Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The legion reality

The French colonial empire was the set of territories outside Europe that were under French rule primarily from the 17th century to the late 1960s. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial empire of France was the second-largest in the world behind the British Empire. The French colonial empire extended over 12,347,000 km² (4,767,000 sq. miles) of land at its height in the 1920s and 1930s. Including metropolitan France, the total amount of land under French sovereignty reached 13,018,575 km² (4,980,000 sq. miles) at the time, almost 1/10 of the Earth's total land area. Its influence made French a widely-spoken colonial European language, along with English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
France, in rivalry with Britain for supremacy, began to establish colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India, following Spanish and Portuguese successes during the Age of Discovery. A series of wars with Britain during the 18th century and early to mid-19th century, which France lost, ended its colonial ambitions in these places, and with it what some historians term the "first" French colonial empire. In the 19th century, France established a new empire in Africa File:Rytter fra Bagirmi.jpgand Southeast Asia. In this period France's conquest of Empire in Africa was dressed up as a moral crusade. In 1886 Jules Ferry declared; "The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races." Full citizenship rights - assimilation - was offered, though in reality "assimilation was always receding [and] the colonial populations treated like subjects not citizens."
Following World War I and especially World War II, anti-colonial movements began to challenge French authority. France unsuccessfully fought bitter wars in Vietnam and Algeria to keep its empire intact. By the end of the 1960s, many of France's colonies had gained independence, although some territories – especially islands and archipelagos – were integrated into France as overseas departments and territories.
The Legion’s experiences across the world shows  the  understated reality. Consider this report by Corporal Jean Pfirmann in Indochina:
On the night of 22/23 June 1889 Legionnaire Gatelet was taken by a tiger while on sentry duty…. The tiger must have jumped the wall and ditch, surprised him from behind while he was rolling a cigarette—we found the paper and tobacco with his dropped rifle—and carried him out over the wall again…. Next day we found his remains 150 yards away. AT14-02 FLAGBEARER 1914
Here is Major Hubert Lyautey, who later became the celebated marshal, describing an action against the Chinese in northern Vietnam in February 1896:
You cannot imagine what it was like: the incessant firing echoing among the rocks, the shouting of the Chinese, their war-cries and death-cries, the continuous sound of their famous trumpets…. I order the buglecall of the Legion to be sounded. It is answered!… A salvo from the left—this time it is for us…we can see nothing, but bullets flatten themselves against the rock, tearing the trees…. Combettes in front of us has [had] two of his men killed and four wounded.
Between 1887 and 1907, the Legion lost only 271 men killed in action in Indochina, but ten times that number perished from disease. When the French seized Madagascar in 1895, their casualties at the hands of the hopelessly incompetent Hova tribal defenders were negligible, but a third of the invasion force succumbed to fevers of one kind or another. File:FrenchTroopsMadagasgar.jpg
As for Algeria and Morocco, their rebellious tribes kept the Legion engaged in annual summer campaigns for more than thirty years. Between the two world wars, in Morocco the French fought against the Rif tribesmen, led by the two Abd el Krim brothers, in campaigns that were vastly larger than anything the British experienced on the northwest frontier of India. The Rif rebellion began in 1921 in Spanish Morocco, where more than 13,000 Spaniards perished. When General Manuel Fernández Silvestre’s army was defeated at Anual in July, some five thousand of his men were killed. File:LaGuerreAMadagascar.jpgWindrow contrasts this figure with General Custer’s trifling loss of two hundred cavalrymen at Little Big Horn and the British “butcher’s bill” of 1,360 against the Zulus at Isandlwana in 1879.
The territories of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco included northern Morocco  File:HPIM1812.jpgand Melilla, File:Puerto de Melilla.jpgwhich have been Spanish since the 16th and 15th century, respectively), and the Cape Juby or Tarfaya File:Tarfaya Skyline.jpgStrip in the extreme South. On the contrary, the small territory of Ifni, being of Spanish sovereignty, was not a part of the Spanish protectorate.
The capital of Spanish protectorate of Morocco was Tetuán (Tétouan).
The Protectorate system was established in 1912. The legal Islamic qadis system was formally maintained.
The Moroccan Sephardi Jews—many of them living in this part of the Maghreb after being expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively after the end of the Reconquista File:La rendición de Granada.jpgprocess—flourished in commerce, profiting from the similarity of Spanish and Ladino language and benefiting from the tax-exempt area in Tangier and a flourishing trading activity in the area.The Spanish civil war along with the Italian fascist coup were the reasons why millions died in the 2nd world war, if these latins without logic had been stopped then a war would not have taken place.
The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 with the uprising of the Spanish troops stationed in África (as the Protectorate was informally known in the Spanish military parlance) under the command of Francisco Franco against the Republican Government. These troops became the core of the Nationalist Army, which also recruited a considerable number of Moroccan troops.
Several rightist generals began plotting a coup in the spring of 1936. General José Sanjurjo became the coup's figurehead, supported by Generals Francisco Franco, Manuel Goded,File:Manuel Goded Llopis.jpg and Emilio Mola. The republican government attempted to remove generals of suspect loyalties and some were sent to less important areas; this did not prove as effective as hoped by the Republic. Prime Minister Casares Quiroga refused to believe warnings of an upcoming coup. On 12 July, members of the Falange murdered the Socialist Lieutenant José Castillo. Assault Guards arrested José Calvo Sotelo, a leading Spanish monarchist, who was shot by the Guards without trial. The event provided a catalyst and convenient public justification for the coup. The men in Spanish Morocco were to rise up early on 18 July, and those in Spain itself starting a day later. The rebels termed themselves Nacionales (normally translated "Nationalists"). After Prime Minister Quiroga refused offers of help from the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), the groups proclaimed a general strike, in effect mobilising.
The communist parties, the Communist Party of Spain and Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), advocated anti-colonialist policies whereby the Republican Government would support the independence of Spanish Morocco, intending to create a rebellion in Franco's back and cause disaffection among his Moroccan troops. However, the Republican Government under the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) rejected any such idea - which would have likely resulted in conflict with France, the colonial ruler of the other portion of Morocco.
Because the local Muslim troops had been among Franco's earliest supporters, the protectorate enjoyed more political freedom than Franco-era Spain proper after Franco's victory,with competing political parties and a Moroccan nationalist press, criticizing the Spanish government.
In 1956, when French Morocco became independent, Spain discontinued the Protectorate and surrendered the territory to the newly independent kingdom while retaining the plazas de soberanía, Ifni and other colonies outside Morocco, such as Spanish Sahara.
Unwilling to accept this, the Moroccan Army of Liberation waged war against the Spanish forces and in the Ifni War File:Ifni.jpgof 1958, spreading from Sidi Ifni to Rio de Oro,File:Western sahara landscape.jpg gained Tarfaya. In 1969, Morocco obtained Ifni. Morocco claims Ceuta and Melilla as integral parts of the country, considering them to be under foreign occupation, comparing their status to that of GibraltarFile:Tétouan.jpg
The rest of the country was ruled by France, under the name of French Morocco, also from 1912 to 1956.
The city of Tangier was declared an international zone, though this status was suspended during World War II when it was provisionally occupied by Spanish troops, from 14 June 1940, on the pretext that an Italian invasion was imminent.File:Tangier 5184a.jpg
The Republic of the Rif led by the guerrilla leader Abd El-Krim was a breakaway state that existed in the Rif region from 1921 to 1926, when it was dissolved by joint expedition of the Spanish Army of Africa and French forces during the Rif File:Morocco-spanish-protectorate-1955-a.svgWar.
When the Rif rebellion spilled over into French Morocco, the colonial power paid heavily for its suppression. In 1925 alone, France suffered 11,000 casualties there, and was obliged to deploy 155,000 troops before the conflict was ended; the Abd el Krims surrendered and were dispatched into exile.
The Army of Africa was composed of Spanish troops as well as the Spanish Foreign LegionFile:Stanley A. McChrystal COMISAF.JPG and locally recruited Moroccan infantry and cavalry called Regulares. In total, the Army of Africa numbered 30,000 soldiers and was the most professional and effective fighting force in the 100,000-man Spanish Army during the 1920s and 30s. Infantry recruited in the enclave of Ifni ("Tiradores de Ifni") were also considered part of the Army of Africa.
The Army of Africa was to play a key part during the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39. Along with other units in the Spanish Army, the Army of Africa rose against the Spanish Republican Government and took part in the Nacional military rebellion of July 1936. On July 18, 1936, General Francisco Franco assumed the supreme command over this force.
Spanish Morocco fell to the rebels without significant opposition. The initial intention was to transport the Army of Africa to mainland Spain by sea. However the crews of Spanish warships whose officers had joined the revolt remained loyal to the Republican government in Madrid. Significant numbers of the Army of Africa were accordingly transported to mainland Spain in a bold airlift led by Junkers and Savoia-Marchetti transport planes supplied by Germany and Italy.
After landing in Spain, the Army of Africa was split into two columns, one commanded by General Juan Yagüe and the other commanded by Colonel José Varela. Yagüe's force advanced north, making remarkably rapid gains, and then turned north-eastwards towards Madrid and Toledo. Varela's force entered Andalusia and took control of the key cities of Seville, Granada, and Cordova. Thanks mostly to the Army of Africa's advances, almost all of western Spain was in Francoist Nacionales hands by the end of September 1936. By early 1937 the Army of Africa's strength had been increased to 60,000 men. The Legion and Regulares spearheaded the Nacionales's operations for the remainder of the war and played a central role in the Nacional victory.
The French Foreign Legion was at the forefront of almost every battle in North Africa. With what style they fought! Here is Hubert Lyautey again, deploying his forces for a 1908 engagement against the Berbers:
At 4am I was at the mouth of a pass…. A company of the Legion were passing: “Bonjour, mes legionnaires,” I called; “Bonjour, mon general—tout va bien!” came back from 200 throats with a single voice…. With an instrument like that in my hand, I could go anywhere.
Lyautey himself presented a dramatically exotic figure, wearing a flowing Arab burnous over his uniform, and carrying the sword his grandfather had borne on Napoleon’s 1812 march to Moscow.

Windrow, who is already the author of The Last Valley, an excellent account of the 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu, where the French suffered decisive defeat at the hands of the Vietminh, is a master of telling military detail. He notes how the Moroccan tribes reloaded their own rifle cartridges with black powder and percussion caps made from ground-down match-heads soaked in gasoline.
He quotes Corporal Frederic Martyn, fighting Dahomeyan Amazons—women warriors—in 1892, who found himself bayoneting the enemy with his five-foot Gras rifle, “throwing them off to make room for another, like a farmer forking hay.” The Dahomeyans of both sexes “fought like unchained demons,” and when the French saw their own soldiers mutilated by the enemy, Amazon prisoners were summarily dispatched alongside the men.
Windrow makes the point, in language not for the squeamish, that Arab tribesmen’s swords could inflict wounds quite as horrible as anything modern technology contrives:
A preliminary slash across the scalp could cause instant extensive bleeding, usefully blinding the soldier…. A stab or hard slash to the neck could lacerate the jugular vein or carotid artery or even sever the spinal column. A hard stab to the chest did not have to penetrate the chambers of the heart to be effective; it could also fracture ribs and puncture lungs. A knife in the belly would usually tear into the bowel, liver, spleen, kidneys or one of several blood vessels.
If Arab weapons could inflict shocking wounds, the French were merciless. Only the veto of the Paris government prevented Marshal Lyautey from using poison gas against the Rif. He began to use primitive Bleriot aircraft to support his operations against rebels as early as 1912, when they dropped weighted message bags to report the enemy’s positions. By the 1920s, he deployed several air squadrons to bomb and machine-gun the tribesmen.
Legionnaires in Corsica, 1972
The Legion did much service to France in its colonial wars—by 1925 twelve battalions were deployed in Morocco alone. Windrow compares its experience to that of the US Army in America’s earlier frontier wars. Its soldiers were seldom required to display much initiative or imagination. They were merely expected to march, suffer, fight, and die for five centimes a day, with a minimum of reflection, much less complaint. One unit in Morocco in 1900 marched 1,134 miles in seventy-two days, losing only six of four thousand men to sickness. Most of the remainder reached barracks with their broken boots held together with wire and string.
The Legion devised and perfected in North Africa a technique new to the French army for increasing the speed and range of a marching column by allocating a mule to every two men. Each beast carried both packs, and their owners alternated hour by hour in the saddle. By such means, a unit could traverse fifty miles a day, or thirty-seven miles in rocky terrain.
In the Legion’s forts and outposts across the French empire, when there were no tribal insurgencies men suffered from desperate boredom, le cafard, which prompted a steady drain of suicides. And when enemies attacked, garrisons often withstood epic sieges. In December 1884 in Indochina, four hundred men at Tuyen Quang on the Clear River held out for thirty-seven days against ferocious Chinese attackers, who fired six thousand incoming rounds a day, exploded mines beneath the walls, and taunted the legionnaires by displaying the heads of their fallen comrades on bamboo stakes.
In 1908, the leader of a Moroccan tribal harka besieging a Legion outpost sent in a formal challenge, urging the French to come out and fight like men. Had they been foolish enough to accept and lose, the price of defeat would be high. A report after one battle in the hills of western Algeria described finding eight French bodies, all but one stripped:
One had been mutilated: QM-Sergeant Lovy of the Skirmishers showed no bullet wounds but the signs of violent beating, and his eyes had been gouged out with a dagger. More happily, Lieutenant Deze found 8305 Disciplinary Private Maret, 36 hours after the action and a full 9 miles from the scene. Half-naked and suffering from heatstroke, he had been eating grass seeds and drinking his own urine, but when found he still had his rifle and was full of fight.

Martin Windrow’s book, which I enjoyed immensely, portrays the Legion’s experiences in the context of the wider French campaigns in Madagascar and North Africa. The personalities are irresistible. Beyond such stars as Lyautey, Colonel Paul Rollet, and Major Aage—Denmark’s crown prince—there are figures like Captain Zinovi Pechkoff. The Russian-born officer was Maxim Gorki’s adopted son. He served in the French army as an NCO in World War I and came to Morocco as a thirty-five-year-old captain. He fell in love with the country, and British legionnaire Adolph Cooper described him as the best officer of any army whom he ever knew.
One of Pechkoff’s stunts was to leap into the saddle of his gray horse, holding the reins in his teeth. “We are the pioneers,” he wrote proudly,
who open a new country [and] who do the hardest work. After the Legion, other men will come…. Their names will be known. But it is our men of the Legion who have paved the way with their untiring labour. Every path we make bears the pain of our men.
Sergeant-Major Max Mader was a Würtemburger who deserted from an Imperial German pioneer unit in 1899 after striking back at a brutal NCO, and went on to become one of the most famous NCOs in the Legion. In World War I, fighting against his own countrymen, he especially distinguished himself in an action in France in April 1917, described in Adrian Gilbert’s book:
Collecting a group of ten legionnaires, he leaped out of the trench, defying the hail of machine-gun fire, and attacked the pillbox from the rear, killing its defenders…. With a fresh bag of grenades he charged the other pillboxes, whose Saxon defenders, shattered by this unexpected attack, fled in disorder.
Mader and his ten men found themselves masters of a six-gun German artillery battery.
Windrow notes that many Foreign Legion memoirs must be treated with caution, because their authors served up fanciful tales to please credulous Anglo-Saxon readers. Gilbert’s short book is less a history than a miscellany of reminiscences. It has the virtue of covering the regiment’s entire history, from the nineteenth century to modern times. It embraces the two world wars, the 1950s struggle against the Vietminh, the Algerian independence struggle that almost provoked a French civil war in 1961, and more recent interventions in Africa.
Since Algeria, where the Legion was involved in the torture and other barbarities that severely tarnished the reputation of the French army, it has evolved into a rapid reaction force, deployed in a succession of African states where French national interests have been deemed to be at stake. These included Chad in 1969, Kolwezi in 1978, and Dijbouti from the 1970s onward. Most modern recruits serve for five years, though some endure fifteen. Every man who completes his time becomes eligible for French citizenship and receives a certificate declaring that he has done his duty with “honneur et fidélité.”
Gilbert quotes a modern British veteran, Carl Jackson, looking back on his service:
The Legion gave me back a bit of my self-respect, because with my marriage breaking up I was starting to go downhill. When I got to the Legion I got on with the job and started to feel a bit like a man again…. There’s nothing romantic about the Legion, I can assure you. It’s physical, hard, and it’s an experience that once you’ve done it you either regret it or you don’t regret it. And I don’t regret it.
In twelve years with the British army, Jackson had served only at home, in Germany, and in Canada. In the Legion, however, he was based in Corsica and traveled to French Guyane, Djibouti, Central Africa, Rwanda, and Chad: “But I would never, never, never, ever do the first two years again.”

Most of us would find it incomprehensible that a man should choose to accept the aridity and crushing loneliness of Legion life, more austere than that of any ordinary Western soldier. Gilbert’s subtitle seems to exaggerate by claiming that the regiment is “the world’s most famous fighting corps.” It is merely one among several elites, its combat ethos having much in common with that of the British Parachute Regiment, the US Marine Corps, and airborne formations.
The Legion’s toughness and ruthlessness are indisputable, but there is no reason to suppose that it has produced better warriors than those of other crack units. The mystery and diverse origins of its recruits do more than its battlefield prowess to create the ethos that catches the imagination of military romantics.
Douglas Porch is the author of fine histories of the Legion and of France’s Moroccan experience,1 which are much more substantial than Gilbert’s pleasing but slight anecdotal account. Windrow’s book has the advantage of describing a host of personalities and actions largely unknown to Anglo-Saxon readers. As he showed in his earlier Indochina book, he has an outstanding instinct for both battlefield realities and the ways of soldiers.
In his concluding pages, he sketches the passing of one of the greatest of all Legion heroes, General Paul Rollet, who retired at the age of sixty in 1935 and became president of the association of war wounded. The old man was often thereafter to be seen on the boulevards of Paris, wearing full uniform and medals, clanking a collecting tin for his beloved veterans. Rollet was heartbroken when, in 1940, his request to return to active duty was refused, and he died the following year.
Windrow is without illusions about the brutality of France’s colonial wars and those who fought them. He writes:
It is safe to assume that only a tiny minority of the readers of this book have ever known lives of real Third World hardship, hunger, superstition, and arbitrary violence without appeal. For the nineteenth-century European underclasses such experiences might be the norm…. When men born into such conditions were offered [in the Legion] regular meals, a comprehensible system of reward and punishment, clearly-defined tasks and a sense of collective self-esteem, they could be shaped into a weapon, but it would remain a rather indiscriminate one….
Before [World War I]…people simply did not question the need for wars nor the moral status of those who fought them, and the things that might happen on campaign were no business of civilians; after all, the adversaries that they were fighting never took prisoners themselves, except with the very worst of intentions.
Both sides displayed absolute ruthlessness in the Legion’s long, inconclusive struggle with the North African tribes. All the combatants were men of their time, and what passes for civilization was far away. These two books go far to explain the enduring fascination of the Legion for armchair warriors and historians. But only the foolish seek to romanticize this bleak, cruel fighting machine, loyal only to its own.

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