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French-German Force: Where Two Cultures Merge, Or Try To

November 1, 1991

BOEBLINGEN, Germany (AP) _ Christoph Kochert, a French army private accustomed to finer cuisine, uses his mess hall fork to poke dubiously at gravy-covered chunks of German pork.

″It’s edible,″ grumbles Kochert as he examines his plate. ″But I wish we could have something besides sausage or pork for a change.″

Such is life in the German-French brigade, a 2-year-old military experiment which was created to further rapprochement between two nations that have fought each other three times since 1870.

Germany and France have now proposed the brigade as the nucleus for a future all-European army independent of NATO. Even if that happens, it’s unlikely the brigade would ever see action unless Germany strips away constitutional limits on the use of its military.

But the brigade’s leaders say the outfit is a no-nonsense fighting machine.

″This is not a toy brigade,″ German Army Maj. Eberhard Weber, the chief of staff, told The Associated Press at headquarters in Boeblingen, near Stuttgart.

″We are a good brigade, and ready to fulfill our mission whenever we are asked to fulfill it,′ said German Army Gen. Helmut Neubauer, commander of the brigade.

Nonetheless, the brigade’s soldiers at times seem like the builders of the Tower of Babel, eternally trying to comprehend each other.

The brigade is based in five garrisons strewn around Germany’s Baden- Wuerttemberg state which borders France. Command is rotated every two years between the two nations.

Of 4,200 soldiers, only about 600 belong to ″mixed units″ in which French and German troops actually live, work and eat together and use standardized weapons and gear.

The remainder use their own national gear. If a French soldier were to try firing a German bullet from his gun, the weapon could blow up in his face.

Basic face-to-face communication is one of the biggest problems.

Officers are usually bilingual. But many German enlisted soldiers speak no French. And if a French soldier knows German, it’s probably because he comes from Alsace, a region that was once part of Germany.

Laurent Ledru, a 22-year-old French private, works at the Boeblingen motor pool with German Pvt. Holger Roecker.

″There’s good cooperation. If I don’t have a certain tool sometimes my French compatriot will,″ said Roecker.

Ledru doesn’t speak German and seems to have no idea what Roecker just said. Roecker tries to explain himself to Ledru in English.

Some French-German relationships have flowered within the brigade.

But Ledru said ″there is an automatic separation. For example, I work just on French vehicles and German soldiers work on German vehicles.″

Off-duty fraternization appears to be a rarity.

″Many German soldiers are from this area and live with their families. They go home while the French soldiers remain here,″ said Ledru.

While the Germans are enjoying the comforts of home, French soldiers try to entertain themselves with French TV, games of chess, or going into Boeblingen for a night out.

Food is another sore point.

At the headquarters’ mess hall, three French soldiers were sitting apart from German soldiers during lunchtime.

Kochert, one of the French soldiers, said that adjusting to German cuisine can be a trial.

Kochert is from Alsace, so he is not a stranger to Germans’ love for wurst.

″But this can be a shock for a soldier coming from Paris,″ said the 23- year-old private.

Even French officers have to forego their dinner-time wine.

Despite his grumbling, Kochert says there are definite advantages to serving with the brigade.

Because it was created under the directive of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand, being a part of the brigade carries a great deal of prestige.

In addition, French soldiers chosen for the outfit are given generous paycheck dividends.

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