In 1924 Percival C. Wren wrote Beau Geste the first book in his trilogy of novels about three brothers who joined the French Foreign legion. Good Gestes is a collection of short stories about these three brothers and the other legionnaires they've encountered during their time in service with the French Foreign Legion (FFL.) I'm enjoying this book much more than I expected and it really got me interested in the FFL. So today I'm going to share a little information with you about the FFL that I researched.
For those who've never heard of it, the FFL is a branch of the French military service that was established in 1831. Before the legion was created in 1831, France spent the previous year in a revolution which forced king Charles X to abdicate and replaced him with Louis-Philippe. According to Tony Geraghty, who wrote March or Die: A New History of the French Foreign Legion, the legion was started as a way to deal soldiers sympathetic to Charles X, unemployed soldiers from the Napoleonic wars, and to take care of mobs of displaced dissidents in Paris. The FFL saw service in France, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Indo-China, China, Taiwan, Madagascar, Dahomey, Crimea, Serbia, Gallipoli, Syria, Russia, Norway, Lebanon, Eritrea, Germany, West Africa, and many other countries. The FFL was mainly an agent of colonialism. By the end of the Napoleonic wars France had lost a lot of territory such as Canada and Louisiana. To that end the FFL spent a lot of time in places like North Africa, fighting for French control.
Although the French Foreign Legion is a military group that spent a lot of time out of the country, the legion was not primarily made up of french men. Actually if you were French and joined the legion, you were considered relatively disreputable and unsuitable for marriage. In fact the army, and the legion itself, were relatively out of favor for large periods of time, the 1870s - Franco-Prussian War, 1917 - WWI troops mutiny and threaten Paris, 1920s-1934, 1950s and 1960s - the Post Colonial Wars. (Actually in 1961 the legion actually attempted a coup against DeGaulle which was not popular and almost led to their entire disbandment.) As well as being unfavorable, the FFL was in a large part made up of foreign troops.
Many men, like the ones in Good Gestes, used the legion to escape pasts they didn't want to remember. "If the regiment's identification with the overseas empire was on long historical shadow cast by its origins, then another was the sanctuary it provided, of a sort, for able-bodied outcasts." People from other nations joined for a number of reasons including, economic hardship or stateless men, created by wars, seeking new places to belong. However, even with all of the foreigners in the legion, it was very clearly led by the French who made up the commanding class.
One thing I wondered while reading Good Gestes, is if the men in the FFL really took on completely new names an persona as they did in the book. Every single man in the stories of Good Gestes has a name in the foreign legion that is not their own. And as it happens in the first story, sometimes they die with the name never revealed and are buried under their nom-de-guerre. According to Geraghty, this is absolutely something that happened within the FFL. In many ways the nom-de-guerre helped tie together groups of men who could only speak halting french and in many cases were illiterate in their own language. It would be interested to look at the psychological impact of choosing a new identity. (Geraghty states that it is a psychological imperative for them.) But for the most part the practice appears to be laid more in the romantic tradition. Even with Wren speaks about the practice in Good Gestes he discusses it with a romantic overtone, however it does seem to help the men pull together in their multicultural environment.
I could go on further about the legion but I think to really get a the heart of the subject I'd have to add another book to the current literature. Especially considering how tied up the history of the legion is with the rest of European history. So I will end here with a little about the period of time that the Geste brothers are in the legion. The Geste books are written in the 1920s, during a period of unpopularity for the legion. At the time that the books are written, the legion was currently taking part in the Rif War against Berber tribesmen in Morocco. It has been suggested by some that the popularity of the legion rose because of the popularity of the Geste books. Since they were adapted into several movies, this is probably the case. But enough about the legion, I'll tell you all about the actual book in my next post.
Till next time fellow readers.
*Tony Geraghty, March or Die: A New History of the French Foreign Legion, (New York: Facts on File, 1987.)