The French Foreign Legion and French Universalism

This is the last paper I wrote to finally complete my history degree. The class, as one can glean from the title, was over French history. I decided to write my research paper over what I found to be the most interesting thing we discussed: The French Foreign Legion.

The French Foreign Legion is a unique organization that has served a unique purpose throughout its history. While mercenaries and foreign volunteers have long been a staple of militaries across the world, the Légion Étrangère stands out. Not only is the Legion a great source of national pride for France, it is a military force shrouded in myth and history. The French Foreign Legion is the only part of the French army, and one of the few militaries around the world to do so, that recruits mainly foreign nationals. People across the globe come to France to join the Legion, for reasons as varied as they themselves are. They are united by the strong traditions and values of the Legion and turned into an extremely effective fighting force. The Legion could be described as a reverse diaspora. Instead of a common culture uniting a scattered people, the Legion brings a scattered people together into a unique culture. It provides a French home, French work, and French values to distinctly non-French people who have decided to carry the French banner.[i] The Legion is, in short, a living example of French universalism.

The idea of French universalism is a familiar one to students of French history. It is, however, an enigma to many others. What is “French universalism?” It is a concept that permeates the history and culture of the European country. It is the belief that the world can and should come together under a banner of shared ideals. It is also the belief that this banner just happens to be the French tricolor. France is the epitome of what a nation should strive to be, as the idea goes. Everyone else should strive to become more like France because of how perfect France is. As the pinnacle of culture and values, it is also the duty of the French to instruct and lead less fortunate nations to the light.

This may sound similar to other lines of thought other Western powers have used in the past to justify colonial expansion. French universalism is unique, though. The belief of France’s rightful head of the international family of liberté, égalité, fraternité almost defines what it is to be “French” more than place of birth or family ties. The beliefs of France are, and should be, the beliefs of everyone.

As Professor Naomi Schor, of Bristol University, wrote in “The Crisis of French Universalism,” “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen… articulated Frenchness onto universalism. To this day French national identity remains bound up – at least in official discourse, but also in ongoing intellectual debates – with universal human rights, of which France siders itself the inalienable trustee.”[ii]

France considers itself the protectors of universalism because they see themselves as the creators of it. It is their duty to spread these ideals and bring everyone they can under the universal banner. France’s political, economic, and military goals have shifted through the ages, as have the Foreign Legion’s. The idea of French universalism, however, has remained constant. The purpose of this paper is to examine how, exactly, the Legion exemplifies the ideals of French universalism. To demonstrate this, it would be best to examine three periods of history that were important not only for the Legion, but France as a whole. These periods are the early days of the Legion, the World Wars, and the modern day.

By looking at the early days of the Legion’s existence, it becomes clear their purpose was to bring non-French under the French universal banner from its very inception. On March 9, 1831, an ordinance was adopted by the Chamber of Deputies and signed by King Louis-Philippe. This law allowed for the potential creation of French military units composed of foreigners, and for native military units to potentially be formed in the colonies. It was followed on March 10 with another law officially forming the French Foreign Legion.[iii]

For those unfamiliar with French history, some background is necessary to fully understand this move. The previous year, in 1830, France was rocked by revolution. The July Revolution saw the second overthrow of the recently restored Bourbon monarchy and the ascendency of Louis-Philippe. The events in France acted as a spark that lit a fire across Europe. 1830 was rife with rebellions, protests, and revolutions all in the name of liberty and equality. All these attempted revolutions failed, however. Having become fugitives in their homelands, people began to flee to France, their homeland at least in values, if not birth. Fearing the instability this influx of failed revolutionaries would bring, it became clear that the refugees had to be given a purpose. That purpose became the Foreign Legion.[iv]

As one can see, from the very beginning the French Foreign Legion was used as a means to bring people together in the name of shared values and goals; the definition of universalism. How the Legion was used in its early days serves as an example of spreading French universalism, at least how it was seen in the days of colonialism.

One of the Legion’s first tasks was to aid in the conquest of Algiers. The African region had long been in the sights of France, but only recently had come under a concentrated effort to be colonized. King Charles X began the effort in 1830, hoping that military victories abroad would bolster his faltering regime. King Louis-Philippe decided the Legion would be best used to finish what his predecessor started.[v] Algiers, and Africa in general, would become a place the Legion would spend most of its early life.

The Algerian war would be a proving ground for the Legion. One of their first objectives after landing in the country in 1832 was to capture the citadel of Constantine. The Legion made up the lead of a 1,200 strong force. The battle was furious. The city’s outer wall was penetrated, and the inner wall deliberately collapsed onto the attackers by the enemy. The French forces were met with intense gunfire. Still, the Legion pressed forward, taking the city building by building. One of the Legion’s leaders, Saint-Armand, was mortally wounded in the battle. He reportedly said, lying on the battlefield, “Our Legion has become immortal.”[vi]

To this day, many people associate the French Foreign Legion with the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert.[vii] The Algerian war helped build the Legion’s mythos as a force that could fight in the roughest terrain. Algiers also proved the Legion’s effectiveness as a fighting force, which came as quite a surprise. Few could have expected an army of multinational mercenaries to be as vital to the subduing of the colony as the Legion was. As Clemens Lamping, a man who served with the Legion in Algeria, wrote:

“Like the rest of the Legion, this battalion is composed of men of all nations and all ranks: Spainiards and Italians, Germans and Belgians, Dutchmen and Poles… Most of them have joined the service out of mere folly, some from political or civil offenses, and a few from misfortune.

These men are for the most part brutal and undisciplined, but ready to encounter anything. They form a band who, under an energetic leader, might do great things.”[viii]

By 1841 there were two full regiments of Legionaries in the land. The French controlled much of the coastline, but still faced guerilla warfare in the interior. The Legion was tasked with pushing into the country and bringing the guerillas into full-on combat, which was a fight both sides knew the rebels would lose. Guerilla warfare, as it has been demonstrated again and again, can quickly become violent and retaliatory. Brutal atrocities, sadly, become expected. The Legion, however, showed mercy to their enemies by aiding their prisoners and any wounded. Bugeaud, a high-ranking commander of the Legion, wrote to Paris about the importance of respecting the religion and habits of the Algerian people, and governing them fairly. He wrote, “Humanity and politics will thereby be equally satisfied.”[ix]

Of course, as any student of history knows, atrocities still happen during warfare. What makes the Legion’s time in Algiers stand out, however, is that there was an attempt by the leadership to bring the benefits of “civilization” to the Algerians. This exemplifies the Legion’s duty in spreading French universalism. French citizens expect the fair treatment of prisoners and the wounded, and a fair system of government. If these are the ideals to strive for, does it not stand to reason that these ideals should be spread across the world? This was the French Foreign Legion’s duty: To expand France, and thus expand the universal ideal.

The legion would remain in Algiers for decades after the 1840s. They would also fight for France’s interests across Europe, Asia, and more famously Mexico in the 1860s. The days of colonialism and empires are long gone, however. The French Foreign Legion, and the idea of French universalism, has survived. It would be best to jump forward in time to demonstrate how the Legion helped in ensuring the survival of French universalism, and France itself, in one of the world’s darkest times: The World Wars.

World War One was one of the worst wars ever seen in history. Millions were killed or permanently wounded, both physically and mentally. The war introduced the world to new horrors like chemical warfare, machine guns, life in the trenches, tanks and airplanes, and PTSD (known back then as “shell shock.”) For France the war was especially hard, as the front lines of the conflict cut through her countryside, and very close to her capitol. Facing Germany, her old enemy, also helped make the war especially contentious. The French Foreign Legion, which was forbidden from serving in the homeland up until the war, played an important role.

The Great War saw a large increase in the Legion’s size. In a war where men died by the thousands per day, every body that could fill a uniform was welcome. Between 1914 and 1918 the Legion held 44,150 volunteers. The war also saw the death of 31,000 of those volunteers.[x]

Aside from the large number, the diversity of these volunteers is truly remarkable. Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Turks made up a large portion of the Legion. In fact, the most decorated non-commissioned officer of the war, in the entire French army, was a German legionnaire. They had put aside their national identities when they volunteered and dutifully fought in the name of France against their homelands. As the motto of the Legion goes: Legio Patria Nostra. “The Legion is Our Home.”[xi]

People of almost every nationality could be found in the ranks of the “New Legion,” as the freshly formed ranks of the Legion were called.[xii] The truly unique volunteers, however, were the Americans. For the first time in history, men of the United States flocked to join the Legion. Some came seeking adventure, others came to be a part of the “war to end all wars.” Some also remembered the important role France played in the United States’ very existence, and came to aid a fellow defender of democracy and republican virtues. As American volunteer Edward Morlae wrote, “Some of us who volunteered for the war loved fighing and some of us loved France. I was fond of both.”[xiii] In all, 1,100 Americans volunteered at the outbreak of war.[xiv]

One such volunteer was Alan Seeger, an American poet. It was his time in the Legion that he wrote some of his best work. Seeger beautifully depicted life on the front lines in his poem “I Have a Rendezvous With Death:”

“…God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear …

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous”[xv]

This poem not only shows the fatalistic philosophy that many soldiers took on in the trenches, but it also shows the mindset of the Legion. Their duty is to fight and die, so that others can enjoy the comforts and liberties of civilian life.

Seeger, and 110,999 other men on the allied side, would die at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. To recount all the exploits of the Legion during this war would take an entire book. Suffice to say the Legion played a vital role in breaking the Hindenburg Line and bringing about an end to the war, fighting in various battles like Vimy Ridge, the Marne, and Hangard Wood. A complete list of the battles they fought can be seen on the map below.


World War One saw every nation involved call upon their colonies for additional manpower. France, however, saw aid coming from nationalities that had no colonial obligations to her. People joined the Legion’s banner not for national pride, but for a cause. “Civilization vs. barbarism,” as the war had been portrayed.[xvii] What is universalism if not removing national barriers for the sake of shared ideology? During the Great War the French Foreign Legion exemplified this possibly better than any other time in history.

World War Two was a particularly dark time for France and the Legion. France was crushed by Nazi Germany with humiliating speed, and much of the mainland was occupied. What remained unoccupied was known as Vichy France, a Nazi puppet state in all but name. France was divided, and so to was the French Foreign Legion. On June 30, 1940, General de Gaulle addressed the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Legion in England, making the situation clear to the soldiers. There were now two Frances; Vichy and the Free French. They would have to choose which France to serve. This decision split the brigade, and the Legion as a whole. Half would serve Vichy during the war, and the other half would serve Free France.[xviii]

This may sound like a crushing blow to the idea of French universalism. How can a divided nation be the pinnacle of culture and ideals? How can a divided army demonstrate universalism? It is not so much what the French Foreign Legion did during World War Two (though, as should be expected, they did some impressive things) as who served with them. In fact, one person in particular stands out in their service with the Legion during the war. That person is Susan Travers, a woman.

In perhaps one of the darkest times in the Legion’s history, history was also being made. For the first time a woman fought alongside the Legion. Susan Travers was an Englishwoman who joined the French Red Cross as an ambulance driver, but later joined the Free French forces in Africa. She served as a nurse, and later became the personal driver for General Marie-Pierre Koenig of the 13th Demi-Brigade, seeing frontline combat.[xix] Her autobiography reads like a Hollywood script, full of battle and romance across Africa and the Middle East.

“Rommel, having confidently predicted that we could be crushed in fifteen minutes, had been fighting us for fifteen days…” she wrote. “In some strange way, I wasn’t afraid to die. I had only myself to blame for being at this previously insignificant place, this compass bearing on the map of Africa on which the future of the entire continent now appeared to rest.”[xx]

Travers would earn 12 military medals, would also serve with the Legion after the war in French Indochina, and in 1996 would be given the highest award of France: The Legion of Honor.[xxi] As one can see, even with the Legion itself diminished and divided, it continued to advance the ideals of universal ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Susan Travers upheld all these qualities through her service in the Second World War and beyond.

At last, the paper now comes to the modern day, unfortunately skipping incredible stories of the Legion in Vietnam, Algeria, and many other places. It is a necessary skip, however, if this paper is ever to come to an end.

The modern Legion is just as committed to the idea of French universalism as when the first legionnaires marched across the Algerian desert. Though France no longer has colonies, the Legion operates in many “Francophone” nations. The Legion has training bases Djibouti, Guyane, and Mayotte. It has also played a key role in peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and Ivory Coast.[xxii] The late 1960s to the 1980s saw the Legion deployed across Africa to combat rebels, terrorists, and maintain order. They also took part in the Gulf War and peacekeeping operations during the civil war in Bosnia.[xxiii] The Legion currently plays an important role in quelling radical Islamic terrorism in Africa and in the Middle East. Even to this day, the Legion attracts people from around the world looking for adventure, for purpose.

“I don’t regret a single day in the Legion,” wrote Gareth Carins, who joined the Legion in 1996 and served in peacekeeping operations in Africa. “I hadn’t really known what to expect from it when I’d stood outside those gates in Aubagne. I’d only known that I was looking for an adventure. And whatever else… it didn’t disappoint.”[xxiv]

The modern Legion shows its loyalty to French universalism by not only continuing to bring foreign nationals under a unified banner, but by helping the global community maintain peace. The Legion still serves French interests, but now also helps serve the interests of a much wider community: A community that supports the distinctly French ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The French Foreign Legion has served as both an example and tool of French Universalism throughout its history. This paper has examined several points in history to demonstrate its importance to the idea of French universalism. The Legion was created to bring people of similar political leanings together, and help expand French borders and beliefs. The World Wars saw the Legion breaking physical, cultural, and gender-related borders, even in its own worst moments as an organization. In the age of globalization, the Legion serves both France and the world in a mission of maintaining peace and defending human rights.

[i] Nicola J. Cooper, “The French Foreign Legion: Forging Transnational Identities and Meanings.” French Cultural Studies, 17(3) pgs. 269-270.

[ii] Naomi Schor, “The Crisis of French Universalism.” Yale French Studies, No. 100 (2001) pg. 46.

[iii] “French Foreign Legion: 186th Anniversary,”, March 10, 2017.

[iv] Cooper, “The French Foreign Legion,” pgs. 270-271.

[v] Cooper, “The French Foreign Legion,” pg. 271.

[vi] Howard Swiggett, March or Die (Van Rees Press, New York, 1953) pgs. 30-31.

[vii] Swiggett, March or Die, pg. 3.

[viii] Lady Duff Gordon (translator,) The French in Algiers: I. The soldier of the foreign legion (J. Murray, London, 1845,) pg. 23.;view=1up;seq=33

[ix] Swiggett, March or Die, pg. 32.

[x] James Wellard, The French Foreign Legion (Little, Brown and Company, Botson and Toronto, 1974) pg. 81.

[xi] Adrian D. Gilbert, Voices of the Foreign Legion: The History of The World’s Most Famous Fighting Corps (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2010) pg. 148

[xii] Wellard, The French Foreign Legion, pgs. 81-84.

[xiii] Gilbert, Voices of the Foreign Legion, pg. 149.

[xiv] Wellard, The French Foreign Legion, pg. 81.

[xv] Alan Seegar, “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” Accessed April 2017.

[xvi] Wellard, The French Foreign Legion, pg. 80.

[xvii] Gilbert, Voices of the Foreign Legion, pg. 149.

[xviii] Wellard, The French Foreign Legion, pgs. 102-104.

[xix] Alan Riding, “A Legionnaire, She Was Never Timid In Amour or War,” New York Times, April 21, 2001. Accessed April 2017.

[xx] Susan Travers and Wendy Holden, Tomorrow to be Brave, (The Free Press, New York, 2000) pgs. 5-6.

[xxi] Riding, “A Legionnaire.”

[xxii] Cooper, “The French Foreign Legion,” pg. 273.

[xxiii] Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage, The French Foreign Legion: An Illustrated History (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2008) pgs. 221-225.

[xxiv] Gareth Carins, Diary of a Legionnaire: My Life in the French Foreign Legion (Grosvenor House Publishing, Surrey, England, 2007) pg. 218.

Works Cited

Carins,Gareth. Diary of a Legionnaire: My Life in the French Foreign Legion         (Grosvenor House Publishing, Surrey, England, 2007)

Cooper, Nicola J. “The French Foreign Legion: Forging Transnational Identities and   Meanings.” French Cultural Studies, 17(3).  

“French Foreign Legion: 186th Anniversary,”, March 10, 2017.       Accessed April 2017.

Gilbert, Adrian. Voices of the Foreign Legion: The History of The World’s Most Famous  Fighting Corps (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2010)

Lamping, Clemens and Lady Duff Gordon (translator,) The French in Algiers: I. The     soldier of the foreign legion (J. Murray, London, 1845)  ;view=1up;seq=33

Lepage, Jean-Denis. The French Foreign Legion: An Illustrated History (McFarland &    Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2008)

Riding, Alan. “A Legionnaire, She Was Never Timid In Amour or War,” New York        Times, April 21, 2001. Accessed April 2017.  

Schor, Naomi. “The Crisis of French Universalism.” Yale French Studies, No. 100           (2001) pg. 46.

Seegar, Alan. “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” First  published 1917. Accessed April 2017.

Swiggett, Howard. March or Die (Van Rees Press, New York, 1953)

Travers, Susan and Wendy Holden. Tomorrow to be Brave, (The Free Press, New York, 2000)

Wellard, James. The French Foreign Legion (Little, Brown and Company, Boston and   Toronto, 1974)


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