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The French Foreign Legion

The content below is from Episode 116 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast

RECOMMENDATION SEGMENT

  • This week I recommend you watch Top Gun Maverick in theaters.
    • It is an old Hollywood curse that a sequel is seldom better than the original.
      • Films like the Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, Spiderman 2, Godfather Part 2, and Aliens are typically seen as the exception to that curse.
    • I think Top Gun Maverick is going to blow all of those sequels out of the water. I also think it might be the last truly great Hollywood blockbuster.
    • The first Top Gun was OK, but spent too much time on a romance that I didn’t really care about. If the original cut out all the romance and just focused on cool aircraft & their pilots I would have been happier. That is precisely what Top Gun Maverick did.
    • I walked out of the Theater pumped as hell.
    • From the opening scene to the roll of the final credits I was on the edge of my seat.
    • Do yourself a favor and see this remarkable movie in theaters before it is too late.

NOW FOR THE MAIN EVENT

  • Created in 1831 to allow foreign nationals to strengthen the French Army, the French Foreign Legion has become the world’s premier mercenary corps.
    • The Legion is comprised of some badass fellas, but so are a lot of other military units around the world. The reason why the FFL is unique, the reason I decided to do a podcast episode on them, is how they recruit.
    • Their unique recruitment process is open to foreign recruits willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. The Legion is today known as a unit whose training focuses on traditional military skills and on its strong esprit de corps (a feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty), as its men come from different countries with different cultures. Consequently, training is often described as not only physically challenging but also very stressful psychologically. Originally Legionnaires were exclusively made up of foreign volunteers, but now French citizens can join the FFL. French citizenship may be applied for after three years of service. Any soldier who is wounded during a battle for France can immediately apply to be a French citizen under a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” (“French by spilled blood”).
      • The chance at citizenship is one of the greatest alluring qualities of the Legion. Other than being wounded, a Legionnaire is eligible for French citizenship after 3 years of service in the FFL.
    • Another bonus to becoming a Legionnaire is the chance to have one’s record wiped clean. The Legion goes to great lengths to keep all recruit’s history sealed. BUT all recruits are subjected to a harsh interrogation so that the Legion can determine their motivation for joining the FFL.
      • While major crimes such as murder, sexual assault, and treason are not welcome in the Legion, minor crimes are preferred. The Legion likes it when a recruit is willing to turn his back on their former life, and a past life of crime makes that more likely. That is the case nowadays, but not when the Legion was started…
      • Around the time of its inception, it was comprised exclusively of foreign soldiers led by French officers and had a reputation of being a tough-as-nails assortment of scoundrels and degenerates. The lack of any background checks on incoming recruits meant that the Legion was largely comprised of criminals, mercenary thugs, and various assorted evildoers escaping their homelands for one dubious reason or another.
      • According to the Encyclopedia Britanica, it was around the turn of the 20th century (1895 to 1905) that “the legion’s reputation as a band of romantic misfits began to seize the public imagination, stimulated by the anonymat (the requirement to enlist under an assumed name). Their anonymity allowed legionnaires to invent fantastic pasts or to imagine that many of the men with whom they served were romantic or tragic figures—“kings having lost their thrones, bishops who misplaced their miters, or generals who lost their stars,” as Aristide Merolli, a 20th-century legion officer, later put it. The possibility of a fresh start in life, a clean slate, in an environment of manly hardships and challenges gripped the thoughts of many. German propaganda, which depicted the legion as a band of criminals, commanded by sadistic NCOs, into which the naive and innocent were lured, fanned this image, as did literary works. Under Two Flags (1867), by the English novelist Ouida, kicked off a series of novels and stories about the legion that peaked with Percival Christopher Wren’s Beau Geste in 1924.”
    • They take recruits between the ages of 17 and 40 of ANY nationality. When a recruit jones the FFL they join under a new name and new identity. The Legion even creates a fake name for the recruits’ parents. Only after 1 year of service can a Legionnaire request to serve under their birth name.
    • One might even think of the FFL as a refugee program… where the admission process is insanely difficult and requires military service. The ethnicity of recruits does sway heavily based on the political atmosphere of the world, especially of Europe.
      • For example, Russia’s war with Ukraine caused an uptick in Ukrainian applications. But the Legion does try to have a diverse mix of nationalities.
      • Europeans make up most of the Legions members and there are quite a lot of French Legionnaires. While foreigners stand to benefit the most from becoming a Legionnaire, French men join to be a part of an elite fighting force or to get away from their criminal past.
  • Once a recruit is selected (passes interrogation and physical tests) they sign a 5-year contract with the Legion. They are sent to Basic Training which includes courses that teach all Legionnaires to be fluent in the French Language.
    • Apparently, the Legion’s method of teaching French is eye-openingly effective because they can use all sort of “motiviation” to get the recruit to learn fast.
    • Once they finish Basic they are permitted to wear the famous Kepi Blanc. The Kepi is easily noticable and is a symbol of the Legion’s spirit. It is somewhat sacred within the Legion. Recruits that have not made it through basic training are not permitted to touch the Kepi with their bare hands, but are required to wear gloves.
    • The Kepi’s status as a symbol is expressed even further when considering the Legion wears green beret caps into battle.
  • After Basic the Legionnaires are selected for a variety of posts
    • Some are sent to the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment in Croisca. There they undergo paratroop training at the French Airborne school.
    • Others are sent to the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment in Nimes.
    • The 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment go to French Guiana
    • The 13th Demi-Brigade are sent to Djubouti
    • The 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment are stationed at Orange France
    • The 1st and 2nd Foreign Engineer regiments are based out of Laudun and St. Christol respectively
    • Then there is the small FFL detachment on the island of Mayotte
NY Times: On the Road with the French Foriegn Legion (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/world/africa/mali-french-foreign-legion.html)
  • A legionnaire may become a corporal after two years’ service. A corporal with three years’ service may become a sergeant, the lowest NCO rank. Higher NCO rank is reserved for reenlisted legionnaires.
    • Approximately one-tenth of the officers are former noncommissioned officers (NCOs). 
    • Although legionnaires may be of any nationality, all legion officers are French-born or naturalized citizens, many the elite of Saint-Cyr, the French military academy at Coëtquidan.
  • The Legion headquarters is in Aubagne France, a suburb of Marseille.
    • This is where the recruits are sent and selected. Aubagne is also where the Legions archives and museum can be found and where their Magazine the Kepi blanc has been published since 1947.
    • On April 30th, the anniversary of the Legion’s battle of Camaron, Mexico in 1863, the Legionnaires stationed all around the world celebrate the death of about 65 Legionnaires who were severely outnumbered by Mexican forces.
    • there is a Legion has a designated burial ground and a retirement home in Puyloubier, near Aix-en-Provence.
  • The Battle of Cameron under the command of Capitaine Jean Danjou
    • It was 1863 and the Napoleon III, Emperor of France was mucking up world politics like he was born for it. In his conquest he began to mess with Mexico of all places. The French Army was besieging Puebla Mexico, but things weren’t panning out for them.
    • The French command ordered the 3rd Company of the French Foreign Legion to bring 3 million Francs and hundreds of pounds of ammo to re-supply the sieging force.
    • The problem was that these Frenchies weren’t acclimated to the Mexican environment and half of the FFL was struck with dysentery (severe diarrhea). Out of the half of the company that was suffering from dysentery were all of the 3rd Company’s officers. Despite these obstacles, 3rd company managed to get 62 men marching, but with no officers, someone had to lead the men. The Foreign Legion’s Regimental Quartermaster, Captain Jean Danjou, volunteered to personally command the mission.
    • Jean Danjou was a tough SOB. He had to be if he was going to lead 62 scoundrels across Mexico. He had fought in many combat operations like Algiers, the Austro-Sardinian War, the Crimean War, and faced combat in Morocco. Throughout his career, Danjou had his left hand blown off. He replaced it with a wooden prosthetic which he used to either discipline his men or play practical jokes on his superiors.
    • The 62 men and 3 volunteer officers left on April 30th. They marched for 15 miles when they stopped at Palo Verde to rest. But not long after they stopped they heard a Mexican Calvary unit headed their way. Danjou ordered his men to fix bayonets, make a square formation, and prepare to fight.
    • From one of my favorite blogs Badass of the Week, Ben Thompson writes:
      • “The Legion began a fighting withdrawal back to the nearby town of Cameron, repulsing three separate cavalry charges while sustaining minimal casualties to themselves.  When they reached Cameron, they holed up in an inn in the middle of town, which was protected by a ten foot high wall and was surrounded by a tight courtyard that would make it difficult for any sort of cavalry maneuvers.  Little did Danjou know, he was facing more than just cavalry.  His sixty men were going to make their last stand against an onslaught of three Mexican infantry battalions and one cavalry battalion, comprised of a total of 1,200 men and 800 cavalry.
      • Sixty men stood in extreme heat without any sort of food or water, battling it out against a force of 2,000 enemy soldiers.  The legionnaires hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in over twenty-four hours, they were exhausted from marching, and they were in a hopeless situation, but like true badasses they stood their ground and fought with everything they had – guns, knives, bayonets, elbow strikes to the groin, you name it.  Danjou ran up and down the line encouraging his men and firing his pistol into the endless horde of Mexican infantrymen who continually hurled themselves at the inn.  Legionnaires fell to the earth dead and wounded, ammunition ran low, the inn caught fire, but through it all Danjou shouted over the flames, “The Legion dies; It does not surrender!”
    • Towards the end of the fighting, Captain Danjou was hit in the chest by an enemy sniper. Seeing their fearless leader dead didn’t cause the remaining Legionnaires to surrender. No, they rallied and fought even more ferociously. After 11 hours of fighting, there were only 5 Legionnaires left standing. The level of exhaustion they were experiencing was unfathomable and they were having trouble standing. The 5 men were completely out of ammunition (remember they were part of a mission that was to re-arm the much larger force so they chewed through ammo that was meant for a literal army). They looked over at the bodies of their fellow Legionnaires and that of Captain Danjou. His last words echoed “The Legion dies; It does not surrender!”
    • The 5 Legionnaires fixed bayonets, charged out from the protective 10-foot wall of the now burning Inn, and forged head-on into an overwhelming force of enemies. Three Legionnaires died from gunfire and the remaining 2 were bludgeoned by rifle butts. Just before the 2 remaining men were killed the Mexican General  Francisco Milán ordered his men to pull back. He approached the 2 Legionnaires and demanded their surrender.
    • The 2 exhausted, starving, burned, and beaten Legionnaires looked General Francisco Milan in the eye and demanded their immediate safe passage home with their wounded, fallen captain, weapons, and their regiment flag. General Milans response was “What can I do with such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.” Then he granted their request and the Legion withdrew.
    • To this day, whenever the Mexican Army marches past the monument that was erected at the spot of the battle, they present arms as a sign of respect to the brave men that faced them that day.  The word “Cameron” now appears on the regimental flag of the Legion, and in France and throughout the Foreign Legion, every April 30th is known as “Cameron Day”, where the wooden prosthetic hand of Jean Danjou is brought out and paraded around and French citizens celebrate the man.
  • The story of the Legion’s 3rd Company at the Battle of Camaron is one of many.
    • Their history is full of stories that show how the Legion went from the unwanted stepchild of the French army, only designated to labor tasks and never fighting, to the adopted son of the French Military having a balls-out and committed reputation that they hold today.
    • Members of prestigious military units around the world have joined the French Foreign Legion in hope of finding glory they weren’t getting in their own countries.
    • While the world has become more peaceful overall since the Legion’s conception, the French military always seems to find a place to send the Legion.
    • When you look at the Legion’s past you see there are hardly any gaps in between wars and combat. The Legion has been fighting since its inception in 1831. You know what they say: there’s no rest for the wicked.
    • I recommend you look up the French Foreign Legion on Youtube as there are some good quality documentaries you can watch for free.

Thanks for listening (or reading) Who’d a Thunkers!

Until next time 🙂

CREDIT

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