French Foreign Legion


French Foreign Legion
   Officially named the Régiment Étranger, the French Foreign Legion was the most storied and durable mercenary force attached to a regular army. France had a long history of employing foreign mercenaries before the creation of the legion; of 102 line regiments in the French army before the revolution, 23 were made up of foreign nationals. The French Foreign Legion was established in 1831 by Louis Philippe to mop up refugees coming into France after the Revolution of July 1830 made it illegal for foreigners to enlist in the French army. The Legion quickly became a home for foreign adventurers, social misfits, and every kind of criminal.
   The Legion also became a military workhorse of French colonialism, seeing action for the first time in Algeria in 1832. In 1835–1836 the Legion served in the Carlist Wars in Spain, where it fought well yet was so decimated that it had to be rebuilt. Adopting the motto Legio patria nostra, “the Legion is our fatherland,” in the 1840s, it made its headquarters in Sidi-bel-Abbès in Algeria and played a major role in the French conquest of that country. Legion units also served in the Crimean War, the Austro-Piedmontese War, the Franco-Prussian War, and in French Indochina. Captain Jean Danjou, a highly decorated legionnaire who lost a hand in combat in Algeria in 1853, and had a wooden prosthetic made, died with most of his men in a last-ditch stand in the Battle of Camarón in Mexico in 1863. His wooden hand was recovered, is displayed at the legion headquarters in Aubagne in southern France, and is paraded annually on the anniversary of the battle.
   FURTHER READING:
    Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion. New York: Harper Collins, 1991;
    Turnbull, Patrick. The Foreign Legion. London: Heinemann, 1964.
   CARL CAVANAGH HODGE

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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