The Hard Truth About the Foreign Legion

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…

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