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The stuff of legends.....


Chris Boonzaier
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The BILA were made up of ex convicts who still had their service to do.

Draconian discipline from above and harsh rules from the convict hierarchy within the ranks.... The "Biribi" or "Les Joyeux" (The joyful ones) or the "Zephyrs" were not the unit a middle class boy wanted to land in. Within the units a classic "Prison system" was in place.

The other ranks were famous for their prison tattoos many done within the unit...

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From the little I have read, the men of the Bat D'af were hard cases. Inside the sections prison hierarchy was order of the day. The harder the criminal, the better his status.

The men were in the most desolate outposts in North Africa, and were not really given that much leave. Life was violent and brutal...

And if you were a young guy who had landed there because he had passed bad checks and stolen his Employee's diamond necklace.... you knew your day was off to a bad start when a scarfaced veteran who had been pardoned for a manslaughter charge called you "Sweet-cheeks"

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The BILA were made up of ex convicts who still had their service to do.

Draconian discipline from above and harsh rules from the convict hierarchy within the ranks.... The "Biribi" or "Les Joyeux" (The joyful ones) or the "Zephyrs" were not the unit a middle class boy wanted to land in. Within the units a classic "Prison system" was in place.

The other ranks were famous for their prison tattoos many done within the unit...

Scary looking dudes, wouldn't like to meet one in a dark alley

Alex K

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Hello Chris.

If recollection serves me right this formation was also the equevalent of the Compagnie de Discipline of the Legion meaning it also served as a unit to correct the attitude of hard cases who ran and ran afoul of the rules and regulations of military service. The six (?) months of assignment to the units which were part of the Legion (one in Colomb-Bechar -Algeria and the other on an island near Vietnam, time period 1940's and 50's) usually did the job. My understanding still is that the BILA had even more severe internal "discipline" than the CD-LE.

If I read the date on the document correctly (1923) hostilities which still were on in Maroc until 1930 or so gave ample opportunities for action.

Thanks for showing this.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Much has been said and written on the Bat'd'Af.

In fact, most of the men were quite young : when a man who was serving time in a civilian prison was of age to be called up for national service, he would be sent to the Bataillons d'Afrique after he had finished his prison term.

Also went to those units, the military who were repetitious offenders or law breakers, after being court-martialed.

In other words, not much company for any one !

They were nevertheless employed during World War I since there were a R?giment de marche d'infanterie l?g?re d'Afrique and a Groupe de bataillons d'infanterie l?g?re d'Afrique (1er, 2eme et 3eme bataillons) among the units listed as intitled to the Victory Medal.

I don't know exactly where or when. The only certainty is that they served in the North or North-East of France and in Southern Tunisia (which was their usual station).

The Compagnies disciplinaire de la L?gion ?trang?re were a different proposition. They were part of the Legion itself.

Men were sent to serve there when they had been court-martialed for such offenses as desertion, repetitious disorderly conduct or non-criminal faults. Military discipline was total : not the slightest fault went without retribution.

Once they had served their time with the CSLE, they would go back to one of the units within the Legion to finish their contract.

From what I understand, things are different now : such repetitious offenders just get kicked out.

Regards

Veteran

Edited by Veteran
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I know of a case where a young man joined the navy, was convicted of stealing a bag of jewels and toilet items, and was sentenced to 2 years in the BILA. Somehow he never reported, and made off to England, where he married. In 1916 he turned himself in to the French consul. He was sentencd to 2 years for desertion in peacetime (important distinction!) and sent back to the 3e BILA, where he was killed in action.

I think the 1-3 Bns BILA served in France.

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They were nevertheless employed during World War I since there were a R?giment de marche d'infanterie l?g?re d'Afrique and a Groupe de bataillons d'infanterie l?g?re d'Afrique (1er, 2eme et 3eme bataillons) among the units listed as intitled to the Victory Medal.

I don't know exactly where or when. The only certainty is that they served in the North or North-East of France and in Southern Tunisia (which was their usual station).

Hi,

I read in a French history that they were used as "nettoyeur"..... a pretty grim and brutal task.

The nettoyeur advanced just behind the point of an offensive and "cleaned up" any dangers, including burning/Bombing out enemy caught in dugouts and who refused to surrender, basically finishing off whoever was still posed a potential danger.

I cannot remember which division they were attached to... one of the colonial ones I think.

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The Compagnies disciplinaire de la L?gion ?trang?re were a different proposition. They were part of the Legion itself.

Men were sent to serve there when they had been court-martialed for such offenses as desertion, repetitious disorderly conduct or non-criminal faults. Military discipline was total : not the slightest fault went without retribution.

Once they had served their time with the CSLE, they would go back to one of the units within the Legion to finish their contract.

From what I understand, things are different now : such repetitious offenders just get kicked out.

Regards

Veteran

Technically there were three decrees (1906, 1908 and 1912) that allowed legionnaires to be thrown out of the Legion. Astoundingly not possible before that time.

According to Porch it was possible to apply these to Legionnaires who had chronic discipline problems.

It was apparently a very bureaucratic process and even if you kicked someone out.... he could just join up under another name, as noone in 1906 had to present ID.

best

Chris

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For services 1914-18 the following regiments won the right to wear the fourrageres:

1e BILA - Colour of the Medaille Militaire

2e BILA - Colour of the Croix de Guerre

3e BILA - Colour of the Legion d'Honneur

Interestingly there was a story that the units of the BILA wore a black fourragere, presumably because of their "crimes". There's a discussion here http://www.phaleristique.net/forum/viewtop...hp?=&p=2659 in French, of course.

Edited by Michael Johnson
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The fact that the three units were awarded the fourragere in the colours of the Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, and Legion d'Honneur respectively answers that question.

Only 20 infantry regiments were awarded the fourragere in the colours of the Legion d'honneur 1914-18.

Edited by Michael Johnson
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Michael

A "colour fourragere" does not reflect the award of the Medaille militaire or Legion of honor to a military unit. It indicates the number of Army level mentions in despaches (citations) this unit received. Each Army level mention also means an extra palm on the croix de guerre attached to the Unit's flag.

A "croix de guerre" (dark green with red) fourrag?re went to units which had received a minimum of two Army level mentions in dispaches

M?daille militaire (yellow with green) for four or five

Legion d'honneur (solid red) for six, seven or eight.

A double fourragere (Legion d'honneur + Croix de guerre) went to units with twelve to fourteen mentions (2 regiments received that level : R?giment de marche de la L?gion ?trang?re and R?giment d'Infanterie coloniale du Maroc).

I personnally wore this double fourrag?re serving with the RMLE in 1944/45.

All men serving with a unit which received such honors wear the alloted fourrag?re as long as they are on its roll. Men who were present with the unit when the mentions in dispaches were won keep a personnal right to wear the appropriate fourragere for ever, never mind which unit they serve with later.

A little complicated but that was the true significance of the fourragere wich was awarded to a number of US Army units during WW1.

Hope this proves useful. Best regards

Veteran

Edited by Veteran
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Of course it's silly. But judging from the number of posts on the French forum it seems to have circulated at least until the 1970s.

Thank you for the correction on the significance of the fourragere. In the case of the 3e BILA, 6 to 8 mentions certainly makes clear what kind of soldiers they were.

Edited by Michael Johnson
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The fact that the three units were awarded the fourragere in the colours of the Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, and Legion d'Honneur respectively answers that question.

Only 20 infantry regiments were awarded the fourragere in the colours of the Legion d'honneur 1914-18.

Actually, not previously knowing the significance of those awards(the fourragere), my question was not answered.... until now. :cheers:

Thanks Michael and Veteran, for your detailed answers.

Veteran,(to clarify) since you were with your unit when it was awarded the double fourragere, you retained the right to keep it forever... right?

Do you have some images of your uniform with this award?

I do remember hearing when I was in the Marines that our 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were awared the fourrag?re for having earned the Croix de Guerre with palm leaf three times during World War I. It is still worn today by members of the Marine Corps 2nd Battalion 5th Reg.

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The R?giment de Marche de la L?gion ?trang?re received the double fourrag?re (L?gion d'honneur + Croix de guerre) for its part in the Great War 1914-1918. After the war, the regiments was disbanded, and the 3rd R?giment ?tranger d'infanterie (3e REI) was its successor.

In 1943, the Regiment was re-activated as the R?giment de Marche de la L?gion ?trang?re in Algeria to be part of the 5th Armoured Division (French 1st Army) and landed in Southern France in August 1944; and the men wore the double fourrag?re the regiment was intitled to from its WW1 record.

During WW2, the Regiment won two further citations and palms to the 1939 croix de guerre on its flag and a US Presidential Unt Citation. Since I joined in 1944, I therefore wore the double fourragere as a member of the regiment. The two citations were not enough to entitle us to wear a 1939 fourragere as a personnal distinction. But I retained the right to wear the Blue bar of the US Presidential Distiinguished Unit throughout my later carreer as a reserve officer.

Does that answer yout question ?.

Best regards

Veteran

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They actually had a pretty good marching song...

At this link you can hear a choir sing it... not a bad job....

http://www.esnips.com/doc/bd0b3ae0-d5b1-43...---Les-Bats-dAf

Les Bats d'AF

Il est sur la terre africaine

Un bataillon dont les soldats, (bis)

Sont tous des gars qu'ont pas eu de veine.

C'est les bats d'af et nous voil?, (bis)

Pour ?tre ? joyeux ?, chose sp?ciale,

Il faut sortir de Biribi, (bis)

Ou bien alors d'une centrale,

C'est d'ailleurs l? qu'on nous choisit (bis)

Refrain

Et apr?s tout, qu'est-ce que ?a fout ?

Et l'on s'en fout ! Lalala

En marchant sur la grand route,

Souviens-toi, oui souviens-toi (bis)

Les anciens l'ont fait sans doute

Avant toi, oui avant toi, lalala

De Gab?s ? Tataouine,

De Gafsa ? Medenine, lalala

Sac au dos dans la poussi?re,

Marchons bataillonnaires.

J'ai vu mourir un pauvre gosse,

Un pauvre gosse de 18 ans (bis)

Frapp? par le destin f?roce.

Il est mort en criant maman. (bis)

C'est moi qu'ai ferm? ses paupi?res,

Recueilli son dernier soupir, (bis)

Qu'ai ?crit ? sa pauvre m?re

Un vrai soldat vient de mourir, (bis)

Et comme on a jamais eu de veine,

Bien s?r qu'un jour on y cr?vera, (bis)

Sur cette putain de terre africaine.

Dans le sable on nous enterrera, (bis)

Avec pour croix un ba?onnette,

A l'endroit o? l'on est tomb?, (bis)

Qui voulez-vous qui nous regrette,

Puisque nous sommes des r?prouv?s.

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  • 1 month later...

I have been doing a bit of reading on the Bat d'Af.

Veteran is right, they have little to do with the Legion in later years, but it seems that up until the 1930s they actually had quite a bit in common as to how they were used. From the WW2 era onwards they existed as prison companies, but from their creating until after the Rif War they were a combat unit for inhospitable places/forts in the desert, and there are many Legion like accounts for how and where they fought.

This superb card below shows Legionnaires and Bat d'Af troups in Morocco in 1913...

Below... Tatahouine.... main clain to fame (in google) is a meteorite struck there in 1931, and it was a "Foreign Legion prison"..... was also the Bat d'af HQ.

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I know all of you must know of the famous movie "Beau Geste", shot in several versions in the 1930's, 1940's. What is less well known is that P.C. Wren actually did serve with the Legion for a stretch, which he parlayed into a literary career. Companion novels to Beau Geste were Beau Sabreur and a third whose title escapes me. All dealt with the improbable adventures of the Geste brothers, the younger of whom ran away to the Legion after taking the blame for a jewel theft (to protect a woman, I think), and his older brother who ran away to bring Junior home from the Legion!

Wren also wrote dozens of short stories about the French and other "quaint" foreigners, in that lovely upper crust racism that was the mark of some English literature back then. The Legion was considered quite 'sexy' appaerently. For example, the Crown Prince of Denmark (I believe it was Denmark) served for a bit, though he lived in a hotel in Siddi, not in barracks and there were certainly other films and books about La Legionne!

Anyway, to meander back on topic here, sort of, Wren recounts in one tale how the REAL hard cases in the Legion and 'les Batt D'Af' would have the word "Merde" tattoed on the palm of their right hands (upside down?), so that every time they saluted an officer they would be committing an offence - against what the Brits would call "good order and discipline" - and thereby guarantee themselves a permanent spot in the punishment companies. Seems like a slow and complicated form of suicide to me, but it impressed my 16 year old brain when I read it. It also sounds improbable, but it's stuck in my head 40 years later when many far more useful facts - like where I left my glasses and keys - have fled away. :speechless:

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Hello :

Prince Aage of Denmark did serve as an officer probably "en titre etranger" as a number of officers did until the 1960's. As I recall efforts were going on in the 1950's to encourage n.c.o.'s to participate in training courses for platoon-leaders in preparation for further training as reserve-officers "en titre etranger" (serving as foreign nationals).

Bernhard H. Holst

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