Garrison Tales from Tonquin by James O’Neill

This book was first published in 1895.  The author, James O’Neill, was an American who joined the Foreign Legion in 1887 when he was 27 years old.  In 1890 he shipped off to Tonkin (modern day northern Vietnam).  “Garrison Tales” consists of a series of thirteen short stories that tell of the various events and unique men O’Neill encountered while serving under extreme conditions of a tropical environment.  The book is only 181 pages including a four page introduction.  It’s a very quick read because like many books from this time it has large type and wide margins on each page.  The book is available in various electronic formats from the Internet Archive>>  Link.  …or Google Books>>> Link.  If you want a hard copy you can find it reprinted at LSU Press.

Garrison Tales from Tonquin is not your standard memoir of service in the Foreign Legion.  It’s not even clear if these stories are entirely factual, completely made up or something in between that was perhaps enhanced by the author in order to make them more meaningful in a literary sense.  Take for example the first story entitled “Roebke”.  It’s entirely plausible in a factual sense and it also touches on one of the key facets of service in the Foreign Legion–that one does not ask another Legionnaire about his previous life before the Legion although it may be divulged voluntarily among friends.  In this story the author makes friends with a fellow legionnaire who promises to one day tell him all about his background.  It turns out Roebke is also an Englishman and O’Neill promises that in the case of his friend’s death he will follow the instructions found in Roebke’s wallet that hangs around his neck.  Roebke is later killed but when O’Neill searches his body he only finds a tattoo of a wallet drawn on his chest.  Is the tattoo a fictitious device invented by O’Neill to symbolize something?  Perhaps, the secrets one carries throughout one’s life?  I have no idea.  But then again, a tattoo like that is also something one would expect a Legionnaire to have.  Legionnaires after all are known for their grim sense of fatalistic humor.  (I recall a recent picture of a Legionnaire serving in Afghanistan with a tattoo that says “cut here” with a dotted line traced along the front of his throat.)

I’m not a literary critic so I won’t delve further into what the author was trying to achieve by writing these stories instead of a more straightforward account of his adventure in the Legion.  What is valuable about these stories are the several insights it gives the reader about service in the Foreign Legion and in combat service in Tonkin.  It is also rich in memorable characters such as those found in the Legion.  There are Swiss, Russians, Germans, Belgians, and some burned out Frenchmen.  O’Neill also profiles several Vietnamese he comes across.   Lots of disease and suicides as well.

All in all, Garrison Tales from Tonkin makes for a nice afternoon read.  If one wants to see it as such, this work could come across as almost a prophetic warning to both the French and Americans that nothing good will come out of military adventurism in Vietnam.   I personally would have preferred a narrative similar to what George Mannington or Frederick Martyn wrote about their service in the Legion and fighting in Tonkin.  But it was the intent of O’Neill to become a writer and this was his first and really only popularly published piece.  For further reference I also found some reviews of this book written shortly after it’s publication and these are posted below.

Garrison Tales from Tonquin Book Reviews

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About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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