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The Hard Truth About the Foreign Legion

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Everett Collection
Gary Cooper as a legionnaire in Beau Geste, 1939

The world contains more misfits, sadists, masochists, and people who enjoy fighting than we sometimes like to suppose. How else can one explain the fact that the French Foreign Legion is heavily overrecruited? In an age when most of the world’s armies strive to make military service a less bestial and more enlightened experience than it used to be, the Legion still drives its trainees to scrub floors manically, fold kit and uniforms with obsessive precision, and march, march, march.

Nothing much about its culture has changed since the German recruit Erwin Rosen, quoted by Adrian Gilbert in Voices of the Foreign Legion, wrote in the early 1900s:

It is always being drummed into the legionnaire that he is intended for nothing else in this world except for marching. If the pangs of hunger are gnawing at his stomach or thirst parches his tongue, that is so much the worse for him, but it is no reason for his not marching on! He may be tired, dead tired, completely exhausted—but he must not stop marching. If his feet are bleeding and the soles burn like fire, that is very sad—but the marching pace must not be slackened. The sun may burn till his senses are all awhirl, he must go on.
Those who have seen the legionnaires march impressively on parade with their controlled long step may not realize what lies behind it.

In 1914, the Englishman J. Woodhall Marshall, one of 40,000 foreign volunteers who sought to aid France in her hour of peril and were drafted into the regiment, wrote home:

The Legion is the strangest thing ever thought up in the mind of man. In my room…there is myself, an Irishman; and my next neighbour is an American; and the other inhabitants include an ex-officer of [a] So. American Republic, who came specially over…for the war, and is my greatest friend, a Dutch solicitor, a Russian Jew, three Cossacks, two Italians, a student from a Russian university, an Englishman who has always been resident in Paris and can hardly speak English, a Spaniard, and other mysterious individuals whose identity is absolutely hid.

The grizzled NCOs from North Africa charged with training this curious rabble of humanity were contemptuous of their idealism. One harangued them caustically: “Fools! So you’ve come to fight for freedom and civilization? Words, empty words!” Why was he himself there? “Orders, of course. We’re professional soldiers. We don’t give a damn what we fight for! It’s our job. We’ve nothing else in life. No families, no ideals, no loves!”

A.R. Cooper, a British recruit during the interwar years, suggested afterward:

Many legionnaires took a masochistic pleasure in an unhappy life. Attempted explanations are complicated by the fact that the Legion is composed of men of many races, whose origins, sentiments and ideas are totally different. This in itself gives the legionnaire an indefinable personality of his own.

As recently as 1999, an American, Jaime Salazar, described his own enlistment in search of adventure, saying that after signing on “I felt an indescribable release.” In seeking explanations for the perceived romance of the Legion since its earliest days, the most obvious is its soldiers’ renunciation of nationality, identity, and personal responsibility.

In some respects, the Legion has less claim to uniqueness than is sometimes supposed. Most men who enlist in their own national armies are no more and no less mercenaries than legionnaires. Few join to serve the flag or their nation’s honor. For the most part, they do so because they cannot find any better way to make a living, and find the rigors of service life less onerous than coping with the daily choices and decisions demanded of a civilian. The wars of all nations with volunteer armies are fought mainly by their underclass. This helps to explain why, on shedding their uniforms, so many veterans lapse back into poverty, psychological problems, or even criminality.

The French Foreign Legion was formed in 1831 as a colonial fighting force, differing from mercenary units raised by the British only in that its recruits were European rather than African or Asian. Algeria was its long-standing home. Its legend grew apace after an action at Camerone in Mexico in April 1863, when a column of legionnaires fought almost to the last man against vastly superior Mexican forces, in support of a grotesque and doomed French imperial venture. The wooden hand of the column’s slain commander, Captaine Jean Danjou, remains today the most treasured relic in the Legion’s museum at Aubagne in southern France.

During the succeeding century and a half, the regiment fought innumerable colonial battles, some in Indochina and Madagascar, but most in Algeria and Morocco. North Africa forged the indelible popular image of leathery soldiers of fortune in white kepis and blue tunics defending the crenellated walls of white stone forts against howling Berber tribesmen.

An 1896 survey showed that 26 percent of the Legion’s men came from Alsace-Lorraine, 25 percent from Germany, 17 percent from Belgium, 10 percent from Switzerland, 3.5 percent from Austria, and less than 1 percent apiece from Britain, the US, Russia, and other nations. Some 11 percent were judged to be educated. In more recent times, those national proportions have changed somewhat, but there have never been many Anglo-Saxons. A surprising number of recruits have already served in their own national armies before joining the Legion. A significant quota sign on to escape domestic embarrassments or criminal records, though nowadays the French are at pains to ensure that a man has done nothing too unspeakable before accepting him as a legionnaire.

P.C. Wren was responsible for wrecking the domestic felicity of several upper-class European families by writing his 1924 novel Beau Geste, which persuaded some troubled adolescents that a romantic destiny awaited them amid desert sands. Martin Windrow discusses Wren in an appendix of Our Friends Beneath the Sands, his excellent history of the Legion’s colonial adventures. He shows that the novelist had little personal military experience, and there is no evidence that he ever served in the Legion. Beau Geste was the only best-seller, indeed the only decent story, the author ever wrote.

But Windrow’s extraordinary catalog of the Legion’s experiences across the world shows that the novel understated reality. Consider this report by Corporal Jean Pfirmann in Indochina:

On the night of 22/23 June 1889 Legionnaire Gatelet was taken by a tiger while on sentry duty…. The tiger must have jumped the wall and ditch, surprised him from behind while he was rolling a cigarette—we found the paper and tobacco with his dropped rifle—and carried him out over the wall again…. Next day we found his remains 150 yards away.

Here is Major Hubert Lyautey, who later became the celebated marshal, describing an action against the Chinese in northern Vietnam in February 1896:

You cannot imagine what it was like: the incessant firing echoing among the rocks, the shouting of the Chinese, their war-cries and death-cries, the continuous sound of their famous trumpets…. I order the buglecall of the Legion to be sounded. It is answered!… A salvo from the left—this time it is for us…we can see nothing, but bullets flatten themselves against the rock, tearing the trees…. Combettes in front of us has [had] two of his men killed and four wounded.

Between 1887 and 1907, the Legion lost only 271 men killed in action in Indochina, but ten times that number perished from disease. When the French seized Madagascar in 1895, their casualties at the hands of the hopelessly incompetent Hova tribal defenders were negligible, but a third of the invasion force succumbed to fevers of one kind or another.

As for Algeria and Morocco, their rebellious tribes kept the Legion engaged in annual summer campaigns for more than thirty years. Between the two world wars, in Morocco the French fought against the Rif tribesmen, led by the two Abd el Krim brothers, in campaigns that were vastly larger than anything the British experienced on the northwest frontier of India. The Rif rebellion began in 1921 in Spanish Morocco, where more than 13,000 Spaniards perished. When General Manuel Fernández Silvestre’s army was defeated at Anual in July, some five thousand of his men were killed. Windrow contrasts this figure with General Custer’s trifling loss of two hundred cavalrymen at Little Big Horn and the British “butcher’s bill” of 1,360 against the Zulus at Isandlwana in 1879.

When the Rif rebellion spilled over into French Morocco, the colonial power paid heavily for its suppression. In 1925 alone, France suffered 11,000 casualties there, and was obliged to deploy 155,000 troops before the conflict was ended; the Abd el Krims surrendered and were dispatched into exile.

The Legion was at the forefront of almost every battle in North Africa. With what style they fought! Here is Hubert Lyautey again, deploying his forces for a 1908 engagement against the Berbers:

At 4am I was at the mouth of a pass…. A company of the Legion were passing: “Bonjour, mes legionnaires,” I called; “Bonjour, mon general—tout va bien!” came back from 200 throats with a single voice…. With an instrument like that in my hand, I could go anywhere.
Lyautey himself presented a dramatically exotic figure, wearing a flowing Arab burnous over his uniform, and carrying the sword his grandfather had borne on Napoleon’s 1812 march to Moscow.

Windrow, who is already the author of The Last Valley, an excellent account of the 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu, where the French suffered decisive defeat at the hands of the Vietminh, is a master of telling military detail. He notes how the Moroccan tribes reloaded their own rifle cartridges with black powder and percussion caps made from ground-down match-heads soaked in gasoline.

He quotes Corporal Frederic Martyn, fighting Dahomeyan Amazons—women warriors—in 1892, who found himself bayoneting the enemy with his five-foot Gras rifle, “throwing them off to make room for another, like a farmer forking hay.” The Dahomeyans of both sexes “fought like unchained demons,” and when the French saw their own soldiers mutilated by the enemy, Amazon prisoners were summarily dispatched alongside the men.

Windrow makes the point, in language not for the squeamish, that Arab tribesmen’s swords could inflict wounds quite as horrible as anything modern technology contrives:

A preliminary slash across the scalp could cause instant extensive bleeding, usefully blinding the soldier…. A stab or hard slash to the neck could lacerate the jugular vein or carotid artery or even sever the spinal column. A hard stab to the chest did not have to penetrate the chambers of the heart to be effective; it could also fracture ribs and puncture lungs. A knife in the belly would usually tear into the bowel, liver, spleen, kidneys or one of several blood vessels.
If Arab weapons could inflict shocking wounds, the French were merciless. Only the veto of the Paris government prevented Marshal Lyautey from using poison gas against the Rif. He began to use primitive Bleriot aircraft to support his operations against rebels as early as 1912, when they dropped weighted message bags to report the enemy’s positions. By the 1920s, he deployed several air squadrons to bomb and machine-gun the tribesmen.

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Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos
Legionnaires in Corsica, 1972

The Legion did much service to France in its colonial wars—by 1925 twelve battalions were deployed in Morocco alone. Windrow compares its experience to that of the US Army in America’s earlier frontier wars. Its soldiers were seldom required to display much initiative or imagination. They were merely expected to march, suffer, fight, and die for five centimes a day, with a minimum of reflection, much less complaint. One unit in Morocco in 1900 marched 1,134 miles in seventy-two days, losing only six of four thousand men to sickness. Most of the remainder reached barracks with their broken boots held together with wire and string.

The Legion devised and perfected in North Africa a technique new to the French army for increasing the speed and range of a marching column by allocating a mule to every two men. Each beast carried both packs, and their owners alternated hour by hour in the saddle. By such means, a unit could traverse fifty miles a day, or thirty-seven miles in rocky terrain.

In the Legion’s forts and outposts across the French empire, when there were no tribal insurgencies men suffered from desperate boredom, le cafard, which prompted a steady drain of suicides. And when enemies attacked, garrisons often withstood epic sieges. In December 1884 in Indochina, four hundred men at Tuyen Quang on the Clear River held out for thirty-seven days against ferocious Chinese attackers, who fired six thousand incoming rounds a day, exploded mines beneath the walls, and taunted the legionnaires by displaying the heads of their fallen comrades on bamboo stakes.

In 1908, the leader of a Moroccan tribal harka besieging a Legion outpost sent in a formal challenge, urging the French to come out and fight like men. Had they been foolish enough to accept and lose, the price of defeat would be high. A report after one battle in the hills of western Algeria described finding eight French bodies, all but one stripped:

One had been mutilated: QM-Sergeant Lovy of the Skirmishers showed no bullet wounds but the signs of violent beating, and his eyes had been gouged out with a dagger. More happily, Lieutenant Deze found 8305 Disciplinary Private Maret, 36 hours after the action and a full 9 miles from the scene. Half-naked and suffering from heatstroke, he had been eating grass seeds and drinking his own urine, but when found he still had his rifle and was full of fight.

Martin Windrow’s book, which I enjoyed immensely, portrays the Legion’s experiences in the context of the wider French campaigns in Madagascar and North Africa. The personalities are irresistible. Beyond such stars as Lyautey, Colonel Paul Rollet, and Major Aage—Denmark’s crown prince—there are figures like Captain Zinovi Pechkoff. The Russian-born officer was Maxim Gorki’s adopted son. He served in the French army as an NCO in World War I and came to Morocco as a thirty-five-year-old captain. He fell in love with the country, and British legionnaire Adolph Cooper described him as the best officer of any army whom he ever knew.

One of Pechkoff’s stunts was to leap into the saddle of his gray horse, holding the reins in his teeth. “We are the pioneers,” he wrote proudly,

who open a new country [and] who do the hardest work. After the Legion, other men will come…. Their names will be known. But it is our men of the Legion who have paved the way with their untiring labour. Every path we make bears the pain of our men.

Sergeant-Major Max Mader was a Würtemburger who deserted from an Imperial German pioneer unit in 1899 after striking back at a brutal NCO, and went on to become one of the most famous NCOs in the Legion. In World War I, fighting against his own countrymen, he especially distinguished himself in an action in France in April 1917, described in Adrian Gilbert’s book:

Collecting a group of ten legionnaires, he leaped out of the trench, defying the hail of machine-gun fire, and attacked the pillbox from the rear, killing its defenders…. With a fresh bag of grenades he charged the other pillboxes, whose Saxon defenders, shattered by this unexpected attack, fled in disorder.

Mader and his ten men found themselves masters of a six-gun German artillery battery.

Windrow notes that many Foreign Legion memoirs must be treated with caution, because their authors served up fanciful tales to please credulous Anglo-Saxon readers. Gilbert’s short book is less a history than a miscellany of reminiscences. It has the virtue of covering the regiment’s entire history, from the nineteenth century to modern times. It embraces the two world wars, the 1950s struggle against the Vietminh, the Algerian independence struggle that almost provoked a French civil war in 1961, and more recent interventions in Africa.

Since Algeria, where the Legion was involved in the torture and other barbarities that severely tarnished the reputation of the French army, it has evolved into a rapid reaction force, deployed in a succession of African states where French national interests have been deemed to be at stake. These included Chad in 1969, Kolwezi in 1978, and Dijbouti from the 1970s onward. Most modern recruits serve for five years, though some endure fifteen. Every man who completes his time becomes eligible for French citizenship and receives a certificate declaring that he has done his duty with “honneur et fidélité.”

Gilbert quotes a modern British veteran, Carl Jackson, looking back on his service:

The Legion gave me back a bit of my self-respect, because with my marriage breaking up I was starting to go downhill. When I got to the Legion I got on with the job and started to feel a bit like a man again…. There’s nothing romantic about the Legion, I can assure you. It’s physical, hard, and it’s an experience that once you’ve done it you either regret it or you don’t regret it. And I don’t regret it.
In twelve years with the British army, Jackson had served only at home, in Germany, and in Canada. In the Legion, however, he was based in Corsica and traveled to French Guyane, Djibouti, Central Africa, Rwanda, and Chad: “But I would never, never, never, ever do the first two years again.”

Most of us would find it incomprehensible that a man should choose to accept the aridity and crushing loneliness of Legion life, more austere than that of any ordinary Western soldier. Gilbert’s subtitle seems to exaggerate by claiming that the regiment is “the world’s most famous fighting corps.” It is merely one among several elites, its combat ethos having much in common with that of the British Parachute Regiment, the US Marine Corps, and airborne formations.

The Legion’s toughness and ruthlessness are indisputable, but there is no reason to suppose that it has produced better warriors than those of other crack units. The mystery and diverse origins of its recruits do more than its battlefield prowess to create the ethos that catches the imagination of military romantics.

Douglas Porch is the author of fine histories of the Legion and of France’s Moroccan experience,1 which are much more substantial than Gilbert’s pleasing but slight anecdotal account. Windrow’s book has the advantage of describing a host of personalities and actions largely unknown to Anglo-Saxon readers. As he showed in his earlier Indochina book, he has an outstanding instinct for both battlefield realities and the ways of soldiers.

In his concluding pages, he sketches the passing of one of the greatest of all Legion heroes, General Paul Rollet, who retired at the age of sixty in 1935 and became president of the association of war wounded. The old man was often thereafter to be seen on the boulevards of Paris, wearing full uniform and medals, clanking a collecting tin for his beloved veterans. Rollet was heartbroken when, in 1940, his request to return to active duty was refused, and he died the following year.

Windrow is without illusions about the brutality of France’s colonial wars and those who fought them. He writes:

It is safe to assume that only a tiny minority of the readers of this book have ever known lives of real Third World hardship, hunger, superstition, and arbitrary violence without appeal. For the nineteenth-century European underclasses such experiences might be the norm…. When men born into such conditions were offered [in the Legion] regular meals, a comprehensible system of reward and punishment, clearly-defined tasks and a sense of collective self-esteem, they could be shaped into a weapon, but it would remain a rather indiscriminate one….

Before [World War I]…people simply did not question the need for wars nor the moral status of those who fought them, and the things that might happen on campaign were no business of civilians; after all, the adversaries that they were fighting never took prisoners themselves, except with the very worst of intentions.

Both sides displayed absolute ruthlessness in the Legion’s long, inconclusive struggle with the North African tribes. All the combatants were men of their time, and what passes for civilization was far away. These two books go far to explain the enduring fascination of the Legion for armchair warriors and historians. But only the foolish seek to romanticize this bleak, cruel fighting machine, loyal only to its own.

  1. 1

    The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force (HarperCollins, 1991) and The Conquest of Morocco (Knopf, 1983).

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