Today I’m providing a short review of a book that I mention frequently on this blog. Our Friends Beneath the Sands: The Foreign Legion in France’s Colonial Conquests 1870 – 1935 by Martin Windrow (Mar 1, 2011). It will soon be released (in paperback for $13.57) in the U.S. on February 7, 2012 and can be pre-ordered through Amazon. There are also several used Hardback copies available through affiliates but the current price for them starts at $41.00.
For anyone who wants to know about the classic French Foreign Legion this book is a Definitive Source. It is also a great read and a really well organized and written piece of historical non-fiction. I probably would have bought this book even if I did not have a strong interest in the Foreign Legion. The content is very well written but what I liked most before I even started reading it was the layout and organization of the book and the little extras included that are not normally found in similar history books. There are 24 fine black and white maps that chronologically follow along with the text. There is a very useful Glossary and list of Abbreviations that precede a Preface and Prologue. A very nice section was the Photograph Captions which provides additional, full paragraph captions of each of the book’s eighty three photographs. The book has two main parts: Part One (Soldiering in the Time of Fever) contains chapters 1—7 and Part Two (Maroc) contains chapters 8—20. There are three appendices: Appendix One is “Foreign Legion Operations in Europe 1914-1918” covering WWI, Appendix Two is entitled “Summary of Foreign Legion Operations in the Levant” and this covers the Legion in Syria/Lebanon during the early 1920’s and Appendix Three is a short biography of P.C. Wren, the author of Beau Geste. The extensive Notes and Sources section I found as enjoyable to read as the main text. Lastly there is a Bibliography and a omprehensive Index. Windrow followed a similar format that he used in his 2005 book on the French in Indo-China called The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (also a great read). I enjoyed flipping to the maps and the notes pages (and pictures) to really get a good in-depth feel for the events and battles described in the chapters.
I believe the author achieved his goal in explaining why the French Foreign Legion was actually in the North African desert in the first place. In order to provide proper historical and political settings for these conflicts Windrow goes into some detail to explain the greater (and ever changing) French colonial strategy in Paris and that of General (later Marshall) Lyautey. I believe this was balanced well with long portions and accounts that describe the Foreign Legion military operations in which he covers many of the almost forgotten battles fought by the French and the Foreign Legion in North Africa as well as in Tonkin, Dahomey, and Madagascar. It should be noted again that this is not a complete history of the Foreign Legion since it begins in 1870 and ends before WWII. Windrow weaves many details about life in the Foreign Legion and service in the desert into his narrative from the many first hand sources he lists in sources and bibliography. Many of these are available only in French and it is great to see other sources other than Erwin Rosen (the German American author who wrote a negative account about his several months in the Foreign Legion).
This book rises above anything else I have seen in the book stores in terms of presentation of material and organization. I highly recommend it to any military history fan.