Voices of the Foreign Legion by Adrian Gilbert

This was an interesting read, well researched and presented. Adrian Gilbert has taken a huge range of sources (clearly referenced) and describes life in the French Foreign Legion from recruitment to campaigning since its first notorious campaigns in the 1860s.

The Foreign Legion has always had a special kind of appeal to adventurers, people who have messed up their lives elsewhere, criminals on the run and anyone who simply wants to walk through a door and disappear for five years while becoming a mercenary soldier for France. There’s a certain glamour in all of that but the writer certainly doesn’t overplay it!

First off, once you’ve joined the whole business of induction seems fairly pointless, brutally physical and cruel. The intention is to break the recruit and then create a soldier willing to obey any order and absurdly loyal to the Legion. A permissive attitude towards cruelty and brutality seems to continue but is coupled to a kind of loyalty to your comrades as well. The end product has always been a physically powerful force with enormous reserves of stamina and energy and a willingness to physically engage with any enemy force plus a refusal be defeated.

So far, then, good comic book stuff but the history goes a little awry. The Legion has been involved in the long term decline and collapse of the French Empire and must take some responsibility for the violence of this event. In North Africa and Indochina, in particular, the use of the Legion as a brutal force for suppression must have fuelled a hatred of the colonial nation which the British Empire generally avoided.

It is actually striking how many of the Legion’s military activities seem to have ended badly even if the campaign along the way might be called successful. The force also seemed to have a fairly cavalier attitude towards casualties and you’re left with the feeling that it tolerated greater losses in its mercenary numbers than a regular army would be comfortable with.

However, despite those reservations those who did the initial five years and survived seem to have been positive. A few claimed that the experience changed their lives or put them back on the right track and some joined up for even longer attracted by a pension, if they survived, and the offer of French nationality.

The Legion isn’t romanticised by this account which, although anecdotal, seems fair. If you like military history, it gives what I would reckon to be a fairly accurate picture of life in the biggest mercenary army history has ever seen but it is unlikely you will want to sign up!

(I received a copy of this book from the publishers, Thistle Publishing, and NetGalley in return for an honest review. It was published in August 2018.)


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