Pur Autre Vie

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Monday, May 03, 2010

German Legionnaires Sing a Song

The Viet Minh captured lots of French troops and made psychological efforts to sow doubt and disloyalty among them. This was ultimately successful in the case of some of the soldiers from Algeria, who later fought against the French in that country. This passage concerns Germans serving in the French Foreign Legion. From page 435 of Hell in a Very Small Place:

[Major de Mecquenem] particularly remembered in his camp a group of Foreign Legionnaires of German extraction who had decided, correctly enough, that this was not their war anyway and that what now counted most was to stay alive until the conclusion of the cease-fire. They informed the camp commander that they had turned "progressive" and were immediately given a preferred status within the camp, along with improved food rations. Every morning part of the ceremonial consisted in a lecture by the camp's political commissar on the previous day's victories in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and it became the role of the "progressives" to provide a suitable cheering section for the announcement of such victories. They cheered or gustily sang the Internationale for the defeats of the 3rd BT on Anne-Marie and of the Algerians on the Dominiques. They also had no objections to applauding the destruction of the Moroccans and Vietnamese paratroopers on Eliane 1.

But then came the bitter battles of mid-April for the Northern Huguettes. One morning the Viet-Minh camp commander read the rousing news that the Foreign Legion infantrymen and paratroopers who had held the Northern Huguettes had been overwhelmed and that part of the vital airstrip was now in the hands of the People's Army. There was a dead silence among the assembled prisoners and, in contrast to established habit, the cheering section of the "progressives" also had remained silent. In an annoyed voice, the camp commander turned to them and said: "Come on, sing! What are you waiting for?"

The Foreign Legionnaires looked at each other in silence and then began to sing. There was an instant gasp of shock among the assembled French prisoners - until they recognized the German song: "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, Einen bess'ren findst du nicht . . ." ["I once had a comrade / you couldn't find a better one . . ."] The turncoat Legionnaires were singing the beautiful song with which Germans have honored their war dead since the Napoleonic wars of 1809. It was one thing to cheer at the demise of the other "strange" units fighting in the valley; it was another to betray the Foreign Legion. The "progressives" were stripped of their special privileges and returned to the rice-and-water diet of the other prisoners.

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