Author Douglas Porch is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School; his other books relate to Mediterranean and North African military history. The French Foreign Legion
is an excellently researched and encyclopedically thorough volume on the Légion étrangerè
Porch mixes chapters on Legion history with chapters on Legion philosophy; both were interesting. The original idea behind the Legion was as sort of a loaner army to Spain during the Carlist Wars; it transitioned to a useful tool during the French colonial expansion. France had to keep a large conscript army at home, and while the public would put up with conscription in defense of la patrie
, they were not enthusiastic about sending their boys off to fight in (for example) Dahomey. Plus, similar public opinion limited conscript service to two years, while a Legion contract went for five, leading to more military professionalism. The Legion was, of course, technically a mercenary force, but nobody joined for the money; a Legionnaire’s pay was considerably less than an equivalent rank in the French army and Porch quotes an account of a Legionnaire having to save for two months before he could afford a postage stamp to send a letter. Porch hypothesizes about what the actual attraction might be; the Legion myth was certainly important, as was the tradition of anonymity. In this context Porch makes an interesting observation: the other great “foreign legion” of the 19th century was the United States Army; you could disappear into the USA, go West, fight Indians, and come back with a new identity; you could disappear into the LE
, go south, fight Arabs, and come back with a new identity.
Porch also notes that much of the Legion mythos was, in fact, mythical. Anonymity did hold fairly well, except for two disgraces: the Vichy government handed over German legionnaires in 1940 and Russian ones in 1945. The myth that the Legion never surrendered was shattered by Dien Bien Phu; the myth that the Legion never abandoned a comrade was never true – in fact it was fairly routine to leave behind a legionnaire behind when he couldn’t march anymore, after taking his rifle so the enemy wouldn’t get it (if the enemy in question was particularly unpleasant, and they usually were, his officer would use the rifle on him first). Many of the Legion’s “traditions” were created in the 1930s – the slow march step, the white kepi, and the bearded pioneers. Some of the myths were created by Hollywood; the Legion (like the rest of the French army) had official brothels, but it’s astronomically unlikely that a legionnaire would find Marlene Dietrich in one and even more unlikely that she would follow him into the desert in high heels. Even Captain Danjou’s wooden hand is a little suspect, since it was found some time after and some distance from Camerone.
I read quite a bit of military history, but it’s mostly American and British; therefore Porch’s accounts of the Legion’s campaigns were new and interesting. The Legion’s home base was in Algeria, where it was usually spread out in small garrisons. Although there were formal Legion regiments, when there was a campaign the typical Legion method was to take volunteers (sometimes actual volunteers, sometimes not) from several different units and organize them into a special temporary battalion. Porch is skeptical, noting that this broke up unit cohesion; however he concedes that it seems to have worked under the Legion’s unique conditions; the poorer soldiers were left behind in garrisons where they couldn’t really get into trouble and the good ones went off and successfully (usually) fought whoever the other party was. It does, however, make it difficult to keep track of which Legion units are doing what where. The colonial campaigns covered are Algeria, Mexico, Dahomey, Madagascar, Indochina, Formosa, Morocco, Indochina again, and, last, Algeria again. Intermixed are French non-colonial campaigns – the Carlist War, Crimea, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II. In theory, the Legion was not to be deployed in France proper; this was waived for the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II. All the colonial campaigns are well-described (although there’s a shortage of maps); I was especially interested in the Algerian independence war, as I have very blurred memories of seeing it live on TV as a pre-teen. Porch is of the opinion that the French had essentially won (although with excruciating brutality) but then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with incompetent diplomacy (one of the fascinating things I learned here was that the French colonists in Algeria – the pied noirs
– were almost uniformly Socialist or Communist, which discouraged the Soviet Union from intervening). The account of the military coup attempted afterward was also something I had only vague knowledge of – apparently Legion generals were fully prepared to paradrop into Paris but were only thwarted by the last-minute removal of transport aircraft from Algeria.
This relates to Porch’s account of the development of French paratroop units. He argues that the paratroop effectiveness was highly overrated (claiming that the only truly successful use of paratroops in history was the assault on Eben Emael in 1940) but the French became enamored of them, devoting resources to Legion and regular army paratroops that would have been better spent on conventional units (one of his comments that might support this is the observation that when the French government feared a military coup by Algerian units, tanks had to be towed into position around Paris because they were not operational). He argues that the French paratroop units became alienated from the rest of the army (and vice versa), contributing to the Algerian coup.
This is just of summary of some interesting parts in a long book; there’s a lot more. Porch’s writing is straightforward; he’s not in the Stephen Ambrose or Shelby Foote rank but he’s readable enough. There are a couple errors of fact; Porch says the Vichy Army was limited to 100 troops, and that the American rifles supplied to Free French troops were M1917 Garands. There are extensive references and notes, and some relevant photographs and illustrations. As mentioned, the book could use a lot more maps; there are none at all for the complicated first Indochina campaign, for example. Worthwhile.