For most of our audience, the last time the French Foreign Legion came up was likely in a context related to old movies or stories from the ’30s or ’40s. Movies like Beau Geste, based on a 1924 novel by P.C. Wren, parodies on Looney Toons, Disney cartoons, Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello comedies; that sort of thing. More recently, the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies began with his character as a member of the French Foreign Legion.
The notion behind the Legion is that it’s a military unit for people that need to get away from their troubles at home and end up going to harsh environments on the other side of the world. Well, like any military force that gets a reputation for being full of tough, expendable soldiers, there are many aspects of the Legion that make it definitely worth your time to get to know better.
10. Inauspicious Origins
You might think that an organization that’s notorious for accepting recruits from around the world is in some way meant to be forward-thinking or idealistic. The Foreign Legion was definitely not that. Signed into being by King Louis-Philippe in 1831, it was intended as a lowkey way to take all the surviving revolutionaries from the July Revolution of 1830 and send them somewhere far away instead of sowing resentment by executing them. It was also a method of getting rid of immigrants, hence its extremely diverse population from the beginning among the rank and file.
The Legion took a long time to go from a way of sweeping undesirables under the rug to an institution anyone would want to romanticize. After serving garrison duty in the colony of Algeria, in 1835 they were sent to fight in Spain where they suffered heavy casualties and were criticized as being constantly on the verge of mutiny. Even as late as 1861 when they were back in Algeria, their commanding general Ulrich told high command that the unit should be disbanded since desertion was rife and the soldiers were so badly disciplined otherwise that they couldn’t be issued ammunition or be given two pairs of shoes lest they sell their spare pair. It wouldn’t be until after World War One that they gained mainstream respectability in France.
9. Longest Serving Military Unit
Since most famous portrayals of the Legion are now decades old, it’s understandable for an average reader to think that at some point the Legion’s critics finally got their way and the unit was disbanded. The truth of the matter is that it’s still in active service today and often in the thick of the most intense combat areas on Earth.
It saw combat during the First Gulf War, fought in the War in Iraq, in Central African Republic in 2014, and as of 2016 was involved in fighting in Afghanistan. It’s nowhere near its largest size, which was roughly forty-five thousand soldiers at the beginning of World War II. Considering that its active strength is roughly 8,000 soldiers divided up into seven regiments, it’s still a pretty considerable unit.
8. The Stand that Made Their Name
In the 1860s, while America was busy with the Civil War, France invaded Mexico ostensibly to collect on defaulted loans but in truth because Emperor Napoleon III wanted to build an empire like his namesake. In April 1863, a Mexican army of roughly three thousand soldiers was marching on a a massive convoy of supplies near the village of Camarón that was vital for French troops besieging the city of Vera Cruz. A Legion force of sixty-four soldiers (half-strength because so many soldiers were incapacitated from various illnesses associated with active campaigning along the coast at that time of year) under the command of one-handed Crimean War veteran Captain Jean Danjou was dispatched. After a running fight with Mexican cavalry forces, the Legionnaires fell back to a walled farm.
In the ensuing 11-hour battle every Legionnaire was killed, wounded, or captured. One Belgian soldier was shot nineteen times. But they had inflicted 300 casualties as they fired an estimated 4,000 rounds, enough to make their rifles too hot to touch. The Mexicans knew better than General Santa Anna had at the Alamo in 1836 and treated all the wounded Legionnaires instead of summarily executing them and later exchanged them for Mexican prisoners. Still, the stand saved the convoy and the French army and massively increased the Foreign Legion’s mystique despite the fact that after the Civil War ended America sent troops to aid Mexico in driving France out.
7. Recruit Murder Trial
Despite its old reputation as an organization that accepts the dregs from around the world with nowhere else to go, the truth is that the FFL has an advanced screening process and an extremely grueling training process. The sheer extremity of just how grueling it could be was made appallingly clear to the public in 2008. That was the year that 25-year-old Slovakian recruit Joszef Tvarusko was partaking in extreme desert training. It was alleged that four of his trainers were physically abusive towards him during the exercise, including taking his water and denying him any refills for the seemingly minor infraction of complaining about a sore knee, striking him, and making him stay out in the sun during breaks. While still begging for water, he collapsed and was pronounced dead within two hours.
Trainees dying during intense exercises was hardly unprecedented; the fact Tvarusko’s death seemed to be the result of malicious abuse instead of the elements made the subsequent trial world news. The four trainers were charged for his death, of which two cases went to trial. It was found that Tvatusko had died of strain instead of dehydration or his blows. Still, it definitely cast a pall over the Legion for some time in the public’s eyes.
6. Health Crises
It really cannot be overstated just how tough the harsh conditions and desperation has made thousands and thousands of Legionnaires over the years. One of their more celebrated exploits was in 1900 when a 4,000 of them marched 1,134 miles in seventy-two days through harsh environments in Morocco, with only six of them straggling in all that time even though their boots were ruined by the end of the journey. Eventually they revised their marching techniques so that they could manage thirty-seven miles a day over mountainous terrain.
Still, having to go from their (most often) temperate European climates to jungle or desert climates meant the Legionnaires were often hopelessly vulnerable to local sicknesses. The New York Review of Books reports that between 1887 and 1907, ten times more soldiers died from diseases than from all hazards related to combat. In 1895, during the invasion of Madagascar, one third of the Legion died from a variety of infections despite suffering almost no battle casualties. They didn’t talk much about that in any of the movies.
5. La Miss, The Legion’s Only Female Member
You might think that Susan Travers, who became a Legionnaire in 1940, would have been someone from a working class background to even consider enlisting in such a grueling outfit. She was in fact born into an immensely wealthy London family in 1909 and her father had been an admiral, to give an idea of the money and prestige she could have used to keep herself out of harm’s way. Still, in 1939, she had volunteered for the Red Cross despite being squeamish at the sight of blood. She ended up getting a job as an ambulance driver, where she saw service aiding the Finnish in the 1940 Winter War. After the fall of France, she became an ambulance driver for the Legion instead, which meant going to North Africa for the campaign against Rommel’s infamous Afrika Corps. She quickly developed a reputation for skillfully avoiding road mines and toughness and was dubbed “La Miss.”
On June 10, 1942, Travers got into the tightest spot of her career when she was assigned to drive the lead vehicle in an evacuation from Bir Haikem at the end of a heroic defense by the French forces. Driving through minefields, she and the rest of her convoy came under small arms and even artillery fire. At one point she and the others had to drive around a parked German tank. Her vehicle had been hit by 11 bullets and completely lost its shock absorber and brakes. Yet the only time she was grievously wounded was when she was a passenger while her commanding officer was driving.
Travers saw additional action in Italy and Germany, reaching the rank of general. But even that wasn’t the end of it. In 1956 she went to Vietnam for the First Indochina War. For her services she received the Legion d’Honneur, effectively the highest honor she could have hoped for. All in all, she set the standard pretty high for all future female Legionnaires if another one wants to join.
4. America’s First Soldiers of WWI
The United States of America didn’t declare war on Germany until 1917 and didn’t commit large units of soldiers to any battles until 1918. But through the Legion, Americans had an opportunity to give the last full measure of devotion to the trenches years early. Considering that the first American member of the Legion to die in combat was a machine gunner named Edward Stone on February 15, 1915, they were falling very early in the war indeed.
Curiously, like Susan Travers, Stone had come from a prestigious family of Chicago industrialists. He was not alone among the upper class Americans to join the Legion in the trenches before the war. Several Ivy League graduates, athletes, and even a lawyer had crossed the Atlantic with him. One of them was Eugene Bullard, who became the first American combat pilot, later opened a nightclub in Paris, and spied on German customers when World War II began.
3. Nazi Hypnotism Propaganda
During the lead up to the Second World War, the Third Reich made a point of stoking militaristic fervor among its population that was bitter from its defeat in WWI and the crushing debt of paying reparations. But for much of the early 1930s, since Germany wasn’t at war with anyone, one of the most obvious options for indulging their dreams of military glory was to enlist in the Legion.
For obvious reasons that was the unit that the Nazi high command least wanted their potential soldiers to join and denouncing it became commonplace. Books of all types about the French Foreign Legion were burned. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels began spreading the perplexing notion that somehow young Germans were being persuaded to enlist in the Legion through the use of hypnotism. He took this ludicrous claim far enough to have a professional hypnotist named Albert Zagula arrested for just that.
2. The Nazi Infiltration
Eventually, there was a massive change in its approach to the Legion by the German military as it hit upon a fiendish scheme: send loyal Reich party members into the Legion to either overthrow the unit as a fighting force for France or to hunt down and murder any undesirable members, particularly the Jews and the Slavs. It worked perfectly initially, since for years Germans had been one of the largest percentages of non-commissioned officers and soldiers.
By the time World War Two started, it had reached a point where the Legion was roughly eighty percent German. To protect their Jewish recruits, the Legion commanders segregated the Jewish members into colonial posts and put the German members to work doing road construction and such. The unit never officially rebelled against the French government, but there was a point where the Legion members battled against French soldiers that had been recruited for the Reich and won. By the time Operation Overlord began, the Legionnaires were trusted enough to take part in the ground war in mainland Europe.
1. Dien Bien Phu
If many in the Legion regarded the Battle of Camarón as its finest hour during its long, storied history, then the 1954 defeat at this stronghold in Vietnam is a contender for the darkest. Among the 10,000 soldiers defending this fortress were four battalions of Legionnaires. Curiously, the majority were Wehrmacht veterans from the Eastern Front.
The battle began on March 13 when hundreds of carefully concealed Vietnamese artillery pieces, which had been provided by China, began opening fire. The first installation knocked out was the air strip, which was a particularly devastating loss in terms of supplying the French army. One by one French defensive positions were battered into submission and Legionnaires were driven out of trench after trench, although the Legionnaires were described as fighting “like tigers” all the way. The stronghold finally fell with a series of heavy assaults on May 8.
Of the defenders that were marched off to captivity, only thirty percent would survive. One of the German survivors later compared their prison camp to Dachau and Buchenwald. Though perhaps it’s appropriate that soldiers who had fought for the Reich were present at the battle that has been said to signal the beginning of end of white supremacy in Southeast Asia and European colonial rule in general.
Dustin Koski can be followed on Facebook.