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Composed of more than 7,000 men hailing from 140 nations, the French Foreign Legion is an elite military force of volunteers who agree to fight to protect French interests in return for adventure or the chance of a fresh start in life.
Established in 1831 to support the French conquest of Algeria, recruits were originally only allowed to enlist under an assumed name—a requirement designed to distance them from their past lives. This, along with the fact that the recruiters asked few questions, meant the Legion attracted many who were on the run from the law and it quickly developed a reputation
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as ‘an army of thieves and cutthroats’.
The popular myth that the Legion will accept and shelter anyone, no matter what their past, has never been completely true. You can not join without proper identification and rigorous background checks are carried out. While those who have had minor scrapes with the law are usually cleared to join, serious criminals – armed robbers, drug traffickers and murderers – have never been welcome. And while the French army accepts women, the Legion does not.
Selection, open to those aged 17 to 40, is rigorous and physically demanding. Of the 10,000 hopefuls who apply to join the Legion each year, only 1,000 or so make it to boot camp. For many by far the biggest hurdle is learning French – a necessity as all instruction, communications and orders are in the language.
Those who pass have to sign a minimum five-year contract and are then awarded the distinctive traditional white cap, the képi blanc, in a torchlight ceremony. They also swear a series of oaths including one which states that every mission they accept becomes sacred and must be completed no matter the cost.
Despite their different languages and cultures, Legionnaires are strongly encouraged to think of one another as brothers. They form close bonds with each other and also with their officers who, unlike the Legionnaires themselves, must be French-born or naturalized citizens.
True to its slogan, ‘Legio patria nostra’ – ‘the legion is our country’ – Legionnaires don’t so much fight for France as for each other. In battle they famously never leave a wounded comrade behind; during deadly firefights men have been known to use their own bodies to shield those of their beloved officers. On Christmas Day officers show their appreciation by leaving their families at home to spend time with their men.
Always the first to be deployed whenever France finds itself at war, every Legionnaire is virtually guaranteed to see combat. Around a tenth of all those who join will be killed in action and in the past 100 years more than 35,000 legionnaires have lost their lives with the unit.
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Although the unit has won many battles, it also celebrates its heroic defeats, in particular the Battle of Camaron. On 30 April, 1863, during the French intervention in Mexico, a small force of 65 Legionnaires led by Captain Jean Danjou was ambushed by more than 2,000 Mexican soldiers while on early morning patrol. Retreating to a nearby Hacienda at Camaron Danjou refused repeated requests to surrender and he and his men swore they would fight to the death.
By dusk only five Legionnaires were left alive but the Mexicans had suffered some 400 casualties. Out of ammunition, the Legionnaire fixed bayonets and made a final charge. Three more died and the last two were beaten to the ground. Still they refused to surrender and instead asked that they be allowed to keep their weapons and leave with the body of their fallen Captain. ‘These are not men, they are demons,’ said the Mexican commander, before agreeing to their request.
April 30th is commemorated by the Legion each year and the wooden hand of Captain Danjou – he had lost his real hand in an earlier battle – is a sacred relic, a revered symbol of ultimate sacrifice. As part of the celebrations officers serve their men breakfast in bed.
Since September 2010 the requirement to join under a false name is no longer mandatory, but many recruits still choose to change their identity in order to start with a clean slate. After three years of service a Legionnaire is eligible for French citizenship.
Although it is part of the French Army the men of the Legion are seen as a class apart and respected as one of the most elite fighting units in the world. They even have their own march which requires exactly 88 steps per minute compared to the usual 120 for the remainder of the French army. Such is its appeal that even French citizens join. In the past they would pretend to be Swiss or Canadian but now the rules have changed they can join under their own identities. Around a quarter of the current strength of the unit is made up of French citizens.
Having served in every major conflict of recent times, the Legion is currently engaged in operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Chad and the Ivory Coast. It also operations in numerous French territories including French Guyana, Caledonia and Mayotte.