The French Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère) is a unique unit within the French Army established in 1831. Although also open to French citizens, the legion was created as a unit for foreign volunteers, because foreigners were forbidden to enlist in the French Army after the July Revolution of 1830.
Considered an anachronism by some , the Foreign Legion has remained an important part of the French Army. It has survived three Republics, one empire, two World Wars, the rise and fall of mass conscript armies, the dismantling of the French colonial empire and, finally, the French loss of the legion's birthplace, Algeria.
The French Foreign Legion is known as an elite military unit whose training focuses not only on traditional military skills but also on its strong esprit de corps. As its men come from different countries with different cultures, this is a widely accepted solution to strengthen them enough to work as a team. Consequently, training is often described as not only physically challenging, but also extremely psychologically stressful.
The French Foreign Legion was created by Louis Philippe, then King of the French, on March 10, 1831. The direct reason was that foreigners were forbidden to serve in the French Army after the 1830 July Revolution.
The purpose of the Legion was to remove disruptive elements from society and put them to use fighting the enemies of France. Recruits included failed revolutionaries from the rest of Europe, soldiers from the disbanded foreign regiments, and troublemakers in general, both foreign and French. Algeria was designated as the Legion's home; as the colony was proving to be a very unpopular posting with regular regiments in the French Army, the introduction of the Legion was well received.
In late 1831, the first Legionnaires landed in Algeria, the country that would be the Legion's homeland for 130 years and shape its character. The early years in Algeria were hard for Legionnaires because they were often sent to the worst postings, received the worst assignments and were generally uninterested in the new colony of the French.
The Legion's first service in Algeria came to an end after only four years, since it was needed elsewhere.
To support Isabella's claim to the Spanish throne against her uncle, the French government decided to send the Legion to Spain. On 28 June 1835, the unit was handed over to the Spanish government. The Legion landed at Tarragona on 17 August with around 4,000 men, and were quickly dubbed Los Argelinos (the Algerians) by locals because of their previous posting.
The Legion's commander immediately dissolved the national battalions to improve the esprit de corps. Later, he also created three squadrons of lancers and an artillery battery from the existing force to increase independence and flexibility.
The Legion was dissolved on 8 December, 1838, when it had dropped to only 500 men. The survivors returned to France, many reenlisting in the new Legion along with many of their former Carlist enemies.
It was in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. A company led by Capitaine Danjou, numbering 62 soldiers and 3 officers, was escorting a convoy to the besieged city of Puebla when it was attacked and besieged by two thousand members of the Mexican Army, organized in three battalions of infantry and cavalry, numbering 1,200 and 800 respectively. The patrol was forced to make a defence in Hacienda Camarón, and despite the hopelessness of the situation, fought nearly to the last man. When only six survivors remained, out of ammunition, a bayonet charge was conducted in which three of the six were killed. The remaining three were brought before the Mexican general, who allowed them to return to France as an honour guard for the body of Capitaine Danjou. The captain had a wooden hand which was stolen during the battle; it was later returned to the legion and is now kept in a case in the Foreign Legion museum at Aubagne, and paraded annually on Camerone day.
According to French law, the Legion was not to be used within Metropolitan France except in the case of a national invasion, and was consequently not a part of Napoleon III’s Imperial Army that capitulated at Sedan. With the defeat of the Imperial Army, the Second French Empire fell and the Third Republic was created.
The new Third Republic was desperately short of trained soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War, so the Legion was ordered to provide a contingent. On 11 October 1870 two provisional battalions disembarked at Toulon, the first time the Legion had been deployed in France itself. They attempted to lift the Siege of Paris by breaking through the German lines. They succeeded in re-taking Orléans, but failed to break the siege.
The Legion's 1st Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Donnier) was sent to Tonkin in the autumn of 1883, during the period of undeclared hostilities that preceded the Sino-French War (August 1884 to April 1885). The battalion took part in the Son Tay Campaign in December 1883 and formed part of the attack column that stormed the western gate of Son Tay on 16 December. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions (chef de bataillon Diguet and Lieutenant-Colonel Schoeffer) were also deployed to Tonkin shortly afterwards, and were present in all the major campaigns of the Sino-French War. Two Legion companies led the defence at the celebrated Siege of Tuyen Quang (24 November 1884 to 3 March 1885). In January 1885 the Legion's 4th Battalion (chef de bataillon Vitalis) was deployed to the French bridgehead at Keelung (Jilong) in Formosa (Taiwan), where it took part in the later battles of the Keelung Campaign. The battalion played an important role in Colonel Jacques Duchesne's offensive in March 1885 that captured the key Chinese positions of La Table and Fort Bamboo and disengaged Keelung.
Units of the Legion were involved in the defense of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indochina War and lost a large number of men in the battle. Towards the desperate end of the battle, Legionnaires formed the bulk of the volunteer relief force delivered by parachute to the base.
After a four-week air campaign, coalition forces launched the ground campaign. It quickly penetrated deep into Iraq, with the Legion taking the Al Salman airport, meeting little resistance. The war ended after a hundred hours of fighting on the ground, which resulted in very light casualties for the Legion.
While most of the Legion's commissioned officers are French, approximately 10% of them are former Legionnaires who have risen through the ranks. Though open to people of any nationality, most Legionnaires still come from European countries.
Membership of the Legion is a useful guide to political history: specific national representations generally surge whenever a country has a political crisis, and tend to subside once the crisis is over and the flow of recruits dries up. After the First World War, many (Tsarist) Russians joined. Immediately before the Second World War, Czechs, Poles and Jews from Eastern Europe fled to France and ended up enlisting in the Legion. After World War Two, the German presence was particularly strong. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, there were many Serbian nationals. Also in the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the changes in the former Warsaw Pact countries, led to an increase in recruitment from Poland and from the former republics of the USSR. Recent years have seen an increasing number of recruits from African and Balkan countries. However, in addition to the fluctuating numbers of political refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from a wide variety of nations, there has been, since the end of World War Two, a strong core from two nations in particular, Germany and Britain. The Legion appears to have become as much a part of these two nations' culture as a French institution, and a certain stability in recruitment levels has developed; it does not follow the general 'yo-yo' trend as closely. After the fall of the Third Reich, Germans, long a major presence in the legion, are believed to have accounted for roughly sixty percent of its manpower,. After the war, the French administered two zones of Western Germany adjacent to France. In these zones, recruitment offices enabled many former German POWs to join the legion almost immediately after their release from prison camps. However, Bernard B. Fall, a leading expert on French Indochina and the author of the famous accounts Street without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, disputes this figure and claims that Germans made up thirty-five percent of the Legion at most in the post-WWII period. Nevertheless, the image of a German-dominated postwar Foreign Legion is the setting for the well-known novel Devil's Guard, which narrates a former Waffen-SS member's brutal experience of joining the Legion and fighting alongside other former SS against the Vietminh in Indochina. During the late 1980s, the Legion saw a large intake of trained soldiers from the UK. These men had left the British Army following its restructuring and the Legion's parachute unit was a popular destination. At one point, the famous 2eme REP had such a large number of British citizens amongst the ranks that it was a standing joke that the unit was really called '2eme PARA', an reference to the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment of the British Army. While no serious studies have made of the motives for enlistment over the years, the majority in the Legion's ranks were either those transient souls in need of escapism and a regular wage, or refugees from countries undergoing crises. In recent years, however, the improved conditions and professionalism of the Legion have in turn attracted a new kind of 'vocational' recruit, from middle-class backgrounds in stable and prosperous countries, such as the US, Britain and France itself. In the past, the Legion had a reputation for attracting criminals on the run and would-be mercenaries, but in recent years the admissions have been severely restricted and background checks are performed on all applicants. Generally speaking, convicted felons are prohibited from joining the service.
Whereas before Legionnaires could choose to enlist under a pseudonym ("declared identity") and a declared citizenship, today it is obligatory for everyone who applies to change his name. This disposition exists in order to allow people who want to start their lives over to enlist. French citizens can enlist under a declared, fictitious, foreign citizenship (generally, a francophone one, often that of Canada or Monaco). After one year's service, Legionnaires can regularize their situation under their true identity.
After serving in the Legion for three years, a legionnaire may apply for French citizenship. He must be serving under his real name, no longer have problems with the authorities, and must have served with “honour and fidelity” for at least three years. French nationality cannot be granted under a declared identity. Furthermore, a soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can apply for French citizenship under a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” (”French by spilled blood”).
Previously, the Légion was not stationed in mainland France except in wartime. Until 1962, the Legion headquarters were located in Sidi-Bel-Abbès, Algeria. Nowadays, some units of the Légion are in Corsica or overseas possessions, while the rest is in the south of mainland France. Current headquarters are in Aubagne, France, just outside Marseille.
There are nine regiments and one independent sub-unit :
Following Algerian Independence in 1962, the Legion was reduced in numbers but not disbanded like most other units comprising the Armée d’Afrique: Zouaves, Tirailleurs, Meharistes, Harkis, Goums, Chasseurs d'Afrique and all but one of the Spahi regiments). The intention seems to have been to retain the Foreign Legion as a professional force which could be used for military interventions outside France and not involve the politically unpopular use of French conscripts. The subsequent abolition of conscription in France in 2001 and the creation of an entirely professional army might be expected to put the Legion's long-term future at risk, and indeed when Paris contributed a 2,000-strong contingent to the U.N. force in Lebanon in 2006, it included only 200 Legion engineers.
These deployments are current as of October 2007:
Note: English names for countries or territories are in parentheses.
|Acronym||French Name||English Meaning|
|CEA||Compagnie d'éclairage et d'appuis||Reconnaissance and Support Company|
|CAC||Compagnie anti-char||Anti-Tank Company|
|UCL||Unité de commandement et de logistique||Unit of Command and Logistics|
|EMT||État-major tactique||Tactical Command Post|
|NEDEX||Neutralisation des explosifs||Neutralization and Destruction of Explosives|
|OMLT||Operational Monitoring and Liaison Team (The official name for this branch is in English)|
Preselection - 1 to 3 days In a legion Recruitment Center (Paris - Aubagne) for Confirmation of motivation, Initial medical check-up , finalizing enlistment papers, and signing 5 year service contract
Selection - 1 to 10 days In the Recruitment and Selection Center in Aubagne for Psychological tests, Personality tests (complementary to the psychological tests), logic tests (without minimum education requirements), medical exam and physical condition tests, motivation and security interviews, and finally confirmation or denial of selection.
Final Selection - 7 days Signing and handing-over of the five year service and Incorporation into the Legion as a trainee.
The following is a chart showing the national origin of the more than 600,000 Legionaries of the force from 1831 to 1961, which was compiled in 1963. It should be noted that, at a given moment, principal original nationalities of the foreign legion reflect the events in history at the time they join. The legion allows men to escape from the worries of war, especially if their native country has lost. The large numbers of Germans joining in the wake of WWII led to the misconception that the Legion was full of former Waffen SS and Wehrmacht personnel. It is not surprising to see that a large number of German enlistments in the period following WWII, but the figures do not show whether or not the post-WWI period had a similar boost. Bernard B. Fall, writing in the context of the First Indochina War, has called the notion that the Foreign Legion was mainly German at that time:
"a canard . . . with the sub variant that all those Germans were at least SS generals and other much wanted war criminals. As a rule, and in order to prevent any particular nation from making the Legion into a Praetorian guard, any particular national component is kept at about 25 percent of the total. Even supposing (and this was the case, of course) that the French recruiters, in the eagerness for candidates would sign up Germans enlisting as Swiss, Austrian, Scandinavian and other nationalities of related ethnic background, it is unlikely that the number of Germans in the Foreign Legion ever exceeded 35 percent. Thus, without making an allowance for losses, rotation, discharges, etc., the maximum number of Germans fighting in Indochina at any one time reached perhaps 7 000 out of 278 000. As to the ex-Nazis, the early arrivals contained a number of them, none of whom were known to be war criminals. French Intelligence saw to that.
Since, in view of the rugged Indochinese climate, older men without previous tropical experience constituted more a liability than an asset, the average age of the Legion enlistees was about 23. At the time of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, any Legionnaire of that age group was at the worst, in his "Hitler Youth" shorts when the [Third] Reich collapsed.
When looking at the overall recruitment chart, one must keep in mind that the Legion accepts people enlisting under a nationality that is not their own. The large number of Swiss and Belgians are actually more likely than not Frenchmen who wish to avoid detection.
|Rank||Country of Origin||Total numbers|
Regarding recruitment conditions within the Foreign Legion, please see the official page (in English) dedicated to the subject: However, with regard to age limits, recruits can be accepted from ages ranging from 17 ½ (with parental consent) to 40 years old.
From its foundation until World War I the Legion wore the uniform of the French line infantry for parade with a few special distinctions. The field uniform was often modified under the influence of the extremes of climate and terrain in which the Legion served. Shakos were soon replaced by the light cloth kepi which was far more suitable for North African conditions. One short lived aberration was the wearing of green uniforms in 1856 by Legion units recruited in Switzerland for service in the Crimean War.
In the early 1900s the Legionnaire wore a red kepi with blue band and piping, dark blue tunic with red collar, red cuff patches, and red trousers. The most distinctive features were the green epaulettes (replacing the red of the line) worn with red woolen fringes; plus the embroidered Legion badge of a red flaming grenade, worn on the kepi front instead of a regimental number. In the field a light khaki cover was worn over the kepi, sometimes with a protective neck curtain attached. The standard medium-blue double breasted greatcoat (capote) of the French infantry was worn, usually buttoned back to free the legs for marching. Around the waist was a broad blue sash, copied from that of the Zouaves. The blue sash provided warmth and support as well as (supposedly) preventing intestine diseases. White linen trousers tucked into short leather leggings were substituted for red serge in hot weather. This was the origin of the "Beau Geste" image of the Legion.
In barracks a white bleached kepi cover was often worn together with a short dark blue jacket ("veste") or white blouse plus white trousers. The original kepi cover was khaki and due to constant washing turned white quickly. The white or khaki kepi cover was not unique to the Legion at this stage but was commonly seen amongst other French units in North Africa. It later became particularly identified with the Foreign Legion as the unit most likely to serve at remote frontier posts (other than locally recruited tirailleurs who wore fezzes or turbans). The variances of climate in North Africa led the French Army to the sensible expedient of letting local commanders decide on the appropriate "tenue de jour" (uniform of the day) according to circumstances. Thus a Legionnaire might parade or walk out in blue tunic and white trousers in hot weather, blue tunic and red trousers in normal temperatures or wear the blue greatcoat with red trousers under colder conditions. The sash could be worn with greatcoat, blouse or veste but not with the tunic. Epaulettes were a detachable dress item worn only with tunic or greatcoat for parade or off duty wear.
Officers wore the same dark blue (almost black) tunics as those of their colleagues in the French line regiments, except that black replaced red as a facing colour on collar and cuffs. Gold fringed epaulettes were worn for full dress and rank was shown by the number of gold rings on both kepi and cuffs. Trousers were red with black stripes or white according to occasion or conditions. All-white or light khaki uniforms (from as early as the 1890s) were often worn in the field or for ordinary duties in barracks.
Non-commissioned officers were distinguished by red or gold diagonal stripes on the cuffs of tunics, vestes and greatcoats. Small detachable stripes were buttoned on to the white shirt-like blouse.
Prior to 1914 units in Indo-China wore white or khaki Colonial Infantry uniforms with Legion insignia, to overcome supply difficulties. This dress included a white sun helmet of a model that was also worn by Legion units serving in the outposts of Southern Algeria, though never popular with the wearers.
During the initial months of World War I Legion units serving in France wore the standard blue greatcoat and red trousers of the French line infantry, distinguished only by collar patches of the same blue as the capote, instead of red. After a short period in sky-blue the Legion adopted khaki with steel helmets, from early 1916. A mustard shade of khaki drill had been worn on active service in Morocco from 1909, replacing the classic blue and white. The latter continued to be worn in the relatively peaceful conditions of Algeria throughout World War I, although increasingly replaced by khaki drill. The pre-1914 blue and red uniforms could still be occasionally seen as garrison dress in Algeria until stocks were used up about 1919. During the early 1920s plain khaki drill uniforms of a standard pattern became universal issue for the Legion with only the red and blue kepi (with or without a cover) and green collar braiding to distinguish the Legionnaire from other French soldiers serving in North African and Indo-China. The neck curtain ceased to be worn from about 1915, although it survived in the newly raised Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment into the 1920s. The white blouse (bourgeron) and trousers dating from 1882 were retained for fatigue wear until the 1930s.
At the time of the Legion's centennial in 1931, a number of traditional features were reintroduced at the initiative of the then commander Colonel Rollet. These included the blue sash and green/red epaulettes. In 1939 the white covered kepi won recognition as the official headdress of the Legion to be worn on most occasions, rather than simply as a means of reflecting heat and protecting the blue and red material underneath. The 3rd REI adopted white tunics and trousers for walking out dress during the 1930s and all Legion officers were required to obtain full dress uniforms in the pre-war colours of black and red from 1932 to 1939.
During World War II the Legion wore a wide range of uniform styles depending on supply sources. These ranged from the heavy capotes and Adrian helmets of 1940 through to British battledress and US field uniforms from 1943 to 1945. The white kepi was stubbornly retained whenever possible.
The white kepis, together with the sash and epaulettes survive in the Legion's modern parade dress. Since the 1990s the modern kepi has been made wholly of white material rather than simply worn with a white cover. Officers and senior NCOs still wear their kepis in the pre-1939 colours of dark blue and red. A green tie and (for officers) a green waistcoat recall the traditional branch colour of the Legion. From 1959 a green beret became the ordinary duty headdress of the Legion, with the kepi reserved for parade and off duty wear. Other items of dress are the standard issue of the French Army. Officers seconded to the Foreign Legion retain one Legion button on the vests of their dress uniforms upon returning to their original regiments.
Contrary to popular belief, the adoption of the Legion's slow marching speed was not due to a need to preserve energy and fluids during long marches under the hot Algerian sun. Its exact origins are somewhat unclear, but the official explanation is that although the pace regulation does not seem to have been instituted before 1945, it hails back to the slow, majestic marching pace of the Ancien Régime, and its reintroduction was a "return to traditional roots".
Beyond its reputation as an elite unit often embroiled in serious fighting, the recruitment practices of the French Foreign Legion have also led to a romantic view of it being a place for a wronged man to leave behind his old life to start a new one, yet also being full of scoundrels and men escaping justice. This view of the legion is common in literature, and has been used for dramatic effect in many films, not the least of which are the several versions of Beau Geste.