Legion of Outcasts is another “Foreign Legion Memoir” that generally follows the same pattern set so many other literary minded legionnaires; general descriptive accounts of early wandering, joining & assessment, travel and arrival to the Regiment, training, some tall tales, and either disillusionment and desertion or completion of the five year contract. The time frame for this book is roughly 1960-1962 which is a bit outside the scope of my blog but I felt I should make note of it because it’s a damn good book. In fact, it was so interesting and descriptive that I finished it in two days.
Peter Reeves was a Dutchman who was raised in a large family but somehow become the family’s black sheep. At the first opportunity he leaves Holland to travel the world and eventually works in the United States for 15 years. A family wedding draws him back home for what he hopes would be a happier reunion with his estranged parents and siblings. When this doesn’t work out as he hopes he travels to Paris (for his very first time) to see the famous art museums there. In Paris he quickly runs through his money and finds himself joining the Foreign Legion at the age of 37. After some funny accounts of time in Marseilles and Side Bel Abbes he is assigned to the Legion base at Saïda for basic training. He is awarded his Kepi Blanc and selected for follow-on medic training at Sidi Bel Abbes. He effortlessly fits in despite not speaking French very well and seems to thrive under the hard training in North Africa. Upon completion of his medical training he returned to Saida and functioned as a Battalion medic–now wearing the green beret that was adopted for regular wear in 1959.
All was not well in Algeria however. During Reeves’ time in the Legion the country was being torn apart by an Arab nationalist insurgency that started in 1954. Reeves was a witness and to a certain degree a victim of the 1961 rebellion against President DeGaulle by various paratroop and Foreign Legion units. His own Battalion commander sided with the rebellious OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète) during the “Generals’ Putsch” but quickly jumped back to command when the revolt fizzled out. Hundreds of regular legionnaires had switched sides to the OAS or simply took an opportunity to desert what was becoming an unrewarding military obligation. The very future of the Foreign Legion was in doubt (everyone thought DeGaulle would disband it for good). Peter Reeves decides one day that he too should desert and never returns to his barracks from an errand. He prepared well and has the intention of walking to Oran or Algiers and hopping a ship to Europe. This was a very exciting part of the book and he gets quite some distance before being ratted out by a local and arrested by French military.
It was only after being captured did Reeves’ stint in the Foreign Legion turn from boring garrison medical duties to an unbelievable six months of beatings, abuse and torture at the Disciplinary Company at Aïn Séfra. His incarceration covers only the last sixth of the book but it was the most startling to read. Endless make-work projects in the broiling Saharan sun coupled with brutal and senseless attacks by the sadistic guards pushes Reeves to his limits and it was his body that ultimately fails and almost kills him. After six months of living hell he finishes his sentence and faces his fate at the hands of the revolving door Legion Courts Martial: either complete his five years of service in the Legion or be dishonorably discharged. He has no kind words to say about the Legion to the presiding officials and they decide he should be discharged. Adieu!
This book is billed as Adult Reading by the publisher but there really was nothing obscene in here and it all came across more like a Real Man Adventures pulp type of story. Lots of information on brothels and prostitutes and some early chapter encounters (one with another man!) but I’m not sure this warranted the “Adult” label at all. What I liked most is the accurate, well written description of just about every aspect of the Foreign Legion that he encountered. I guess this would be due to author Hurk Davis but Reeves evidently has a great memory. Legion of Outcasts is a real straight forward memoir full of anecdotes, detailed descriptions of garrison and field life and populated with those amazing personalities you seem to find only in the French Foreign Legion.