How I went to join the Foreign Legion
Contrary to modern myth, France’s mysterious fighting force does not take murderers, rapists or violent criminals. But, only tough guys need apply
Just a few months ago 19-year-old Cillian Murray, from Co Armagh in Northern Ireland, was a successful student studying engineering.
When I meet him now, he has a rifle, a full army uniform and his face is painted in dark camouflage colours as he steals through the corner of a French field. “My brother and sister stood in the doorway crying as I left the house,” he recalls, peering with a steely gaze from beneath his heavy helmet. “They tried to stop me. I hadn’t told them I was leaving and they saw me try to sneak out so I had to tell them where I was going — to join the French Foreign Legion.”
He headed to Belfast airport with just a small holdall, a pocketful of cash and a ticket to Nice. Now he is one of the newest recruits in one of the world’s most mysterious military units.
After a spate of tragic shootings this year in France, it was revealed that the terrorist Mohammed Merah — the Algerian-born gunman who killed three soldiers, three children and their teacher in unprovoked attacks in Toulouse — was one of 11,500 men who had applied to join the French Foreign Legion in 2010, but he quit after just one day, defeated by the notoriously tough recruitment process.
The French Foreign Legion, as I learn from the time I spend with the new recruits near Toulouse, is no longer a hideout for desperate men. It is an elite unit on active duty around the world. Twelve legionnaires have died in combat missions in Afghanistan.
Such is the Legion’s fearsome reputation as peacekeepers in Sarajevo, Chad, Uganda, Somalia and the Ivory Coast that Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, claimed recently that he would have “no problem” in lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip if the French Foreign Legion were to be sent in to police the region.
The reality of life in the French Foreign Legion is a far cry from the Hollywood myth. If Cillian Murray thought being a legionnaire was all about brutal murderers smoking Gauloises cigarettes inside dusty Moroccan forts, he could be in for a surprise.
Only Murray’s girlfriend of two years knew that he was leaving for France — she had to accept that there was no talking him out of it. “When I arrived in France I didn’t speak a word of French and they put me on a train to Aubagne [in Provence] to present myself at the main recruiting office.
“I had dropped out of my university course in building and engineering, even though I passed my first year and had done really well in school, because I just wanted the adventure. I wasn’t running from anything, though some people here are. You know not to ask questions.”
In his company of 36 young cadets — the third company of the 4ème Régiment Étranger — Murray is joined by a Mexican, two Canadians, a Swede, two Serbs, a Nigerian, a Venezuelan and two recruits from China, as well as 13 other nationalities. They share no common language and are drilled for hours each day in the basic 500 words of French they will need to survive the Legion’s brutal training — learning to understand commands more by phonetics than semantics.
I am invited to share lunch with the officers in the mess hall as the recruits outside loudly attack a fake trench over a mock no man’s land. The captain tugs on a rope and a bell tinkles in the distance, sending a new cadet barely out of his teens scurrying nervously into the dining room.
He is ordered, in very simple French and some indecipherable hand gestures, to fetch a selection of cheeses, while the uniformed officers stand with their glasses of vin rouge and sing Attention pour la poussière [Watch out for the dust] — a throwback to the Legion’s birth in the sandy plains of North Africa.
On a noticeboard behind us, the mugshots of the new legionnaires stare back: all have freshly shaven heads and are wearing bulky fatigues. The face of one young man, a 20-year-old Belgian, has a big cross drawn through it. “He couldn’t take it,” a lieutenant tells me.
In 1831, King Louis Philippe commissioned a new branch of his country’s Armed Forces to be composed exclusively of foreigners, many of whom had poured into France after the July Revolution the year before. With its home in Algeria, the new battalion’s job was to protect and expand the French Empire.
Since then, the French Army has been unique in the world in accepting men from any nationality to fight alongside its own soldiers. After five years, a legionnaire becomes eligible for French nationality: earlier, if he is injured while fighting for France, earning his citizenship “by spilt blood”.
The captain who greets me in Castelnaudary, a small stone-clad town outside Toulouse that almost creaks under the weight of the vast regiment on its outskirts, warns me that I must never ask any legionnaire pourquoi? Their reasons for leaving their homelands and families behind must remain their own.
Paul is 32 years old and in his third year with the French Foreign Legion. As he swelters in full combat gear under the fierce sunshine in the South of France, he declines to tell me his surname and will only say that he comes from the South of England, though he admits to being an Everton fan.
“I was only given my real name back last Thursday,” he explains. “It is confusing after so long.” For the past three years Paul has trained and fought under the name Samuel Borg, assigned to him on arrival while the Legion carried out background checks on his past. Although he will not explain why he left the UK, it is not because he is on the run from anything heinous.
“We do not take murderers, violent criminals or rapists,” explains Colonel Yann Talbourdel, section chief of the 4th Régiment. “But if you have committed some lesser bêtise [folly], we will look after you and change your name. That way, if the police come and ask if we have a John Smith, we can look them in the eye and say no, John Smith does not exist.”
Another officer adds: “These days, more people turn up at our gates running from debt as from murder.”
Paul wipes the sweat from his eyes as he talks to me, occasionally slipping into the odd word of French. He has hardly slept in two days, following orders barked in an odd hybrid French by his Ukrainian lieutenant, who does not let his legionnaires rest until they have learnt their patrol drill off by heart.
“It is very liberating to have a fresh start,” Paul says. “I didn’t broadcast the fact I was leaving and we aren’t allowed mobile phones when we arrive. I just turned up in Marseilles in 2009 and here I am.”
Neither Paul nor Cillian has been home since joining the Legion. It was 15 years before their commander, Captain Victor Ferreira, returned to his native Portugal and, after a quarter of a century in the Legion, even his closest comrades have no idea why he left in the first place.
“People often ask us why we left, and we often ask ourselves,” Captain Ferreira tells me. “I have seen my comrades killed beside me, such as when we were defending the airport in Sarajevo in the Bosnian war, but I have never had any regrets because you get to see some beautiful things as a legionnaire too, serving in Djibouti, Guyana, Brazil, Chad, the Ivory Coast. I have never had any interest in killing someone, but I have had to raise my gun when faced with people who have no problem with killing.”
Michael Evans, The Times Pentagon Correspondent and former defence editor, was in Bosnia in 1992 and remembers the French Foreign Legion entering Vitez “with great pomp and ceremony, like an invading army”. Also in Sarajevo, as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force, was Colonel Bob Stewart of the British Army, who took part of the Legion’s parachute regiment, probably including Captain Ferreira, under his joint command.
“Any British soldier would be impressed by the idea of serving with the French Foreign Legion,” Colonel Stewart tells me. “There is still a mystique about them to this day, their training is very tough and they have a very good esprit de corps. They can be quite unhinged too sometimes, such as one ex-legionnaire I knew who sadly killed himself playing Russian roulette.”
In 2010, 11,500 young men from all over the world turned up at the Legion’s recruitment offices around France. Over just a few days, a harsh selection process of physical, mental and medical tests whittles this number down. Only one in ten is recruited and they are packed straight off for training.
All men, regardless of their marital status, are enlisted as “single” and anyone between the ages of 17 and 40, including women, can ask to join the Legion, but very few women ever make it into the ranks. Captain Ferreira explains: “We have men from so many different nationalities and cultures here, and many of those cultures look upon women in very different ways from how we do in the West, so having women could cause difficulties.”
Basic training is just 16 weeks long, and within the first month a new legionnaire will find himself handed a sub-machinegun, an 11kg rucksack and a full uniform, embarking on punishing marches across the Midi-Pyrénées region. If he survives the first month, he is presented with his képi blanc, the peaked cylindrical white cap that has been the distinguishing mark of the French Foreign Legion throughout its 180-year history.
The recruitment figures for the Legion have long been a litmus test for international affairs. In 1939, veterans of the Spanish Civil War joined the Legion. After the Second World War, many German soldiers arrived, fleeing the Wehrmacht.
The fall of the Berlin Wall saw an influx of Eastern European recruits, some of whom still arrive hungry for action from countries whose armies play little role in live theatres of war. Britons make up about 3 or 4 per cent of the Legion. Alex Rowe, a Geordie sniper, is one of the Legion’s most decorated officers, receiving the Légion d’honneur last year.
Captain Serge Joffredo asks me if I would like to sign up for a five-year contract with his regiment. It is hard to tell if he is serious, and it is an unnerving question when the French Foreign Legion is already “looking after” your passport for the few days you are embedded with the troops.
I look down at the gruelling obstacle course at the foot of the hill where, behind me, a group of recruits is hauling sandbags up to the summit to build a bivouac, where they will spend the next three weeks of shooting practice and fitness drills cut off from all amenities.
I think of Captain François Darthoux. He told me ruefully that his exhausting schedule allows him to see his three children — Constantin, 4; Victoire, 3; and Amaury, whose first birthday he is missing as we speak — only when they are sleeping.
I remember the 12 legionnaires killed in Afghanistan, the last of whom, the Bulgarian engineer and Chief Sergeant Svilen Simeonov, died in January, shot by a rogue Afghan National Army officer.
And I think of Stiven Baird, an American, who has seen his family only twice in four years.
I love France, but I am not sure I am willing to make this sort of commitment to La République Française.
It is with great relief that I reclaim my passport from the white-capped guard at the gate. I thank Captain Joffredo and leave the new recruits to their baritone chanting and fixed expressions as they march slowly across the Place d’Armes.
• A legionnaire’s initial training lasts 16 weeks. They are automatically assigned an alias when they enlist while the Legion carries out background checks. They can apply to have their real name back within weeks, though some choose to remain under their assumed names.
• The recruits will spend most of the first month on a “farm” in the Lauragais region — isolated ranches with basic barracks (built by the recruits themselves), gruelling obstacle courses and specially dug trenches, bunkers and parapets to practise battlefield manoeuvres, tactics and shooting.
• Once a day they will be drilled in French classes, with the aim of giving them a vocabulary of 500 words by the end of their training. During The Times’s visit, an entire lesson was devoted to learning La fourchette est dans le bol (the fork is in the bowl), with varying success.
• Recruits, aged 24 on average, will initially be sent out on marches of 5km-7km, but will soon be marching up to 120km in full combat gear, with 11kg rucksacks and rifles. About 15 per cent of new recruits do not make it through the 16-week training regime.
• Races, swimming and tugs of war feature strongly as part of a new recruit’s training, as well as a shooting exam over 200m and a quick-draw exam over 25m.
• Recruits are also given specialist training in battlefield medicine, and will perform mock surgery in the field with simulated gunfire, deafening helicopter noise and animal blood from the local abattoir. They are also trained as mechanics and taught to drive heavy-duty armoured vehicles.
• New recruits do not get weekends during their training and miss many nights’ sleep during night-time exercises and long marches. Nor are they allowed to have mobile phones.
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