Origins of the French Foreign Legion

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Mark of Originality of the actual French Foreign Legion, the utilization of the "Chinese Hat" (French: Chapeau Chinois) marks the history of this corps along with the Music.

The French Foreign Legion is an elite force composed of soldiers of different race, trade, religion, and sentiments, which began as part of the French Army. Through the years, it has earned a quasi-legendary reputation due to its victories and also its gallant defeats.[1] It was founded in 1831 and was given the right to hire foreign recruits.[2] The Foreign Legion was deeply rooted in the French conquest of Algeria. Since its inception, the Legion played an important role in advancing France's colonial expansion.

The Legion was sent to Spain by Louis Philippe I,[3] before he re-created it at a later time.

Foreigners in service of France[edit]

The principal distinguishing characteristic of the French Foreign Legion is that it is constituted of foreigners. Well before it created a specific military unit, France recruited foreigners for its military. The French Foreign Legion is also distinctive in that all recruits volunteer; other countries' foreign regiments were constituted of conscripts or prisoners of war (not the case of the 1831 Legion).

Ancien Régime[edit]

Before the Bourbon Restoration, the First French Empire and even before the French Revolution, the French monarch had a long tradition of hiring foreigners. In Europe in the Middle Ages, taxes paid to the lord allowed him to form an army, often from foreign soldiers for hire.

In 1346, at the dawn of the Hundred Years' War, Philip VI of France deployed 15,000 Genovese at the Battle of Crecy, where English longbows resulted in an English victory for Edward III of England. The 13th century and 14th century also saw the appearance of grand companies of Scots, Castillans, Savoyards, Swiss, and Dutch soldiers of given chiefs or princes.

Louis XI of France in the 15th century had a Garde Ecossaise (Scottish Guard), and also called upon 6000 Swiss in 1480, using them in instruction tasks at the camp of Pont de l'Arche. The tradition of foreigners fighting for the Crown began with Louis XI. During his reign and for the following three centuries, the French Army consisted of 20%-30% non-French soldiers.[4]

Francis I formed a mostly foreign infantry corps and created the Foreign Regiments of the Ancien Régime [fr], especially of Germans and of Swiss, who had a particular status. After defeat at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, the Traité de Fribourg (1516) [fr] in November 1516 proclaimed a paix perpétuelle, perpetual peace, between the French and the Swiss.

Day of August 10, 1792 La Prise des Tuileries (The taking of the Tuileries). The red uniforms of the Swiss are distinct from the other combatants.

In addition to this assurance, François I, since November 7, 1515, would be the only French King allowed to service the Swiss, due to their professionalism and fidelity. Kings of France raised strong contingents from the Swiss cantons to form foreign regiments or personal guards. Accordingly, on August 10, 1792, 26 officers and 850 men[4] defended the King, proving by their acts of valor a remarkable fidelity.

In the 18th century foreign troops still had a considerable armed role. In the Seven Years' War, France mustered 32 foreign regiments: twelve German units, ten Swiss, seven Irish, two Italian and one Scottish.[5]

During the French Revolution, of 146,000 available soldiers, 42,000 were not French.[6] After monarchy fell, the Assembly opened the door to foreign volunteer units, such as the Foreign Volunteer Units in Service of France [fr], who came forth to fight for liberty, or against the Prussian Army. The Assembly decided to group and institutionalize the legitimacy of foreign soldiers. Accordingly, the decree of July 26, 1792 sanctioned on August 1, created the Légion Franche Etrangère.[7]

The National Assembly felt that circumstances required an increase in the size of the army and decided: "There will be formed, in the most brief delays, under the authority and surveillance of the executive power, a new Legion under the denomination "Légion Franche Etrangère", and in which would only admit foreigners". A Germanic Legion, an Italian Legion [fr], a Batavian Legion and a Polish Legion were formed. The law which regulated the latter, mandated that "If the Allied Kings deploy numerous Armies against the free peoples, it is important for them to admit into their ranks all the men whom a sublime impulse calls to fight for the sacred cause of Liberty".[7]

It was considered an honor to fight for the King of France. For the idealist, France was in full revolution and that represented an enormous hope for many Europeans. Finally, the perspective perhaps was that of a Command that is more Human, seemed to be the obvious reasons and the main drive; Frederick the Great or Peter the Great were not attentive to their troops as was, the Sun King Louis XIV of France.[4]


The conquests of First French Empire, caused great demand for foreign troops. From the battle of Wagram to the battle of Jena–Auerstedt, Eylau and in Spain, the proportion of non-French in the army reached record proportions. In Spain, one sixth of formations were foreign, more than half in the French invasion of Russia. Even in 1814, the army was 20% foreigners.[6]

Napoleon ascended to power, then needed troops in 1802. He called upon 4,000 Swiss,[8] then more than 90,000 in the course of his reign. They formed the Valaison Battalion [fr], in 1805. In 1807, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, prince of Neufchâtel, founded a battalion of the same name. He fought in Austria, Spain and Russia. In all, the Empire formed four infantry regiments in 1805 and 1806. Losses were heavy; half of the Swiss combatants did not survive these campaigns.

After 1805 Napoleon used Russian and Austrian prisoners, and they composed the Regiment of Tour d'Auvergne [fr] and the Regiment of Isembourg [fr]. Renamed, they became the 1st Foreign Regiment and 2nd Foreign Regiment. These regiments were both dissolved in 1814.

For the units created at the beginning of this century, several Legions can be found taking formations. The Piedmontese Legion [fr] or Légion du Midi, created in 1803, composed of former French soldiers and Piedmontese of the French departments of Italy. Also to be added are the Spanish Pioneers, the Catalonian Regiment [fr], the Hanoverian Legion [fr], the Egyptian Mamluks, or the Portuguese Legion created by decree on January 16, 1808, and which was composed of 8000 men.

Between 1806 and 1814, 60 foreign units were constituted and commanded by 136 generals, among whom feature a couple of famous personalities, such as Józef Poniatowski, who was made Marshal of France on August 16, 1813.[8] A large part of these Europeans were volunteers. Conscripts came only from the regions annexed by the Empire.

It was estimated that of the 400,000 men who crossed the Neman River towards Moscow or Smolensk, just 120,000 were actually French.[8] During the Hundred Days, Napoleon assembled eight foreign regiments.


The fall of the Empire scattered the foreign regiments, but France remained a military power and needed troops to relieve the older cadres and those drained by imperial wars. Trained troops were in demand. The monarchy under Louis XVIII of France incorporated 14,000 Swiss into six regiments.[8] In addition to the Helvétiques, the army had four other regiments of foreign soldiers, of which one was referred to as "colonial", composed of Portuguese and Spaniards. These men constituted the Royal Foreign Legion in 1815.[8]

In 1816, the Royal Foreign Legion became the Hohenlohe Legion then the Hohenlohe Regiment in 1821, named for its commander Louis Aloysius, Prince of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Bartenstein, a German who served in the army[clarification needed] in the French Revolution, then in the Dutch Army as an emigrant. Governor of the Two-Gallicia in 1807, combatant at Leipzig and the campaign of France, he was nominated as a Lieutenant-General by Louis XVIII, then became Marshal in March 1827.[9] Nevertheless, the Hohenlohe Regiment would be affected by the reorganization of the Army which accompanied the events of July. The regiment was dissolved in 1830 because it was judged to be too loyal to its future sovereign.[clarification needed]

This regiment gave the 1831 Legion its distinctive marching cadence. While classic infantry regiments paraded at a rhythm of a hundred and twenty paces a minute, the Legion under the Ancien Régime, and in particular the Hohenlohe Regiment, adopted a slower and more solemn 80-85 paces a minute.[10]

The French Army had no foreigners as of 1830. However, this did not last: Charles X of France, King since 1824, was very unpopular due to bad harvests, a difficult economy and a reactionary governing style leading to favorable conditions for insurrection.

The Ordinances of Saint-Cloud, were described as the King's hammer and limited by force the liberties of the people, being proclaimed on July 25, 1830. They led to immediate violent opposition from the people, and the fall of the regime. This July Revolution from 27 to 29 July 1830 brought a new man to power: Louis Philippe de Chartres, who became Louis Philippe I, King of the French on August 7. Swearing by the Constitutional Charter Oath of 1814, he installed the July Monarchy. His friends and enemies didn't want the King to possess a force that would be too loyal and be remarkably trained like the Hohenlohe regiment, which was dissolved in July 1830. In fact, the political forces wanted to have only a national army.

However and to their dismay, events in Algeria and internal politics forced a new incorporation of foreigners.

Creation of the French Foreign Legion[edit]


The creation of the Foreign Legion was in large part was due to the Three Glorious Days and its European consequences. Even before its creation of this version of the Legion, the enlistment of foreigners has always taken place. In theory, the Legion was not to engage under any circumstances in combat in France.[11]

One of the first causes was the purge of the army after the July Revolution.[11] Louis Philippe I marked a real disconnection with the Ancien Régime, but the army still included loyalists to the Ancien Régime, Bonapartistes and partisans of Charles X. Of the sort, multiple cadres and soldiers of the French Imperial Army reenlisted for service after fifteen years of rest in the Legion. In addition, it was considered border line dangerous for the young parliamentary monarchy, to have numerous officers of the Grande Armée reduced to half-pay and often inactive. It was important to benefit from the experience of some of these Imperial officers, and also apply their esprit de corps to a laborious chapter that "could be the mother of all vices". In addition, the creation of a Legion to fight in faraway places was an excellent occasion to filter out the dangerous or restless elements of the regular army, whether they were French or foreign. The Legion became a depository and a solution when an element did not conform to the governing agenda.

Mainly, it was very important to enlist foreigners entering or stationed in France. The European crises had to many impoverished foreigners in France, the first waves of unemployment, due to industrialisation. Most came from European countries. These were men without resources, without a future, a reality which worried the government, because they had to be fed and were often seen as troublemakers. Exiles from political crises and insurrectional foreigners also came to France: The July Revolution brought to France many volunteers for an armed fight. Cohorts of liberals and revolutionaries came in the hope of installing a regime in the continuity of 1789.[12] In addition, the July Revolution had nurtured vast insurrectional movements all across Europe, particularly in Italy, the Germanic provinces, Poland and Spain. However, these insurrections for the most part failed, and the affected governments exiled numerous failed revolutionaries. All these individuals were capable of igniting the powderkeg in the big cities like Paris or Lyon. They became then the most dangerous threat to the State, just as much as they threatened the stability of the kingdom and its economy. It became urgent to group and distance them.[13]

It must also be added that Swiss and German veterans, or those from the Hohenlohe regiment were better used as the hard nucleus of the training corps of the future Legion, than reduced to unemployment; it is always dangerous for a country to harbor numerous idle foreign fighters. Finally, these very experienced fighters would prove useful in the next hard combat: the conquest of Algeria.

At the end of 1820, troubles began between France and Algeria. The general council of France was sent to meet the Dey[14] of Algiers: Hussein Pacha. The latter provoked the French council, so France launched a naval blockade of Algiers with the maritime force of Capitaine de vaisseau Collet. After an ultimately unsuccessful negotiation in July 1829, the Count of Bourmont, Minister of War, and Baron Haussez, Minister of the Navy, organized the formation of an expedition to Algiers. Accordingly, 36,450 men and more than 650 Naval ships left Toulon on May 25, 1830 and disembarked on June 14.[15] The conquest of Algeria had just begun. The troops progressed quickly and Algiers fell on July 4. The Dey of Algiers was forced into exile.

While the conquest of Algeria seemed to have solved a diplomatic crisis, the conquest was considered a prestigious campaign. Charles X, unpopular at the époque, hoped for a quick and swift victory in order to boost his image. With that, right after marked the beginnings of the second French colonial empire. Accordingly, France posed as a European power and attempted to gain as much influence as possible by winning possession territories overseas.

Since then, the army trampled. Insecurity was at the gates of Algiers. In addition, despite the enthusiasm showcased by the men in June 1830, moral was at a low[6] and the war, deemed very unpopular. Requests for reinforcements shifted the course of opinion. Charles X was deposed, and marching backwards was not possible. Louis Philipe I was a pacifist and did not want to weigh the national and military opinion on a costly conquest which would endanger French lives. His only solution then, was the utilization of foreign troops, and since the Kingdom was reduced, it was not feasible to recruit contingents in occupied lands such as during Napoleon's era. Accordingly, a new sort of troop was required.

Creation by Royal Ordinance[edit]

Here forth the Royal Ordinance which created the French Foreign Legion:

Louis-Philippe, roi des Français, à tous présents et à venir salut ;
Vu la loi du 9 mars 1831 :
Sur le rapport de notre Ministre Secrétaire d’État au Département de la Guerre : Nous avons ordonné et ordonnons ce qui suit :
Art. 1 - Il sera formé une Légion composée d’Étrangers. Cette Légion prendra la dénomination de Légion Étrangère.
Art. 2 - Les bataillons de la Légion Étrangère auront la même formation que les Bataillons d'infanterie de ligne.
Art. 3 - Pour la solde, les masses et son administration, la Légion Étrangère sera assimilée aux régiments français. L'uniforme sera bleu avec le simple passepoil garance et le pantalon de même couleur, les boutons seront jaunes et porteront les mots Légion Étrangère.
Art. 4 - Tout Étranger qui voudra faire partie de la Légion Étrangère ne pourra y être admis qu'après avoir contracté, devant un sous-intendant militaire, un engagement volontaire.
Art. 5 - La durée de l'engagement sera de trois ans au moins et de cinq ans au plus.
Art. 6 - Pour être reçus à s'engager, les Étranger devront n'avoir pas plus de quarante ans, et avoir au moins dix-huit ans accomplis, et la taille de 1m55. Ils devront en outre être porteur d'un certificat d'acceptation de l'autorité militaire constatant qu'ils ont les qualités requises pour faire un bon service.
Art. 7 - En l'absence de pièces, l’Étranger sera envoyé devant l'Officier Général qui décidera si l'engagement peut être reçu.
Art. 8 - Les militaires faisant partie de la Légion Étrangère se pourront rengager pour deux ans au moins et cinq ans au plus. Les rengagements ne donneront droit à une haute paie qu'autant que les militaires auront accompli cinq ans de service.
Art. 9 - Notre Ministre Secrétaire d’État au Département de la Guerre est chargé de l'exécution de la présente ordonnance. Par le Roi :
Le Ministre Secrétaire d’État de la Guerre Signé : Maréchal SOULT Duc de Dalmatie

Louis-Philippe, King of the French, to all present and to those to come greetings;
Law decree of March 9, 1831:
On the report of our State Minister Secretary at the Ministry of War: We have ordained and we order as follows:
Art. 1 - A Legion will be formed and composed of foreigners. This Legion will be known as the French Foreign Legion.
Art. 2 - The battalions of the French Foreign Legion will have the same formation as the line infantry battalions.
Art. 3 - For pay, masses and administration, the French Foreign Legion will be assimilated to French regiments. The uniform will be blue with simple passepoil garance and pants of the same color, the buttons will be yellow and inscribed with the words Légion Étrangère.
Art. 4 - Every foreigner who wishes to be part of the French Foreign Legion, will only be admitted after having contracted, in front of a deputy superintendent, a volunteer enlistment.
Art. 5 - The duration of the contract of enlistment will be at least three years or a maximum of five years.
Art. 6 - To enlist, foreigners should not be more than forty and should be at least eighteen years old, with a minimum height of 1m55. They should be attested by and in possession of an acceptance certificate from the competent military authority, who asserts that they have the appropriate qualities for good and proper service.
Art. 7 - In absence of credentials, the foreigner will be sent to the general officer, who will decide whether his engagement would be acceptable.
Art. 8 - Military personnel of the French Foreign Legion can reenlist for a period of two and a maximum of five years. High pay is rightly warranted upon accomplishing five years of service.
Art. 9 - Our State Secretary Minister to the Ministry of War is charged with executing this present ordinance.
The State Secretary War Minister Signed: Marshal SOULT, Duke of Dalmatia

The French Foreign Legion was accordingly created by a 9 Articled Royal Ordinance on March 9, 1831. The law was then signed by Louis Philippe I[16] and State War Secretary Marshal Soult.

The royal ordinance gave immediately the cadre as to the usage and formation of this military organization:

The first particularity was that the engagement had to be voluntarily: Article 4. Accordingly, then, the Legion was founded in parallel to the French Army who was applying conscription regulated by the Gouvion-Saint-Cyr Law of March 1818, which based conscription on volunteerism and a sort of draw draft. All Foreign volunteers, regardless of their nationality, were directed towards the Legion. Constituted regiments based on nationality were no longer adopted. Accordingly, all Origins were mixed. In addition, the Legion would be assimilated to the Line Infantry: « Art.2 - Battalions of the Foreign Legion would have the same formation as Battalions of the Line Infantry ». Accordingly, this not a Mercenary Troop. The Legion is part of the same title formation as other regiments and battalions of the French Army. The ordinance informed equally about the uniform : Art.3 - For pay, masses and administration, the Foreign Legion would be assimilated to French Regiments. The uniform would be blue with simple passepoil garance and pants of the same color. Buttons would be yellow and would be inscribed with the words Légion étrangère ("Foreign Legion"). This was related to the uniform of the infantry for that époque, because the Legion at that time did not possess any cavalry, nor artillery, nor Combat engineers, unlike today.


As soon as the royal ordinance was written, recruitment started. Volunteers grouped in Haute-Marne at Langres. The depot chief, Commandant Sicco, a former officer in Napoleon's army, was coriace (hard, tough and rugged), a veteran of the Russian campaign, as the numerous scars on his face attested. The Legion formed around the former Swiss regiments and the regiment of Hohenloe, who formed a nucleus professionals. However, with the influx of candidates coming from across the Rhine, the complex of Langres which was only one depot was entrenched. According, other new recruitment bureau were created at Auxerre for the Germans, Chaumont for the Belges and Dutch, Agen for the Spanish and Italians and Avignon for the Poles. The men were then regrouped at Bar-lde-Duc, where they held a garrison.

A challenging start[edit]

A company of the Legion on the Champ de Mars in Paris (1836).

The beginnings of the Legion are very laborious. Some recruits had extensive experience, others were novices in the crafts of arms. The Legion did diminish the number of exiled politicians and potential revolutionaries. However, it also attracted as many French or foreigners from all walks of life, colors and backgrounds. The Legion became an enforceable for the State.[17] Certain persons enlisted from a nonetheless motivated allure and voluntary spirit, the times helping and Africa still unknown, so adventurers also enlisted.[18] Also, many friends of France, who were numerous, hoped to battle for the nation. Nevertheless, this created a motley corps, where soldiers rubbed elbows with anarchists. Inactivity in wait for assignments and nationalism of some, entailed high energies between communities, which entailed the need to have a more concise common frame.

Officers and non-commissioned officers were needed; [19] those of the Imperial Army were too old already and unequal to the times. Foreign Officers who had left their armies were not familiar with the French language, and hailed from different armies or other branches of the military such as the cavalry. An estimated 107 Officers[20] served between 1831 and 1836.

In reality, the main difficulty was the creation of a cohesive disciplined esprit de corps which was proud, the indispensable elements at the genesis of an elite unit.[21]

The only way to make them coeexist was through steely military discipline. Punishments were numerous and very harsh, however insubordination and desertion were common, to such a point that in mid-May, the National Guard was called upon to circumscribe a possible rebellion. On that day, 20 soldiers were arrested.[22] Colonel Stoeffel, the Legion Chief then, was relieved that the elite army corps did not scuttle itself, and had to be in the most brief delays sent to Algeria while on a similar proper grip.

Nevertheless, all these individuals and personalities (including the French) living together, cut from the outside world, gave such a unique character to the Legion that each one brought forth his qualities and downsides. This reason, led the Legionnaires to build their own home with the context understanding of their own common family.

Despite these complications, less than six months after the royal ordinance,[23] five battalions were created, each with eight combat companies. Each battalion regrouped one or two nationalities and counted almost 500 men. They were regrouped at Toulon near the Mediterranean in await for departure to Algeria.

Nationalities by battalion
battalion nationalities
1st Swiss and former of Hohenlohe
2nd Swiss and Germans
3rd Swiss and Germans
4th Spanish
5th Sardinians and Italians
6th Belgians and Dutch

A last battalion would be the most valorous, composed of Poles, whom left their country after the 1830 November Uprising, arrived in France full of good will.

The beginnings[edit]

Starting the month of August, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th battalions deployed to Algeria, counting a total of 78 Officers and 2,669 Sous-officiers and Legionnaires.[24] They were under the orders of colonel, baron Christophe Antoine Jacques Stoeffel, a former Swiss officer of the Napoleonic Army who fought in Spain and who has known the army for more than thirty years. He was a high caliber officer, full of integrity, capable, loyal and who believed in discipline. The 5 battalions disembarked at Oran, Algiers, Bône.

Despite the insecurities and existing skirmishes, the Legion was first preoccupied with earthworks. The Legionnaires accordingly gained their reputation as a builder soldiers [fr], the essence base of the Legion. Accordingly, the Legion would build the route of Casbah in the region of Algiers, that of the Emperor's Fort [fr], or that of the belt of Algiers. The Legion also participated to the construction of many Forts, including the Water Fort. The exploit however, would be in favor of the men of Captain Droualt of the 2nd battalion who edified the route linking Douéra to Boufarik at the middle of various swamps.[25] This famous route would bare the designation of Chaussée de la Légion.

Nevertheless, even though these earthworks were useful for the modernization and reconstruction of Algeria, these works exhausted heavily the men: fevers, dysentery and specially cholera (which killed or reformed 3,200 men between 1831 and 1835 - as in one forth of the troops) reduced formations drastically.[26]

Following these medical challenges, moral amongst the recruitment of men was at a low and desertions increased. However, these backbreaking works, along with the discipline, would break the men and rendered them more malleable. Stoeffel, a good officer, knew it and applied it. Oblige any outlaw or revolting hard liner to break rocks for ten hours a day with a pickaxe, with half a ration of water, and you will find that his revolting spirit would be lost.[27]

Baptism by fire[edit]

The Legion quickly got acquainted with its first combats. As of April 27, 1832, 300 men of the 3rd battalion began to secure the surrounding of Algiers and engaged in combat at Maison Carré, an old Turkish fort held by the tribes of the El-Ouffia. On May 23, apprehended by ambush by the tribe of Amraoua, a detachment directed by lieutenant Cham were exterminated: resulting in 26 fatalities.[28] The Legionnaires didn't give up and were the first of a long list of fatalities. The conquest of Algeria cost the French Foreign Legion : 27 Officers, 61 Sous-officiers and 756 Legionnaires.[29] During the same year, Stoeffel was replaced by colonel Combes, who arrived from Marseille with the first flag of the Legion offered by Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orléans, in the name of the King.

Inscribed on the flag was: Le Roi des Français à la Légion étrangère ("King of the French in the French Foreign Legion"). The troop was then known and distinguished.[30]

The Legion fought at Sidi Chabal in November 1832, where the Spanish battalion distinguished itself. In March 1833, Legionnaires fought at Ouled Yacoub and Oule Attia, where combats were very violent and suffered from resistance by a young and courageous Emir Abdelkader and the tribes of the Sig.

Months passed in combat and suffering but the French won a victory at Arzew on June 5 and took Mostaganem on July 27, 1833.

The year of 1834 was calmer and formations were in a completed[31] with the arrival of the 6th battalion, formed at Chaumont, which included French, Belgian and Dutch recruits. They were directly followed by the Poles who distinguished themselves one more time near the city of Bougie. This last battalion, the 7th, replaced the 4th battalion (Spanish) and would go back to Oran. The Spanish men who were discharged from service and returned to Spain to participate in the civil war raging there.

During this period, the Legion really had a presence in Algeria; all the battalions: the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and half of the 7th held garrison in Algiers; Oran was held by the 4th and Bône by the 6th.

1835 was marked by fighting at Moulay Ismael. The Legion commanded by lieutenant-colonel Conrad went with other troops to Arzew, crossing the territory of the Sig, held by partisans of Abdel El Kader. The face off with the redoubtable cavalry of the Emir cost the lives of a hundred Legionnaires.[32] What is recalled as the "tragedy of Macta" is one of the most heaviest tributes paid to the African land, however the Legionnaires showed great courage and because of their sacrifice were able to reach Arzew. Henceforth, the Legion would forever be characterized by this abnegation, this impassivity under fire regardless of the sacrifice.

However, the conquest of Algeria would halt brutally, in fact, the Legion had to go to Spain to support the regent Marie Isabelle in her war against the Carlist.

Spain and the end of the old Legion[edit]

Goodwill to Spain[edit]

While the French Foreign Legion rooted itself in Algeria, the Legion was called to serve in Spain.

At the death of Ferdinand VII of Spain on September 18, 1833, the Crown passed to his daughter, Isabella II of Spain, then only three years of age. His wife, Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies, became regent. Isabella's claim to the throne was disputed by her uncle, the Infante Carlos, Count of Molina, who claimed that his brother Ferdinand had unlawfully changed the succession law to permit females to inherit the crown.

Under Salic law, introduced by the Bourbons, as the brother of Ferdinard, Carlos would have inherited, so he started a civil war. He rallied to his cause [33] Galice, the region of Haute-Navarre and the provinces of the Basque countries. He was aided by the more conservative Europeans: Austria, Prussia and Russia.[34] The Spanish Army requested aid from its neighbors and allies. This was the beginning of the First Carlist War.

On June 28, 1843, the ambassadors of London, Lisbon, and Paris signed a treaty with Spain a treaty supporting Marie-Christina. France didn't favor this treaty, because it did not want to interfere in Spanish affairs and thought that an intervention in Spain risked compromising European peace,[34] so it did not want to send the regular French Army. Sending the Foreign Legion allowed France to justify involvement. Portugal sent 6,000 elite soldiers,[34] and the British sent 12,000 men under Sir De Lacy Evans. The British troops returned to England in 1837 and left behind them 2,500 fatalities.[34]

On January 28, 1835, under pressure from Adolphe Thiers, Minister of Interior, the Legion was ceded to the Queen of Spain. On June 29, a royal ordinance stipulated that the French Foreign Legion was no longer part of the French Army.[33]

The order was given to go to Algiers, embarking on July 30. The Army Corps had been ceded to Spain, and all Legionnaires embarked: the sick, imprisoned, and those on leave included. The men could not back out or they would face severe sanctions for insubordination, it was perceived that such would be resumed to French officers being found in half-pay, foreign officers without employment and the Legionnaires would have been considered deserters.[34]

On July 30, 123 officers and 4,021 Sous-Officiers and Legionnaires embarked on La Royal[35] heading to Algeria. The men were under the command of Joseph Bernelle, a captain of the Imperial Guard for fifty years who joined the Army in 1820 after having been placed at disposition. He was an officer with a grip like steel and a remarkable organizer.

During a stopover at the Balearic Islands, he reorganized the battalions, and mixed all nationalities together while being met with resistance.[36] This decision formed the New Legion.

The fighting[edit]

A Legion very different from that of early 1831 disembarked at Tarragona on August 17, 1835. This was a qualified troop, well structured and well led, reinforcements much appreciated by the regent Marie Christine.[34]

However, the Spanish welcome was tepid, due to the memory of the 1811 siege by French Marshal Suchet among others.[36] The Legion in Spain became the French Auxiliary Division and their chief, colonel Bernelle, became Maréchal de camp of the Spanish Armies. On arrival, the Legion entered the war against 5,000 Carlists in Catalonia. After several skirmishes in Navarre and Aragon, the Legion entered Pamplona on February 5, 1836 to circumscribe and isolate the province.[37] An escalation of violence was witnessed. The Carlists led a total war of cruelty and hate until then unknown. The Carlists did not take prisoners of war; all officers or troops were executed, such as thirty legionnaires and their officers on September 20.[37] Bernelle understood this type of behavior and accordingly responded. The Legion took no prisoners either.

Despite the many actors on the Spanish scene, the Legion often fought alone. Accordingly, the Legion became more autonomous;[38] Bernelle supplemented his troops with three squadrons of lancers, a Howitzer battery for support, and a medical company. This was the beginning of the modern French Foreign Legion.

Day after day, the Legion lost men. On April 15, 1836, losses had risen to 117 killed, 380 dead of wounds or disease, and 83 deserters.[39] The extremely harsh combat conditions, cold, rain, hunger, poor sleep, combined with little sympathy from the population and the inhuman character of this war without quarter. However, courage and abnegation governed the ranks. At Tirapequi on April 26, 500 Legionnaires repelled 3,500 Carlists at the cost of 90 dead[37] and, on August 1, at Zubiri, the Legion all alone killed 1,200 Carlists in one battle.[37]

The Legion abandoned[edit]

In Spain, the Legion became more and more isolated. Reinforcements arrived sporadically:[37] 379 men on April 15, 89 in July. The 438 who arrived in August were the last. Paris turned a deaf ear, equipment and supplies were insufficient, the pay was irregular, and decorations and advancement did not follow. Adolphe Thiers, president of the council, refused them aid, saying that the Legion had been handed in full and entirely to Spain. Reaching a limit, Bernelle resigned and returned to France. He was replaced with colonel Conrad, a courageous man who was frank, and built just like Bernelle.

The return of the latter to France surprised the King, who after hearing his battle story, became totally uninterested in the Spanish odyssey. The King didn't want to send reinforcements from the regular army, out of fear of tiring the troops and getting stuck again. In addition, the conquest of Algeria required reinforcements. The King did not want tp divide his troops. The Legion was accordingly left to its fate.

Misery and wandering[edit]

The Legion continued to fight, the lack of decent equipment aggravated by the particularly bitter winter of 1836-1837 in the plains of Aragon. With their pay in default and their living conditions poor, some joined the Carlists who were living off the land.

At the beginning of 1837, the Legion had only three battalions, then two; the Legion had been reduced in half since its arrival. However, the Legion continued to fight with a suicidal determination: on May 24 at Huesca, the Legion lost 350 of 1,200 men.[40] On June 2, in a final battle at Barbastro with a strong Carlist contingent, the Legion lost its chief when colonel Conrad was shot in the head. The Legion did not recover and fell back on Zaragoza before making its way to Pamplona, where it garrisoned during the winter season.

In 1838, the Legion was a shadow of itself in poor living conditions, without resources and surrounded by Carlists. It was not until December 8 that the Queen finally granted its dissolution. They left Zaragoza on January 2, 1839 and crossed the Pyrenees, starved and miserable, by Somport.

Some 6,000 had disembarked at Tarragona in 1835, but only 63 Officers and 50 troops returned.[41] During the Spanish odyssey, the King had created another Legion.

The new Legion[edit]

Second Legion[edit]

Portrait of Marie Alphonse Bedeau.

The departure of the Legion to the Spanish Army in 1835 left a void. Foreigners remained numerous in France, which also needed as many men as possible in Africa and Spain. Accordingly, a New Legion formed in December 1835,[42] with a garrison in Paris of one battalion. On March 22, two general staff headquarters companies were formed, and as of June 26, the battalion was complete. The government, tired of the Spanish adventure, licensed a battalion on August 11, 1836, and sent the Legion to Spain.[42] These were the last reinforcements for the Legionnaires in Spain.

The government again began to form a Legion in November 1836. On November 21, a new battalion was constituted at Pau. With 1,200 men, it embarked at Toulon on the Suffren on December 11,[42] and arrived four days later in Algiers.

Recruitment continued in France, and on September 4, 1837, a second battalion was constituted by royal decree. The two battalions together were the equivalent of a regular infantry regiment.

Starting from Algiers, 1837 was for the French Foreign Legion of Africa a succession of battles ending in the peace accord signed between France and the resistance led by Emir Abdelkader, recognizing in the Treaty of Tafna the sovereignty of France in certain Algerian regions. Despite the treaty, the peace was relative. The Legion undertook harsh expeditions[43] in the valley of Isser to reduce rebel activity whose troublesome activities reached as far as Boufarik.

Battle of Constantine[edit]

The relatively calm situation allowed the elaboration of grand maneuvers. Constantine was the subject of focus. All available troops marched towards Constantine, a stronghold on rocks overlooking the Rhummel, considered invulnerable.

Since the unsuccessful expedition of Bertrand Clauzel which cost him his position, the fall of the Citadel was crucial. Battle formations constituted one Marching Legion Battalion, 500 men strong under the orders of a chef de bataillon (Commandant-Major) Marie Alphonse Bedeau.[44]

The expedition arrived in Constantine on October 6, 1837, and General Charles-Marie Denys de Damrémont, governor of Algiers, began the siege. The expedition was divided into four brigades; the Legion was part of the third brigade. The artillery of général Sylvain Charles Valée breached the fortress. On October 13, the men launched an assault. The Legionnaires under Colonel Combes, their former chief, engaged in close quarter hand-to-hand combat, clearing the most important arenas.[45] After three dreadful hours of fighting, the Legion and the other brigades managed to take Constantine during the night.

Bedeau was designated "Commandant du Lieu" and promoted to Lieutenant-colonel.


The conquest of Algeria resulted in another twenty years of mobilization. Following Constantine, the Legion regrouped in Algiers in 1838, numbering 2,823 men[46] on November 10, 1838. It continued to fight, distinguishing itself at Djidjelli, Medea and Miliana, often victorious at the cost of heavy losses.

The Legion definitely garrisoned in Algeria and France in 1840. First, owing to the return of the survivors of Spain, and their 10,000 enemies[47] which had left their country after the failure of the Carlist revolution. The structural reform which, by the intermediary royal ordinance of December 30, 1840, doubled the Legion in two Foreign Regiments. The 1st Foreign Regiment, directed by colonel Mollenbeck, was formed in Algiers on April 1, 1841. Similarly, the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment, directed by colonel Jean-François de Cariés de Senilhes [fr] was constituted at Bône on April 21, 1841. The Legion first garrisoned at Sidi Bel Abbès in 1843, and left 119 years later in 1962.

In addition to Algeria, the Legion saw other action overseas to advance French colonial interests and completed successful campaigns in Indochina, Madagascar, Morocco, and other territories that eventually became part of the French empire. According to Blanchard, the Legion became part of the colonization "in the professed name of civilization and racial superiority, at a time of rising nationalism and... rivalries between European powers."[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Axelrod, Alan (2014). Mercenaries: A Guide to Private Armies and Private Military Companies. CQ Press. ISBN 9781483364667.
  2. ^ Blanchard, Jean-Vincent (2017). At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 9780802743886.
  3. ^ The Duke of Orléans was a Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom on July 31, 1830.
  4. ^ a b c Montagnon 1999, p. 11.
  5. ^ Messager 2007, p. 10.
  6. ^ a b c Blond 1981, p. 25.
  7. ^ a b Poirmeur 1931, p. 12.
  8. ^ a b c d e Montagnon 1999, p. 12.
  9. ^ Messager 2007, p. 11.
  10. ^ Young & Bergot 1984, p. 200.
  11. ^ a b Young & Bergot 1984, p. 9.
  12. ^ Porch 1994, p. 37.
  13. ^ Porch 1994, p. 34.
  14. ^ Arabic pronunciation of the Turkish title "Pasha", used by some Arab countries and rulers in Ottoman-ruled areas.
  15. ^ Messager 2007, p. 14.
  16. ^ The Duke of Orleans was a Colonel-General of the Hussars in 1817 and a Lieutenant-General of the Kingdom on July 31, 1830.
  17. ^ Porch 1994, p. 38.
  18. ^ Blond 1981.
  19. ^ Porch 1994, p. 39.
  20. ^ Porch 1994, p. 40.
  21. ^ Porch 1994, p. 47.
  22. ^ Porch 1994, p. 44.
  23. ^ Young & Bergot 1984, p. 10.
  24. ^ Montagnon1999, p. 15.
  25. ^ Messager 2007, pp. 14–15.
  26. ^ Porch 1994, p. 50.
  27. ^ Blond 1981, p. 26.
  28. ^ Montagnon 1999, p. 16.
  29. ^ Montagnon 1999, p. 19.
  30. ^ Messager 2007, pp. 222–223.
  31. ^ Messager 2007, p. 15.
  32. ^ Montagnon 1999, p. 18.
  33. ^ a b Messager 2007, p. 20.
  34. ^ a b c d e f Montagnon 1999, p. 21.
  35. ^ This was the traditional surname of the French War Navy.
  36. ^ a b Montagnon 1999, p. 22.
  37. ^ a b c d e Montagnon 1999, p. 24.
  38. ^ Young & Bergot 1984.
  39. ^ Montagnon 1999.
  40. ^ Poirmeur 1931, p. 26.
  41. ^ Montagnon 1999, p. 26.
  42. ^ a b c Messager 2007, p. 16.
  43. ^ Messager 2007, p. 17.
  44. ^ Montagnon 1999, p. 30.
  45. ^ Montagnon 1999, pp. 30–31.
  46. ^ Messager 2007, p. 18.
  47. ^ Montagnon 1999, p. 27.
  48. ^ Blanchard.


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  • Montagnon, Pierre (1999). Histoire de la Légion de 1831 à nos jours [History of the Legion from 1831 till present] (in French). Pygmalion.
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