The Dark Romance and Grim Reality of Life in the French Foreign Legion
It’s the dark romance of the French Foreign Legion: haunted men from everywhere, fighting anywhere, dying for causes not their own. Legionnaires need war, certainly, and Afghanistan is winding down. But there’s always the hopeless battle against rogue gold miners in French Guiana…
The word “foreign” in the name French Foreign Legion does not refer to faraway battlegrounds. It refers to the Legion itself, which is a branch of the French Army commanded by French officers but built of volunteers from around the world. Last summer I came upon 20 of them on a grassy knoll on a farm in France near the Pyrenees. They were new recruits sitting back-to-back on two rows of steel chairs. They wore camouflage fatigues and face paint, and held French assault rifles. The chairs were meant to represent the benches in a helicopter flying into action—say, somewhere in Africa in the next few years to come. Two recruits who had been injured while running sat facing forward holding crutches. They were the pilots. Their job was to sit there and endure. The job of the others was to wait for the imaginary touchdown, then disembark from the imaginary helicopter and pretend to secure the imaginary landing zone. Those who charged into the imaginary tail rotor or committed some other blunder would have push-ups to do immediately, counting them off in phonetic French—uh, du, tra, katra, sank. If they ran out of vocabulary, they would have to start again. Eventually the recruits would stage a phased retreat back to their chairs, then take off, fly around for a while, and come in for another dangerous landing. The real lesson here was not about combat tactics. It was about do not ask questions, do not make suggestions, do not even think of that. Forget your civilian reflexes. War has its own logic. Be smart. For you the fighting does not require a purpose. It does not require your allegiance to France. The motto of the Legion is Legio Patria Nostra. The Legion is our fatherland. This means we will accept you. We will shelter you. We may send you out to die. Women are not admitted. Service to the Legion is about simplifying men’s lives.
Since 1831, when the Legion was formed by King Louis-Philippe, more than 35,000 legionnaires have died in battle, often anonymously, and more often in vain. The Legion was created primarily to gather up some of the foreign deserters and criminals who had drifted to France in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. It was discovered that these men, who were said to threaten civil society, could be induced to become professional soldiers at minimal cost, then exiled to North Africa to help with the conquest of Algeria. The new legionnaires got an early taste of the deal when, in the Legion’s first North African battle, a squad of 27 was overrun after being abandoned by a French officer and the cavalry under his command.
During the pacification of Algeria, 844 legionnaires died. During a foolish intervention in Spain in the 1830s, nearly 9,000 died or deserted. During the Crimean War, in the 1850s, 444 died. Then came the French invasion of Mexico of 1861–65, whose purpose was to overthrow the reformist government of Benito Juárez and create a European puppet state, to be lorded over by an Austrian prince named Maximilian. It did not work out. Mexico won, France lost, and Maximilian was shot. Of the 4,000 legionnaires sent off to help with the war, roughly half did not return. Early on, 62 of them barricaded themselves in a farm compound near a village called Camarón, in Veracruz, and fought to the finish against overwhelming Mexican forces. Their last stand provided the Legion with an Alamo story that, in the 1930s, during a spate of tradition-making, was transformed into an officially cherished legend—Camerone!—promoting the idea that true legionnaires hold the orders they receive before life itself.
Between 1870 and 1871, more than 900 legionnaires died while reinforcing the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War. This was their first fight on French soil. After the war ended, the Legion stayed on and helped with the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune—a civilian revolt during which legionnaires dutifully killed French citizens on French streets, often by summary execution. After order was restored, the legionnaires were quickly returned to their bases in Algeria, but they had earned the special loathing reserved for foreign mercenaries, and a visceral distrust of the Legion still felt by French leftists today.
The Legion’s radical composition, its physical isolation, and its very lack of patriotic purpose turned out to be the attributes that have molded it into an unusually resolute fighting force. An idea grew up inside the Legion that meaningless sacrifice is itself a virtue—if tinged perhaps by tragedy. A sort of nihilism took hold. In 1883, in Algeria, a general named François de Négrier, addressing a group of legionnaires who were leaving to fight the Chinese in Indochina, said, in loose translation, “You! Legionnaires! You are soldiers meant to die, and I am sending you to the place where you can do it!” Apparently the legionnaires admired him. In any case, he was right. They died there, and also in various African colonies for reasons that must have seemed unimportant even at the time. Then came the First World War and a return to France, where 5,931 legionnaires lost their lives. During the interwar period, with the Legion having returned to North Africa, Hollywood caught on and produced two Beau Geste movies, which captured the exoticism of Saharan forts and promoted a romantic image that has boosted recruiting ever since. Immediately after World War II, which claimed 9,017 of its men, the Legion went to war in Indochina, where it lost more than 10,000. Recently, near Marseille, an old legionnaire told me about a lesson he learned as a young recruit, when a veteran sergeant took a moment to explain dying to him. He said, “It’s like this. There is no point in trying to understand. Time is unimportant. We are dust from the stars. We are nothing at all. Whether you die at age 15 or 79, in a thousand years there is no significance to it. So fuck off with your worries about war.”