French Foreign Legion

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For other uses, see Foreign Legion.
This article is about a French military unit. For the Frank Sinatra song, see French Foreign Legion (song).
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Légion étrangère
Flag of legion.svg
The Foreign Legion grenade emblem and colours.
Active 10 March 1831 – present
Country  France
Branch French Army
Type Foreign legion
Role Elite Light Infantry
Size c. 7,700 men in eleven regiments and one sub-unit
Garrison/HQ Aubagne (Headquarters)
Calvi (2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment)
Metropolitan France (5 regiments)
French Guiana (3rd Infantry Regiment)
United Arab Emirates (13th Demi-Brigade)
Mayotte (Detachment)
Nickname The Legion (English)
La Légion (French)
Motto

Legio Patria Nostra (The Legion is our Fatherland)
Honneur et Fidélité (Honour and Fidelity)

Marche ou crève (March or die, unofficial)
Colours Red and Green
March Le Boudin
Anniversaries Camerone Day (30 April)
Engagements

Global War on Terrorism (2001-present)

Commanders
Current
commander
Brigade General Christophe de Saint Chamas
Insignia
Identification
symbol
Grenade legion.svg
Legion flash
BananeLEor.jpg
Abbreviation FFL (English)
LE (French)
A Legion honour guard of the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment stands at attention as they await the arrival of Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, commander of Joint Forces in Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Shield.

The French Foreign Legion (French: Légion étrangère (French pronunciation: ​[leʒjɔ̃ etʀɑ̃ʒɛʁ]), L.É.) is a military service wing of the French Army established in 1831, unique because it was exclusively created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. Commanded by French officers, it is also open to French citizens, who amounted to 24% of the recruits as of 2007.[2] The Foreign Legion is today known as a 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 way to strengthen them enough to work as a team. Consequently, training is often described as not only physically challenging, but also very stressful psychologically. A soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can immediately apply for French citizenship under a provision known as "Français par le sang versé" ("French by spilled blood").[3] As of 2008 members come from 140 countries.

The Foreign Legion was primarily used to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the 19th century. The Foreign Legion was stationed in Algeria, where it took part in the pacification and development of the colony. The FFL were deployed in a number of conflicts, including the First Carlist War in 1835, the Crimean War in 1854, the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, the French intervention in Mexico in 1863, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Tonkin Campaign and Sino–French War in 1883, supporting growth of the French colonial empire in Sub-Saharan Africa and pacifying Algeria, the Second Franco-Dahomean War in 1892, the Second Madagascar expedition in 1895, and the Mandingo Wars in 1894.

In World War I, the Foreign Legion fought in many critical battles on the Western Front. The Foreign Legion played a smaller role in World War II than in World War I, though having a part in the Norwegian, Syrian and North African campaigns. During the First Indochina War (1946–54), the Foreign Legion saw its numbers swell. The FFL lost a large number of men in the catastrophic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), the Foreign Legion was brought to the brink of extinction after some officers, men, and the highly decorated 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1REP) took part in the Generals' putsch. Notable operations included the Suez Crisis, the Battle of Algiers and various offensives launched by General Maurice Challe including Operations Oranie and Jumelles.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Legion had a new role as a rapid deployment force to preserve French interests – not only in its former African colonies but in other nations as well; it also returned to its roots of being a unit always ready to be sent to hot-spots all around the world. Some notable operations include: the Chadian–Libyan conflict in 1969–72 (the first time that the Legion was sent in operations after the Algerian War), 1978–79, and 1983–87; Kolwezi in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1978; Rwanda in 1990–94; and the Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) in 2002 to the present. In 1990, the Foreign Legion were sent to the Persian Gulf as a part of Opération Daguet. In the 1990s, the Foreign Legion helped with the evacuation of French citizens and foreigners in Rwanda, Gabon and Zaire. The Foreign Legion was also deployed in Cambodia, Somalia, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the mid- to late-1990s, the Foreign Legion was deployed in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville and in Kosovo. In the 2000s, the Foreign Legion was deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Licorne in Côte d'Ivoire, the EUFOR Tchad/RCA in Chad, and Operation Serval in the Northern Mali conflict[4]

Other nations have tried to emulate the French Foreign Legion model. There have been units composed of foreign recruits in China, Israel, the Dutch Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indische Leger (KNIL), the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1960s and 1970s, and Russia and Spain. Beyond its reputation as an elite unit often engaged in serious fighting, the recruitment practices of the French Foreign Legion have also led to a somewhat romanticised view of it being a place for disgraced or "wronged" men looking to leave behind their old lives and start new ones. 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 several adaptations of the novel Beau Geste.

Contents

History[edit]

The French Foreign Legion was created by Louis Philippe, the King of the French, on 10 March 1831. The purpose of the Foreign 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 Swiss and German mercenary regiments of the Bourbon monarchy, and troublemakers in general, both foreign and French. The Royal Ordinance for the establishment of the new regiment specified that the foreigners recruited could only serve outside France.[5] The French expeditionary force that had occupied Algiers in 1830 was in need of reinforcements and the Legion was accordingly transferred in detachments from Toulon to Algeria.[3][6]

The Foreign Legion was primarily used, as part of the Armée d'Afrique, to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the 19th century, but it also fought in almost all French wars including the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II. The Foreign Legion has remained an important part of the French Army, surviving three Republics, the Second French Empire, two World Wars, the rise and fall of mass conscript armies, the dismantling of the French colonial empire, and the loss of the Foreign Legion's base, Algeria.

Conquest of Algeria (1830–1847)[edit]

Created to fight "outside mainland France", the Foreign Legion was stationed in Algeria, where it took part in the pacification and development of the colony, notably by drying the marshes in the region of Algiers. The Foreign Legion was initially divided into six "national battalions" (Swiss, Poles, Germans, Italians, Spanish, and Dutch-Belgian).[7] Smaller national groups, such as the ten Englishmen recorded in December 1832, appear to have been placed randomly.

In late 1831, the first legionnaires landed in Algeria, the country that would be the Foreign Legion's homeland for 130 years and shape its character. The early years in Algeria were hard on the legion because it was often sent to the worst postings and received the worst assignments, and its members were generally uninterested in the new colony of the French.[8] The Legion served alongside the Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa, formed in 1832, which was a penal military unit made up of men with prison records who still had to do their military service or soldiers with serious disciplinary problems.

The Foreign Legion's first service in Algeria came to an end after only four years, as it was needed elsewhere.

Spain (1835–1839)[edit]

Main article: First Carlist War

To support Isabella's claim to the Spanish throne against her uncle, the French government decided to send the Foreign Legion to Spain. On 28 June 1835, the unit was handed over to the Spanish government. The Foreign Legion landed at Tarragona on 17 August with around 1,400 who were quickly dubbed Los Argelinos (the Algerians) by locals because of their previous posting.

The Foreign 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 Foreign 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 Foreign Legion along with many of their former Carlist enemies.

Crimean War (1853–1856)[edit]

Main article: Crimean War
The Légion étrangère in 1852

On 9 June 1854, the French ship Jean Bart embarked four battalions of the Foreign Legion for the Crimean Peninsula. A further battalion was stationed at Gallipoli as brigade depot.[9] Eight companies drawn from both regiments of the Foreign Legion took part in the Battle of Alma (20 September 1854). Reinforcements brought the Legion contingent up to brigade strength. As the "Foreign Brigade", it served in the Siege of Sevastopol, during the winter of 1854–1855.

The lack of equipment was particularly challenging and cholera hit the Allied expeditionary force. Nevertheless, the "bellies of leather" (the nickname given to the legionnaires by the Russians because of the large cartridge pouches that they wore attached to their waist belts), performed well. On 21 June 1855, the Third Battalion, left Corsica for the Crimea.

On 8 September the final assault was launched on Sevastopol, and two days later, the Second Foreign Regiment, flags and band playing ahead, marched through the streets of Sevastopol. Although initial reservations had been expressed about whether the Legion should be used outside Africa,[9] the Crimean experience established its suitability for service in European warfare, as well as making a cohesive single entity of what had previously been two separate foreign regiments.[10] Total Legion casualties in the Crimea were 1,703 killed and wounded.

Campaign of Italy (1859)[edit]

Like the rest of the "Army of Africa", the Foreign Legion took part in the campaign of Italy. Two foreign regiments, associated with the 2nd Regiment of Zouaves, were part of the Second Brigade of the Second Division of Mac Mahon's Corps. The Foreign Legion acquitted itself particularly well against the Austrians at the battle of Magenta (4 June 1859) and at the Battle of Solferino (24 June). The losses were significant and the Second Foreign Regiment lost Colonel Chabrière, its commanding officer. In gratitude, the city of Milan awarded, in 1909, the "commemorative medal of deliverance", which still adorns the regimental flags of the Second Regiment.[11]

Mexico (1863–1867)[edit]

Uniform of a legionnaire during the 1863 Mexican campaign
Captain Danjou's prosthetic wooden hand

It was in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. A company led by Captain Jean 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 loyalists,[12] organised in two 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 wounded men were brought before the Mexican general, who allowed them to return to France as an honor guard for the body of Captain 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 Legion Museum at Aubagne, and paraded annually on Camerone Day. It is the Foreign Legion's most precious relic.

During the Mexican Campaign, 6,654 French died.[13] Among these losses, 1,918[13] of the deaths were from a single regiment of the Legion, a fact that testifies to the importance of the Legion's role in the campaign.[13]

Further information: Battle of Camarón

Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871)[edit]

Main article: Franco-Prussian War

According to French law, the Foreign Legion was not to be used within Metropolitan France except in the case of a national invasion,[14] 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 following Sedan, so the Foreign Legion was ordered to provide a contingent. On 11 October 1870 two provisional battalions disembarked at Toulon, the first time the Foreign Legion had been deployed in France itself. It attempted to lift the Siege of Paris by breaking through the German lines. It succeeded in retaking Orléans, but failed to break the siege. In January 1871, France capitulated but civil war soon broke out, which led to revolution and the short-lived Paris Commune. The Foreign Legion participated in the suppression of the Commune,[15] which was crushed with great bloodshed.

Tonkin campaign and Sino-French War (1883–1888)[edit]

A Legionnaire sniper at Tuyen Quang

The Foreign Legion's First 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), and formed part of the attack column that stormed the western gate of Son Tay on 16 December. The Second and Third Infantry 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 Foreign Legion companies led the defence at the celebrated Siege of Tuyên Quang (24 November 1884 to 3 March 1885). In January 1885 the Foreign 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.

In December 1883, during a review of the Second Legion Battalion on the eve of its departure for Tonkin to take part in the Bắc Ninh Campaign, General François de Négrier pronounced a famous mot: Vous, légionnaires, vous êtes soldats pour mourir, et je vous envoie où l’on meurt! ('You, Legionnaires, you are soldiers in order to die, and I'm sending you to where one dies!')

Colonisation of Africa[edit]

Monument commemorating the soldiers of the Foreign Legion killed on duty during the South-Oranese campaign (1897–1902).

As part of the Army of Africa, the Foreign Legion contributed to the growth of the French colonial empire in Sub-Saharan Africa. Simultaneously, the Legion took part to the pacification of Algeria, plagued by various tribal rebellions and razzias.

Second Franco-Dahomean War (1892–1894)[edit]

In 1892, King Behanzin was threatening the French protectorate of Porto-Novo in modern-day Benin and France decided to intervene. A battalion, led by commandant Faurax, was formed from two companies of the First Foreign Regiment and two others from the second regiment. From Cotonou, the legionnaires marched to seize Abomey, the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Two and a half months were needed to reach the city, at the cost of repeated battles against the Dahomean warriors, especially the Amazons of the King. King Behanzin surrendered and was captured by the legionnaires in January 1894.

Second Madagascar expedition (1894–1895)[edit]

In 1895, a battalion, formed by the First and Second Foreign Regiments, was sent to the Kingdom of Madagascar, as part of an expeditionary force whose mission was to conquer the island. The foreign battalion formed the backbone of the column launched on Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. After a few skirmishes, the Queen Ranavalona III promptly surrendered.[16][17] The Foreign Legion lost 226 men, of whom only a tenth died in actual fighting. Others, like much of the expeditionary force, died from tropical diseases.[16] Despite the success of the expedition, the quelling of sporadic rebellions would take another eight years until 1905, when the island was completely pacified by the French under Joseph Gallieni.[16] During that time, insurrections against the Malagasy Christians of the island, missionaries and foreigners were particularly terrible.[18] Queen Ranavalona III was deposed on January 1897 and was exiled to Algiers in Algeria, where she died in 1917.[19]

Mandingo War (1898)[edit]

Main article: Mandingo Wars

From 1882 until his capture, Samori Ture, ruler of the Wassoulou Empire, fought the French colonial army, defeating them on several occasions, including a notable victory at Woyowayanko (2 April 1882), in the face of French heavy artillery. Nonetheless, Samori was forced to sign several treaties ceding territory to the French between 1886 and 1889. Samori began a steady retreat, but the fall of other resistance armies, particularly Babemba Traoré at Sikasso, permitted the colonial army to launch a concentrated assault against his forces. A battalion of two companies from the 2nd Foreign Regiment was created in early 1894 to pacify the Niger. The Legionnaires' victory at the fortress of Ouilla and police patrols in the region accelerated the submission of the tribes. On 29 September 1898, Samori Ture was captured by the French Commandant Gouraud and exiled to Gabon, marking the end of the Wassoulou Empire.

World War I[edit]

Americans in the Foreign Legion, 1916.

In World War I, the Foreign Legion fought in many critical battles on the Western Front, including Artois, Champagne, Somme, Aisne, and Verdun (in 1917), and also suffered heavy casualties during 1918. The Foreign Legion was also in the Dardanelles and Macedonian front, and was highly decorated for its efforts. Many young foreigners, including Americans like Fred Zinn, volunteered for the Foreign Legion when the war broke out in 1914. There were marked differences between such idealistic volunteers and the hardened mercenaries of the old Legion, as the poet Alan Seeger pointed out, making assimilation difficult. Nevertheless, the old and the new men of the Foreign Legion fought and died in vicious battles on the Western front, including Belloy-en-Santerre during the Battle of the Somme, where Seeger, after being mortally wounded by machine-gun fire, cheered on the rest of his advancing battalion.[20]

As most European countries and the US were drawn into the war, many of the newer "duration only" volunteers who managed to survive the first years of the war were generally released from the Foreign Legion to join their respective national armies. Citizens of the Central Powers serving with the Foreign Legion on the outbreak of war were normally posted to garrisons in North Africa to avoid problems of divided loyalties.

Between the World Wars[edit]

Legionnaires in Morocco, circa 1920

While at the close of the World War I, the Foreign Legion's prestige was at a high, the Foreign Legion itself had suffered greatly in the trenches of the war.[21] In 1919, the government of Spain raised the Spanish Foreign Legion and modeled it after the French Foreign Legion.[21] General Jean Mordacq intended to rebuild the Foreign Legion as a larger military formation, doing away with the legion's traditional role as a solely infantry formation.[21] General Mordacq envisioned a Foreign Legion consisting not of regiments, but of divisions with cavalry, engineer, and artillery regiments in addition to the legion's infantry mainstay.[21] In 1920, decrees ordained the establishment of regiments of cavalry and artillery.[21] Immediately following the armistice the Foreign Legion experienced an increase of enlistments.[22] The Foreign Legion began the process of reorganizing and redeploying to Algeria.[21]

The legion also took part in the Rif War of 1920–25.

In 1932, the Foreign Legion consisted of 30,000 men, serving in 6 multi-battalion regiments:

World War II[edit]

Free French Foreign Legionnaires assaulting an Axis strong point at the battle of Bir Hakeim, 1942.

The Foreign Legion played a smaller role in World War II than in World War I, though having a part in the Norwegian, Syrian and North African campaigns. The 13th Demi-Brigade, formed for service in Norway, found itself in the UK at the time of the French Armistice (June 1940), was deployed to the British 8th Army in North Africa and won fame in the Battle of Bir Hakeim (1942). Reflecting the divided loyalties of the time, part of the Foreign Legion joined the Free French movement while another part served the Vichy government as well as fighting as part of the Wehrmacht's 90th Light Infantry Division in North Africa.[23] A battle in the Syria–Lebanon Campaign of June 1941 saw legionnaire fighting legionnaire as the 13th Demi-Brigade (D.B.L.E.) clashed with the 6th Foreign Infantry Regiment at Damascus in Syria. Later, a thousand of the rank-and-file of the Vichy Legion unit joined the 13th D.B.L.E. of the Free French forces as a third battalion.

Following the war, many German former soldiers joined the Foreign Legion to pursue a military career, an option no longer possible in Germany, with Germans making up as much as 60 percent of the Legion during the war in Indochina. Contrary to popular belief however, French policy was to exclude former members of the Waffen-SS, and candidates for induction were refused if they exhibited the tell-tale bloodtype tattoo, or even a scar that might be masking it.[24] The high percentage of Germans was contrary to normal policy concerning a single dominant nationality however, and in more recent times Germans make up a much smaller percentage of the Foreign Legion's composition.[25]

First Indochina War[edit]

During the First Indochina War (1946–54), the Foreign Legion saw its numbers swell due to the incorporation of World War II veterans who could not adapt to civilian life. Even so, although the Foreign Legion distinguished itself, it also took a heavy toll during the war: constantly being deployed in operations, it even reached the point that whole units were annihilated in combat, in what was a traditional Foreign Legion battlefield. Units of the legion were also involved in the defence of Dien Bien Phu and lost a large number of men in the battle.

Algerian War[edit]

The 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion parading in Algeria (circa 1958).

The Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) was a highly traumatic conflict for the Foreign Legion. Constantly on call throughout the country, heavily engaged in fighting against the National Liberation Front and the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN), the Foreign Legion was brought to the brink of extinction after some officers, men and the highly decorated 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1REP) took part in the Generals' putsch. The 1REP was disbanded by order of President de Gaulle after plans were discovered for the 1REP to parachute into Paris and overthrow the French government. Upon being notified that their regiment was to be disbanded and they were to be reassigned, legionnaires of the 1REP blew up their barracks in Algeria as they departed. Notable operations included the Suez Crisis, the Battle of Algiers and various offensives launched by General Maurice Challe including Operations Oranie and Jumelles.

It was during this time that the Legion acquired its parade song "Non, je ne regrette rien", a 1960 Edith Piaf song that their NCOs, leaving their barracks for re-deployment following the Algiers putsch of 1961, sung. The song has been a part of LE heritage since then.[26]

Post-colonial Africa[edit]

By 1962 the morale of the Legion was at an all-time low; it had lost its traditional and spiritual home (Algeria), elite units had been disbanded, and in addition, many officers and men were arrested or deserted to escape prosecution. President de Gaulle considered disbanding it altogether but after being downsized to 8,000 men and stripped of all heavy weaponry, the Legion was spared, packed up and re-headquartered in metropolitan France.[27]

The Legion now had a new role as a rapid intervention force to preserve French interests not only in its former African colonies but in other nations as well; it was also a return to its roots of being a unit always ready to be sent to hot-spots all around the world. Some notable operations include: the Chadian–Libyan conflict in 1969–72 (the first time that the Legion was sent in operations after the Algerian War), 1978–79, and 1983–87; Kolwezi in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1978; Rwanda in 1990–94; and the Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) in 2002 to the present.

1962–1991[edit]

Gulf War[edit]

In September 1990, the First Foreign Cavalry Regiment, the Second Foreign Infantry Regiment, and the Second Foreign Engineer Regiment were sent to the Persian Gulf as a part of Opération Daguet. The Legion force, comprising 27 different nationalities,[28] was attached to the French 6th Light Armoured Brigade, whose mission was to protect the Coalition's left flank.

After the four-week air campaign, coalition forces launched the ground offensive. They 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.

1991–present[edit]

A Foreign Legion soldier with a captured rebel, Ivory Coast, 10 August 2004.

Membership[edit]

Historically, the American film industry portrayed the Foreign Legion as, in the words of Neil Tweedie of The Daily Telegraph, having "a reputation as a haven for cut-throats, crooks and sundry fugitives from justice" and also having many men escaping failed romances.[3] Tweedie said that since the legion had asked few questions of its new recruits, it became "an ideal repository for the scum of the earth."[3] As of 2008, according to Tweedie, the "image as a haven for ne'er-do-wells is largely out of date" since the legion now conducts extensive background checks via Interpol.[3]

The Foreign Legion is the only unit of the French Army open to people of any nationality.[citation needed] Most legionnaires still come from European countries but a growing percentage comes from Latin America.[30] Most of the Foreign Legion's commissioned officers are French with approximately 10% being former Legionnaires who have risen through the ranks.[31]

Legionnaires were, in the past, forced to enlist under a pseudonym ("declared identity"). This disposition exists in order to allow people who want to start their lives over to enlist, and the French Foreign Legion held the belief that it was more fair to make all new recruits use declared identities.[3] French citizens can enlist under a declared, fictitious, foreign citizenship (generally, a francophone one, often that of Belgium, Canada or Switzerland).[citation needed] As of 20 September 2010, new recruits may enlist under their real identities or under declared identities. Recruits who do enlist with declared identities may, after one year's service, regularise their situations under their true identities.[32] After serving in the Foreign Legion for three years, a legionnaire may apply for French citizenship.[3] He must be serving under his real name, must no longer have problems with the authorities, and must have served with "honour and fidelity".[32] Furthermore, a soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can immediately apply for French citizenship under a provision known as "Français par le sang versé" ("French by spilled blood").[3]

While the Foreign Legion historically did not accept women in its ranks, there was one official female member, Briton Susan Travers, who joined Free French Forces during World War II and became a member of the Foreign Legion after the war, serving in Vietnam during the First Indochina War.[33] Women were barred from service until 2000,[34] which then-French Defence Minister Alain Richard had stated that he wanted to take the level of female recruitment in the Legion to 20% by 2020.[35][36] But at this time, no woman has been known to have joined the Legion.

The Foreign Legion on occasion inducts honorary members into its ranks. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu this honour was granted to General Christian de Castries, Colonel Pierre Langlais, Geneviève de Galard ("The Angel of Dien Bien Phu") and Marcel Bigeard, the Officer in Command of the 6th BPC. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. was also an honorary member.[37]

Membership by country[edit]

American poet Alan Seeger in his Foreign Legion uniform

As of 2008 members come from 140 countries. The majority of enlisted men originate from outside of France, while the majority of the officer corps consists of Frenchmen. Many recruits originate from Eastern Europe and Latin America. Neil Tweedie of The Daily Telegraph said that Germany traditionally provided many recruits, "somewhat ironically given the Legion's bloody role in two world wars."[3] He added that "Brits, too, have played their part, but there was embarrassment recently when it emerged that many British applicants were failing selection due to endemic unfitness."[3]

Original nationalities of the Foreign Legion reflect the events in history at the time they join. Many former Wehrmacht personnel joined in the wake of WWII[38] as many soldiers returning to civilian life found it hard to find reliable employment. Jean-Denis Lepage reports that "The Foreign Legion discreetly recruited from German P.O.W. camps",[39] but adds that the number of these recruits has been subsequently exaggerated. Bernard B. Fall, who was a supporter of the French government, writing in the context of the First Indochina War, questioned the notion that the Foreign Legion was mainly German at that time, calling it:

[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 Foreign 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 Foreign 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.[40]

The Foreign Legion accepts people enlisting under a nationality that is not their own. A proportion of the Swiss and Belgians are actually likely to be Frenchmen who wish to avoid detection.[41] In addition many Alsatians are said to have joined the Foreign Legion when Alsace was part of the German Empire, and may have been recorded as German while considering themselves French.

Regarding recruitment conditions within the Foreign Legion, see the official page (in English) dedicated to the subject:[42] With regard to age limits, recruits can be accepted from ages ranging from 17 ½ (with parental consent) to 40 years old.

Countries that allow post-Foreign Legion contract[edit]

In the Commonwealth Realms, its collective provisions provide for nationals to commute between armies in training or other purposes. Moreover, this 'blanket provision' between member-states cannot exclude others for it would seem inappropriate to single out individual countries, that is, France in relation to the Legion. For example, Australia and New Zealand may allow post-Legion enlistment providing the national has commonwealth citizenship. Britain allows post-Legion enlistment. Canada allows post-Legion enlistment in its ranks with a completed five-year contract.[citation needed]

In the European Union framework, post Legion enlistment is less clear. Denmark, Norway, Germany and Portugal allow post-Legion enlistment while The Netherlands has constitutional articles that forbid it. [Rijkswet op het Nederlanderschap, Artikel 15, lid 1e, (In Dutch:)[43]] (that is: one can lose his Dutch nationality by accepting a foreign nationality or can lose his Dutch nationality by serving in the army of a foreign state that is engaged in a conflict against the Dutch Kingdom or one of its allies[44]). The European Union twin threads seem to be recognized dual nationality status or restricting constitutional article.

The United States allows post-FFL enlistment in its National Guard, and career soldiers, up to the rank of captain only and to green card holders. Israel allows post-Legion enlistment. The Swiss jail or fine their nationals for joining the Legion due to Switzerland's neutrality.[citation needed]

One of the biggest national groups in the Legion are Poles. Polish law basically allows service in a foreign army, but only after written permission from the Ministry of National Defense. Most soldiers do not actually apply for permission, but only a few have been prosecuted on this account and generally they get probation.[45]

Ranks[edit]

Soldats du rang (Ordinary Legionnaires)[edit]

All volunteers in the French Foreign Legion begin their careers as basic legionnaires with one in four eventually becoming a sous-officier (non-commissioned officer). On joining, a new recruit receives a monthly salary of €1,200 in addition to food and lodgings.[3][46] He is also given his own new rifle, which according to the lore of the Legion must never be left on a battlefield.[3] Promotion is concurrent with the ranks in the French Army.

A Caporal-chef, with 3 chevrons of seniority, bugling during the Bastille Day Military Parade.
A Caporal-chef of the sappers in la Légion. The sapper insigna depicts 2 crossed axes, instead of a grenade for the regular infantry.
Foreign Legion rank Equivalent rank NATO Code Period of service Insignia
Engagé Volontaire Recruit 15 weeks basic training. None
Legionnaire 2e Classe Private / 2nd Class Legionnaire OR-1 On completion of training and Marche képi blanc (March of the White Kepi). None
Legionnaire 1e Classe Lance Corporal / 1st Class Legionnaire OR-2 After 10 months of service. Première classe Légion.PNG
Caporal Corporal OR-3 Possible after 1-year of service, known as the Fonctionnaire Caporal (or Caporal "Fut Fut") course. Recruits selected for this course need to show good leadership skills during basic training. Caporal Légion.png
Caporal Chef Senior Corporal OR-4 After 6 years of service. Caporal-chef Legion.png

^ †: No further promotions are given to non-French Legionnaires on attaining the rank of Caporal Chef.
Table note: Command insignia in the Foreign Legion use gold lace or braid indicating foot troops in the French Army. But the Légion étrangère service color is green (for the now-defunct colonial Armée d'Afrique) instead of red (regular infantry). Its diamond-shaped regimental patch (or Écusson) has three borders (indicating a Colonial unit), rather than one (Regulars) or two (Reserves); its grenade insignia has seven flames rather than the usual five.

Sous-officiers (non-commissioned officers)[edit]

Sergent-chef insignia with 2 chevrons of seniority (Chevrons d'ancienneté).

Sous-officiers (NCOs) account for 25% of the current Foreign Legion's total manpower.

Foreign Legion rank Equivalent rank NATO Code Period of service Insignia
Sergent Sergeant OR-5 After 3 years of service as Caporal. Sergent.png
Sergent Chef Senior Sergeant OR-6 After 3 years as Sergent and between 7 to 14 years of service. Sergent-chef.png
Adjudant Warrant Officer OR-8 After 3 years as Sergent Chef. Adjudant.png
Adjudant Chef Senior Warrant Officer OR-9 After 4 years as Adjudant and at least 14 years service. Adjudant-chef.png
Major Regimental Sergeant Major OR-9 Appointment by either: (i) passing an examination or
(ii) promotion after a minimum of 14 years service
(without an examination).
Major-French-Army.png

^ ‡: Since 1 January 2009, the French military rank of major has been attached to the sous-officiers. Prior to this, Major was an independent rank between NCOs and commissioned officers. It is an executive position within a regiment or demi-brigade responsible for senior administration, standards and discipline.

Officiers (commissioned officers)[edit]

Most officers are seconded from the French Army though roughly 10% are former non-commissioned officers promoted from the ranks.

Foreign Legion rank Equivalent rank NATO Code Command responsibility Insignia
Aspirant Cadet OF(D) - Aspirant de l'armée de terre.png
Sous-Lieutenant Second lieutenant OF-1 Junior section leader Sous-lieutenant.png
Lieutenant First lieutenant OF-1 A section. Lieutenant.png
Capitaine Captain OF-2 A company. Capitaine.png
Commandant Major OF-3 A battalion. Commandant.png
Lieutenant-Colonel Lieutenant colonel OF-4 Junior régiment or demi-brigade leader. Lieutenant-colonel.png
Colonel Colonel OF-5 A régiment or demi-brigade. Colonel.png
Général de Brigade Brigadier general OF-6 Entire French Foreign Legion Insigne général de brigade.png

Chevrons d'ancienneté (chevrons of seniority)[edit]

The Foreign Legion remains the only branch of the French Army that still uses chevrons to indicate seniority. Each gold chevron, which are only used by ordinary legionnaires and noncommissioned officers, denotes five years with the Legion. They are worn beneath the rank insignia.[47]

Traditions of the Legion[edit]

As the Foreign Legion is composed of soldiers of different nationalities and backgrounds, it needed to develop an intense Esprit de Corps, which is carried out by the development of camaraderie, specific traditions, the high sense of loyalty of its legionnaires, the quality of their training and the pride of being a soldier of an élite unit.

Code of Honour[edit]

Every trainee must know by heart the "Legionnaire's Code of Honour". They spend many hours learning it, reciting it, and then getting the vocal synchronisation together:

Regimental flags of the first and 2nd Regiments of the French Foreign Legion.


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