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The boredom is broken defending Algeria’s colonial border


At the base camp, I became involved in a continuous round of guard duty, and even when not on guard we were expected to remain on full alert. I found the night-time guard duty the most nerve-racking, as we were ordered to stay in one position for fear any sound we made was detected by any FLN attempting a breakthrough, nor were we allowed to smoke. The FLN were reputed to have the stealth of Red Indians and able to see in the dark as they made their way silently through the thickest of undergrowth. Cramp proved to be a more vicious enemy than the FLN, slowly attacking every muscle in my body, and I invented exercises which could be performed silently to relax my limbs.

Of a night-time on guard, the still of night proved conducive for ghosts from my past to flit through my mind. Ghosts with the nervous temperament of a startled gazelle and inclined to bolt at the slightest noise. Susan regularly kept me company as the means to while away the seemingly long night. I engaged in many a mental debate with my inner self on my increasing misgivings and disillusion over my original reason for joining the Legion, motivated by the notion of protecting the Algerians from the atrocities committed by the rebels. I reflected more and more on how the present Algerian situation was more of a genuine cry for independence than the result of a group of hot-headed communist agitators.

The guard duty alternated between night and daytime. In the light of day, the Morice Line projected a gruesome spectacle. The tall fence was festooned with the corpses of electrified creatures, resembling small rugs hung out to dry. Having safely crossed the cleared strip without being blown to smithereens by a mine, they met their fate on the tall fence.

A more relaxed atmosphere existed on the daytime guard duties; we could smoke and converse with fellow sentries. I shared my guard spells with the two Italians who accompanied me to Sully. One morning whilst chatting, we detected a distinct rustle of the undergrowth and the crack of twigs coming from the nearby wooded area. We immediately aborted our conversation to take up defensive positions behind a group of trees, with our weapons pointed in the direction of the source of the sound. Even though any expected breakthrough was anticipated to be made from the east, it was not unknown for the FLN to attempt a breakthrough in the opposite direction, or a detachment taking up a position to give support and covering fire for a group about to attempt a breakthrough. I believe my two colleagues shared my spate of nervous tension bordering on stark fear, as there was every chance we would be outnumbered and swiftly dealt with by the FLN before reinforcements rushed to our aid.

The tips of the branches of the undergrowth were slowly pushed aside, as first one, followed by another and then a herd of goats emerged; the creatures stared in our direction with inquisitive glances before continuing their way. The two Italians laughed with relief and began to round up the herd and their intentions were obvious to me. For wont of what was termed as a bit of sport to kill the boredom, they intended to drive the herd through the barbed wire entanglement and watch to see if they were blown up by a mine or electrocuted on the fence. Their intentions were more irresponsible than actual wanton behaviour.

A figure crashed through the undergrowth, and on seeing three armed Legionnaires came to an instantaneous halt. A young girl, presumably the shepherdess of the herd, stood with an expression of petrified fear on her grubby face. Her fear could well have been two-fold over what we were about to do to the herd and how she would explain it to her parents or whoever owned the herd.

The two Italians had by now rounded up the herd, and with much arm waving drove them towards the barbed wire.

I called out in French, “Stop, let them go.” They both stared at me and for a moment I feared a confrontation. One laughed as he said, “Ah, the British and their great love of animals.”

'Am I unique' book coverI smiled at them to ease the tension building up. The two Italians began to shoo the herd of goats away. I spoke to the young girl in Arabic in the hope she could understand me. “Take your goats away and in future keep well away from this area.”

A smile illuminated her grubby face as she gratefully exclaimed, “Thank you, brother.”

Picking up a handful of stones and with well-aimed throws, she herded the goats back into the undergrowth.

I thanked my two Italian friends for their understanding; they replied with a classical continental shoulder shrug. They both might, upon reflection, have appreciated my intervention, for if the goats had gone onto the strip and detonated any mines, the explosions would have brought more patrols rushing to the area, and the officer in charge may not have possessed the Italians’ sense of humour, and placed us all on a charge.

Extracted from Colin Wallace’s fascinating memoir, telling of drugs, the Foreign Legion, and the Algerian war. Buy ‘Am I Unique?’ here.

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