Legion of Honour

 

As part of my degree course I spent a year as a language assistant at a lycée in Nantes in the west of France. French schools do not have the same hierarchy among subject teachers that we have in Britain, but I was assigned by common assent to the senior member of the English department, M. Roger Tournereau. He was affable, helpful and courteous – as indeed were all the other members of the department. We immediately got on very well, so much so that towards the end of the first term he invited me to Sunday lunch in the week before Christmas. From that time onwards I got to know his wife, Simone, a charming lady and head teacher of a nearby primary school, and their son Serge who at that time was eleven.

It was in later years, when Serge was an adult, that there occurred one of the incidents that I have always regarded as one of my favourite stories of all.

Like all young adults in France, Serge was required to do military service. At the time he was suffering from an ingrown toenail that would necessitate a surgical procedure. Rather astutely, Serge applied to do his duty in the army base at Rennes where there was a large military hospital under the command of one of the two Surgeons-General of France. His application to serve there was on the grounds that he was studying pharmacology and would like to work in the hospital pharmacy for practical experience. His application was accepted.

This move was doubly astute because Serge knew that he could have his foot operation carried out while serving in the army’s time.

One other detail is significant. The commanding officer of the military hospital, the Surgeon-General, was his uncle, the brother of his father, my former colleague at the lycée. The operation was duly performed at that hospital.

The procedure was successful, and Serge’s parents arranged to visit him on base one weekend while he was recovering. They were all invited to join Roger’s brother, Chirurgien-Général, for lunch in the officers’ mess.

When the day came, the family gathered in the General’s officer and set off across the parade ground for lunch. Halfway across the yard the General noticed that Serge, who was hobbling along on crutches, was in shirt-sleeves. The dress code in the mess required either uniform or at least a jacket. Serge offered to go back to his quarters to fetch the required item. But that could be a lengthy and awkward process in view of Serge’s lack of rapid mobility. Instead, the General made an alternative suggestion. His car was parked nearby, and on the back seat was a tweed sportsjacket. It may not be the right size, but if draped over Serge’s shoulders it would fulfil dress code requirements. He quickly retrieved the jacket from his car, hung it round the shoulders of his nephew, and the group continued on their way.

By this time the lunch break was well underway, and the dining hall was crowded with officers of all ranks. The General stepped forward, pushed open the door and ushered his nephew to enter in front of him. A number of officers looked up as the group entered. Almost at once, a Colonel at the nearest table stood and offered his place, as well as the places of all those seated with him to the new arrivals. When the General protested that that was not necessary, the Colonel brushed this aside and insisted on giving way. His party dispersed with gestures of gallantry and goodwill towards the whole family group.

Some while later, on a subsequent visit to the base, the family group was taking an aperitif with the General in his quarters. Simone remarked how touched she had been by the courtesy and generosity of the Colonel and his colleagues in the officers’ dining hall. Her brother-in-law’s reaction surprised them all. He began laughing. He went on to explain what had really happened that day.

“Was it out of respect for your rank as General and commanding officer?” Simone suggested.

“Oh, no. It was all out of respect and admiration for Serge.”

This astonishing news was received with bewilderment. How could a young conscript, a private soldier working in the pharmacy, command such a reaction?

“It was the jacket,” the General explained. “And also the crutches.”

None of the family understood. The General continued.

“I forgot that in the button hole of that jacket was the stud denoting that I had received the award of the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.” (This was the highest grade of the highest honour that anyone can receive in France.) “When the Colonel saw me opening the door and letting a young man pass in front of me, he spotted the emblem. He at once assumed that Serge must have been a young hero of the Republic to merit such recognition. It was therefore his duty and his honour to offer up his own place to such a worthy comrade.”

To this day I do not know if the Colonel in question ever learnt the truth.

As part of my degree course I spent a year as a language assistant at a lycée in Nantes in the west of France. French schools do not have the same hierarchy among subject teachers that we have in Britain, but I was assigned by common assent to the senior member of the English department, M. Roger Tournereau. He was affable, helpful and courteous – as indeed were all the other members of the department. We immediately got on very well, so much so that towards the end of the first term he invited me to Sunday lunch in the week before Christmas. From that time onwards I got to know his wife, Simone, a charming lady and head teacher of a nearby primary school, and their son Serge who at that time was eleven.

It was in later years, when Serge was an adult, that there occurred one of the incidents that I have always regarded as one of my favourite stories of all.

Like all young adults in France, Serge was required to do military service. At the time he was suffering from an ingrown toenail that would necessitate a surgical procedure. Rather astutely, Serge applied to do his duty in the army base at Rennes where there was a large military hospital under the command of one of the two Surgeons-General of France. His application to serve there was on the grounds that he was studying pharmacology and would like to work in the hospital pharmacy for practical experience. His application was accepted.

This move was doubly astute because Serge knew that he could have his foot operation carried out while serving in the army’s time.

One other detail is significant. The commanding officer of the military hospital, the Surgeon-General, was his uncle, the brother of his father, my former colleague at the lycée. The operation was duly performed at that hospital.

The procedure was successful, and Serge’s parents arranged to visit him on base one weekend while he was recovering. They were all invited to join Roger’s brother, Chirurgien-Général, for lunch in the officers’ mess.

When the day came, the family gathered in the General’s officer and set off across the parade ground for lunch. Halfway across the yard the General noticed that Serge, who was hobbling along on crutches, was in shirt-sleeves. The dress code in the mess required either uniform or at least a jacket. Serge offered to go back to his quarters to fetch the required item. But that could be a lengthy and awkward process in view of Serge’s lack of rapid mobility. Instead, the General made an alternative suggestion. His car was parked nearby, and on the back seat was a tweed sportsjacket. It may not be the right size, but if draped over Serge’s shoulders it would fulfil dress code requirements. He quickly retrieved the jacket from his car, hung it round the shoulders of his nephew, and the group continued on their way.

By this time the lunch break was well underway, and the dining hall was crowded with officers of all ranks. The General stepped forward, pushed open the door and ushered his nephew to enter in front of him. A number of officers looked up as the group entered. Almost at once, a Colonel at the nearest table stood and offered his place, as well as the places of all those seated with him to the new arrivals. When the General protested that that was not necessary, the Colonel brushed this aside and insisted on giving way. His party dispersed with gestures of gallantry and goodwill towards the whole family group.

Some while later, on a subsequent visit to the base, the family group was taking an aperitif with the General in his quarters. Simone remarked how touched she had been by the courtesy and generosity of the Colonel and his colleagues in the officers’ dining hall. Her brother-in-law’s reaction surprised them all. He began laughing. He went on to explain what had really happened that day.

“Was it out of respect for your rank as General and commanding officer?” Simone suggested.

“Oh, no. It was all out of respect and admiration for Serge.”

This astonishing news was received with bewilderment. How could a young conscript, a private soldier working in the pharmacy, command such a reaction?

“It was the jacket,” the General explained. “And also the crutches.”

None of the family understood. The General continued.

“I forgot that in the button hole of that jacket was the stud denoting that I had received the award of the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur.” (This was the highest grade of the highest honour that anyone can receive in France.) “When the Colonel saw me opening the door and letting a young man pass in front of me, he spotted the emblem. He at once assumed that Serge must have been a young hero of the Republic to merit such recognition. It was therefore his duty and his honour to offer up his own place to such a worthy comrade.”

To this day I don't know if the Colonel in question ever learnt the truth.

(c) Leo McNeir 2020