Conceived in fear and mistrust, this fighting force of unmanageable misfits and deserters survived, thrived and earned its country’s grudging respect.
Time was, films about the French Foreign Legion were themselves legion. P.C. Wren’s 1924 romantic novel, Beau Geste, unleashed a sandstorm of popular legion-inspired celluloid. Filmmakers have since released at least four movies directly based on the novel, with stars ranging from Ronald Colman to Gary Cooper and Telly Savalas, while scores of other legion-related films produced in the 20th century practically constitute their own genre of outback swashbucklers. But moviegoers’ ardor for films about stouthearted maverick legionnaires has faded so in recent years (the latest iteration was Deserter in 2002) that the most commonly asked question about the French Foreign Legion today is, “Mon Dieu, does that thing still exist?”
The legion was conceived as a provisional solution to a fleeting problem —the migration of undesirable persons into France in the wake of revolutions throughout Europe in 1830–31.
In retrospect, a military remedy to illegal immigration appears both contemporary and imaginative. The July Revolution of 1830 had resuscitated the French Revolutionary concept of a citizen army and led to disbandment of the Swiss Guards and other foreign formations that had enforced Bourbon mastery of such uprisings. To address the resulting coagulation of refugees in French cities, King Louis-Philippe on March 9, 1831, signed into law an act creating a ghetto foreign force within a citizen army. Recruiters quickly enlisted the undesirable aliens and packed them off to Algiers—et adieu, la Légion!
But the corps conceived as a mere historical footnote adhered to France like a sticky, finger-clinging sweet. Alien males continued to trespass, only to be repackaged and dispatched. In 1835 Paris sent the legion to fight in Madrid’s First Carlist War. Few survived, but replacements were plentiful and expendable. Even French regular soldiers questioned the value of legionnaires whose conduct hovered somewhere between sullen recalcitrance and incipient mutiny.
A French general named Ulrich, who in 1861 inspected the 1er régiment étranger at Sidi bel-Abbès, in then French Algeria, warned that if the army failed to disband the legion by decree, it was in danger of dissolving itself from below: “Misdemeanors, serious infractions are very frequent and denote an advanced state of demoralization,” he wrote. “A regiment which counts 648 deserters, in which one does not dare hand out the munitions which each soldier must carry, in which only one pair of shoes per man can be distributed lest they sell them, is far from being a disciplined regiment.”
Two years later in Mexico those very legionnaires executed the corps’ signature action at Camarón de Tejeda, Veracruz. On April 30, 1863, 62 legionnaires under Captain Jean Danjou—a Crimean War veteran with a wooden prosthetic hand—defended a walled farm called Hacienda de la Trinidad against hundreds of Mexican insurgents. At the end of the day, their ammunition exhausted, the five surviving legionnaires—Lieutenant Clement Maudet, Corporal Louis Maine and Privates Catteau, Constantin and a Prussian named Wenzel—fixed bayonets, fired a valedictory volley and plunged to their deaths in a tsunami of sombreros.
But this and other stunning exhibitions of courage failed to assure organizational tenure; Paris laid plans to hand over the legion as the nucleus of Mexican Emperor Maximilian’s army, until a Juárista firing squad put paid to Maximilian in June 1867. After the 1871 suppression of the Paris Commune, an act of mass fratricide in which the legion played a prominent role, and well into the post–World War II years, the French Left ritually demanded the demobilization of the “whores of war” who had from time to time massacred freedom-loving Frenchmen. To counter its ongoing sense of impermanence, the legion concocted its own “hallowed traditions.”
While the la Légion étrangère emerged from World War I Régiment de marche de (RMLE) as one of the most decorated units in the French army, RMLE commander from May 1917 Lt. Col. Paul Rollet worried that high casualties and a dearth of replacements would fold the legion on the Western Front—fortunately, the Hindenburg Line caved before the RMLE ran short of rifles.
After the war, Rollet, now inspector general of the legion, fretted that the old legion had died on Vimy Ridge, in Champagne and Verdun and on the Chemin des Dames. New recruits were sober, callow versions of their prewar predecessors, known in legion etymology as “transplants” rather than “the up rooted,” who only dreamed of towns and women and whose parents filed serial petitions for their discharge. Rollet lamented that defeated White Russians who joined the legion en masse after November 1920 were “bad soldiers, insubordinate, not good fighters, lacking esprit de corps.”
No battle-hardened sergeants remained to whip this rabble of German schoolboys, Muscovite mobsters and “Orientals” from Asia Minor into fighting form. When French officers who had spent time as prisoners in Germany were sent to the legion to acquire command time for promotion, they so abused German legionnaires that many opted to desert. Doubts about legion discipline, solidity and adaptability made some commanders reluctant to commit them to combat in North Africa and Syria in 1925. Rollet was distressed to the point of distraction by what he viewed as assaults on the legion by novelists, filmmakers and even in the sensationalist memoirs of alleged ex-legionnaires, tales that inevitably culminated, as in Beau Geste, in dramatic desertion.
To counter France’s postwar ambivalence about the legion, Rollet reached into the past to resurrect, reaffirm, restructure and even invent symbols, practices and lore that offered visible links between the historical and the post-1918 corps. This would, he reasoned, legitimize the legion in the eyes of recruits, instill a sense of continuity with past generations and inculcate values and standards of behavior by making legionnaires custodians of supposedly hallowed practices. And, he hoped, tradition would reaffirm the legion’s status in its own eyes as the only truly professional corps in an overwhelmingly conscript army.
Rollet chose the legion’s 1931 centenary celebration at Sidi bel-Abbès, Algeria—held not on its true March 9 birthday but on April 30, the Camarón anniversary—as the venue for his rollout of legion “tradition.” Numerous dignitaries observed the grand unveiling of a retro uniform incorporating the white kepi, blue cummerbund and red-and-green epaulettes over khaki clothing in place of standard-issue French army garb. Those gathered consecrated Sidi bel-Abbès—with its cemetery, war monument and reliquary containing Danjou’s wooden hand—as the legion’s Lourdes, a place of pilgrimage and renewal. The date became a celebration of regimental legitimization, a behavioral model that provided a link across the World War I chasm between the old and new legions, a grasp at perpetuity for an accidental, transitory unit.
But legion exceptionalism and tradition could not guarantee survival. During the 1954–62 Algerian War, negotiators floated the idea of partitioning Algeria between Muslims and European Pieds-noirs, leaving the legion to defend the latter. That was, of course, before April 1961, when legion units spearheaded the failed putsch against French President Charles de Gaulle. The rebellion stemmed from fear that the severance of Algeria, the legion’s cradle and raison d’être, from the métropole would be the corps’ death warrant.
The irony was that the attempted coup prompted in part by the legion’s fear of extinction nearly ensured it. Despite the fact that one legion unit —the 13e Demi-brigade de la Légion étrangère (13e DBLE)—had rallied around de Gaulle in England in June 1940, Sidi bel-Abbès remained stubbornly proVichy throughout the war and beyond, which hardly endeared the corps to the leader of la France libre. De Gaulle suspended legion recruitment, and it was almost adieu, la Légion for a second time, until his defense minister, former 13e DBLE member Pierre Messmer, dissuaded the French president from terminating what de Gaulle regarded as an experiment whose sell-by date was long past. In the end only one legion unit, the 1er régiment étranger de parachutistes (1er REP), was struck from the rolls.
The real question, then, is not, “Where has the legion gone?” but, “How has it survived for so long?”
The answer is that despite endemic desertion and indiscipline, even flirtations with sedition, the legion has bestowed France with incontestable benefits. The legion offers the perfect compromise between France’s conceit that it is “every man’s second country” and the desire of Frenchmen to maintain at arm’s length those who actually turn to it for asylum.
The legion amalgamates immigration responsibilities with those of a national probation department. The force historically has incorporated French delinquents—up to 40 percent—who enlist as Belgians, Swiss or Luxembourgers. French recruits are essential to legion efficiency, as they inject a francophone core into what is otherwise a linguistic babel. Frenchmen, for whom the legion offers life’s last option and an avenue for rehabilitation, may also prove psychologically more malleable and reliable. Many of the foreign recruits—drawn by fantasies of “adventure, fame, romance and prestige,” in the words of former Canadian legionnaire Evan McGorman —opt to desert (or, more colorfully, take “French leave”) once they discover that legion life can be more like Papillon than Camarón.
The challenge of commanding felonious legionnaires historically has proven attractive to dynamic officers, who contribute an essential piece of the legion’s remarkable combat record. In its early days the legion was the posting of last resort for commissioned outcasts lacking connections, pursued by debt or scandal. In short, men who, like the legionnaires they led, had little left to lose. The resulting mix of last-chance officers and throwaway soldiers condemned the legion to unpopular missions in forgotten posts of empire to which politicians dared not consign their conscript constituents. The tradeoff was that officers were expected to lead from the front, always set the example and cultivate a dramatic command style, as gesture and example were the instruments of communication in the legion’s multilingual muddle.
Finally, the legion bolsters the self-esteem of a nation whose martial reputation has skidded since Waterloo. In fact, had General Ulrich bothered to check before he blistered the 1er étranger in 1861, he would have discovered the legion had already acquired significant battle trophies during its short 30-year existence. By Camarón the legion counted four marshals of France among its alumni. As the legion’s martial reputation spiked, it became the preferred unit for many of the French army’s wannabe celebrities. France didn’t have an empire because it had the legion, but it tolerated, even feted, the legion because it forged an empire.
But Ulrich certainly put his finger on the paradox of the legion—namely, how did such a convention of unmanageable misfits and deserters manage to sustain a legendary combat record?
One answer to that question was “the myth”—the belief that the legion offered asylum to Europe’s romantic outcasts. In 1857 Lieutenant Charles Jules Zédé reported for duty at Sidi bel-Abbès to find a command “permeated with the wreckage of [Europe’s] vanquished parties.” He claimed his company included the defrocked bishop of Florence, a descendant of an Eastern European royal family, a Hungarian general who had chosen the wrong side in 1848, “and even a Chinese, who looked strange with his pigtail hanging from beneath his kepi.”
The anonymat—the legion’s practice of allowing recruits to enlist under assumed names—stimulated the myth. It also carried with it the obligation to invent an imaginary, upwardly mobile past. American Erwin Rosen enlisted in 1905 with a German named Müller, who gave his name as Herr von Rader and “declared that his father was the chancellor of the German Supreme Court and that he himself was by profession a juggler and lance-corporal of marine reserves. And the color sergeant put it all down in the big book without the ghost of a smile.” The anonymat became the mechanism that transformed the legion into a corps of fantasists, in which the poor baker from Berlin or the Prague pimp became “interesting” by the simple act of enlistment.
The bottom line is that the myth, the battles, the exotic geography, the all-or-nothing mentality of the officers combined with uncompromising NCOs to lock in the legion’s macho monopoly. That’s not to say there weren’t other crack units. But none consistently combined, over a century and a half, leaders fiery to the point of fanaticism and castoff soldiers with suicidal missions in places with unpronounceable names.
So, the answer is that the French Foreign Legion away. Each year thousands of hasn’t gone young men appear at legion recruiting stations throughout France. Units now serving in Kosovo, Chad, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Mayotte, French Guiana and Djibouti have participated in many post–Cold War peace enforcement missions.
The problem is not that the legion has disappeared, but that other units have raised their martial profile by adopting the legion’s business model, thus eroding the signature characteristics of legion exceptionalism—its reputation as a professional island in a conscript sea, and the international character of its recruitment.
In regular armies, conscription is largely gone, a consequence of the downsizing of post–Cold War military forces. Today’s professional volunteers meet troop demands at levels that would, and have, pushed conscripts to the point of fragging. The legion now shares its foreign postings with French regular units composed of equally capable professionals. No one doubts that the paratroopers of the 2e régiment étranger de parachutistes are a tough bunch of professional soldiers. But are they tougher than the troops of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division or Britain’s Parachute Regiment?
The changing character of counterinsurgency—with its emphasis on special operations forces—has also largely bypassed the legion. The United States maintains a separate organization, Special Operations Command, to coordinate the multiple special ops forces of the four U.S. services. And although the legion has highly trained specialty units—the 2e REP’s deep reconnaissance commandos, for example—so do other French units. Indeed, the roughly 7,600 legionnaires are divided into rather conventional light infantry, light armor and engineering regiments that are employed principally in peace-keeping support operations, missions in which diplomatic restraint, rather than the martial aggression typically associated with the legion, is the principal attribute.
Private military companies (PMCs), which have proliferated since the end of the Cold War, have also challenged the legion’s “whores of war” monopoly. Firms such as Xe, Executive Outcomes and L-3 MPRI have helped create a $100 billion a year industry by offering customized, off-the-shelf packages of military organizers, trainers, bodyguards and security teams for government agencies and private aid organizations. PMCs have also branched out into intelligence, cyber security and aviation-support operations. Who, in fact, needs to maintain a foreign legion when anyone with enough cash can summon an à la carte, multi-capable PMC with a simple phone call? Moreover, it makes less economic sense for an experienced soldier to sell his skills as an individual for a five-year enlistment when working for a PMC would earn him significantly better pay for a shorter-term contract.
Reliance on professional soldiers, the manpower-intensive demands of Iraq and Afghanistan and the explosion of PMCs have not only increased competition for recruits, they’ve also internationalized it. The military services of many countries, including the United States, have been forced to throw open their doors to foreign nationals. For instance, the armies of Spain and the United States compete with the legion and PMCs for Latin American recruits. The Kremlin’s efforts since 2005 to attract foreigners to enlist in Russia’s military forces appear so far to have failed to produce a flood of takers. But 10 percent of Britain’s forces are foreign nationals, while aliens—most seeking a fast track to citizenship—now comprise an estimated 5 percent of U.S. forces.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the French Foreign Legion’s particularism comes from the French government itself, which in the summer of 2010 declared that after 179 years of legion existence the anonymat—with exceptions for those whose political or personal safety might be in jeopardy—is now illegal. This should make it easier to collect child support in Belgrade or Belarus. Moreover, biometric identity chips and retinal scans have rendered the anonymat obsolete; a national passport and legion ID card must now tell the same story.
That’s no big deal, the legion insists, as 80 percent of legionnaires had already requested a rectification d’identité after a statutory incognito phase, both to reclaim their passports confiscated upon enlistment and because French bureaucrats, if presented with an assumed name, tiresomely decline to issue a work permit or process a petition for citizenship, for which legionnaires become eligible after five years’ service. Nevertheless, a core element of legion psychology, demeanor and command has been structured around the myth the legion offers asylum to a collection of romantic outlaws. Bang goes Beau Geste!
What ever happened to the French Foreign Legion? It has blended into the background, camouflaged by the military multitude hopping aboard its historical bandwagon. In the process, it appears Beau Geste has deserted for good this time.
For further reading Douglas Porch recommends his own The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force (1991). To learn more about the modern-day legion visit www.legion-recrute.com/en.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.