The Legion of the Damned by Bennett J. Doty


The Legion of the Damned by Bennett J. Doty.  Subtitle: The Adventures of Bennett J. Doty in the French Foreign Legion as Told by Himself.  298 pages.  Copyright January 1928.  Published by The Century C0.

The Legion of the Damned was written by Bennett Jeffries Doty, an American soldier and adventurer who enlisted in the Foreign Legion, fought in Syria, deserted and was captured and then sentenced to death.  He was a lucky man too who escaped his fate when his plight was made public by an American foreign correspondent covering the fighting in Syria.  He met the reporter days before deserting and it was probably because of this publicity that the French military reduced his punishment to an eight year prison term in a French military prison.  Doty eventually received a full pardon and ticket out of the Legion a year later.  This book was published very shortly after his release from prison and his return back to the United States in December of 1927.  His whole ordeal, from the time he was first sentenced to death until his pardon, was very well publicized in the American press at this time and so it is no surprise that a full account of his experiences would be written.   In fact, Doty wasted very little time and just weeks after his return there were serialized chapters of his book being published in several newspapers in advance of the book being published in January 1928.  I speculate that he was already corresponding with a publisher and wrote much of this book while in prison although he never mentioned this either in interviews or in the book.

The Legion of the Damned is a standard memoir told in chronological order.  It begins with a short introduction and then the first chapter describes Bennett Doty’s upbringing and background and how he came to join the Foreign Legion.  It should be noted that Doty was no stranger to adventure.  In April of 1917, at the age of 16 and lying about his age, he enlisted into the 55th Artillery Brigade of the Tennessee National Guard and served in France during World War One.  Returning home in 1919 he tried attending college but the adventure bug got the best of him and he gave up school for a while.  After a motoring tour of the eastern states he then took to sea and worked on various Atlantic fruit freighters plying routes between Europe, South America and the U.S.  In 1925, while docked in New Orleans, he first heard about the uprising of Abd el-Krim in Morocco.  This captured his imagination so much that he made his way to New York and then to France in order to join in the Foreign Legion.  *Note:  This account is made by Doty in this book but I recently discovered that he may not have been completely honest in recounting his younger days.  I found a New York Times article (see below) dated 25 November 1921 that lists a Bennett Doty of Memphis as one of thirteen Americans, all prior veterans (and forty three British), who quit their enlistment with the Spanish Foreign Legion alleging ill treatment, poor conditions and breach of contract while they were fighting the Rif in Spanish Morocco.  I’ve seen any other  reference to Doty’s time with the Spanish Foreign Legion in anything written by him or about him.  I would guess that this adventure occurred after a year at Vanderbilt University (1920) but before he spent three years in the University of Virginia studying literature and economics (1922-1925).  His time with the “Tercio de Extranjeros” might have been something he didn’t want publicly known as it might appear that he is a “serial” deserter. 

Bennett Doty enlisted in the French Foreign Legion using the name Gilbert Clare on 12 June 1925 at the Bureau Des Engagements Volontaires in Bordeaux, France.  Shortly thereafter he arrived in Algeria and the headquarters of the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment (1RE) at Sidi Bel Abbes.  After the usual training required of all new legionnaires he was assigned to the 29th Company of the 1RE which was quickly being prepared for deployment to Syria.  The French were rushing forces there in order to quell what is known as the Great Syrian Revolt.  Doty embarked for Syria in August and for most of the next six months he was up to his eyeballs fighting fanatical Druse tribesmen.  This is where the book really kicks in and Doty delivers an amazing narrative of combat actions between the French and the rebel tribesmen.  He expertly describes the brutal chaos and cruelty of combat complete with all of the associated sounds, sights and smells.  During this time Doty gets all the fighting he was looking for and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery under fire at Mousseifré.  He also participated in the relief of Suweida and several other smaller engagements.  Heavy fighting lasted until February of 1926, when the caids finally started to accept French amnesty, and simmered down to annoying but sometimes fatal sniping attacks and ambushes.

With the fighting almost over the 29th Company, which had reoccupyed Suweida, was put to use on various construction projects.  This was typical of the Foreign Legion as it served to keep the legionnaires busy and less likely to get into trouble.  However, hard labor was not popular with the men.  Boredom quickly set in and in a fit of cafard Doty and three others deserted from the Legion sometime in May of 1926.  All four were caught by Syrian police a couple weeks later and Doty devotes a couple of chapters describing their preparations, their escape and failed attempt to reach the British sector in Jordan which was only about 40km away.  The deserters were sentenced to death in early June.  One should understand that desertion was a fairly frequent occurrence and common problem in the Foreign Legion and punishment for those caught was usually not too severe.  However, in Doty’s case he deserted in a theater of war and theoretically in the face of the enemy and the punishment for this offense was death.  Luckily for Doty he had spoken to an American reporter (George Seldes) just days before he deserted and word quickly got back to the reporter about Doty’s death sentence.  The story quickly went out over the press wire about how an American, a veteran of WWI no less and serving again for France, was going to be executed by an ungrateful French government (at least that was what was implied).  Doty’s father and family got word and immediately started to make some phone calls.  At his formal courts-marshal the death sentence was reduced to eight years imprisonment (his English accomplice also received 8 years and the two Germans each got five years).  Doty arrived in France on the 1st of September 1926 to begin serving his prison term in the Albertville military prison in Savoie.   He gives a detailed and grim description of prison life and one gets the sense that this experience was something quite horrible for the free roaming adventurer.  After considerable pressure on France from American diplomats, Doty was eventually pardoned and released from prison in September of 1927.  However, as French law specified, Doty was required to finish his enlistment in the Legion and was sent back to Algeria where he was warmly greeted by his fellow legionnaires and soon busily engaged in preparing for his unit’s deployment to Morocco.  In late November it seems the French military command had finally had enough of the whole mess and just days before Doty was to deploy again, he was officially discharged from the Foreign Legion.  He finally made it home to Mississippi just in time for Christmas.  So, what I like to think of as “Doty’s Big Adventure” which lasted two and a half years from June 1925 until December 1927, had ended.

Doty served in the Foreign Legion about a total of 15 months which was interrupted by a year long spell in prison.  He was in fact a deserter who only got away with it by having a well connected father (a lawyer who by odd chance had successfully defended a prominent Frenchman in a criminal trial), a proactive overseas press corps who recognized a hot story and American diplomats who were not afraid to put pressure on France (who owed America quite a bit after WWI).  But I think Doty should get more credit than being remembered simply as a Legion deserter who cried uncle when things took a turn for the worse.  I believe that Bennett Doty was a real authentic man of adventure or more accurately a soldier of fortune.  I look at him a bit differently after finding out that he had served in the Spanish Foreign Legion.  By all accounts of the Spanish experience in Morocco, combat service in the North African garrisons was indeed brutally horrible.  No army should treat its men the way the Spanish did during this time and it is entirely forgivable for him to want to get out of there as so many other foreign volunteers did.  Upon his release from French military prison he was fully expecting to serve out his remaining obligation to the Foreign Legion and was excited to be seeing action again in Morocco as a decorated veteran.  He was at his finest when on the front lines and was certainly a fine fighter.  He relished adventure and found in the Foreign Legion a group of like-minded comrades.  His admiration of the Foreign Legion and the men he met there came through numerous times in the book and one can tell he took great pride in some of the rough and tumble escapades of the 29th Company.  I think that his dismissal from the Foreign Legion was something he probably didn’t wish for but was the result of the sensational coverage of his plight by the press that was out of his control by this time.  When Doty finally took the time to settle down back in the United States he eventually started law school at Tulane University at New Orleans in 1932 and passed the bar exam on 6 May 1936.  This sedate life didn’t last for long.  The last information we have about Bennett Doty is that he had again left the quite life of Mississippi and joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.  According to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade archives he is listed as KIA after being wounded in the chest sometime in the summer of 1938 during the Republican retreat from Gandesa and likely buried in a mass grave with several other soldados voluntarios killed during that time.

Bennett Doty led an amazing life of adventure and luckily for us he put some of his experiences down on paper.  Doty notes that there were always Americans serving in the Foreign Legion.  Men of adventure like him who sought to serve in one of the world’s toughest military outfits with the highest chances for combat.  On one of his last days in the Legion Doty was called to speak to COL Rollet, the Foreign Legion Commandant.  COL Rollet told him “Gilbert Clare, I know you will write about the Legion. Try to tell the truth. It is true we are hard. But we are just.”  I think Gilbert Clare did a great job telling the truth about the French Foreign Legion.

The Legion of the Damned is unfortunately out of print.  My copy is one of the more common hard back versions with 298 pages with eight illustrations.  Copies appear frequently on eBay, Amazon or Abe Books and usually sell for $30.00 or more.  It’s a quick read with large margins and large print.  I posted the B&W illustrations below.  In several years it will fall into the public domain and I hope someone decides to put out a new printing, perhaps coupled with an extensive biography of the author.  It’s a story worth retelling.  Heck, it would even make a great movie.

Doty in the Spanish Foreign Legion

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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