The parachute training base at Sully occupied a disused farm and fell far short of the standards expected for the Legion’s elite. To describe the conditions as primitive would be flattery. Old barns, permeated with the ordure of their original occupants, served as dormitories. With no mains water laid on, water became as scarce as being in the middle of the Sahara. Every morning a tanker transported water to the camp, and this provided the only supply, which by midday became warm and undrinkable.
The washroom consisted of a long horse trough exposed to the elements, and with the water being changed every few days, one never felt clean and refreshed. The food tasted vile and not at all nourishing, which introduced hunger as a constant companion. Long trenches dug only a few hundred metres from the dormitories catered for the calls of nature. From a distance the trenches glinted as if coal bunkers, and on approaching, the area buzzed with thick swarms of flies; the accompanying stench defied description. It is not surprising that with the unsanitary conditions, diarrhoea became rife, and some days there was no alternative but to make several visits. Then it was necessary to hold your breath as if diving into watery depths and conduct one’s business as hastily as possible.
My salvation from this hellhole came earlier than expected with a major military flap on the AlgerianTunisian border. We were mustered in answer to the call for support of the all-hands-to-the-pump variety, and mounted into the rear of military trucks, little realising at the time that they would be our home for the next thirty-six hours. From Sully, we travelled almost 1,000 kilometres virtually non-stop on roads which at times were little more than dirt tracks; to view the countryside from the rear of a truck is not very conducive to creating a tourist-like spirit. Nor is the rear of a truck speeding over roads riddled with potholes very conducive to sleep. A rumour circulated that our destination was the Morice Line.
In military technology terms, the Morice Line represented a remarkable achievement and formed an electrified barrier stretching over 350 kilometres along the Algerian/Tunisian frontier, from the coast to the Sahara. A three-metre-high electric fence charged with 5,000 volts formed the centrepiece of the construction.
A fifty-metre-wide strip of cleared land bordered both sides of the fence and was planted with anti-personnel mines. The outside edges of the cleared strips were strewn with continuous barbed wire entanglements.
The prime purpose of the Morice Line was to prevent any Algerians training with the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) in Tunisia from re-entering Algeria. It proved to be very efficient in achieving the desired purpose. Despite the FLN devising many ingenious means to try and make a breakthrough, the line remained virtually impregnable and accounted for the death of thousands of FLN.
During the night prior to our departure from Sully for the Morice Line, a large group of FLN made a successful breakthrough; on our arrival and descending from the trucks, I had the misfortune to be included in a patrol setting out to hunt them down. That our arrival came over thirty-six hours after the incident had taken place and akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted seemed incidental.
A captain in the French Intelligence Service claimed to know the whereabouts of the location where the rebels were hiding, and led the patrol. We set off up steep hills and down precarious descents to the base of deep valleys. After covering about fifteen kilometres, we came to a collection of small abodes and rounded up a group of male inhabitants.
The captain questioned the men and they denied any connection with the FLN. With a smirk, the captain addressed the sergeant of our patrol. “They always at first protest their innocence of having any involvement with the rebels, but they will soon change their minds. Herd them into one of the huts, Sergeant.”
The womenfolk of the commune, milling in a group, stared at us with a mixture of fear and loathing. Their expressions in turn filled me with fear at the thought of the fate awaiting any Legionnaire having the misfortune to fall into their hands. Once the men were pushed into one of the huts and the door closed, the captain ordered the sergeant to set it on fire. The hut ignited into a bonfire, and the crackle of burning timber mingled with the screams from within. After a couple of minutes, the captain laughed, “I suppose we had better let them out before they are burnt to a cinder.”
When released the men became more willing to respond to the captain’s questioning, although they still protested their innocence of being involved with the FLN. One of the group volunteered to lead us to where he believed the FLN had an arms cache. Leaving the rest of the men and women to extinguish the flames of the blazing hut before it spread, we set off once again with the man leading the patrol.
It soon became obvious from our guide’s manner that he had lied in an endeavour to remove the threat we posed to the welfare of his small community, or he had genuinely lost his way. The captain told the patrol to take a break, and in a patronising tone thanked the guide for his invaluable service and informed him he was free to go home. In a servile manner, the guide thanked the captain and assured him the arms cache was somewhere in the area, and then no doubt feeling extremely relieved that his ordeal was over, walked away.
He covered only a few metres before the captain pulled his revolver out of the holster and calmly shot the guide in the back. With a loud scream mixed with sobs the victim fell to the ground. The captain approached and fired the coup de grace into the prone figure’s head. Replacing the revolver, the captain casually remarked, “They never learn, do they?”
The captain displayed not an iota of compassion or guilty conscience over his deed, fully aware that he was under the protection of the Legion’s infamous ‘Collective Responsibility’. This practice introduced by the Legion laid equal blame on all members of a patrol involved in what could be described as criminal acts, regardless of who committed the act. The introduction of such a practice proved to me that whereas the Legion were prepared to condone such acts, they were also aware of public reaction if the truth should be leaked to the media and therefore sought to involve the whole patrol as a safeguard to the Legion’s glorious honour.
We retraced our steps back to the collection of abodes and found the area deserted of any signs of human life. The captain took the inhabitants’ flight as a sign of their involvement with the rebels and ordered the abodes to be burnt to the ground.
Extracted from Colin Wallace’s fascinating memoir, telling of drugs, the Foreign Legion, and the Algerian war. Buy ‘Am I Unique?’ here.