The White Kepi: A Casual History of the French Foreign Legion by Walter Kanitz. 1956. 364 pages.
The White Kepi is an odd book. It is not a fiction book yet it falls far short of any type of decent or accurate history of the French Foreign Legion. It took me several tries to finish it but I finally pushed through to the the end of what is 350 pages of overblown sensational tripe. In fact, about the only thing The White Kepi might have been good for is as a reference work for authors who wrote those lurid stories about the Foreign Legion found in post-war Men’s Adventure tabloids or the wilder pulp magazines. While this might be excusable and you can easily ignore some the exaggerations, The White Kepi also comes across as a very anti-Legion screed with sweeping condemnations about all Legionnaires being mentally deficient, alcoholics, and suicidal.
The first part of the book (Chapters 1-3) is devoted to telling the history of the Foreign Legion which the author feels is essential to understanding the rest of the book which I guess is the “casual’ part of the history. His historical review boils down to “the Legion is composed of suicidal men and because of this they fight like devils.” Chapters 4-10 are devoted to titillating subjects such as the the notorious punishing marches in the desert, atrocities and torture, desertion, Le Cafard, relations with women, homosexuality, and an armchair psychological assessment of the mind of the typical Legionnaire. He frequently cites several negative books about the Legion to include Erwin Rosen’s In the Foreign Legion, Ernst Lowehndorff’s Hell in the Foreign Legion, Memoirs of the Foreign Legion by Maurice Magnus and Les Mystères de la Légion Etrangère by Georges D’Esparbes.
Kanitz makes several errors in this book. The one which really made me shake my head was his including a very inaccurate account by Erwin Rosen of the Battle of Camerone which says the arm of Captain Danjou was embalmed, after being found severed on that battlefield and that all 63 men were killed (even though Rosen’s book made note of wounded survivors). Any Legionnaire should have known the true story of that battle and would not have used something so inaccurate. He also paints the death rates of first term Legion recruits as over 70%. His chapters about how “The Legion Relaxes” are not even to be bothered with because he prone to taking small incidents and applies them to the entire corps. According to Kanitz, every legionnaire is a poor, lonely alcoholic with homosexual tendencies due to cafard and desert isolation.
The White Kepi would have been a better book if Kanitz included more of his own experiences. I’m sure he had some personal adventures in Algeria while he was in the Legion. Instead he pieced together some of the more salacious bits from dozens of other books and accounts in order to paint a very negative and inaccurate account of the Legion.
Walter Kanitz was born in 1910 in Vienna, Austria. He was a writer at a young age with two children’s books published by the time he was 21 years old and would later train as a dentist. In 1938 Kanitz fled to Switzerland just before Germany annexed Austria. His anti-Nazi sentiments and family ties would have made him a target for the concentration camps. He enlisted in the Foreign Legion at the beginning of the war and saw a couple years of service in North Africa before the Nazi’s found about about him and requested that he be extradited to the continent and or handed over to the local Gestapo authorities. In 1942 he was able to escape from the Legion and flee to Spain where he was reunited with his wife and children. In 1944 Kanitz and his family (including his mom) emigrated to Canada (Toronto) where he would have a successful career in radio, create a small toy making business–and, no surprise here, write for various men’s magazines. He passed away February 7, 1986 in Toronto, Canada.
Here anther review of this book written by Geoffrey Bocca (who also wrote a history of the Foreign Legion called La Légion! in 1964) and appeared in the 02 June 1956 issue of The Saturday Review.
In addition to The White Kepi Walter Kanitz also wrote a hard to find book called Tales of the Foreign Legion. (A review of this book is here).