The French Foreign Legion in Spain
To support Isabella’s claim to the Spanish throne against her uncle, the French government decided to send the Legion to Spain. On 28 June 1835, the unit was handed over to the Spanish government. The Legion landed at Tarragona on 17 August with around 4,000 men, and were quickly dubbed Los Argelinos (the Algerians) by locals because of their previous posting.
The Legion’s commander immediately dissolved the national battalions to improve the esprit de corps. Later, he also created three squadrons of lancers and an artillery battery from the existing force to increase independence and flexibility.
The Legion was dissolved on 8 December 1838, when it had dropped to only 500 men. The survivors returned to France, many reenlisting in the new Legion along with many of their former Carlist enemies.
It was in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. A company led by Capitaine Danjou, numbering 62 soldiers and 3 officers, was escorting a convoy to the besieged city of Puebla when it was attacked and besieged by two thousand members of the Mexican Army, organized in three battalions of infantry and cavalry, numbering 1,200 and 800 respectively. The patrol was forced to make a defence in Hacienda Camarón, and despite the hopelessness of the situation, fought nearly to the last man. When only six survivors remained, out of ammunition, a bayonet charge was conducted in which three of the six were killed. The remaining three were brought before the Mexican general, who allowed them to return to France as an honour guard for the body of Capitaine Danjou. The captain had a wooden hand which was stolen during the battle; it was later returned to the Legion and is now kept in a case in the Foreign Legion museum at Aubagne, and paraded annually on Camerone day.
According to French law, the Legion was not to be used within Metropolitan France except in the case of a national invasion, and was consequently not a part of Napoleon III’s Imperial Army that capitulated at Sedan. With the defeat of the Imperial Army, the Second French Empire fell and the Third Republic was created.
The new Third Republic was desperately short of trained soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War, so the Legion was ordered to provide a contingent. On 11 October 1870 two provisional battalions disembarked at Toulon, the first time the Legion had been deployed in France itself. They attempted to lift the Siege of Paris by breaking through the German lines. They succeeded in re-taking Orléans, but failed to break the siege.
19th century colonial warfare
During the Third Republic, the Legion played a major role in French colonial expansion. They fought in North Africa (where they established their headquarters at Sidi-Bel-Abbès in Algeria), Benin, Madagascar, Indochina and Taiwan.
The Legion’s 1st Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Donnier) was sent to Tonkin in the autumn of 1883, during the period of undeclared hostilities that preceded the Sino-French War (August 1884 to April 1885). Preparing for the Son Tay Campaign in December 1883, the 1st battalion received its famous message from General de Négrier, “You, Legionnaires, you are soldiers in order to die, and I am sending you where you can die.” The Legion battalion formed part of the attack column that stormed the western gate of Son Tay on 16 December. The 2nd and 3rd infantry battalions (chef de bataillon Diguet and Lieutenant-Colonel Schoeffer) were also deployed to Tonkin shortly afterwards, and were present in all the major campaigns of the Sino-French War. Two Legion companies led the defence at the celebrated Siege of Tuyen Quang (24 November 1884 to 3 March 1885). In January 1885 the Legion’s 4th Battalion (chef de bataillon Vitalis) was deployed to the French bridgehead at Keelung (Jilong) in Formosa (Taiwan), where it took part in the later battles of the Keelung Campaign. The battalion played an important role in Colonel Jacques Duchesne’s offensive in March 1885 that captured the key Chinese positions of La Table and Fort Bamboo and disengaged Keelung.
World War I
In World War I, the Legion fought in many critical battles of the war, on the Western Front including Artois, Champagne, Somme, Aisne, Verdun (in 1917) and also suffered heavy casualties during 1918. The Legion was also in the Dardanelles and Macedonian front, and the Legion was highly decorated for its efforts. Many young foreigners, including Americans like Fred Zinn, volunteered for the Legion when the war broke out in 1914. There were marked differences between such idealistic volunteers as the poet Alan Seeger and the hardened mercenaries of the old Legion, making assimilation difficult. Nevertheless, the old and the new men of the Legion fought and died in vicious battles on the Western front, including Belloy-en-Santerre during the Battle of the Somme, where Seeger, after being mortally wounded by machine gun fire, cheered on the rest of his advancing battalion.
As most European countries and the US were drawn into the War, many of the newer “duration only” volunteers who managed to survive the first years of the war were generally released from the Legion to join their respective national armies. Citizens of the Central Powers serving with the Legion on the outbreak of war were normally posted to garrisons in North Africa to avoid problems of divided loyalties.
Between the World Wars
In 1932, the Legion comprised 30,000 men in 6 multi-battalion regiments:
- 1st – Algeria and Syria
- 2d, 3d, and 4th – Morocco
- 5th – Indochina
- 1st Cavalry – Tunisia and Morocco.
World War II
The Foreign Legion played a smaller role in World War II, though having a part in the Norwegian, Syrian and North African campaigns. The 13th Demi-Brigade was deployed in the Battle of Bir Hakeim. Reflecting the divided loyalties of the time, part of the Legion joined the Free French movement while another part served the Vichy government. A battle in the Syria-Lebanon campaign of June 1941 saw legionnaire fighting legionnaire as the 13th Demi-Brigade (D.B.L.E.) clashed with the 6th Regiment Etranger d’Infanterie at Damas in Syria. Later, 1,000 of the rank and file of the Vichy Legion unit joined the 13th D.B.L.E. of the Free French forces as a third battalion. Following the war, many former German soldiers joined the Legion to pursue a military career with an elite unit, an option that was no longer possible in Germany. Germans still constitute a strong presence in the Legion.
First Indochina War
Units of the Legion were involved in the defense of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indochina War and lost a large number of men in the battle. Towards the desperate end of the battle, Legionnaires formed the bulk of the volunteer relief force delivered by parachute to the base.
The Legion was heavily engaged in fighting against the National Liberation Front and other, smaller groups in the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962. Notable operations included the Battle of Algiers and various offensives launched by General Maurice Challe including Operations Oranie and Jumelles.
In spite of the view on the part of some that the Legion had by 1962 become an anachronism, the Legion found a new role as a rapid intervention force to preserve French interests not only in its former African colonies but in other nations as well. Some notable operations include: the Suez Crisis in 1956; the Chadian-Libyan conflict in 1969-72, 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.
The Gulf War
In September 1990, the 2e REI, 6e REG and 1e REC were sent to the Persian Gulf as a part of Opération Daguet. They were a part of the French 6th Light Armoured Division, whose mission was to protect the coalition’s left flank.
After a four-week air campaign, coalition forces launched the ground campaign. It quickly penetrated deep into Iraq, with the Legion taking the Al Salman airport, meeting little resistance. The war ended after a hundred hours of fighting on the ground, which resulted in very light casualties for the Legion.
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