The French Foreign Legion: The Inside Story of the World-Famous Fighting Force by John Robert Young with Erwan Bergot and Len Deighton (Introduction). 1985. 220 pages.
This book may look familiar to readers. It has been around in various reprints, formats and languages since first published in 1984. That’s thirty years ago and yet it still stands as one of the best books on the French Foreign Legion (IMHO). It was probably one of the first Foreign Legion books I ever bought. It has been on my bookshelf for as long as I had a bookshelf and so, after reading it yet again, I feel it’s time for a short review.
The French Foreign Legion was written by John Robert Young (a Canadian photo-journalist) but it also contains a forward by Len Deighton (British novelist and military historian) and a 41 page Legion history synopsis written by Erwan Bergot (Former Legion officer and historian). These chapters are followed by several informational “appendices” that outline the Foreign Legion Regimental Histories; Commanding Officers 1831-1883, Uniforms and Equipment, Customs and Traditions, Roll of Honor, The Legion’s Weapons, Famous Legionnaires, Nationalities in the Foreign Legion, Equivalent Ranks, Select Bibliography. The Chapter written by Mr. Young (The Legion Today) is the longest and contains his photographs and written commentary that accompanies the photographs (as well as captions for each).
The remarkable thing about this book was that Mr. Young was given full access to the Foreign Legion by the French government and military. This was unprecedented at the time and represented a huge shift in the Legion’s traditional secretiveness. He traveled 50,000 miles on this assignment to several far-flung locations to observe the Foreign Legion in action and even participated in training, patrols and parachute jumps. Locations discussed in his narrative includes include Sidi-Bel-Abbes, Aubagne, Orange, Castelnaudary, Puyloubier, Calvi (Corsica) in France as well as French Guyana and Djibouti. He visited and talked to Legionnaires from the 2 REP, the 13th DBLE, the 1 REC, and the 3 REI and the Legion headquarters, basic training facilities and their “old soldier’s home”. Young’s photographs (150 selected out of 3,000 taken) are given prominence over his written descriptions and once I read Bergot’s history section it only took an hour to finish Young’s portion.
Although the book is a bit dated the information within still very much applies to today’s Foreign Legion whose traditions seem to defy time and history. Young does a good job exploring what motivates those who join the Legion and what he discovers is not surprising. Most recruits from western countries join for the personal challenge of being in an elite and legendary combat unit while many others (not all) from the Eastern European nations, Asia, Africa and elsewhere join mainly for the chance to become a French citizen. He also presents us with evidence that the Legionnaires are actually human beings as well with personalities, families, dreams and ambitions. Their commanding officers are also shown to be combat tested yet understanding and considerate of the legionnaires in their units. No author’s “opinions” or “exposes” or “startling revelations” are here and that is what makes this book enjoyable to read. I found it very truthful.
Besides the authors photographs there are dozens of historical illustrations that accompany Ewan Bergot’s history and another dozen or so at the end where you can find two nice full page uniform prints (see below) and a full two-page photo spread of a Saharan fort (Fort Flatters). The reference sections are also unique and seems to have been pulled from authoritative sources and Legion publications such as the Livre D’or and Kepi Blanc magazine.
All in all this is a great book and highly recommended. The good thing is that there are many copies to be found at great prices. There are several on Amazon selling for less than $1.50.