/Your old life is over: Meet the Australian who gave up his identity to join the French Foreign Legion

Your old life is over: Meet the Australian who gave up his identity to join the French Foreign Legion

Updated

April 10, 2019 06:30:54

Three weeks after he surrendered his clothes, backpack, and his passport, a recruitment officer took the contents of Scott’s wallet.

“They take your SIM cards off you, your credit cards, all of that, they chop them up in front of you, they throw them in the bin. Your old life is over.”

Scott was just 19, and he was a long way from his Perth home. It was April 2016, and he had just pledged the next five years of his life to the French Foreign Legion.

With the discards of his wallet, went his identity. The recruitment officer interrogating him changed his place of birth, his age and, of course, his name.

From then on, he was known by the Legion as Kapano Ralins; the name would even be stamped into a bank card and maroon French passport.

The recruiting officer chose the named because he thought it sounded Brazilian.

“In actual fact he chose Kapano because he looked in my history and he saw that I lived in Brazil for a little bit, so he thought it was a bit of a joke.”

Now, two-and-a-half years later, the Australian has reverted to his real name — though under the Legion’s arcane rules he can be publicly identified only as First Class Legionnaire Scott.

His surname remains classified.

The use of false identities within the Legion dates back to the early 19th century, when King Louis Philippe established a fighting force designed to soak up foreigners and political dissidents who might otherwise threaten his country’s fragile provisional government.

He sent them abroad to shore up the empire.

The promise of anonymity and a regular pay cheque also proved irresistible to the criminal underworld.

Since then La Legion Etrangere, with its trademark kepi blanc, has come to symbolise not just French colonial aggression, but also a life of hard adventure for fighters, misfits and fugitives, most of them recruited from everywhere but France.

Today, those with a history of serious crimes such as murder and rape are barred from entry, but others remain welcome. Men run to the Legion to escape their debts, and to forget their mistakes.

For Scott, that mistake was marrying, at age 18, his high school sweetheart, a Brazilian exchange student.

“My marriage kind of broke down,” he says.

“It wasn’t going in the right direction.

“I was tossing up whether or not we were going to continue and … that was kind of the final push just for me to get my arse into gear and go out and try something new.”

Large numbers are lured by the money — a $2,000 per month tax-free salary — as well as French citizenship at the completion of five years of service.

These days the Legion brims with Ukrainians, Nepalese, Brazilians and Russians for whom the salary, and European residency, is a ticket out of disadvantage.

The Legion’s infamous and brutal discipline

The inevitable friction between these men has long been managed, or perhaps crushed, by a disciplinary regime so rich in suffering its legends have prompted an entire genre of books and films.

One legionnaire described in 1910 a punishment dubbed “le silo” for the funnel-shaped hole in the ground into which errant legionnaires were thrown.

“When at length they were taken out of the silo,” he wrote, “they could neither walk nor stand and had to be carried into hospital. Now and then a silo prisoner died in the hole.”

In Simon Murray’s seminal account of his five years in the Legion during the 1960s, he described la pelote, in which an offender is whipped and made to run while “equipped with a sack of stones on his back with wire shoulder straps, and a steel helmet on his head without the interior”.

Most of this conduct appears to have ceased, but the culture endures.

In 2008, a 25-year-old Slovakian recruit died from heatstroke during training in Djibouti in temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius.

After he complained of a sore knee, a superior took his water, poured it out and ordered none be provided to him.

He was kept out in the sun, even during breaks, and forced to complete a punishing hill climb. There were allegations he was also assaulted.

After begging for water, the recruit eventually collapsed, and died hours later from a cardiac arrest.

The alluring myth of the legionnaire

Perversely, such tales have only burnished the Legion’s myth. It drew in Scott too.

While serving in the Australian Army reserves in Malaysia he had read another tome, Marching with the Devil, by former Australian legionnaire David Mason.

Its blurb promises a glimpse into “one of the most ramshackle and soul-destroying military organisations on Earth”.

“And at the end of the book I was thinking to myself, there was really only one way I was going to find out if the Legion was for me or not, and that was to give it a crack,” Scott says.

Two-and-a-half years in, he’s done well, and has successfully gained entry to the Legion’s most elite regiment, the 2nd, a hard-running paratrooper unit.

He’s a level two medic, he’s on track to be made corporal and he was sent to Mali last year, where the Legion has been sporadically deployed against anti-government rebels and radical Islamic outfits, including a splinter Al Qaeda group.

Scott’s only real injury thus far is a sprained ankle.

But he’s seen plenty of the Legion’s unique brand of discipline. He was struggling to acquire the language until he was “hit over the back of the head by one of the corporals during training”.

“It kind of just got myself into gear to actually put my head down in the book and think about French a bit harder”.

On one long medics’ course, his unit fired some 6,000 rounds. At its completion, an officer abruptly ordered the men to retrieve the spent shells, adding, “you’re going to count them in front of me”.

“We were walking around for a couple of days with our head torches on … picking up these rounds, and at the end of the day we actually found all 6,000.”

One officer described the attitude needed to survive the Legion like this: “If you complain to me, you’re not going to go well.”

“If you’ve got a poet’s outlook, this isn’t the place for you

Legionnaires are placed in stress positions — including one in which they must balance themselves and their kit with only their feet and the top of their head on the ground — and the punishment for insufficient effort on a skills course is jail.

There are stories of officers inflicting terrible beatings with relative impunity, protected by a chain of command which largely reserves its upper ranks not for foreigners but for French nationals.

Brotherhood and desertion

Much is made of the brotherhood of legionnaires. Their motto, “Legio Patria Nostra”, proclaims the force itself as the men’s “fatherland”.

Large volumes of alcohol are consumed — night and day, in the barracks, and on operations — and there is the mandatory singing of decade-old anthems.

But the camaraderie I witnessed during a week-long exercise in the mountains of Corsica seemed confined to small groups who share a mother tongue.

Mercenary interests fill the vacuum of a common national bond.

The men are divided first by rank, then by wealth and finally by psychology: educated French officers seek advancement, the poor seek financial security, fighters seek violence.

It’s for this reason that Scott’s success might be best measured simply by the fact he’s still in the Legion at all.

“Over the course of the time I’ve been in my company maybe 25 to 30 people have deserted,” he says.

Desertion, long a feature of Legion life, occurs to him too at times, but he’s determined to resist it.

“Some guys will be going for a course onto mainland France, and during their transit they’ll catch another train or another plane … or some guys just pick up their stuff in the middle of the night and jump a fence and leave that way.”

A bloodied history of conflict

Many of the 40,000 legionnaires who have lost their lives in the service have done so far from France.

Over the past 188 years, the Legion has sent its men to Ukraine, Turkey, Morocco, Indochina and elsewhere in pursuit of French foreign policy.

More recently, legionnaires have served in Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad.

Amid numerous training deaths, operations have still taken their share: one legionnaire died in Iraq last year during a reconnaissance mission; three have died so far in Mali.

Its formative moment was in aid of an insurgency in Mexico, at the Battle of Camaron on April 30, 1863.

Surrounded by 3,000 Mexicans, just 65 legionnaires fought to the death, led by Captain Jean Danjou, who wore a wooden prosthetic hand. The Mexicans gave Danjou’s remains an honour guard and his dummy hand now takes pride of place at the Legion’s shrine to its dead in Aubagne, near Marseilles.

But the Legion’s soul was truly forged in the deserts of northern Africa. Legionnaires became famed for their hardiness and the speed at which they could move through the desert.

Their campaign against independence fighters was as bloody as any the Legion fought.

Murray described a “systematic destruction” designed to rob Algerians of any potential refuge.

After one firefight his unit was ordered to hack heads from the bodies of rebels for future identification. One evening, his comrades prepared a pot of soup.

“They called over a German and invited him to fill his tin mug. Just as he was about to put the cupful of soup to his lips, one of the Spaniards, with a mighty guffaw, reached his hand into the cauldron and pulled out by the hair one of the Arab heads.”

For 131 years, Algeria was the Legion’s home, and the French claim on the north African country became deeply enmeshed with the identity of the force itself.

Still today, the bar which belongs to Scott’s 5th Company is decorated with symbols of the desert: crude Bedouin motifs are carved into the ceiling, fanous lamps glow along the walls, and along one wall is a glass tank housing two pythons and an albino viper.

In the end, though, the Legion’s grip on the continent became a matter of national humiliation.

A failed coup

After long and bitter fighting to retain control of Algeria, there was dismay within the Legion when French President Charles de Gaulle granted the nation an independence vote in 1961.

The Legion, led by a number of older generals, mounted a coup d’etat.

When it failed, and the legionnaires were ordered from the country, they performed their final march on African soil singing Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien.

There’s been no outbreak of mutiny since, but the Legion’s maverick streak remains.

The 2nd Regiment, isolated on its island home of Corsica, revels in the same grit and flair of its desert forebears.

It manifests, most importantly, in a renowned fierceness on the battlefield.

If the Legion is France’s spear, its Corsican paratroopers are the very tip — trained to drop into contested territory and secure it ahead of the arrival of regular troops.

It’s what drew in Scott and other ambitious fighters, this “operational capability”.

The Legion fights a lot, and for those who manage to survive, creates new opportunities. A life in France for one.

Many legionnaires take their training and reputation and become security contractors, particularly in Africa.

Others stay, climbing the limited ranks available to them, and blooding new recruits in the very miseries they themselves endured.

But Scott always knew one contract was all he needed. “It was quite nerve wracking … just doing it,” he says.

But he knew that, “if I did get in, I was going to do it and do my five-year contract”.

He hopes a good citation will open doors in the Australian Army — and maybe even its Perth-based regiment of super soldiers, the Special Air Service.

The Legion has taught him though, to never get ahead of himself.

“If it happens it happens, and if not, I can always try my luck at something else.”

Watch more about this story on 7.30 tonight

Topics:

army,

defence-and-national-security,

defence-forces,

france,

european-union,

australia

First posted

April 10, 2019 04:33:27