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French Foreign Legion Uniform

From its foundation until World War I the Legion wore the uniform of the French line infantry for parade with a few special distinctions. The field uniform was often modified under the influence of the extremes of climate and terrain in which the Legion served. Shakos were foreign legion uniformsoon replaced by the light cloth kepi which was far more suitable for North African conditions. One short lived aberration was the wearing of green uniforms in 1856 by Legion units recruited in Switzerland for service in the Crimean War.

In the early 1900s the Legionnaire wore a red kepi with blue band and piping, dark blue tunic with red collar, red cuff patches, and red trousers. The most distinctive features were the green epaulettes (replacing the red of the line) worn with red woolen fringes; plus the embroidered Legion badge of a red flaming grenade, worn on the kepi front instead of a regimental number. In the field a light khaki cover was worn over the kepi, sometimes with a protective neck curtain attached. The standard medium-blue double breasted greatcoat (capote) of the French infantry was worn, usually buttoned back to free the legs for marching. Around the waist was a broad blue sash, copied from that of the Zouaves. The blue sash provided warmth and support as well as (supposedly) preventing intestine diseases. White linen trousers tucked into short leather leggings were substituted for red serge in hot weather. This was the origin of the "Beau Geste" image of the Legion.

In barracks a white bleached kepi cover was often worn together with a short dark blue jacket ("veste") or white blouse plus white trousers. The original kepi cover was khaki and due to constant washing turned white quickly. The white or khaki kepi cover was not unique to the Legion at this stage but was commonly seen amongst other French units in North Africa. It later became particularly identified with the Foreign Legion as the unit most likely to serve at remote frontier posts (other than locally recruited tirailleurs who wore fezzes or turbans). The variances of climate in North Africa led the French Army to the sensible expedient of letting local commanders decide on the appropriate "tenue de jour" (uniform of the day) according to circumstances. Thus a Legionnaire might parade or walk out in blue tunic and white trousers in hot weather, blue tunic and red trousers in normal temperatures or wear the blue greatcoat with red trousers under colder conditions. The sash could be worn with greatcoat, blouse or veste but not with the tunic. Epaulettes were a detachable dress item worn only with tunic or greatcoat for parade or off duty wear.

Officers wore the same dark blue (almost black) tunics as those of their colleagues in the French line regiments, except that black replaced red as a facing colour on collar and cuffs. Gold fringed epaulettes were worn for full dress and rank was shown by the number of gold rings on both kepi and cuffs. Trousers were red with black stripes or white according to occasion or conditions. All-white or light khaki uniforms (from as early as the 1890s) were often worn in the field or for ordinary duties in barracks.

Non-commissioned officers were distinguished by red or gold diagonal stripes on the cuffs of tunics, vestes and greatcoats. Small detachable stripes were buttoned on to the white shirt-like blouse.

Prior to 1914 units in Indo-China wore white or khaki Colonial Infantry uniforms with Legion insignia, to overcome supply difficulties. This dress included a white sun helmet of a model that was also worn by Legion units serving in the outposts of Southern Algeria, though never popular with the wearers.

During the initial months of World War I Legion units serving in France wore the standard blue greatcoat and red trousers of the French line infantry, distinguished only by collar patches of the same blue as the capote, instead of red. After a short period in sky-blue the Legion adopted khaki with steel helmets, from early 1916. A mustard shade of khaki drill had been worn on active service in Morocco from 1909, replacing the classic blue and white. The latter continued to be worn in the relatively peaceful conditions of Algeria throughout World War I, although increasingly replaced by khaki drill. The pre-1914 blue and red uniforms could still be occasionally seen as garrison dress in Algeria until stocks were used up about 1919.

During the early 1920s plain khaki drill uniforms of a standard pattern became universal issue for the Legion with only the red and blue kepi (with or without a cover) and green collar braiding to distinguish the Legionnaire from other French soldiers serving in North African and Indo-China. The neck curtain ceased to be worn from about 1915, although it survived in the newly raised Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment into the 1920s. The white blouse (bourgeron) and trousers dating from 1882 were retained for fatigue wear until the 1930s.

At the time of the Legion's centennial in 1931, a number of traditional features were reintroduced at the initiative of the then commander Colonel Rollet. These included the blue sash and green/red epaulettes. In 1939 the white covered kepi won recognition as the official headdress of the Legion to be worn on most occasions, rather than simply as a means of reflecting heat and protecting the blue and red material underneath. The 3rd REI adopted white tunics and trousers for walking out dress during the 1930s and all Legion officers were required to obtain full dress uniforms in the pre-war colours of black and red from 1932 to 1939.

During World War II the Legion wore a wide range of uniform styles depending on supply sources. These ranged from the heavy capotes and Adrian helmets of 1940 through to British battledress and US field uniforms from 1943 to 1945. The white kepi was stubbornly retained whenever possible.

The white kepis, together with the sash and epaulettes survive in the Legion's modern parade dress. Since the 1990s the modern kepi has been made wholly of white material rather than simply worn with a white cover. Officers and senior NCOs still wear their kepis in the pre-1939 colours of dark blue and red. A green tie and (for officers) a green waistcoat recall the traditional branch colour of the Legion. From 1959 a green beret became the ordinary duty headdress of the Legion, with the kepi reserved for parade and off duty wear. Other items of dress are the standard issue of the French Army. Officers seconded to the Foreign Legion retain one Legion button on the vests of their dress uniforms upon returning to their original regiments.

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