A bit of background – William John Carroll (Sean, my husband’s grandfather) was an amazing man with an amazing story. I always thought you could tell how wonderful a person is by how much they are loved and Poppy Bill was no exception, he was much loved by his family and friends and had some of the best stories I have heard. I only knew him personally for a short time but I loved him dearly.
He was born in Belfast on 31 October 1933. Bill, Audrey and their two children arrived in Australia on April fools day 1970, Poppy Bill (as he was affectionately known) always said it was the biggest joke ever played on Australia – This is a bit of that amazing story!
Decorated for Valour… But determined to desertTold by Barry White in the Belfast Telegraph Aug 6, 1959
It was Bastille Day, July 14, in Paris, when the whole city went gay – except a certain Belfast man. In Bill Carroll’s mind, hope was fading fast. In a few short hours he was due to catch the train for Marseilles, back to North Africa and the rigours of another year in the French Foreign Legion.
He had made up his mind to desert, but how would he escape the hue and cry when he was missed?
One thing was certain, he must get rid of his uniform, which won him smiles and back-slaps wherever he went, and get back to his anonymity of “civvies”.
His plan was to tour the bars of Montmartre that night until he met a sympathetic American. He would tell him his plight and buy a set of clothes from him with the paltry 5000 francs that was all he had in his pocket.
A sound plan… the only plan, he thought. But it wasn’t working. Into bar after bar he walked, and every time it was drinks on the house for the gallant legionnaire – but still there was no sign of an American. Then at last in Pigalle Bistro, he heard an American accent from a quiet corner. The man was American, to be sure – a Bohemian type with the beard of an artist – but could he be trusted? There was a 5000 francs reward for turning in an escaping Legionnaire, but Bill had to take the risk. “Yes” said the American, “I can get clothes. Meet me at the corner in half an hour.”
The minutes crawled by but the American was as good as his word and was at the rendezvous with a bundle under his arms. They found a quiet alleyway, where Bill change into a sports coat, shirt and flannels and handed over the money.
A little sadly he folded up the proud walking-out dress of the Legion and gave it to his unknown friend – no name had been used. But the American was taking no chances. With a sigh he flung the uniform and kepi (peaked pill-box cap) into a canal. “Too dangerous” he said. Bill squared his broad shoulders resolutely. After four long years he had thrown off the shackles of the Foreign Legion. If he could flee the country, he would be a free man.
This was the story as Bill Carroll told me, leaning back in an easy chair by the fireside of his parents’ home in Valesheda Park, Belfast. In this setting it seemed too outlandish to be true, but as he fingered through a few snapshots – the only mementoes of his legion days – the picture began to take shape.
It all started back in the autumn of 1955. Ever since his Everton Primary days Bill has been a boy with an itch in his heels. He had just finished a three-year stint in the army in Germany, and when he returned to a machinist job in Mackie’s he found he just couldn’t settle down. “I’d read about the Legion, and of course I’d seen a few films, so the notion of joining gradually took root in me”, he told me.
Off the Boat
A month after he stepped off the boat at Dunkirk, and asked at the local gendarmerie where he could join the Foreign Legion. “Go to Lille” they told him, and so he did.
At Lille a piece of paper was pushed before him, and he signed it.
“I suppose it was an oath of some kind, but I might have been signing away my life”, said Bill. “It was all in French and I couldn’t read a word.”
On to Marseilles, where he was cross-examined thoroughly, his life history being checked and re-checked by Interpol experts. “It’s not right to say the legion is full of criminals on the run,” said Bill. “Anyone wanted for a major crime would be running straight into the arms of the law by enlisting.”
Out of every five volunteers – and there was no shortages of recruits for the Legion – only one man is selected, but the burly (6ft, 1in., 11½ stone) Ulsterman cleared this hurdle.
Next stop was North Africa, and as they were herded into the holds of the cargo ship “like sheep” many of the men were asking themselves “Why did I join?” But the doors behind them had closed and they had no civilian clothes and no passports. “We felt like convicts, not soldiers,” said Bill.
Nevertheless, it was a proud moment a few days later in Sidi Sel Abbes, when the new recruits were issued with the insignia of the Legionnaire – the much prized kepi. With it went an army-style haircut and the princely allowance of 1000 francs a fortnight – worth about £1 in English currency. Next he was posted to a six months instruction course, and when he graduated a fully-fledged Legionnaire he was assigned to the once-proud 13th Demi-Brigade, formed by general De-Gaulle in England at the beginning of the last war.
But the brigade had suffered heavy casualties in the bitter conflict with the rebels, and was reduced to drawing on the disciplinary reserve – men returning from prison camp sentences. They were a mix of nationalities – Germans, Hungarians, Spaniards, English, Polish and even a few French – but in Bill’s words “they fought like savages.” He has his own theory on the Legion’s legendary prowess in battle. “There are so many different countries represented – and each man is fighting to show that his countrymen make the best soldiers,” said Bill.
Ulster’s Legionnaire did not let his country down while he served in North Africa, and two years ago he was decorated for bravery in action.
It was at Touound, when his scout car was called out to escort a mopping-up operation against a band of 120 rebels. The Algerians were well positioned out of machine-gun range and had inflicted heavy casualties on the Legion infantry.
Many dead and wounded were lying in an exposed position and without orders Bill and his driver left their car to rescue the survivors. Six times he crawled forward to carry out wounded men under fire, while his driver fell dead, shot through the head.
Fight to death
“It was a fierce battle, though not by any means the worst,” said Bill. “About 40 of our men were lost. The Arabs? All of them were killed eventually. Prisoners were supposed to be taken, but in the heat of the battle it’s often a fight to the death.”
As well as receiving the Croix de la Valeur Militaire, Bill was promoted a first-class private – worth £18 a month, plus £4 10s combat money. Soon afterwards he was sent to corporals’ school, but he was sent back to his unit, this time as a scout. “He walks ahead to look out for Arabs,” said Bill. “It’s dangerous, of course, but a favoured position because one has no heavy gear to carry.” As a first-class private Bill was as happy as anyone can be in the Spartan Legion conditions, but the “higher-ups” had plans for the young Ulsterman.
“Against my wishes, they sent me back to corporal school – otherwise I would certainly have served out my fifth and last year,” he told me. But when he heard he was to be one of the chosen 39 to be sent to Paris to march in the Bastille Day parade he made up his mind to desert, and several others had the same idea.
In 1958 the Legion had paraded in Paris for the first time ever, and they had celebrated with wholesale desertions. This time instead of choosing men from each unit they took all the candidates from the corporals’ school. To the French Bill must have seemed like a safe bet… a four year man, decorated, with the prospect of corporal’s pay in the offing. But to Bill the chance was too good to miss. “I’d been in some near scrapes – once I was shot in the foot by an Arab machine gunner – and the odds were shortening against me,” he said.
“Since the de Gaulle regime the Legion has been going all out to finish off the rebels and clashes were becoming more and more frequent. But chiefly it was the too-rigid discipline of the corporals’ school that broke me, I had to escape it.”
Part 2 – coming soon