Book: Life in the Legion: from a Soldier’s Point of View by Frederic Martyn

Life in the Legion is an outstanding memoir of an Englishman’s  five year enlistment in the French Foreign Legion from 1889 to 1894.   I highly recommend this book as it is one of the few accounts of five full years in the “Classic” Legion.  It was not written by a deserter and therefore provides what I think is a true and honest assessment of this organization in all its failings and glory.  In true “Legion Memoir” format this book chronologically covers Mr. Martyn’s visit to the recruitment center, travel to North Africa, his training at Sidi Bel Abbes and subsequent service in Algeria, Tonkin, Dahomey and finally on the edge of the Sahara against the Touaregs.  Martyn was a former British officer and enlisted soldier and a generally well traveled and slightly older gentleman of questionable integrity.  For some reason his service in the British army did not end well and he found himself despondent and wandering the streets of Paris.  He admittedly joins the Legion after an unspecified loss of “conceit in myself”.  He writes several pages in great detail how he eventually enlisted and hooked up with another rascal and fellow recruit to the Legion named Petrovski (who remains Martyn’s close friend for their entire time in the Legion).  These men live it up for a short time on their way to the depot and almost land up in jail before their arrival to Sidi Bel Abbes.   Being a former soldier Martyn takes well to the training and discipline and quickly makes corporal.  He then volunteers for the next rotation of troops to Tonkin.  Several chapters then cover his service in that country fighting the Black Flag pirates.     Upon their return to Algeria they quickly join the expedition to Dahomey.  Seven more chapters describe his time fighting King Behanzin and his Amazons.  Incidents described about the Tonkin and Dahomey campaigns are quite graphic in describing the savagery of fighting and general cruelty inflicted on those caught in the middle.  Both him and Petrovski make it back to Algeria in one piece and for Martyn he has one final posting to Aïn Sefra with a Mounted Company (mules!).  Finally his term is up and him and Petrovski (both eventually promoted to Sergeant Major) find themselves in Marseilles–free men at last but with no regrets.  The last couple of chapters provide various accounts of Legion history, the cafard, and other tall tales and legends.

Life in the Legion was published in 1911.  In the Forward, Martyn remarks that one reason he wrote this book (16 years after his Legion service) was to counter negative remarks about the Foreign Legion made by Erwin Rosen in his book (In the Legion) published a year earlier.  Martyn didn’t think Rosen, a deserter, had a right to comment on the Legion.  Interestingly enough Mr. Martyn had two books published in 1911.  The other book was titled  A Holiday in Gaol and describes 18 months he spent in hard labor in an English Prison.  Martyn’s crime in this case was embezzling 100 pounds from a business partner.  It is not clear when looking through this book exactly what years Mr. Martyn was imprisoned.  It is likely that he paid his debt to society several years after his time in the Legion as the book was supposed to be an account of current conditions in an English prison.  It seems that Mr. Frederic Martyn must have been a real, genuine “hard-ass” who seemed to have no problem with the hard labor he faced in prison.  In fact he seemed to relish the healthy effects of a simple diet and hard work.  Maybe his service in the Legion conditioned him well enough that he viewed prison as a holiday.

Life in the Legion can be downloaded in various formats from this Link at the Internet Archive.  I also posted a copy below.

Life in the Legion

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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1 Response to Book: Life in the Legion: from a Soldier’s Point of View by Frederic Martyn

  1. Jules says:

    I enjoyed your article. The book is well written, Martyn was able to cope well due to his military training with the British army. Any idea what he went on to do after? I can’t seem to find any biography on him.


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