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Honneur et Fidélité: The French Foreign Legion

Military History | October 7, 2019

The French Foreign Legion at Bastille Day rehearsals in 2015. Source: (LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images)

Coming in the wake of a revolution, France created its Foreign Legion, a military division destined for historic fame and dark allure as a home to the dispossessed who wish to restart their lives.

King Louis-Philippe. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Beginnings

In July 1830, the French king, Charles X, was driven into exile. He was the last of the Bourbon kings who had ruled the country for centuries with a brief intermission during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. He was replaced by a new constitutional monarchy under Louis-Philippe of the House of Orleans. The new king reorganized the country, and part of this effort was a purge of the army against his enemies. Meanwhile, France was flooded with foreign refugees who had fled to France in the general disruption of the period due to industrialization. These undesirables were seen as a danger to the new regime.

Louis-Philippe's solution was a military one, create a division of the army which would be composed of foreigners.

A Legionnaire from 1852. Source: (Wikipedia)

Early Years

This was not the first time France had called foreigners to its banner. The country had a long history, going back to Louis XI’s “Scots Guard,” of bringing in non-French to supplement its army. It also was not a unique idea. Many countries had followed the same practice for centuries. Still, between the Napoleonic wars and 1830, the use of foreigners in the French military was forbidden. Louis-Philippe decided to change that.

The Foreign Legion or Légion étrangère was born by royal ordinance on March 10, 1831. By September, five battalions were deployed abroad under the command of Swiss Colonel Baron Christophe Anton von Stoffel, a veteran of Napoleon’s army. Many of the Legionnaires were deployed to Algeria, where they served in a guerrilla war against locals in an imperial war of conquest. Algeria came to be associated closely with the Foreign Legion and became in many respects its spiritual home. A curious fact is that the traditional white hat or kepi of the Legion was originally a khaki color that became sun-bleached from the North African sun. Later in its history, it adopted a white hat.

These early years saw an evolution of the Foreign Legion from a pure infantry division to a more diversified command complete with logistics and reconnaissance units. More importantly, the Foreign Legion began to mix nationalities. This was done under the order of Colonel Joseph Bernelle when the Foreign Legion was given to use by Spain during the Carlist War. He saw that by blending the units ancient rivalries and quarrels were washed away. Still, the Spanish wars were a disaster for the Foreign Legion. Poorly funded and equipped, by the time the Foreign Legion returned to France only a fraction of the original 4,000 returned.

Battle of Camaron. Source: (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Demons, Not Men

The Foreign Legion was reborn in 1837 with new recruits, and it has carried on ever since, serving abroad in French military actions. The legionnaires became known for their bravery, particularly so during the French intervention in Mexico in 1861 in which France inserted itself into Mexican politics and established essentially a client state. During the chaotic military actions, the Foreign Legion distinguished itself at the Battle of Camerone (Camarón in Spanish) when 62 soldiers and three officers, let by the one-handed Captain Jean Danjou were besieged by about 3,000 Mexican troops..

The Legion refused to surrender and holed up in a hacienda which they defended until they ran out of ammunition. When this happened, they fixed their bayonets and charged the Mexicans. Only three survived. When the Mexican commander saw how many remained alive he said, “This is all there are left? Then these are not men, but demons!” The date of the battle, April 30, 1863, is the most important date in the Foreign Legion’s history. The wooden hand of Captain Jean Danjou, is one of the most sacred relics of the French Foreign Legion. Gradually over time, the Foreign Legion became known as one of the most elite fighting forces in the world with an incredibly strong esprit de corps and gruelling induction. It has been involved in almost every French military venture from the World Wars to the Suez Canal Crisis to the War on Terrorism.

Each year, the French Foreign Legion commemorates the Battle of Camerone. This leading unit are the pioneers, traditonally bearded and wielding axes meant to demolish obstacles. Source: (Wikipedia)

Foreign Legion Practices and Traditions

Historically, the Legion has developed a reputation for attracting criminals and fugitives from justice. The articles that founded the legion did provide for birth certificates and proof of good behavior, but generally, this was left to the discretion of the recruiting officers who would take most any person as long as they seemed healthy. The Foreign Legion also practices a policy of anonymity. Legionnaires declare a new name for themselves at least during their first year of service. Interestingly, they do not swear loyalty to France, but rather to the Legion itself. One of the mottoes of the Legion is Legio, Patria Nostra, the Legion, Our Fatherland. A person who stays in the Foreign Legion for three years may apply for French citizenship. However, if a legionnaire is injured in battle before those three years are up, they may claim citizenship by Français par le sang versé, French by spilled blood. Today, the French Foreign Legion is a bit pickier than it used to be. While minor crimes are overlooked, serious offenses such as murder will bar one from service. Unlike the regular French army, the Foreign Legion is male-only and recruits are forbidden to marry for the first five years of service to avoid complications.

Modern legionnaires in hand-to-hand combat training. Source: (SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Foreign Legion Today

By the early 20th century the French Foreign Legion had captured the public imagination. It has been featured in numerous books as well as films -- including Abbot and Costello. This media attention peaked by mid-century and while most people of the 21st century have heard of the Foreign Legion, many would be puzzled at its continued existence.

But exist it does being involved in peacekeeping and anti-terrorism missions worldwide. One hundred and forty countries are represented in today’s French Foreign Legion of roughly 8,000 soldiers from all walks of life and different pasts.

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).