France awards top honour to UK veterans

France presented 19 of Britain's famous "Chelsea Pensioners" with the Legion d'Honneur at a ceremony in London on Thursday, recognising their role in liberating France during World War II.

France awards top honour to UK veterans
France awarded its prestigious Legion d'Honneur to 19 Chelsea Pensioners. Photo: AFP

French President Francois Hollande has already decorated a group of British veterans with the honour during an event in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June 2014.

Since then, British veterans have lodged 2,800 applications for the honour and French ambassador to Britain Sylvie Bermann has presented some of the successful applicants with their awards at ceremonies in July, November and April.

Bermann on Thursday presented the latest batch with their Legion d'Honneur during a ceremony at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II's second son Prince Andrew, under a blazing sun.

Founded by King Charles II in 1681 on the model of the Invalides in Paris, the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement home for British Army veterans, known throughout the country as the “Chelsea pensioners”.

They are instantly recognisable by their red coats and tricorne hats, and commemorate the founding of the institution annually with a large parade close to May 29, Charles II's birthday.

It was at its 323rd parade on Thursday that the 19 received their decorations under the statue of Charles II.

“It's very important to show France's gratitude,” Bermann told AFP after presenting the awards to the veterans, most of whom are now in their nineties.

The remaining 2,000 plus British applicants should receive their awards by the end of the year.

The Legion d'Honneur, France's highest accolade, was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and is awarded in recognition of both civil and military achievements.

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French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron

French forces "tortured and murdered" Algerian freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel during his country's war for independence, President Emmanuel Macron admitted on Tuesday, officially reappraising a death that was covered up as a suicide.

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron
Malika, the widow of Ali Boumendjel, pictured in 2001. Photo: Stefan Fferberg/AFP

Macron made the admission “in the name of France” during a meeting with Boumendjel’s grandchildren.

The move comes after Macron in January refused to issue an official apology for abuses committed during the occupation of Algeria – instead, he agreed to form a “truth commission” as recommended by a report commissioned by the government to shed light on France’s colonial past.

Atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the countries.

Boumendjel, a nationalist and lawyer, was arrested during the battle of Algiers by the French army, “placed incommunicado, tortured, and then killed on 23 March 1957,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

“Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed,” Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren, according to the statement.

It is not the first time the real cause of death was acknowledged.

In 2000, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers Paul Aussaresses confessed to ordering Boumendjel’s death and disguising the murder as a suicide, according to the statement.

It added that Macron on Tuesday had also reiterated his desire to give families the opportunity to find out the truth about this chapter of history.

Last month, Boumendjel’s niece Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour denounced what she called the “devastating” lie the French state had told about her uncle.

French historian Benjamin Stora, who wrote the government-commissioned report, has said there is a “never-ending memory war” between the two countries.

The report has been described by the Algerian government as “not objective” and falling “below expectations.”

During his 2017 election campaign, Macron – the first president born after the colonial period – declared that the occupation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

He has since said there was “no question of showing repentance” or of “presenting an apology” for abuses committed in the North African country.