked around him and said, “It’s a strange place, almost deserted. I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be much trouble in this area.”

Didn’t he realise that the arrival of Legionnaires in any part of the city cleared that area of Arabs?

“So, this is where your weapons disappeared,” he said, looking at the hotel across the road.

Then he gave a signal to his men, and they leapt into formation and crossed the street. The steam roller of the Legion was in action. The Officer signalled me to follow him into the hotel, and I knew that worse was to come. The manager, an old Arab, almost froze with fear when we entered the premises.

“Good afternoon, Sir!” sniggered the Lieutenant.

“Would you like a beer, Lieutenant?” stammered the old man behind the counter, the tremble in his voice betraying his fear that something bad was about to happen. “Is there anything I can do for you today, Sir.”

“Yes!” growled the Lieutenant. “We’ve come to recover the weapons that some of your gentlemen borrowed from us.”

The manager started to shake badly. He knew only too well that the Legionnaires meant business. Sweat dripped from his wrinkled brow.

Almost in tears, he implored, “I’ve seen nothing and no one came into my hotel with stolen weapons. I swear to you in the name of Allah! I’m a very honest man. I respect the French Army and, above all, the Legion, Sir!”

“Are you implying that we’re lying to you?” snarled the Lieutenant.

“Oh No, Sir. I would never say such a thing! I served in the French Army for five years as a Corporal Sir!” beseeched the old Arab.

“So if I understand you correctly, you blatantly refuse to give us back our weapons. Therefore there’s not much we can do except search your hotel for them ourselves,” threatened the Lieutenant.

The hotel manager began to plead. “No Sir! Please ask my wife. She’ll tell you. I’m a good law abiding citizen.”

But the Lieutenant took no notice. “Because of your unwillingness to cooperate we’ll look for them ourselves.”

I was horrified and tried to tell the Lieutenant that the young people who stole our weapons went in this direction but I didn’t see them entering this particular building. No–one took any notice of me. It was too late. The manager had collapsed behind his counter and the Officer had already called in the waiting platoon.

“Start searching now! We’re looking for two MAT 49s and their ammunition.” he ordered his N.C.O.

“Ya!” replied the N.C.O., an old bully and a veteran of many wars.

He clicked his heels and screamed to the platoon, “Search the top floors!”

The Legionnaires were like bulls rushing forward when they open the gates in a corrida in Spain. They charged up the staircase to the top two floors, kicking everything in their path out of the way. Within moments the noise was unbelievable. Doors were violently kicked open, people were thrown from their beds, women were screaming to their husbands for help, suitcases were turned out, clothes and mattresses were thrown from the windows, and furniture was smashed. Room by room the hotel was ransacked by the frenzied Legionnaires. They were out of control.

The Lieutenant, on the other hand, was sitting on a stool by the bar, calmly reading a newspaper. He turned to me and said, “I don’t think we’re going to find your weapons, but we can’t be blamed for not trying. “Then he returned to his paper, as if nothing was going on. I was aghast. The hotel looked like it had been hit by a major earthquake. Almost nothing was left standing. When one of the Warrant Officers approached, the Lieutenant looked up and asked, “Have you found something Sergeant?”

“No Sir,” the man replied. “We’ve turned the place over, room by room, but we haven’t found anything.”

“Have you checked the earthenware jars?” asked the Lieutenant, nodding towards a stand that held enormous containers of olive oil. “They could’ve hidden the weapons in them.”

“Not yet Sir!” he admitted, “but we’re about to start on them now.”

No sooner had he spoken than the Legionnaires swarmed around the containers and pushed them with all their force, until the jars toppled over, fell to the concrete floor and broke into pieces. Hundreds of litres of pure olive oil swamped the floor, and the mess was indescribable.

Just then a tall Legionnaire showed the N.C.O. something he had found in the basement of the hotel.

“This is very interesting,” said the Sergeant Chief.

“What is it?” asked the Lieutenant.

“It’s a weapon to strangle people with, Sir,” said the Sergeant, holding up a chain with pieces of pipe fixed to each end of it.

The Lieutenant turned to the hotel manager and snarled, “You told me you’re a law–abiding citizen. I was going to apologise for making a mess in your hotel, but you don’t deserve any sympathy at all – not when you’re hiding devices like this”

The hotel manager was tugging at his hair in desperation.

“Next time we come here, I hope you’ll be more cooperative. It’ll save both you and us so much work!” bawled the Lieutenant as he left the premises.

As soon as we got back to the military police station the Legionnaires went back to playing cards and reading the newspapers, killing time until another disastrous incident would ease their boredom, and the Lieutenant told us that his secretary would type up a report about the incident. We would be required to read it. After we had done so, we began to breathe easier. It read:

City of Bone

Report on stolen weapons.

We did everything possible to find the weapons which were stolen from Warrant Officer Fiset and his driver by a group of well–armed F.L.N. rebels. We conducted a long and difficult search of the area where the attack took place, but we were not able to recover the stolen items.

Signed: Sub Lieutenant Marigni.

3rd Regiment, Foreign Legion.

The punishment that was looming over our heads had been averted.

As soon as we left I told Bruno to drive to the hospital to pick up Renard. I was almost euphoric at our narrow escape, but Bruno was more contemplative.

“I think you should’ve told them the truth about what happened,” he said.

“You’re right Bruno!” I agreed. “But you’re the one who failed your duty, and you’re the one who should’ve been sent to the disciplinary battalion. It would’ve taught you a good lesson. So from now on, keep your story to yourself.”

We picked up Renard and drove back to our camp in the mountains. Bruno was quiet and never uttered another word about the incident to anyone. We both behaved as if everything went perfectly well on our mission.

“Sergeant Fiset! I want to see you in my tent immediately,” called the Captain, two days later.

I steeled myself for an array of punishments. He must have found out what had really happened in Bone.

“Two days ago you went to Bone on a mission,” he said, “and this morning I received a report from a Colonel of the 8th Regiment of Infantry. It reads: As I was pointing out to Sergeant Christian Fiset that helmets should be worn at all times when driving in a military vehicle, his behaviour towards me became intolerable, bordering on gross insolence. I’m advising the Captain of his unit that Fiset should receive a minimum punishment of two weeks’ solitary confinement. Signed: Colonel De la Jugagnieres, Officer of the 9th Regiment of Infantry.

You’ve been insolent towards a superior Officer and I have to punish you on his behalf. We have no prison here in the Djebel, and I can’t send you to the Legions’ camp because you’re a Sergeant, so I’m going to confine you to your tent for eight days. You’ll be allowed to go to the latrines, but nowhere else. Do you understand?”

“Yes Sir!” I said, trying not to sound too relieved.

But then the Captain continued. “I’ve also received another report from the Military Police in Bone. It stated that you were attacked by a large group of Fellouzes in the city and managed to escape from them in one piece. Your weapons were taken from you by force and you reported this at their headquarters, then you helped the Legionnaires to search for them. After all of this, you still went to the hospital and picked up Corporal Renard and returned him safely to camp. You didn’t mention anything about this calamity to us. I’m going to recommend you for a Military Medal, Fiset, for your courage. You’ve done well after all!”

“Thank you, Sir,” I gulped.

But before he dismissed me, he had one last thing to say. “You know, Fiset, these Infantry Officers don’t like us Pioneers. I personally think that he shouldn’t have picked on you like he did. They’re all morons, and I hate them. They’re a bunch of no hopers!”

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 18

WINTER IN THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS

 

24 October 1961. I had to start my eight days of solitary confinement. I wasn’t worried about it – it was a real bonus not being sent anywhere to receive punishment, and all I had to do was to stay inside my own tent all day. The arrangements were that the Arab working as a cook in our camp would bring me my meals on a tray as I wasn’t allowed to go to the Officers’ mess. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to go with my platoon to the mine fields either, so Bal, the Corporal Chief had to arm the mines all on his own. Actually, I was in a better position than all my comrades. The weather was absolutely terrible, windy and wet, and the cold was intense. But the Arab started a fire in the stove of the tent to keep me warm, and from time to time, he brought me hot cups of coffee. My friends had left dozens of newspapers and books for me, so all I had to do was lie on my stretcher and read. However, I spent a fair bit of time dreaming of when I would finally be back to civilian life. My calendar showed that I had another 340 days to go, and time seemed to go so slowly.

27 October 1961. We had an interesting private in our platoon, a fellow called Desmond. Like all of us he was suffering from loneliness and homesickness, but he was in a worse state than the rest of us. He had reached the point where we were fearful he would kill himself in a moment of deep depression. Then we heard that he was to return to France immediately, albeit temporarily, because a member of his family had a medical emergency and was in hospital in a bad way. The story we heard was that he had been called by the Lieutenant and told the sad news. It went something like this:

“Desmond my boy, we’ve just received a message from the rear base that they received a telegram saying your mother has been taken to hospital and is in a serious state in intensive care. She’s asking for you, so, in case anything happens, we’re sending you back to France immediately. You’ll return to base in the liaison truck, and from there you’ll catch the first plane to Marseilles. “

Before the Lieutenant had finished speaking, Desmond burst into tears and started crying hysterically.

“Pull yourself together boy,” said the Lieutenant. “Everything will be all right and you’ll be there in two days. Now go and get ready to depart tomorrow morning. Courage, my boy, courage!”

Desmond walked across the camp back to his tent, crying and sobbing. Everyone sympathised with him – it was dreadful to get bad news about your mother. But when he got inside the tent, according to Bal, his distress and sadness vanished and he was whistling and humming a tune.

“It could’ve been an adverse reaction to the terrible news he’d received,” Bal told us, “but he seemed to be on top of the world, cleaning and ironing his outing uniform, shining his rangers, and even trying to wash himself.”

 “I wouldn’t want to receive news like that,” said Durant, then, turning to me added, “Can you imagine this happening to you, Christian?”

“No!” I replied. “I certainly wouldn’t cope as well as he is.”

“At least the army is letting him go to see his mother,” said Loti.

But then Leblond spoke up. “I’ve heard from a fellow who knew him quite well when he was in the 35th Battalion. He told me that Desmond has already been back to France three times, each time for a medical emergency with a different member of his family.

We all looked at Leblond,

“Three times! Three times!” echoed around the tent.

“Yes!” continued Leblond. “It’s incredible but true. The first time it was his father. He’d been taken to hospital following a heart attack. And then it was his sister – she had a car accident and was dying. Next it was his grandmother. She was in a hospital and dying of cancer – she only had days to live, and now it’s his mother who’s seriously ill. She has to have an operation which only a few people survive!”

“Four family emergencies,” said Loti, “How incredible! Can this really be true?”

“No, none of them are true.” explained Leblond. “His father died before he was even born. The story about his sister was even better – he never had a sister, and as for his grandmother, she was in a nursing home, was 98 years old and was dying of old age.”

“How do you know this fellow was telling you the truth, Leblond?” asked Bal.

“When Desmond is drunk, which is almost every day,” explained Leblond, “he boasts about his stories. He loves to tell us how smart he is. It appears that his mother sends these telegrams to the army so she can see her son from time to time”

“If they keep it up they’re soon going to run out of family members,” piped up someone in the tent.

But we all started to bemoan the fact that we had never thought of doing anything like this.

“What a fantastic idea,” said Grosjean. “And to think, the Officers fall for it every time!”

1 November 1961. My eight days of confinement were over so I attended the flag ceremony where the Captain introduced our newly–arrived Sub Lieutenant to the company.

“Sub Lieutenant Parfait will be replacing the late Sub Lieutenant Legoubin,” he announced. “He’ll be in charge of the third platoon.”

After the ceremony, Desmond, dressed resplendently in his outing uniform left in the same truck that had delivered Parfait. He smiled widely as he waved goodbye to us and we thought that he was probably saying to himself, “You see boys, this is how you use the system.”

None of the officers suspected his ploy. They were too busy writing endless reports to the army administration, but we all wondered what story he would concoct in a few months’ time when he wanted another trip home.

Desmond left us during the worst time of the year when the incessant rain poured down on the Atlas Mountains and turned the ground into a quagmire. We sank ankle deep into the mud with each step we took as we moved from one tent to another, and getting to the mess tent was a difficult expedition. My battle dress, like everyone else’s, was caked in mud. Everything was caked in mud. Undertaking any task whatsoever had become extremely difficult, but getting to the latrines was even more arduous and challenging. The open trench was overflowing and the two pieces of wood that we stood on had washed away, so each time we went, we had to carry two boards to stand on. The Officers struggled with the conditions just as we did, and they no longer worried very much about discipline. The morale in the camp was at an all–time low.

Despite the circumstances we still had to work on the mine field. We were completing the construction of a dirt road connecting the bitumen road on the Barrage to the one near our camp, and we were under pressure to finish it quickly as the Legion wanted to use it to access the Barrage in a shorter time. Unfortunately for them, all of the fellows in our platoons were weak. We were suffering from lack of food and sleep, and this in turn lowered our immune systems, so that we were quite vulnerable to diseases. In addition there was no hygiene whatsoever in our camp, so when someone as much as scratched himself on a piece of barbed wire, the cut rapidly became infected. Briard cut himself using a metal detector. It was just a slight cut which should have healed within days, but it crippled him completely. His knees doubled in size and turned a deep brown. He could hardly walk and he was too scared to ask Chevalier, the first aid nurse, for help. But he was getting worse so we discretely arranged for help, and two of us held him on his bed while Chevalier operated. When he plunged his scalpel into Briad’s enormous knee, it was like a volcanic eruption of almost black, gluey pus. As we looked on in horror, we wondered how Chevalier had the fortitude for this work.

Chevalier had never been as busy as he was at this time. He went from tent to tent with his large first aid box, attending to the ever–growing number of fellows who were ailing. He became adept at lancing huge abscesses with his razor–sharp scalpel, removing the infected matter, and painting the open wound with red mercurochrome or filling it with powdered penicillin.

Some of the men suffered from extreme fatigue, but even the strongest among us were reduced to human wrecks, wanting to sleep all the time. Some of the chaps were sent to a dedicated respite hospital by the sea, and others were sent to the military hospital a few kilometres from our camp for an injection to restore some of their vitality. But to get there they had to climb into the back of the GMC truck, and most did not have the strength to pull themselves inside, or to hold on during the journey, so they ended up on their knees on the steel tray. It was pitiful to watch.

We could only summon enough energy to talk about one subject – going home. Some of us started to hallucinate during the night, shouting out all manner of things whilst we thrashed about on our stretchers. If only this war could be over.

One night I was rostered on duty from 1 a.m. till 6 a.m. which meant that, unless I was able to get a little rest before I started, I would not be able to sleep until the following night. With the help of three guards, my charge was to keep the camp safe. At 7 p.m. I went to lie down in my tent, but I had no sooner got there than the F.L.N. artillery started to bomb the Barrage. They were flexing their muscles as they knew that this long war was coming to an end. Their independence from France was just around the corner. The heavy artillery behind our tent tried to dampen their attack by sending a few volleys of 155 mm shells in their direction. As usual, the noise was unbearable and made even worse when a battery of 105 mm guns further down the hill joined in. Within minutes the sky above us was full of high explosive shells, whistling by and creating a strong wind which shook our tents.

“They are attacking the Barrage en–mass tonight,” yelled Sergeant Chief Pujol as he barged into our tent.

And with that, my hopes of a few hours of rest were dashed. We’d all have to get ready for action, but that came sooner than we all anticipated. There was a great explosion, obviously close by, and we realised that the F.L.N. artillery was responding to ours. Officers started running about in a panic, blowing whistles and screaming orders.

“Branle bas de combat!” they yelled.

It was an order to prepare for battle and the men ran from their tents, carrying their weapons. Our Captain stood in the middle of this chaos, screaming out further orders. “Everyone, in the trenches at once!”

Trenches, reinforced and heightened with logs, had been built behind our tents, but the constant rain had filled them with water. Never–the–less, we sloshed around in them without complaint as the direct hits on the camp were sending shrapnel in all directions, and the tents were being ripped apart. We could hear machine guns firing and grenades exploding on the Barrage. It seemed that the Fellaghas were desperate to break through it and get high into the Atlas Mountains where they could hide in the thick forests.

The Officers dived into the trenches with us.

“Get the men ready – the Fellaghas are coming!” yelled Lieutenant Parfait to Sergeant Chief Pujol, who was still under the influence of alcohol.

Pujol tried to pull himself together, but he was incapable of organising or directing anything so the job was left to Bal and me. It was as if all my bad dreams were coming true. I had often imagined what it would be like if a full Katiba of Fellaghas broke through the Barrage and stormed into the middle of our camp. Furthermore, I had witnessed the chaos during defensive action, and I had devised tactics to avoid being accidently shot by my own colleagues. But there was no time to dwell on these matters. The battle was raging at the bottom of the hill. The Infantry along the Barrage had barricaded themselves in their forts and were trying to contain the Fellaghas by firing at them with all the power they could muster. The Legionnaires had arrived and were in position with their AA52 machine gun aimed at the Barrage. They were firing band after band of bullets into the enemy ranks. Never–the–less, the battle was moving towards us and we could hear the Fellagha chief yelling encouragement to the Moudjahadines.

By now we were all armed, and we had set up our two heavy machine guns. We were as prepared as we could be and were waiting for further orders.

“Everyone, get ready to fire!” yelled our Captain as he lay in the mud next to us.

Then the Lieutenant’s voice boomed out, “Sergeant Chief Pujol! Where is your gun?”

“I couldn’t find it in the tent, Sir,” Pujol stammered.

Pujol was still drunk, but we passed him a loaded gun.

Everyone was tense, waiting for the enemy to appear and for the order to fire. Then, right behind us in a clear spot in the forest, we could hear branches cracking and moments later we could distinguish shadows coming towards us.

“The Viets! The Viets are coming. Grab your guns and fire! Now!” yelled Pujol.

In his drunken stupor he was completely addled and could no longer remember which war he was fighting or who the enemy were.

“Pouzache! Can you shut him up?” roared the Lieutenant.

We were lying in the ditch with our 120 automatic weapons ready to fire. The shadows were coming closer and then we heard the orders, “The Fells! Get ready! Fire! Fire!” A volley of 9 mm bullets rang out.

Within seconds a torch light signalled to us, and someone in the distance screamed, “Stop firing! French Army! 6th Company of Infantry!”

Lieutenant Carre jumped to his feet and yelled, “They’re on our side! Hold your fire! Secure your guns!”

Then, holding his torch in one hand, he addressed the emerging shadows, a company of Infantry of Marines. “Why aren’t you using your radios? You’re a bunch of morons!”

The Lieutenant of the Marines retaliated. “We’ve tried to contact you many times. We’re on our way to the Barrage to give assistance.”

“This isn’t the way to reach the Barrage!” bellowed Carre. “You’ve barged into our camp in the middle of the night, uninvited. It’s not our fault that we thought you were the enemy. Consider yourselves lucky not to have any casualties.”

By ten o’clock the Infantry had managed to push the Fellaghas back over the Barrage to their base in Tunisia, and we could return to our damaged tents, drenched and tired.

“Check your weapons before putting them in the rack,” warned Bal.

He had barely finished speaking when someone’s MAT 49 released a whole charge, and twenty–five 9 mm bullets whistled over the platoon. We must have had a guardian angel – no one was wounded.

By midnight I still had not been able to sleep, so I got up and dressed warmly, ready for my rostered duty, but Lieutenant Parfait approached me with special orders.

“Tomorrow morning, Fiset,” he ordered, “I want you to wake the whole company at 4 a.m. sharp. We’ve just received a radio message that the Barrage has been cut in a number of places, and we have to repair it. We’ll leave the camp at 4.30 a.m. and take all the necessary materials with us.”

“Yes Sir!” I said.

Whilst on duty I tried to keep warm by walking around and checking on the three guards who were also rostered on. The temperature had dropped to minus 8˚celsius and the fog was so thick that I couldn’t see anything more than a few metres in front of me. The grass disappeared under a coat of frost. I was wearing a track suit under my battledress, thick socks, a long scarf, and my great coat, but I was still cold. My feet were frozen – I couldn’t feel them anymore, and I wished that I was on my stretcher under a huge pile of dry blankets with my great coat draped on top of them. Even more than this, I yearned to be back home in Normandy.

At four o’clock, as ordered, I went from tent to tent to wake up the platoon, but after the previous evening’s melee, everyone was exhausted. In my own tent, no one responded to the call. Pouzache and Maillet were buried under many blankets and they each had a piece of canvas tucked all around their stretchers to keep their beds dry and warm. But our Lieutenant was ready, standing next to his jeep and waiting for the men to come.

“Is everyone ready for departure?” he yelled to Pouzache, who had just emerged from our tent.

The rest of the platoon soon followed, walking like drunken men. They hadn’t had anything warm to eat or drink, and they hadn’t even tied their shoelaces. They clambered into the trucks, knowing that they had a long and difficult day in front of them.

The fog was thick, so visibility was poor and the vehicles moved slowly towards the Barrage. The cold wind whirled into the back of the trucks, and the shivering men, half asleep, rode in silence. It was obvious that the Infantry had spent the night guarding the Barrage as their empty trucks lined the road. The repairs were urgently needed. We got to the Barrage at the same time as some Algerian units. Their job was to stop the Fellaghas going through the fence while we were repairing it. In the meantime, the Artillery had started to pound the Arab positions.

“After such bombing, there should be nothing left of the Fellagha army,” said Loti.

A bit further down the road, the Legionnaires were holding torches and directing traffic.

“Stop! Where do you think you’re going?” one of them yelled.

Pouzache leaned over and whispered to me, “Tell him we’re going to a night club!”

“We’re the 37th Battalion of Pioneers and we’re here to repair the network.” replied our Lieutenant.

“Ok! Move on then!” he said, opening the gate so we could go through.

“What a stupid question!” said Maillet. “I can’t see a bus of Japanese tourists coming this way!”

Everyone smiled.

As the day dawned we were able to see better, and we followed our Officer’s jeep along the bitumen road by the Barrage, looking for damage to the network. After about a kilometre, at the Lieutenant’s signal, we all stopped. He jumped from his jeep and pointed to something on the Barrage. When I joined him he said, “It’s lucky for us that the Fellaghas didn’t have time to blow it up.”

“What is it, Sir?” I asked, looking in the direction he was pointing.

“Didn’t you learn about it during your training in France, Fiset?” he asked.

“Yes Sir!” I replied, recognising what I saw. “I’ve learned about it. It’s a Bangalore!”

“Yes! That’s right. If they’d have had a bit more time they would’ve blown up the Barrage. Luckily, they didn’t, so there’s less work for us to do here,” he announced.

The Bangalore was made of lengths of galvanized piping, each piece one meter long and about 45 mm in diameter. The pieces had been screwed to each other and pushed under the twenty–meter wide barrage, till they reached the other side. The pipes had been filled with gelignite and detonators. If they hadn’t have been interrupted, the Fellaghas would have lit one end of it and it would have exploded in one block, creating a clean, wide cut in the network, allowing them to pass through quickly, before the tanks arrived.

“Well, Fiset,” said the Lieutenant, “I’m going to leave you here to remove it. Just unscrew the sections one by one, and stack them on this side of the road. This’ll be a good opportunity for you to learn something new!”

“Yes Sir!” I said, even though I felt like saying, “No Sir. I don’t want to do it.”

My colleagues, sitting in the trucks, looked at me with pity.

“You forgot to say Thank you Sir,” said Maillet, who was close by and visibly upset.

“You can work here on your own, and the rest of us will keep checking the Barrage further up. We’ll pick you up on our way back. It’s better that just one person works on a Bangalore, in case of problems.”

Those words, ‘in case,’ again. Then the Lieutenant jumped into his jeep and disappeared down the road, the whole platoon following him.

Everyone was gone. I stood there on the bitumen road, completely on my own in a beautiful valley in the Medjerda Mountains. There had been a pause in the fighting, so the noise of the battle had stopped and the sky above was a soft blue, completely void of clouds, and the sun was warming the earth. The world around me was beautiful, but the job in front of me, the Bangalore spanning the Morice Line, certainly wasn’t. Furthermore, the fence seemed to be beckoning me with a daring challenge. ‘Come on boy. Show me how smart you are. Try to remove this Bangalore from my barbed wire.’

At this particular point the Barrage was over 20 meters wide, so I had to face 20 meters of tangled, barbed wire and steel posts, and in the middle of this, wooden posts holding nine wires, each carrying five thousand volts of electricity. And in front of this was a mine field. Only 1 meter of the 20–meter long Bangalore was sticking out of the network. I had to think hard and very carefully before touching anything as the Arabs had pushed it across from the other side of the network, and it was very well known that they mined everything they left behind, even their dead if they had to. It was impossible to go to the other side of the Barrage to check it, so all I could do was crawl carefully under the barbed wire fence and check each section of the Bangalore up to the electric wire. As I crawled metre by metre under the huge entanglement of wire checking for mines, I reflected on the irony that I was doing exactly what the Fellaghas did on a regular basis. If only my parents could see me now. It was impossible to go further than the electric wire, so all I could do was to check the remaining sections from a distance. There didn’t appear to be any mines attached to it, so, hoping that my guardian angel was protecting me, I started dismantling it. With both hands I pulled it slowly and gently towards me until I had freed one section, hoping fervently that I hadn’t missed any indications of mines. Then I slowly unscrewed that section, and painstakingly pulled it away, knowing that two detonators, secured in the gelignite, also connected the two sections. Once it came away, I carried it across the road so that it could be blown out later, and put the sensitive detonators aside. Then I did it all again with the next section. As I worked I was sweating profusely, despite the cold. At any moment I was expecting to hear a huge explosion, one that would tear a huge gap in the Barrage and would almost certainly kill me. Once again, I was playing Russian roulette and I had to concentrate intensely. I couldn’t afford to relax for even a moment. A miniscule mistake could cost me my life, and my heart was pounding even harder than when I was arming mines. Each time I crossed the road with a section of the Bangalore, my legs turned to jelly. I was getting more and more fatigued and I hardly had any strength left. But I had to continue and at last I unscrewed the last pipe and stacked it next to the others. I had done it. I sat down in the grass next to a small creek and close to the road, to wait for the jeep to come and pick me up. But I was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep.

As I slept I dreamt. I was at home in Normandy in the summer time and it was warm and peaceful. Our garden was full of giant tulips, all in full bloom. They were the flowers that my mother loved best. I sat next to a lilac tree with my parents and my sisters, and we were talking. Suddenly I heard screaming. “What do you think you’re doing, Fiset?”

It was Lieutenant Parfait. He was back from his inspection tour with the platoon, and I hadn’t heard him coming.

“I can see that the pipe is ready to be blown out. You’ve done well!” he said, with a smirk on his face. “I’ll finish the job – I’ll blow them out. You and Loti can take the trucks to the cut. Loti will show you where it is. I’ll join you later.”

Loti filled me in. “About two and a half kilometres down the road there’s a huge cut in the network, about a hundred metres wide. Just follow me – you can’t miss it.”

We drove to the bottom of the valley and around a sharp bend, and then I spotted it. It was the widest cut in the Barrage that I’d ever seen. Just before we reached it the trucks were forced to stop. There were deep craters in the road, an aftermath of the battle, and the destruction was so bad that even with the four–wheel drive trucks we couldn’t go any further. There was nothing to do but wait for the Lieutenant to arrive and direct the repair operations.

“They did it by using many Bangalores together,” Loti explained to me.

The explosion had produced a wide, clean gap for the Fellaghas to pass through, but on either side of this ‘passage way’ there were huge mounds of twisted metal, electric posts and mud.

“It’s going to take a long time to repair this one,” said Pouzache.

But my attention was grabbed by the souvenir hunters, men from our own platoon who ran into the gap looking for anything that the Fellaghas may have discarded when they retreated the previous evening. It was a dangerous thing to do as the Fellaghas were quite adept at mining everything they left behind. Maybe they knew that many of our fellows would risk their lives getting a memento to take back to France. They certainly left enough bits and pieces in their wake, pieces of their uniforms, caps with their flag on them, badges, knives and even large bush machetes. However, the most prized souvenirs were wallets, purses or personal papers, and of course, body parts such as fingers, toes, ears, and even scalps. Some of our soldiers carried jars of alcohol with them, to preserve these gruesome relics of war. In the same way that hunters in Africa delighted in displaying lion and tiger heads in their homes, these men snatched body parts to put on show in their living rooms in France.

“I’ll bet that if they could find the body of a Fellagha, they’d skin it to make a mat for their lounge,” said Loti, as he watched them with disgust.

Fortunately for us the Fellaghas always took their dead with them, to give them proper Muslim burials.

Scattered on the road around us were packets and packets of leaflets, as usual. The leaflets were printed on both sides and featured photos of Legionnaires who had deserted their platoons and joined the Fellagha army. These men, wearing their Fellagha uniforms, were pictured laughing and talking with others in a camp somewhere in Tunisia. Printed under each photo was the full name of the deserter, and the Legion regiment that he had left. The ones we found as we waited for the Lieutenant were all Germans.

“I can’t blame them for doing it!” said Maillet. “At least with the Fellaghas they’re treated as human beings with emotions and feelings.”

“That’s right, and on top of this they’re given ranks, and recognition!” added Pouzache.

The Lieutenant still hadn’t arrived so we sat along a concrete horse trough, discussing the troubles of the Legion headquarters at Sidi bel Abes. They were losing alarming numbers of Legionnaires to both the O.A.S. and to the Fellaghas.

“You can’t keep men by fear alone!” said Bal.

Soon the rest of the platoon joined us, and, as we hadn’t eaten all day, we opened our ration boxes and enjoyed the scenery as we ate. From where we were, we could see Tunisia and the hills that the Fellaghas had turned into a fortress. One of the chaps even pointed out a flag, flying atop their fortification. The vista was awesome, and above all, peaceful. Yet we knew that these mountains had been the site of many a battle between the heavy French artillery and the Fellaghas.

By 10 a.m. the Lieutenant still hadn’t arrived. Some of us had heard the Bangalore exploding, and we had expected him to show up soon after, but he hadn’t, and we couldn’t do anything until he gave the order. It had been an early start and many of the fellows, exhausted, fell asleep in the warm sunshine.

Suddenly, the ambience was shattered.

“Mortars! Mortars coming!” someone yelled.

The Fellaghas had seen us and had quickly crawled as close as they could with their mortars. There was only a few seconds between the warning and the explosions but in that time our thoughts raced ahead. We had no idea where the shells would fall. Normally the Fellaghas sent them in salvos of four, but we had to see where the first one fell before we could make intelligent decisions about our movements. So the whole platoon was awake and in a panic, crawling around the concrete horse trough trying to seek some protection. The first shell fell on the road with a thumping noise, throwing steel shrapnel and bitumen onto us. We were making ourselves as small as possible, but we were all petrified. The second mortar fell even closer, showering us with more shrapnel and debris.

Then someone screamed, “Durant has been hit!”

“Everyone, move away from the trucks!” yelled Loti.

Again, there was a scramble as we crawled further from what was obviously the Fellaghas’ target. A few fellows had been wounded and were crying and moaning and calling for help.

Within moments the situation got worse. The enemy were now using machine guns as well as mortars, and they were spraying the Barrage with hundreds of bullets. The Fellaghas were very close and all we could do was lie down and pray. We were incapable of defending ourselves and there were no indications that help was coming.

 Bal looked at me and worriedly asked, “What shall we do?”

“Wait for a moment of calm!” I replied. “Then we have to turn both trucks back the way we came from, and get out of here as quick as we can.”

But Loti added, “Get into the ditch!”

Everyone threw themselves into the deep, water logged ditch on the side of the road. Bourgeon was badly wounded and was losing a lot of blood, and Dubuc and Lemetayer were badly cut from the shrapnel and flying debris.

“We have to turn the trucks, now!” yelled Loti.

“Boudet, turn your truck around now!” yelled Bal to one of the drivers.

There was no need to repeat the command. Boudet, a solid and strong peasant from lower Normandy, leapt from the ditch and ran towards his truck. He jumped into the cabin and started the engine, then, holding the steering wheel firmly in his hands, he moved the truck forwards then backwards, trying to turn it on the narrow road. It was extremely difficult – the road was no more than three metres across. But the Fellaghas were watching our escape manoeuvres and doubled their bombardment. Never–the–less, Boudet kept going, handling the truck as if it were a tractor turning in the ploughed fields on his farm. He was almost there when a mortar shell landed in the middle of the platform on the back of his truck. There was an incredible noise as pieces of metal flew in all directions, and the truck was thrown onto its side, landed in the ditch, then rolled over and down the valley, in flames. There was nothing we could do to save either Boudet or his truck. We were horrified.

“We have to turn the other truck around, now,” yelled Ball, “and quickly!”

But the driver of the other truck had been badly wounded and certainly couldn’t drive. He was only semi–conscious and his leg was a bloodied mass of flesh and mud. We were all petrified, but few, if any of us, had the driving skills needed to turn the truck on that narrow and battered track. It seemed that there was no escape from this inferno.

“I can do it, Sergeant!” shouted a young fellow who had only arrived from France a few weeks ago. Watrin was just 19 years old and weighed no more than fifty kilos. We all looked at him with surprise.

“I learnt on the farm. I can do it,” he assured us.

“OK, but I’ll help you,” said Bal.

Both of them jumped from the ditch and ran towards the truck, showing great courage in the face of extreme danger. And the mortars kept falling around us.

Again, we watched as the truck moved back and forth, slowly turning in the direction of relative safety. Bal helped the young lad to push the gear lever and to turn the heavy steering wheel. We only had a few moments’ reprieve so no sooner had they turned around than Bal jumped out, opened the back of the truck, and helped to pull in any of the men who couldn’t scramble up of their own accord. We helped those who were wounded, but three of the men were so badly injured that they couldn’t even be carried. Two of them were unconscious and the third, the driver, was losing a lot of blood. We had to leave them laying in the ditch until we could get help for them.

“We’ll send someone to fetch you as soon as we can,” said Loti as he dashed to the truck.

I just had time to throw my great coat over them before I also had to run, my progress somewhat slowed by the wounded chap I was helping.

I had no sooner jumped into the back of the truck than it was off, Watrin driving it at full speed along the twisting narrow road in the mountains. The men were scrambling about. Many of them had fallen onto the barbed wire and tools when Bal had pulled them into the truck, but no–one was complaining. We knew that the Fellaghas would stop their bombardment as soon as we were out of the area, and we were mindful of those we had left behind.

As soon as we reached the First Infantry of Legionnaires who were now stationed along a sheltered and relatively safe section of the road, Watrin brought the truck to a stop. They seemed somewhat surprised to see us, and their Warrant Officer yelled out, “Who are you?”

“37th Pioneers Battalion,” I yelled back. “Quick, we have wounded men with us, and we’ve left three seriously injured men at a cut in the Barrage, further back down the road.

“I’ll call the medic unit to treat your wounded,” he said.

We’d been sent to an extremely dangerous place on the Barrage, a place where even the Legionnaires would’ve only ventured with extreme caution and in great numbers. We’d been like sitting ducks, waiting to be shot, and we were without an Officer – the Lieutenant had disappeared. And our Captain would’ve been sitting in his tent, writing reports, and totally oblivious to our whereabouts or our predicament. By contrast, the spot we were now in was protected by the mountains and considered ‘safe’ as the Fellaghas were only attacking the section of the Barrage that they had cleared and wanted to access as soon as night fell. We soon realised that a number of Infantry units were sheltering there and had hidden their trucks under bushes and trees. An Infantry of Marines and Parachutists, wearing their red berets were getting ready to go on an operation, and other units, armed with mortars, were on the move. A number of Officers were talking on their radios, planning strategies and organising their troops.

Watrin started the truck again and tried to manoeuvre it through the troops. He’d barely covered any distance when someone stepped out in front of the truck and yelled, “Stop!”

It was Lieutenant Parfait.

“Where were you all? I’ve been looking for you all morning!” he bawled, “And I had to report your disappearance to the Captain.”

I jumped from the truck and looked at him in astonishment. Joncquet, who was in charge of the second platoon and had, it appeared, been on site for some time, came up and handed me his water bottle full of hot wine. He had warmed it on one of the kerosene stoves, and knew that I would appreciate it.

“So Fiset, where were you and the rest of the platoon hiding? Parfait persisted. You’ll have to write a comprehensive report on your actions to the Captain, tonight.”

“Sir,” I interjected desperately, “We need the medic truck here straight away. We’ve got wounded men in the truck, and three gravely injured men are still back at the cut”.

“What! You’ve abandoned some of our chaps at the cut! he shrieked angrily.

“We had to leave them there. We couldn’t transport them. Anyway, you were supposed to meet us there!” I yelled back at him.

“They have to be rescued at once, Sir!” fumed Bal, becoming red with anger.

Meanwhile, the second platoon, under Joncquet’s direction, had found some stretchers and laid them on the grass near the truck. So we unloaded our wounded and Chevalier went from one to the other doing what he could to help. When he got to Legrand, he gave me a sign – an ambulance had to be called immediately. Legrand had managed to climb into the truck unaided, but his condition had deteriorated and his leg was bleeding badly. It was much worse than we had thought and Chevalier tightened the bandage around his leg, to try to stop the flow of blood.

While we were seeing to our wounded, the Legionnaires had started marching down the road towards the cut. They were followed by the Infantry units and the cavalry tanks.

“Sir,” I said to Parfait, “Can you send a truck to follow them and pick up the wounded men we left there?”

“Are you trying to tell me what to do?” yelled Lieutenant Parfait, but all further conversation was blocked by the roaring noise of four AMX army tanks passing by, their 75 mm cannons pointing towards the Barrage.

“Sergeant Fiset!” screamed Parfait, as soon as he could be heard. “Can you explain why you abandoned the wounded men back at the cut?”

“Yes Sir! I’ll write a detailed report later on, but right now, I want these fellows rescued – at once!” I screamed back at him.

Totally ignoring him, I ran to a truck and yelled to the driver, “Quick, follow the Legionnaires. Three of our fellows are back at the cut in the Barrage and they’re badly wounded. You’ll find them in the ditch.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll go with him,” said Loti.

“OK!” said Lieutenant Parfait, now in a panic. “Pouzache, you go too!”

Then, turning to me, Parfait asked, “Where is our second truck, Fiset?”

Obviously it had just occurred to him that one truck was missing.

As I turned to help Chevalier with the wounded men, I disdainfully snapped back at him, “Our second truck, Sir, has been destroyed by the Fellaghas and Boudet, the driver, has been killed!”

“What!” he exclaimed. “And what happened to all the materials for repairing the Barrage?” “The truck’s been completely destroyed, and everything in it, Sir,” I replied.

“Oh no! What a disaster!” he moaned. “The Captain has just radioed me, ordering us to repair the cut before tonight! What am I going to tell him now?”

“Sir!” I said, hardly believing what I was hearing. “I’ve just told you – the driver, Boudet, died trying to save us and the truck!”

“Yes!” he replied. I heard you, but it doesn’t resolve our problem! How can we repair the network without materials?”

I was seething with anger at Parfait’s complete disregard for his men, so I turned to him, unable to hold my tongue.

“Sir, I’d like you to read my report before you send yours in,” I declared angrily. “I’m going to write that we were pinned down under heavy bombardment, without any means to defend ourselves. Our Lieutenant wasn’t there, although he should have been, and a Sergeant had to direct the retreat. One of our drivers, Yves Boudet was killed in action. He put his life on the line to save the platoon, and displayed great courage, more than I have ever witnessed before. He died in a field of horror!”

Lieutenant Parfait turned and walked away, without saying anything. But I hadn’t finished.

“I have one more thing to add, Sir,” I yelled. “Boudet is still in his truck in the valley, and I’d like to see him rescued and given all the honours he deserves!”

Lieutenant Parfait stopped. He was in shock. No one had ever spoken to him like this before and he finally seemed to realise that his men were traumatised by what had happened. Just then Bal ran up, looking very worried.

“Sir,” he said, “We have to take the wounded to the hospital – now!”

“Yes! I know!” groaned Parfait, “But I’ve been instructed to repair the network and reconnect the electricity before nightfall. I have received orders, do you understand?”

“But,” stammered Bal, appalled at the Lieutenant’s response. “The wounded are getting worse! It’s an emergency! They have to be taken to Souk–Ahras, immediately, or it’ll be too late!”

“Well!” went on Parfait, to our utter amazement. “What we’ll do is go to the cut first, unload any materials that we have left, then come back here, pick up the wounded and take…”

He was interrupted by a blood covered Chevalier, who had run up to him.

“Sir! Legrand has just died,” he announced. “We couldn’t do anything for him. It was too late and he bled to death!”

Lieutenant Parfait started to redden with embarrassment. He was torn between following his orders and showing compassion for his men.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Chief Pujol was holding a clip–board in his hand and trying to account for every man in the platoon. He had obviously met with a problem.

“Excuse me, Sir” he said to the Lieutenant. “We still have two men not accounted for.”

“Have you recorded the one who’s still in his truck, dead, on the Barrage?” Parfait asked him.

“No, Sir I didn’t know about that! What is his name?” asked Pujol.

“I think it’s Watrin,” replied the Lieutenant.

“No Sir! It’s Boudet,” corrected Bal.

“Oh yes, and Legrand is the one who just died!” said Parfait, trying to sound as if he cared.

“What about the three wounded men we left on the cut?” added Loti.

“Can you give me their names?” asked Pujol.

“Boujeon, Dubuc and Lemetayer!” said Loti.

“Yes, I have them on my list,” said Pujol, “but I still have one missing, a chap by the name of Martin.”

The Lieutenant turned to me. “Was he with you on the cut, Fiset?”

“Yes Sir! He was with us and he was definitely in the truck when we came back,” I replied.

“Pujol, do a re–count,” ordered Lieutenant Parfait. “I have to account for everyone in my platoon when I write my report tonight, so be quick about it!”

In the meantime, the men, completely disregarding Parfait’s plan to return to the cut before taking the wounded to Souk–Ahras, had started emptying the materials from the back of the truck, ready to load the stretchers.

Suddenly, one of them called out, “Sergeant! We’ve found Martin! He’s here in the truck.”

Martin had crawled under one of the steel benches and was hiding behind tools and barbed wire. Two men tried to get him to come out but he was literally frozen with fear, clutching onto the legs of the bench with both hands. His face was tense, his jaw was locked hard and he couldn’t speak. The men had to drag him out. He had turned a greyish colour and was visibly shaking, but was unable to move otherwise. They laid him on a stretcher and put him with the other wounded men.

We all knew Martin well. He could caricature anyone and had virtually become the company artist, drawing everything and everyone he could see. No one ever took offence at his cartoons which depicted the stupidity of army life. Even our Captain collected his drawings and laughed about them. He was a popular man, and we were all alarmed to see him in this distressed state.

“Poor bloke!” said Bal. “He’s in shock!”

We quickly put our wounded into the truck, and the Lieutenant was happy because everyone was accounted for and he could write his report without fear of reprisal from his superior Officers. As we left for the hospital, exhausted and concerned for the injured men, Lieutenant Parfait gave a final piece of advice.

“Don’t forget to remove Legrand’s dog tag for his coffin,” he shouted.

And we all repeated the standard response, “Yes Sir!”

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 19

DESERTERS

 

Saturday 4 November 1961. I felt fantastic. I had completed 18 months in the army, and I was still standing and in one piece. Sadly, this was more than could be said for some of my friends, but I knew that I had another ten months to go. I could only hope that I would reach the end of my service without too many problems.

It was a Saturday evening and it was extremely cold, so we were huddled in our tents under piles of blankets, listening to a program called ‘The Saturday Night Ball’ on our transistors. It was just dancing music, but it made me homesick. I thought back to my civilian life when I would dress myself smartly in a white shirt, black trousers, black tie and smart Italian shoes. Then I would get on my Vespa scooter and go to the local dance. Most of the village would be there, particularly the girls who were sixteen or over. They would wear beautiful dresses, high heeled shoes and makeup. When a girl agreed to dance with me, I would hold her tight in my arms and, sometimes, kiss her. What a dream. Instead of this, I was with a bunch of other fellows under a tent in the Atlas Mountains, being battered by the blistering north wind.

I certainly wasn’t the only one overcome with nostalgia. On an evening like tonight, most, if not all of the chaps thought about their families, friends, girlfriends, wives, and children – all of the people who were waiting for their return. But we found the wait frustrating, and it was sending us mad. On my part, I kept thinking of Jeanne. She would probably be at the local dance, being pressed by her father to dance with a rich farmer’s son, and to please him, she would. I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t even write to her to try and win her heart.

The morale in the camp was extremely low, lower than it had ever been. We were all suffering from fatigue, completely exhausted, and there wasn’t much that the Officers could do about it. The dwindling numbers, the disappearance of our friends, played heavily on our minds. Some were in the hospital, some were in a rest hospice, and a number of them were dead. In one tent of eight men, only two remained. We badly needed help to cope with the distress and the sadness. Furthermore, our life in the mountains had become monotonous, and now, more than ever before, we focused on the liaison truck and its precious cargo of letters from our loved ones. Some chaps were at the point of counting the hours until it arrived, but this too had its downside. If a man didn’t get any mail, he immediately sunk into an even deeper depression, and there was nothing that the rest of us could do to help him. One young fellow from the second platoon was very upset when, for two weeks in a row, he hadn’t received any letters from his family. He grabbed his US M1, walked from his tent into the bushes, and before anyone could do anything about it, he shot himself in the head.

Those most affected by our dreadful life in the mountains were the men who had fiancées. Each time the liaison truck arrived they were in fear of getting a letter telling them that the engagement was broken. This had happened to many men in our platoon, even to the toughest one, Bal. I was sitting next to him when he opened a letter from his fiancée in France. He started reading, then he paled and became speechless, and the letter hung from his hand. It read:

Dear Christopher,

I am very sorry to tell you but I will not be writing to you any longer. I can’t, for personal reasons. I still love you and I hope that we can stay friends.

Love, Margaux

In another words his fiancée, Margaux, was tired of waiting for the past two years and, like many others, she had found someone else at the local dance.

As Joncquet was fond of saying, “Far away from the eyes, far away from the heart!”

Whenever a man received one of these letters he had to bite his tongue and bear it the best way he could. There was nothing he could do about it.

Sunday was the worst day of the week as we didn’t work and we had nowhere to go. Some men spent the entire day drinking. Sergeant Chief Pujol was an expert at this. He drank whatever he could put his hands on, until he collapsed onto his stretcher and there he would stay, fast asleep until Monday morning. However, others became violent when they were drunk. There was a pattern to their behaviour. They would become irritable, then they would get involved in an argument, and this would inevitably lead to a brawl, one which would take place inside the tent and would wreck everything in it.

We despaired of the situation, even though we knew that throughout time men had been involved in war.

“During the second world war,” Pouzache often said, “the soldiers didn’t suffer as much as we do. Every few weeks they would be relieved from the trenches and given time to recover, but we’re here for months on end, even years, in a foreign land and cut off completely from our families.”

18 November 1961. For the Algerians, the situation was becoming better and better, but for us, it was getting worse and becoming more and more complicated. Algeria was nearing total independence from France, and its populace could see an end to the nightmare they had been living in for the past seven years. They were becoming more and confident and sure of themselves and this was quite evident among the Algerian conscripts who were deserting our army in ever increasing numbers. The army no longer trusted them. When they left us and joined their brothers in the Atlas Mountains, they tended to take their weapons with them.

“As long as they don’t murder us in the process,” said Pouzache, “I don’t care what they do!”

But it was difficult for us as they usually deserted while they were on guard duty at night, leaving us unprotected.

The company of Foreign Legionnaires who were camped next to us had a different problem. They had no Arabs in their troops. Their problem was that the Legionnaires themselves were deserting in droves and joining the Fellaghas or the O.A.S. One night we were awakened by large helicopters passing very low over our tents. They were Legion parachutists, heading towards the Tunisian border to capture eleven of their men who had left during the night to join the Fellaghas. At the border, they waited for the deserters to arrive. The deserters, weighed down by heavy equipment, guns, grenades and ammunition that they had stolen, had an arduous and slow march to the border, made even more difficult by losing their way a couple of times. At the Tunisian border, the unfortunate deserters were welcomed with open arms by their former comrades. They had no chance of escape as things moved very quickly. They were disarmed immediately and made to stand at attention in front of the Legionnaire troops. The Captain read the rules of the Legion and the punishment for disobedience to them, even though they already knew what was coming. Deserting the Legion during war time, taking your armament and joining the enemy troops was automatically punishable by death. The Legion never forgave anyone who betrayed them. The Captain yelled the order to his troops and the eleven deserters were shot in the head, one by one, and left on the ground to rot. But this wasn’t all. Their names would immediately be erased from the Legionnaires’ records, so it would be as if they had never existed. This punishment was meant as a deterrent to others.

8 December 1961. We heard that Rene Joubert, the High Commissioner of the Police in Algeria had been murdered by an O.A.S. Commando. Joubert had been in charge of destroying the O.A.S. army units.

10 December 1961. Lieutenant Parfait was verbally insulted in front of the whole company by the Captain. Since the fiasco on the Barrage, and after another incident in the minefield, the Captain could not handle Parfait’s inefficiency any longer. During the flag ceremony he lost control of his foul temper and exploded.

“When you were sent to the Barrage with your platoon, Lieutenant Parfait, you should have been with your men. I can’t forgive you this gross negligence. You are definitely the king of no hopers!”

An insult like this should never have happened between Officers, and above all, it should definitely not have been done publicly in front of the whole company. Lieutenant Parfait didn’t know what to do as something like this had never happened before, and we all felt embarrassed for him, so we pretended not to hear. But Parfait started to go red in the face, and we hoped that he wouldn’t answer back, especially with the usual ‘Yes Sir’ which would indicate agreement with the Captain’s observations.

In the Officer’s mess that evening, Lieutenant Parfait was eating on his own. The other Officers, not wanting to displease the Captain or to get any black marks against their names, disassociated themselves from him.

“Shall we invite him to eat with us?” whispered Godefroy, with a smile.

The final outcome of the animosity between the Captain and Parfait was that the Lieutenant was to be transferred to another company immediately. We were sad to hear this as, despite the incident at the Barrage, he had always been willing to help his men. It wasn’t unusual to see him go into some–one’s tent, sit on the stretcher next to a conscript and help him to fill in an administrative form, or word a difficult or delicate letter to his family. Of course, this didn’t win him any friends among the other Officers.

14 December 1961. Like every morning, the whole company was present at the flag ceremony, standing at attention and listening to the Captain read out any punishments and rewards, and make any announcements.

“Today Lieutenant Parfait is leaving the first platoon and Lieutenant Carre will be acting as the Officer of his unit until we get a replacement. We all wish Sub Lieutenant Parfait the best in his new post,” he declared.

We all felt surprisingly emotional about Parfait’s departure, and terribly sorry for him. Then it was his turn to speak, to give a farewell speech. He looked at all of us and in a broken voice managed to say, “Good bye everyone and good luck to all of you!”

Then he picked up his luggage, but paused while we rendered him the honours.

It was then that Sergeant Chief Pujol yelled, “To Lieutenant Parfait! Present arms!”

All of us stood to attention with our guns fixed on our chests. Lieutenant Parfait stopped in front of us and stammered, “Goodbye my friends!”

Then he walked quickly to the waiting jeep. The bugle played the last post for Parfait and we all stood at attention until the jeep disappeared at the bottom of the hill. The other Officers were taken aback by this display of respect for an Officer who had failed in the execution of his duties, but they couldn’t wait to get back to their mess tent, drink a few brandies and make jokes about him. This show of bravado would cover up the turmoil they felt at the harsh treatment the Captain had metered out to one of his Officers.

18 December 1961. We were all working around the clock trying to finish a minefield and, at the same time, carry out repairs to the Barrage. We never knew from one minute to the next when we would have to leave the camp to repair cuts in the network. It was so unpredictable that most of us had stopped undressing at night, sleeping in our battle dress. We were extremely weak and tired, but we were no longer bored.

The weather, of course, didn’t help. The harsh winter had rendered the ground as hard as concrete in some parts, and a mud bath in other parts. We were permanently cold, and we were drenched by the incessant rain. Our tent was like a little Venice. We had to jump from one strategically placed piece of wood to another to reach our stretchers which were the only dry places in our camp. In desperation, some fellows pulled apart the empty mine crates and used the boards as a floor around their stretchers. Pouzache was proud of himself. He’d managed to carefully construct a complete floor on his allocated spot and he was exultant about it. Others tried to imitate him, but they were all working in sub zero temperatures.

Snow started to fall over the mountains and it wasn’t long before the camp was covered with a thick, white coat. The trucks disappeared under mounds of snow and again, as during the previous winter, we couldn’t leave the camp. We could only reach the mess tent by manually digging a passage in the snow, and the whole company was kept busy removing tons of it from the rooves of our tents. In the evenings we wrapped ourselves in our great coats, covered ourselves with blankets, and wrote letters to our families.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 20

DESTINY

 

There were daily meetings and negotiations between the French Government and the Algerian Liberation Army and a final settlement was close. President De Gaulle was keen for this to happen as soon as possible, as France was facing bankruptcy. The immense cost of maintaining the French army was ruining the country. As a gesture of goodwill he freed thousands of Moudjahadines who had been imprisoned for years and he had just issued an amnesty and freed another 2,500 Fellaghas. These newly–released men could now join their fellow men and fight us once again.

19 December 1961. I’d reached another milestone and only had 270 days left of my military conscription. So far I’d survived all the obstacles, difficulties and traumas, but when I looked around the camp I wondered if I would really reach the end of my service.

It hardly seemed possible but the weather was the worst we had seen so far in the Atlas Mountains. It was extremely cold and the wind blowing over our drenched clothing sent a deep chill through to our bones. Many fellows caught terrible colds and they stayed on their stretchers for days, coughing all the time and burning with a high fever. All around us was a quagmire, a squelching sea of mud that immobilised the trucks and condemned us to stay in our tents with the sick men. So the boredom set in again and our morale was very low.

The wide river which flowed through the plain below us broke its banks and flooded the surrounding plantations and roads, and we were all surprised to see how it rose daily so that it had now almost reached our camp. We managed to shift the trucks to higher ground.

Our Captain was due to go on leave and we all envied him. Professional soldiers were given three weeks holiday each year so that they could spend some time with their families back in France. They got to see their children and often managed to procreate a few more during this time.

From our table in the Officers’ mess we could overhear a conversation at the Captain’s table. Our Captain was complaining to the First Lieutenant about having to spend time with his family. He wasn’t looking forward to seeing them, and he was actually upset about leaving his company.

“Bloody hell!” he said. “I have to go and play Father Christmas with my three children, again. Do you feel the same way Lieutenant Carre?”

“Oh yes, Sir! I never look forward to going home and as soon as I’m there, I can’t wait to come back,” admitted Carre.

“Women are such a pain in the ass! I can’t understand what makes them tick. Bloody women drive me stupid,” piped up Lieutenant Binet.

“They’re all the same, Sir! added Carre. “When you’ve seen one, you’ve see them all.”

All the Officers burst out laughing.

The Captain had devoted his life to the army. He was a real beast of war and couldn’t relate to anything apart from his regiment and the armed forces. However, he was essentially a lonely man. He had no real friends in his company for his rank prevented him from being too friendly with the Lieutenants, or anyone else. He even had a tent to himself. For the most part, the men ignored him and stayed as far away from him as they could. He didn’t even know the names of most of the men in his regiment. From the time the Captain started his duty in the morning, until he retired in the evening, he always had to be at his best, never showing emotions, feelings, or, sadly, compassion. He was completely on his own.

“Do you know,” said Pouzache one evening, “that our Captain has never stepped foot in one of our tents to see how we live!”

It was going to be very difficult to drive the Captain to the airport because of the state of the roads, but after the flag ceremony, where he religiously passed the command of the company to Lieutenant Carre, he left the camp in one of the jeeps. None of us relished the idea of being under the direct command of the much–disliked Lieutenant Carre, a professional soldier through and through.

Carre was a small, fat fellow with a permanent smirk on his face. He had a very superior air and looked down at everyone, and we could tell that the power he had acquired as acting Captain had gone to his head. This made him twice as treacherous as before. Carre’s antagonistic attitude extended to the whole company. The only one who liked him was one of the mining dogs, a sixty–five kilo Alsatian, and the Lieutenant had adopted him as a pet. The dog was as dangerous as his master.

“They make a nice pair!” said Bal.

Carre’s dog was named Sultan, and we were all convinced that the animal believed himself to be an Officer. Carre certainly treated him as one. During meals, Sultan sat on a stool next to his master at the Officers’ table. The dog slept on a stretcher next to Carre, in his tent, and he never travelled in a truck like we did. He sat next to the Lieutenant, on the front seat of his jeep. If, for any reason, any of us had to ride in the jeep, we had to sit in the back with the tools and equipment. The dog had the prize position. Bal had once attempted to sit next to the Lieutenant in the jeep. He tried to move Sultan into the back, but the dog grabbed Bal’s hand in his powerful jaw, leaving deep puncture wounds.

“You’ve upset Sultan,” remonstrated Carre. “I’ve told you before, Sultan doesn’t like to be pushed around by anyone, above all, a mere Corporal Chief like you, Bal.”

“Yes Sir,” said Bal, rather sarcastically.

The dog didn’t like anyone except his master. Maybe it was this, or possibly it was Carre’s attitude that induced Rouget and his friend Boucher to try and make Sultan sick. They fed the great Alsatian pieces of meat stuffed with malaria tablets and hot mustard. But the dog was not easily fooled. Each time the friends handed him a piece of meat, he growled loudly and menacingly at them.

“I’ve told you before,” warned Carre, “Sultan doesn’t like Warrant Officers.”

Rouget and Boucher were happy to leave it at that. Imagine if Carre found out what they were up to. But every time Sultan saw them after that, he broke into frenzied barking.

The next morning Lieutenant Carre insisted that we carry on with the work we had started, regardless of the weather. So we piled into the GMC trucks and the drivers set off along what had been the road but was now covered with water and mud. Within minutes one of our trucks disappeared into a huge hole carved out by the forceful river. The men scrambled out and no–one was hurt. Another of our trucks was equipped with a wrench and we tried to pull the first truck out but all it did was to churn up the mud and entrench that truck in the mire as well. All that we could do was to trudge through the mud, to higher ground. The river seemed to be rising before our eyes and, along with the mud, launched itself as our new enemy. Lieutenant Carre, worried about what was happening on ‘his watch’, brought a bulldozer to try and retrieve the two trucks, but it was to no avail.

When he came to the realisation that we couldn’t continue with our work, Carre started to panic. He knew that when the Captain returned, he would expect a report, so he devised another project, one that could be carried out close to the camp. Carre decided that we could work on improving the nearby resettlement camp. My platoon was in charge of rebuilding the entrance and we had to install a new, heavy, barbed wire gate which would be closed at night. It was planned that the army would guard it and prevent the sons of the ‘residents’, the Fellaghas, from getting food and shelter there.

A tap had been installed near the entrance to the camp and was the only source of water for the entire community that lived there. We could see the women queuing for water for hours, a metal bucket balanced on their heads, and sometimes a newborn child clasped on their hip. All of us were stunned by the misery of these people.

I couldn’t help but comment. “If the people of France could see how French citizens are treated here, they’d be shocked.”

“What crimes are committed in the name of France!” added Boucher.

We weren’t allowed to take any photos while we worked there. The High Commands of the French army lived in fear that some photos would find their way into the hands of a journalist in search of any scandal. Never–the–less, we were permitted to walk around inside the camp, but most of the people, especially the women, were petrified of us, and as soon as we approached them, they would drop everything they were carrying and run inside their shelters. In the past, they’d been bullied by the elite forces of the French army. The only ones who didn’t run from us were the children. They were too young to remember the killings, the murders, the rapes.

Pouzache, Maillet, Joncquet and Loti sat on a bench and tried to talk to the children while giving them pieces of bread. They were literally starving. They were dressed in rags and were barefoot, living in total poverty, but they were still laughing like children do, all around the world. They even wanted to play ball with the soldiers. The children had adapted much better than the adults had to the cold and harsh conditions in which they were forced to live, probably because they didn’t know that a better world existed.

As we looked around that dreadful place, a group of young men approached us, and with a smile on their faces, attempted to talk to us.

“Hello French Army. How are you?” one of them asked.

It was obviously a welcoming committee. The lads were about twenty years old, and like everyone else here, wouldn’t have had employment.

“I reckon they’re from a Fellagha unit,” Loti deduced.

However, we had nothing to fear from them, even without our guns. Any attack on us in the camp would result in reprisals for their families, and they knew it.

The young men invited a small group of us for a drink of mint tea in their shelter. They were friendly and relaxed for they realised that we didn’t belong to the hard core of the French Army. They also knew that we shared their feelings, that we wanted Algeria to have its independence as soon as possible, and the war to be over. It was quite bizarre for us to sit with our ‘enemy’ on an old carpet, drink ritual mint tea, and openly discuss our common problems. They, like us, were suffering because of the war. After a while, Maillet became a little more daring in his conversation.

“You’ve burned down all the settlers’ farms around here,” he remarked.

Silence fell over the group of young Berbers. Obviously they didn’t want to talk about it. Then one of them stood up, lifted his shirt and showed us his bare back. To our surprise his back was deeply and prominently scarred, almost as if it had been ploughed and then burned.

“What happened to you?” asked Maillet, shocked at the sight.

“White settlers! White settlers, Sergeant!” the man replied.

“How? Why?” stammered Maillet.

“Bull whip, Chief!” said the man.

We’d all heard stories of the terrible treatment the Berbers received at the hands of the settlers, but never before had we seen actual proof of it. In order to get as much as possible out of their labourers, the settlers used to beat them with whatever was at hand, but most commonly this was a bull whip. Said to be worse than the cat–o’–nine–tails, the bull whip was made of a bull’s nerve, twisted and dried in the sun. There wouldn’t have been much difference between the slaves on American plantations in the 1840’s and these Berbers, working on the settler’s plantations in Algeria, a hundred and twenty years later.

We were even more shocked when a number of the other young Berbers stood up and exposed their scarred bodies as well, a witness to the terrible treatment they had suffered on the settler’s plantations. One of them showed us his forearms which were a mass of scars from the elbows to the wrists. I touched them to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. We all fell silent. What could we say? It was no wonder we were going to lose Algeria. Such brutal treatment didn’t auger well for loyalty to France.

Soon after this we left, shaking hands with the young men, and filled with anguish for them and shame for our fellow men. We walked back towards our camp, deep in thought.

“If I’d been born here, like them, I’d have helped them to burn down the settler’s farms!” Pouzache divulged. “And the irony is that we’re here to help the settlers keep their farms!”

On our way back we passed a small oasis where tall palm trees were growing.

“Let’s take some photos here,” someone suggested.

Since this was a chance for a souvenir photo of Algeria that no one would object to, we took turns at being the photographer and the subject. My best friend, Joncquet, insisted that we stand together in front of the date palms for a photograph. While Maillet adjusted the camera, Joncquet smiled happily and said to me, “This will be a good souvenir for both of us. When we’ve finished our military service and we’re back in France in civilian life this will be a great memento of our twenty–eight months together and our friendship, Christian!”

Saturday 23 December 1961. It was just two days till Christmas and our thoughts were never far from our families. Captain de Villers was back from his leave and he was absolutely over the moon to be with us for Christmas.

“Now Carre,” he said. “Don’t ask me if I had a good time in France – I didn’t! I was counting the minutes, even the seconds until I could come back. Thank God I managed to escape before Christmas.”

Then he turned to us and announced, “And I’ve got a nice present for all of you. We’re getting another Sub Lieutenant to replace Parfait. His name is Bayard, like the knight in French history. Don’t laugh! Sergeant Chief Purjol, he’ll be in your platoon, so I hope he’ll fit in well. Let’s hope that this one will last longer than the three who preceded him.”

Then the Captain laughed, so all the Officers laughed, showing their approval of his sarcasm. When the mirth died down, the Captain continued, “Lieutenant Carre will again be second in charge of the company.”

Thank you, Sir!” said Carre, puffing himself up with pride. “I hope that this chevalier, Bayard, will be better than the previous ones. When is he arriving, Sir?”

“He’s flying in from France tomorrow morning, so the Sergeant of the first platoon will pick him up from the Bone airport, as usual,” said the Captain.

Carre turned to me and said, “That’s you Fiset. You’ll pick him up.”

“Yes Sir!” I responded.

Then Lieutenant Carre continued, “At the same time, Fiset, you can pick up the food and drink we need for Christmas. We’ll give you a list.”

“Yes Sir!” I said, again.

“So, what joke are we going to play on our new chevalier Bayard?” asked the Captain. “Does anyone have any ideas?”

Here we go again, I thought. We had to invent a joke to please the Captain.

“Yes! I have a good one, Sir!” said Lieutenant Carre who was trying desperately to get back in the good books with the Captain after losing two trucks in his absence.

“Yes Carre, I’m listening!” the Captain assured him.

We all looked at each other, wondering what it would be this time.

“Well, I thought that because it’s Christmas, we could masquerade as Father Christmas and the Holy family,” suggested Carre.

“I don’t understand the joke – explain yourself,” said the Captain.

“Well Sir,” Carre explained, “When he arrives for lunch tomorrow, we would stand in the mess tent dressed as Joseph, the three kings, Father Christmas, Mary, etc.”

“And you would be the baby Jesus, Lieutenant Carre!” said the Captain with a laugh, dismissing the idea.

Everyone laughed at the Captain’s remark. Carre was embarrassed and started to redden. He’d made another mistake and could see the future rank of Captain slipping further and further from him.

“Yes, Lieutenant Legoubert! What’s your suggestion?” asked the Captain, seeing him wave his arm.

“Very simple Sir!” announced Legoubert. “Why not swap all the ranks among us?”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” admitted the Captain.

“Well, Sir, you could be, if you wished, the barman and Sergeant Chief Pujol could be the Captain. I could be a cook, and so on,” explained Legoubert.

Every one waited for the Captain’s reaction, not daring to say anything either for or against this suggestion

“What do you think of this, Carre?” asked the Captain.

“I think it could be very funny Sir,” he answered, “but I have another idea. For his first–night here, we could send him to the Legionnaires who are in operation by the Barrage. That would scare him!”

“No!” said the Captain, to our relief. “Thank you very much but I’ve had enough of that sort of joke. I don’t want to lose another Officer because of your stupid idea.”

The whole room broke into a general snigger and we dared to say a very unusual, “No Sir! No Sir!”

Lieutenant Carre’s face dropped. He’d failed to please the Captain, again.

“Ok!” said the Captain, silencing the room. “Let’s go for Lieutenant Legoubert’s joke. I will be the first Lieutenant, not the barman, but only on one condition. I don’t want the men in the platoons to know about it. It will go no further than the men in this tent, and no further than this one evening. Do you all understand?”

“Yes Sir!” we chorused.

“Could I act as the Captain, Sir?” beseeched Carre

“No!” said the Captain. “You will be the barman and Sub Lieutenant Legoubert will act as the Captain. He’ll look much better in that role than you would, Carre.”

“Yes Sir!” murmured the very humiliated Carre.

Regardless of any joke, it was all good news for me. On Christmas Eve day, I would leave the mud bath of the Djebel and head for the city of Bone. So back in my tent, I pulled my outing uniform from my box and cleaned my rangers, ready for the next morning.

Sunday 24 December 1961. I was given a long list of the food and drinks which I had to buy in Bone and I was looking forward to it, but I hoped that I wouldn’t run into any trouble like the last time I was there. I was quite excited and as soon as the flag ceremony was over I jumped into the jeep with Leroux, the driver, and we started to drive away from our camp down the little dirt road. We hadn’t gone far when, to our surprise, the Captain stepped out in front of us, and waved both hands for us to stop. This was really quite unusual.

“Sergeant Fiset,” he said, in a panicky voice. “I have bad news for you. There’s a change of plan so you’re not going to pick up the new Lieutenant. Corporal Chief Joncquet will be going instead.”

“Joncquet, Sir?” I stammered.

“Yes! I want you to go with your platoon to the job, and Joncquet to go to Bone,” he explained.

“Excuse me Sir,” I replied, “but the rule is that a Warrant Officer welcomes an Officer to his platoon, always. Joncquet is only a Corporal!”

The Captain flashed me a look of anger.

“Are you questioning my orders? I’m in charge here, and don’t you forget it!” he warned.

There was only one course of action left for me. I stood up, saluted him, and gave the usual response, “Yes Sir!”

We returned to the camp and as I walked despondently to my tent, I met Joncquet. He’d been pulled from the work truck at the last minute, and told to get ready to go to Bone.

“Did the Captain tell you why we have to change assignments, Christian?” he asked.

“No Jean,” I replied. “I’ve no idea why. He didn’t say anything about it and I wasn’t daring enough to ask!”

“This is a crazy world!” he said, at the same time searching for the jacket of his outing uniform. He couldn’t find it.

“Take mine,” I said. “We’re the same size and I won’t be using it – I’ve got to go to work. It’s already ironed – take it.”

Joncquet and Leroux, the driver, left for Bone and I reluctantly headed out in the truck with the rest of the platoon. We had to repair a bridge some distance away. The rain had not abated at all the previous night, and everything was wet, including us. We drove for a short while along the dirt road, but we hadn’t gone far when the road disappeared. The river was wider than ever and flowing furiously, carrying with it trees and debris. It had swallowed the road, so we had to drive along higher ground and we were still a long way from our job. However, we progressed slowly towards the disabled bridge, but then the truck got stuck in the mud and, to our alarm, the water was rising fast around it, reaching the level of the platform in no time at all.

“Everyone out!” yelled Pouzache as the truck started to move with the pressure of the strong current.

The whole platoon jumped into the water and with a great effort headed towards higher ground. A few men who were stranded in the rising flow had to be pulled to safety with ropes, and eventually we were all out of harm’s way. But before we knew it, our truck with all our tools in it, was submerged in the muddy lake which was growing larger by the minute.

We were not in good shape. We were soaking wet, freezing, and shivering uncontrollably, unable to get warm. I thought of my friend, Joncquet, who by now would have been in the airport at Bone, drinking a cup of hot coffee with Leroux and watching people doing their last–minute Christmas shopping, buying toys for their children, and laughing with their wives or girlfriends. Here we were, stuck in Algeria for the second Christmas in a row, squirming in the mud in the Atlas Mountains, and far away from our loved ones. I felt incredibly depressed.

There was nothing our platoon could do but to walk back to our camp, following the highest part of the valley, out of reach of the swirling torrent. We set out and soon reached a thick forest. We knew that behind this forest there was a minor road leading directly to our camp. It was a long walk, but the biggest problem was that we didn’t have any weapons. We prayed that we wouldn’t meet up with a local band of Fellaghas looking for a fight.

“Here we are! The road to our camp!” yelled Godefroy, as we emerged from the trees.

“Trucks!” said one of the men, pointing to three GMC trucks parked on the dirt road. Strangely, they seemed to be waiting for us. Maybe they knew we had lost our truck.

One of the drivers, sitting in the cabin of his vehicle, looked at me rather oddly and said, “We have some bad news in the camp.”

I looked at him with surprise.

“What do you mean, bad news?” I asked.

“They will explain when you get there. I’m not too sure!” he said.

I wasn’t too worried at this stage as bad news was an everyday occurrence, and we were all somewhat immune to it. But as we started driving along the road, my curiosity was aroused.

“What is it?” I asked again. “Has our camp been taken away by the overflowing river?”

“No, not yet!” the driver replied.

When we reached the entrance to the camp Lieutenant Carre was standing there, waiting for us. This seemed rather odd.

“Fiset, Pouzache and Maillet, follow me to my tent immediately!” he ordered.

“What have we done to deserve such treatment?” whispered Pouzache, looking worried.

“Maybe it has something to do with the loss of the two trucks last week,” murmured Maillet.

We knew that it must be an important matter. Never before had we been invited to step into Carre’s tent. Once there, we were told to sit on folding chairs, next to Sultan, his faithful dog. Lieutenant Carre sat behind his folding table and looked at us, seemingly searching for words. The usual smirk on his face was gone, and when he spoke, he did so, slowly.

“After you left this morning, Joncquet and Leroux, as you know, headed for Bone to pick up our new Officer. Unfortunately for them, even before they reached the bitumen road, the Fellaghas had stretched a steel cable between two trees across the track. They were the first ones to use the road this morning, and they were caught by this cable and both of them were decapitated. Their jeep crashed near the resettlement village, and two hours ago the Arabs came here to tell us about it. We went to pick up their bodies, and we found their heads over a hundred metres from the crash, still with their helmets on. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but at least they didn’t have time to suffer.”

As the Lieutenant was speaking, we literally froze. The world came crashing down around us once again. We were speechless. What could we say? The three of us stood up mechanically and, without saying a word, we saluted the Lieutenant and left his tent. Once more death had chosen her victims, and we were powerless in her wake.

The bodies of Joncquet and Leroux had been wrapped in canvas and put inside their respective tents, awaiting the preparation of a special tent for them. I sat on my stretcher and I kept looking at the form in the canvas opposite to me. I was in total shock. I never realised how badly the loss of a friend could affect a person. And Joncquet was a very good friend. He lived just a few streets from me in Caen, and we went to the same school together. We went through our initial training in Angers together and we served here in the Atlas Mountains together. Joncquet’s presence had always been reassuring, not only to me, but to everyone else around him, as well. Joncquet was a pure spirit with absolutely no vice in him whatsoever. He was, as Pouzache once said, incorruptible and unadulterated. His love and respect for people was without bounds and he treated everyone the same, irrespective of who they were. He didn’t see Fellouzes, Fellaghas, or colleagues: he saw human beings. He was considered to be a knight in shining armour because he always helped the weak and the underdogs, those who couldn’t cope and those who needed a friend. He was like a Saint Bernard, offering assistance when it was most needed. Now he was dead. I couldn’t believe it was true, but the mind plays funny games when a person is in shock. Perhaps he hadn’t been killed. It could be just another joke played by the Captain and in a moment Joncquet would come into the tent and, with his usual smile, tell us that he had bought some caramel éclairs in Bone, and he would offer us one. But the form in the canvas belied this thinking. Perhaps the enormous fatigue that I suffered from was playing tricks on my mind, or perhaps I was going insane. Even so, questions kept filling my head. Why would death have chosen him? What does death know that we don’t? Who is death going to choose next? Did death make a mistake by taking him? I should’ve been the one in the jeep. Was it because he was wearing my outing jacket? No one knew the answers and no one ever will.

We had all suffered so much in the Atlas Mountains, and now, on Christmas Eve day, we were suffering even more. Together, Joncquet and I had crossed off the days of army service on our calendars. We had both completed 600 days and were close to the finish line, but Joncquet would not see Normandy again. Although he would be going home ahead of me, it would be in an aluminium coffin.

As it was Christmas time, there was no army service available to pick up the dead. We’d been told that they would come on the 26th so a tent was prepared as a mortuary and, with the utmost respect and care, we carried Joncquet and Leroux there. Their heads had been tied into the canvases with their bodies, and these images played heavily on my mind. The people who killed them didn’t care who they killed, just as long as it was someone from the French army. And two more names would be added to the long list of men who had lost their lives in Algeria, two thousand kilometres from their families and their country. Something in all of us had died today, but I was saddened to realise that, generally, we were re–acting less and less each time another tragedy struck.

After the loss of Joncquet and Leroux, another jeep had been sent to Bone to pick up Lieutenant Bayard. The Captain had insisted that all the food and drinks were still to be purchased for the planned Christmas dinner. About 4 p.m. Bayard arrived, but there was no–one waiting to officially welcome him. There seemed to be confusion all around, but to our relief, the Captain’s joke had been cancelled.

The thought of Christmas day held no pleasure for us. We had reached our lowest ebb, both mentally and physically. There were relatively few men left in the platoon as death and sickness had taken its toll, and the men in service were not much fitter than the ones in hospital. While Christmas held no happy prospects for us, it held even less for Joncquet’s and Leroux’s families back in France. What a Christmas gift – the gendarmes bringing devastating news of death.

By 7 o’clock most of the men in our platoon were lying on their stretchers, deep in mourning. Suddenly, a serviceman barged into our tent to tell us about the dinner and the drinking session which, it appeared, had already started. They wanted us to join in and be part of the Christmas festivities. No one reacted. We couldn’t go and enjoy ourselves. We just stayed on our stretchers, motionless and grieving.

I knew that I wouldn’t sleep, so I gathered all my energy, got up, went to the Lieutenant, and volunteered to do guard duty from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m.

It was Christmas Eve and all over France it was the time that every child had been looking forward to all year. I started thinking about my own childhood, and how I would find presents that Father Christmas had left for me, under the Christmas tree. In later years I realised that just as we were leaving the house to go to midnight mass, my Father would take the presents from their hiding place in his office and put them at the foot of the decorated pine tree. I was always thrilled with the gifts as I yearned for them for months. I particularly remembered one – a beautiful Dinky toy truck, glossy and shiny. But from now on, Christmas Eve would always bring thoughts of Joncquet and an ache to my heart.

At 2 a.m., as I was walking though the camp and checking on the fellows on guard duty, I passed the mess tent. The Christmas party was in full swing and I could hear singing and laughing. However, I knew that the revelry was less to do with celebration and more to do with drowning the sadness and loneliness in alcohol. When you were drunk, you didn’t think about your family, your wife and children, or the two young men lying dead in a nearby tent.

25 December 1961.  Early on Christmas morning we were surprised to see that a ‘Special Services’ truck had arrived at our camp. In actual fact, they were a funeral agency working for the army, gathering the bodies of servicemen who had been killed. The work was done as discretely as possible, supposedly to prevent adverse effects on the morale of the conscripts. ‘The less they see, the better it is,’ was the army motto. The agency didn’t like anyone witnessing their work either. They carried two khaki coffins into the ‘mortuary’ tent, and worked quickly, putting the bodies into the coffins and screwing the dog tags on. There would be no formal ceremony or even words of farewell from the Captain, as neither Joncquet nor Leroux were important enough for this. They were just statistics of war, nothing else. Their number would be crossed from the army register and they would be forgotten, except of course, by their families and by us, their comrades.

Although we weren’t supposed to, Pouzache, Maillet and I went to stand outside the tent while the bodies were being readied for transport. We wanted to pay our last respects to our friends. Soon the whole platoon joined us and none of the Officers challenged us. We were heartened when our new Sub Lieutenant joined us. He had never met either Joncquet or Leroux, but he stood to attention with us as the two coffins were carried out. It was bitterly cold, and we were all shaking, as much from emotion and trying to control our tears as from the temperature.

Loti, overcome with grief called out loudly, “Good bye, Jean! Good bye, Paul! We won’t forget you. You’ll both be in our hearts forever!”

The truck left as quickly as it had come, and we were left standing forlornly in the icy wind, our hearts bleeding.

31 December 1961. I had made it through another year and through 608 days of service. I felt lucky to have survived. Death didn’t want me yet. Tomorrow would be the beginning of my last year in the army as I only had 243 days to go. Two hundred and forty–three days was still a long time, but it seemed that Algeria would soon be granted independence, and when that happened, we could all go home.

Sub Lieutenant Bayard was originally from the island of Martinique in the West Indies. France had colonised many of the islands there. He had been an ordinary civilian, and had trained as a civil engineer in road construction, but, like us, he had been conscripted. However, he had been sent to Officer’s School and after six months training he had graduated. Even though he had stood with us to pay respects to Joncquet and Leroux, we quickly summed him us as a snob. Because of his high level of education, he seemed to think he was superior to the rest of us, and he acted accordingly. But, conversely, that was probably to cover up an inherent inferiority complex. He was a coloured person. Martinique was largely populated by black Africans, brought to the island by the French settlers as slaves to work on the sugar plantations. So Bayard was certainly exceptional in that he had risen from such a lowly ancestry to the rank of Officer in the French army, but it seemed that he was compelled to prove his worth, and every day he tried to show us that he was better than we were.

“Six months training as an Officer and the power has gone to his head!” remarked Godefroy.

It wasn’t only with us that Bayard continually tried to prove himself. He did the same with the other Officers, verifying his position and showing that he was as good as, or ever better than they were. His battledress was always clean and tidy and the golden bar on each of his shoulders was shinier than those of any other Officer in the company. The men baptised him ‘Snow White’.

“We’ll see how he looks the next time we have to be on the Barrage at four in the morning,” laughed Boucher.

1 January 1962. The weather was extremely cold so after having our new year’s lunch in the Officer’s mess, we all went back to our own tents. Pouzache found some bits of wood and managed to start a fire in the stove, so we were happy to spend the afternoon writing letters and drinking mugs of sugary, hot wine. We settled onto our stretchers, snugly wrapped in blankets and enjoying the warmth of the fire, but the peace and ambience was short lived. Through a gap in the tent, Maillet spotted some Legionnaires coming for a visit.

“Oh no, not them again!” whispered Boucher. “Not today!”

The Legion’s camp was close to ours, and their circumstances were the same as ours. They were bored. Because of the weather, they were unable to go on operations and they couldn’t even move their trucks, so they sat in their tents, drinking until they collapsed. Some of the brighter ones escaped this inane activity by visiting other units of the French army. Unfortunately for us, being their closest neighbours, we often had to put up with their company and with their dreadful stories of adventure, killing and murder. The Legionnaires also considered our camp to be a respite from the bullying and sadistic actions of their Warrant Officers. One of them told us that our camp was like a tourist resort compared to theirs.

On this occasion two Legionnaires came to our tent. They were tall and skinny, pale–faced and bright eyed, and they were smiling cheerfully.

“Hello everyone! Happy New Year to you all!” they called out.

We all looked at each other with surprise. They were not like the Legionnaires who usually visited us.

“Are you from the 3rd Regiment of Legion?” I asked them.

“Yes, we are – unfortunately,” answered the taller of the two, with a smile.

“Happy New Year to you!” they chorused again, shaking hands with each of us and putting a carton of Kronenbourg beer on the table.

“What’s with these fellows? They’re not Germans, are they?” someone whispered.

“No! I don’t think so. They’re too sophisticated for that!” I murmured.

Then one of the Legionnaires introduced himself.

“My name is Graham, and my friend here is John. We’re English – we both come from Durham, which is good news for you Norman boys. Your ancestors built our cathedral way back in 1100,” he said.

“What’re you doing in the Legion?” asked Pouzache.

“Good question!” said Graham. “We both ask ourselves the same thing, don’t we John? We wonder what we’re doing with a gang of nutcases.”

Indeed, these two Englishmen didn’t fit the profile of the usual Legionnaires that we were in contact with.

“They’re not the normal Dogs of War,” said Maillet, as an aside.

“What’s going on in your camp?” Pouzache asked them.

“Our camp is always the same. It’s a mad house! We can’t go on operation because of the weather, so they’re all crazy with boredom. We can’t do any of the usual things – no burning of villages, no killing, so the men spend their days drinking. When they’re drunk, they fight. It’s just brawl after brawl.” said John.

“What’s more,” added Graham, “they all stick to their own nationality groups, and speak their own language. Since John and I are the only two Englishmen in our company, we spend all of our time together.”

“Well, said John, “there is another Englishman in the company, but he’s a Sergeant Chief, and he’s a mad man! His main amusement is to pull the pin of a grenade and put it on a table where the Legionnaires are gathered. Then he waits to see who runs away first, and who is the last to leave. Of course, it’s always him, and so far, he’s winning – he’s still alive!”

None of us were particularly surprised by this.

“We feel isolated,” admitted Graham. “The Germans outnumber all the other nationalities and they run the show. They don’t communicate with, or have any regard at all for anyone who isn’t German.”

“Well, what made you join the Legion in the first place?” I asked.

“Ah!” said Graham. “I watched a lot of films about the Legionnaires, romantic stories of broken hearted boys who wanted to forget about their sorrows, so they joined the Legion. In no time at all, they would find themselves in a fort in the middle of the Sahara Desert, surrounded by friends and colleagues and heroically fighting the Arabs. At the time I was working as a clerk in one of the biggest banks in London, and I felt like I was slowly dying of boredom. I decided that I needed some adventure, so I joined the Legion. I couldn’t wait to sign a five–year contract with them.”

“My story is different to Graham’s.” said John. “My father is a Colonel in the British Army and one day he gave me an option. I could either go to Sandhurst and train to be an Officer, like him, or I could join the French Foreign Legion. He assumed I would choose Sandhurst, but one evening I watched the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and after that I was obsessed with an idealistic notion of fighting with the Legion, so, much to my father’s disappointment, I chose that option.”

“How much of your contract have you served?” asked Maillet.

“We both joined up at the same time, six months ago,” said John.

“So you’ve got another four and a half years in these conditions,” said Maillet. “Are you up to it?”

Both of them looked around at us, their eyes widening and a petrified expression coming over their faces.

“I don’t think we can even go on for another week,” whispered Graham.

He didn’t elaborate, but we could read between the lines. They were obviously contemplating desertion, but didn’t know how to go about it, so they edged around the subject.

“How far is Lacalle from here?” asked John.

“About 40 kilometres,” replied Maillet. “It’s a fishing harbour and it’s about ten kilometres along the coast from the first Fellagha outpost in Tunisia.

“We had some Italian Legionnaires who deserted. They sailed a fishing boat to Sardaigna and from there they went to No–Man’s–Land and joined the Fellaghas,” John declared.

He was treading on dangerous ground. The mere mention of desertion could lead to a stint with the disciplinary unit of the Foreign Legion, and the terrifying reputation of this section was second to none.

“Well, if I were in that madhouse,” said Pouzache quietly, “I would work my way to Lacalle, dress myself in civilian clothes, then ‘borrow’ a small fishing boat and sail it to the Tunisian border. It’s the closest you can get to the first Fellagha outpost.”

The two Englishmen fell silent. They realised that we had voiced a desertion plan for them, and they obviously felt that they could trust us. They recognised kindred spirits. So they shook hands with us again and left, calling out as they went, “We might meet again one day in Paris!”

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 21

WEEKENDS IN OUR CAMP AND A TRIP TO FRANCE

 

After the Legionnaires left we settled back to our letter writing. The cook had surpassed himself with our lunch and I was feeling good, secure in the knowledge that I only had, at the most, eight months of military service left. Soon I would be home for good and it was with enormous pleasure that I crossed the first day of the year off my calendar. I just had to hold on till the end.

It was amazing that, since we spent so much time writing letters to our loved ones, we were still able to write page after page each day. Everyone always had something to write about and they focused entirely on what they were doing. Even the volume of the radios was kept very low during this time.

Once again, I was given the unenviable task of packing up the private belongings of one of my comrades. Lieutenant Bayard had given me the task because I was Joncquet’s best friend, and, just as I had done previously with Bazo’s private box, I forced open the padlock as I couldn’t find the keys. I carefully removed the drawing pins from the photos attached to the lid of the box and put them into Joncquet’s suitcase, sadly realising that this same suitcase would be sent to his father in France. I packed his calendar, the days all marked off until the one on which he died. What a souvenir for his family. I continued packing in silence while everyone else in the tent continued with their letter writing. Godefroy, above all others, was lost in concentration. He was a married man with two children and he missed them sorely, so much so that everyone kept away from him while he was reading or writing letters to them. He would often lie on his stretcher reading the same letters over and over. Over the past twenty–two months, it was the only contact he’d had with them and we had a gut feeling that if he didn’t see them soon he would go insane.

All of a sudden, we heard an Arab yelling outside our tent. We were all surprised because our camp was a forbidden zone to the Arabs, so we all looked outside to see what was happening. I spotted the turban of an old Arab shepherd in some bushes a few metres from our tent. He was probably from the resettlement village close by, and from the manner in which he was calling out, it was likely that one of his goats had escaped and he was looking for it. For poor people like the Arabs, a goat is a precious possession.

Maillet went out of the tent to have a better look, and he loudly declared, “What is this bloody idiot doing here? He knows that this is a forbidden zone.”

Everyone’s letter writing came to a stop, and Godefroy was extremely upset at being interrupted. He broke his pen in anger, threw it on the floor, and started to swear. Then, in total rage, he grabbed his USM1 automatic and ran outside. We all gaped, and Pouzache gave voice to the question we were all asking ourselves.

“What’s he going to do?” he posited.

And then we heard a rifle shot. Godefroy came back into the tent, hung up his gun, sat down behind his boxes, and resumed writing his letters.

The old Arab calling for his goat had been silenced. Godefroy had put a bullet through his head and killed him, just like he would have killed a wild boar on a hunting trip, or crushed a fly with his fist. He gave no thought to who the Arab was or why he was in the camp. He didn’t even give the old man a warning.

 We were all in a state of shock. I sat on Joncquet’s stretcher, unable to continue packing his suitcase. Pouzache called Chevalier to check on the Arab, in case he was still alive and badly wounded. Godefroy hadn’t bothered to check – he didn’t care. He acted as if nothing had happened. However, I was watching him. I didn’t say anything but I imagined what his letter would say:

‘Dear Nicole,

I hope you’re not having too many problems with little Robert. I hope my mother can give you a hand by taking Denise to school. I’ve only got 184 days to go and then I’ll see you all again. I can’t wait to hold all of you in my arms.’

And in the middle of writing a letter such as this, he shot dead a man who he didn’t know. He showed no emotion whatsoever. He acted as if he’d just gone to the bathroom to turn off a dripping tap. Was it the hardship that turned a fellow like him into a cold–blooded murderer? I went back to packing Joncquet’s suitcase, reflecting on the fact that another innocent Algerian had died.

“Would he have done that in France?” Maillet murmured.

“Will he mention it in the letter to his wife and children?” another chap whispered.

“Of course not,” I sighed. “He doesn’t consider it important enough to even mention.”

That night at dinner, we all watched him, looking for signs that he had some conscience left, but we were unlucky. He just ate his soup as usual, and didn’t say anything to anyone. “Maybe he doesn’t even remember.” one of the men remarked.

2 January 1962. The New Year started dramatically. Colonel Ramson, the Chief of Intelligence in Algeria, was murdered by the O.A.S. who were doubling their efforts to keep Algeria French. But independence for this oppressed nation was coming closer every day.

6 January 1962. The French army was bleeding and the morale of the conscripts was getting worse by the day. In our general area there was another company who had suffered terribly. Twenty–six of their conscripts had been caught in an ambush and killed in the traditional Arab way. The Fellaghas show no compassion whatsoever. If the war was to keep going for another twelve months, there wouldn’t be any conscripts left.

In our camp the living conditions were atrocious, hygiene was non–existent, and our immune systems were extremely weak. Most of the men were suffering from various ailments, the most common one being dysentery. Many men suffered so badly from it that they started to pass blood and were then sent to hospital. Malaria was also rampart in the camp, despite a daily dosage of anti–malaria tablets. In one of the tents the men were so ill that they could barely do anything except sleep. Along with the dysentery they were suffering from anaemia and depression, and dragging themselves to the toilet trench took enormous effort. Their legs were too weak to support their bodies. Even the Officers, men who usually set an example of ‘soldiering on’ were becoming ill and feeble. But not the Captain. He had an unbelievable resistance to sickness, no doubt developed over the 20 years that he had been involved in war and living in army camps.

“I think he’ll soon be the last one left standing in our camp,” commented one of the men.

The old Warrant Officers seemed to survive by drinking anything they could put their hands on, and doing so continually. Hence, they were perpetually drunk, completely useless, and living in a world of their own. They had one aim – to ‘serve faithfully’ for twenty years and get a retirement pension.

It was a gloomy sight at the daily flag ceremony. Any observer would have thought we were prisoners in a German concentration camp. I weighed 56 kilos, which wasn’t much for a man of my height, one metre, seventy–eight. However, I felt and looked quite good compared to the others, and I managed to report for work every morning. My aim was to reach the end of my service standing up.

16 January 1962. I was called into the Captain’s tent and I knew that it must be for something important as conscripts were rarely called by him. I stood to attention in front of his makeshift desk, and saluted him.

“At your service, Captain,” I chanted.

“Yes Fiset. I’ve just received a mission order for you. You’ll be leaving tomorrow morning for the headquarters at Millesimo, our rear base. There you’ll meet with Captain Lefort and he’ll tell you the details of your mission.” he said.

“What sort of mission is it, Sir?” I asked.

“Apparently, you’re going to be sent to France,” he replied. “That’s all I know. So go and get yourself ready to leave.”

I had no idea what the mission would be, but I was wild with excitement just to hear the word ‘France’ and to know that I would get away from the Atlas Mountains for a while, and most importantly, see my family again.

I ran to my tent, got out my outing uniform and started ironing it. Despite the heart–rending feelings as I smoothed out my jacket, so recently worn by Joncquet and returned to me by the funeral people, I was excited.

“I’m going to France tomorrow morning!” I announced, eagerly.

Questions like, “What?” and, “Tomorrow morning?” rang out around the tent. The other men could hardly believe it, and, I must say, many of them were very envious. I cleaned my rangers, scaping off the accumulated mud, and made sure that everything was ready for my departure. I knew that it would be a long night for me, and above all, I hoped that nothing would change and thwart my hopes of going home again. Sure enough, I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and walked around outside in the bitter cold. As I looked around the camp, I reflected on `the twenty months of hell and the suffering that I had endured here, the burning heat and the bitter cold, the dangerous work in the mine fields, and the anguish when any of my comrades lost their lives.

17 January 1962. I was up and ready to go before anyone else even left their stretchers. I had packed my gear up in boxes and folded up my stretcher. It was bitterly cold and a carpet of snow covered everything. Water was dripping inside the tents as the snow on top of them slowly melted, and my outing uniform was splattered with mud. I put on my great coat and picked up my small suitcase and my MAT 49 machine gun. I was anxious to get going and even though the snow–covered trees and mountains were beautiful, my main concern was that the jeep would be able to traverse the roads, by now frozen solid in patches, and get me away from this place. There was a small hiccup when a counter order came through telling me that I would not be leaving until 1 p.m. Instead of going by jeep, I was to go on the liaison truck.

I was impatient to leave, and scared that more orders would come through, ones that would change my plans completely.

When the liaison truck arrived, I was disheartened to see that the driver was Guinoiseau, the strong man at the rear base of the 37th Battalion. We had managed to get him sent to the Foreign Legion for 2 weeks’ punishment for bullying. We recognised each other immediately and I could almost see his thoughts: ‘Ah, there’s the bastard who made me spend two weeks with the Foreign Legion. I’ll get the bloody bastard one day.’ I couldn’t blame him for thinking this. Two weeks as a guest of the Legionnaires wasn’t something you easily forgot.

He looked at me intensely and, when no one was looking, whispered menacingly, “I’ll get you when we’re both civilians again.”

This kind of threat was meant to scare, but was fairly common place, especially between men of different ranks.

Then, raising his voice so that all could hear, he announced, “You’ll have to sit in the back as Sergeant Rouget is coming with us as well.”

I didn’t care where I sat, as long as I got to Millesimo.

Just as we were about to leave, and as I was waving goodbye to my friends, a 6×6 army jeep roared into the camp and stopped in front of the liaison truck. It had come to pick up another Officer, but the driver, seeing me sitting on the back of the truck, yelled out, “Hey Sergeant, where are you going?”

“Millesimo!” I yelled back.

“We’re going there too,” he shouted. “We’re from the Second Company of the 37th Battalion. Would you like a lift with us? It’ll be more comfortable than on the back of the truck, especially in this weather!”

He didn’t need to repeat his offer. I grabbed my gun and my suitcase and jumped into the comparative comfort of the jeep.

Guinoiseau had been driving the liaison truck for over 18 months and he was very familiar with the road. He probably could’ve done the trip with his eyes closed. He knew each hairpin bend along the Barrage, and once he reached the Bone plains there was nothing to stop him accelerating to the maximum. He had a reputation for doing the trip in record time, so the driver of the jeep, a man acquainted with Guinoiseau’s style, decided to follow at a more reasonable pace.

Guinoiseau was a showman. In no time at all he had distanced himself from us. The snow and the ice were no obstacle to him and we saw him, way in front of us, turn onto the bitumen road and head towards Lamy. It was a winding road, and we watched him taking the bends at full speed, one after another. It would’ve taken months of practice to be able to do that. He disappeared from sight, and we followed his route with much more care and way less speed, but as we came around a hairpin bend, we saw his truck smashed into a rocky cliff and folded like an accordion. Our driver’s reflexes were fantastic. He hit the brakes and managed to steer our vehicle around the truck, missing it my centimetres, and, at the same time, he avoided hitting the electrified Barrage and the solid cliffs, on either side of us. We jumped from the jeep and ran to help the men in the truck, but the engine had been pushed into the cabin by the impact, undoubtedly crushing the two occupants. Furthermore, the huge steel boxes at the back had been thrown against the cabin, so there was no chance of survival.

As a thin trail of smoke rose from the engine, the Lieutenant voiced what we were all thinking, “They must have been killed on impact.”

There was nothing we could do except call the transport department.

“They didn’t have a chance. They must have slipped on the icy road,” said the Lieutenant.

“Not really,” said our driver, as he examined the crashed vehicle. “Look at this!”

He pointed to the broken wind screen, and we could see that it was riddled with bullet holes.

“The Fells!” said the Lieutenant, peering at the evidence. “They’ve been shot by some Fellaghas who were probably waiting behind the Barrage for the liaison truck to come along.”

As he was speaking a huge army tow truck came around the corner.

The driver summed up the situation and announced, “We can’t get the two guys out here, so we’ll tow them back to our camp and do it there. It’s the only option we have.”

A shiver ran down my back as I watched the liaison truck, with the two men still in it, being towed away. Furthermore, I began to think that I wouldn’t be at the airport in time to catch the plane. We still had to go through Guelma and to the Headquarters at Millesimo, and then, after receiving my orders, I had to get to the airport at Bone.

When we eventually got to the Headquarters, I received a rather strange welcome. Captain Lefort looked at me and said, “Oh yes! I forgot about you. You are…?”

“Sergeant Fiset, Sir! First company of the 37th”, I replied.

“Ah You’re the one who has to take the plane for France at 3 p.m. Here we are,” he said, ruffling through papers on his desk and holding one up. “All the information about your mission. You’ll fly to Marseilles, and then you’ll go to Versailles by train. The 5th Regiment of Pioneers is at Versailles, and you’ll escort thirty–two of them back to Guelma. They’re the reinforcement for the battalion.”

An army clerk came in and gave me tickets, a special pass, and a copy of the mission orders.

“Quickly!” cut in the Captain, “You haven’t any time to spare. The plane leaves at 3 p.m.”

He didn’t have to urge me to hurry. I couldn’t wait to escape Algeria and get to France to see my family. I’d missed them so much.

I had to run from one office to the next to collect a variety of documents, and by 2 p.m. I was able to jump into the jeep that was waiting for me. The driver sped towards the Bone airport.

“I’ve only got an hour to get you there, he said, determined that he would do so. He, like so many of our drivers, had the skills of a grand prix driver, and he gripped the steering wheel and deftly manoeuvred the jeep through a flooded road, over Mount Nechmeya, and across the Bone plains. From time to time he checked his watch and we got there in time.

Marseilles. I had finally arrived. I was back in my own country. What a joy to see it again after the long months in the dreaded Djebel. And I was in one piece. Bouncing with happiness, I walked to the Saint Charles railway station to board a train for Paris, before going on to Versailles. During the trip I stayed glued to the window, and as we sped through the peaceful and beautiful countryside, childhood memories came tumbling into my mind, one after another. Even when we passed through areas covered in snow, I saw nothing but beauty. Besides, I was warm and comfortable in the railway carriage. For the first time in months I wasn’t freezing, and I felt like I’d come from hell and had been reborn. As we passed through sleepy little villages I felt that nothing had changed here since the Middle Ages, and I relaxed, breathed easier, and felt my strength returning. The journey continued on through the night but finally I arrived in Paris. Beautiful Paris – the city of light.

I had considerable time to wait before I had to catch another train and continue my journey, so I walked along the street, and as I did so I noticed that everyone seemed to be happy. The cafe’s were full of people and I would have liked to tell them how beautiful their city was, but they would have laughed at me, not understanding where I was coming from. They wouldn’t have realised that, for someone who had been sleeping on a muddy floor in tents, shivering in minus 15 degrees Celsius every night, and fighting loneliness, the Fellaghas, and an on–going tremendous fear, their normal daily life looked wonderful.

I went into one of the cafés opposite the railway station, ordered strong coffee, real coffee, and two croissants, and I admitted to myself that I had sorely missed the little comforts of life, such as this. The café, Gare Saint Lazarre, was decorated with brass mirrors, evergreen plants, beautiful wooden furniture and 1920’s style lampshades. I thought it was beautiful and exciting I sat by the window watching the people pass by. There were young mothers taking their children to school, couples holding each other around the waist, talking and laughing together, and elderly women walking their French poodles along the Boulevard. It was all so different to life in the Atlas Mountains. I was overcome with emotion. I rested my head in my hands and visions of mine fields and struggling at night on the Barrage, filled my head. But above all, I ‘heard’ the noise, the relentless noise of battle, the whistling of the heavy shells of the 155 mm guns, the rattling of the AA52m machines guns, and the mortar shells whistling through the sky. And I felt the fear, the implacable fear that never left me and made my life a misery. I was lost in thought and the time flew by. I ordered lunch and when the young waiter brought it to me, I was surprised to see that I had been served a glass of red wine.

“Excuse me sir,” I said. “I didn’t order the wine.”

“Don’t worry about it. It is on the house,” he said. “You come from Algeria don’t you?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied.

“That’s why,” he said, with a smile.

The plate of beefsteak was just an ordinary meal but I savoured every morsel of it. It was far removed from the box of cold rations that I was accustomed to gulping down while I sat on the back of a truck.

The wine was a nice gesture, especially since the French people were sick and tired of hearing about the war. France had been at war since 1940 when their country was invaded by the Germans, and since that time they hadn’t had a day of peace. There had been war in Indochina, Morocco, Tunisia and now, Algeria. The French public had been told that our army were knights in shining armour, winning all the battles that they fought, and justly so, because God was on our side. It was like a repeat of the Crusades in the 12th century. We were still fighting the ‘infidel’, but instead of being led by Saint Louis, the King of France 700 years ago, we were led by General De Gaulle.

I checked my watch but I still had time to spare, so I sat there, enjoying the ambience. An elderly couple came into the café and sat at the table next to me. The woman looked at me intensely, with a concerned and sad expression on her face.

“Do you come from Algeria?” she asked.

“Yes, Madame,” I replied. “I just arrived, today.”

“You look so much like, Andre, our son. He’s in Algeria too,” she said. “Do you know him? Andre Leblond.”

“No, Madame, I’m sorry, I don’t. There are over half a million fellows like me in Algeria,” I explained.

Then the man, with great sadness in his eyes, leaned towards me and whispered, “He was killed last year.”

Complete silence followed. I didn’t know what to say to them. When they left they said goodbye, and I noticed a tear in the father’s eye as he held his wife’s arm and steered her from the café.

Shortly after, I left the café and crossed the road to the train station. As I waited for the train to Versailles, I read and re–read all the documents given to me in Algeria, including the instructions for the mission. I was to be picked up at the 5th Regiment of Pioneers, but there were no dates specified, so I decided to go home first and see my family. I was so close to home, and I missed my family so much that I couldn’t resist. I bought a ticket for Caen, and rang my parents to tell them the good news.

During the journey I stayed glued to the window of the train and even though it was almost dark outside, I gazed at the beautiful green Normandy countryside, so different to the Atlas Mountains. We passed through Evreux and then Lisieux, only a few kilometres from Caen, a houses with thatched roofs and timber facades, the green fields full of apple trees, and the large white and brown cows grazing in the lush green grass, with a new appreciation and pleasure. It felt good to be alive.

The train pulled into Caen, and I rushed through the railway station into the arms of my waiting parents. Hugs and tears and kisses – I was so happy. I had missed them so much. We got into my father’s car and drove through the traffic, but no one said anything. We had so much to say, but none of us knew where to start, and for the moment just being together was enough.

That evening, as we sat around the table having dinner, the chatter was like music to my ears, but I wasn’t used to ‘refined’ living and I felt inadequate and completely lost. The silence, or rather the lack of the screaming and talking of hundreds of fellows, also troubled me. I was finding it hard to adapt. I asked my parents if I could go for a walk around the block and they were surprised at my request.

“Christian, you don’t need to ask,” my father said. “You’re free to go out of the house whenever you wish.”

It was dark outside, the street lights were on, and it was extremely cold, but I had to go for a walk to relax. To my own consternation, I’d had the urge to take my MAT49 with me and to look for a friend to accompany me. But I walked quietly along the footpath on my own, soaking up the silence and the peace. There was no more sliding in the mud and no more fear.

When I got back I found that my two beautiful sisters, Marie Noelle and Monique, had arrived. I basked in the warmth of their love and understanding. My father, when he knew that I was coming home, hired a slide projector so that I could show them pictures of my life in Algeria. I pushed slide after slide into the projector, but I soon realised that the photos did nothing to depict the harshness of the life we were living there, and my family couldn’t comprehend the situation at all.

“How could we lose the war with such an army?” said my father, referring to the heavy artillery, well equipped air force and modern army of over 500,000 men. “How could we lose against a handful of communist rebels?”

“How come we need such a large army when there’s only a small band of dissidents?” asked Marie Noelle.

And their questions continued.

“So we’re there with an army as big as Napoleon’s when he invaded Russia, and they’re talking about giving Algeria back. Have we have lost the war, or what?”

“During the mutiny, what side were you on?”

“I can’t understand the Algerian people. We’ve gone there to develop their country and they’re rebelling against us. Can’t they see that we’re there to help them?”

As I went up the stairs to my room that night, I was overcome with odd feelings. I wasn’t used to stair cases or hard stone walls any longer. I’d slept in a tent for so long that I found the solidness disturbing. Nothing in the house moved with the wind. My mother had done everything she could to make me happy. She’d prepared my room and it was warm, comfortable and familiar. Nothing had been moved during my absence and my books and childhood souvenirs were all there. There were clean white sheets on the bed, and a stack of newly purchased magazines on the side table. But it felt bizarre to undress completely and put on clean pyjamas.

As I lay in my bed, the silence was bewildering. The house was still and everyone was sleeping, except for me. The bed was too comfortable and warm, and I couldn’t relax. My eyes were wide open and my thoughts kept going back to the conditions and the fear in Algeria, and to my friends who were still there.

15 January 1962. Once more I had to don my uniform, and I left my parent’s house and caught the train to Versailles to pick up the reinforcements for the battalion and escort them to Algeria. A large painted panel over the gate of the barracks told me that I had arrived at the right address. ‘The 5th Regiment of Pioneers: Versailles.’ Full of confidence, I walked inside and presented myself to the Warrant Officer sitting behind the front desk.

“Sergeant Fiset, 37th Battalion Algeria,” I announced.

The man behind the desk didn’t even lift his head. He ignored me completely and kept writing his reports. I found his attitude strange, but after a short while I heard him say, “Yes.” Then he lifted his head and looked at me with his beady eyes, glaring from beneath half–closed eyelids. To my dismay, I recognised him. It was Ledru, one of the Warrant Officers from my basic training days. I’d always considered him to be closer to a Neanderthal man than to a modern one, and I knew that he was difficult to deal with.

“So what brings you here, my friend?” he asked in a melodious voice.

“I’ve been sent here to take charge of the reinforcements for my battalion and to escort them to Algeria, Chief,” I replied.

“Oh, I see. A very interesting mission indeed,” he said, looking at me with a sarcastic smile. “If I understand you, you were sent here from Algeria?”

“This is my mission order,” I said to him, putting my papers on his desk.

He didn’t look at them. He jumped from behind his desk, his red eyes, a testimony to the previous night’s drinking, flashed, and he pulled a hand gun from his belt and pointed it at me. I realised that, once more, I was dealing with a mad man.

“Yes! Yes!” he screamed, in an inexplicable rage. “You’re trying one of your dirty tricks on me, but you’ve made a big mistake. You’re dealing with Sergeant Chief Ledru. We’ve seen fellows like you before, and you’re under immediate arrest!”

Turning to the guard he shouted, “Seize this man and throw him in jail!”

Then, in a frenzy, he turned back to me and shrieked, “Put your hands up, you bastard! We’re going to deal with you right now!”

Two young conscripts came running in with their guns, pushed me outside the office and marched me to the regiment prison, without a question or a word of explanation. Once there, the guards stripped me of my belt and shoe laces, a precaution against suicidal hanging, as well as all my personal papers and military identification, and without a word, they pushed open the heavy wooden door of an empty cell, threw me in and locked the door.

I was in shock. I didn’t understand what had happened or why I had been imprisoned. There must have been a mistake somewhere in the system. Although it was only midday, the temperature had dropped and it was freezing in the tiny cell, with its white–washed walls and concrete floor. I had lost my suitcase but at least I still had my army great coat to keep me warm. I sat down on the bed, a narrow wooden plank that was bolted to the wall, and tried to make sense of what had just happened. I’d had nothing to eat or drink since 8 o’clock in the morning and I was hungry, thirsty and cold. As the day wore on it became colder and colder. My feet started to feel like blocks of ice and my hands went numb. There was nothing to warm me up in that solitary cell, and if no one came soon, they would find me frozen to death. But even worse than the cold was not knowing why I had been imprisoned, or how long they were going to keep me locked up. During my basic training I had spent time in the prison of Angers, but on that occasion I knew why I was there, and I had all my friends with me to keep me company. Here I was alone, facing uncertainty and wondering why no one had as much as asked me a question. Through the walls of the cells next to me I could hear the voices of other prisoners. They were speaking Arabic, so they must have been Algerian conscripts.

By 4 p.m. the temperature had dropped even lower. From the tiny barred window of my cell, I could see that it was dark outside and that snow was falling. There was no light in my cell and I was starting to seriously wonder if anyone would come and bring me a blanket or something to eat and drink. I got even colder, and I sensed my body becoming lifeless. I doubted that I would survive the night. How insane. After spending 16 months in Algeria, I was facing death in a prison cell in Versailles, abandoned by my own people.

The night grew darker and colder, and, despite curling myself up in my great coat, my body grew numb. The hours passed exceedingly slowly and I felt like screaming for help, but I didn’t have the energy, and I couldn’t see that it would make a difference anyway. Somehow, I made it through the night, but I was convinced that they had forgotten I was locked in the cell, and I became unbelievably miserable and dejected, just lying, almost lifeless on the wooden plank. Then, to my great relief, I heard someone coming. But the relief was short–lived. As they opened the door it occurred to me that they could be coming to put me in front of a firing squad. I looked up at the two young conscripts who had entered the cell.

“Please, can you tell me why I’m here?” I pleaded.

“We don’t know anything,” one of them said. “We just follow orders. We have to put these handcuffs on you and take you to the Intelligence Officer. Apparently you’re a key suspect, but that’s all we know.”

“Suspect? Suspect of what?” I stammered.

 But the other young conscript, seeing my confusion, was more forthcoming.

“Well,” he said, “About a week ago in our barracks, a Commando of the O.A.S. brought in two truckloads of men, all dressed in French army uniforms. They had fake papers that allowed them access to the main armoury, and in less than an hour, they had driven away with most of our weapons.”

“Yes,” cut in the other chap. “About six hundred automatics and two hundred MAT49s, plus all the ammunition as well.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but what’s it got to do with me?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” said the first conscript. “But you can tell your story to the Captain of the Intelligence Service.”

As they marched me to his office I found it hard to believe that I was mixed up in such a bizarre and tragic situation. I was sent to Algeria to fight the Fellaghas and now I was being mistaken for an O.A.S. terrorist.

The two conscripts pushed me into the Intelligence Office, and I came face to face with the man who was going to decide my future. He was sitting behind his desk and his secretary was at a wooden table next to him, poised and ready to record all the questions and my answers, on his typewriter. The Captain was impeccably dressed, with his three gold stripes gleaming on each shoulder. His kepi, with the three gold bands around the top, was on his desk, next to his warm gloves. He looked like a severe man. He looked at me intensely for a while, then started to question me, reading from a sheet on his desk.

“Let’s start at the beginning,” he said. “Tell me exactly who you are.”

“Sergeant Fiset, 37th Battalion, First Company, Guelma, Algeria,” I replied.

The secretary typed out my answer.

“Good!” continued the Captain. “What’s your army matriculation number?”

“Number 5237654,” I prattled.

“What’s the name of your Commanding Officer?” he asked next.

“Our Captain’s name is De Villers, and the second in charge of my company is Lieutenant Carre.” I proffered.

He looked at me through his gold rimmed spectacles, and I felt like I was on a quiz show on television, but I wondered how many questions he would ask me.

“Hmm. Good. Good,” he continued. “Who’s the Commanding Officer of your battalion?”

“Commandant Dremont,” I replied.

The Captain rolled his pen back and forth on his desk, and looked at the next question.

“Why did they send you here?”

So, for the second time since arriving, I explained, “I was sent to fetch the reinforcements for my battalion. It’s all outlined on the documents I brought with me.”

“Yes,” said the Captain. “So you are telling us!”

I was starting to worry. Many men from the French army had been labelled as O.A.S. sympathisers and there were more than ten of our Generals in jail, hundreds of Subaltern Officers in prison with them, as well as thousands of deserters. Some of our Officers had been shot for mutiny. A terrible image flashed across my mind. I saw myself being sent to Devil’s Island in French Guinea, like a certain Captain called Dreyfus. In 1894 he’d been wrongly accused of espionage. He was publically stripped of his army rank and sent to Devil’s Island for life. Then, in 1906 they realised their mistake and Dreyfus was released and reinstated in the army, having spent twelve years in the worst prison on earth. I pulled myself back to the present. The Captain was still speaking.

“You’re telling us that your mission is to lead thirty–two conscripts from our barracks at Versailles to your battalion in Algeria? We’ve received no information about such a mission at all. We don’t have anyone to take you to Algeria to check out your story, and we can’t communicate with your battalion as they’re in a war zone. So, at this stage, we can’t confirm your story. However, I keep asking myself why you would be sent, on your own, to carry out such a mission.”

“I have no idea, Sir.” I admitted. “I’ve told you all that I know. The only confirmation that I have are the documents that I brought with me. You already have them.”

The Captain pondered silently for a short while then made a decision.

“I’ll contact your ex–regiment at Angers, the 6th Regiment of Pioneers. As soon as I can I’ll send you there to clarify your situation.”

“Thank you, Sir,” I said, realising that this was as good an outcome as I could have expected. When I’d left the camp in the Atlas Mountains I couldn’t have foreseen the nightmare that my trip to France would turn into.

“Don’t forget,” warned the Captain, “You aren’t free yet. One of our men will accompany you to Angers. You’ll stay with him at all times, until you are cleared of any involvement with the O.A.S. Do you understand?”

“Yes Sir!” I quickly replied, and then, to my great delight, the Captain gave a sign to one of the guards and my handcuffs were removed. What a relief. I felt even better moments later when my suitcase and all my papers were returned to me.

“Thank you, Sir!” I said as I left his office.

I was out of prison and I couldn’t wait to leave the barracks and find a café. I hadn’t eaten for well over 24 hours, and I was starving. Unfortunately, I had to wait for someone to escort me to Angers, but it wasn’t long before a young conscript, like myself, was appointed as my guard.

“OK. Are you ready? Let’s go!” he said. His name was Bertrand and he was the same age as me, but he was a frail and sickly–looking fellow with a pale complexion and a serious face. He considered himself lucky in that he was serving in Versailles, rather than Algeria. As soon as we had passed through the gates of the 5th Regiment, we stopped at a small café and I rushed to order coffee and croissants.

As I sat in the café with Bertrand, I thought about the twenty–four months that I had spent in service, and I realised that I had been miserable most of the time. I even considered deserting. I had all my papers with me, and I could go to Caen and hide in my parent’s home. From there I could board one of the numerous boats going to appealing places, like Canada, Australia or even New Zealand. How wonderful it would be never to have to see Algeria, the mine fields or the Barrage again. But common sense prevailed. I was close to the end of the nightmare. I only had eight months left, and I was still in one piece and in reasonably good health. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to my family, my friends, or my employer. They had been waiting for my return. How would they feel if I disappeared? And if I did, I would never be able to come back to France again.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 22

A VISIT TO NORMANDY

 

Bertrand rapidly become a friend. He was relaxed and reminded me of Poirier. As Bertrand had never been to Angers before, I did the navigating. I could have been blindfolded and still guided him to the barracks, especially since absolutely nothing had changed since I’d last been there. But when we got there and I saw the sign over the gate, ‘CASERBE EBLE’, I became apprehensive, the episode at the Versailles barracks reminding me what could go wrong. So I entered the guard room with great hesitation. After a lengthy introduction, we were both sent to an administration office to check if they had the reinforcements for me. There were about half a dozen people working in the office, and a young Sub Lieutenant, a man with what appeared to be a permanent smile on his face, addressed me.

“So you’ve come from Algeria. Are you on holiday, or what?”

“No Sir,” I replied. “I’ve been sent here on a mission. I’m to take charge of the reinforcement troops that are going to Algeria. Thirty–two men, I’m told.”

The Lieutenant turned to the other men in the office and laughingly yelled to them, “Have we got thirty–two men here to give to the Sergeant? He wants to take them to Algeria with him.”

Everyone lifted their heads in surprise, and a general, ‘No!’ resounded around the room.

The Lieutenant turned back to Bertrand and me and said, “I’m sorry gentlemen, but we can’t give you thirty–two Pioneers. We don’t have any to spare!”

“Wrong barracks!” yelled the people in the room.

Bertrand and I looked at each other. No one seemed to know anything about the reinforcement troops for my battalion. I was back to square one.

“Which one of you two is in charge of this mission?” asked the young Lieutenant.

“I am,” I said. “Sergeant Bertrand of the 5th Regiment of Versailles has accompanied me from there to Angers.”

“I don’t really understand what’s happening,” said the Lieutenant, “But if I was you, I’d go the 4th Regiment of Pioneers at Orange. They might have reinforcement troops there. Orange could be the right barracks.”

As we walked quickly from the administration office, it occurred to me that nothing in the French army had changed since the Second World War. They were completely disorganised then and they still were. I understood why the German army had been able to reach Paris in a matter of days.

Bertrand agreed with me that there were no reinforcements to be found anywhere, but at least I was no longer under suspicion. We agreed to stay the night in the barracks and leave in the morning. He would go back to Versailles and I would return to Algeria. I had my tickets.

Bertrand was my guard and a nice friend to be with, but I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my family. I had 4 days until I had to leave again for Algeria, and the thought of another cold and depressing night in the barracks was more than I could bear. No one was interested in my mission, in fact, they completely dismissed it, so why not go home? It was only 250 kilometres to Caen, and I knew how to escape from these barracks. I had done it before, many times. A quick look inside the foyer told me that Bertand had settled down, happily drinking one bottle of beer after another. He wouldn’t miss me tonight, and in the morning he would be going back to Versailles on his own, anyway. So I ran behind the kitchen wall, as I had done many times before with my friend Chretien, climbed it and jumped to the other side, but I had the foresight to tie a cord to my suitcase and hold on to it, so that I could haul my belongings over the wall.

Once again, I was free. It was an incredible feeling, but I had no time to waste. I ran through the streets of Angers till I came to the railway station and boarded a train for Caen. I knew that in the morning Bertrand would search for me in the barracks, but then he would return to Versailles and the whole incident would be forgotten. Such was the French army.

8.00 p.m. Caen. My mother was standing in the kitchen when I got home.

“I knew you would be coming back again,” she said, opening her arms and kissing me. I wondered if she knew just how much I’d missed her while I was in Algeria. My father was in his office but he stopped what he was doing and joined us.

“He’s been very worried while you’ve been gone,” my mother whispered to me. “He’s tried to hide it, but he knows only too well what war is really like. He fought in two wars himself. “As I sat with them at the dining room table, a feeling of complete happiness came over me and I forgot about Algeria, I forgot about time, and the fear which had haunted me day and night, left me. I was in heaven. Each of us was lost in our own thoughts, but we were bound together in love, and held on to this precious time together. I had the urge to throw my uniform in the bin and stay with my family forever.

It wasn’t long before my beautiful sisters, Marie Noelle and Monique, arrived and, as impossible as it seemed, I was even happier. I had escaped from the dreadful barracks to be with them, and I gave no thought to what would happen to me when I returned to Algeria, having failed my mission completely. This time was more precious to me than any repercussions in the future. After dinner I changed into civilian clothes and went for a walk in the deserted street. I felt so good. My civilian clothes felt so light compared to my uniform, and I hadn’t had to ask permission to go out into the street.

24 January 1962. For the first time in months I slept in until 7 o’clock in the morning. I was warm and comfortable and I had the day ahead of me to do as I wanted. I decided to pay a visit to my former employer, Mr Lefevre, and as I walked to his office in the main street of Caen, Algeria, the Djebel and the mine fields slipped from my mind.

“Is that you, Christian?” Mr Lefevre gasped, smiling at me.

“Yes Sir! It is me, Christian,” I said affectionately.

He stood by his drawing board and looked at me through his gold rimmed glasses, and then he bombarded me with questions.

“Have you finished your military service? Are you coming back to work? I need you urgently. You’ve been gone such a long time. How was your tour of duty in Algeria? I bet you’ve been getting a sun tan on the beach – not like here. It rains all the time here, so you’re a lucky boy.”

He, like almost everyone else in France, had no idea of the conditions in Algeria. They seemed to envy me, assuming that I was having fun in the sun. But Mr Lefevre didn’t give me a chance to answer his questions or to explain.

He continued, laughing as he did so. “You’ve lost some weight! You look much thinner than when you left.”

He didn’t know that, although I looked physically strong and fit, I was wounded deep in my mind. The ordeal I’d been through had left its scars but they were invisible to others.

 “Well, Christian,” continued Mr Lefevre, after I’d explained that I had to go back, “Your drawing table is still here waiting for you and I have more work than I can cope with, so come back as soon as you can!”

As I walked back down the main street of Caen, I reflected on the attitude of the French people, and I could understand why they thought the way they did. The French government never used certain words, ‘war’ being one of them. They purported that there was no war, just a simple police operation which happened to involve more than half a million troops. They didn’t want the public, or anyone else in the world, for that matter, to know what they had been doing to keep Algeria French. They didn’t want it known that they had been using tremendous force or that being part of France was against the will of the Algerian people. Nor did the French government want it known that they did not respect or abide by their motto, ‘LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY.’ This motto had been introduced during the French revolution in 1789 and France hid behind it. If the world had known how blatantly it was disregarded, the United Nations would have started asking questions, and this would have been embarrassing for France.

Another of the words that the government avoided was, ‘genocide. They certainly didn’t want to be likened to the Turks who had, essentially, done to the Armenian people what we were doing to the Algerians. However, of late there had been a number of groups who were opposed to the Government’s policy regarding Algeria, and had started openly using the term. Some academic groups had produced statistics showing that the Algerian genocide was happening on a greater scale than the Armenian genocide ever did. But what the world didn’t know was that France was using fully–trained mercenaries to kill the Algerian people. It was generally thought that the French Foreign Legion was comprised of men from all over the world who loved France and wanted to serve her. The Legionnaires were very popular with the French people, particularly the women. Little did they know.

What the public did see was that which was shown in news reports – the French Army opening schools they had built in remote villages, conscripted teachers instructing the children, and social workers visiting villages and helping people in difficulty. But the real resettlement villages were never shown. There were a couple of beautifully constructed ones that were built specifically for the purpose of being presented to the public as the norm.

During my short stay at home I was to find that my cousins and friends asked me many questions, but when I answered them truthfully, they looked at me in disbelief, as if I was lying or grossly exaggerating.

That evening my mother invited friends of my sister, Marie Noel, for dinner. Mr and Mrs Miralez were refugees from Algeria, former settlers who had owned a large farm where they grew grapes and made wine to export to France. After talking to them I learned that their farm was on the Bone plains, near Mondovi. They were quite excited when they found that I knew the area, and had passed through Mondovi many times on my way to the Barrage.

“We were all born in Bone. My father started the farm at Mondovi in 1926 and at one stage we employed over 300 Arabs, but now we’ve lost everything,” said Mr Miralez, sadly.

“Ah yes! What are the Arabs going to do now? They only survived because of us, you know!” added Mrs Miralez.

“They’ll go back to what they were before we arrived. That’s all. They’ll live in absolute poverty in mosquito–infested swamps and die of malaria,” said her husband. “After all we’ve done for them, this is our reward. We had to run from our own farm because our employees would have murdered us. They’re so ungrateful, the bastards!”

Then Mr Miralez turned to address me.

“Christian, I hope that you do everything you can to keep Algeria French.” he said.

I looked at him but didn’t say anything. Sometimes silence is the best option. But I felt like saying, “Oh yes! We’re doing our best to keep Algeria French. My friends and I put our lives on the line every day so that you can go back to Algeria and build another fortune on the back of your 300 Algerian Slaves.”

And while I sat there trying to swallow the words that I wanted to say, I thought of my friends who would’ve been working in the mine field, in below zero temperatures.

After dinner Marie Noelle asked me if I would like to accompany her to the university to listen to a lecture on Algeria. Hundreds of students were gathered in the main lecture hall, and rather than one lecture, they had a series of lectures on the Algerian problem, all delivered by left wing political supporters. Every one of them advocated giving the Algerians their independence from France, as quickly as possible. I found it amazing: a whole hall full of people who supported the Algerians in their struggle. Then one university professor began lecturing on a dangerous subject, something that the French government certainly did not want publicised.

“Torture! Torture!” he said. “We know that on a daily basis the French Army is torturing the Algerian people.”

There was total silence in the hall. Usually, no one would dare to approach this subject; it was taboo. France had been a signatory against ‘Torture in War’, but they covertly sanctioned the elite French army’s tortuous practices in Algeria. The silence turned into a murmur and the murmur into a low din, as the lecture continued and the audience discussed it. The lecturer was talking about the ‘Gegene’, the most common form of torture used in Algeria. The ‘Gegene’ was an electrical generator required for the radios and carried by every unit in the field, and was therefore convenient as well as easy to use as an implement of torture on the Algerians.

I sat there listening to an inventory of the crimes that were being committed in Algeria, and I became more and more confused on two counts. Firstly, there wasn’t a word about the suffering of the conscripts who were posted there, and secondly, we were all guilty of the most abominable crimes against the Algerians. There was no distinction between us and the hard core of the French army. To make it worse, the university asked for donations to help the Algerian cause, and a basket for people’s spare cash was passed around the room. I wanted to say to my sister, ‘Yes; I’ll give all my pocket money to them so that they can buy more Russian mortars to kill the rest of my platoon stationed on the Barrage. ‘But what was the point? It was obvious that no–one at this gathering understood my position, and if I had spoken up I would’ve been thrown from the hall and branded a war criminal and torturer. I realised that back here in France I was considered as a criminal who should be ashamed to be in Algeria fighting the Fellaghas. As I walked home afterwards I felt more depressed than ever, and couldn’t wait to be back with my friends in the Atlas Mountains.

I was only home for four days before I had to return, and my mother, in response to invitations from friends and family, all wanting to see me before I left, planned a number of outings. One that I was rather apprehensive about was dinner at the farm of the Lechevalliers. Mr and Mrs Lechevallier were friends of my parents, and the parents of Marielyn and Jeanne, and although I really wanted to see Jeanne again, I was told that she had become engaged to a rich farmer’s son who, like me, was doing his military service in Algeria. I asked my mother about him and she said that he wouldn’t be there, so I was much relieved. When we arrived, Jeanne was standing between her parents, and she was as beautiful as ever, stunning in fact. In keeping with custom, I gave her a greeting kiss and it was both delightful and agonising. I was suffering terribly because of her engagement, but when we looked at each other, words were not necessary. I knew that she felt exactly as I did. Interestingly, her mother knew it too. For some time she had been aware that Jeanne and I were in love with each other, and she would’ve liked to have me as a future son–in–law, but she wasn’t the one who made the decisions in the Lechevallier household. Even Jeanne had no say in choosing her future husband. Her father, a domineering man, was the one who decided who she would marry. He kept to the old Normandy traditions started way back in the Viking times. When his daughters reached the age of sixteen, he took them to the local ball on Saturday nights. He dropped them there at 6 o’clock, then waited in his car, facing the dance hall, until 9 o’clock, when they had to go back to the car and return home. This gave his daughters three hours to meet local farmers and dance with them, but he wanted to make sure that neither their reputation nor their virginity was marred, so he always watched the entrance to the dance hall so that they couldn’t sneak out, and he always escorted them home.

But the previous November, I was told, a rich farming couple, Mr and Mrs Augrain, knocked on Mr. Lechevallier’s door and said, “Our son, Pierre, will finish his military duty in June. He wants to marry as soon as he gets home, and we think that one of your daughters would be a suitable wife for him.”

Mr Lechevallier was certainly not averse to the idea.

“Well, come in,” he said. “Let’s sit around the table and talk about the possibilities.”

Sitting around the heavy cherry–wood dining table, the two sets of parents discussed the ‘transaction’.

Mr. Augrain, an imposing man from Vire, started by stating what his son Pierre would bring to the marriage.

“My son has 200 hectares of land in the most fertile part of Calvados. There’s a river running through the property, and he has sixty animals with horns, as well as pigs and sheep. He even has a brand–new tractor!”

Mr Lechevallier looked at him in silence, listening and analysing the proposition. He was a cunning man, and carefully weighed up the pros and cons of the proposed union, just as he did when making deals in the market place. The two mothers stayed silent. They were not daring enough to say anything.

Then Mr Lechevallier, recalling information that he had heard about the family, looked at Mrs. Augrain and, in a subdued voice asked, “I believe your Father died of Parkinson’s disease and your younger son has Down’s syndrome. Is this true?”

Mrs. Augrain turned red in the face.

“Yes! It’s true.” she admitted, “but Pierre has his Certificate of Education. He passed it with flying colours and even got the second highest marks in his class.”

Mr Augrain, by now a little upset, wanted to steer the conversation back to the matter of a wife.

“Which of your two daughters would you be willing to offer?” he asked.

“Well, Marielyn has just become engaged to a young fellow who owns a large farm, 450 acres, in La Manche near Vire, so Jeanne is the only one available.” he replied.

“That will do. She’s the younger one, isn’t she? What would she bring to the marriage as a dowry?” Mr Augrain asked.

 “Oh!” replied Mr Lechevallier proudly. “Both of my daughters are rich. They each have 150 hectares of land and their dowry will include thirty animals with horns, sheep and pigs, and a great store of linen, dozens of set of sheets and pillow cases and the like.”

“Well it looks to me as if it could be a perfect match,” beamed Mr Augrain. “But I have one more question. Do you know if Jeanne has met Pierre?”

“Yes, I believe that both of my daughters met your son at a ball at Vassy last year. I recall that Jeanne mentioned him to me,” replied Mr Lechevallier.

“That’s good. Pierre knows both of them and in his last letter he said that he would not mind marrying either of them,” divulged Mr Augrain.

“All we have to do now is to set up a date for their engagement,” said Jeanne’s father.

“In three weeks Pierre is coming home on leave. That would be a good time to do it!” proffered Mr Augrain.

And so the deal was settled. The two–people concerned were not at the meeting and whether they liked it or not, the matter had been decided by their fathers. There was nothing anyone could do about it. Their fathers’ decision was law.

However, I didn’t have much time to ponder what had happened. Mrs Lechevallier had prepared an exceptional dinner in my honour. There were dishes of all descriptions including roast beef, wild rabbit, quails and pork. Every time I had been there for dinner, Mrs Lechevallier had seated Jeanne and me next to each other, and she did so again. She knew that we liked one another a great deal. The dinner progressed and everyone drank more and more wine and cider, and they started to go red in the face and become sleepy. The room became hazy with cigarette smoke, and under the table, away from prying eyes, my hand sought out Jeanne’s. She was of the same mind as me, and when our fingers touched I knew that her heart was pounding as fast as mine was. We clasped hands tightly and I could feel the electricity coursing through our bodies, but we had to be careful. Her father was sitting directly opposite us, and as usual, he watched us suspiciously. When Jeanne asked me questions about my life in Algeria, it gave me the opportunity to glance at her and look into her beautiful blue eyes for a moment. But I also knew that she was interested in what I had to say, and would listen attentively, particularly when I explained the loneliness and fear of living in the Atlas Mountains.

“Did you lose any of your friends?” she inquired, her voice filled with concern.

“Yes! I did,” I replied, “but one of them in particular is affecting me. His name was Joncquet.”

I saw a tear escape from the corner of her eye, and I felt that at last someone understood how I felt.

We had been sitting at the table for over four hours, eating dish after dish until we finally came to the dessert, a large earthenware dish of caramelised rice. It tasted absolutely wonderful. Most of the guests were getting very sleepy and some had almost fallen asleep in their chairs.

“Come with me, Christian. Let’s go for a walk outside to get a little fresh air!” Jeanne said to me.

She certainly didn’t need to repeat the invitation and I followed her outside. Her parents’ farm was immense, but I knew every building as I had spent many days there during my childhood, playing with Jean and Marielyn. We walked around the barn, away from the prying eyes of her father, and I took her in my arms. If only time would stand still, and I could hold her forever.

“Would you write to me in Algeria, Jeanne?” I whispered. “I’d be so happy if you did.”

She looked beseechingly into my eyes and said, “Christian, you know I’d love to write to you, but it would only make both of us miserable.”

Her sadness broke down the last bit of resistance I had, and I kissed her long and tenderly.

Reluctantly she pulled away from me and took me by the hand.

“Come this way Christian,” she said. “Come and look at the newly–born piglets.”

Hand in hand we walked into the barn, but I no more than glanced in the direction of the piglets. Again I put my arms around her and held her close.

“Tell me Jeanne,” I said, sighing softly. “There’s just one thing I want to know before going back to Algeria. If I asked you to marry me, now, what would you say?”

She looked at me, her eyes full of tears, but instead of answering me she started kissing me frantically, and the urgency in her passion met mine.

“I’ve wanted to be your wife since I was twelve years old, but what can we do?” she gasped, before succumbing once more to our passion. We clutched each other and kissed desperately, both of us knowing that, despite our feelings, this would be the last time, ever, that we could be together.

“Jeanne,” I murmured in her ear, “I want you to remember one thing – whatever happens, I will always be waiting for you.”

Again we kissed, a long passionate kiss that spoke of promise but in reality was a last desperate bid to prolong the precious moments we had together. Indeed, it was interrupted by Mrs Lechevallier calling us.

It was time for us to leave and I looked at Jeanne through the back window of our car until she disappeared from sight. As we drove home I thought about Jeanne’s wedding. I hoped that I would be in Algeria when she married the rich farmer, as the thought of facing an Arab bombardment was not nearly as bad as the thought of standing in the church on her wedding day. With a shudder, I imagined the scene. The priest would say, “If anyone here present has reasons why Jeanne and Pierre should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

I would stand and say, “Yes. I would like to ask Jeanne a question. Jeanne, do you love Pierre?” It was all a fantasy. Everyone, even her own mother, already knows that she doesn’t, but the marriage will go ahead anyway.

While we’d been at the Lechevallier’s farm, no one had mentioned either the engagement or the marriage. Jeanne’s future husband wasn’t referred to, and I couldn’t even see a photo of him in the house, but I was dying to know the date of her marriage. When we got home, I asked my mother. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me with more understanding than I would have given her credit for.

“In three months’ time – the 26th of April,” she whispered.

On my last day in Normandy I took a walk around Caen, visiting the spots that I knew and loved, sadly saying another farewell to them. My favourite place was William the Conqueror Castle, situated in the middle of the city. From the top of the battlement you could see all of Caen and I looked around at the hundreds of churches, their spires piercing their way through the sea of roofs.

My morale was low and I was feeling depressed, with my feelings and emotions in a jumble. At times, like at the university lecture, I wanted to be back in the Atlas Mountains, but at the same time, I didn’t want to go back. I was worried that my Baraka (luck) might abandon me on the home stretch of my military service. Furthermore, I knew that no–one understood my dilemma. Most of my friends actually envied me. They found life in Caen boring, especially since it was cold and wet at the time, and they thought that my life was one big adventure, played out in the sun, the Mediterranean Sea, the desserts and the oases and, of course, the mysterious Arab women. How far from the truth.

“So, are you ready to go back to the sun, and bludge at the expense of the republic? We know what you’re doing there!” said one of my cousins.

What could I say to such a remark? He didn’t know about our dead and wounded, our sick, or those with mental problems, a direct result of being involved in the war. How could I explain that fear and loneliness were my constant companions, haunting me day and night and never far from my mind? Should I make him an offer? “Would you like to take my uniform and my papers and go to Algeria in my place to see if you like it there?” No. It was much easier to stay silent and smile cordially at him.

During this short stay, my mother had gone through my suitcase, washed everything and repacked it all, adding various foods that I could eat on my return trip. She had ironed my uniform to perfection, even the two folds on the sleeves. It looked like new again. And I appreciated it – she was a marvellous mother.

The four days were up and once more my family made the trip to the railway station with me, so there was a repeat of the tears and the dreadful farewell on the platform, and again I wanted the train to leave as quickly as possible so that the pain of separating would be over. But I stood on the footstep of the wagon, waving until my family disappeared from view in the cloud of smoke from the steam engine. The only difference between this journey and the first one was that I was completely on my own. But by midnight the train had picked up many more conscripts, all headed for Marseilles. I managed to lie down on the luggage rack above the seats and I slept as the train traversed France that night.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 23

LAST BATTLE ON THE MIGHTY BARRAGE

 

24 January 1962. I travelled to the Saint Marthe Camp, but I had no intention of staying there while I waited for a boat to take me back to Algeria. I remembered only too well the mattresses full of bed bugs and fighting for food in a throng of thousands. So I did what I had done last time. I went out through the back door of the kitchen, into the street. I walked towards the centre of Marseilles and just off the main avenue, ‘La Canebiere’. I found a small but clean and comfortable hotel. I paid for a room and then changed into the civilian clothes that my mother had packed in my suitcase. My room had a balcony and from it I could see the old harbour of Marseilles. I felt completely relaxed as it was very peaceful there, and I started to wonder if any deserters had hidden in this room, before making their final escape from the army. It would have been fairly easy to do, especially for me, as no one knew exactly where I was, and I’m sure that they didn’t care, either. Desertion was certainly tempting. I had developed an increasing fear of the Barrage, but on the other hand, I was close to the end of my military service, to the end of the nightmare.

That evening I walked along the streets facing the harbour, glad that I didn’t stay in the camp, but I was lonely. The last time I’d been here I was with my friends, Bazo, Joncquet, Maillet, Bonnemaison, Poirer and Loti, the chap who’d invited me to his home. Now three of them were dead, and I was in good shape compared to the others. I was still strong enough to carry out my duties.

27 January 1962. All too soon, the two days I’d spent in Marseilles were over and I rose early to go back to the Saint Marthe camp. I got there just as an enormous crowd of soldiers were leaving to board the boats going to Algeria. I’d been told that I was to travel on the ‘Sidi Okba’, so I joined them.

28 January 1962. It seemed that everyone was on deck, peering through the mist and hoping to catch sight of the African coast.

“Algeria! We’re coming!” screamed a small group of young conscripts who were going there for the first time. It reminded me of myself and my friends on our first voyage to Africa. Like us, they had no idea of what was happening there. I kept looking at the coast which was getting clearer by the minute, but I was becoming increasingly concerned, as it didn’t look at all like the Bone coastline. In a panic I asked one of the sailors about it.

“No, the Sidi Okba isn’t going to Bone. They should have put you on the Sidi Ferruch. We are arriving in Algiers,” he explained.

My mission had been an absolute disaster from the first day up to now. I was going to land over four–hundreds kilometres from Bone, the closest port to my unit. Furthermore, Algiers was an extremely dangerous place to be as the O.A.S. were based there and they were using all their forces to keep Algeria French. The main part of the city was under constant bombardment, and even some suburbs had come under mortar attack. Hundreds of innocent victims were being killed each day.

29 January 1962. I managed to secure a ride to my unit on the back of a mail truck which delivered to all units along the Barrage. So I sat amongst the mail bags and endured the arduous journey, one stop after another.

“The first company of the 37th Battalion is camped next to the artillery at Loulidja,” said the driver.

“Yes,” I replied. “When will we arrive there?”

“In ten minutes.” he said. “We’ll go to the artillery first and drop you at your camp on the way down. OK?”

But when we got there, there was nothing.

“What happened? Your camp was here last week,” stammered the driver, looking at the empty site.

I recognised the place where my tent had been, but there was nothing left. Everyone had gone. They’d obviously shifted camp since I’d left, but I had no way of knowing where they were now. We drove back to Loulidja and one of the Sergeants there was able to help me.

“You’re from the 37th Battalion? Well, they left and headed in the direction of Lacalle. I’ll go and ask one of the Officers if he knows exactly where they are,” he said.

We found that they had shifted fifty kilometres away, to a place called ‘El Frin’, so I left the mail truck to continue its rounds, and arranged another ride.

30 January 1962. At 2 p.m. I finally arrived back in the camp of the 37th Battalion. It had been a long trip but I was able to find a tent to sleep in and to catch up with all of my friends. I’d been gone for sixteen days, and no–one seemed to care if I was back or not. But then I was called to the Captain’s tent.

“Sergeant Fiset. The Captain wants to see you, immediately,” growled Lieutenant Bayard.

“Yes Sir!” I replied.

I tried to prepare myself to face a horrendous ordeal.

“So, Fiset! How was your mission in France?” asked the Captain. “I have to write a report about it to the Commandant, but first, I have a question. What was your mission? No–one ever told me.”

What an incredible situation. No–one seemed to know why I went there.

“Well Sir, I was sent there to be in charge of a group of conscripts and to escort them from Versailles to the rear base of Millesimo. Thirty–two conscripts from the 5th Regiments of Pioneers,” I explained.

“Oh, good. So you got them safely there?” he asked.

Then I had to admit it. “I couldn’t find them, Sir! The Fifth Regiment in Versailles had never heard about this mission and at the Sixth Regiment in Angers it was the same. Neither of them had any reinforcements for us.”

“So, what did you do?” he asked.

“I came back here as soon as I could, Sir!” I said, bending the truth a little.

“But the Commandant is excepting a report on your mission, and will want to know about the conscripts,” he gasped.

“Sir!” I beseeched. “No one in France knew anything about reinforcements, and therefore I didn’t bring anyone back to Algeria!”

“Are you telling me they sent you to France for nothing?” he exclaimed.

“I believe so, Sir!” I said.

“What am I going to tell the Commandant and the Colonel? Your story is hard to believe! How can I tell them you haven’t brought any reinforcements for our battalion? Are you sure you went to the right barracks in France?” he demanded, firing question after question.

“Yes Sir! I certainly went to the right place,” I replied. “At Versailles they even put me in solitary confinement thinking I was a member of the O.A.S”

The Captain fell back in his chair, completely at a loss what to do.

“What am I going to tell the Colonel and the Commandant? No one is going to believe this story!” he cried, looking as if he were about to burst into tears.

Then he pulled himself together.

“You can go now, Fiset.” he said, dismissing me.

For days I waited for a reprimand and a heavy punishment from headquarters, but to my surprise, nothing happened. Everyone seemed to forget that I’d ever gone to France. But I didn’t forget. I had seen my family again, and if I’d known the final outcome, I would’ve stayed there even longer than I did.

7 March 1962. Our camp was now positioned at the most dangerous part of the Barrage, where the F.L.N. was throwing all their forces. We were at hand to make immediate repairs as soon as the Fellaghas cut the wires, and when we not occupied with fixing the fence we were reinforcing it by building more minefields behind it. However, the numbers of the 37th Battalion were so depleted that the 32nd Battalion joined us. This ‘union’, besides bringing more men together, meant that our Captain, de Villers, was given another assignment and the Captain of the 32nd Battalion was to be in charge of the combined troops. We’d met Captain Nicols before, when he had come to the Barrage to deliver orders from the Colonel, and had fallen in the mud. We remembered him as a fat, very unfit man, and when he arrived at the camp, we found that time had not led to any improvement. He was the complete opposite of de Villers, for he was certainly no ‘Tiger of War’. He’d obviously spent most of his army life sitting in tents and writing reports for his superiors and he looked more like an old monk in a monastery than a warrior. His face was pear shaped, and his cheeks collapsed down on each side, so he was quickly baptised ‘Louis the Eighteenth.’ The resemblance between the two of them was uncanny.

“Think of it chaps,” said one of the conscripts, referring to Nicols. “This fellow is supposed to be a model soldier, one that we emulate!”

Captain Nicols only ever left his tent to have dinner in the Officer’s mess, or, on occasion, to go for a short ride with his driver. When he did so he armed himself with a gun. Mostly he stood in his tent, watching us and not saying anything to anyone.

“I bet the bastard’s never touched a mine in his life!” commented Bougeon.

Not only that, we doubted that he’d ever spoken to an ordinary soldier. He kept himself so remote and so far from us that he wouldn’t have known the name of even one conscript, or even one Warrant Officer. We were all just objects that filled up his platoons, and he showed no concern what–so–ever for us or for what was happening to us.

9 March, 1962. To our surprise, Nicols came out of his tent and stood on a pile of dirt in the proximity of the mine field where we were working but at a safe distance away, watching us with a pair of binoculars.

All of a sudden a shell whistled in the air and exploded near one of our trucks.

“Take cover!” yelled Sergeant Pujol.

We all jumped over the protective fence and ran behind a huge rock formation near the minefield. To our surprise, the Captain reached the cover of the rock before we did. He’d been transformed into a gazelle. He knelt there, completely out of breath, his face covered in perspiration and drained of colour. He was in a panic.

“The Fellaghas must have known he was coming,” whispered Bal.

Indeed, the Fells had crawled as close as they could to the Barrage and wanted to warn us that they knew exactly where we were by bombarding our precise position. But despite this, it was all we could do to stop from laughing at the Captain.

“For once, he left his tent, but I bet he regrets it now,” murmured Pujol.

Loti joined in our conversation, whispering, because Captain Nicols was quite close by.

“At least he’ll have something to write in his report tonight, and he might even win a medal!”

Then another shell exploded. It was so close to us that we were all sprayed with dirt and branches. Others followed in quick succession, and one of them exploded inside the Captain’s brand new jeep, twisting it into an unrecognisable heap of metal

“Oh no! My jeep!” screamed Captain Nicols. “That was my brand–new jeep! My radio and all of my papers were in it – I’ve lost everything!”

He looked as if was going to burst into tears, so Lieutenant Bayard ran to him and tried to comfort him.

“You’ll be all right Sir. You can use my jeep,” he assured him.

But the Captain just yelled hysterically, “Bastards! Bands of bloody Fellouzes! How dare they do that to me?”

Then he turned to Bayard and asked, “Is it safe for me to leave this bloody place now?”

“Not really, Sir,” stammered Bayard. “Sometimes they send a few volleys across.”

“What’s wrong with these bastards? They’re definitely sick!” he shouted.

Whilst we were still engaged in these skirmishes with the Fellaghas, the enemy were also having problems within their own forces. The Algerians knew that they had won the war, but the leaders of their Army were all ambitious men, many of them wanting to become the first president of the new Republic of Algeria, as soon as independence was granted. So there was much bickering, fighting and one–up–man–ship between them. Meanwhile, we had been advised that in a week or so there would be a ‘Ceasefire’ as the first step towards the proclamation of Algerian independence. This was wonderful news for us. It meant that no–one, on either side, could use their weapons to fight and kill after this time. It meant no more attacks on the Barrage.

The Algerian army was split into three distinct groups. The first group were the Fellaghas who were fighting in the Atlas Mountains. They had taken the brunt of the fighting during the seven years of war, and were on home ground. They all dressed as the Bedouins in the desert did, and they fought a tough guerrilla warfare against us. The other two groups were stationed on the borders of Tunisia and Morocco, and had the protection of these two countries. Their aim was to keep the French forces fully occupied and concentrated along the Barrage, and this had the added effect of taking some of the pressure off the Fellaghas fighting inside Algeria. Their tactics were certainly effective. The cost of building, guarding and maintaining the Barrage was crippling France, virtually sending it bankrupt.

The group on the Tunisian border was directed by a hard and ambitious man called Houari Boumedienne. He commanded a well–trained and well equipped army of about thirty thousand, and with independence so close, he had but one aim. It was to break through the Barrage before the ceasefire, cross the Atlas Mountains, march to the capital, Algiers, and proclaim himself the first President of Algeria.

The leaders of the French Army were aware of his plan and aimed to thwart it by making sure that the Barrage was impassable, particularly along the section closest to Boumedienne’s troops. Consequently the best units of the French army were now based along this section, and we were convinced that it was why our camp had been relocated closer to the Barrage, and why the depleted 32nd and 37th Battalions had been merged.

The French intelligence service monitored Boumedienne’s every move. They kept the Generals in charge of the Barrage well informed so that they could move their troops to likely trouble spots and impede his progress.

11 March 1962. The radios were busier than ever and we were constantly being bombarded with information.

“I think a big black cloud is moving over the Barrage,” said Maillet.

“Yes!” agreed another of the chaps. “I don’t think it’ll be long before the action starts.”

Some new conscripts had been sent to boost our depleted numbers, but they had no idea of what it was like to work on the Barrage or to work in the extremes of the African climate. Many of them were barely twenty years old, some only eighteen. They were pale, skinny boys who had only been through a few weeks of basic training. They’d never seen action, so they were much more relaxed than the rest of us. They had no idea of what fear was.

Despite the situation, I felt lucky in that I still had a few good friends with me in our platoon. We drew strength and courage from each other.

All of a sudden Lieutenant Bayard barged into our tent, obviously in a panic.

“The intelligence service has told us that the Fellaghas are mounting a huge attack on the Barrage. We’ve been ordered to stand by, ready to go at a minute’s notice, so we won’t be going to the mine field today,” he gasped.

Ironically, we knew more about the state of affairs than the Officers, but they didn’t realise this. With our simple transistor radios we were able to tune into conversations between the different Katibas of the Algerian army. They tended to speak to each other in French, as the different Arabic dialects often led to misunderstandings. We could hear what they were planning to do, and when they planned to attack. In the past, the Algerians had taken precautions to ensure that we couldn’t easily make meaning of their conversations but now they were talking openly, obviously confident of their ability to overpower us, or, as Bal suggested, to deliberately scare us. Mostly, the Arabs were screaming at each other to be ready for a massive attack.

Messages such as,

‘All Katiba Leaders, Officers and Moudjahadines, be ready to fight the infidels’

‘Fight for victory and get rid of the dogs’

‘Allah is great and he’s on our side’

‘We will be victorious!’ and

‘Tonight we’ll attack the Barrage between the 67–kilometre mark and the 82–kilometre mark’ were broadcast.

No sooner had he heard this last bit of news than Godefroy jumped from his stretcher and yelled, “They’re going to attack the Barrage right here, where we are!”

At the same time, the Officers had received news of an imminent attack and started shouting, “Branle bas de combat!”

Fuelled by adrenaline we quickly prepared to go to the Barrage. The camp was a hive of activity, but everyone knew exactly what he had to do so there was no confusion.

As soon as we left our tents the Fellaghas started to fire in our directions and some of the shells reached our camp.

“Here we are! The whole show has started again!” said Maillet.

But the difference between this attack and the hundreds and hundreds before it, was that this would be the last one before the ceasefire was called. So it would be an incredible battle, one in which both sides would throw all their forces and all their reserves of ammunition, into a grand finale. It would be a fight to the death of titanic proportions.

Everyone seemed to forget any personal problems or differences, and we felt bound together, all aiming for the same thing – to survive this last deadly battle. We were all tense, but even the weakest of our men seemed to gather the energy to help prepare for the task ahead.

“This time,” Bayard said, “we have to be ready for the worst!”

We opened the backs of the trucks and loaded as many wooden electric posts, isolators, steel posts, rolls of barbed wire and boxes of tools as we could, leaving only just enough room for the men. Bayard was busy giving orders.

“Pouzache, make sure we have enough material to plug cuts of up to a hundred meters,” he shouted.

Then he turned to the rest of us. “Each of you are to take your guns and two hundred bullets. Those in charge of the heavy machine guns must take as much ammunition as you can. And don’t forget water and rations – take enough for three days.”

I picked up my MAT49. It was an easy weapon to carry when doing repairs on the network, and it never jammed. As we set about checking our guns and securing charges of bullets into our belts, someone whispered, “This must be serious – more so than ever before.”

Maillet was busy loading boxes of food and jerry cans of water, but he was a resourceful chap and one of the jerry cans was full of red wine. He also loaded his miniature heater to warm the water and wine, as well as blankets and canvases. Chevalier took a larger than usual box of medications and bandages, and he attached some stretchers to the sides of the trucks.

The noise of battle was increasing by the minute. Our artillery was responding to the Arab attack. Every big gun that the French army could find was put into action, and convoy after convoy passed by our camp and joined in the battle. The Legionnaires were the first to arrive. This was their last opportunity to win some medals and to climb another rank on the promotion ladder. Even though we considered them similar to a pack of hyenas, attracted to the smell of blood, we were glad they were on site, and were revitalised and strengthened by their presence. Meanwhile, we were in our tents waiting for the order to depart. The trucks were loaded and ready, but this was a terrible time for us. We were all tense but we wouldn’t be called until there was a break in the Barrage. So we sat there, wondering what would happen over the next few hours and whether or not the Fellaghas would manage to pass through our defences.

Abdel Khader was the first Algerian to lead an army against the French invaders, 130 years ago. He had carried a green and white flag with a red croissant and a red star on it, and when he went into exile he was renowned for saying, “Our flag will never go back to Algeria as long as it is occupied by the French.” The Fellaghas still carried that flag into battle, and Boumedienne aimed to walk to Algiers carrying it with pride.

The battle on the Barrage was taking shape. Under the protection of their artillery, all the Katibas under Colonel Boumedienne were crawling along the Barrage, carrying ammunition and equipment. They were constructing and positioning Bangalores so that, at a given signal, they would be able to blow out the Barrage in dozens of places simultaneously.

The Arabs were extraordinary fighters. Because of their strong belief in destiny and their positive attitude towards martyrdom, they were not scared of death, like us. Furthermore, they had reproduced a mini version of the Barrage and mine fields in Tunisia and had trained some of their men to manoeuvre their way through it without giving the alert, some to cut the wires with isolated pliers, and others to use machetes to cut the wooden electric posts. They had also practiced constructing the dreaded Bangalores on it. As if this wasn’t enough, they had special commandos who were willing to die, and they trained these men to scream “Allah is the Greatest,” then dash into the minefields, exploding the mines and losing their lives, but making it safe for their comrades to cross. The key to their success was speed, but what most of them didn’t realise was that we had been constructing additional minefields a kilometre or so behind the ones by the Barrage.

We were still waiting for orders when there was a huge explosion that ripped pieces of canvas from out tents. We all rushed outside in a panic and jumped into the open trenches for protection, dragging our equipment with us. It was pouring with rain and there was total chaos. The Arab army, it seemed, were randomly bombing the area in the vicinity of the Barrage. As it turned out, no one was hurt, but we were all wondering what was going to happen next.

“This is a night we’re not going to forget for a long time,” said Pouzache, as he lay in the bottom of the trench.

“Yes!” I agreed. “We can forget about sleeping. It’ll be a long night.”

“At least the whole army is coming to welcome them to Algeria!” said Rousseau, smiling as he did so.

And he was right. There were 40,000 soldiers stationed along the Barrage, and a great many of them had arrived on the scene, some by truck and some, including a whole regiment of parachutists, by helicopter. The French Generals were determined that, regardless of the cost, Boumedienne would not break through the Barrage. We certainly hoped so too.

More and still more companies of the French Army joined them and we were soon surrounded by military forces. The Foreign Legion had already taken up the forward positions. We felt reassured by their presence but we also knew that each regiment would be competing with the others for a slice of the action and the medals to be won.

Our military radio was busy. Orders and counter orders were continually being transmitted, and as these were relayed to the Officers, there was an ongoing yelling as they ordered their troops to move to varying positions. It seemed as if the whole army was moving, except for us. We were still waiting for our orders, and we were all very tense. We could hear our heavy artillery sending a continuous volley of shells over the Barrage and we checked our equipment over and over again, wishing that it would soon be all over.

Our Officers were called to a briefing. They alternately listened to the Captain, and looked at the maps laid out on a steel table, and covered in pen marks indicating our positions. Then there was a radio call from headquarters.

‘Captain Nicols! The Colonel has ordered that you send your platoons to the Barrage immediately. Send the first platoon to the junction by the custom’s house, the second to the junction at Lacroix, the third…’

No sooner had the broadcast finished than the Captain shouted, “Lieutenant Bayard. Are you ready? Take your platoons to the positions as ordered. Go immediately!”

“Yes Sir!” Bayard replied, as he ran to call us to action.

Meanwhile, we’d been glued to our transistor radios so we knew what was happening on the other side of the Barrage. The Arabs were becoming more aggressive and were screaming orders on their radios.

‘Third Katiba, you’ll attack the Barrage at the 94–kilometre mark, and Eighth Katiba, you are to attack at the 92–kilometre mark.’

‘We’ll go through the Barrage tonight and kill those unfaithful dogs.’

‘Victory is ours! We’ll walk to Algiers, our new capital, and push the dogs into the sea and drown them like rats.’

‘Allah is the greatest and he will give us victory over the unfaithful’

‘Death to the dogs! Allah is on our side!’

The transmitted messages became more and more violent until the Fellagha Officers were screaming hysterically, determined to incite their warriors. Occasionally they stopped for a moment and sang in Arabic what we assumed to be patriotic war songs. Then the shouting would resume.

It was obvious that they meant business on a large scale and we found that their determination to break through the Barrage and wipe us out was extremely demoralising, especially since their planned attack was right where we were positioned.

“I hope we’re strong enough to contain them. They’re going to throw all of their forces on us tonight,” said one of the fellows.

“Don’t worry. The Legionnaires are here and so is the rest of the army,” Pouzache assured him.

History was repeating itself. Louis XI, Louis XVI and Napoleon had relied on foreigners to fight for them. Louis Philippe had established the Foreign Legion, and here we were again, putting our faith in their ability to protect us.

7.30 p.m. Bayard burst into out tent and yelled, “Everyone in the trucks – now!”

Outside, the Officers were brandishing torches, running back and forth and shouting orders. The time had come for us to go, and there was momentary chaos as some of the chaps grabbed photos of their loved ones and stuffed them into their wallets, some put letters to their family on their boxes, and others stuffed their rosaries into their pockets. Loti put a copy of a prayer, passed down from generation to generation and given to him by his mother, into his wallet. It was a prayer brought by the crusaders to France and it was supposed to protect the person who carried it from violent death.

As we ran to the trucks we could hear Lieutenant Bayard shouting, “Come on everyone. We should have left by now!”

Maillet, mid stride and never lost for words, even at a crucial time like this, said, “I’m wondering if Captain Nicols will come with us for the party tonight.”

“Of course not,” gasped another fellow, as he reached the truck. “His jeep’s been blown to pieces. Can you imagine him sitting in the truck with us?”

As the trucks left to take the platoons to different locations along the Barrage, as the Colonel had ordered, shells started falling on the camp. High explosives passed over us, whistling as they went, and we could hear the artillery duel between our forces and the Fellaghas.

“Since the Fellaghas have already won the war, wouldn’t it have been a better idea to open the Barrage and congratulate them on their victory?” said Pouzache.

There were murmurs of agreement and one fellow voiced the thought that raced though all of our minds as we faced a horrendous attack. “It would’ve saved so many lives.”

Unfortunately, this was not the way our leaders saw it. The Generals were thirsty for medals and they saw this as the last opportunity to win them before the cease fire. It was rumoured that one of the Generals in Algiers, a thousand kilometres away, had declared, “They will not go through the Barrage until the exact day, and at the precise moment that the ceasefire is proclaimed. Not a second before!”

Though the army leaders had decreed it, it was us conscripts who were destined to pay the price for their decision, and this weighed heavily on our minds.

8.30 p.m. We had stopped on the hills above the Barrage, and it had grown dark. We could hear the battle raging at the bottom of the hill and, by the sound of the explosions and the flashes that pierced the night, we realised that the Arabs had attacked the Barrage and blown it apart with their Bangalores. Grenades were exploding and automatic weapons were being fired, so they were obviously attacking anyone who opposed them in their advance towards the high Atlas Mountains.

We were all tense and gripped with fear, unable to talk to one another, but Lieutenant Bayard was in a terrible state, absolutely petrified that he would fail in his mission to quickly fix any breaks in the Barrage. His fear of displeasing the Captain was greater than his fear of the enemy, despite the bloody combat between our infantry and the Arabs, and the mortars raining down on each side.

“OK Fiset,” he yelled. “Get in the jeep with me. The trucks will follow us.”

So our heavy convoy of trucks, laden with repair materials, moved slowly down the dirt road leading to the Barrage. Half of the track was blocked with the Legionnaires’ GMC trucks, all lined up bumper to bumper right up to the second minefield, and positioned ready for a quick withdrawal, if necessary.

“Stop!” yelled someone, just as we reached the gate to the second mine field. A Warrant Officer from the Legionnaires stepped out and shone his torch into our jeep.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he barked.

In an attempt to be heard above the explosions and gun fire, Lieutenant Bayard yelled, “35th Battalion of Pioneers. We’ve been sent here to repair the Barrage.”

“Do you realise where you’re headed?” the Legionnaire shouted back.

“Yes, we do, and we have orders to be there!” yelled Bayard again, as the noise of the battle was deafening.

“OK. As you wish!” hollered the Legionnaire. “The Second Company of the Legion is about one and a half kilometres from here, at the junction. If you can get there in one piece, they’ll protect you.”

He’d barely finished speaking when a shell landed next to him and sprayed the whole area with shrapnel. The Legionnaire was knocked to the ground, badly wounded. Another Legionnaire ran up, pulled back the role of barbed wire which had been blocking the gate, and yelled at us, “Get out of the way! Through here, quickly!”

Other Legionnaires ran up, picked up the wounded man, who was obviously in agony, and took him to one of their trucks.

We drove through the gate, out of their way, and headed down to the road which followed the Barrage. I was convinced that we were committing suicide. Godefroy was driving the jeep and he was hunched over the wheel, while sweat ran down his forehead. Lieutenant Bayard, sitting next to him, was trying not to show his fear, but we all knew that the Fellaghas could come barging down on us at any moment. When we reached the first minefield we could see Katiba after Katiba of Arabs forcing their way through the numerous cuts in the Barrage, and our army was trying to contain them by bombarding them with volley after volley of shells. Of course, the Arab artillery was firing back at our troops and the battle was intensifying, impossible though that seemed. The ferocity of the fighting was unbelievable.

“Wouldn’t it be wise to stop, Lieutenant?” I yelled to him.

“No! We’ve been told to go to the Barrage and that’s exactly what we’ll do,” he shouted back.

Shells were exploding all around the jeep and the forest around us was being churned up into heaps of mangled branches and dirt. I fully expected our jeep to be hit at any moment, twisting the metal into an unrecognisable pile of debris and bringing about our demise. There was nothing I could do about it – I had to follow orders.

Finally we reached the Barrage, surprisingly in one piece. In the moonlight we could see where it had been cut, but the Second Company of the Legion was there, positioned on the side of the road and fairly well hidden from view. They were waiting for orders from their Officers. One of their Warrant Officers, who was built like a bull, walked up to our jeep and started the usual interrogation.

“Who are you?”

“We’re the Pioneer Battalion, and we’re here to repair the network,” said Bayard.

“What! Now!” he exploded. “Do you realise what’s going on here? The Fells have cut the Barrage in heaps of places and they’re attacking us en mass!”

“I’ve been told to come here. I’m following orders,” replied Bayard.

The Legionnaire, looking at us as if we were mad, tried to explain the situation.

“We’re trying to contain them on this side. We don’t want them to reach the road. Another of our regiments towards Lacroix is doing the same – there’ve been many cuts in the Barrage.”

Just as he was telling us this, the Officers started yelling and the whole company of Legionnaires emerged from the shadows, along with a mortar unit from the infantry that had been concealed in the forest behind them.

A Legion Adjutant yelled out to them, “They’re coming! Everyone ready! Hold on to your last bullets. There’s no retreating!”

We jumped from the jeep and crawled into the ditches on the side of the road, all the while praying that the Legionnaires would be able to stop the Fellaghas from reaching the road, thereby forcing them to go through the second mine field at their own peril.

Another company of infantry arrived to support the Legionnaires. Then all hell broke loose. Some of the Fellagha death commandos started running towards us, yelling “Allah is the greatest!” They were shot down by a burst from the Legion’s AA52 machine gun and a few grenades. The Fellagha Officers started screaming orders of encouragement to their demented warriors who were closing in on us, and man to man combat broke out as the Legionnaires, brandishing their deadly bayonets, tried to fight off the Fells. Grenades were being thrown back and forth, exploding everywhere and causing many injuries and casualties among the Legionnaires. We were crouched in the ditch with our MAT 49s ready to fire, waiting for Bayard’s orders to do so. A first aid team arrived and tended the wounded Legionnaires, taking many of them back to the trucks on stretchers. Then another company of Paras arrived and the melee continued.

“Whatever happens, we have to stay with the Legionnaires.” yelled Bayard.

No sooner had he said this than one of the Legion Officers yelled out, “Legionnaires, move forward!”

The Legionnaires sprang into action, forming the renowned steam roller and beginning its deadly march forward. We could hear their Warrant Officers at the rear, screaming at them to advance, and we watched this formidable wall of fire press forward as it blazed everything that resisted its progress. The Arabs changed tactics and, instead of focusing on taking command of the road, they started concentrating on making their way towards the hills further up. We knew what awaited them there– the second mine field and two troops; a regiment of parachutists, and a company of infantry, armed with heavy mortars. And this is exactly what the Legion wanted. Their aim was to drive the whole Katiba towards the mountains and the mine field, then block their retreat through the cut in the Barrage. The F.L.N. were obviously aware of the need to keep the retreat to Tunisia open, but the Legion’s steam roller was advancing from both sides of the cut in the Barrage, blazing their way ahead with a wall of deadly bullets and grenades. The Arabs were forced to head towards the hills and the Legionnaires, urged onwards by the incessant barking of their Warrant Officers, progressed steadily behind them. None of the French mercenaries wanted to miss the action so other companies of the Foreign Legion, groups of marine infantry and our cavalry, with their tanks, followed the steam roller. The plan seemed to be working, but it was early in the battle, and we all knew that it was ambitious. The Arabs were great in number, were well–armed and had no intention of being slaughtered.

Meanwhile, we were squatting in the ditches on the side of the road. It was dark, freezing cold and raining, and the water was collecting around our feet. By midnight the battle had slowed somewhat, but the Legionnaires were still pushing the Arabs towards the hills and from time to time we could hear explosions. However, the Barrage was held by the Legion – for the moment.

Lieutenant Bayard was glued to his radio, in frequent contact with our Captain who wanted to know details of the battle as they unfolded. Bayard was waiting for orders, but at this stage, we were in limbo.

Godefroy, his imagination coming to the fore, said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the Fellaghas broke through the second minefield and barged into our camp? I wonder what Captain Nicols would do!”

“That’s why he’s calling Bayard all the time – just in case they’re getting close,” said Pozache. “I bet he has a jeep next to his tent, with a driver sitting in it, ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said another fellow.

Just then the radio spluttered to life again.

“Lieutenant Bayard! Can you hear me? Can you hear me? This is your Captain speaking.”

The noise of the battle made it difficult to hear.

“I can hear you, Sir. But only with great difficulty!” said Bayard.

“I have a message from our headquarters in Guelma” said the Captain. “The Legionnaires are now pushing the Fellaghas towards the hills, so it’s safe for your platoon to repair the Barrage. Start immediately!”

We all looked at one another.

“How does he know it’s safe to repair the Barrage, the bastard!” whispered one of the men.

What sort of army did we belong to? In Napoleon’s time the Officers stood in front of their regiments, but now they were hiding behind them, twenty kilometres from the battlefield, and giving orders over the radio. But the Captain was not yet finished.

“Lieutenant Bayard!” he continued. “What is your exact position on the Barrage?”

“We’re at number 16 B junction, Sir,” replied Bayard.

“Which one is that? I can’t see it on my map,” said the Captain.

We looked at each other in astonishment.

“Sir,” answered Bayard, “It’s just next to the custom house on the bitumen road.”

“Ask him if he wants us to send him a street directory,” said Pouzache quietly, and with a smile creeping over his face.

“Oh yes. I see it now! I thought the second platoon was there. It’s near Roum el Souk, isn’t it? I can see it now, clearly!” said Captain Nicols.

“No Sir. The third platoon is at Roum el Souk and we’re close to Youssouf!” replied the Lieutenant.

Maillet raised his eyebrows.

“Unplug the radio – please,” he whispered to Pignon, our radio operator.

A few moments later, the Captain’s voice came over the radio again.

“Oh yes I can see where you are. Now, back to our orders. The Commandant wants the Barrage repaired without delay, but he wants an interim report, within the next hour, on the extent of the damage, and he wants it repaired before morning.”

“Yes Sir,” answered Lieutenant Bayard, “It will be done immediately.”

“Lieutenant,” said Pouzache, “Wouldn’t it be simpler for them to come here and check it out themselves?”

“Pouzache, your worst enemy is your mouth! Do you understand?” barked Bayard.

“Yes Sir!” admitted Pouzache.

Problems were coming our way fast. Lieutenant Bayard addressed us, as we knew he would.

“Well, you heard the Captain,” he said. “We’ve got to repair the Barrage by tomorrow morning. The Fellaghas have been pushed into the hills and the Legion is holding them there, so it’s quite safe. But first, we’ve got to check the extent of the damage.”

Though the noise of the distant battle could still be heard, there was silence in the ditch. In a few minutes the Lieutenant would call out the names of the men who would have to make the first foray into the damaged Barrage. It was risky work at the best of times.

“It’s now 3.30 a.m. Lieutenant,” I said. “Would it be best to wait another hour to make sure that the Arabs are definitely pinned down by the Legion, and can’t retreat towards the Barrage?”

“Fiset, you heard the Captain! We have to do it now – it’s an order!” yelled Bayard.

“Yes Sir!” I said, dreading what was coming.

“First, a small group will check out the damage and find out how many posts and what other materials we need to repair it,” he announced.

I tried to make myself fade into the background of the ditch, wishing that I could disappear completely.

“Sergeants Pouzache and Fiset,” I heard him say, “Take six men and check out the Barrage, heading in the direction of Laroix.”

How I wished that I had the courage to say what I was feeling, without worrying about the consequences – ‘No Sir. If you want it checked out, do it yourself!’ But of course, I just crawled out of the muddy ditch and stood next to Pouzache on the road.

“We need six men to come with us. Any volunteers?” called out Pouzache.

There was no answer. No one moved and no one even looked at us.

“OK.” I said, staring into the ditch. “I’ll choose six of you, starting with those who’ve served the shortest time in Algeria.”

Without waiting for me to name anyone, Debonfils stood up and said, “I’ll come with you.”

“Good!” I said, slightly relieved. “Loti, Gougeon and Labrosse – you’re coming with us.”

Then I turned to Pouzache and he chose two Berbers who were serving in our platoon. “Djamel and Halim, you come with us too!” he said.

Surprisingly, the two young Berbers stood up immediately and joined us, without a murmur of complaint.

Then Labrosse spoke up.

“Excuse me, Sergeant,” he said. “My brother is also serving in Algeria, so I’m asking to be replaced.”

If any serviceman had a brother who was also serving in Algeria, he was excused from dangerous missions so as to reduce the likelihood of both of them being killed.

“OK,” said Pouzache, looking at him with suspicion. “Dugoin will take your place.”

As the advance party checked their MAT49s and charges, Bayard leaned towards Pouzache and whispered, “Do you really think it’s wise to take two Arabs with you?”

Pouzache didn’t hesitate.

“Perhaps you would like to come with us instead, Sir?” he said.

“No. It’s just that I don’t trust them with our weapons,” he replied.

Three thirty–five a.m. As we left to go on our mission, Bayard called out, “Have you got a pencil and paper. I don’t like guesswork.”

But it was Dupre who had the final word.

“Don’t forget that this mission could earn you a military cross,” he joked.

 It was freezing cold on the road, and the wind coming down from the Atlas Mountains tore at our drenched bodies, but the moon was shining and we were able to move without using torches. We could hear the battle raging in the distance, but it seemed to be intensifying. It sounded like the Fellaghas may have reached the second minefield, about two kilometres away. They knew they would have to cross it to reach the protection of the forest, but they didn’t know that behind the minefield were regiments of heavily armed paras, just waiting for the opportunity to join in the battle. Daylight was fast approaching, so the Fellaghas would have been desperate to get to the forest as quickly as they could. Furthermore, Colonel Boumedienne would have been aware that failure to reach the forest would result in annihilation of his army, just days before independence was granted.

We walked in single file up the road towards Lacroix.

“What if some Fellaghas are still on the Barrage?” asked Loti.

“Don’t worry. We’ll approach it in complete silence and if there’s a problem, we’ll come straight back,” replied Pouzache.

We reached the summit of the steep hill and headed down the valley, following the path of the Barrage, but we couldn’t see any damage to it. By 4 a.m. we still hadn’t found a cut in the wires, and we were now about 2 kilometres from the rest of our platoon. It was scary, as the only protection we had was our MAT 49s. We walked on and as we approached another valley, one that we were familiar with, Loti signalled us to stop. A small creek worked its way under the bitumen road as well as the Barrage, and near to this we could see a huge cut in the Barrage, one that had obviously been created by several Bangalores. There was a mountain of tangled barbed wire to the side, but even more foreboding was the pile of debris where once had stood a small fort. All along the Barrage there were similar forts manned every night by half a platoon of Infantry. These men kept an eye on the Barrage, and were well protected inside the forts. Each fort had a heavy machine gun, topped by a searchlight.

As we approached the decimated fort, Debonfils pointed towards the minefield where we could just make out the form of a body. When we got there we found that it was one of our Infantrymen, and four others were lying against the pile of barbed wire, all atrociously mutilated and laying in pools of blood. Another ritual killing. We all felt sick and Gougeon started to vomit. Pouzache spotted another Infantryman in a ditch and ran to pull him out. He was, of course, already dead. It seemed that the soldiers manning the fort had been slaughtered like sheep, one by one.

It was growing lighter and the noise of the battle seemed to be closer than before.

“Come on,” said Pouzache, in an effort to pull the group together and check out the damage to the Barrage. “Let’s get the job done. We have to get out of here as soon as we can!”

We all crossed the road to the Barrage.

“Hell, it’s the biggest cut I’ve ever seen! It must be eighty metres wide. What do you think, Christian?” gasped Pouzache.

I had to agree. The gap itself was clean. There was nothing left in it – no electric posts, no wire, and all the steel posts were bent over, rendered unusable. It must have been an overwhelming explosion. But closer inspection showed that death was all around us. There were body parts, Fellagha body parts, strewn around the area. The French artillery had found its mark at least some of the time. I found it difficult to carry on. The feeling in my legs was gone and the little energy that I had seemed to drain from me. But we had to work out exactly what materials were needed for the repair. Pouzache seemed to have a handle on it. He was standing next to Loti, pencil in hand and writing down the quantities of wire, posts and the like that would be required for the job. I only had to change the surroundings in my mind, and I could see him at his civilian job in Caen, working as a bank clerk. No wonder he was considered a born leader – he exuded an air of confidence. The minutes ticked by and I felt more and more uncomfortable. As I walked around I found a wallet, no doubt lost by one of the Fellaghas as he hastily crossed the gap.

The battle seemed to be coming closer and closer, so much so that we had to leave quickly.

“Come on! We have to get back. Hurry up!” yelled Loti.

“The Fells are coming back towards the Barrage!” screamed Gougeon. “They’re coming down the hills!”

Indeed it was true. Later we were to learn that the F.L.N. had tried to go through the second minefield, and had made some progress, but an avalanche of grenades and the machine gun fire of the Paras waiting behind the minefield, had put a stop to their progress. Hundreds of Fellaghas had been killed, and their Officers realised that it was sheer suicide to try to reach the thick forests in the Atlas Mountains, so they turned around and planned to retreat to Tunisia the way they had come – through the huge cut in the Barrage. But as they did so, the Legion lined up on each side of the road, intent on barring their retreat. The Fellaghas only chance of retreat and survival was to force their way through the Legionnaires, so they sent their suicide commandos ahead of their warriors. These men, armed with grenades in both hands, ran in front of the Legionnaires’ machine guns, yelling, “Allah is the greatest!” The Legionnaires, taken by surprise at this tactic and the fury and madness of it, moved back to safer ground. But the Legion’s Warrant Officers, brandishing hand guns, went berserk and screamed at their men to hold their ground at all costs. Their frenzy was met by that of the Fellaghas who knew that if they didn’t get back to Tunisia, the Legionnaires would spare none of them. Colonel Boumedienne had failed in his plan to march triumphantly into Algiers on the day of Independence and claim the Presidency.

The eight of us ran from the break in the Barrage, and although we didn’t know exactly what was happening, we could hear the Fellaghas yelling and coming down the hills towards us. Our artillery had started bombarding the gap, no doubt to stop the Fellaghas retreat, and shells were falling quite near us, making the ground tremble and shrapnel fly through the air. We ran towards the ditch on the side of the road, but Dugoin stopped us in our tracks.

“Pouzache is wounded!” he yelled.

We turned and saw that Pouzache had been hit in the leg and had collapsed on the road. I dragged him to the ditch and threw him and myself into it, but then I heard Gougeon screaming, “Sergeant, Dugoin has been hit!”

Dugoin was lying on the road, blood pouring from his skull. Loti went to drag him into the ditch, but his look of hopelessness as he did so, said it all. There was nothing we could do and, without as much as a murmur, Dugoin died. He was a boy of eighteen, and had only served in Algeria for a few days.

All of us were terrified and fear surged through our bodies. The Fellaghas were almost upon us and one of their Commandos appeared on the road in front of us. There was no–where to go, no escape. We couldn’t move backwards or forwards, so we crouched in the ditch, silently praying for a guardian Angel. The firing and bombing reached a crescendo and drowned out everything else. The Legionnaires were firing bullets by the thousands, and from behind them, mortar units were bombarding the cut in the Barrage. The Fellaghas were firing back, and rushing down upon us so that we were squashed, like rats in a trap, expecting death at any moment, but at the same time, hoping that the Katibas of Fellaghas would pass by quickly and not see us.

I was so tense and so terrified that I felt as if I was going insane. We were crouching down in water up to our waists, but we were all perspiring profusely and I’m sure that everyone’s heart was pounding, just as mine was. We were under threat from a direct hit by our own forces, and from the Fellaghas. The image of the slaughtered Infantrymen who we had discovered a short while ago, flashed through my mind. If the Fellaghas saw us, the same fate awaited us. And they were coming closer. I shrank back further in the ditch towards a small pond of deeper water that flowed through a concrete pipe under the road. The others followed suit. The deeper water was freezing but it didn’t matter. The first platoons of Fellaghas were a mere few metres from us and we could hear them screaming to each other in Arabic. Our feet were sinking in the mud but we dragged ourselves as quickly and quietly as we could and, one by one, crawled into the concrete pipe, barely a metre in diameter. Under the circumstances, it was the best bunker we could have hoped for. It was under the road, three metres down and out of reach of the exploding shells above.

In all the chaos, none of us had noticed that the two Arab conscripts, Djamel and Hamlin had deserted us and joined their fellowmen, taking their weapons with them. We were lucky that they did not shoot us before they left. So there were just five of us left. Loti had dragged Dugoin along with us, but had left him at the side of the murky pool. Pouzache wasn’t happy about this. He didn’t want him falling into the hands of the Fellaghas, even though the man was already dead. Pouzache, Debonfils and Gougeon were wounded and they wrapped their scarves around their wounds to stem the bleeding. I took up a defensive position at the entrance to the pipe, my MAT 49 at the ready, and, despite his injury, Pouzache did the same at the other end.

All around us the battle raged and the noise was indescribable. It was hell on earth. We couldn’t see what was happening, of course, but it seemed that the Legionnaires had stopped their advance and were concentrating on bombarding the Fellaghas with mortars and grenades. The Fellaghas, we surmised from the noise above us, were retreating en mass through the breach in the Barrage.

Suddenly, a strange sound echoed around us. It was Gougeon – his teeth were chattering. I don’t know if it was from fear, the cold, or both, but soon we were all doing the same. The earth was shaking and trembling under the holocaust being played out above and we covered our ears, trying to block out the racket. But nothing could block out my thoughts. How ironic. I had survived all this time in Algeria and now, just days before ceasefire, I was stuck in a muddy pipe and virtually defenceless under the heaviest bombardment of artillery I had witnessed. What’s more, the bombardment was from our own army.

If I thought that things couldn’t get worse, I was wrong. The next moment there was a tremendous explosion as a shell of heavy calibre exploded on the road above us. The pipe was literally lifted from its resting place so that we were all thrown about, hitting out heads violently on the concrete and almost losing consciousness. A large crack appeared from one end of the pipe to the other and sharp pieces of concrete flew in every direction. We gripped each other in desperation and fear, no longer well–trained warriors sent to Algeria, but little boys, crying for their mothers and praying to God for help. The water was sucked from the pipe, but moments later it surged back with tremendous force, almost filling the pipe and nearly drowning us. Loti was choking, and we were all gulping the little air that was left. Gougeon was screaming and trying to force his way past Pouzache so that he could get out, so Loti hit him across the head to stop him and calm him down. The Pipe settled and the water receded again. We were all coughing and choking, but we were still alive.

“Is everyone OK?” asked Pouzache, and was answered with groans and coughs as we all tried to regain our breath.

Then Loti screamed out, “The pipe is going to collapse on us! What do we do now!”

He was right. The broken pipe was sagging with the weight of the dirt on top of it.

Time seemed to stand still. The heavy firing had almost stopped and although we had almost been deafened by it, we could now hear the Fellaghas running on the road above us, their Officers yelling out orders for them to regroup and hold the Legionnaires at bay. The roof of the pipe was cracking and bending. I felt as if I was freezing to death and I could no longer feel my limbs. The life seemed to be seeping from me and the threat of being buried alive was very real. Then the sound of battle resumed, and from the shouts and gunfire that we could hear, we deduced that the Legion had resumed its advance and the steam roller was moving towards the cut in the Barrage, firing continuously. The ‘Dogs of War’ seemed to be moving quickly, no doubt wanting to end their last battle in absolute and total victory. Their Warrant Officers were screaming out orders continuously. But we could also hear wounded Fellaghas calling for help from their colleagues. It seemed that the F.L.N. was abandoning their wounded and their dead and we could only begin to imagine the carnage on the road above us. If only we could hold on until the nightmare was over – there must be an end to it.

Daylight was coming and the sun’s rays had started to shine through the end of the pipe.

I looked up, just in time to see something fall in front of the entry to the pipe, and the water level rose again.

“Watch out!” I yelled.

We all braced ourselves for a close and final explosion – a mortar shell or a grenade, but there was no great blast, just a splashing noise and, to my surprise, I saw that it was a man, obviously thrown from the road and into the pond by an explosion. He was desperately trying to grab at anything solid to stop himself from drowning in the muddy water, and he was calling for help. He was speaking Arabic, so we knew that he was an enemy. Then he looked at me and opened his eyes wide in a silent plea for help. I had to do something. I reached out and he grabbed my hand. I dragged him towards me and moved along so that he had a place in the pipe with us. We could see that one of his arms had been blown off up to his elbow and it was a mass of bleeding flesh. He was in absolute agony. Loti handed me his scarf so that I could bind up the man’s arm. The wounded man looked up with surprise. No doubt he was wondering why we were crouched in the damaged pipe.

“Who is he?” asked Pouzache.

I looked at the badges on his shoulder and I realised that he was a Lieutenant of the F.L.N.

“He’s an Officer of the Fellaghas, Claude,” I replied.

Just then there was another tremendous bombardment. The Fellagha lost consciousness so we held his head up so that he wouldn’t sink into the water and drown.

Slowly the sound of the battle receded, and we surmised that the Fellaghas had retreated as far as No Man’s Land, and that the French artillery was now bombarding that area. The only close sound was that of small weapons fire.

“The Legionnaires are coming now,” whispered Pouzache. “We’ll be able to get out of here soon.”

We certainly needed to move. We’d all gone pale from the freezing water, and I knew that we wouldn’t survive much longer. If we didn’t die from hypothermia the pipe would cave in.

By now we could hear the Legion’s Warrant Officers shouting, and we hoped that the first wave of Legionnaires, the steam roller, had passed. To get out of the pipe and appear in front of them would be suicide. They shot everything in front of them that moved, and if they for a moment thought that there was anything in the culvert, they would throw a grenade in. Then we heard a different noise. A vehicle was approaching and we could hear the Officers talking on their radios. I gave a sign to Pouzache that I would go out on my own and the rest of our group should stay where they were.

I pushed the unconscious Fellagha next to Debonfils, left my weapon, crawled out of the pipe, and struggled through the waist deep muddy water. I had no feelings in my legs and, after the darkness inside the pipe, the sun was blinding me. Outside it was an apocalypse. The exploding mortars had created huge craters and the road was strewn with branches, trees and the bodies of Fellaghas.

The ‘Dogs of War’ were on the road next to me, and they looked at me with surprise as I emerged from the ditch. They had their machine guns aimed at me, hands on triggers and ready to fire.

“French army! French army!” I screamed, raising my hands above my head and looking straight at them.

“Vas its das?” barked one of the Legionnaires as I struggled onto the road.

“Kamarade! Kamarade! French army!” I shouted knowing that the Legionnaires were mainly Germans.

“Who is this?” yelled one of their Warrant Officers, coming up behind the others.

“Fellaghas Sir!” answered one of the Legionnaires.

My heart sank. The Legion wasn’t taking many prisoners anymore. De Gaul had just released thousands of them and the Legionnaires, blood thirsty at the best of times, didn’t see the point.

“No! I’m not a Fellagha!” I shouted out desperately. “I’m from the French army, the 35th Battalion of Pioneers!”

“Are you a deserter of the French Army?” yelled the Warrant Officer.

He was interrupted by one of the Officers in the jeep.

“Who is this fellow?” he asked.

“He’s a deserter of the French army, and he was with the Fellaghas,” replied the Warrant Officer.

I turned towards the jeep and addressed the Officer sitting in it.

“No Sir!” I said. “My name is Fiset and I’m from the 35th Battalion of Pioneers. We were caught in cross fire on the Barrage last night.”

“So what were you doing with the Fells?” he asked.

I glanced around me. One group of Legionnaires were busy dragging the dead and wounded Fellaghas to the side of the road. They were shooting the wounded in the head and lining all the bodies up so that they could count them. They took photos of any dead Officers, no doubt for their Intelligence Service. Any bodies of the French Infantry that they found were dragged out and lined up as well. Another group of Legionnaires were searching the nearby forest for wounded Fellaghas hiding there, and yet another group was gathering all the weapons and personal possessions of the dead Moudjahadine. Warrant Officers were busy recording all the relevant numbers and one Officer was already writing up a report. They were certainly well organised.

“What were you doing with the Fells?” the Officer shouted again.

“I’m not with the Fells,” I explained. “I’m from the Pioneer battalion in charge of repairing the Barrage. My comrades and I have been caught in crossfire. That’s all!”

“What! You’re not on your own?” he barked.

“No Sir!” I replied. “The rest of them are hiding in the pipe under the road.”

“OK Sergeant, sort them out,” he said, turning to a menacing looking Officer nearby. “I have more important things to do.”

The Officer and the Warrant Officer took their MAT 49s and pushed me towards the pipe. Another group of Legionnaires stood on top of the road with grenades in their hands and their machine guns pointed towards the culvert.

“Tell them to throw their weapons out first!” yelled the Warrant Officer.

After they’d done this, I went down to the entrance of the pipe and helped Gougeon, who was wounded, to the road. Debonfils followed, then Loti and finally Pouzache, dragging himself as best he could. We stood on the road, shivering and soaked with mud, and wondering what they were going to do with us. The Legionnaires, having shot the last of the wounded Fellaghas, had finished their gruesome task and were having a cigarette. Blood from the bodies lined up on the side of the road was running into the ditch.

“Are we going to join the others lying on the road?” whispered Loti.

I glanced at Pouzache who was having trouble standing because of his injured leg.

“I left the wounded Fellagha in the pipe. I hope he manages to survive,” he murmured.

What an incredible man.

The Legionnaires dragged Dugoin from the pond and lined him up with the Fellaghas, most of them with their entrails exposed and their heads almost severed.

“He’s not a Fellagha,” I said, but no one took any notice of me.

“It doesn’t matter, Christian. He’s in the same place that they are now,” said Loti.

We found the gruesome scene around us very distressing, but the Legionnaires showed no emotion at all. For them it was just routine.

Then a Captain from the Legion came up to us. He was cleanly shaven and was wielding his gun.

“Sergeant. Who are these men?” he asked, pointing to us.

“French deserters, Sir,” replied the Warrant Officer.

Not one of us could summon the energy to reply. We were all exhausted.

“OK. The Intelligence Officer will sort them out. Take them as prisoners!” the Captain ordered.

Some of the Legionnaires gathered around us and started to laugh and make jokes about us.

“I thought we were the only ones to desert and join the Fells,” said one of them.

They all burst out laughing again. Once again we were in a bad situation. Two Legionnaires then used the butt of their guns to push us towards their trucks on the side of the road. Another two Legionnaires with fingers on the triggers of their guns and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, were guarding a few Fellagha prisoners.

“Who are these fellows?” one of them asked.

“Deserters of the French Army,” said the Warrant Officer.

The two guards lifted their guns, pointed them at us and, with an evil smirk on their faces, said, “Pang! Pang! Pang!”

The Legionnaires all burst into laughter again, and they threw us violently onto the wet grass next to the Arab prisoners.

There we were, five survivors of the eight who had been sent on this ridiculous mission, three of us injured, and all of prisoners of the Legion. The Legion were our comrades in arms, part of the French army, and we were accused of being deserters of that army. We were being guarded by Germans, ex–Nazis who hardly understood our language. It was a surreal situation to be in, and extremely frightening. But we were alive. By sheer luck we had survived the battle that had raged around us and, although we didn’t know what was ahead of us, we had each other. It was the strong bonds of friendship with our fellow men that helped us to survive the many tragedies that befell us.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 24

LEGION’S METHOD OF INTERROGATION

 

The few Fellagha prisoners with us were being held for one thing only, to get information. We looked at them and felt badly for them. All of them had terrible wounds, not only from the battle but from being beaten ferociously by the Legionnaires. Their faces and hands were bleeding and their injuries were so severe that they were hardly able to sit upright. They all had their heads bent down and they were muttering verses of the Koran, preparing themselves for meeting their creator. Being a prisoner of the Legion automatically led to death. They knew that they would get no pity and no compassion from the Dogs of War.

Whilst we at least had some hope of survival, we were not coping all that well either. We were cold, exhausted, and extremely thirsty. Pouzouche’s leg was still bleeding, but he was more concerned about Debonfils who was in terrible pain with his wrist which had been smashed by mortar shrapnel. Pouzache tightened the scarf that was tied around Debonfils’ arm. Gougeon had lost consciousness and was lying flat on the grass next to us. There was nothing we could do to help him.

The two Legionnaires who were guarding us were sitting on the back of a GMC truck, calmly smoking cigarettes and watching us, smirking and obviously enjoying the sight of men in agony. An Officer of the Intelligence Service arrived for the interrogation, and the two Legionnaires jumped to attention. Then one of them unfolded a portable table and chair for the Officer.

“What’re we going to say to him?” I whispered to Pouzache.

“We have to repeat the same story, over and over,” muttered Pouzache, cool, calm and collected, as usual.

The Intelligence Services Officer opened his bag and took out his administrative papers, ready for the interrogation. The two Legionnaires stood by, void of any emotion, waiting for orders. They were cold, calculating killers who wouldn’t think twice about murdering anyone that the Officer pointed to. I looked at them and couldn’t help but think about the oath they had taken when they joined the Legion. They swore to uphold the Legion’s Code of Honour, and rule number 7 was, in combat you will act without relish of your tasks, or hatred. You will respect the vanquished enemy, and you will never abandon your wounded or your dead. It was a complete farce, and we were now in the hands of these men who were ready to ask a couple of stupid questions and then, if they so wished, shoot us dead.

The Officer was ready to begin his interrogations. His task was to obtain information from the enemy and to accomplish this he would use torture if necessary, and if he so chose. He was a tall, distinguished looking man, cleanly shaven and wearing gold rimmed spectacles. His uniform was well–ironed and spotless, and I could imagine him at a dance, bowing down in front of a young lady, perhaps the daughter of a General, and asking her to dance. But I knew that, in reality, he would be like all the other Officers, doing everything he could to climb the promotion ladder, and having no compassion what–so–ever for his fellow human beings. With a quick stroke of his pen he would condemn prisoners to their death, but he would complete the necessary paperwork so that there would be no talk or accusations of injustice. Then he would return to Algiers and his family, and would probably play scrabble with his wife and children in the evening.

Death and Torture were an integral part of prisoner interrogation. One regiment of parachutists specialised in tying a block of concrete to the foot of their prisoners, then loading them into their helicopters and throwing them out into the sea, to drown. Their prisoners were known as ‘Para prawns.’ The elite troops preferred the Gegene, an electricity generator, and an ideal instrument of torture as it left no marks on the body. The prisoner was stripped naked and tied to a chair. The electrodes were fitted onto various parts of his body, often the ear or the sex organs, and his feet were put into a basin of water. Then someone would turn the handle of the generator, producing a current of 110 volts. It was extremely painful, but rarely produced results. The Arabs were extremely resistant to this form of torture and rarely talked, mostly because they knew nothing about what they were being accused of. The frustrated torturers would then beat them to death.

Of course, torture was officially forbidden, but it was well hidden by the perpetrators. The French public had no idea what their valorous soldiers were doing in Algeria but rumours had started to filter through. Indeed, torture had been spoken about at the lecture that I had attended with my sister, in Caen. Furthermore, when some of the fellows from the elite troops were home on leave, they had bragged of their exploits, proudly telling their admirers the details of the suffering of their prisoners. I could just imagine the type of conversation.

‘You should have seen the face of the Fellagha when we turned on the Gegene. He wasn’t laughing anymore with an electrode clipped to his dick, the bastard.’

Did he have a hard on during the session, John?’

‘No. He just pissed himself, and didn’t even say a word. So the Adjutant took him outside and put a bullet through his brain. That was the end of him!’

‘John, did you ever put any Fatma (women) on the Gegene?’

‘No, we didn’t. We made them feel our dicks instead!’

Everyone would have laughed and the bragger would have felt no shame of what he had done, or of the disgusting banter about it.

“Bring the first one!” yelled the Intelligence Officer, calling to the Legionnaires on duty, and bringing me back from my thoughts to the reality of what was going on around me.

The two Legionnaires grabbed one of the Arab prisoners by the arm and dragged him to the table. The man had been so badly beaten that he couldn’t even stand up, and his face was swollen and bleeding.

“Name?” asked the Officer, without even looking at the Arab.

There was no answer.

“Position and rank?” said the Officer.

Still no answer. The only sound was that of the other Fellaghas, reciting verses of the Koran.

It was a complete waste of time. The prisoner could not even understand the questions – the Officer was speaking French.

“Next one!” called the Officer. One of the Legionnaires grabbed the next Arab prisoner, and the other one put his cigarette out, clicked his MAT 49, dragged the first prisoner over to some thick bushes, and shot him. Later he would drag the body to the road and line it up with the others, counting it as another victim of the battle. The Legionnaire then walked back, lit up another cigarette and smirked at us. We were living a nightmare. Pouzache looked at me, and I knew he was wondering what would happen to us. We were in the hands of a group of thugs, with no–one to protect us from them. But the worst part was that they were our allies – we were all part of the same army.

The Arab prisoners lying next to us were resigned to their fate. They didn’t show any fear of death. They believed that it was their destiny and that nothing on earth could change it.

“Name?” asked the Lieutenant, addressing the second Arab that had been brought before him. Again there was no answer. The prisoner didn’t understand French, and he was condemned to death anyway. I put a restraining arm on Pouzache. He looked as if he was going to explode at any moment and scream abuse at the Legionnaires for their barbaric practice. I knew that he wanted to yell out, ‘Can’t you see he’s a wounded soldier? He can’t understand you! For once in your lives can’t you abide by the Code of Honour! Haven’t you killed enough innocent people already?’ But an outburst from us would make no difference. The Legionnaires lived in fear of an Arab escaping their claws and talking to a reporter, so they left no witnesses to their crimes. Their motto was, ‘LEGIO PATRIA NOSTRA’ (the Legion is our Country), but in practice it was, ‘Dead men do not speak. ‘It should’ve been printed in Latin and emblazoned on their Kepis.

So we sat there, watching this farcical trial and seeing each Arab prisoner, one by one, go to their death. Each time that the Legionnaire responsible for the shootings returned, he lit up another cigarette and eyed us with an evil grin.

And then it was our turn to be interrogated. We braced ourselves for the worst. One of the Legionnaires went to grab Pouzache, but Pouzache pushed him away roughly.

“So, what have we got here?” said the Intelligence Officer. “Are we dealing with deserters of the French army now? Name? Unit? Number?”

Pouzache spoke up. “My name is Claude Pouzache, 37th Battalion of Pioneers, number 1245632.”

“As I see it,” said the Officer, “there are only two reasons you’re here. Either you’re a deserter of the French army, or you were a prisoner of the Fellouzes, which I very much doubt, judging by the other’s we found on the road. And you still had your MAT 49s when we found you! Obviously, you’re all deserters!”

The Legionnaires started to laugh, but Pouzache ignored them and yelled back at the Officer, “No Sir! We’re not French deserters. We were sent to repair the Barrage and we were caught in crossfire. Contact our unit and the Captain of the 37th Battalion of Pioneers – they’ll back up our story.”

The two Legionnaires looked at us and started to reload their guns, making it very clear what they did to deserters.

“Tell me once more. What were you doing with the Fellaghas on the Barrage?” yelled the Officer.

At this, I jumped up and joined Pouzache in front of the Officer. I was boiling with rage, and I grabbed the documents on his table and threw them to the ground. The Officer looked shocked – I’m sure this had never happened to him before. The Legionnaires jumped up, their machine guns at the ready.

“We’ve told you who we are!” I shouted. “You just have to check with our unit. There’s nothing else that we can tell you!”

“Who are you?” yelled the Officer.

“Fiset, 37th Battalion of Pioneers,” I yelled back.

The Officer stared at me through half closed eyes, obviously unaccustomed to being challenged, especially by young conscripts from the French army, and one of the Legionnaires sprang forward and threw me violently to the ground. Then the Officer stood up and found his tongue again.

“What sort of bullshit story are you telling me?” he screamed. “I’ve seen fellows like you before, but you take the cake. You’re telling me that thousands of Fellouzes passed the spot where you were and you’re still alive? If you were there, we would’ve found you with your throats cut like the fellows from the Infantry. Do you take us Legionnaires for complete idiots?”

Pouzache smiled slightly and answered him quietly. “Yes, we do.”

We were now in greater jeopardy than we had been at any other time in Algeria. We were in the hands of a bunch or morons, a band of killers, and nothing less than a guardian angel could save us.

The Officer’s eyes bulged with anger and he shouted, “We know that the French army is completely useless, but this is even worse than I thought!”

His comment was followed by peals of laughter from a number of other Legionnaires who had been alerted by the commotion and had gathered around.

The Officer sat down at his desk again and established order by calling the next one in our group. Debonfils stood before him, petrified. Meanwhile, the two Legionnaires were pushing Pouzache violently with their guns, in the direction of the bushes.

“Stop! Stop this!” I screamed, grabbing hold of Pouzache and holding onto him. “We’re all innocent!”

The two Legionnaires stopped pushing Pouzache and jumped on me, threw me to the ground, and bashed my face. Then they went back to Pouzache, but as they did so, a Warrant Officer, looking remarkably like Cro–Magnon man, came up with a paper in his hand and threw it onto the Intelligence Officer’s desk.

“What’s this?” asked the Intelligence Officer, looking at the paper.

I got to my feet and ran towards the bushes where the Legionnaires were pushing Pouzache.

“Stop! Stop!” I yelled.

But then I heard my name.

“Is there any one here called Fiset?” called the Intelligence Officer.

The two killers stopped in their tracks.

“Yes, He’s here. Present!” yelled Debonfils on my behalf.

“Yes!” I screamed. “I’ve already told you who I am.”

The Intelligence Officer ignored me and continued. “Is there anyone called Debonfils?”

“Present,” said Debonfils.

“Dugoin?” he called.

“Dugoin died back at the Barrage,” I said.

“Gougeon?” he yelled.

“Present, wounded,” I replied, pointing to my comrade unconscious on the grass.

“Halim?”

“Deserted. He and Djamel deserted, took their weapons and joined the Fellaghas,” I proffered.

“So, you had Fellaghas serving with you!” the Intelligence Officer stated.

“No Sir!” I replied. “But we had two Algerian conscripts. They deserted sometime during the night.”

“Loti?” he continued.

“Present, called Loti.

“And Pouzache?” he asked, then looked toward the bushes as I pointed to him.

We were all extremely tense, waiting anxiously for what was going to happen next, but the Legionnaires, seeing the possibility of another five killings disappearing before their eyes, started to grumble and unload their guns.

“OK! You can go now,” said the Intelligence Officer.

We were almost overcome with exhaustion, delayed shock and relief, but Loti and I heaved Gougeon to his feet and helped him, Pouzache and Debonfils to get to the bitumen road. A crowd of Infantry soldiers who were standing there, stared at us with open curiosity. Just then Lieutenant Bayard and the rest of the platoon arrived, and never before had we been so pleased to see them.

“Oh, there you are,” Bayard yelled. We were later to discover that he had given a list of his missing men to the Legionnaires, the list that saved our lives.

“Where have you been all this time?” he continued. “When we saw the dead Infantry–men lined up on the side of the road, we thought you might be among them. We’ve been waiting all night for you to come back. Where, exactly, have you been?”

We looked at him, but none of us could summon up the energy to explain. We just made our way to the trucks, and some of the men from our platoon ran to get out the stretchers and help us. Pouzache and Debonfils were helped onto stretchers, and Gougeon was gently laid on another, but it was too late for him. He died soon after.

As I collapsed onto the wet grass between the trucks, I heard Bayard calling, “Fiset!” Pouzache! Where are you? The Barrage has to be repaired before 4 p.m. Captain Nicols has ordered that the work be done immediately.”

Loti fell onto the grass beside me. We were completely burned out, physically, emotionally and mentally. Chevalier came over, rolled each of us onto a stretcher and wrapped a thick army blanket around us. Bayard was still calling out to us.

“Fiset! You’re the only Sergeant left here at the moment, and I want you to return to the Barrage immediately with the platoon, and repair it. The Captain has ordered it! Do you realise this?” he yelled, but I was too spent to respond.

A couple of chaps helped Chevalier to load us onto the back of the truck and we set out for the hospital. I was so exhausted that I no longer cared about anything except getting away from the Barrage. We all fell into a deep sleep, and for me, that sleep brought dreams of home. I was sitting in the thick grass bordering the River Orne, at a place known as the ‘Swiss Norman’, a place where the river drops in waterfalls. In my waking life, I’d often gone there with my family and Jean’s, and we used to eat in the restaurant close by and then go fishing or hire a pedalo to paddle along near the river bank. But in my dream, I was there alone until, suddenly, Jeanne appeared on the other side of the river. She was dressed in white and looked more beautiful than ever, with her long blonde hair floating in the wind. She waved at me and I waved back. Then I jumped into a pedalo and tried to cross the river, but no matter how hard I pedalled, I made no progress. Jeanne stopped waving. She looked at me sadly, then vanished. I was alone again and my heart was aching.

Loti and I were discharged from the hospital later that day and we returned to our platoon, both still badly in need of recuperation, but the hospital was full of injured and exhausted men.

18 March 1962. ‘Ceasefire’ was to be announced at 12 noon, so it was an important day for everyone, but especially for the Algerian people. Once ceasefire was called, no one in either army was allowed to carry a weapon or to use one. There was to be no more killing. For us conscripts, this was the best possible news, but the career Officers were not happy about it. When we had gone into the Officer’s mess for dinner the previous evening, the Captain and his Lieutenants had long faces – war was all they lived for. The cessation of fighting meant that they would have to return to one of the army barracks in France, and to a ‘boring’ life void of action, travel to far–away places, quick promotions, rewards, honours, medals and, very importantly, double pay. The elite regiments, the Paras and the Legionnaires, were also dejected. To them, ceasefire meant an end to killing, murder, torture, burning and looting of villages, and to rape.

The mass killing of the Algerian people had started on the 1st of November 1954 and since that date, their blood had never stopped spilling over the land. And now it was to end. At the flag ceremony that morning, the Captain made an announcement.

“Before noon we will surrender all our weapons and ammunition to the armourer. After that time, we are not to have any weapons in our Company,” he said, in a rather broken voice.

The army were paranoid about the Arab conscripts deserting with their weapons so all weapons were to be recalled. So we spent the morning cleaning and shining our guns, and packing up the heavy machine gun and all the ammunition. Interestingly, the Officers were allowed to keep their hand guns.

“No more guns under our pillows at night, boys!” yelled one of the men.

We were used to having our MAT 49s as our constant companions, even carrying them with us to the latrines at night, so we were going to feel naked without them. When I handed my MAT49 and my USM1 to the armourer I suddenly felt vulnerable. Our guns gave us a feeling of security, and now we were like a group of boy scouts camping in the Atlas Mountains.

The Fellaghas who had been hiding in caves high in the mountains were now free to move wherever they wanted, so they were walking back to their villages, or what was left of them. The regroupment camps were opened, so the people there could come and go freely, day or night.

“I hope the Fellaghas are going to be disarmed like we are,” said Lieutenant Bayard.

“What are we supposed to do when we meet up with one of the Fellaghas?” asked one of the conscripts.

“You just have to salute them, ask them how they are, and then invite them into your tent for a cup of tea!” said Loti, with a smile.

It was certainly a victory for the Fellaghas. They had defeated the mighty French Army of over half a million men equipped with modern weapons, artillery, an air force and a navy. Despite being relatively few in number, they had emulated the Vietnamese who had defeated the French army eight years previously. After waiting 130 years and enduring ongoing exploitation by a colonial power, the Algerian people had won back the whole territory of Algeria as well as the Sahara Desert, where huge quantities of petroleum had recently been discovered.

“From now on, I’m asking all of you to act in a manner which does not provoke them. Remember, we’re in their country now, so be careful!” warned the Captain.

22 March 1962. I was being sent on another mission, but this one was different because neither I, nor my driver, had any weapons for protection. I had to go to Souk–Ahras to pick up some men who had recovered from their injuries. Along the way we saw thousands and thousands of the newly designed Algerian flags flying, and some had even been planted right next to the Barrage. On this trip, there was no need to drive at full speed to avoid rockets launched from behind the Barrage, but as we reached the Barrage, we both felt a little fearful, hoping that the Fellaghas would respect the ceasefire. There were some F.L.N. soldiers patrolling the area and still wearing their guns, but they seemed quite relaxed and didn’t try to hide from us or attack us. To our relief, they waved at us as we passed by. We weren’t too sure what to do, but we waved back, albeit rather timidly.

When we reached the hospital, I walked around the ward looking for chaps from our platoon, and asking how everyone was. While those fit enough to return to work got their things together, ready to leave, I wandered around the hospital, looking for Catherine, the nurse who had cared for me when I was injured. I’d been thinking about her on the journey and I really wanted to see her before I left.

“Do you know where Catherine is?” I asked one of the nurses.

“No, Sergeant. She’s not here anymore. She’s been transferred to another military hospital near Algiers. Did you know her?” she replied.

“Yes,” I said sadly. “She’s the Angel who looked after me some months ago when I was injured.”

I walked away feeling quite despondent.

On the trip back I sat in the truck and reflected on the war, the people whom I had met, those who had died, and the futility of it all. Soon Algeria would become a sovereign state, completely independent from France, but what a price it had cost the Algerian people. A number of different experts in their field had estimated that at least one million Algerians had lost their lives, and more than double that had been wounded. Intellectuals in Paris, we’d been told, were now openly talking about genocide, and comparing it to the decimation of the Armenian peoples by the Turks. It appeared that we, the French, had exceeded their record. There was not a family in Algeria who had come through the war unscathed. One of the Algerian leaders had lost fourteen members of his family. All fourteen had been murdered. The guillotine had been used quite widely, particularly after interrogations. I clearly recalled how one of the Warrant Officers, a professional soldier, used to ‘delight’ us conscripts with a story of him sending seven Arabs to the guillotine one morning, before breakfast.

‘I had to do it quickly because my wife was waiting for me to have breakfast. Even though it was still dark, we blinded them with a projector, then dragged them, one by one to the guillotine. Actually, it was fun!’

He had no remorse whatsoever. During the seven years of war, torture and vicious murder were the lot of the Algerian people, but France tried very hard to hide these crimes. They made sure that there were no photographers or reporters to witness these atrocities, and they insisted on calling the war a ‘police operation.’

23 March 1962. Regardless of the world around me, it was a fantastic day for me because I only had another 160 days of service left. I had survived 691 days in the army.

“I presume the mine laying is over now that the ceasefire has been implemented,” said Loti.

“No,” answered Pujol. “We have to finish the work we’ve started.”

“You must be joking, Sergeant. They’ll never attack the network again. They don’t need to!” exclaimed Loti.

“You can’t argue against what the Commandant in Millesimo has decided to do! We have to finish the access track to the Barrage! It’s an order!” explained Pujol.

Apart from the stupidity of this order, we didn’t have enough men left in the platoon who were fit for work. But the army always had an answer. The Captain attended a briefing and then he announced that we were to join up with another company, the 34th Battalion.

24 March 1962. We had to attend the flag ceremony dressed in our outing uniform as it was a special and serious occasion. It was the day when our company ceased to exist and our Captain had to give our company and our unit’s flag to the Captain of the 34th Battalion. The two Captains, with their decorations pinned to their chests, stood next to each other, and each of them gave a speech. Then the trumpeter played a particular tune. This was followed by complete silence, and our flag was lowered for the last time, ready to be packed up, sent to Paris, and stored in an army depot. The men of the 37th Battalion were officially handed over to the 34th Battalion, and we all had to change the badges on our uniforms. It all seemed so pointless now that the ceasefire had been implemented.

However, the order and routine that we were experiencing was not uniform throughout the country. All over Algeria, both individuals and sections of the army were striving to be in the right place when Independence was declared. This was particularly so for the Harkis, the Algerian men who had joined the French Army as professional soldiers and had remained faithful to France. They were living in great fear. They knew that as soon as Algeria officially gained its independence, the Fellaghas would declare them to be collaborators, and would put them to death. They were trying to withdraw from Algeria as quickly as possible. Other regiments of Algerians who were part of the French Army, the Tirailleurs, Spahis, and Zouaves, didn’t know what to do or where to run to.

“There will be another huge bloodbath in the next few weeks!” prophesised one of the men.

For us conscripts, Algerian independence would bring the first day of our lives that our country wasn’t at war. France had been continually involved in conflicts for 23 years, and would finally discover, once more, what peace meant.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 25

RETREAT OF THE ARMY

 

25 March 1962. It was an odd feeling to be camped in the Atlas Mountains without our guns. They had not only taken all our weapons and our ammunition, but our stock of mines as well. We’d watched them being carted away, and a couple of chaps had even clapped as the mines were put into the trucks. Now we wouldn’t have to lay any more mines, and we no longer had to stare from our tents at the pile of wooden boxes that held them. Their menacing presence no longer threatened us. But the Fellaghas were still all around us in the mountains and we fervently hoped that they would respect the ‘ceasefire’.

“I only have a few months left to serve,” said Dubout. “I don’t want to have my throat cut at the last moment.”

All of us were weak and emaciated and we looked as if we were from a concentration camp. Most of the chaps were so fatigued that they spent much of their time sleeping on their stretchers. Loti didn’t even have the strength to read. He, like many of the others, missed out on food because he didn’t wake up at meal times. Every morning a truck came by and took the weakest of the men to the hospital for an injection which was supposed to give them some strength, but it was not really successful. We were all drained physically and mentally, so much so that very few men reacted at all to any injustice or unfair punishment that was metered out. We had reached the end of the road.

The ‘ceasefire’ didn’t really affect us much, but it had terrible ramifications for the regiment of Algerian Tirailleurs. The Algerians from this regiment now had to face the Fellaghas, the new masters of the land, but they had no weapons with which to defend themselves. And the Fellaghas were taking out their revenge, so there was yet another bloodbath in Algeria.

29 March 1962. We woke up to hear the truck engines warming up, and people shouting orders and running about, just as if they were getting ready for an imminent battle.

“It’s only 6 a.m. what’s going on now!” said Pouzache. “I hope we’re not going to the Barrage again.”

Lieutenant Bayard barged into out tent, obviously in a panic.

“We’ve only got an hour to dismantle the tents and load everything into the trucks,” he shouted. “We’ve just received orders that we have to leave this place by 7.30 a.m.”

“Where are we going, Sir?” asked Pouzache, but he didn’t get an answer.

It seemed that the Officers had become more secretive since the ceasefire.

“We’re going to Blandan,” one of the drivers told me on the quiet. “It’s somewhere on the Bone Plains – that’s all I know.”

We arrived at our destination, and we had to set up camp and erect our tents on the side of a hill just outside of the village, just the way a circus does as it tours around the countryside. The difference in temperature was really noticeable. It had been cold in the high mountains, and it was hot on the plains. Our camp was next to a huge swamp so we were invaded by malaria carrying mosquitoes, and we had to hang our mosquito nets over the stretchers at night.

The last battle on the Barrage was the last straw for most of the men in our camp. They were broken men, particularly those of us who hid in the pipe under the road while the battle raged overhead. Pouzache, formerly a very resilient man and full of laughter and jokes, was very quiet, barely even smiling. I was very concerned about him.

“What is the matter, Claude?” I asked him.

He had difficulty in replying, but eventually he opened up and said, “You see, Christian, the worst part for me was when the Legionnaires were interrogating the Fellagha prisoners. I can still see them – this is why I can’t sleep. Every night it haunts me. I see those Fellaghas looking at me, silently pleading for my help. They didn’t want to die, but there was nothing that I could do to help them.”

He couldn’t go on. He was overcome by emotion.

Debonfils, the newly arrived fellow from the French occupation forces in Germany who was with us in the pipe, completely shut himself off from everyone. He jumped at the slightest noise, no longer spoke to anyone, and spent his whole day writing letter after letter to his family. He was in a world of his own.

Most of us had similar symptoms. We couldn’t stand noise. Any insignificant clatter such as a knife falling to the floor was enough to send us into an emotional panic. We lived with the expectation of hearing the deadly whistling sound of shells passing over our heads, so every unexpected sound caused us to brace ourselves for an attack, even though we knew that the battles and the bullets were gone. The fear was still with us. During the night we were constantly being awakened by men having terrible nightmares.

There was only one fellow in the camp who was coping well. It was Riviere. He had completed the paperwork for the adoption of Yasmina, and he had been given permission to take her back to France with him when he had finished his military service. This is what helped him to cope.

It was just as well that the army was in full retreat. There were many boats in the huge Bone harbour, waiting to take the soldiers home, but we, the Pioneer Battalion, would be the last ones to leave because of the work they wanted us to do before we departed Algeria. History was repeating itself. In 1812, Napoleon’s army had to cross the mighty River Berezina in Russia in order to retreat to France, and 150 years later, we were about to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape from Algeria and return to France. Mankind never seems to learn. They keep making the same mistakes again and again.

11 April 1962. Already the Arabs had sent gangs to demolish the great synagogue in Algiers, and the sacred books that they found were burned in the city square. The Jewish officials who hadn’t managed to escape before the country was handed back to the Algerians were all slaughtered. Graffiti started to appear around the city. ‘Death to all the Jews’ emblazoned many a wall.

The O.A.S., realising that it had finally lost Algeria, tried to scare the population by killing policemen, gendarmes, and even some conscripts. General Ailleret retaliated by destroying the last stronghold of the O.A.S. in Algeria, the working quarters of Bab el Oued in Algiers. The army attacked it one morning, taking the O.A.S. by surprise. They started with fighter bombers, then tanks firing at point blank range, and followed up with a regiment of Infantry who focussed on the area held by the settlers. After this bloody operation, another ten thousand people had been killed, and thousands more had been wounded. But the white settlers realised that Algeria was no longer their country and that they would have to leave as soon as possible. All around the city of Algiers, the F.L.N. posted flyers which said, ‘DEPART NOW, OR DIE!’

14 April 1962. The sea of liquid mud that we had faced on the plains of Bone during March quickly dried out and became a sea of dry dust that rose up around us as we drove along in our trucks, and almost choked us. We were working on various projects and hadn’t received the order to retreat as yet. However, the French army was withdrawing its forces from the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains and the Barrage. Convoy after convoy converged at the port of Bone to board the ships for France. The F.L.N. were also returning to Algeria from Tunisia, and no–one wanted to be left in the country under their rule, but the French army refused, for the most part, to take the Harkis back to France, even though they had faithfully served the French army. The Harkis, without weapons to defend themselves, were at the mercy of the Fellaghas, but of course, there was absolutely no mercy shown to them at all. In fact, they were tortured horrendously before having their throats cut. Some of them were forced to cut each other’s throats, some were run over by trucks, and one group were forced to swallow their French medals before being slaughtered. A company of over two hundred Harkis had been camped next to us, but they, and their Captain, Si Cherif, were all murdered. The French army didn’t intervene. The Algerians had won the war and were free to do as they pleased.

One day when we were working on the ships in the harbour of Bone, the Fellaghas appeared on the wharf, armed and making demands. The regiments of Infantry that were returning to France had a company of Algerian soldiers amongst them, and the Fellaghas demanded that they disembark immediately. The French General, not wanting to upset the F.L.N. handed these Harkis over, knowing only too well what would happen to them. Some of the Harkis grabbed hold of the rails by the ramp, and begged and cried to stay on board, but to no avail. The Fellaghas took them a short distance from the wharf, slaughtered them, and left their bodies to rot, as an example to others.

At the sight of such injustice Pouzache remarked, “It doesn’t pay to be faithful to France.”

Later, statistics on the Algerian genocide would show that over two hundred thousand Algerians died after the ceasefire. For the most part, they died because they were faithful to France.

Our Captain implored us not to sabotage or destroy anything as the French army didn’t want to incur the anger of the Fellaghas. But the ‘Dogs of War’, the Legionnaires, didn’t care about the army’s recommendations or the Fellaghas. They dismantled the monument to their dead that stood in the courtyard of Sidi bel Abes, their headquarters, packed it up and sent it to their new headquarters at Aubagne in the south of France. Then they somehow got some explosives and blew up the headquarters.

24 April 1962. The orders and counter orders kept coming over the radios non–stop and the Officers were trying hard to keep up with them. We were sent out on a mission, six kilometres from our camp, to repair a bridge which had been blown up by the Fellaghas.

“Why are we doing this?” asked Debonfils. “The whole army is leaving Algeria and we’re still working here repairing bridges for the Fellaghas. Why?”

No one had an answer for him.

“Maybe they’re going to ask us to pick up our mines from the mine fields so that the Fellaghas won’t get hurt,” suggested Maillet.

“Anything is possible in our army,” said one of the chaps.

We were waiting for Lieutenant Bayard to arrive. We sat down in a deep gorge where a creek ran through a narrow passage in the rocky cliff. On either side of it were a few palms and they provided much welcomed shade for us. A menagerie of birds was singing and it was so peaceful and beautiful that it was hard to believe that we were still in Algeria.

“How are we going to go about repairing the bridge, Christian?” asked Godefroy.

“We have to wait for the Lieutenant to come. He’ll tell us,” I replied, but I had no sooner finished speaking than a jeep came hurtling up the track at full speed and stopped next to the bridge.

Lieutenant Bayard jumped from the jeep and yelled, “Pack up all the tools – we’ve got to go back to the camp at once. We have to leave Blandan by 11 a.m. Hurry up!”

Then he jumped back in his jeep, turned it around and left as quickly as he had come. We hoped that it was our turn to leave Algeria so we sped back to the camp. Along the way I couldn’t help but reflect upon all the suffering we had endured in Algeria, especially in the Atlas Mountains and on the Barrage.

Back at the camp we worked at incredible speed. We packed our gear, dismantled our tents and loaded our equipment onto the trucks and it wasn’t long before we were driving in a long convoy past Blandan which by now was completely abandoned. All the houses were empty and open, ready for the Fellaghas to take over. The Algerian conscripts who were serving in our company had all deserted, so for the first time none of them were with us.

No one had actually told us where we were going but the road we took wove through wonderful plantations, overflowing with vines, oranges and the like. It was easy to see why the settlers had wanted to keep Algeria French.

“Maybe our Officers don’t know where we’re going either,” said Pouzache.

“With luck, we’ll be driving straight to the harbour of Bone to embark on a ship, destination Marseilles. What a dream!” replied Loti.

“No!” said Legendre. “The Pioneers are always the last ones to leave. They use us to do all the work until the last of the soldiers are gone.”

“I can’t wait to leave Algeria” added a young chap who had recently arrived from

France. “I’ve had enough of killing and murder!”

Unfortunately, our dearest wishes were not to be granted. The trucks slowed down and turned into a narrow alley, leading to a huge farm in the middle of one of the plantations.

By the time our trucks came to a stop Lieutenant Bayard was out of his jeep and waiting for us in the courtyard.

“Fiset! Our platoon has been allocated the right wing of this farm,” he said, pointing to a near–by barn. “Allocate everyone a space. Warrant Officers will sleep on the first floor of the workmen’s quarters. The Officers will be in the homestead.”

“Yes Sir!” I replied.

We soon learned that our Company had been split into three groups, each one occupying an abandoned farm a short distance apart. The farm we were on had been left exactly as it was when the settlers were living there. They had obviously left in a hurry and weren’t able to take anything with them. I shared a room with Pouzache, Loti and Godefroy, but it seemed strange to be sleeping in a real bed in a real room with brick walls. Even climbing the stairs was a novelty for us.

We were granted a few days rest on the farm, giving us time to settle down and regain a little strength. No one asked us to do anything, so we spent our days relaxing in lounge chairs in the garden, a haven of luxuriant plants and trees and a running creek that was crystal clear and tumbled over a bed of stones. But as our bodies rested, thoughts filled our minds, thoughts of people and past events, and we spent much of our time contemplating our lives and crying silently about the suffering and anguish that we had endured.

Pouzache was still recovering from his wounds and he spent more time in the garden than anyone else. He did nothing – just sat there with his eyes closed, listening to the water in the creek. Maillet made friends with the cat, and spent much of his time stroking it. Most of us enjoyed seeing the peacocks that were wandering around the garden, and we looked forward to feeding them each day. I looked around at my friends and comrades, all of them in a languid state, and I felt so sad. We were all so young, but our youth and our health were gone.

26 April 1962. It was an extremely sad day for me, probably the saddest of my life, for this was the day that Jeanne was to marry the rich farmer’s son, a man she did not love and did not want to wed. From early in the morning I kept pushing it from my mind, but the harder I tried to do this, the more vividly the thoughts of her came to me. I imagined her in an expensive, white gown made of French lace, looking absolutely beautiful and walking down the aisle on her father’s arm. He would give her to a man who didn’t love or care for her, a man who was looking for a housekeeper and helpmeet on the farm. Jeanne’s father always said that marriage came first, then love. I was so overcome with my thoughts of her that I couldn’t face anyone and I spent the day sitting in the garden with my eyes closed listening to the water tumble over the rocks.

Our mobile kitchen was set up at the next farm a couple of hundred metres down the road, and we all walked there for our meals. This particular farm looked more like a French castle than anything else. It was furnished with incredibly beautiful French antiques, but the walls were plastered with posters which sported slogans such as ‘THE SUITCASE OR THE COFFIN’. We were told that the Algerians had put them up but the settler ignored them and refused to leave. He had declared, “I was born here and so was my father. I went to school with these bastards and I can speak their language better than they can. It’s my country as much as it’s theirs. I’m staying here, no matter what!”

Even after all the other settlers had left he still refused to go, so one of his old, faithful servants discretely spoke to him. Apparently the conversation went along the lines of:

“Please Sir, take your family and go now, before it’s too late.”

“Why should I go? I haven’t wronged any of you. I gave you work so you wouldn’t starve.”

“Why not send your wife and children to France until things improve?”

“No! We’re all staying here. You can go and tell all your Fellagha friends that I’m not scared of them.”

However, the old employee had un–nerved the settler somewhat and he started to fortify his house. He bolted steel plates to the windows and doors on the first floor, leaving tiny slits for his gun barrels. Then he went to Bone, purchased powerful weapons and ammunition, and contacted the army to ask for protection. Coincidently, it was our Company that the army assigned to protect him and Lebeau, one of our men, was the first one to arrive the following day. He was able to tell us what had happened.

“The night before we arrived, hundreds of exploited Arab workers attacked the farm. They cut the telephone line, so the settler couldn’t call for help. The settler and his wife were murdered in front of their children and then the two daughters, aged 12 and 14 had their throats cut after they had been raped.”

The tiles on the dining room floor were still stained with their blood, and we found it difficult to eat our meals in that room.

1 May 1962. I’d completed 2 years of army service and I was still in one piece and standing. It seemed such a long time ago that I’d walked into the barracks at Angers to start my training, but of all the friends I made there, Loti, Pouzache and Maillet were the only ones left, and they were not in good shape. The others had fallen ill, were wounded or had been killed. What a tortuous road we had travelled, and what dreadful memories we had stored. A day in the army seemed much longer than a day in civilian life, and I still had another gruelling 126 days of service left, but I was determined to see them out, no matter what. However, I was not the same person anymore. Because of my experiences my thinking and my character had altered. Furthermore, the conventions my parents and teachers had drummed into me had been destroyed by the army and replaced with other more sinister rules and behaviours.

The work we were doing was completely different to what we’d done in the Mountains. Every morning we left the farm and headed for Bone to help load men and materials into the ships. It was better than repairing the Barrage or laying mines, but it was chaotic work. An army of 500,000 men retreating, and taking all their luggage and equipment with them, was something to see. Besides the thousands of khaki–clad troops there were jeeps, tanks, cannons, ambulances, and mobile kitchens. They came from many different parts of Algeria and converged on the harbour at Bone, and we had to help load everything and everyone.

The retreat was reminiscent of when General Napoleon, having lost the war against the Russians, retreated from Moscow. The French were practiced at retreating. They’d also done it in Indochina. Warrant Officer Pujol attested to this.

“I’m used to it. I’ve done it before – 9 years ago in Indochina,” he explained.

30 May 1962. We were still working on the harbour at Bone. It was difficult and arduous work, and some nights we had to stay on the wharf and work under artificial lighting. There were so very many ships to be loaded. In daylight hours, the heat of the African sun stripped us of our energy, and once more we were fatigued. We survived on boxes of rations, always eaten cold and with haste.

1 June 1962. I only had ninety days left to serve, and because I had reached the magic number of less than 100 days to go, everyone started calling me ‘The Percent.’ But even this didn’t perk me up. I, like everyone else, was so tired when I got back to the camp at night that I collapsed onto my stretcher and didn’t even wake up for dinner. Not that it was worth waking up for. It was of such poor quality that much of it was inedible, even when we were hungry. But we found a solution. Pouzache discovered a room on the farm where the Arab workers had cooked their food, so each day one of us managed to slip away and buy some food in one of the shops in Bone, and we cooked for ourselves.

Eventually, we were missed in the Officer’s mess.

The Captain asked, “Where are the Sergeants these days?”

“They don’t want to have their dinner here anymore, Sir,” replied one of the Officers.

“What! What’s wrong with the bastards?” the Captain asked.

“They say the food isn’t good enough, Sir,” explained the Officer.

“Well, when they’re starving, they’ll come back,” the Captain assured the others.

Meanwhile, our temporary kitchen was going well. Maillet managed to buy eggs and tomatoes at the Arab village close to the farm, Pouzache was always able to get bread in Bone, and Loti cooked tasty Spanish omelettes for us every day.

5 June 1962. The head of the O.A.S. organisation had been arrested along with General Salan, who was found in Spain, disguised as an old man. They were imprisoned with hundreds of other Officers of all ranks from Generals to Colonels, Captains to Lieutenants, who had opposed the French army.

“If this continues, there’ll be more Officers in jail than left serving in the army,” said Pouzache.

General Jouhaut, one of the instigators of the mutiny had been judged and sentenced to death. General Salan, another of the instigators, had also faced the courts, and his initial remark to the tribunal and the judge was, “I only need to render an account to those who suffered and died in Algeria in vain, believing in a disavowed word.”

8 June 1962. We were still working at the port in Bone, and each day the chaos was increasing. The F.L.N. had given France one month to be out of Algeria, so the army was retreating en mass. Regiment after regiment arrived each day, and all had to embark on the ships waiting in the harbour. Masses of cargo also had to be loaded, and the ships went back and forth between Marseilles and Bone. Our job was to load the cargo ships, but we noticed that a few regiments of Algerians, ‘Tirailleurs’, were managing to get to the ships and escape to France, where they would continue to serve the French army. We were happy for them. Staying in Algeria would mean certain death for them. It was sad to see the regiments who came in from the Atlas Mountains as they were completely worn out – burnt out, in fact. They lined up like a herd of cattle, and barely said anything. I was sure that their mental wounds were greater than their physical ones.

9 June 1962. “It’s one of our Battalions!” yelled Pouzache, pointing to a regiment that were about to embark. We recognised the red and black on their sleeves as that of the Pioneers, so we all rushed over to them, and some of us recognised old friends. They were all extremely happy to be returning to France for good. Lejeune, a little fellow from the city of Lisieux, was among them. He always had a smile on his face, even in the worst of situations. He was among the fellows who left Caen with me when we were called up. Peignen was sitting on his suitcase. He was a strongly–built fellow and a fantastic friend to be with as he was always ready to participate in any game or bit of fun. He came from the North of France and spoke an unusual dialect.

“I wish I could leave Algeria with all of you today,” said Loti.

I was keen to hear news of all the fellows I knew who were serving with this battalion,

“Do you remember Lecerf, Christian?” said one of the chaps from Brittany.

“Of course, I do,” I replied. “How could I forget him? Night after night he kept the whole dormitory awake by telling us about his romantic adventures.

“Well,” said the chap, “He and another fellow were killed when opening a road in a mine field, about two months ago, poor bastards. At least they didn’t suffer!”

“Chretien, where’s he?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s already on the ship. Did you know him well?” said another fellow.

“Yes. Really well. I went to school with him in Caen and later we used to go out together a lot of the time,” I replied.

I had to see Chretien before he left so I ran up the gang plank and found him sitting alone on the deck and looking vaguely out to sea. He had no expression at all on his face.

“Léandre!” I called. “Lucky you! You’ll be back in Caen before me.”

But I got no answer. He didn’t even acknowledge my presence.

“Léandre, do you remember the two nurses in Angers?” I asked him.

My question didn’t even register in his brain. He looked at me with his pale blue eyes, not knowing who I was. I realised that I was wasting my time trying to talk to him so I took his limp hand in mine and held it as a farewell gesture. Then I turned to leave the ship, more depressed than ever. As I was going down the gang plank, one of the fellows from Chretien’s battalion called to me.

“Are you a friend of his?” he asked, pointing to Léandre.

“Yes, I am. Why?” I asked.

“A few months ago his truck was blown up by a mine. Some of his colleagues were killed outright by the explosion, but he was thrown from the truck and landed in the barbed wire surrounding the mine field. It took us quite a while to get him out. It’s a miracle that he survived. He was only slightly wounded, but since then he hasn’t spoken to anyone. It’s not you – he’s like that with all of us,” he explained.

Some of the settlers had refused to leave Algeria, hoping that something would happen to prevent the granting of Independence. But now they were in a panic, trying to escape the country with whatever of their possessions they could. They didn’t want to meet the same fate at the hands of the Fellaghas as some of their fellow–settlers had. We could see then running through the streets, holding the hands of their children who, in turn, were crying hysterically. Some were carrying suitcases with their most valued possessions, but all of them were headed for the ships. It was our job to find a place for them to wait until they could be put onto a ship. They were safe on the wharf because the army was still in charge there, for the time being.

Away from the wharf, in the streets of Bone, it was every man for himself. The French gendarmes had left the country, and the law had broken down completely. More and more Arabs were taking revenge on the few settlers who were still in the country and former employees were looting their masters’ houses. The Fellaghas in Bone were also killing any Arabs who had been collaborating with the French people. But, as always, the Jews were in an even worse position. Almost all of those who had been running businesses had been murdered by unruly gangs, who then ran off with the spoils. Once again blood was spilling all over Algeria.

12 June 1962. The evacuation of Algeria was continuing at a frantic rate as there was only a few days remaining before we had to be out. We were working around the clock with only a few hours rest here and there. The boats were on a continual round trip, day and night, between Bone and Marseilles and we had to load each one as quickly as possible. But we had been given extra tasks as well. At 5 p.m. each day, we had to leave the safety of the wharf and conduct a patrol through the streets of Bone in order to help the last of the settlers to the ships. These settlers had left it too late to depart and were hiding in buildings around the city. The Fellaghas were in control of the city, but they had made an agreement with us. In order to maintain some semblance of peace, we were given leave to patrol a given route through the city and assist the, or had collaborated with the French had to be ignored. Our Officers had commanded us to cooperate with our ex–enemy, to be polite to them and to follow their instructions. Provided we did so, there would be no danger to us.

My patrol route was from the wharf to the main avenue, Boulevard Bertagna, then to the Cathedral and back to the wharf through a side street. One evening when we were near the Cathedral, two women came running down from a four–story building, holding the hands of three small children. Moments later a man of about 40, holding a suitcase in each hand, threw himself into our midst for protection. He had been hiding in the entrance to a building. We escorted them along the road a short way when we came across a man lying in a pool of blood. He was dead. He’d obviously been caught on the street alone. One of the women couldn’t take her eyes off the man, but we jostled her along towards the wharf. Later we learned that the dead man was her husband.

Virtually all of the people we picked up were in a panic and many of them were crying hysterically. They would block themselves into their apartments and wait for our patrol. They couldn’t show any signs of preparing to leave for fear of arousing the Arab’s attention. To do so would mean certain death. So they gathered only their most precious possessions, ones that they could easily carry, hid themselves and watched for us. At times, some of their most faithful servants, those who had worked for the settlers all their lives, waited with them. Mothers drilled their children on what to do when our patrol came along. On one patrol we rescued eight people. The Arabs never attacked them when they were in our midst.

Sometimes our patrol arrived too late. The hiding settlers had been spotted by the Arabs and had been killed. Often their bodies had been tossed out of upstairs windows. It was emotionally very difficult to witness these gory scenes. One evening we rescued a small four–year old girl who was standing, crying, next to her murdered parents. For some unknown reason, she had been spared, so we took her to the wharf and arranged for her to be handed to the social services.

On one patrol we rescued two couples with their children and one of their faithful Arab servants. They wanted to take him to France with them – he was part of their family. As we arrived at the gates of the wharf, we spotted an F.L.N. patrol who had been waiting for us to come back. This was not unusual. They delighted in checking us before we entered the protected area of the wharf, as it showed that they were now in control. Of course, the group that we had rescued were terrified and the women started to cry, and so did the children. They were only two metres from safety, but the Fellaghas, armed with modern weapons, ordered us to stop. I saluted their Sergeant, but he ignored me.

“We are just checking who you are taking with you to France,” he said, in perfect French.

The old Arab servant was trying his best to hide between the settlers. The Fellaghas pointed their guns at the group.

“You have someone in your group who doesn’t belong to you,” said the Sergeant.

“No.” I replied. “We don’t have anyone who belongs to you.”

But the Sergeant meant business. He looked at me arrogantly, determined to assert himself as an efficient Officer of the new Algerian authority. Two of his soldiers elbowed their way into the group and used their guns to violently push the old Arab out of it.

One of the women screamed, “He belongs to us! We want to take him to France.”

“This man does not belong to you!” the Sergeant shouted to me.

I looked at him, with a surprised expression on my face.

“This one here,” he said, pointing to the old Arab, who was resigned to his fate.

“No. He belongs to this family. He’s worked for them all his life and they want to take him to France with them. He’s just an old man. Let him go, please!” I pleaded.

“Let him go, please,” sobbed one of the women. “Haven’t you any pity?”

The Fellagha Sergeant ignored the woman completely and his men dragged the old man to a wall and shot him dead. He was a collaborator and his death was just another example of what happened to any Algerian trying to escape the country. The old Arab was only a few metres from freedom, but there was nothing we could do to save him. We went through the gates to the wharf with heavy hearts.

The Fellaghas were extremely hard and cruel men. They were completely lacking in emotion and compassion, and they were determined to take their revenge against any Algerian who tried to defect the country, and anyone who did not belong there. I couldn’t wait to leave.

14 June 1962. We had to spend the night on the wharf as the ships had to be loaded as quickly as possible. There were still hundreds of settlers and their families waiting to board the ships. They were all very distressed. Some of the women had been raped, and some of the men had sustained terrible wounds as they fought for their lives against their former employees. They all clung to the few possessions that they had managed to escape with. As we helped family after family along the gangplank, we heard time and time again, of narrow escapes from the Arabs. Often it was their servants and employees who attacked them, either to seek revenge or to take over their houses and material possessions.

Amazingly, amid all this chaos, murder, killing, reprisals, looting and raping, we could still travel back and forth to the farm on the plains of Bone where we were camped. So far, we weren’t in any danger.

15 June 1962. We heard that punishments for the mutineers were still being carried out and that two soldiers, Dovecar and Piegts, had been executed by firing squad. Meanwhile, we were getting more and more exhausted from the tremendous work load and the long hours working on the wharf. Whenever there were a few minutes to spare between tasks, I walked to the end of the wharf and sat on a narrow dike made of concrete blocks. I just watched the sea and the ships, loaded with soldiers and settlers, returning to France. Sometimes someone would wave goodbye, and it made me consider my own return to France and how I would cope with civilian life once again. I had been ‘reprogrammed’ by the army to survive military life. The values I held and the skills I had to live among normal people were gone. Furthermore, much had happened to me during my time in Algeria. I’d had so many emotional upheavals, especially the death of Joncquet and seeing the state that my friend, Chretien was now in, that I didn’t seem to be able to react anymore to any distressful situation. Everything, all the horrible memories, kept tumbling through my mind and falling into a jumbled heap. I only had three months left to serve but I was burnt out, completely lacking energy or drive. Everything seemed too hard and the days passed so much more slowly than they did at the beginning of my military service.

When we got back to our camp that evening I found out that I was in trouble and would receive punishment. The Captain had done a tour of the three farms occupied by the Pioneers whilst we were at the wharf, and he found some left over bread, spread with jam in our quarters. I had to sign my own punishment report. It read: ‘Sergeant Fiset has put the life of his colleagues at risk by spreading disease. His punishment is four days of confinement in his room. ‘So, while everyone went to work under tight schedules at the Bone wharf, helping to rescue civilians, and where my help was greatly needed, I had to stay at the farm in my room. It was very strange indeed.

The Captain hardly left the farm that he was on, either. He was living in total fear, and when he did venture out, he carried a pistol in his belt and had two bodyguards right behind him.

“He doesn’t have a clear conscience,” said Loti.

“Or maybe he’s scared that he won’t live to enjoy his fat pension,” said another of the fellows.

We were only days away from the referendum on the Independence of Algeria, and the O.A.S. was making a last–ditch attempt to stop it by bombing many of the cities in Algeria. On an average, over 120 bombs were exploded each day, killing many innocent civilians, particularly children. Many others were disfigured or maimed for life. The bombing made it even more dangerous to rescue settlers in the streets of Bone. One bomb exploded in a café right next to where we were patrolling, and we just had time to throw ourselves under some parked cars for protection. The situation was so bad that the patrols were called off, so in Bone, it was every man for himself. Bodies were lying everywhere on the streets, some killed by bombs and others by the Arabs, in retaliation. What a disaster.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 26

LEAVING ALGERIA

 

1 July 1962. It was an important day for the Algerian people, probably one of the most important days of their lives, one that they had been waiting for eight years. They were going to vote at a referendum on whether or not to become independent.

“What a stupid question to ask after such bloodshed,” said Maillet. “It would’ve been better if at the start, eight years ago, we’d asked them if they wanted to become an independent state.”

When the referendum results came out they were as expected. About six million people voted for independence, and a mere sixteen and a half thousand voted against it. We heard the results on our transistor radios and the whole company exploded with excitement, clapping their hands and laughing. We were happy for the Algerian people but, above all, we were happy for ourselves, the conscripts. There was not even the slightest chance that we would have to stay in Algeria. The country had won the war and won their independence, but what a price they’d had to pay for it.

3 July 1962. During a brief ceremony the High Commissioner of France handed over to Abderahmane Fares, President of the newly–born state, a letter from General De Gaulle which recognised the Algerian Independence.

As soon as he heard this, the Captain gathered us in the yard of the farm where he was staying.

“Today the Algerians have won their independence so from now on we have to consider ourselves inside their territory. So I am asking you to stay quietly on the farm and avoid wandering on the road, in case of problems. Above all do not provoke the Algerians or insult them,” he announced.

He was right. As soon as the Algerian people heard the news they burst into joy. On the bitumen road next to the farm we could see hundreds of cars speeding past with youths hanging out of the windows, holding their new flags, screaming slogans and discharging their guns into the air. We could hear music and revelling coming from the small villages near the farm. We could see the new Algerian flags waving above all the houses and fences in the area. It was obvious that the whole population was erupting in excitement. But we, being one of the only French army units left in Algeria, barring of course, those at the wharf, started to feel quite vulnerable.

“The Captain was right. We’d better keep a low profile today,” said Pouzache.

“At least we don’t have to go to work at Bone today. After all, we’ve got no weapons to defend ourselves with!” said another of the chaps.

“Yes,” answered Pouzache. “You never know when their happiness can turn into something much more sinister.”

So we stayed quietly on the farm, pondering the horrific losses on both sides, and marvelling that the French army had made sure that no–one ever knew the truth of this. They never published the figures on French military losses.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, when it was still dark outside, we were awakened by yelling and screaming coming from the courtyard. The Officers were yelling orders. It reminded us of the days when we were being summoned to repair the Barrage. Obviously something important was happening. We ran down the staircase and lined up in our platoons, and minutes later Captain Nicols arrived in his jeep. This was very unusual. He looked tense and nervous as he stood next to his two body guards. It was the first time we’d seen him away from the farm that he’d been staying on.

“I wonder what’s happening now,” whispered Maillet.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “but it must be important, so be ready for it boys. Action once again!”

Captain Nicols moved to the middle of the square to explain our new situation.

“We’ve just been informed by the Algerian Army of Liberation that we have to leave these farms no later than 10 a.m. today. So pack your belongings immediately, and take only the bare minimum with you. Everything is to be left clean and tidy. Above all, don’t wreck anything.”

Then, in an emotional and choked voice he said, “Let’s have our flag ceremony for the last time in Algeria.”

The bugler moved to the flag post and started to play the song known as ‘The Flag’. All the Officers and soldiers stood at attention and saluted the flag. It was a solemn and touching moment for all of us. Then, while we all remained at attention, the flag was slowly lowered and folded up by one of the older Warrant Officers. It was then put carefully into a wooden box, ready to be taken back to France.

As soon as the ceremony was over, the farm became a beehive of activity. Everyone dived into their quarters to pack their belongings. Each of us emptied our wooden crates, the ones that we had constructed, used to store our most precious possessions, and had carted from camp to camp over the past two or more years. I looked at my box and wished that I could take it back to France with me as a souvenir. My box had become a part of me, a security object, and I was sad to let it go. I had written hundreds of letters to my family on it, but we had to be ready to travel hastily and lightly, so the box had to be abandoned. Like everyone else, I hastily but carefully removed the drawing pins from my photos, and packed them, my letters and my calendar with the tally of my days of service into a small suitcase.

We had no idea where we were going. No–one had told us.

“Perhaps they don’t know themselves!” one of the chaps suggested.

“It doesn’t matter to me where we go,” replied another of the men. “I’ll be pleased to leave this place. We’re completely surrounded by Fellaghas and they’re going to get more and more aggressive.”

“Well,” said Pouzache, thinking logically. “This is the end of our time here, so it’ll have to be the wharf at Bone.”

By nine o’clock the trucks were loaded and ready to go. The Officers checked that everything had been loaded and that no–one was missing, and Lieutenant Bayard carried out one last roll call. The trucks couldn’t return if anyone was missing. One of the Lieutenants shouted last minute instructions to the drivers.

“We have to stick together, all the way to Bone,” he yelled.

We hadn’t eaten, but when Bayard gave the order to the drivers to leave, we were all more than happy to go, and at last we knew for sure where we were headed. The Captain’s command car was in the middle of the convoy, and he was sitting in the back with his body guards. The Officers were all tense. We were the last French Army convoy to retreat from Algeria and we had to drive without any means of protection. No–one knew how the Algerian population was going to react.

Shortly after our convoy of trucks had reached the bitumen road, we were stopped by another convoy of trucks belonging to the Algerian Army of Liberation. Some Fellaghas were standing on the road, armed with their new Russian guns.

Echoes of, “Oh no! The Fellagha army!” rang through the truck that I was in.

“All of you, restrain yourselves,” warned Sergeant Chief Pujol. “The convoy is here waiting for us so that they can take over the farm.”

“Where are you going?” shouted one of the Fellagha Officers, addressing Lieutenant Bayard, and pointing his shining new automatic gun at him.

“We have orders to retreat to Bone,” quietly answered Bayard, looking straight at him.

“We have to check your trucks before you go there,” said the Fellagha.

“Everyone stay quiet.” warned Pujol again.

Without another word or a smile, the Fellaghas checked all the trucks, one by one, and they peered closely at each and every one of us.

“They’re checking to make sure that there are no Algerians amongst us,” said Pouzache.

But the few Berbers that had been doing their military duty in our Company had deserted weeks ago.

“One of my Officers will accompany you to Bone, for your own protection,” the Fallagha Officer told Lieutenant Bayard. “He’ll leave you as soon as you arrive there.”

The two Offers saluted each other and we resumed our journey.

“What a joke! Now we have to have Fellaghas to protect us! The world has turned upside down,” said Loti, once we were on our way again.

“At least I wrecked the toilet on the farm, before going,” said Gougeon, obviously proud of himself for disobeying the orders of the Captain.

We all broke into laughter.

We reached Bone without incident and the F.L.N. Officer who was accompanying us departed. Once again we were relieved. We’d reached our destination safely and we joined the remnants of the French army on the wharf, literally thousands of them. They were camping there, sleeping on the ground and surviving on rations. And there were still thousands of settlers there as well. They’d left it until the last minute to leave, hoping that circumstances would change, allowing them to stay. But they’d had to escape and could take nothing with them, not even their precious photos.

Amidst all of this I was very aware that this was the last stop of my horrendous tour of duty in Algeria. I still had sixty days of military service left and that would be the end of it, but for now, I was impatient to go home to France, once and for all.

The army was doing everything possible to load the ships, one after another, as quickly as possible, and the ships were still making round trips to Marseilles and back, as fast as they could. The wharf was in complete chaos and was swamped with troops who had come from distant places, like the Sahara. I likened it to the chaos that would have arisen when the Titanic was sinking, and the passengers and crew were scrambling for the lifeboats. A few special police units of the army were trying to maintain some sort of order by threatening the worst offenders with their hand guns.

As bad as it was on the wharf, it was worse inside the city of Bone. Since the granting of Independence, law and order had been disregarded completely. Any civilians still in the city had little hope of survival. The F.L.N. army were attempting to maintain some sort of order, but to little avail. Groups of F.L.N. soldiers began arriving from the Atlas Mountains. They were well equipped with automatic weapons and they shot, on sight, anyone seen looting or committing other offences. In the evenings the city was lit up by fires and the screaming of people. I’m sure it was survival of the fittest out there. We were forbidden to leave the wharf and go into Bone as it was too dangerous. Not that we needed telling – no–one wanted to fall into the hands of the Fellaghas, and, even though we had previously bought food at some of the shops, most of them had been looted and burned down.

We’d been told by our Officers to stay put until we embarked on a ship. We survived on cold rations and some water which had been carried to the wharf in army trucks. My platoon found a place at the end of the wharf, right under a huge crane and we camped there on the cobblestones. The whole battalion stuck together and even our Officers joined us. It was comforting for me that I was there with Loti, Pouzache, Maillet and Godefroy, and the many other friends that I had made.

“The information that I’ve been given is that we have to sleep here for four nights and we’ll embark on a ship called the ‘Plumier’,” Lieutenant Bayard told us.

Our faces dropped. It was going to be a long four days indeed.

“There’s no choice,” said Bayard. “The materials and equipment have to go before the personnel.”

So we resigned ourselves to our fate, and made ourselves as comfortable as possible.

“At least our next stop will be France!” said Loti.

3 July 1962. Amazingly, a few settlers were still managing to get to the safety of the wharf, arriving in the middle of the night. Almost a million settlers had already left Algeria and we heard that the city of Marseilles was no longer able to cope with the thousands of refugees arriving each day. The Social Welfare section of the army was incapable of handling large numbers too, so most of the settlers arriving in Marseilles were sleeping in the open air, in the streets, the railway station, the town hall, or anywhere else that they could find a spot.

Meanwhile, the Algerian people were fighting each other for the settlers’ homes and belongings. The Christian churches had already been desecrated or transformed into mosques, and the graveyards of the Christians had been irreverently demolished. The war memorials had been mutilated and even the names of the streets had already been taken down and replaced with Arabic names, mainly the names of the rebel leaders or martyrs, as they were so called, who had died for the independence of Algeria. The hatred of the Algerian people towards the settlers was so great that nothing reminiscent of them was left standing.

5 July 1962. We listened to the news on our transistor radios most of the time and we were able to keep abreast of what was happening around us. Two French Officers used explosives to blow up the monument that commemorated the landing of the French army in Algeria on the 14th of June, 1830, at Sidi Ferruch. That was where the whole problem started, 132 years ago. At Oran the Fellaghas stormed a downtrodden part of the city and cut the throats of about 1,500 settlers who had decided to stay, despite what was happening. It was another monstrous blood bath. General Katz, the French army Officer still in charge of the retreat in that part of Algeria, did nothing to stop them. He was afraid of upsetting the F.L.N.

Meanwhile, throughout Algeria another huge manhunt was on. The Fellaghas were looking for any Algerians who had been working for the French settlers, and those who had served in the French army. Their main target was the Harkis, the Algerians who had faithfully served in the French army all of their working lives. These poor men were virtually delivered by France, unarmed, into the hands of their enemy. Despite trying to hide, the Fellaghas hunted them out and statistics, later provided by both sides, showed that over one hundred and fifty thousand Harkis were murdered in the first few weeks following the granting of Independence. Sadly, the families of these men were also murdered.

Lieutenant Bayard came from the Administration base on the wharf with a handful of documents giving directives to our Company.

“We will embark on the ‘Plumier’ on the 6th of July and when we reach Marseilles the class of conscripts 60 1 B will be free of their military duty!” he announced.

A loud, “Thank you, Sir!” rang out.

“Class 60 1 B is ours, Christian!” screamed Pouzache. “It means it’s the end. We’ve done it! I can’t believe it!”

What incredible news. It hardly seemed real. We were going to be free sooner than we had expected. We were all excited and started jumping around and hugging each other.

“Our nightmare is finally over!” yelled Loti.

Indeed, our military service was being cut by two months and no sooner had it been announced than bottles of alcohol mysteriously appeared and we all had a celebration drink. This news changed our whole position. As we wandered around the wharf, we no longer needed to salute anyone or to be fearful of Adjutants or Officers. The Officers, in turn, ignored us completely.

We were getting ready to spend our last night on the concrete wharf when a Captain from the Infantry ran up to us.

“I’m looking for two Sergeants who are willing to leave now,” he said.

As soon as I heard this I shrank back in my corner. It sounded like another horrible mission, similar to many others that we had been sent on without warning. In fact, everyone froze, their happiness replaced by apprehension.

“I need two Sergeants to accompany two plane loads of settlers to Marseilles,” said the Captain.

Loti put his hand up immediately, then turned to me and said, “Are you coming with me Christian?”

“Yes, I will!” I said, surprising even myself.

A jeep was waiting for us and Loti and I just had time to throw our personal belongings into it and climb in. Within seconds we were gone. We’d left the Company that we had served in for two years, and we hadn’t even had time to shake hands or say goodbye to anyone.

The jeep wove through the thousands of soldiers on the wharf, went out through the gate and turned towards the Bone airport a few kilometres away. As soon as we reached the road our progress was blocked by a check point which was manned by a hard–core company of F.L.N.

“Don’t say anything,” whispered the Captain to us. “Just stay quiet.”

The Fellaghas surrounded the jeep. They didn’t look at all friendly and we knew that they were ‘trigger happy’, so we meekly followed their orders.

“Get out! Now! All of you!” ordered one of their Sergeants, in perfect French. How humiliating it must have been for the Captain to be spoken to and treated in such a way by a mere Sergeant, an ex–enemy.

We got out of the jeep and raised our hands. Two Fellaghas wielding a machine gun, pushed us into a room adjacent to the blockade.

Loti looked at me as if to say, “Here we go again, another difficult situation. We have to stay calm and not provoke them. “We had certainly been in worse situations.

An Officer checked all our papers and stamped them, then thoroughly searched each of us. They were looking for evidence of any wrong doing on our part while we’d been in Algeria.

Our suitcases were viciously kicked over and our personal belongings were thrown out in all directions. The Fellaghas knew only too well that some French conscripts were taking gruesome souvenirs home with them, in particular, body parts of Algerians that they had killed during military operations. Previous searches had uncovered numerous glass jars of alcohol with fingers, ears, noses and even penises in them. Naturally, the Fellaghas weren’t about to overlook this, but, finding nothing, they threw our papers back to us and left us to stuff our belongings back into our suitcases. They had only spoken in Arabic, so we had no idea what was said.

When we reached the airport, we found it full of settlers, thousands of them. They were happy to be alive and with their families, having narrowly escaped the knife of the Fellaghas. The army was organising an evacuation to Marseilles.

Loti and I followed the Captain through the mass of people then started to assist in the evacuation. Our job was to push the right number of people through the gate to the planes, almost twice as many as the plane would normally carry. It was bedlam, Mothers were trying to hold onto their children, and husbands didn’t want to be separated from their wives. Older people were in danger of being trampled over and children were crying because they were being squashed by the crowds around them. It was difficult to close the gate when the right number of people had passed through.

The planes were old DC4s, and we were told that they had been going back and forth to France, 24 hours a day. The pilots had been working exceptionally long shifts for weeks, and they were absolutely worn out.

The engines of the DC4s were roaring on the tarmac. The noise reminded me of the battle on the Barrage. Loti had to escort the first group and they were ready to leave. We spoke quickly as he ran past me across the tarmac.

“I’ll catch up with you, in Marseilles, Christian,” he said. “I’ll wait in the main hall of the railway station.”

Then it was my turn to go. I climbed inside the plane which was packed. People were sitting in the aisles and I hoped that no one would need the toilets. It was impossible to move. Most of the people were crying. They were leaving the land where they were born, and they were leaving with nothing. Miraculously the overloaded plane took off.

Through a window of the plane I looked for the last time at Algeria, Massif (Mount) Edough, the Cape de la Guarde, and the rocky shore around Bone. Within minutes we were flying over the blue Mediterranean.

“Goodbye Algeria.” I whispered. My adventure there was over. I had survived, and I was still in one piece, and standing.

[
**]
p=. CHAPTER 27

HOME TO NORMANDY

 

We landed in Marseilles and the chaos in the airport was indescribable. There were families huddled together and returned servicemen everywhere, and the army was trying to shift them as quickly as possible. They were taking truckload after truckload of them to the military camp at Saint Marthe and others were being shuttled by truck, to the railway station. Metre by metre I pushed my way through the crowds, slowly making my way to the airport gates where I was able to climb into one of the trucks going to the railway station, Gare Saint Charles. But when I got there I found absolute pandemonium. There were people camped everywhere, thousands and thousands of them. The great hall was full and every other space, even the enormous stone staircase leading into the building was so heavily populated that it was very difficult to make my way through them and get to the ticket office. Groups of army personnel were distributing blankets and ration boxes to the people to help them survive, and some soldiers were setting up hundreds of stretchers in the great hall. At least a few people would be able to lie down. I was told that some of the people had been there for weeks. The settlers from Algeria were refugees. They had no–where to go.

I kept looking for Loti. I knew that he was here somewhere, but there were so many people that I eventually gave up the search. Besides, I was completely exhausted from lack of sleep and decent food. It was impossible to reach the platform, but by sheer luck I managed to find an empty spot inside a small building, which turned out to be the control room for the trains. I wrapped myself up in my great coat and lay down on the wooden floor next to the machinery, using my bag as a pillow. For the first time in 26 months I was free of military duty. There were no Officers to give me orders, call me for duty, or give me missions that would endanger my life. But I no longer had friends around me either. The nightmare was over and I relaxed. I soon fell into a deep sleep and didn’t wake up until the following morning.

6 July 1962. It was 5 am when I opened my eyes, and at first, I didn’t know where I was. I left the control room and pushed my way through the crowds once again, looking for any friends, but I saw no–one I knew. I was so used to having a lot of chaps around me twenty– four hours a day, that I was desperate to find someone I knew. Loti would have arrived shortly before me, but I couldn’t find him. I looked for the red and black insignia of the Pioneer battalion, but I found none. I felt that I had lost everyone. I squatted down for a while, wondering if I was dreaming. I was not used to being alone. Eventually I got up and managed to force my way onto a train bound for Paris. I struggled through the packed carriages and eventually I found a spot to sit in during the long trip.

7 July 1962. When we arrived my heart raced. Paris! The city of light! The city where I was born! It was summer and the trees were covered in leaves, the gardens were full of flowers, and everywhere I looked I saw beauty. People were walking along the streets, hand in hand, talking quietly, and smiling at each other. Mothers were taking their children to school and young people were sitting in the cafe’s on the terrace, talking and laughing with each other. I was sure that none of them had any idea about the tragedy that had happened, indeed, was still happening in Algeria, and I was just as sure that they wouldn’t even be interested in hearing about it. I went into a cafe’ and sat down at a table, but I felt isolated and out of place. People looked at me as if to say, “He’s one of them – the fellows who lost Algeria. They couldn’t win the war!” I’m sure that others were thinking that I was one of the chaps who tortured the Algerian people on a daily basis. Certainly, neither I nor the other returned conscripts were looked upon as heroes. We were not welcomed back home – there was no brass band, no one to guide us or give us assistance. We’d been discarded by the army, just like an empty can thrown into a bin. They no longer had any use for us. The war was over and ‘losers’ of war, are never treated as champions. No one wanted to know us.

In the early afternoon I made my way to Gare Saint Lazarehe railway station where I caught a train to Normandy. In two and a half hours I would be back in Caen, back to the place I left 26 months ago, but at the time I felt lost. My comrades would no longer be a part of my life, and I felt sad. Through all the adversities and hardships, the terror and the atrocities, we had given each other strength. No–one else could possibly understand what we had been through.

The train going to Normandy was almost empty, but I spotted another conscript, like me, sitting on his own and looking out of the window.

“Good afternoon!” I said to him.

I smiled and sat down opposite to him, happy to have found another soldier to talk to. But he didn’t answer my greeting. He didn’t even look at me.

“Coming back from Algeria?” I asked. (I’d noticed the badges on his sleeves.)

He glanced at me, but his eyes had no spark in them. Immediately I thought of my dear friend, Chretien when I saw him on the ship in Bone.

“Are you going to Caen like I am?” I asked him.

There was a short pause before I heard him whisper, “Lisieux.”

“You’ll be there in few minutes!” I said.

I figured that he probably hadn’t seen his family since he started his military duty in Algeria, and I also realised that the burnout that he was suffering from would take months, perhaps years to recover from.

“Lisieux! Lisieux!” I listened to the announcement over the loud speaker as we approached the station, but the other chap didn’t move or show of excitement or reaction at all.

“This is your city!” I said to him. “Quick – you have to leave the train now. You’ve arrived at your destination.”

He still didn’t move. I looked closely at him and saw that he was sobbing. He was overcome with emotion and was incapable of moving. So I grabbed his suitcase from the rack above him, took him by the arm and led him out of the carriage. There was a crowd of people on the platform, and I hoped that his family was among them. Then I heard someone calling, “Laurent! Laurent!” and a woman, presumably his mother, ran towards him, embraced him and kissed him, all the while crying uncontrollably. A man and a girl, probably his father and sister, ran up and hugged him, and within moments he was surrounded by other family members. But Laurent stood there, showing no emotion or affection for his family. In fact, it was almost as if he didn’t know them. I knew that it would take him a long time to adjust to civilian life and to overcome the mental problems that the war had left him with.

Four p.m. I finally arrived in Caen, my city, and I knew that this time it was for good. I didn’t have to go back. I stood in the great hall of the railway station and remembered standing there in my civilian clothes, holding a small suitcase, saying goodbye to my family, and laughing with my friends, other conscripts, about the great adventure we were going on. How innocent we’d been. We were completely unaware of what was in store for us. I thought of all the people I’d met during my military service and wondered where they were now. Being in the army was like being on a conveyor belt – there was no stopping for a rest, and no getting off if you didn’t like where it was taking you. The weak, fragile and unlucky were thrown aside, injured or killed, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had survived the journey. Now I was standing in the railway station alone, still alive but with a broken spirit. My wounds were not physical. They were in my head.

I’d let my parents know that I was coming and my mother was there, waiting for me, standing in front of my father, both of them looking so happy. They’d been waiting for this moment for a long time, as had the parents and families of every conscript. They had lived in fear of the gendarmes appearing in the street and stopping in front of their house to announce bad news. My mother told me that the gendarmes had, in fact, knocked on their front door one day, and that my father had opened the door and braced himself for the worst. The gendarmes had given their usual spiel, “We are sorry to tell you that your son has died in the field of honour. “Before they’d finished speaking my mother had run to her room and collapsed on the bed, completely overcome with anguish. My father had stood there, frozen with shock and unable to do or say anything. Then the gendarmes had continued. “Mr Lesveque, your son’s body will be here in a few days. We will advise you when and where to collect his body for the funeral.” It was then that my father sprang to life.

“I’m not Mr. Lesveque! Mr. Lesveque lives on the other side of the street. I’m Mr. Fiset!” he exclaimed.

The two gendarmes went red in the face. They were very embarrassed, realising the horrible mistake that they had made. They excused themselves and quickly crossed to the other side of the road to advise the poor folks there of the terrible news. It turned out that the Lesveque’s son had been killed, along with his whole platoon, during an operation in the Djebel. The French air force had mistaken them for Fellaghas and had dropped a napalm bomb on them, incinerating them and leaving very little of their bodies for burial. That night, the Lesveque household was silent. The terrible news had devastated them. My parents were good friends of the Lesveques and faced a real dilemma: should they go to them and try to support them, or should they leave them to mourn and postpone their visit until the sad news was more generally known. Furthermore, my mother and father were emotionally very bewildered. On the one hand they were jubilant that I was still alive, but on the other, they were very sad for their friends.

Nothing had changed at home and I delighted in being with my parents during dinner, but I was feeling overwhelmed by everything. They soon realised that I was on the brink of collapsing, so as soon as dinner was over, they urged me to retire to my room. I lay down on the soft bed, not even bothering to undress. I fell sound asleep and it wasn’t until 11 a.m. the next morning that I awoke. I sat up on the bed, but it took me a few moments to remember where I was.

7 July 1962. I knew that my ordeal was over and that I had finished my military duty, but my brain couldn’t seem to really comprehend it. Except for a cut on the head, and a considerable weight loss (I was now very thin, barely 55 kilos), I had come through unscathed, but nothing felt right.

My two sisters arrived and I was overjoyed to see them again. I had missed both of them a great deal. They hadn’t changed at all, and they were happy and thankful to have me back home. They listened attentively to what I had to say, and they didn’t ask any questions. When they chattered about things in general, their talk was music to my ears, and their sweetness was a world apart from the violence that surrounded me just two days ago. But again, I was having difficulty. I was accustomed to using the crude and colourful language of soldiers, and, not wanting to upset my sisters, I had to think twice about what I said and how I said it. I had lost the skill of behaving like a gentleman, and I had lost the ability to communicate with anyone outside of the army.

Within a day or so I had developed a severe problem. I was unable to sleep. I wasn’t used to being in a warm and comfortable room, but even more disconcerting, I wasn’t used to being alone. My only companion, now, was silence.

In Algeria, my hearing ability had developed amazingly. I could detect and analyse any sound very quickly. We all could. This was especially evident while on duty on the Barrage, at night. We could hear the far–away sound of a mortar shell falling into a mortar tube, and we could even tell, by the sound of its whistling in the sky, how close to us the deadly projectile would fall. We could differentiate between each shell that passed overhead; what size they were and which guns they were coming from. We could distinguish between the rattling of the AA52 machine guns and the M50 machine guns. The noise produced by our own MAT 49s was unique. Being able to detect these sounds helped us to avoid being killed.

During our time in Algeria we slept with our guns under our pillows, with the safety locks on. But at the smallest sound outside of our tents, we could hear some of our comrades unlocking the safety catches on their guns, ready to fire instantly, if necessary. We weren’t supposed to do this, but most of the men did. It was hard to sleep knowing that the fellow in the next stretcher had a gun pointing in your direction, and that the slightest touch on the trigger would be likely to riddle you with bullets. Now, the slightest noise in my parents’ house sent me into a panic attack. My whole body would tremble and shake uncontrollably. If anyone as much as scratched their plate with their knife during dinner, I would have to run into the garden for a few minutes to recover. I tried to control my fear and to hide it, but my parents realised that I was having problems.

As the days passed, my psychological problems grew much worse instead of getting better. It was so difficult to shift from army life to the civilian world. The indoctrination into army life had been efficient and powerful. Life at home was largely directed by the clock, but in the army, time wasn’t important. We were on duty 24 hours a day. Furthermore, I found it difficult to listen to people and to concentrate. My own speech was muddled and I had difficulty in finishing sentences. When the subject of Algeria was brought up in conversation, I was incapable of making any comment at all. What could I say? Where could I start? How could I explain what had happened in Algeria, and how could I describe the fear that we all lived with? It was better to say nothing. Silence became my best friend.

The army knew very well what they were doing by dressing us in uniforms and destroying our personalities, and by replacing them with ones of their own making so that we lost all sense of self and developed group ideology. The army had transformed us into obedient robots, following orders mindlessly. I realised that the adjustment to civilian life was going to be difficult and would take a long time. I knew that I would have to reprogram my mind to the way it used to be. But it was easier said than done. I felt inadequate and out of my depth for the first few weeks at home. I was depressed and often withdrew to my room, sometimes contemplating suicide so that the dreadful memories which haunted me, would stop. At other times, strangely enough, I considered rejoining the army. I felt that I would never be able to fit into civilian life again.

12 July 1962. Because of the peaceful rest which I was getting and the good food that my mother prepared for me, I was getting stronger physically, but I was still having sleep problems.

No matter what I did to try to stop them, I had recurring nightmares. They were always the same. I would be walking in single file with my whole company, on a narrow track carved from the side of a cliff in the Medjerda Mountains. It was always dark and I couldn’t see the faces of my comrades. The track was always covered in snow and I could hear the noise our shoes made as we walked along. Then, all of a sudden, the fellow in front of me would slip from the track and start falling towards the valley below; towards a certain death. He always managed to grab the roots of some of the bushes and he always called to me for help. I would put out my hand and try to reach him and he would try to grab hold of it. His face was always distorted by fear, and suddenly I would recognise him. It was always my best friend, Joncquet. I would struggle to take hold of his hand and save him, but just as I was about to grab hold of him, the roots that he was clinging to would break, and, with a loud scream, he would plunge to his death.

I would wake up startled, out of breath with my heart pounding, and I would be drenched in perspiration. Then, petrified that the nightmares would return, I would be unable to go back to sleep. My concentration span was so short that I wasn’t able to read so I would stand in front of my bedroom window and stare out at the world. But from the window I could see the graveyard of the Blanche Herbe where my friend Jean Joncquet was buried, so I would spend most of the night anxiously waiting for morning.

The lack of sleep was holding back my recovery, but I didn’t feel that I could tell my parents, or anyone else for that matter, about the nightmares. I didn’t want to worry them, but I’m sure that my mother sensed something was wrong with me.

My uniform had been on a chair in my room, and I found it oddly comforting. I looked at it often, especially my outing jacket with all the badges and insignia on it. It seemed to connect me to my former regiment, and to the friends I had made whilst in service. One morning my mother discretely took it from my room and washed and ironed it, taking extra care with the special fold in the sleeves. I couldn’t understand why. I would never wear it again. But she packed it all up into a plastic bag, including my rangers. She knew that it was time for me to return it, even though it would be painful for me to break my last connection with the army. I carried the bag to the nearest police station. A fat policeman was sitting behind the desk, filling in a myriad of administrative papers. He reminded me of Warrant Officer, Ledru, at the Angers barracks.

“Yes?” he asked, without looking at me. “What is it?”

I put the parcel on the counter without saying a word. He looked at me, then threw a paper onto the counter for me to sign. He’d obviously handled this last formality many times before. I signed my name and quickly left the station. I hadn’t spoken at all. My umbilical cord to the army had finally been cut, but as I was walking home, two army Officers came along, walking towards me. For a moment, I didn’t know what to do. Should I salute them? I wondered how long it would take my mind to adjust to the fact that I no longer belonged to an army, to a regiment, a company and a platoon. I was a free man and there were no longer any Officers to control my every action. My mind was like a blackboard that had been covered in writing, but suddenly it had been wiped clean, and I was lost.

On the way home, I walked down the street where Joncquet’s parents lived: No 37, Rue des Rosiers. I stopped by the front door and put my finger on the door bell, but then I froze. What would I say? ‘My name is Christian and I was in the same Company in Algeria as Jean was. He was my best friend. ‘I couldn’t do it. I would have to face his broken–hearted parents, and how could I explain destiny. I would never know why, at the last minute and for some unknown reason, the Captain had ordered Joncquet to take my place in the jeep. I stood on the footpath until the wave of memory passed, then I quickly walked towards home, deciding to come back another time when the deep wounds, both theirs and mine, had healed a little. But of course, these memories triggered others and soon my head was filled with familiar noises, drilling noises that got louder and louder, then screaming and yelling. I closed my eyes and leaned against a wall until the dizziness passed, but it was replaced by a tremendous sadness that rushed through me and invaded my every being. I started to cry. Jean was buried in the graveyard a few hundred metres from my house. His name had been put on a war memorial, along with the many others who had died in Algeria. I’d been to both these places so that the reality of it would finally convince me that I wasn’t dreaming. But I’d gone alone – it wasn’t something that I could share with anyone.

14 July 1962. I had been lying down for days, just resting without once going into the street. I had been overcome by mental fatigue, and this coupled with physical weakness which was only slowly improving, made me want to sleep most of the time. I didn’t even want to see anyone except my mother, who was caring for me with great skill and devotion. She had looked after her father who had been wounded during the First World War, her brother, Maurice, who had been gassed in the trenches, and then her husband, my father, who had been tortured by the Germans during the Second World War. Now she was looking after me. She would bring my dinner on a tray into my room, and quietly tidy my belongings. Each time she came in, I was dying to ask her if Jeanne had married Pierre, but my courage always failed me. I knew that she would have; it was an arranged marriage, but I wasn’t sure that I could handle the pain that confirmation of it would bring. My mother never mentioned it. My parents would have gone to the wedding, but there were no photos of it in the house. My mother was discrete enough to put any such things aside.

The 14th of July was one of the most important days in France. It was the anniversary of the 1789 Revolution and it was a public holiday. The event was always marked with a great military parade in all the large cities of France, but the one in Paris was the largest, probably the largest one in the world. The French people, seeing the might of their army during these parades, were always reassured that their country was protected. They knew only too well that the Germans had invaded France five times already. This year was the first one since 1939 that France had been at peace, so it was a rather special parade. The news reports said that over one million people lined up along the Champs Elysees in Paris to watch it.

The most popular of the warriors in the procession had always been the Foreign Legion, and they had always taken the rear position in the parade, so the excitement would build as people waited eagerly to see their heroes. Their slow march made them seem much more mysterious than the other regiments, and their heavy Germanic music filled people with sadness. But they looked spectacular. Their Officers, covered in medals, marched in front of their regiments, and a group of veterans, all with long beards, carried the Legion’s flag, which was also covered with medals of distinction. The Legionnaires were the darling of the French people, and the women adored them. They appealed to the romantic notion that they were boys with broken hearts who had joined the Legion in order to forget, and now they were fighting, or had been fighting, somewhere in Algeria, warding off Arab attacks day and night. If only the truth were known. If those women would have witnessed the real Legionnaires in action, their romantic dreams would have come crashing down around them.

At last I felt ready to face the prospect of Jeanne’s marriage, so I plucked up the courage to ask my mother.

She was working in the kitchen and I walked up to her and whispered, “Mum, did the marriage take place or not?”

My mother stopped what she was doing and looked at me sadly. She didn’t need to say anything. I understood. I left the house and went for a long walk in the forest, trying to cope with the unbelievable pain that I felt. My heart was bleeding again, and I knew that it would be difficult for me to get over it.

16 July 1962. I decided to visit my old employer, Mr Lefevre, so I walked to his office, down one of the most beautiful avenues in Caen, the Avenue de la Paix. The footpath was lined with old oak trees on one side, and stunning, double storied, 1920s buildings on the other.

Mr. Lefevre was a talented architect who had won many prizes for his designs. He’d also been successful in winning the bid to design all the schools in Normandy that had been demolished during the war. It was a big project. Mr. Lefevre had been a good employer, patient with me and willing to help me succeed. I’d started in his office as a junior draftsman and, before I was called up, I was working there as a fully qualified architectural draftsman. He had been training me to take over his branch in Caen. I’d always loved working there, standing behind the drawing board and facing the beautiful gardens outside the building.

Through the doorway, I could see Mr. Lefevre, working as usual, still drawing plans of schools. Nothing had changed and I knocked loudly.

“Oh, it’s you Christian,” he said. “Are your Government–paid holidays over?”

“Yes, Mr. Lefevre,” I replied. “I’m free of all military duty now. I’m ready to start work again, if you want me to.”

“What good news.” he exclaimed. “You’ve come at the right time. I can hardly cope with the work on my own, and I’ve not been able to find anyone to replace you. Your drawing table is there, waiting for you. When can you start?”

“Next Monday, if that’s all right with you,” I replied.

“No problems. I’ll look forward to seeing you then, Christian,” he said warmly.

But as I walked home I kept hoping that I would be able to cope the following Monday.

18 July 1962. It was my first day back at work and I walked to the office, trying to look confident, knowing that I would have to wipe out the last twenty–eight months as if they had never happened. Mr. Lefevre showed me some plans and I checked all my drawing equipment which was still there, just as I had left it. Despite his joking attitude, Mr. Lefevre knew that I’d had a terrible time in Algeria. He was a friend of my parents, and I’m sure my mother told him that I’d probably have trouble adjusting. So he just carried on, as usual, in his caring and patient way.

The work hadn’t changed at all. I sat down on the same stool, my equipment on the left and my drawing table at the right, facing the window and the garden. It felt good to be there.

“Chris, I want you to work on the school at Fontenay. They want three classrooms and accommodation for the teachers. The Mayor of Fontenay will be here this afternoon, and he’ll give you a plan of the land and discuss the project with you,” explained Mr. Lefevre.

I had to bite my lip. I was about to answer, “Yes Sir!” army style.

By 10 o’clock we were both working hard on our plans when, all of a sudden and without any warning, my mind went blank. I was standing behind my drawing board with an Indian ink pen in my hand, and dizziness overtook me. I held onto the drawing table and closed my eyes, trying to regain my balance, but my head was spinning out of control. A sharp whistling noise invaded my brain, and it got louder and louder. I covered my ears with my hands, and in so doing, dropped my pen on the floor. I could hear screaming, “Mortars! Mortars! Take cover. Quick! They’re coming.” I could see Sergeant Chief Pujol in front of me, his red face distorted with fear and his blood–shot eyes bulging. “Take cover now, you bloody fool,” I heard him yell. Then I could hear the mortars coming, whistling overhead and exploding close by. I could see the shrapnel flying in every direction. I fell from my stool and hid under my drawing board, holding my ears to block the noise. Within seconds I was drenched with perspiration.

“Please God, help us!” I shouted, but the noise grew worse. Then all of a sudden everything stopped and the noise vanished. I realised that I’d had a panic attack and I tried to pull myself together. How embarrassing for it to happen in front of my employer.

“How are the plans coming, Christian?” asked Mr Lefevre, acting as if everything was normal, although he’d been watching all the time.

My face was covered with sweat but I tried to recover my composure as quickly as I could. I put a smile on my face and looked up at my employer.

“Everything is coming along well,” I replied, trying to hide my inadequacy.

It was so difficult to push from my mind, in a few days, the experiences I’d had during the war. How could I wipe from my mind the noise of the GMC trucks warming their engines in the early morning, waiting to take us to the Barrage? How could I forget the faces of my friends, full of fear as they sat opposite to me in the truck? How could I forget the orders and counter orders blasting from the radio, and the Officers yelling? How could I forget the struggles on the Barrage as we tried to repair it under Fellagha bombardment? How could I eradicate the sound of the mortars and the bombs? Fedj el Ahmed was still alive in my mind and so was Loulidja, El Frin, Roum el Souk, Lacroix, Souk–Ahras and Guelma, and of course the worst of them all, Lamy. How could I ignore the images of the orphaned children, and the friends who had lost their lives in Algeria.

The only thing I could do was to try and reprogram my mind, cast aside the army indoctrination, push aside the terrible memories, and pretend that it was just a bad dream and nothing else. But for now, the school plans needed working on, so I picked up my pen and continued with my task.

The End

[
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p=. ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in Paris, France and brought up in Normandy at the time France was at war with Germany. At the age of one month he was one of the refugees carried in the arms of his mother for two hundred kilometres, joining on the road seven million French women and children trying to reach River Loire in order to be protected by the retreating French Army. Survived the ordeal and was among the few babies to come back alive to Paris suffering from blood poisoning, saved by numerous blood transfusions from his mother. Frail, weak and undernourished child unable to walk for years. He spent a long time in the sanatorium recuperate his strength and walk again once more. Sent as a boarder in a Jesuit Catholic School he developed his very strong sense of resistance and survival. Trained as an Architect draftsman before he was called to serve in the French Army like the other young men in France. From the first day, he was called he faithfully wrote his diary of what he was witnessing of the Algerian War. After his service, he migrated to Australia in 1963. Studied and gained diploma in Special Education at University of Adelaide, obtained the Churchill Scholarship and sent to study Special Education in France, he taught as technical teacher for handicapped children. Retired after 35 years, he lives in Adelaide in a house he designed and built. He occupies himself with drawing cartoons, painting, writing, designing models and enjoys cooking.

[
**]
p=. AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

Some of the dates and most of the names, with the exceptions of Army Leaders and Generals, have been changed to protect the identity of individuals. Any linkages between real names and incidents are purely coincidental.

[
**]
p=. ABOUT THE FEAR

 

A nineteen–year old draftsman Architect Christian Fiset was skinny and underweight separated from his family, friends, work, city and country when called up in the military service like any of all boys of his age. Trained and pushed to the maximum of their abilities to become fully qualified killers with the French Foreign Legion during the war for independence of Algeria. He wrote in his diary the continuous nightmare of the young conscripts, the strong bond of friendship among them and their attempt to save lives of the innocent children from the mines. They face the ordeal of war its causes and consequences of their choices. Caught many time in the crossfire of death and destruction. Christian saw the best and worst of the human nature and became to wonder why the Algerian Fellagas were hated and despised so much by the French settlers who where in total admiration of their own Resistance fighters from the Second World War. He witnessed the dramatic mutiny the Army are divided and the revolt of the generals against de Gaulle. He epitomized the human faces of brutality of war, sorrow, suffering, greed, trust, compassion and heroism. No time to grieve the death of his best friend Joncquet and many of his friends. Christian returns home to France, the atmosphere of civilian life was peaceful but tense; the terrible noise of war is still invading his brain, frightened of painful nightmares. Faced another battle and extremely difficult to get over with, mending a broken heart. He is wounded emotionally.

Author: Gerard Fritsch

Editor–Proofreader: Pam Ciampa–Shulver

Cover Artist: Joffrey Z. Atienza

This book is dedicated to the 350,000 thousand Algerian children who were orphaned as a consequence of the Algerian War of Independence, and also to the thousands of conscripts who were called to serve fortwenty–eight months in terrible conditions, and were forced to fighta futile war which had absolutely nothing to do with them.


THE FEAR

A nineteen-year-old draftsman Architect Christian Fiset was skinny and underweight separated from his family, friends, work, city and country when called up in the military service like any of all boys of his age. Trained and pushed to the maximum of their abilities to become fully qualified killers with the French Foreign Legion during the war for independence of Algeria. He wrote in his diary the continuous nightmare of the young conscripts, the strong bond of friendship among them and their attempt to save lives of the innocent children from the mines. They face the ordeal of war its causes and consequences of their choices. Caught many time in the crossfire of death and destruction. Christian saw the best and worst of the human nature and became to wonder why the Algerian Fellagas were hated and despised so much by the French settlers who where in total admiration of their own Resistance fighters from the Second World War. He witnessed the dramatic mutiny the Army are divided and the revolt of the generals against de Gaulle. He epitomized the human faces of brutality of war, sorrow, suffering, greed, trust, compassion and heroism. No time to grieve the death of his best friend Joncquet and many of his friends. Christian returns home to France, the atmosphere of civilian life was peaceful but tense; the terrible noise of war is still invading his brain, frightened of painful nightmares. Faced another battle and extremely difficult to get over with, mending a broken heart. He is wounded emotionally.

  • ISBN: 9781370829910
  • Author: gerard fritsch
  • Published: 2017-02-26 12:20:18
  • Words: 160289
THE FEAR THE FEAR