The Legion? In Pocklington? Well, ok not really… just the odd book or two.
But this book is a masterpiece of research detail and appreciation of the Legion’s unique place in both French and indeed world military history.
An aside before I go any further.
A loooong time ago I remember reading a book on the Legion and noted, with a bit of a sneer, to my father how their annual celebration commemorates a loss. He looked pityingly at me and said that The Legion was a fighting force that had a history of doing the ‘dirty work in the dirtiest wars’ and told me to read the book again.
Not before telling me that when he had served on HMS Unicorn, a Royal Navy Supply Carrier (Imagine when we had a navy that had an Aircraft Carrier dedicated to supplying replacement aircraft, stores and personnel to her sister Carriers whilst capable of a full combat role too. Different times.) during the Korean War the ship had also had to transport troops from North Africa out to the Korean Peninsula. This had generally involved British troops and that on an overcrowded ship conflict between the crew, its marines and the Army passengers had been a regular problem. The ship’s Brig had never been empty.
One trip they picked up a battalion of The Legion.
There were no instances of brawling or even harsh words between the crew and its passengers on that trip. One look at the Legionnaires had, it seemed, been enough to instil an uncommon sense of civility in the matelots and marines. The Legionnaires with their German NCO’s and French Officers and a body of men from across the globe. Legionnaires in the current force come from Holland, Ukraine, Russia, Belgium, England, America, Italy, Spain, Ireland and over one hundred other nations in total.
These men are the inheritors of a reputation that can best be described by using my father’s description: They were it seems ‘…frigging headcases. All of them’ apparently…
A Short History
As the book’s title conveys it covers the colonial exploits of the Legion from 1870 onwards. But it’s useful to understand the origins of the regiment to appreciate its role. The French Foreign Legion was set up by King Louis Phillipe in March 1831. It was derived from the ‘foreign’ regiments already serving the country: men from the disbanded Swiss and German foreign regiments of the Bourbon monarchy. The Royal Ordinance establishing the regiment specified that it could only serve outside France.
Since the French force occupying Algiers was in need of reinforcements it was expedient to ship the Legion directly there. From this point on the Foreign Legion became part of the Armee d’Afrique and was used to promote and defend France’s colonial empire.
However time and the demands of the country would mean it fought in almost all subsequent wars French wars, colonial actions and ‘local difficulties’ including the Franco-Prussian War, Crimea, the siege of the Paris Commune as well as World War I and World War II.
Franco-Prussian War 1870
This is where the Windrow’s book begins, and it excels from the start.
The war ‘officially’ lasted from 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871 but militarily it was all done and dusted within 6 to 8 weeks. The Prussians encircled one French army and then repeated the feat to a second that was hurrying to support the first. After these decisive actions it was only a question of how long it would take for France to ‘officially’ capitulate.
The Second Republic fell and following the disaster at Sedan the new Third Republic was depleted of trained soldiers. Therefore, the Foreign Legion was ordered in and on the 11th of October 1870 two battalions disembarked at Toulon. This was the first time the Foreign Legion had ever been deployed in France itself.
Prussian forces began to besiege and blockade Paris from the 19th of September 1870. Being under siege seemed to inculcate revolutionary responses from right across the population of the city. This was reflected with the Paris National Guard too who became revolutionary in ways replicated in the Russian Navy in 1917. Guard units began to elect their officers. Units refused to wear uniforms or obey any commands from the national government. They became a revolutionary militia. On the 26th of March Paris elected a Commune council. In an echo of the Revolution dominated by socialists, anarchists and revolutionaries, replaced the French Tricolour in Paris with the red flag and a civil war began.
This revolution was taking place despite, or indeed because of, the fact that an Armistice between Prussia and France had been signed on the 26th of January. So, the Foreign Legion’s first actions on French soil support the regular Army in a civil war. This combined force attacked the Commune of Paris and recaptured the city during the week of the 21st to the 28th of May: This entered legend as the ‘Semaine Sanglante’ or ‘Bloody Week’. Windrow captures this small, but vicious ‘civil war’ very well indeed and details the role of the Legion in the destruction of ‘The Commune’
The war of 1870, or rather its aftermath was a defining one for the Legion. It altered the views of the French High Command to them: this odd, motley collection of foreign colonial troops had proved themselves to be a highly efficient fighting force and in subsequent years the Legion became the ‘hammer’ that was deployed in the hot spots that the growing French Empire began to develop.
The war of 1870 also sowed some of the seeds of WW1: German unification under Bismark, the French concept of ‘Revanchism’ or revenge relating to the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine and therefore national self-esteem, the doomed German Schlieffen War Plan that sought to repeat the swift results of 1870 and was to be implemented by German generals who had been junior officers in 1870. Many of the strands of August 1914 were frayed from the fabric of Europe in 1870 and left hanging there waiting to be pulled upon resulting in a great unravelling of all of Europe.
The book details the Legion’s deployment to Tonkin in Indochina and Windrow serves up another lesson in how early Colonial Wars always seem to foreshadow the eventual fall of the Empire that inflicts itself on another country. Dien Ben Phu is Banquo’s Ghost at this Tonkin feast.
The Foreign Legion’s 1st Battalion sailed to Tonkin in late 1883 with the Second and Third Infantry Battalions also deployed to Tonkin shortly afterwards. Windrup takes us on a journey to witness the first steps of the Legion into the Far East. He details the hardships and cruelties of Empire building with the men struggling in the tropical environment. Here was a land where tropical diseases took more of a toll than the fighting and where cultural differences could exacerbate already fraught relationships into hostility and combat. A Legionaries life could also be enlivened by the occasional tiger attack too.
However, as Windrup occasionally alludes, the Legion’s efforts seem to be generating echoes that will move through time to post WW2 Vietnam. In the same places but in a different time the French, its armed forces still fractious with Vichy/Gaullist splits from the war and finding themselves woefully underfunded by an economically crippled homeland, will try in vain to cling to the far east Empire that the Legion helped build. The eventual debacle is dealt with in Windrup’s masterful study of Dien Bien Phu
Windrow is as scrupulously detailed and as entertaining as ever with his mix of meticulous research and first-hand accounts of the entire experience of a Legionnaire in Tonkin. And it is this sorcery of detail and entertainment that makes him a good writer. He is so engaging that the writing lightens what could be a morass of detail. But each needs the other in a good history book.
Algeria and North Africa
If Tonkin is a ghostly foreshadowing of fate for the post war French Colonial Empire then Algeria in the late 19th is an entire Haunted House both for the Legion and France itself; a haunting that stretches right through the seismic political and military crisis caused by Algeria in the 1960’s and into the 21st century with the Islamic terror attacks, the Arab banlieue districts of all major French cities and the historically incoherent attitude of the French extreme right politicians to the Arab population of France when their predecessors in the 1960’s were desperate to maintain Algeria as ‘France’.
The Legion is a vital part of this story. It’s influence and involvement can be tracked through time from 1880’s to 2018.
In 1924 P.C. Wren wrote the novel Beau Geste. This book painted what would become the traditional picture of the Legion. Wren defined the Legion forever with Beau Geste even though the author had negligible military experience and there is no record of him ever serving in the Legion at all. But this best-seller full of romance, combat, cruel Arab enemies, ruthless NCO’s and shifting Sub-Saharan sand-dunes. And yet, as Windrow shows with his assiduous research and anecdotes, it seems Wren was close to the truth. Though to be fair Wren probably wouldn’t have dared to write of Legionnaires fight fighting Dahomeyan Amazons Warriors as they did 1892 or of their exotic battles in Madagascar during the same period. But as far as Hollywood and the rest of the world was concerned it is the actions of the Legion in North Africa that are the very essence of the force: The men in blue tunics and white kepis marching over North African sand-dunes, ‘March or Die’.
Algeria and Morocco and their rebellious tribes will keep the Legion busy for a very long time. And they were busy: When the Rif rebellion in Spanish Morocco spilled over into French Morocco, France paid heavily. In one single year, 1925, France suffered 11,000 casualties there, and was obliged to deploy 155,000 troops before the conflict ended. The Legion was at the forefront of almost every battle in North Africa and they continued in the same fashion into the dark per-war years of the 1930’s.
It’ll will be very interesting if Windrow continues with his epic history of the Legion and ‘joins up the dots’ between 1935 and the end of the war in Indochina. That is a very complex and convoluted story of Gaullist and Vichy forces, split loyalties and small nasty battles in an unspoken civil war. That war would inflict grievous splits in the army that would eventually lead to a distancing of the army from its government.
Hopefully Windrow will also find the time to record the history of the Legion during the great disaster that was Post-War Algeria which led to attempted coups, mutinies, terrorism and the very real possibility that France would implode into open civil war with a sizeable section of its own armed forces and colonial settlers.
I’ll be waiting for the book when he does.