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A. R. Cooper

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    Posted: 04 Sep 2012 at 18:48



This entry was initially put in the Biographies of Australian Personnel in error. As I can't recall the original source read by me of his supposed Australian pedigree I can only apologise but if most Aussies can claim John Simpson Kirkpatrick as Australian then I guess anyone is fair game! Big smile Thanks for picking up the error Steve. 


A.R. Cooper was an Englishman who served in the French Foreign Legion. The original of the following article can be viewed at:

http://www.greatwardifferent.com/Great_War/With_the_Foreign_Legion_in_Gallipoli/With_the_Foreign_Legion_in_Gallipoli_01.htm



The author joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914 at the age of fifteen and a half after an adventurous few years at sea. He enlisted at Algiers under the name of Cornelis Jean de Bruin and was sent to Fort St. Therese at Oran and thence to Sidi Bel Abbes, the headquarters of the Legion in Algeria.

 

At Sidi Bel Abbes we were met by a sergeant of the Legion, taken to the barracks and marched in through the great central gate.

On each side of a tree-bordered avenue are the four-storied buildings in which the men live; at the end of the avenue are the offices and beyond (a place very well known to every Légionnaire!) the canteen, also the wash-house, stores and other buildings on the right of the main building is the Salle d'Honneur, where all the trophies and flags of the Legion are kept, and beyond that the prison, all enclosed by a high wall. We arrived at Sidi Bel Abbe's on the fourteenth of October, 1914. Everything was in a state of commotion. The 3rd Battalion had just received orders for active service. We recruits were sent right away to the stores to get our kit, rations, rifles and ammunition and then were told to fall in with the rest. A pretty raw and awkward bunch we must have been.

The kit issued to us in those days consisted of képi, which was red with a blue band, blue tunic, red trousers, and a short vest which we called veste de singe, an overcoat and the blue woollen belt which it is compulsory to wear over our tunics as a precaution against dysentery. The couvre nuque was also issued but, in spite of the fact that in films about the Legion the officers and men are always shown wearing it, day and night, this is not so in reality. It is never worn. The only use to which it is put by Légionnaires is to strain their coffee or even water when it is very muddy! The epaulettes, which are also featured in films and fiction have not been worn since 1907. The only epaulette a Legion soldier wears is a little blue rosette of felt which he sews on his right shoulder in order to hitch his rifle over it. When we were in the Dardanelles in 1915 blue linen trousers called salopettes were issued to us to wear over our red ones. During the war, when the French troops got their bleu horizon, we were given khaki and since then all the French Colonial troops have worn khaki. The French Government bought up all the American uniforms at the end of the war.

Within a few hours of our arrival at Sidi Bel Abbes the battalion was entrained for Perrigaux. As we got there we heard firing and learned that the Arabs had attacked the town and that we had to push them back into the mountains. This attack on Perrigaux was the last Arab revolt in Algeria.

Our forces consisted of one battalion of the Legion, some French Colonial troops and a few Tirailleurs.

We dug a trench. We could see the Arabs only about two hundred yards away and knew that there were a lot more that we could not see, among the rocks at the foot of the hills. The rifle that was issued to us in those days was the fusil gras which had been in use since 1870. It was monstrously heavy and fired great big bullets. I had no idea how to use it but I lay down in the trench next to an old soldier and watched what he did. The first shot I fired there was a terrible kick which made my shoulder sore for days! I opened the bolt very carefully and slowly for fear of what would happen so that the ejector did not work and I had to poke the cartridge case out with a pencil!

The soldier next me laughed and showed me how to use the rifle and after that it was better and I began to enjoy firing it.

After an hour of this we were ordered to fix bayonets and charge. In a charge like this, it is the old soldiers, who have experience of colonial warfare and know how to take cover and watch out for the Arabs, who get through. On that charge nearly all the recruits who came up with me were killed.

I was not at all afraid and to my own surprise I was not even excited. I seemed to feel quite cool ; in those days I was unconscious of danger. I did not know what it meant. Every one was all over the place. I found myself face to face with an Arab and plunged my bayonet into him, but in doing so I turned it so that I could not get it out again and had to leave it in his body. The Arabs do not like facing steel and they began to ran away towards the mountains with our troops after them in any sort of order.

I had already been told that for every enemy killed a Légionnaire cuts a notch in his rifle and as I went on I got out my knife and started to make a notch on mine. It was very hot and I was dead tired with running over the rough ground and carrying the heavy rifle and kit, and so I sat down on a rock to rest. Suddenly I saw a party of Arabs quite near to me on the right. They closed round me and I realised that I was their prisoner but, not really knowing what that meant, I was not frightened and thought it best to be friendly so I offered them cigarettes. They took them and also took my cartridges away from me, but left me to carry the heavy rifle. I could not under-stand what they said but something in their faces and gestures alarmed me in an unexpected way, and when one of them started to put his hands on me in a nauseating, caressing way I upped with the butt of the rifle and smashed his head in. That ended all friendly relationship with my captors

When they got me back to their camp I was handed over to the women. It is the women who do the torturing. On the way up to Perrigaux in the train an old soldier had been telling of his adventures and had talked of having been taken prisoner by the Arabs. I remembered his saying that if this should happen to a man the only thing to do to escape torture was to pretend to be mad as the Arabs think that a madman is "possessed" by a spirit and will not touch him. So I thought I had better do this and I started catching flies where there were none, catching at my own thumb and making any idiotic face and gesture I could think of. When I saw them draw back from me I wanted to laugh, but I managed not to do so.

They put some food near me which I was glad of by then and in the evening they brought me to the Marabou (a sort of holy man or priest) who could speak French and he questioned me about the strength of the battalion. I don't think I even knew, but, anyway, I made up some tremendous number and all the time I was playing the fool to make him believe me mad.

The Arabs evidently did not think much of me as a prisoner for that night they took me down to the plain near where we had been fighting that day and signed to me to go back to our lines. But they had taken my rifle away from me and that bothered me very much. I did not want to go back without it. Already I had been made to understand that it was a terrible offence in the Legion to lose any part of your kit or equipment but also my rifle had that notch in it for my" first man." I went on for a few hundred yards towards Perrigaux and then I hid behind a bush and began wondering how on earth I could get my rifle back. The rest of the night I lay out there between the lines.

Early in the morning the Legion started to attack again and a lot of them came right past me. The Arabs ~ere shooting from behind their boulders and bushes and the Arab marksmen are deadly sure. They have any kind of rifle they can get hold of and they do not use the sights, but put two fingers on the barrel when they aim. A Legion soldier fell dead, shot through the head, within a yard of where I was hiding. Then I came out, made sure he was lifeless, picked up his rifle and joined in the attack.

When it was over I went to my Captain and reported. I told him all that had happened. He seemed to find it amusing, as I did when I started to talk about it, and he laughed and said he was pleased with me, that I was a good soldier. I felt very proud of that.

We quelled the Arab revolt in, I think, four or five days and then we went back to Sidi Bel Abbes.

When we were back in barracks I got in touch with an old soldier who promised to show me the ropes and put me wise to the ways of the Légionnaires. He was a very nice fellow, a bugler from Brittany called Le Gonnec.

When a man joins the French Foreign Legion the first thing he has to learn is the base de la discipline - the Legion's code.

It is : "La disciphne étant la force principale de la Légion il importe que tous superieurs obtiennent de ses subordonn6s une obeissance entiere et une soumission de tous les instants, que les ordres soient execute's instantanément, sans hesitation ni murmure, les autorités qui les donnent en sont responsable et Ia reclamation n'est permise a l'inférieur que lorsque qu'il a obei."*

*Discipline being the principal strength of the Legion it is essential that all superiors receive from their subordinates absolute obedience and submission on all occasions. Orders must be executed instantly without hesitation or complaint. The authorities who give them are responsible for them and an inferior is only permitted to make an objection after he has obeyed.

The second thing a Legionnaire must learn is how to get drunk when he has no money to buy wine!

In I914 there were three battalions and each battalion had four companies.

My company was the 9th of the 3rd battalion of the 1st regiment commanded by Captain Rousseau. He was a splendid officer and understood his men, having been a ranker himself. His old mother used to keep a canteen in Sidi Bel Abbes. Although there were the sergeants and corporals between them and the men, the good officers always studied their men and knew their characters, when to overlook their faults, when to punish, and how to get the best out of them.

A second-class soldier is an ordinary private. First-class soldiers are rare and are not thought anything of as, in order to gain this nebulous distinction, a man must have no punishment, and that is practically impossible for a real Légionnaire. The best soldiers in the fighting line spend a great deal of their time in prison when their battalion is in barracks.

I always hated parades and one morning when the sergeant who was drilling us had made us stand to attention and slope arms several dozen times, I began obeying slackly, just bending my knee and not moving my feet apart at the word repos and, when he went for me, I threw my rifle down on the ground. For this I was tied to a tree for the rest of the morning, with the woollen belt which, as I have said, we all wore, by orders, over our tunice. Afterwards I was reported to the Captain.

When he asked me why I had behaved like that, I said: I am intelligent enough to know how to stand at attention and slope arms after doing it once; I don't need to go on doing it fifty times an hour."

As a matter of fact, I was rather a favourite with Captain Rousseau. He knew my age, as indeed they all did (unofficially, of course) and he chose to overlook both my "crime" and my cheek.

He cautioned me that to refuse to obey a command meant court-martial and prison and told me not to do it again. But by his orders I was given a job in the store-room and so escaped those eternal and infernal parades. .

In February, 1915, it was posted in orders that any man who wished to do so could volunteer for active service. I think nearly the whole battalion wanted to. I was for rushing off to find the Captain to put my name down then and there. Some one tried to stop me and explained that I must go to the Corporal, who would forward my name to the Sergeant and he would give it to the Lieutenant for the Captain.

"Not I!" I called to them, as I went off. "I'm going straight to God, not to all his Saints first."

I found Captain Rousseau in the mess-room, saluted and said: If you please, sir, will you put my name down for active service ?

"That's all right, de Bruin" - he smiled -"You're down already.”

From Tiaret we were sent to Oran where we camped in an old Roman arena which is surrounded by a very high wall, the idea being that this would make it difficult for us to break camp and go into the town to drink. As a matter of fact, the authorities are never very optimistic about the success of their expedients in this direction. They know the Légionnaires too well. Those of us who were determined to get into the town that night fastened our leather belts together and so managed to 8cale those noble Roman walls.

Many are the ways in which a Legion soldier will earn drinks or the money to buy them. I used to go into the café and entertain people by blowing fire out of my mouth (a trick easily done with petrol) eating the red-hot end of my cigarette (the doctors say it is good for the stomach I) and piercing my cheeks with needles or pins. This does not hurt in the least if you do it quickly enough. The price of these edifying exhibitions was enough wine to keep me happy for the evening.

So well do the authorities know what is going on that they send out patrols to bring the truants back under arrest, some-times unconscious. But there is no punishment on the eve of going into action.

The morning after we camped at Oran, half the battalion was missing, but Legionnaires do not desert when they know they are going to fight and gradually they came in. Some turned up even without hats and other parts of their kit when we were on the quay ready to embark, but the battalion left Oran full strength.

We went on La France, which had been a passenger boat plying between Marseilles to Tunis. She had been converted into a troopship. At Malta we had to stay on board and we were disembarked at Alexandria. There we were attached to the Rdgiment de Marche d'Afrique, composed of volunteers from regular French regiments, under General d'Amade. We camped at the back of the Victoria Hospital on English territory. We still did not know our destination.

We had been kept hanging about, on the boat and at Alexandria, for over two months. There was a shortage of cigarettes and wine and there was a faction in the battalion which began to be actively discontented and to discuss whether it would not be a good thing to desert. We were on English territory and the idea was that if we could get away we might join the English forces and see some of the fighting for which we had volunteered. I was young and easily led and anything that sounded like an adventure was in my line so I threw in my lot with about forty men who decided to get away. It was a very abortive effort at desertion and we were caught and brought back to camp under arrest.

Then orders came through that there was to be a review. Whether this was intended to occupy us or impress some one else, I don't know; but on account of it those under arrest were released and put back into the lines. When the review was over we were again put under arrest.

At last we were embarked on the Bien Hoa, one of the ships which had relieved Casablanca when the town was captured by the Arabs in 1907.

It was a relief to know that we were on our way somewhere, presumably to the fighting line and, on board, those under arrest were released.

 

French troops ashore on the Dardanelles

 

We landed at Mudros on the Island of Lemnos and again camped. We had now been without tobacco for a month and so a right royal welcome was accorded to an old Greek who turned up with a whole cartload of cigarettes. Guided by his native knowledge of the laws of supply and demand and in blissful ignorance of the ways of the Legion and the Systeme D, he expected to make his fortune. The price of the tobacco rose, so did the old Greek, who was lifted bodily and dropped splashingly into the harbour. The battalion enjoyed its first smoke for a month.

While we were in camp at Mudros, British troopships kept coming into the harbour and we learnt at last that we were going to the Dardanelles.

On April 28th, 1915, we landed on Gallipoli from the Petite Savoie. We were the first French troops to do so. We went ashore on V beach just beside the River Clyde, the ship from which the British had landed with rafts a few days before. The sea was full of dead bodies. The English had cleared the way and our landing was without incident, but very soon the Turks started shelling from Fort Chanak. It was my first experience of shellfire and I did not like it very much.

We started marching straight away. There was no camping; that night we rested on a hilltop. We had no idea where the enemy was. It was pitch dark and raining in torrents. The Ist Company was lost and Captain Rousseau detailed me, with four or five other men, to go out in different directions to find them and lead them back to the Battalion.

I walked for about half an hour through the rain and darkness, stumbling over rocks and dead bodies, and, at last, scrambling up a hill, I saw a dim silhouette at the top. I was glad to see any living human being and went right up to him and spoke in French. With a yell the man dropped his rifle and fled, calling on Mlah in Turkish. The best part of it was that I was so startled that I did the same thing; that is, I dropped my rifle and ran. When I was about a hundred yards down the hill bullets began to whistle over my head. I stopped and dropped down and then I realised that I must get back and retrieve my rifle at all costs, so I started crawling cautiously up hill. Gradually the firing died down. But when I got near the spot where the sentry had been he was back there, or another man in his place. I lay out there behind a bush all night in the ram. I could just see my rifle lying on the ground. Eventually the sentry moved away. There was utter silence, except for the sound of the rain, and I crept forward an inch at a time until I could reach the rifle. Then I made off down the hill as fast as I knew how and got back to camp just before dawn.

That day we started marching and in the afternoon (the 29th) the real fighting began. We were holding the right of the line farthest from the sea with the British on our left. It was chiefly hand-to-hand bayonet fighting and we were up against what seemed to be an inexhaustible force of Turks. It was terrible to see the way our men were slaughtered. We lost about half the battalion and three-quarters of our officers were killed.

The fighting went on day after day, getting fiercer and fiercer. On May 1st, Captain Rousseau was wounded. He got a bullet through his arm. Although this might not have been very serious for another man, his constitution had been undermined by service in China where he had taken to opium smoking and he died of that wound.

We had now no officers left and the senior sergeant, Léon, was promoted Lieutenant on the field and took charge of what was left of the battalion. He got the Legion d'Honneur for his courage and efficiency that day and he deserved it. He was in command of the battalion for just over a month, until he was wounded himself on June 4th. He was a little, wiry man, incredibly brave, and had the respect of all the men who fought under him. Although only an N.C.O., his tactics were better than those of some of the superior officers, and the casualties were not so heavy while he was in command although the fighting was fiercer than ever. Our officers, although excellent at their own job, which was desert fighting such as the Legion gets against the Arabs, had no practical experience of modern warfare.

On May 4th we got reinforcements and the fighting went on.

The Legion had been very upset because the Flag of the R6giment de Marche was given to the 3rd Zouave Regiment to carry. But during the third day's fighting in the Dardanelles the Turks captured it from them. We were determined to get it back and we made a special, unauthorised, attack in order to recover it. We 4id so, but it was impossible, during the fighting, to get it back to our lines and so it was buried. It was a fortnight before we were able to return for it, then the Flag of the Regiment was unearthed and brought back in triumph by the soldiers of the Legion. Afterwards General d'Amade gave orders that the Legion should carry the Regiment's colours.

We were holding a part of the line about eight kilometres from V Beach, the right wing of the British Expeditionary Force, north of Cap Helles. I had got used to the shelling by this time and in the intervals between actual attacks I used to get across to the English lines and do a bit of "scrounging." We used to make deals over rations . . . exchanging our supplies for theirs. One of our greatest needs was cigarettes, and after a battle certain of us used to volunteer to creep out and search the dead Turks for tobacco of which they seemed to have plenty. One night I found a nice big packet of tobacco in the coat pocket of a dead Turk. On the way back to our lines I rolled myself a cigarette but at the first puff I was nearly sick. God knows how long that Turk had lain out there but the tobacco had become tainted by his decaying body and was putrid. I rolled about twenty cigarettes and distributed them to the men in my company, who were duly grateful-until they tried to smoke them! Our jokes were a bit on the gruesome side, but then so were the conditions in which we were living and dying.

One of the worst jobs we had was to take a ravine called, officially, Kereves-Der, but known to us as Le Ravin de la Mort. We were on one side of the ravine and the Turks on high ground the other side, commanding the only point at which we could enter it. To occupy it we had to jump down, across a kind of gully, and had orders to do this in single file, then, one by one, we had to run to the end of the place marked out for a trench and start digging. But as each man jumped he was picked off by a Turkish sniper and fell dead or wounded.

This happened ten times; one man after the other was shot down just as he jumped. I was the eleventh man to go. It was not exactly an enlivening job as it looked like certain death. But I had an idea. Instead of jumping I dived-threw myself down and the Turkish bullet whizzed above my body and I picked myself up and ran for the head of the trench, which was sheltered from their line of fire by the overhanging side of the ravine. The man who followed me did the same thing and got past, then the next, but the Turks were on to the trick by then and got him. I. started shouting to them.

“Don't all do the same thing. . . Some jump, some dive.”

They did so, and most of the rest of them got through and we dug our trench and were able to hold the ravine.

I suppose it was for my initiative (and for getting down alive !) that my officer recommended me for a medal, but it never came.

While we were holding the ravine I got friendly with an Italian in my company. He had been gun-running in Morocco before he joined the Legion and was an adventurous sort of creature. He was also a very good swimmer and he told me that he was going to get out and swim the Dardanelles to Asia Minor. We were quite near to the water. He knew I spoke Turkish and Greek and I may have told him I had relations in Asia Minor, and he asked me if I would go with him. It sounded a bit hazardous but not more dangerous than sitting in that ravine with the Turks on the high ground above us and I thought I might as well have a shot at it.

So one night we got down to the water, took off our clothes and went in. About a hundred yards from the shore we were caught by a terrifically strong current and carried right downstream. I thought we would be swept out to sea, but as a matter of fact we managed to get ashore just near the foot of the peninsula, not far from where we landed originally. And there we were, stark naked, eight kilometres from our company! We made those eight kilometres during the night and got back, our feet torn and bleeding and the spirit of adventure low in us!

I felt rather bad about this attempt to desert which I had really only agreed to on impulse and because we were all pretty fed up with what we had been through, and, to salve my own conscience, I determined to do all I could for the Legion, and afterwards I was always volunteering for any extra or dangerous mission.

On May 1st and 2nd orders came through from General d'Amade to attack the enemy with bayonet although they were over a kilometre from our lines. Of course our losses were appalling. Although the official reason that General d'Amade was relieved of his command shortly afterwards was that he had a nervous breakdown, it was generally believed that his retirement from the Dardanelles was connected with these disastrous bayonet charges, also he was always at loggerheads with General Ian Hamilton and General Braithwaite, Chief of Staff.

On May 5th I was sent dowii to Cap Helles to take over the job of telephone operator at Headquarters. It was there I first met Mr. Ashmead Bartlett, the English war correspondent. How it happened was that I saw that he was smoking an English cigarette. We were always short of tobacco at that time, and I followed him about in the hope that he would throw down the end of his cigarette and I could get it. He noticed me and called me up.

"Hallo, youngster, what d'you want?"

I told him what I was after and he gave me a cigarette and started talking to me. He was very interested in the Legion. He told me that he had been with them during the fighting at Casablanca in 1907 and had known General d'Amade there. He asked me about our landing in the Dardanelles on the 28th and I gave him what particulars I could.

Admiral Roger Keyes, General Ian Hamilton, General Braithwaite, Admiral Guypratte and General d'Amade were having a conference in the next room. We could hear the sound of their raised voices ; evidently some pretty heated arguments were in progress. Although Mr. Ashmead Bartlett was questioning me I could see that he was, at the same time, trying to hear what was going on. As the generals came out after the conference I thought I heard General Hamilton say to General Braithwaite with brusque emphasis, "He's no damned good."

Later in the day Turkish prisoners were brought in and I got into conversation with some of them. General d'Amade walked in and was obviously astonished to hear one of his soldiers talking fluent Turkish. He gave me a look of deepest suspicion and turning to one of his officers, said: “Have that man relieved at once."

My work at Headquarters lasted just fourteen hours!

General d'Amade's place was taken, shortly afterwards, by General Gouraud.

It was on May 1st- that I was recommended for the Crorx de Guerre and later had permission to put it up, although I was not officially decorated until December when I got back to Sidi Bel Abbe's. This was the first Croix de Guerre given in the Legion and it is entered in the Livre d'Honneur as such.

 

the sole Russian warship present at the Dardanelles operations : 'Askold' aka 'Packet of Woodbines'

 

In the middle of May I was sent down to the Island of Tenedos with a fatigue party consisting of half a company, to get rations, clothing and so on. The Askold was lying there, the only Russian gunboat in the Dardanelles. She was called by the English soldiers "the packet of Woodbines" because of her row of funnels.

While we were waiting, the ship was shelling, and I was watching the sailors firing when a shell from the Fort Chanak burst and all the gunners were killed or wounded. The gun was untouched. I rushed forward impetuously and started turning the firing-handle as I had seen them do. The ship was turning and of course I did not and could not have turned the gun. In another moment I should have been firing On our own men and allies but luckily I was stopped in time. I expected to get court-martialled for that but I never heard any more about it.

Towards the end of May I was sent with a man called Dikon to Cap Helles to pilot the Paymaster back to our ranks. Dixon was a Frenchman. He did not speak a word of English although he had joined the Legion as an Englishman. He was the champion "scrounger" in the battalion. It was with him that I used to crawl out into " no man's land " at night in search of Turkish tobacco, only Dixon was not particular what it was he could find on the dead Turks and appropriated to his own uses anything he fancied.

On the way back from Cap Helles a shell from a 6-inch gun burst near us, killing the Paymaster and sending flying the attaché-case in which he was carrying the money for the battalion. Notes were scattered all over the place, five-franc notes, ten, twenty, fifty, hundred-franc notes. . . . Dixon went after them. Shells were bursting all round and I took cover.

But Dixon sat down and began calmly to count a pile of notes and shouted to me to come on out if I wanted some money and get it while there was still some to get. At that moment another shell burst and decapitated him ; his head was thrown right on to my knees. I felt pretty sick and as soon as I could I got away, made for our lines and reported what had happened. A party was sent out to look for the money. It was stated that the amount the Paymaster was carrying was 10,000 francs (about £400 in those days). All that was recovered was 550 francs. Some of the rest no doubt had found its way into the searchers' pockets and perhaps some poor blighters in the trenches literally had a "windfall" !

Another imperturbable character in our company was an Austrian. He had joined the Legion as a Swiss. He was an excellent cook, in fact he had been a chef at the Hotel Meurice in Paris. One day he was making soup when a shell killed a Legionnaire named Keller. A great piece of his flesh was thrown into the stock pot. The Austrian simply cut it up and cooked it in the soup. Rations were neither plentiful nor palatable and we all ate that soup, which tasted of pork, with a relish. When, afterwards, he told us what he had done, many of the men were sick.

An incident which very nearly caused trouble with our men. was connected with an Arab who was in our company. One of the officers, a lieutenant, had spotted him in hiding while we were in action. Afterwards the lieutenant made us form up in single file. He marched down the line with his revolver in his hand and when he came to the Arab he stopped and shot him dead. Then he took his body and flung it down the slope.

The men did not like this because he had waited until after the attack. They thought he ought to have killed him at the time or not at all, and grumbled a good deal.

But nevertheless the spirit of the Legion, especially when we were in action, remained the same.

ANZACPRIDE
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