With a reputation of being as feared by its enemies as it is envied by its allies, the French Foreign Legion has put its mark on the eFP Battlegroup in Estonia for the past four months. Men of the 13th regiment have trained intensively in Estonia‘s woods and bogs, integrating with Estonian, British, American and other Allied forces – all preparing to deter and, if necessary, defend NATO‘s Eastern Flank.
“This has been a great opportunity to train in new terrain, adapt our procedures and to work alongside British and Estonian soldiers,“ says Captain Côme. “We have succeeded in knitting together different strands in our working relationship, which is quite satisfying.“
Integrating in a multinational environment is nothing new for legionnaires, who come from all over the world. Only 30 percent are French. But as they sit around a table chatting in the French barracks in Tapa, only the different accents provide a clue that they originate from vastly different countries.
“The French Foreign Legion is a homeland,“ says Sergeant Mutuku, matter-of-factly. “We even spend Christmas Eve together, also the French officers.“ What about the families? “They have to deal with it. “
Departing commander of French forces in Estonia, Lt. Col. Edouard Bros, says the legion is not only a fighting force, but also a family.
“If you don‘t have that family spirit you cannot be a good military formation,“ he says. “The French Foreign Legion is a human system. We ask a lot of the legionnaires but on the other hand, we offer them to be part of a family.“
The highlight of the legionnaires‘ stay in Estonia was exercise Spring Storm, the Estonian Defence Force‘s main yearly manouvers. This year, it involved 14,000 troops from 11 Allied and partner countries, utilising heavy armour, a night-time beach raid, a massive parachute jump, armed helicopters and jets providing close air support as well as mock battles all over Northern Estonia.
Unusually, military exercises in Estonia aren‘t necessarily confined to defined training areas. Spring Storm included firefights, minus bullets but including the noise, on village streets and across municipal grounds, observed by passers-by, civilians who had been warned about what to expect.
Adjutant Vilhelmus joined the French Foreign Legion near the end of the Cold War. He can‘t help feeling he‘s seen it all before.
“When I see large scale manouvers, it feels like the 80s,“ he says. “I think to myself; I‘ve done this before, we haven‘t done it for 30 years and we are doing it again. It is like deja-vu.“
In fact, the Foreign Legion, like most European armies, is adapting from operating in much different theatres. Many have fought in Afghanistan. Master corporal Hugo‘s previous missions have been in the Central African Republic, Mali and the Ivory Coast.
“I‘ve seen the worst side and the best side of human nature; people who have almonst nothing but give what little they have to those in need,“ he says.
While in Estonia, the legionnaires were trained to use the brand-new Griffon armoured infantry vehicle – brought to Estonia in March – and the AMX 10-RC wheeled tank as well as the SCORPION network, which allows a live intelligence exchange through a digital interface.
The training has been intensive with an emphasis on double-action exercises, where two opposing units are both trying to gain an advantage over the other. For the legionnaires, who came from recent missions in Africa, there is a world of difference training in the Baltics.
“Previously in Africa, there was real fighting,“ says Lt. Col. Bros. “Here, in a double-action exercise, you can make a mistake and do things over and improve. Our guys all say they have loved it in Estonia and that goes for the young and old, NCOs and officers.“
Note: Lt. Col. Bros has now been replaced by Lt. Col. Thomas Miailhes as commander of French forces in Estonia.