French Foreign Legion
Learn more about French Foreign Legion
|French Foreign Legion|
| Image:FFL grenade.jpg|
French Foreign Legion grenade insignia
|Active||since 10 March 1831|
|Size||Nine regiments and one sub-unit|
|Garrison/HQ|| Aubagne (Headquarters) |
Metropolitan France (5 regiments)
French Guyana (3rd Infantry Regiment)
Djibouti (13th Half-Brigade)
|Motto|| "Legio Patria Nostra" (The Legion is our fatherland)|
"Honneur et Fidélité" (Honour and loyalty)
"Marche ou crève" (March or die, unofficial)
|Colors||Red and green|
|Anniversaries||Camerone Day (April 30) and Christmas|
|Brigade General Louis Pichot de Champfleury|
The French Foreign Legion (French: Légion Étrangère) is a unique unit within the French Army established in 1831. It was created as a unit for foreign volunteers, because foreigners were forbidden to enlist in the French Army after the July Revolution in 1830.
It was primarily used to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the 19th century, but has also taken part in all of its wars against other European powers such as the Franco-Prussian War and both World Wars.
Despite being thought of as outdated and an anachronism, the legion has remained an important part of the French Army.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 painful dismantlement of the French colonial empire and finally, the loss of its fatherland — Algeria.
The reason for its survival may be as John Elting says: "The French, being a thrifty and practical people, have always been eager to let any available foreigners assist them in any necessary bleeding and dying for la Patrie."<ref> Elting, John. Swords around a Throne p. 355 </ref>
The French Foreign Legion was created by king 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.<ref name="foreign soldiers">Porch p. 2-4</ref>
The Legion was to remove disruptive elements from society and put them to use fighting the enemies of France. The recruits came from failed revolutionaries from the rest of Europe, soldiers from the disbanded foreign regiments and troublemakers in general, both foreign and French. Because Algeria was proving to be a very unpopular posting with regular regiments in the French Army, the Legion was welcomed.
In late 1831, the first legionnaires landed in Algeria, the country that would be its homeland for 130 years and shape its character. The early years in Algeria were hard for the Legion because they were often sent to the worst postings, received the worst assigments and were generally disinterested in the new colony of the French.<ref name="algeria">Porch p. 17-18</ref>
The Legion's first service in Algeria came to an end after only four years, since they were needed elsewhere to fight the enemies of France.
 The French Foreign Legion in Spain
In order to support Isabella's claim to the Spanish throne against her uncle, the French government decided to send the Legion to Spain and so, on 28 June 1835, the Legion was handed over to the Spanish government. The Legion landed at Tarragona on 17 August with around 4,000 men. One of the first things the commander did was to dissolve the national battalions in order to create a greater esprit de corps.
Later, he also created three squadrons of lancers and an artillery battery from the existing force to increase independence and flexibility. They were called Los Argelinos (The Algerians) by the locals because of their previous posting. 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 enemies, the Carlists.
It was in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. A small infantry patrol led by Capitaine Danjou, numbering 62 soldiers and 3 officers, was attacked and besieged by over a thousand Mexicans , organized in three battalions of infantry and cavalry, and was forced to make a defense in Hacienda Camarón. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, they fought nearly to the last man, with just three survivors surrendering to the Mexicans on the condition that they could keep their weapons, their flag, and the body of Capitaine Danjou.
 Franco-Prussian War
According to French law the Legion was not to be used within Metropolitan France, and thus, it was 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 Legion were determined to continue fighting, as for them the Imperial Army did not represent France but an unpopular regime.
The problem was that the new Third Republic was in a desperate shortage of trained soldiers, so the Legion was ordered to provide a contingent. On 11 October, 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.
 Colonial Warfare
During the Third Republic, the Legion played a major role in French colonial expansion. They fought in North Africa (where they established their headquarters at Sidi-Bel-Abbès in Algeria), Madagascar, and Indochina, where they participated in the celebrated Siege of Tuyen Quang in 1885.
 The World Wars
In World War I the Legion fought in many critical battles of the war, including the Battle of Verdun. The Legion was highly decorated for its efforts in the war. Many young Americans like Fred Zinn volunteered for the Legion when the war broke out in 1914.
The Foreign Legion was heavily involved in World War II, playing a large role in the Middle East and the North African campaign. The 13th Demi-Brigade was deployed in the Battle of Bir Hakeim. Interestingly, part of the Legion was loyal to the Free French movement, yet another part was loyal to the Vichy government. A battle in Syria saw two opposing sides fight against each other in a short engagement, and later on the Vichy Legion joined its Free French brethren.
Units of the Legion were deployed in French Indochina and fought in the Franco-Chinese War, and one battalion was the key component in the celebrated defense of the fortress of Tuyen Quang when it was assaulted by Chinese troops many times its number.
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 which were delivered by parachute to the base.
 The Gulf War
In September 1990 the 2e REI, 6e REG and 1e REC were sent to the Persian Gulf as a part of Opération Daguet. They were a part of the French 6th Light Armoured Division whose mission was to protect the coalition's left flank.
After a four week air campaign the coalition forces began the ground campaign. It quickly penetrated deep into Iraq, the Legion taking the Al Salman airport with little resistance. The war ended after a hundred hours ground fighting and very light casualties for the Legion.
 Spanish Emulation
The Spanish Foreign Legion was created in 1920, in emulation of the French one, and had a significant role in Spain's colonial wars in Morocco and in the Spanish Civil War (on the Nationalist side). Unlike its French model, the number of non-Spanish recruits never exceeded 25%, and most of these were in fact Latin Americans of Spanish descent.
 Disbanded Unit
The 1st Regiment Etranger Parachutiste was established in 1955 and disbanded in April 1961 as the entire regiment rose against the French government of Charles de Gaulle, in protest against moves to negotiate an end to the Algerian War. Following Algerian Independence in 1962 the Legion was reduced in numbers but avoided the wholesale disbandments of most other units comprising the "Army of Africa" (Spahis, Zouaves, Tirailleurs, Meharistes, Harkis, Goums and Chasseurs d'Afrique). The intention seems to have been to retain a professional force which could be used for military interventions outside France and not involve the politically unpopular use of French conscripts. The abolition of conscription in France, in 2001 and the creation of an entirely professional army might be expected to put the Legion's longterm future at risk but as of 2006, there is no sign of this.
While most of its commissioned officers are French, approximately 10% are former Legionnaires who have risen through the ranks. The rest of the Legion is made up of men from a wide variety of nationalities, with French citizens representing 25-35% of the Legionnaires. The foreign volunteers are primarily European. Before and during World War II, many Jews from Eastern Europe fled to France and ended up enlisting in the Legion. Ironically, after the fall of the Third Reich, Germans (long a major presence in the legion) accounted for roughly sixty percent of the manpower, with many former German troops coming directly from World War II POW camps (Bernard B. Fall, a leading expert on French Indochina and author of Street without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, disputes this figure and claims that at most Germans only made up thirty-five percent of the Legion in the post-WWII period). The book Devil's Guard relates a former Waffen-SS member's brutal account of joining the Legion and fighting with fellow former SS against the Vietminh in Indochina. During the mid-1980s the Legion contained large contingents of British and Serbian nationals. Present day has seen a number of recruits from African and Balkan countries.
The Legion's ranks historically were filled with enlistees from countries which were undergoing some sort of crisis. While no serious studies were made of the motives for enlistment it seems likely that many recruits were simply transient foreigners who found themselves in France and out of work. In recent generations, however, many of those joining have come from middle-class backgrounds in stable prosperous countries such as Britain and the US (and indeed France itself). During the late 1980's the Foreign Legion saw a massive intake of former UK soldiers which left the British Army due to its reformation. At one point the famous 2eme REP had approx. 1,200 British citizens amongst the ranks which resulted in the standing joke of the unit being called 2eme PARA, in reference to the 2nd Parachute Regiment of the British Army.
Legionnaires can choose to enlist under a pseudonym ("declared identity") and a declared citizenship. This disposition exists in order to allow people who want to turn over a new leaf in their life to enlist. French citizens can enlist under a declared, fictitious, foreign citizenship (generally, a francophone one). After one year's service, Legionnaires can regularize their situation under their true identity.
In the past, the Legion had a reputation for attracting criminals on the run and would-be mercenaries. In recent years, however, admission has been restricted much more severely, and background checks are done on all applicants. Generally speaking, convicted felons are prohibited from joining the service.
After serving in the Legion for a certain period of time, a legionnaire may apply for French citizenship. During the early 1990's this used to be possible during a legionnaire's first 5 year term of service, however in recent years a second 5 year term must be committed to, to encourage longer service.
Previously, the Legion was not stationed in mainland France except in wartime. Until 1962 the Legion headquarters were stationed in Sidi-Bel-Abbès, Algeria. Nowadays, some units of the legion 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 :
- Mainland France
- 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment (1er REC), based in Orange (armoured troops),
- 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE), based in Aubagne (Legion headquarters),
- 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (2e REI), based in Nîmes,
- 4th Foreign Regiment (4e RE), based in Castelnaudary (training);
- 1st Foreign Engineer Regiment (1er REG), based in Laudun;
- 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment (2e REG), based in St Christol;
- French Overseas Territories and Overseas Collectives,
 Current Deployments
These deployments are current as of November 2005
- Operations exterieures (other than at home bases or on standard duties)
- Martinique - (Protection) - 2e REG / 2e Compagnie, RCS;
- Paris, France - VIGIPIRATE - 2e REI / 2 units, EM; 1er REG / 2 units;
- Montpellier - VIGIPIRATE - 2e REI / 1 unit;
- Perpignan - VIGIPIRATE - 2e REI / 1 unit;
- Guyane - (Protection) - 3e REI / 3e Compagnie; 1er REG / RCS;
- Côte D'Ivoire - (Intervention) - Operation LICORNE - 1er REC / 5e Squadron;
- Mayotte - (Prevention) - DLEM;
- Glorioso Islands - (Prevention) - DLEM;
- Djibouti - (Prevention) - 13e DBLE; 2e REI / CAC, RCS; 2e REG / 1er Compagnie, RCS;
- Kosovo - (Intervention) - 2e REG / BATFRA.
- Afghanistan - (Intervention) - 2e REG / URH;
- Training Operations
- 2e REP - France (Corse) - Regimental Exercise
- 1er REC - France (Provence/Alpes-Cotes D'Azur and Languedoc-Roussillon) - Ex. Amphibie " Melaoria II"- Exercise "PC Garrigues "Palmex II";
- 2e REI - France and United Kingdom - La Courtine, Ex. Cambrian Patrol and CIECM;
- 3e REI - Guyane - Stage Combat en Milieu Equatorial;
- 4e RE - Exercise Antarès with 17e RPG.
 The Legionnaire's Code of Honour
Every Legionnaire must know by heart the "Legionnaire's Code of Honour". The Legionnaires spend many hours, learning it, reciting it, and then getting the vocal synchronisation together:
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 woollen 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 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.
NCOs 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 Legionaire 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. With most of the officers being on temporary voluntary duty with the French Foreign Legion upon returning to their original regiments the officers keep at the top of their officers vest one French Foreign Legion button honoring their past affiliation with the Legion.
In a recent documentary courtesy of the Military Channel, some members of the Legion are shown wearing a tigerstripe pattern camouflage uniform while on maneuvers in French Guyana. Also, many Legion members are shown wearing an Olive Drab uniform and a helmet with a French/NATO camouflage pattern.
Notable is also the marching speed of the Legion. Compare to the 140 steps per minute the Legion adapted a 88 step per minute marching speed. This can be seen at public displays by the Legions many public occasions in particularly while participating on Bastille Day, 14th July each year. Because of the impressive slow marching speed, which Legionnaires refer to as the the "crawl", the formation of the legion is always the last marching block in any parade. Traditionally, the legion is accompanied by their own band which play usually a tune from any of the regiments of the Legion except the regimental song of the unit on parade. The regiment songs of each regiment and "Le Boudin" (commonly called the Blood sausage song), is sung by Legionnaires in attention.
 References in popular culture
The existence of the French Foreign Legion has led to a romantic view that it is a place for a wronged man to leave behind his old life to start a new one, but also that it is 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 movies, not the least of which are the several versions of Beau Geste.
 See also
- Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092308-3
- "The French Foreign Legion", Military Channel documentary
 External links
- Official Website
- Legion in Horn of Africa (video in french)
- The Official Recruitment Office of the Foreign Legion
- French Foreign Legion information
- Federation of Veteran Societies of the Foreign Legion
- French Embassy to US, Foreign Legion section
- French Foreign Legion forum
- Foreign Legion Info Site by ex-legionnaire
- French Foreign Legion video links
- Foreign Legion life
- Le Musée de la Légion étrangère (legion museum)bs:Legija stranaca
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