A Soldier of the Legion by George Manington. Subtitle: An Englishman’s Adventures Under the French Flag in Algeria and Tonquin. 377 pages. Copyright January 1907. Published by John Murray, London. Edited by William B. Slater and Arthur J. Sarl.
A Soldier of the Legion is one of a handful of masterful memoir’s written (in English) about the classic age of the French Foreign Legion prior to World War One (the other memoirs I’ve reviewed on this blog are those by Frederic Martyn and Erwin Rosen). George Manington, like his fellow Englishman Frederic Martyn, was a former officer in the English Army and had a strong desire to seek out adventure abroad. While in Paris he was so impressed by an account of the French campaign in Tonkin, as narrated by an former Austrian officer who served in the Foreign Legion there, that he immediately sought out the “Bureau du Commandant de Recrutement” to enlist in the Legion. The result is that Manington joined the Legion on 28 Feb 1890 and remained a Legionnaire until his discharge exactly five years later in 1895. This account of his service in the Foreign Legion was finally written twelve years later while he was in London. Still the adventurer, Manington suddenly left the incomplete memoir with two publishers (Slater & Sarl) and dashed off for the orient on business. The remaining chapters were mailed from there to London so the book could finally be published. He dedicated his memoir to the “Memory of my Comarades who fell in the forests of Yen-The and the jungles of Kai-Kinh”.
The book primarily takes place in Tonkin–where Manington spent the majority of his time in the Foreign Legion. However, the first 60 pages or so provide a wonderful glimpse of the Legion in Sidi Bel Abbes and on the march in Algeria. His first year was almost the death of him when, after his initial training, his battalion had marched south to the frontier town of Ain Sefra where he contracted typhoid and had to be medically evacuated. He spent three months in the hospital before returning to the 1st Regiment at Sidi Bel Abbes. He arrived back just in time to volunteer for deployment with a 500 man relief force for the Foreign Legion forces in Tonkin. On 8 March 1891 he and his comrades embarked on the troop transport, the Bien Hoa.
Arriving in Tonkin on 18 April 1891, Manington would spend the remainder of his time in the Foreign Legion battling Chinese pirates and local rebels, avoiding man-eating tigers, and fighting dysentery and jungle fever. He is clearly an outstanding soldier and gives a good account of how he adapted to the rigors of fighting in such an inhospitable climate. Legionnaires who served in Tonkin suffered horribly from disease (which accounted for the vast majority of their campaign losses). Those, like Manington, who survived their initial bouts of various forms of jungle fever and disease invariably lived to complete their service. He noted that the heavy drinkers in the ranks usually were the last to succumb to fever but when they did the results were almost always fatal. The fever hardened soldiers learned quickly how to effectively fight a terrifyingly cruel enemy who knew the terrain and fought fearlessly when cornered. Manington provides very detailed accounts of his contacts with the local populace that were a bit reluctant at times to fight along side the French against the Chinese bandits or rebels. His accounts are eerily familiar to readers who have read any first-hand American experience in Vietnam. His unit also had some difficulties fighting along with the locally raised tirailleurs but envied their resistance to the harsh elements. There is plenty of intrigue as well and the author finds himself dealing with reconnaissance missions, informers, spies and prisoners. Towards the last part of his service in Tonkin he is again sick with fever but by a stroke of luck he is recognized by an officer as “the Englishman” and taken back to headquarters to recover. He rejoins his unit for several more battles with the elusive bandit known as De-Tam but then he is eventually recruited to work at the District Intelligence staff because of his ability to expertly draft maps. Eventually he was requested by name to work at the Brigade staff where he spends his last year in-country until his release on 27 February 1895. He expresses his profound relief upon finishing his five years of service and reflects on his fondness for the Foreign Legion and his fellow legionnaires. “While serving in that corps I had learned that there were good and brave men outside my own country, and that courage, obedience, self – abnegation and national pride are not the monopoly of anyone race. By living side by side with them, fighting, and ofttimes suffering, in the same cause, I had been taught to like and respect the foreigners.”
This is a well written book and I relished each new page and chapter like one would savor a mixed six-pack of craft beers. It goes into far more detail about operations in Tonkin than Martyn did in his book. It is essential reading for those interested in French colonial adventures at the turn of the century but it is also an adventure story at it’s finest. My only wish was that it had some sketches or photo’s of the Foreign Legion. Nevertheless the book is illustrated and some of the more interesting are posted below. You can download this book in various formats from Google Books or the Internet Archive. A .pdf version is below.