Monday, December 9, 2019
Home News A legionnaire’s Bastille Day salute to Her Majesty

A legionnaire’s Bastille Day salute to Her Majesty

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THE horrifying prospect of the monarchy becoming an election issue will dismay Conservatives and delight the Labour Party. Yet Her Majesty should not doubt the affection in which her subjects hold her. Many, like myself, do not carry a torch for the institution per se but it has its moments and I would not be without it.

Years ago, as a callow 20-plus soldier in the Foreign Legion, 

I formed part of the parade along the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day. I nearly didn’t make it. The legion still has an annonymat clause in its contracts. If a serving legionnaire does not want his current whereabouts to be divulged, the legion will respect that. ‘We’re to march in Paris on 14 July,’ our colonel said. ‘It’s a great honour. The Fourth Foreign is the first legion regiment to march in Paris for some years.’ Paris? Wow! ‘Anyone who does not want to go to Paris for whatever reason – talk to your section leader afterwards. Dismiss.’

The downside was that we spent weeks drilling up and down a disused airfield. I had a more immediate problem. The Legion serves itself, not the French Republic. However on Bastille Day it was to march with many other regular troops. At the foot of the avenue we were to present arms to the French president. This was Francois Mitterrand. Although he was a good man in his way, to me it seemed impossible that I, a Brit, should salute a foreign head of state.

The Spanish corporal I discussed this with was surprisingly sympathetic. Normally on a short fuse, the corporal agreed it was a problem and he would quietly strike my name off the list if I so required. ‘But think of it,’ he said, ‘a week in Paris, the girls, the restaurants, the parties . . .’ Then he added, ‘Try to imagine you are saluting someone else.’

I thought of this down at the airfield. Later that afternoon I remembered the keepsake of England I’d kept. Did I still have it? Yes, there at the back of my locker was a florin, a 10p piece. I looked at the Queen’s head on the coin.

The corporal approached me in the refectory that evening. Paris? he said. I nodded. ‘I’ll be going. I thought of your idea and I’ve come up with someone.’ I showed him the coin. ‘La Reine Britannique?’ I nodded. ‘What’s she called again?’ he said. Elizabeth. Eh bien.

The Legion uniform necessitates the wearing of a long blue cummerbund wrapped round the waist several times. It finishes with a ceremonial fold over. That morning in Paris I slipped the florin into the front of my cummerbund and I marched proudly with the rest of the regiment. At the foot of the Champs-Élysées I presented arms to my queen, Elizabeth the Second. Amidst cries of Vive La France and Vive La Légion my Spanish corporal turned round, flint-faced. ‘Comment dire en anglais?’ he asked, clicking his fingers.’ ‘God Save the Queen,’ I replied.

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John Musgrave
John Musgrave lives in the west of England. His book, Soldiers of the Heart, has more stories of the Foreign Legion.

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