Most mornings, a group of men come together to sit around a table at the café in town. They read their papers, drink coffee, debate issues of news, politics, and general topics, or simply banter with each other. They come from diverse backgrounds, and each have a life time of experience and knowledge to contribute.
Yet no story is more extraordinary than the Colonels. Born in Ardennes in 1924, he was nineteen years old when he joined the Resistance Army during World War Two. After the war he attended military school, and was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment. His first deployment was in Vietnam, where his Regiment, (made up of foreign, french and vietnamese men), battled in savage conditions. The mortality rate was high, but the Lieutenant returned to France after three years. He was cited many times for courageous action under fire, and was awarded his first distinction as ‘Chevalier (Knight) de la Legion d’honneur’ in 1955.
After Vietnam came the war in Algeria, and as Capitaine of 11th choc Parachute Regiment, he went to battle again. Further citations of courage in the firing line brought his elevation to the second distinction of ‘Officier de la Legion d’Honneur’.
From 1961 the Capitaine took charge of training reserve soldiers for 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment in Tunisia. It was here that he became Colonel, and commander of the Regiment, after being awarded a third distinction as ‘Commandeur de la Legion d’honneur’. The Colonel retired in 1981, after thirty seven years of service in the Foreign Legion.
Today, 18th June 2015, Colonel Jean Bertrand is ‘élevé à la dignité de Grand Officier de la Legion d’honneur’ ( elevated to the rank of a Grand Officer of the Legion of honour ) in recognition of his leadership qualities, bravery and long military service for France. The ceremony is held in the Colonels home village in L’Entre Deux Mers. The medals are presented, and placed on the Colonels breast by a brother in arms, also elevated to the rank of a Grand Officier, General Jean Singland.
Colonel Jean Bertrand, now a ‘Grand Officier de la Legion d’honneur’, turns to give thanks to all his brothers in arms, officials, the elected, family and friends. Our story comes full circle as he acknowledges his café bar copains (friends) who colour his mornings, these days. For us, it feels a privilege to be a copain of this remarkable man, and to be invited to share his special day.
The Colonel ends the ceremony with a warm smile to his wife, as he informs his audience that they celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, this very day!
Ordre national de La Legion d’honneur was established by Napoleon Bonapart in 1802. He believed that the citizens wanted all to have the opportunity to be recognised, and honoured for their exceptional service to France, and her Empire, in the Arts, Sciences and Military. Previously, only the nobility had been rewarded for good works, and this had been abolished in the wake of the Revolution. It has evolved over the years to include women, personalities, foreigners, educationalists, diplomats and sportspersons, ect. It is a beloved Order, and those decorated represent the qualities and graces of France, and her citizens, before the world.
There are five increasing distinctions within the Order, which are, ‘Chevalier (knight), ‘Officier’, ‘Commandeur’, ‘Grand Officier’, numbering 250 persons (excluding military), and ‘Grand Croix’, awarded to 74 persons at present. The award is usually presented by the President of the Republic of France.
The Foreign Legion was established in 1831, to enable foreigners to serve in the French Army, and is open to french patriots. It was formed to protect, and expand France, and her Colonies. Its mottos are, ‘Honneur et Fidélité, and ‘Legio Patria Nostra’ ( The Legion is our Fatherhood’). Foreign soldiers are free to preserve their first nationality, but are required to adopt the Foreign Legion as a new fatherland. Training is reknowned as physically and psychologically challenging, and has become a model for other armies. The Foreign Legion has become mythical in its reputation as an elite military service.