In the Foreign Legion by Erwin Rosen

In the Foreign Legion was written by a German-American author by the name of Erwin Carlé.  He chose to use Erwin Rosen as a pseudonym for this book which details his experiences in the Foreign Legion from when he joined in October 1905 until he deserted sometime in 1906.  It also seems that he used this name when he joined the Legion although Rosen would have told you his new name was LM17889–his Legion identification number.  Carlé was born in June 1876 in Karlsruhe, Germany.  He was apparently quite the practical joker and a genuine “slacker“ when he attended university.  An embarrassment to his family.  To avoid a scandal he was sent by his father to the United States to straighten him out.  Erwin began his new life in New York but eventually moved to Galveston Texas where he picked up various cowboy skills such as shooting and roping (while he was supposed to be learning something about business and agriculture).  His sense of adventure soon took hold and soon he was writing for a German newspaper in St. Lewis and translating for the Associated Press.  He also worked as a journalist in San Francisco and wrote his first book (in German) about his experiences in America.  This new career in journalism eventually carried him to the U.S. Army where he served as a military correspondent covering the Army in Cuba during the 1898 Spanish American War.   He also traveled elsewhere throughout South and Central America as a foreign war correspondent.  Eventually he returned to Germany but didn’t really change his bad habits and his fiancee dumped him.   This was his stated reason for joining the Legion.

This is a very well written account of the pre-WWI Foreign Legion—probably one of the best, and may have been inspiration (or at least an information source) for P. C. Wren’s Beau Geste.  It runs for 15 chapeters and about 300 pages.  Like many of these antique books it’s a very quick read because of the large typesetting.   Legionnaire Rosen had a simple and direct writing style with a good sense of detail.  His account is full of wonderful descriptions of his fellow legionnaires, the barracks, Sidi Bel Abbes, the dreaded cafard, the marches and recruit training.  One of the more interesting things to come out in his account was that there were about 20 Americans serving in the Legion late 1905.  One of these was “Jonathan Smith“, the company bugler and a veteran of Tonquin, who quickly became Rosen’s friend and mentor to the ways of the Legion.

Rosen meticulously describes his recruitment and shipping out to Oran, Algeria in the first two chapters.  He then explains his in-processing at Caserne Vienot as well as his compatriots and his barracks.  He devotes a chapter each to Sidi Bel Abbes, Le Cafard, Punishment, Desertion, and his own desertion. The last chapter is devoted to a full frontal assault on the Foreign Legion.  It’s almost as if he had to tack on this tail end to satisfy his publishers in order to capitalize on the anti-Legion public perception that was the current rage in Germany at this time.  Something to keep in the back of one’s mind when reading this book—Rosen was a  German-American journalist who had returned to his homeland and the Legion was aware of this.  He served in the German Army and the American Army so was not a novice to military life (–he surely understood their methods), and lastly in the dozen or so years leading up to WWI the Germans been waging a relentless campaign of anti-Legion propaganda.   Rosen does not write favorably of the Foreign Legion in this book and his condemnation of the Legion primarily stems from the poor pay and the continuous use of the Legion as a labor corps for public works.  Of course the pay was bad—5 centimes (about a penny) a day for a recruit.  But if one was promoted to Legionnaire 1st Class the pay doubled to 10 centimes.  If one made it to corporal it increased five fold to half a franc a day.  If the company was on combat tour/campaign then the Legion pay would be doubled for everyone.  Those who had reinlisted for another five years recieved substantially higher pay as well.   Legionnaire Frederic Martyn published his memoirs of service in the Legion (Life in the Legion) a year or so after Rosen–partly to set the record straight on what Rosen has said about the Legion.  Martyn served out his five years and had little to complain about the Legion.  He was a professional soldier so he did caution that those not used to the military life might find the Foreign Legion quite hard.

Nevertheless this is one of my favorite books because Rosen/Carlé really did a great job in capturing all of the colorful details of his months spent in the Legion.  This is a must-read for anyone who likes the classic Foreign Legion.  It can be downloaded in Kindle Format from Amazon or as a .pdf file at this link.  In the Foreign Legion.

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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4 Responses to In the Foreign Legion by Erwin Rosen

  1. Geoff Pearce says:

    Excellent book! I first read a 1935 copy in the 1950s which had omitted to year he joined, printing “19–” only. Many years later I found out it was 1905 and obtained both a 1909 copy in German and a first edition 1910 copy in English. I was surprised when I discovered it had recently been republished (bought a copy of that too).


  2. Wolfgang says:

    I just wanted to point out that there are discrepancies between the English translation of Rosen’s book and the original in German which is available here:

    In the original, German version, the name of Rosen’s mentor is not an American by the name of “Jonathan Smith” but a veteran German legionnaire who is only referred to as “Guttinger”.

    And if I recall correctly (it’s been a while since I read the whole book), there is just one reference to Americans. This occurs when the new recruit Rosen arrives at the barracks in Sidi bel Abbès. An African-American legionnaire correctly makes him out as somebody who has lived in the U.S. The original contains the following dialogue (in English):

    Auch ein Neger war unter den Legionären. Er schien eine feine Nase zu haben, denn:

    » You talk U. S.?« fragte er mich. »Sprichst du ›Vereinigte Staaten‹?«

    » I guess I do,« antwortete ich.

    » Oh Golly, white man, you ‘re a fool and the son of a fool!« sagte der Schwarze mit einem breiten Lachen. »Weißer Mann, du bist ein Narr und der Sohn eines Narren!«


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