Memoirs of the Foreign Legion by Maurice Magnus

This book is a first hand account of an idealistic littérateur who decides to do his part for France in the Great War and joins the French Foreign Legion.  The memoir has a very lengthy forward written (after M.M.’s death) by D.H. Lawrence (English writer of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and many others).   Lawrence’s friend describes Magnus, who exists among the international intellectual scene of the era, as a “little fussy fellow” and his account further characterizes him as a man totally convinced of his higher class standing.  Even when flat broke Magnus still refused to make his own dinners, sleep in lower class hotels, or take 2nd or 3rd class transportation.  He simply borrowed more money from his very tolerant friends.  His debt eventually caught up to him–Magnus killed himself in his hotel room rather than be taken away by the police sent to arrest him and who were waiting outside his door.  He was clearly a fish out of water when he showed up at Sidi Bel Abbes–older, smarter, idealistic, well off, and at least in his mind a member of the upper class.  Eventually, after miserable treatment by the French military, he makes good his desertion and slips across the border into Italy.  This book is available from Project Gutenberg at this link

You can also download it for $ .99 at Amazon in Kindle format.

The following portion from this book is a truly remarkable literary rant describing what Mr. Magnus felt about the French Foreign Legion.

I WAS but a few days in the Legion before I realized that I had come to the wrong place.  First of all there were no contingents of different nationalities with their respective officers, as Mr. Stadel and others had told me. French was spoken –bad French by Germans, Greeks and Spaniards.  There was one Englishman, one Dane, one
American negro, a few Armenians, a number of Spaniards and Greeks, two Corsicans, a few Turks, Russians, Egyptians, Portuguese, Servians, Italians, Arabs, Negroes, many Algerians, some Jews, very few Frenchmen, and the rest Germans.

The marches, the desert, the shooting, the Arab encounters on the Moroccan railway, the watch-fires, was it all a dream of Mr. Stadel?  The officers of different nationalities? One Danish lieutenant, two Greek lieutenants, a Corsican captain–the rest Germans.

Secondly, there were no idealists or enthusiasts for the war in the Legion, as the American Consul at Algiers had told me. The typical Legionnaire existed as he had existed ever since the foundation of the Legion: the murderer, thief, cut-throat, deserter, adventurer, embezzler, forger, gaol-bird, and fugitive from justice.  The only
exceptions of a different category were the few German-Frenchmen who entered in order to save themselves from the concentration camp, or to save their fortunes from being sequestered, or both.

The Legion was the stamping ground of the typical ex-German as he has been described for generations.  Seventy per cent of the Legion were Germans, and it was German food, German manners, German discipline, German militarism, German arrogance, German insolence and German arbitrariness. One of the majors was a German-Alsatian, the Jewish lieutenant had a German name, every sergeant-major but one was a German, every sergeant but two was a German, the cooks were Germans, and the infirmary nurses were Germans. The severity of the punishments was decidedly German, It was a German regiment of the lowest type transplanted to Africa. The soldiers spoke German among themselves, and aired only German sentiments. They retained all their German habits of excessive drinking, eating, smoking, swearing, and blaspheming.

There was not a man in the Legion who could be trusted either as to his word or honesty. There were no morals–not even the morals of the “Apache”, who at least protects his associate in crime. It was a crowd of men nowhere else to be seen.

The humane among us always believe that, no matter how low or bad a man, he can always be redeemed with love or kindness or decent treatment, and that somehow his heart can be touched. Nothing of that kind here.  Such a man did not exist. They were hardened old criminals, who were past all touching of heart. Any such attempt would have been construed as a trap, and any apparent kindness or friendship was treated with suspicion. Genuine feeling was unknown in the Legion.  There was nothing to redeem; a man was a living shell, with his soul dead, with no conscience or scruple, without heart or feeling, with only a belly to feed and fill with drink, and sexual organs to serve him for his depravities. To rob openly, to steal secretly, to murder when lust prompted, were all one to him. There was no friendship, no self-respect, no respect for others, nothing was sacred. Everything was calculated, every feeling only existed theoretically, was called into service to obtain money, drink, food, tobacco, and animal satisfaction. And having once succeeded, the victim was publicly laughed and jeered at, treated with contempt for his stupidity and softness, and then bullied by others, who exploited their knowledge of him and finally harassed him into submission, until any attempt to retain self-respect was impossible and the last ray of decency was extinguished. He was made a beast of so often that he himself became a beast like the others.

The human brain is not made of steel; it is malleable and impressionable; and the strength of numbers and its force is overpowering. A man cannot swim against the stream, and once in the vortex of human depravity, where there is no religion, and where ethical values have never existed, a man, if he has any stamina in him and doesn’t fall at once, is slowly attacked by the innumerable, subtle, invisible tentacles of wickedness and vice, daily, hourly, in speech, suggestion and action, and life is made a mental and physical torture for him in hundreds of ways every hour of the day and night, consciously and unconsciously, until he yields to the surrounding influences; and once brought down to their level there is no hope of his resurrection. To get there means the killing of everything good that was ever in him, beyond all hope, and with it appears a carelessness of self, and a gradual awakening of a sense of enjoyment of the cruelties and depravities of their life, until he, like the others, can no longer live without their brutal pleasures and vices, and becomes like them in thought, in apathy, in degeneration, with the same fixed idea that nothing matters except the coarsest, most brutal and physical satisfactions. Everything must be sacrificed for that.  The ethics of the decent world serve to play with, not to be acted on, or believed in.

I had thought that in my many travels, in my knowledge of all sorts and conditions of men, I had met the worst class which existed, the lowest types. I found I was mistaken; it was only here that I met them. I had never met them before. What I had met were ideal types of ruffians, thieves, prostitutes, and thugs, of which one reads in
books, types that had personality, a sense of humour and a heart underneath their badness, and always a sense of honour, even if only among themselves.

But my remotest imagination had never pictured the type I met here, a type absolutely foreign to me, of which I had had no previous conception. There had always been a basis in common from which I could grapple with low types, whereas here I stood before an enigma–these people were outside anything I could tackle. Even if I had understood
them, there was no common ground, no point of contact; I had to become one of them first.  And once there, I would have had much common ground, but it would not have been of any use to me, for then I could not have been of any help to them. I should have been where they were.  It was the dregs of the lowest of human society which gathered here.  No such collection is to be found anywhere else in the world, not even in prisons.

In prisons there are bound to be persons who are good but have failed; probably through a temptation, a wave of temper, a weakness, a first offence. But whoever came here was a hardened old sinner, who had been in prison many times and never dreamt of reform or betterment, but who came here because he could be his hard-hearted self, in all his viciousness, together with the others like him, and be protected by the law.

Here the code was: do as you would not want to be done by, but don’t be found out. The victim is the guilty one.

A man is not punished for stealing, but the man who has his things stolen is punished. The murdered man is buried, the murderer must not be found out. I had come to the refuse-heap of Europe, and I had to stick to my guns in order not to land on top of it too.

Two thoughts occupied me after my first glances at the Legion and the life and the men–to keep myself straight at all costs, and to get out.

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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3 Responses to Memoirs of the Foreign Legion by Maurice Magnus

  1. Roger says:

    This is a fascinating account of life in the Legion but more interesting is the insight into the author and his demons. Highly recommended!


    • I agree. It was rich with detail and had me shaking my head the whole time because I knew where this was ultimately going for him. There is a biography out there call Maurice Magnus: A Biography. Link


  2. Pingback: As in the Days of “Beau Geste” by P. C. Wren | Mon Legionnaire

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