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French Foreign Legion
The French Foreign Legion (French: Légion Étrangère) has been a military unit of the French Army since 1831. It takes its name from the fact that, as an exception in French military forces, foreigners enlist in its ranks.
The French Foreign Legion was created by Louis Philippe, then King of the French at the time, on March 10, 1831, to support his war in Algeria. Successive legions were also raised to augment the French forces in the Crimean War, in Italy, and in Mexico.
It is in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. The small infantry patrol unit led by Capitane Danjou numbering 62 soldiers and 3 officers was attacked and besieged by Mexican infantry and cavalry units numbering 3 battalions, and was forced to make a defense in Hacienda Camerone. Despite the hopelessness of the situation they fought nearly to the last man. Danjou was mortally wounded in the defense of the hacienda, and the last of his men mounted a desperate bayonet attack. When the last three survivors were asked to surrender, they insisted that the Mexican soldiers allow them safe passage back home, to keep their flag, and to escort the body of the fallen Danjou. Upon seeing this, the Mexican commander commented, "these are not men, they are devils," and out of respect agreed to these terms.
Today the Camerone Day is an important day of celebration for the Legionnaires, when the wooden prosthetic hand of Capitane Danjou is brought on display.
The World Wars
The Foreign Legion was heavily involved in World War II, playing a large role in the Middle East and the North African campaign. The 13th Demi-Brigade was deployed in the Battle of Bir Hakeim. Interestingly, part of the Legion was loyal to the Free French movement, yet another part was loyal to the Vichy government. A battle in Syria saw two opposing sides fight against each other in a short engagement, and later on the Vichy Legion joined its Free French brethren.
The Foreign Legion was involved in the defense of Dien Bien Phu and lost a large number of their men in the battle. Towards the desperate end of the battle, Legionnaires formed the bulk of the volunteer relief force which were delivered by parachute to the base.
While most of its commissioned officers are French, approximately 10% are former legionaires who have risen through the ranks. The rest of the Legion is made up of men from a wide variety of nationalities, with French citizens representing 25-35% of the legionnaires. The foreign volunteers are primarily European, yet some come from old French territories including Tahiti. During the mid 1980's there were large contingents of British and Yugoslavian nationals.
Legionnaires can choose to enlist under a pseudonym ("declared identity") and a declared citizenship. This disposition exists in order to allow people who want to turn a page in their life to enlist. French citizens can enlist under a declared, fictitious, foreign citizenship (generally, a francophone one). After one year, legionnaires can regularize their situation under their true identity.
In the past, the Legion had a reputation for attracting criminals on the run and would-be mercenaries. In recent years, however, admission has been restricted much more severely and background checks are done on all applicants. Generally speaking, convicted felons are prohibited from joining the service.
After serving in the Legion for five years, the legionnaire is allowed to apply for French citizenship. Furthermore, a soldier harmed in combat for France is also allowed to apply for French citizenship. Recently, FFL passed a regulation to allow females to join its rank.
Previously, the Legion was not stationed in mainland France except in wartime. Until 1962 the Legion headquarters were stationed in Sidi-Bel-Abbes, Algeria. Nowadays, some units of the legion are in Corsica or overseas possessions, while the rest is in the south of mainland France. Current headquarters are in Aubagne, France, just outside Marseille.
There are eight regiments:
- Mainland France
- 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment (1 REC), based in Orange (armored troops)
- 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (2 REI), based in Nîmes,
- 6th Foreign Engineer Regiment, based near Avignon,
- 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment, to be based on the Plateau d'Albion ,
- 1st Foreign Regiment (1 RE), based in Aubagne (Legion headquarters),
- 4th Foreign Regiment, based in Castelnaudary (training);
- in Corsica,
- 2nd Foreign Parachutist Regiment (2 REP), based in Calvi;
- French Overseas Territories,
- 13th Demi-Brigade of Foreign Legion (13 DBLE), based in Djibouti.
- 2005 to Côte d'Ivoire
Notable Members of the Légion Étrangère
- Dimitri Amilakhvari
- Hélie de Saint Marc (former resistant deported to Buchenwald, participated in the Algiers putsch)
- Koenig, General Pierre
- Messmer, Pierre
- Travers, Adjutant Chef Susan
- Cole Porter
- Simon Murray
- Ernst Jünger
- François Faber
- Alan Seeger
The Legion in popular culture
The existence of the French Foreign Legion has led to a romantic view that it is a place for a wronged man to leave behind his old life to start a new one, but also that it is full of scoundrels and men escaping justice. This view of the legion is common in literature, and has been used for dramatic effect in many movies, not the least of which are the several versions of Beau Geste. The Legion is also depicted in the U.S. comic strip Crock .
- The Official Recruitment Office of the Foreign Legion
- Federation of Veteran Societies of the Foreign Legion
- Unofficial information site
- French Embassy to US, Foreign Legion section
- A Foreign Legion forum
- Foreign Legion Info Site
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