Did people really run away to join the French Foreign Legion?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Thinking of enlisting, are we? You might want to give this a little more thought. Here’s a rundown of the pertinent facts about La légion étrangère:
(1) Yes, people really do run away to join it. That’s the whole point. The French Foreign Legion was founded in 1831 primarily to give people something to run away to and only secondarily as a military unit. At the time France was inundated with refugees, adventurers, army deserters, and the like who had fled the failed rebellions that swept Europe in 1830. Better to have these guys eating sand in North Africa, officials figured, than fomenting unrest in the streets of Paree.
One big advantage was that the legion allowed you to enlist under an assumed name, a practice known as the anonymat. Joining the legion did not render you immune from prosecution — the police periodically circulated descriptions of known criminals at legion posts, and from time to time a recruit was extradited to his homeland to face criminal charges. But the legion prided itself on not asking questions and on giving a fresh start to guys with unsavory pasts.
Sometimes really unsavory. After the fall of the Third Reich, Germans, long a major presence in the legion, accounted for 60 percent of the manpower, with many former Nazi or even SS troops coming directly from POW camps.
(2) Be prepared to suffer. The legionnaire’s life has long been characterized by harsh discipline, low pay, scandalously inadequate supplies and support, impossible missions, and often suicidal tactics. The frontal assault was a favorite gambit, and bravado often substituted for common sense. Despite or because of the brutal conditions, the legion developed into one of the elite units of the French army, with many battle honors to its credit. On the other hand, the legion’s desertion rate was high, and many legionnaires became burned-out wrecks.
(3) Don’t expect to meet a lot of poets, disgraced noblemen, and other upper-class types. While there’s been a smattering of swells over the years, historically legionnaires have been hard-drinking working-class brawlers — think the U.S. marines, minus the sensitivity. One of the legion’s many cherished traditions is an annual celebration of the battle of Camerone, Mexico, in 1863, in which a detachment of 65 legionnaires fought to the last man against a force of 2,000 Mexicans. Apart from the usual parades, etc., the celebration consists primarily of getting drunk as a pig for two days.
(4) This brings up a related subject: Get used to the idea of dying for a lost cause. Although it’s a formidable fighting force, the legion over the years has been squandered on one stupid military adventure after another. The Mexican campaign of 1863-’67 was a case in point. A French army with the Foreign Legion in the vanguard installed the Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. The Mexicans resisted fiercely, and nearly half of the 4,000 legionnaires sent to Mexico died or deserted. Shortly after the legion was withdrawn, Maximilian was captured and shot by a Mexican firing squad.
The larger lost cause, of course, was French colonialism. The legion’s two major campaigns in the past 50 years, in Indochina and Algeria, both ended in resounding defeats. At Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, in 1954, the legion along with the rest of a large French army was surrounded by Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap and capitulated after months of horrible privation. Total legion casualties in Indochina, 1946-’54: nearly 45,000. The legion did better militarily in Algeria, but the war was lost anyway, and one legion paratroop regiment disgraced itself by joining an unsuccessful coup against the French government in 1961.
(5) Don’t expect to eat a lot of sand in North Africa. When the French were expelled from Algeria in 1962, the Foreign Legion, which had been headquartered there throughout its history, moved back to France.
The French colonial empire having been mostly dismantled, the legion’s workload diminished too, although it still sees service in some of France’s former colonies. But don’t worry, you still get to wear the kepi blanc (white pillbox cap) made famous in movies such as Beau Geste. Like much else connected with the legion, the tradition of the kepi is partly humbug; the white hat didn’t become standard until around the time the movie came out in 1939. Also like much else connected with the legion, it’s a beau geste (beautiful gesture). Very nice, but in the end you think, all this accomplished what?
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.