British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by R. E. N. Smith
Vive Le Royaume Uni!
Vila
In mid 1966 the Joint Administration in the New Hebrides learned, to the mingled delight and horror of the French Residency, and pleasant anticipation in the British one, that we were shortly to have the honour and pleasure of a visit from President de Gaulle. This announcement sent the French Office into a frenzy of planning and all else in the way of work was cast aside. After numerous conferences and heated debate a programme for the visit was produced. Since, as British District Agent in Vila (and therefore the joint administrative officer of the district), I was closely concerned with the visit, I was sent a copy of the English version which I still have. The text is less comprehensive than the French one was, but does contain all the appendices. For a visit that was to last from 10.20 a.m. until 4.00 p.m. there were no less than eleven detailed diagrams. Starting with the arrival at Bauerfield Airport, there are carefully worked out plans for the ceremony at the Cenotaph, at the Colours, at the French Office, of the routes, of the presentation order of "notables" at the French Residency and so on, ending with a plan for handshakes on departure.

Having given painful gestation to this chef d'oeuvre our colleagues sat back with sighs of pride and relief. We read this masterpiece carefully and then asked them for the date and time of the rehearsal. They were astonished - "Rehearsal" they said, "Why do we need a rehearsal - is not the plan perfect in every particular?" To this our reply had to be that it was indeed magnificent, but that in our bumbling and inefficient Anglo-Saxon way we had found over the years that a rehearsal for any major state function was essential if a dog's dinner of a disaster was to be avoided. In an unusual access of good nature, the French gave way and a rehearsal, if only for the procession, was agreed to, though they felt that it was totally unnecessary.

Vive Le Royaume Uni!
British Paddock
It was a remarkable and unforgettable occasion; our colleagues did not have sufficient transport, and had therefore been obliged to hire every taxi in Vila, with a motley crew of Frenchmen, Vietnamese, New Hebrideans, Chinese and various permutations of these, gabbling all together and at once in incomprehensible languages. Since by no means all of them understood French, and if they did either failed to take in the instructions, or just ignored them, the results were appalling, for the head of the procession was arriving in triumph back at the airfield before the tail had left it, while there were little knots of furiously competing taxis all over the course. It was after all just a demonstration of Murphy's Prime Law, that in any given situation, anything that can go wrong, will do so!

Tuesday 6 September 1966 dawned and from then onwards frenzied action was the order of the day. I was only a minor participant, with no executive concerns and what it must have been like for my colleague, the French District Agent, I shuddered to contemplate. All the same all the officials, French, British and Condominial, had to be out at the airfield by 9.30 and in uniform too, in order to witness the arrival of His Excellency and to admire the proceedings. The General's arrival was impressive, but his official entourage was quite modest, there were himself and Madame de Gaulle, and just eight men and two women with him, but the DC4 was stuffed with bodyguards. Secret Service men and a large scurry of press and photographers. The proceedings started with the usual inspection of the Guard of Honour. Being the Condominium we had two of these, the French Police in one body with their Gendarme officers in front and the British Police with their officers in full rig with swords; the two forces used their own individual national methods to salute the President. Then the top officials and their wives were presented; we had both the French and British Resident Commissioners, plus our own High Commissioner from Honiara. I do not know why he had got in on the act, unless it was to serve as a counterweight to the French High Commissioner from Noumea, who was escorting the President. Then came the turn of the Co-Presidents of the Joint Court and their wives, followed by another twenty or so notables.

Vive Le Royaume Uni!
War Memorial, Vila
The whole rout then climbed into the assorted transport and sped off to the Centopah for a wreath laying ceremony; since the Presidential vehicle got there first, proceedings were necessarily delayed until lesser officials had arrived (all panting heavily). The wreath laying was easy enough for the President, but as everything we did was "joint", the two Resident Commissioners jointly laid one between them! This only took a few minutes and then the President walked through a large crowd to the forecourt of the French Offices nearby. Here the ceremony of the Colours took place, with assorted and assembled school children wailing the Marseillaise and then the Queen. Now it was time for the great man to make a speech, with the British on tenterhooks for fear of some monumental but undoubtedly unintentional gaffe from His Excellency. However he was on his best behaviour, and finished his speech with a most unexpected and almost unheard-of clarion call. To a roar of applause, "Vive la France" he intoned and then "Vive le Royaume Uni" - perhaps the only time in his life he ever uttered the latter.

We managed to avoid a possibly nasty confrontation on this occasion, for our keen Assistant Superintendent of British Police, assigned from our side to keep an eye on things, had proposed to lurk in the background in mufti, armed with a pistol. We managed to dissuade him, earnestly pointing out that to the Presidential goon squad the sight of a strange European, obviously armed, would not only be a cause for the blackest suspicion, but quite probably a target for their bullets.

By now it was well past eleven and De Gaulle disappeared into the French Resident Commissioner's office for a quiet chat, followed by the formal visits of the leading French and British dignitaries. Since it was a joint administration we had plenty of these, and this gave a breathing space to the British officers who were in uniform (starched white, with Wolseley helmet, medals and sword) a few minutes' grace to rush off to the Transit house of the French Residency and change into lounge suits.

Vive Le Royaume Uni!
Joint Courts
We then trooped into the big reception hall of the French Residency and lined up again in order of importance (French style) in readiness to be presented properly to the President. Once again the line was headed by the French and British judges in their Siamese twin capacity of President of the Joint Court, together with their own senior staff, and followed by the Roman Catholic Bishop Juilliard, the (Protestant) Reverend Peak and Father Graafe of the French Reformed Church, all the members of the Advisory Council and then the two distinguished administrators of Vate (Efate in English). This was where I came in, for while I figured rather low down on the British Office totem pole, on this occasion I had to stand alongside my colleague, the French District Agent, and in French official eyes the district administrators ranked well above mere secretariat officers, a terrible heresy in British eyes. In rapid succession after us came the Chamber of Commerce, the WHO doctor, the district agents from outside Efate, and then, way down the list the French, British and Condominium senior functionaries, the ex-service luminaries, members of the liberal professions, Boy Scout and Girl Guide leaders, local council dignitaries and anyone else our colleagues could think of.

This presentation did not include any women, unless they achieved status by reason of their personal qualifications; we were terrible politically uncorrect in those antediluvian days. Of all the British ladies the only one to be presented was my wife, who as a dental surgeon had to be included in the liberal professions. Once the hour long reception was over the general rout of British and Condominium officers was free until the departure of the President.

He and his entourage still had an exhausting programme, going on next to an official luncheon. Our colleagues were properly prepared for this, for they had received from Paris advice on His Excellency's preferences, together with a stern warning from Mme de Gaulle NOT to give her husband any bread, for he would eat it and it was BAD for him! No sooner had they eaten than they were off again, for visits to the French Ex-Servicemen's Club and a couple of teaching establishments, before they headed back to Bauerfield. Quite unhurriedly the President walked down the long line of functionaries, firmly shaking hands with us all. He did not look in the least jaded by the day's jollifications, but my colleagues of the French office were thoroughly exhausted. All in all a most interesting day, if not one I would wish to repeat too often. My turn to sweat came many years later in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, when I found myself heavily involved in a Royal Visit. Only then, as I rushed frantically from point to point, did I really feel any sympathy for my erstwhile colleagues.

map of British Empire
Map of Efate
Colony Profile
New Hebrides
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 72 (October 1996)


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