This Day in History – March 10th, 1876

King Louis Philippe

King Louis Philippe

The French Foreign Legion is a military service wing of the French Army established on March 10th, 1831by King Louis Philippe to support his war in Algeria. It is unique because it was exclusively created for foreign nationals willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. Commanded by French officers, it is also open to French citizens, who amounted to 24% of the recruits as of 2007. The Foreign Legion is today known as a unit whose training focuses not only on traditional military skills but also on its strong esprit de corps. As its men come from different countries with different cultures, this is a way to strengthen them enough to work as a team. Consequently, training is often described as not only physically challenging, but also very stressful psychologically. A soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can immediately apply for French citizenship under a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” (“French by spilled blood”). As of 2008 members come from 140 countries.

beau geste 1The Foreign Legion was primarily used to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the 19th century. The Foreign Legion was stationed in Algeria, where it took part in the pacification and development of the colony. The FFL were deployed in a number of conflicts, including the First Carlist War in 1835, the Crimean War in 1854, the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, the French intervention in Mexico in 1863, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Tonkin Campaign and Sino–French War in 1883, supporting growth of the French colonial empire in Sub-Saharan Africa and pacifying Algeria, the Second Franco-Dahomean War in 1892, the Second Madagascar expedition in 1895, and the Mandingo Wars in 1894.

beau geste 2In World War I, the Foreign Legion fought in many critical battles on the Western Front. The Foreign Legion played a smaller role in World War II than in World War I, though having a part in the Norwegian, Syrian and North African campaigns. During the First Indochina War (1946–54), the Foreign Legion saw its numbers swell. The FFL lost a large number of men in the catastrophic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), the Foreign Legion was brought to the brink of extinction after some officers, men, and the highly decorated 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1REP) took part in the Generals’ putsch. Notable operations included the Suez Crisis, the Battle of Algiers and various offensives launched by General Maurice Challe including Operations Oranie and Jumelles.

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In the 1960s and 1970s, the Legion had a new role as a rapid deployment force to preserve French interests – not only in its former African colonies but in other nations as well; it also returned to its roots of being a unit always ready to be sent to hot-spots all around the world. Some notable operations include: the Chadian–Libyan conflict in 1969–72 (the first time that the Legion was sent in operations after the Algerian War), 1978–79, and 1983–87; Kolwezi in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1978; Rwanda in 1990–94; and the Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) in 2002 to the present. In 1990, the Foreign Legion were sent to the Persian Gulf as a part of Opération Daguet. In the 1990s, the Foreign Legion helped with the evacuation of French citizens and foreigners in Rwanda, Gabon and Zaire. The Foreign Legion was also deployed in Cambodia, Somalia, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the mid- to late-1990s, the Foreign Legion was deployed in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville and in Kosovo. In the 2000s, the Foreign Legion was deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Licorne in Côte d’Ivoire, the EUFOR Tchad/RCA in Chad, and Operation Serval in the Northern Mali conflict

Other nations have tried to emulate the French Foreign Legion model. There have been units composed of foreign recruits in China, Israel, the Dutch Koninklijk Nederlandsch-Indische Leger (KNIL), the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1960s and 1970s, and Russia and Spain. Beyond its reputation as an elite unit often engaged in serious fighting, the recruitment practices of the French Foreign Legion have also led to a somewhat romanticised view of it being a place for disgraced or “wronged” men looking to leave behind their old lives and start new ones. This view of the legion is common in literature, and has been used for dramatic effect in many films, not the least of which are several adaptations of the novel Beau Geste.

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