For most of our audience, the last time the French Foreign Legion came up was likely in a context related to old movies or stories from the ’30s or ’40s. Movies like Beau Geste, based on a 1924 novel by P.C. Wren, parodies on Looney Toons, Disney cartoons, Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello comedies; that sort of thing. More recently, the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies began with his character as a member of the French Foreign Legion.
The notion behind the Legion is that it’s a military unit for people that need to get away from their troubles at home and end up going to harsh environments on the other side of the world. Well, like any military force that gets a reputation for being full of tough, expendable soldiers, there are many aspects of the Legion that make it definitely worth your time to get to know better.
10. Inauspicious Origins
You might think that an organization that’s notorious for accepting recruits from around the world is in some way meant to be forward-thinking or idealistic. The Foreign Legion was definitely not that. Signed into being by King Louis-Philippe in 1831, it was intended as a lowkey way to take all the surviving revolutionaries from the July Revolution of 1830 and send them somewhere far away instead of sowing resentment by executing them. It was also a method of getting rid of immigrants, hence its extremely diverse population from the beginning among the rank and file.
The Legion took a long time to go from a way of sweeping undesirables under the rug to an institution anyone would want to romanticize. After serving garrison duty in the colony of Algeria, in 1835 they were sent to fight in Spain where they suffered heavy casualties and were criticized as being constantly on the verge of mutiny. Even as late as 1861 when they were back in Algeria, their commanding general Ulrich told high command that the unit should be disbanded since desertion was rife and the soldiers were so badly disciplined otherwise that they couldn’t be issued ammunition or be given two pairs of shoes lest they sell their spare pair. It wouldn’t be until after World War One that they gained mainstream respectability in France.
9. Longest Serving Military Unit
Since most famous portrayals of the Legion are now decades old, it’s understandable for an average reader to think that at some point the Legion’s critics finally got their way and the unit was disbanded. The truth of the matter is that it’s still in active service today and often in the thick of the most intense combat areas on Earth.
It saw combat during the First Gulf War, fought in the War in Iraq, in Central African Republic in 2014, and as of 2016 was involved in fighting in Afghanistan. It’s nowhere near its largest size, which was roughly forty-five thousand soldiers at the beginning of World War II. Considering that its active strength is roughly 8,000 soldiers divided up into seven regiments, it’s still a pretty considerable unit.