Murderers, gamblers and criminals on the run: How French Foreign Legion soldiers were the toughest in the world and would march in 50C heat till their BOOTS filled with BLOOD
- New book examines the legendary, vicious (and racist) French Foreign Legion
- Jean-Vincent Blanchard has penned a series on the infamous soldiers
- The band of outcasts were fearless and had ‘no families, no ideals’ and ‘no loves’
- Sex with prostitutes, heavy drinking and fighting were encouraged
BOOK OF THE WEEK
AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (Bloomsbury £20)
As a boy, I’d always more than half-wondered if the French Foreign Legion was an invention of Hollywood.
Cary Grant and Gary Cooper capered about in the desert wearing those distinctive hats with the white hankies dangling down the backs of their necks.
Laurel and Hardy ran away to join the Foreign Legion, as did Jim Dale in Carry On . . . Follow That Camel, which was filmed in exotic Camber Sands. Marty Feldman directed, co-wrote and starred in The Last Remake Of Beau Geste, with Peter Ustinov as the sadistic sergeant.
A new book by Jean-Vincent Blanchard examines the legendary, vicious (and racist) French Foreign Legion, whose soldiers marched in 50C heat till their boots filled with blood
Edith Piaf had a famous song about a night of hectic passion with a tattooed recruit, which she compared to (and I translate) ‘a thunderstorm through the sky’. And it is her image of the moody and uncompromising Legionnaire, attracted by the promise of ‘blood, bullets, bayonets and women in an Arab land’, that gets closest to the historical and psychological truth, as laid before us in this gripping, disturbing and controversial account of the Legion’s first century.
For the all-volunteer corps of the French Army, founded in 1831, was neither comical, nor an excuse for high-spirited larks. It was brutal and often monstrous.
Created to participate in France’s colonial expansion to Algeria, Morocco, Madagascar, Indochina and Mexico, ‘we scare people, we inspire fear and perhaps admiration, which is a little too thin a reward sometimes; but love, never’.
Even the unique right to hire men regardless of their nationality was a cynical move.
Since Napoleon and his casualties were still a living memory, the French government wanted an army ‘that could face danger and human losses without drawing the political backlash that French-born victims would elicit’.
Out of this came the Legion’s legendary appeal to ne’er-do-wells, broken-hearted lovers, criminals, political refugees and ‘scions of aristocratic families leaving behind gambling debts’.
Anyone physically fit was accepted, especially if they had teeth strong enough to bite the biscuit rations. No questions were asked at the headquarters in Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria.
The band of outcasts were fearless and had ‘no families, no ideals’ and ‘no loves’
‘You can choose a new name if you like,’ recruits were told. ‘We don’t ask for documents.’
As mercenaries, the men fought for the Legion itself, united against everyone else.
‘Legio Patria Nostra,’ ran the motto — the Legion is our country. ‘We don’t give a damn what we fight for. It’s our job. We’ve nothing else in life. No families, no ideals, no loves.’
By 1900, there were 11,500 men in this band of scary outcasts. Blanchard calculates that between 1831 and 1962, when Algeria was grudgingly granted independence and the French left North Africa, approximately 600,000 people had joined up.
‘The substantial majority of them were Germans or Northern Europeans,’ we are informed. The rest were Belgians, Spaniards and Britons. There was one Turk, one New Zealander and lots of Americans during the Great Depression of the Thirties.
Exhausting route-marches in Saharan temperatures of 50c with heavy backpacks, where ‘acid sweat burned your skin’ and ‘you march with your shoes full of blood’, would not be my cup of tea. But, according to Blanchard, the typical Legionnaire was a man who found ‘redemption and an existential purpose through camaraderie and abnegation’.
A Legionnaire who was shot in the stomach and lying on the ground with his intestines escaping was heard to murmur to his captain: ‘Are you happy with me?’ This is the kind of stoicism that was expected.
‘Excessive revelry’ was condoned by the generals, who believed ‘one did not build empires with virgins’. Sex with prostitutes was encouraged, despite the risk of venereal disease, as were heavy drinking and brawling. How hilarious it must have been to terrorise the natives — the Legionnaires ‘can hardly keep beating, so hard they laugh’, ran a report.
The French government maintained that this imperial experiment was to bring ‘reason, progress, science, culture and freedom’ to backward jungle regions and wildernesses’
The French government maintained that this imperial experiment was to bring ‘reason, progress, science, culture and freedom’ to backward jungle regions and wildernesses.
The Legionnaires were expected to fight ‘in the professed name of civilisation and’ — here comes the catch — ‘in the name of racial superiority’.
While we can applaud their achievements as engineers — digging and building roads, constructing forts and laying telephone lines — the fact remains that, for these mercenaries, ‘the gift of French civilisation’ in practice meant the opportunity for the savage conquest of African tribes and, in Indochina, the Vietnamese patriotic resistance.
Legionnaires went about ‘civilising the barbarians of this world with cannonballs’. Villages were pillaged and burned, the women raped, the men decapitated. ‘We were allowed to kill and plunder everything,’ recalled a soldier. ‘We went to the villages and surprised the people in bed.’
One Legionnaire received no censure when he made a tobacco pouch from cured human skin.
Nevertheless, killing civilians must have taken its toll — indeed, Legionnaires were among the most screwed-up soldiers in history.
In a group of 350 men, 11 deaths were put down to suicide, but there may have been many more, disguised in the record as death from disease. The belief was: ‘It is better to be dead than go through hell.’
There was alcoholism and much illness — typhoid, tropical fever, dysentery, malaria. In Legionnaires’ hospitals, a coffin, slathered with quicklime, was placed in readiness under a patient’s bed.
It was said of a soldier about to die that he was off to ‘eat bananas by the roots’ — i.e. be buried in soft soil.
The deliberate hardship was not unlike that of a religious order, with its renunciation of worldly comforts — though entertainment involved lots of drag shows.
Legionnaires made ‘splendid female impersonators’. Homosexual activity was commonplace, as you’d expect with ‘5,000 young solid males, boiling with vigour and vitality’ at a loose end in the fort.
When Kaiser Wilhelm tried to discourage Germans from joining up by publishing articles warning against sexual abuse in the desert, men with Heidelberg duelling scars raced to enlist.
As 43 per cent of the corps was German, perhaps it is no surprise the Foreign Legion didn’t rescue France when the country was occupied by Nazis during World War II.
Blanchard’s story concludes with the centenary of the corps in 1931, the parades and so forth.
I am keen to read a further volume about post-colonial activities, particularly because, since 1962 when Sidi Bel Abbes was abandoned for a new HQ in Marseille, 50,000 men have felt the need to run away and join the Legion.
It is chilling to discover that Jean-Marie Le Pen spent a formative three years in the Legion, and that recently a retired commander was arrested for making anti-Islam protests at Calais.