Aux armes across the Channel
19 November 2010
A few concerns have been raised about plans for closer co-operation between the British and French armies. There have been quacks of alarm from traditionalists and little Englanders, fearful that the essential character of our soldiery will be compromised by contact with French brothers-in-arms. “British Army Under French Orders”, read one front-page headline over a piece which mentioned Agincourt, Crécy, Trafalgar, Waterloo. “In World War II we were supposed to be standing side by side with the French,” one old soldier was reported as saying. “Then look what happened.”
According to my source at the Ministry of Defence (or “La Défense”, as it will now be known), these fears are absolutely groundless. The process of rationalisation, Operation Ca Va, as it is called, will essentially be the kind of operation that the British army has become used to over recent decades.
During that period, many great historic regiments were merged and soon forged a new identity. The same process, apart from one or two language differences, will take place over the next few months as Operation Ca Va gets under way. To prepare for this new entente militaire officials have instructed senior officers to introduce some gentle changes to the age-old traditions of military life.
That way, they believe, the cultural shock when British and French soldiers eventually find themselves shoulder to shoulder, will be reduced. Some of the modifications will involve minor questions of tone. That familiar figure of history and anecdote, the tough, wise-cracking British Tommy, will henceforth be known as “To-To” and will look less like Norman Wisdom and more like Jacques Tati. The legendary sense of humour, said by military historians to have been something of a secret weapon in the two great wars, will of course live on, although To-To’s humour will now be expressed exclusively in mime.
There will be minor moderations to parade-ground drill. Berets will be worn at a jaunty, facetious angle. Soldiers on parade will respond differently when addressed by a regimental sergeant-major. In the event of the RSM saying, “What exactly do you think that you look like, you ‘oribble little man?”, the response of a good-humoured To-To should be to sniff, one-two, to shrug, one-two, and say briskly: “Bof! Je ne sais pas, SAH!”
There will be no drills, exercises or operations of any sort between 1300 hours and 1600 hours. Operation Ca Va will also introduce changes to the etiquette of the Officers’ mess. Until now, making “loud and obtrusive remarks in a foreign language” was regarded as the height of bad form. That ruling is now formally suspended, as is the prohibition of unauthorised smoking, and the discussion of such topics as politics, religion or women.
Suggested subjects for conversation at mess dinners will be: l’amour, la condition humaine, Sartre et la mauvaise foi, and pourquoi vivre? The toast at the end of a regimental dinner will be to “The Queen – et la République”.
Several reciprocal concessions are to be made by the French army. Its Foreign Legion will be known as the Anglo-French Foreign Legion. Rather than training in north Africa, the legion will become part of a regeneration project in areas of social deprivation across England and Scotland.
Regimental mottos will henceforth be in English; “Demerdez-vous”, the code of the Foreign Legion’s parachute division, will become the more easily understood “Get your shit together”. The British regiment whose motto is “Sans Peur” will march under the flag of “No fear”.
Linguistic confusions between the two armies will quickly become a thing of the past. The aide-de-camp of a British general will no longer have his position anglicised, becoming instead of an ADC a WBDB, or Well-Bred Dog’s Body. The term chargé d’affaires will however remain unchanged, reflecting the additional workload of this post, organising affairs within the new Anglo-French army.
Independent, 5 November 2010