Kiwi veterans of the French Foreign Legion prepare to mark their own 'Anzac Day'

Discussion in 'Postwar' started by Clint_NZ, Apr 30, 2018.

  1. Clint_NZ

    Clint_NZ Member

    The French Foreign Legion marches near its base in Marseille to commemorate the battle of Camerone in Mexico in 1863. Legionnaires past and present, including Kiwis, mark the occasion every April 30.

    While most former servicemen and women are focused on the sacrifices of New Zealand soldiers this Anzac Day, a select few will toast the memory of 62 French Foreign Legion troops who died in a small hacienda at Camaron, Mexico 150 years ago. Matt Shand reports.

    Phillip Taikato is one of a handful of Kiwis who packed their bags for a five-year stint in the French Foreign Legion. The last stand at Camaron, commemorated every April 30, is regarded as the defining story of the Legion, and is drilled into new recruits, along with a fastidious training regime and the occasional smack in the face.

    The grim tale, where the last five surviving French Foreign Legionnaires charge towards hundreds of waiting Mexican cavalry, showcases the romantic heroism that has attracted misfits from around the world to this melting pot army.

    Inspector Phillip Taikato served 18 years in the French Foreign Legion before starting his career in the New Zealand police force.

    Before the battle, each man had sworn on the wooden hand of their captain, Jean Danjou, to fight to the last man in a bid to protect millions in gold travelling by caravan nearby.

    Danjou's wooden hand was recovered and is the Legion's most sacred relic. It is kept in the Legion's headquarters in Aubagne where many recruits, like Taikato, sign up and train.

    More and more Kiwis are learning the history of Danjou's hand as they knock on the door at Aubagne and are given a new name, new language and new family in their five-year service.

    Captain Jean Danjou and an image of his wooden hand which is kept at Legion headquarters for Camaron Day.

    "There are two things the Legion celebrates big," Taikato said. "Christmas and Camaron."

    "In New Zealand, because it is so close to Anzac Day we usually celebrate the two together but if we have a few Legionnaires gathered we will have a toast and commemorate the occasion."

    Taikato, now a police inspector based in Rotorua, signed up aged 18 with no military experience. Just packed his bags, headed to France, and knocked on the fort's front door in the 1980s.

    "The only way to join is to physically go there," says Taikato.

    "They took my passport, gave me some fatigues, shaved my hair off even before I signed anything and then we waited."

    Captain Jean Danjou and an image of his wooden hand which is kept at Legion headquarters for Camaron Day.

    Among him was a strange bunch of characters also leaving their lives behind. "There were some people there that I thought at the time must have been on the run from the law," he says. "It's a bit different now. I think I was looking for something in life. I don't think school allowed me to achieve what I set out to do."

    Taikato was inspired by one of New Zealand's legendary soldiers, who also fought at Gallipoli but under a French flag, James Waddell. The soldier received the French Legion of Honour, the highest order of merit, twice.

    He was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre seven times during World War I.

    "I think Waddell would have been the pioneer to all of us Kiwis going to the Legion," Taikato says.

    "His story itself is fantastic and epitomises the character of the legion as well as New Zealanders."

    James Waddell was one of New Zealand's most decorated soldiers but he served in the French Foreign Legion.

    Training was tough with strict discipline in place. Corporal punishment was never far away. Not being at the end of your bed for roll call could see you in jail for a week. Missing a meal, two weeks. Other discretions were settled with a punch to the face. "Tough is an understatement," Taikato says.

    Recruits have to learn French, fast.

    "Luckily I ended up in the same barracks as a French philosopher whose wife had left him so he joined up," Taikato says. "It's amazing how quickly you learn a language when surrounded by it and full of adrenaline."

    Even with his unit being deployed to combat zones, including the first Gulf War, Taikato found lots to like about the Legionnaire's life and stayed for 18 years.

    "What's not to love about it," he says. "We were getting paid to do things like go on diving courses. We were stationed in Corsica most of the year. The Legion is very good and matching up your interests with tasks and finding work for you."

    Raymond Trembath found a different path into the legion. The career soldier in the New Zealand Army wanted to see more action so joined the Legion, passing its rigorous recruitment process.

    "You would find yourself being punched out quite a lot," he says. "It had been that way for 180 years. If you are not mentally prepared for the Legion it will spit you out."

    Trembath aced his training and served in the elite parachute regiment, soon finding the action he sought in Rwanda, Somalia and Djibouti and Chad.

    Trembath says the Legion's tough reputation often preceded it on the battlefield.

    "One of the units we relieved was having a hard time but when we arrived it was hard to find any enemy armed in the area," he says. "They all went and they all hid."

    Raymond Trembath saw active service in war zones around the world.

    The only rule was never shoot women or children.

    Despite the danger, Trembath enjoyed his time in the Legion. "When you've got a whole lot of bullets coming into your position it's quite exhilarating. It's alright shooting targets, rabbits and deer but when the targets, rabbit and deer shoot back it's even more fun."

    The 'fun' was not without consequence with Trembath's unit suffering casualties, some of the 35,000 Legionnaires to have died since it was formed in 1831.

    "That's the job," he says nonchalantly. "It's what you are there to do."

    Trembath wouldn't recommend the Legion to anyone else. "It's a decision you have to make for yourself. If you are not 100 percent committed it will end you. If you are it will make you."

    Taikato agrees and says the decision to join the legion is a personal choice. "In my role in the New Zealand police you can see people who have had doors shut on them," he says.

    "I tell some people this [Legion] is available but you have to do it on your own steam. I won't recommend it to people. I think it's helped me in life. It's helped me become a good police officer and gain an appreciation for how lucky we are in New Zealand to be able to police with people's consent."
    "You would find yourself being punched out quite a lot," says Raymond Trembath about the French Foreign Legion.

    Taikato knows of three young men he has spoken to who have signed up.

    One young Kiwi who has just completed his five years with the Legion signed up without telling any of his family.

    "I didn't want to tell anybody that I was going to join unless I didn't make it in," the man, who asked not to be identified, says. "I just thought I would give it a go."

    A short time later the man, was surprised to have his commanding officer tell him his mother had arrived to see him and had tracked him down to the Legion headquarters. "It was a bit awkward," he says. "We sat down and talked in a little room. She understood it was where I wanted to be."

    He says even when he was being shot at he never felt nervous or afraid. "It was the job," he said. "We were trained well. You're fighting for the guy next to you."

    Before long he was fighting heavily armed gold smugglers in French Guiana in South America often wading through alligator and piranha infested waters trying to avoid gunfire and malaria.

    Raymond Trembath served in the French Foreign Legion for five years. Here he is pictured in Somalia

    The Aucklander made it through the training and into the parachute regiment which is a top honour for volunteers.

    "In order to be selected you have to also pass a history test about what you know about the Legion," he says.

    "One of the things they ask you about is the wooden hand of Captain Jean Danjou. I had never seen it personally but we were told about it often as recruits. It's very important to the Legion and talked about often."

    Camaron Day was celebrated every year with the Legion's doors being opened to the public..

    The young soldier was a bit cynical about the glorification of Camaron Day.

    "You are sold this whole thing of 'King and Country' when it comes down to it and they think people are dedicating themselves to France but in the end you are there for your own gain," he says.

    "That's more for the officers who come from a long line of aristocracy. They would send you anywhere if it meant another medal."

    Raymond Trembath now lives in Northland.

    Now older, and settled into civilian life, Taikato says he thinks more about his time in the Legion and questions his role in another country's military force. "I think about that a lot now," he says. "It was about the advancement of another country's, not my own, political gain. But it never crossed my mind at the time as there was much to do."

    He is making an effort to connect with other Legionnaires via the Facebook group, New Zealand French Foreign Legion Association.

    Celebrating Camaron Day with other legionnaires would be a treat for Taikato, chance to swap stories of a world unknown to those who have not lived it. Perhaps legionnaires can understand, perhaps better than any native military force, the sacrifices young men make in war for causes not always their own.

    "It's why soldiers are always anti-war," he says. "Because they know where these decisions lead and the lives they cost."

    Whether those decisions lead Kiwi soldiers toward defending their country in Gallipoli, or a hacienda in Camaron under a French banner for the sake of a wooden hand and some gold, soldiers fought for a country, but died for the man next to them.

    And the worst that can happen to a soldier, or legionnaire alike, is for that sacrifice to be forgotten.
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  2. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

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