For one young American seeking adventure, the French Foreign Legion seemed to offer a romantic option. The reality proved otherwise.
The 1920s in Europe and America were an unsettled time, and veterans of the Great War were famously restless (and literary). Among the wanderers of that generation, a young American from Tennessee, Bennett J. Doty, had a particularly tough time “settling down” into civilian life. In early 1917 he lied about his age (16) and joined the Tennessee National Guard. Mobilized and deployed “over there” in the 55th Artillery Brigade, he saw action at St. Mihiel and the Argonne. Back in the States in the spring of 1919, he tried Vanderbilt for a year, the University of Virginia for three years, then wandered in the United States and went to sea, eventually landing at a French Foreign Legion recruiting office in Bordeaux on June 12, 1925. Doty signed up under the nom de guerre Gilbert Clare, and after training in Algeria, he shipped to The Levant where the Druze, “ fierce tribesmen,” were in revolt in French-held Lebanon. There he found combat as a legionnaire.
In 1928 Doty published his firsthand account of his experience, The Legion of the Damned, drawing on dispatches he sent to U.S. newspapers during his service.
When at early dawn the column marched away from Onion Hill, we legionnaires—the 18th and 19th Companies of the 1st Regiment de Marche, together with my company, the 29th de Marche, were its rear flank guard. Well away to the right and the rear of the convoy, we marched in file, five paces between men, so that a simple order of half turn would find us all deployed in skirmish line, facing the enemy. Out beyond was a screen of mounted Moroccan spahis [our cavalry].
We had hardly left our walls and stones before we came into a harassing fire. We could see the Druses on the crests above us, in their black jackets and baggy trousers, their square black cloths flapping on their necks, and now and then a horseman dashing out into the open and under cover. Bullets sang over us and kicked up dust at our feet.
As the column moved on, the attack continued, and our battalion became one of décrochage, of “unhooking.” It was our job to continuously “unhook” the column from the harassing enemy.
After we had marched thus a little way, my squad, with an automatic rifle, was ordered to a little pile of stones. There were eight of us—Tokar, who was the adjudant–chef; Corporal Costanovitch, the big Russian; the German Kupe; Bolse, an Alsatian, who handled the automatic rifle; Brix, the Austrian; Budney, the Pole; and Herschcorn, the little Parisian. We settled ourselves behind the little pile of stones, with the automatic drove of the Druses, then, picking it up ourselves, ran and caught up with the company.
This kept up for about an hour and a half. Our squad would hold a pile of stones while the rest of the company went on; we would drive back the Druses, then run and catch up again—hard work, you may believe. Meanwhile the cavalry was keeping the Druses engaged of on the right flank.
Thus we arrived before Rezzas, and the spahis, ahead, having been sniped at from the village, set it on fire. As the flames and smoke began to rise, and the roofs to crackle, suddenly the battle became a serious one.
The Druses drove in the cavalry screen, which passed among us on the run, dismounted and henceforth fought as infantry. As our battalion stopped to hold the attack, the Senegalese, who were flank guard ahead of us—we being rear flank guard—kept on going, leaving a gap through which we were in danger of being enveloped. At the same time the Druses jumped the rear guard of tirailleurs [infantry], and came in among us.
My squad at the time was at the job it had had all morning, occupying a position with the automatic. And that position at the time was a precarious one.
We lay near the top of a crest, with a slope going down before us, and this slope was all of earth beaten down hard, with no stone and no cover of any kind. We had simply put down our sacks before our noses. Right behind us, in a defile beneath the crest, the convoy was passing, or trying to pass—camions, trucks, automobiles blindés [armored cars], camel trains, mules, all the impedimenta of a column. The defile turned sharply at this point, the convoy had become entangled, bullets were falling into it, and disorder reigned, with horses kicking and screaming, big trucks falling into ruts, men swearing and sweating.
We lay on top of the crest, on the hard-beaten ground, with no shelter, with this behind us. Ahead of us the ground dropped to a dry waterway, then rose again, this time all covered with rocks and stones and hedges, to a crest also rocky and giving protection. Up there on the crest were the Druses, pouring their fire down upon us, and charging now and then from stone to stone down the slope, leaping from cover to cover. From moment to moment they were getting bolder. Along the crest a horseman would come bursting, dismount, fire a few rounds, jump on his horse, and run along as if in a movie at 40 miles an hour. But what gave us more trouble were the wild infantrymen, leaping down the slope from cover to cover, to come almost within hand-to-hand distance, and hurl at us their potato mashers [hand grenades].
Our squad was lying in a line thus: Lieutenant Vernon was at the left end, coolly directing the fire with his binoculars. Next lay Tokar, the adjudant-chef, then came Costanovitch and Kupe. In the center, Bolse was firing the Chauchat automatic. To his right lay Brix, whom we always called Brixey, then myself, then my copain Budney, then Herschcorn. Budney to my right was swearing as he shot, as was his way, but Brixey was firing slowly and carefully. He was a fine shot and took his time and tried always to get his man.
After a time I heard the adjudant-chef roaring from his end of the line. “Brixey, Brixey, nom de Dieu; fire more quickly. This isn’t firing school. Fire fast!”
But Brixey evidently was firing no faster, for again the adjudant-chef roared down the line. “Brixey! Nom de Dieu; fire, I tell you! Nom de Dieu, is he asleep? Wake him up, Clare!”
Now it was the habit of Brixey, old legionnaire that he was, to go to sleep whenever possible; and several times he had been known to take a snooze on the firing line.
So I crawled over a few feet to Brixey. He seemed to be asleep alright. I reached over and tapped him on the shoulder. He did not awaken. I clutched his shoulder and shook him. Then I saw that my hand was covered with blood. He was slumping strangely with his head upon his sack. He was not asleep; he was dead. A bullet had severed his carotid artery; he had died there without a whisper.
“Brixey can’t fire, mon adjudant,” I shouted back. “Il est mort.”
Just then the automatic jammed and went out of action. Brixey’s sack was a sac spécial holding the ammunition, and to make up in part for the extra weight, instead of the regular Lebel, he had been carrying a light carbine which was an extremely fine shooting gun. The adjutant shouted to me: “Clare, take Brixey’s carbine and all his ammunition and bring them to Corporal Costanovitch.” I crawled along the line with cartridge and carbine. The carbine was given to Bolse, who had been shooting the now useless automatic, and the two hundred and fifty cartridges were divided among us. We needed them; we were running out of ammunition.
I crawled back to my place and we continued shooting, stretched out there in the open behind our sacks, the convoy in uproar behind us, trying hard to extricate itself, the Druses before us, firing and yelling, rushing down the slope and throwing their grenades. To our right the 18th Company of our battalion was being badly cut up and twice already had come to grips using the bayonet.
After a while the adjudant-chef called me. “Clare, viens ici.” I crawled along behind the others till up to him. “Get behind the lieutenant,” he said, “and listen well to what he says.” So I crawled on till I was right behind Lieutenant Vernon.
“Go down the hill to the adjutant of the 18th,” he said, “and try to find Lieutenant Laftte.”
Lieutenant Laftte was in charge of the battalion’s company of machine guns:
“Find Lieutenant Laftte,” said Lieutenant Vernon, “and ask him if we can’t have a machine gun quickly. That I don’t think we can hold them of much longer without a machine gun. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lieutenant.”
“Repeat the order.”
I repeated it. “Bien,” he said. “Go as soon as you can make it.”
I started off without my rife. “No, take your gun,” he said.
I picked up the gun and started walking. “No,” he said. “You will never make it that way. You must crawl.”
But I couldn’t see myself crawling all that distance, and told him so.
“Bien,” he said, and, “tutoying” me [addressing me informally], “Comme tu veux, alors—as you wish it then.”
And I set out walking down the hill.
It was exactly like a rain storm, or a hail storm. Bullets kicked up the dirt all around me. But I kept on just as I was, just walking. And the reason I was not running wasn’t courage: It was weariness. I was so tired I could not run. Fear of death could not make me run. Nothing at all could have made me run. I was too tired.
I got down, found the adjutant, and finally Lieutenant Laftte, and gave him the message. He was a little fellow, cool as a cucumber. “Bien, bien,” he said, a bit like a school teacher bothered by many children. “I’ll go up with you and view the position, and see what we can do. Machine guns are not growing on the bushes.”
So I went back the way I had come, and he with me, to where Lieutenant Vernon lay directing the fire. They discussed the situation for a moment, and then a bullet got Laftte right in the ankle. “Sacré nom de Dieu,” he swore, “I’m going to the ambulance.” And without more ado started hopping down to the convoy. He was a comical sight. He’d hop along 10 or 12 feet, try the bad leg, find he couldn’t stand the pain, and hop on again on one leg, a little bit of a fellow, going as fast as a gnome.
And we didn’t get our machine gun. The men of the machine gun section had all been killed or wounded as usual.
Many men were getting killed. A corporal nearby got shot through the heart. Didier, a big drummer from Paris, got it right between the eyes. The 18th was using the bayonet now and then. But we were beating of the Druses all the same.
Meanwhile it was getting lonely up there. The convoy had been extricated and was gone; there was nothing behind us. The Senegalese had gone on, we had only a gap to our left. Everybody had gone on leaving us here. Up came a staff officer, furious and out of breath. “What in hell are you doing here?” he roared to Vernon.
“We’ve had no orders to move,” Vernon answered quietly. “We were told to hold here; we’ve had no orders since; we’re still here.”
“Well, you have your orders now. Scoot!”
So it was, “Debout! Á l’arrière! Pas gymnastique!—Stand up! To the rear! No gymnastics!” We sprang to our feet, seized our sacks, and started after the column on the double-quick. Just as Hersch corn picked his sack, a bullet went through his knee, another through his ankle. He staggered, went down, got up, then went down again. I reached for him, but Sergeant d’Étienne was already there. Taking his sack, putting his arm about him, he was half dragging, half carrying him along.
We went on after the column, the 29th and 19th ahead, the 18th covering. The Druses seemed half glad we were going; we were glad we were going; it was a case of mutual satisfaction. But we were leaving poor old Brixey up there; we were leaving all our dead. And among them, one that was not yet dead.
This was a German of the 18th who, when in garrison, was always chef des douches, chief of the showers. His was the job of heating the water, of keeping the showers clean. And we used to josh him because he always had his letters addressed to him from his home far away, to “Hans Rhine, Chef des Douches.” His German parents did not know what this meant, and no doubt thought it was some sort of high rank which their son had gained. In the midst of the action he got a bullet in the stomach. He had always been a cheerful companion, he sang on the march, everyone liked him, and several of his comrades now tried to get him to the camion that was serving as ambulance. But he refused to be moved.
The captain of the 18th came along and argued with him. “Come, come, Hans, let us get you to the ambulance.”
But he lay there, obdurate. “Non, non, mon capitaine, let me be. I cannot stand to be moved. I would suffer too much. No, no, it is fini. Just let me lie here. Fini the fighting, fini hunger and thirst and the corvées [drudgery], fini the long marches in the sun. C’est fni. I cannot stand to be moved. Please, mon capitaine, let me lie here, and let me have my rifle.”
It is against the rule under any circumstance to leave a rife or any weapon behind which can be of use to the enemy. But the captain of the 18th let Hans keep his rife. And now for a time as we retreated on the double-quick, we could hear him firing down there against the Druses closing in. There was a last shot, and then silence. There is no doubt that Hans used this last shot on himself.
Excerpted from The Legion of the Damned, by Bennett J. Doty, published by Century Company, 1928.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.