At The Edge Of The World: The Heroic Century Of The French Foreign Legion
By Jean-Vincent Blanchard
272 pages, $30
By Michael D. Langan
“Blood, bullets, bayonets, and women in an Arab land: How and why did the Legion come to exert such a mysterious attraction, embodying both the violence of war and the lure of exoticism? Who were these men, and how did these 'dogs of war' fight so efficiently?”
These are the questions that Jean-Vincent Blanchard, professor of French studies at Swarthmore College, asks at the beginning of this excellent book encompassing what he calls “The Heroic Century Of The French Foreign Legion.”
Our author informs us that the Legion was founded in 1831 with a special right to hire foreign-born volunteer recruits. A major reason for this was that the country needed “an army corps that could face danger and human losses without drawing the political backlash that French-born victims would elicit." (French citizens were permitted to join in 1881.)
At the time of its founding there was political mayhem in France. The Legion was thought a temporary solution to a threat to public order.
Why? “The French Bourbon kings, restored after the abdication and exile of Napoleon in 1814, hardly reinstated the people’s faith in the old monarchy.” There was a revolution in July 1830, with the streets of Paris blocked by barricades.
From that confusing beginning, the Foreign Legion turned out to be much more of a force than anyone expected. It distinguished itself in France’s colonial conquests, empire-building from Algeria to Indochina, from Madagascar to Morocco. The Legion remained essential “in the professed name of civilization and racial superiority,” as Blanchard puts it, well beyond World War I. The reason for the French reliance was the “rising nationalism and murderous rivalries between European powers.”
By 1900, the Legion’s force of surly young men constituted a force of 11,500. The recruits were brutally trained under the North African sun, and marched for hours; enough to “push a man to suicide.” They were efficiently trained to be killers, led by blunt authoritarianism and resourcefulness when required. Sometimes they would be overcome by what was called le cafard, a severe despondency, the result of being in solitary places that could lead to suicide.
Certainly the Legion's dominant figure for more than thirty years was Gen. Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey, a veteran of the French colonial wars. He oversaw the defense of Morocco as Resident General at one point. Lyautey’s famous remark was that the Legion would help spread French civilization like an “oil slick,” a tache d’huile.
It didn't matter where they were sent: North Africa, Viet Nam, Indochina, the Suez Canal, the Bay of Tonkin. They fought “mysterious populations overseas in malaria-ridden swamps becoming much more indispensable in the age of colonization.”
Lyautey, a Catholic trained by the Jesuits, backed up his promises by building roads, market places and schools to show the benefits of the French occupation, according to Blanchard. More than this, he was beloved by his men who did not have a country, but “who had a corps and exceptional officers to rely on … and who sent him remembrances and expressions of respect.”
In this admiration, Lyautey was a bit like retired U.S. Marine Corps general and now Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Mattis is a warrior with a fine intellect and fearless reputation honed over a 44-year period of service. He is quoted as saying to Marines under his command in war zones: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
The Legion’s Gen. Lyautey and Mattis are alike but with at least one difference: Mattis displays a strong moral sense, rebuking recent Marine online pornography. Lyautey responded earlier to the rowdy behavior of the legionnaires who came under criticism by saying, one “did not build empires with virgins.”
So how did the reputation of the Legion build up over 100 years? Jean-Vincent Blanchard gives us a summary of how the legionnaire was created as an archetype of the colonial soldier. They included these factors:
-- During the first decades of the 20th century, newspaper articles, memoirs, novels, movies, and songs featured the Legion’s exploits. set reg "Beau Geste," published in 1924, was Percival C. Wren’s novel that gave an idea of the legionnaire’s life.
As Blanchard writes, the legionnaire was a figure standing at the edge of the Sahara, wearing a blue coat and a white kepi, a flat-topped cap in the shape of an elliptic cylinder, with a visor and a white cloth flap to protect the neck from the sun.
-- Legionnaires were featured in several films such as "Morocco" in 1930, starring Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich.
-- Edith Piaf’s popular song, “Mon legionnaire” defined the nature of making love with the mythical colonial soldier. She sang, “He had very light eyes/ That flashed brightly at times/Like a thunderstorm through the sky./ He was covered in tattoos/That I never fully understood/On his neck: 'Never seen, never taken.'/Over his heart one could read: 'No one.'/On his right arm, one word: 'Think.' ”
Thirty years later, in 1960, she hadn’t changed her mind, when she sang, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” (“I don’t regret anything”) in another world famous song dedicated to the Legion in the midst of the Algerian War. "With my memories, I lit a fire," she added.
This remark coincides with Blanchard's own view that the archetype of the Legionnaire "set the standard of what a man ought to be, defining an ideal of masculinity for generations."
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.