The history and philosophy of the French Foreign Legion.
The legion was formed in 1831 as an all-volunteer corps of the French Army with a special right to hire foreign-born recruits; French citizens were not accepted until 1881. Upon acceptance, the legion became their only country, and they were comprised of outcasts, younger scions of noble families, debt-ridden gamblers, and those escaping scandal, jail, or the noose. Upon entering training, one only need provide a name and proof of physical ability. The training was brutal, pushing men to the limits of human endurance. The legion soldiers were essential in the building of France’s colonial empire, with conquests across Algeria, Indochina, Madagascar, Morocco, and elsewhere. Blanchard (French Studies/Swarthmore Coll.; Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, 2011) eases readers’ confusion about foreign cities and geographic regions by following the career of Gen. Louis Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934), who fought in all the major colonies. His use of and reliance on the Foreign Legion illustrate how perfectly they grew into such a significant force. They were the troop of the last stand, never questioning and never hesitating to answer the call; loyalty and solidarity were the most important assets. As the author follows Lyautey through Algerian pacification and some of the most tumultuous episodes in legion history in Indochina, we see France’s steady progression of colonialism. Like many colonial powers, the French civilized the natives while maintaining a policy of Code de l'indigénat, denying them equal rights with their conquerors. Men of the legion, Lyautey included, suffered from what was termed le cafard, a deep depression resulting from long terms of solitude in remote areas, often ending in suicide. The author deftly captures the romance as well as the horror of life in the French Foreign Legion.
Blanchard’s style, broad knowledge of France, and scholarly research in the legion’s archives make this a detailed and fascinating book of French history.