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A little trip through life

Come and take a little trip with me - through my life and with a few other people as well.....You can listen to the music if you don't like the photos....!
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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

in Southern France a long time ago....!


An "older" French account! This fellow was long gone, but he reared his head, strangely enough, in a sleepy little West German town called Detmold.
The Royals (1st Dragoons), known generally as the "Royals", and now a part of the well known "Blues & Royals" (mounted cavalry, although I rarely saw a horse) were arranging their affairs, to go to war - in France!
Actually, it was a new (for us) NATO arrangement for so called "desert training" and we - almost 500 soldiers, a couple of dozen Centurion tanks - Ferret Scout Cars, and all the rest of the paraphenalia necessary to pass a couple of months in the Sunny South of France were going "on holiday"!
I, for my part, was convinced of my intentions during these 2-3 months, I was going to get a suntan!
Going out in stifling heat onto the dusty flat plains of the "Plateau de Larzac" in a Centurion tank, all "batonned" down, did not fall into my plans!
So - the first thing to do was find a "cozy" little corner job- and do something normally NOT advised in the Armed Forces, VOLUNTEER!
The thing was that in the Regimental announcement bulletin, they had asked for anyone with a knowledge of the French language to report to the Regimental Quartermaster's offices, where they would be tested for "usefulness" in our projected move to France!
I thought it over, and over, and over again, but could see no real critical reason NOT to pop down to the QM's place.
I wondered who this Regimental genius was who would "assess" all the Regimental French speakers!
This was, after all, at the beginning of the 60's, and Army personnel were not noted for their prowess in the classroom, whilst not being stupid.
The tendency was to put everyone through the mysteries of the "Army Education Certificates" with few exceptions, one of which I had been, due to my Grammar School educational background.
It was partly for this reason that I thought I ought to volunteer my services, for they probably were very aware of my Grammar School studies of the French language anyway!
On arriving in the offices of the said Major, I was surprised at the lack of people present-
I was on my own!
After a few minutes waiting, I was finally received by the QM, who stated quite openly that he was surprised to see me there, he was aware that I had served (more "been used") by the Regiment as a sort of go between for German language matters, and he didn't, or couldn't, believe that anybody could speak more than two languages, without getting them completely mixed up, and here was I - humble Trooper with English, French, German - even some Italian and Spanish (all - as you can see, languages of Latin origin).
This, coming from a QM of Irish origins, who had difficulty with the English language was quite an amusing situation, but as usual..... "say nought!"
After 5 minutes of being stared at as though I was an alien being, and having demonstrated my prowess in the language of Molière (I felt that I could have said anything to him (and I think I did!) to his perfect satisfaction.
I was informed that I was engaged for the "Larzac" expedition, and would be transferred on a sort of "internal posting" to the QM's Department when the time came!
This in itself was quite pleasing news, because it's in the QM Dept that fortunes can be made, and you are NEVER in need of a meal, or a piece of supplementary equipment! (Le camp du Larzac)

My duties as "liaison" between British and French, on that infamous plateau called Larzac, in the Southerly regions of France were simple.
My job it would be to go, daily, from the Plateau de Larzac down to the plains of the Languedoc, buying and picking up supplies of the category "non Military"stuff, fresh things, like butter,bread,cheese,fruit,vegetables,eggs and all the rest, for a Regiment of almost 500 people!
This was one of the first years that British soldiers had been ordered to the Nato exercise zones, so very few or no preparations had been made, apart from the normal "iron" rations (all completely in tins - some dating back to the 1st WW) and that was quite unacceptable for the previewed period of almost 3 months, so plans had to be made for "local purchases" - plans made in advance and contracts made in advance

It seemed that the French Army, responsible for the lot, in principle, had as much difficulty as the British for French,somebody capable of speaking English! (La Cavalerie)

It seemed that I was to descend from the Plateau within a convoy of 6 x 4 ton wagons, and after having passed through the areas of Pezenas and Beziers, (where we loaded pre-calculated/ordered and paid for articles) we then had a list of properties going up the coast line where we should purchase fruit and vegtable items, amongst others! From there we were to go to Lunel, and pick up so much bread (fresh) that a Regiment of 500 needed - daily! Then back to the Camp du Larzac, in time for lunch preparation - normally smelling like one enormous "baguette" as we passed through the local towns, occasionally mixed with the powerful perfume of the local melons, which were a problem, for they tainted everything else with their perfume, and melon tasting eggs are not greatly appreciated!
Most of these local things had to be paid "cash" - the locals having suspicious views about Military promise of payment forms! This meant that cash had to be taken, the Euro, of course didn't exist, and indeed we were at the eve of the last great reform from "FF"(French Francs) to "NFF" (New French Francs") exactly 100FF = 1NFF. This meant that locals were still talking in FF's, and would continually go on about "millions" when actually hundreds were meant!
This continues even up to this date, even more confusing when you're talking about Euros!
Anyway - a translator's nightmare!
If I had been a little less honest, I think I could have made my personal fortune in those first few months so large, that I could have retired there and then!
Now - these pre calculated and ordered items had been pre calculated by the French Army, and as everybody knows, French and British tastes do not marry in all things!
Tea was non-existent, but loads and loads of coffee was available, and how I should explain away the delivery of gallons of (relatively) crude red wine and small packs of cigarettes (5 Gauloise in a packet) to the British Regimental Rations Officer, wasn't clear!

One thing should be explained from the outset. The roads up to the Larzac plateau, and down from the Larzac plateau, were not as they are nowadays!
No "Viaduct de Millau", no motorways, no by passes, just the old fashioned RN12, which (going towards Millau) had been completely destroyed by those Centurion tanks which had arrived at Millau station, and were obliged to make their way up to the Camp by road!
In later years, Transporters were used, and that's how the French came to have a much better RN 12 between Millau and La Cavalerie!
It took hours to do the round trip, so we had to set off at around 5am everyday except Sunday, and with a bit of luck, we'd get back (with the fresh bread for lunch) around 11am! (arriving at Millau station)

This was the period when places like "La Grande Motte" had just been thought of, but not built, when Tourism in Languedoc was limited to long dressed English ladies at Montpellier!
We were "exotic" and we thought the French were "exotic". After all, this was still the period when a trip to France was an adventure, fraught with stories about French car mechanicians and so on!
We were welcome - certainly, particularly since we could be passed off with the worst red wine I've ever drunk in my life (at 1F the litre - if you brought your own bottle, 1F 50 if you didn't!) The 3 cafes in the village were full of British soldiers, and the barracks full of empty bottles and vomit!
Some people made a lively little sideline of gathering up the bottles, and taking them back, only to be told that they would have to pay the 1F for the wine, no refunds of deposits were given!
The French and British points of view were clearly defined, and I don't think they've changed to this day!
There are so many little anecdotes of my experiences over the following 3 years (for it lasted as long as that!).
I can't list them all here, from "guard duties" on R&R (rest and recreation) weekends at the beaches of Agde.
Although described as "Military" they were actually separated (on both sides) by simple wooden posts, driven into the sand, which carried the message on one side "Plage Militaire" and on the other side "Plage Culturelle" (meaning nudist beach!).



There was very little Rest (at least for me), but lots of Recreation (for the others), on these weekends, and I suspect a great deal that "Recreation and Procreation" amongst British soldiers and French holiday makers was rife.
Finally the permanent posting (almost 3 years) of myself and occasionally others with me (more young - pretty useless officers, more or less on holiday) to the Larzac camp, necessitating our "temporary" posting to the F-Legion!

That's how I can, legally or not, claim to have been "with the Legion" (I was attached, which is best, it gives you all the advantages, but none of the silly marches and other disadvantages!)
All these anectodes will have to be for another day, since concentration is needed, and it's lunch time!
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Posted by Ian W. Mitchell   at 5/13/2007 08:38:00 AM      
Labels: Army tales


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