Five Sous a Day by Francis A. Waterhouse (Ex-Legionnaire 1484). Sampson, Low, Marston & Co. Ltd., London 1933. 248 pages.
I’ve finished these two books late last year and because they are so similar I felt it necessary to review them together. Both are memoirs written by Englishman Francis A. Waterhouse describing his 2+ years in the French Foreign Legion (from June 1924 to late 1926). Waterhouse’s works are contemporary to books written by the American Legionnaire Bennett Doty and his English partner in their ill-fated attempt at desertion, John Harvey. These two both served in the 5th BN of the 4th Foreign Legion Regiment (V/4REI) often alongside Waterhouse’s cavalry unit during what is called the Great Syrian Revolt.
Twixt Hell and Allah covers the entire length of Waterhouse’s service in the Foreign Legion starting with his enlistment in France, cavalry training in Sousse, Tunisia with the 4th Squadron of the 1st Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment (1er Régiment Étranger de Cavalerie / 1er REC) and subsequent combat with that unit in Syria. In Syria Waterhouse is involved in several fierce actions against various rebel forces (mainly Druse) and was eventually wounded. It took months for him to return to Tunisia and finally be honorably released from the Legion as combat ineffective. The narrative include many tidbits and anecdotes one would expect from a Foreign Legion memoir. There are scenes of harsh living in an inhospitable land, strict discipline from somewhat deranged cadre and plenty accounts of painting the local cafes red. There is also a long parade of interesting legionnaires introduced by the author who recounts their interesting backgrounds, their reasons for joining the Legion and in many cases how they came to their sad demise.
Five Sous a Day was published two years later and covers much of the same time period as that in his previous book but excludes accounts of the Syrian fighting. Waterhouse pitches this book as a precautionary tale written primarily to warn other impressionable young men to avoid joining the Foreign Legion at all costs. It is very similar to the first book by the inclusion of many side stories and thumbnail sketches of interesting legionnaires. Most of the book is spent on the time after he was grievously wounded and the utter incompetence of the French military and medical system he encounters along the way from Syria to Sousse. It took him months to eventually be found medically unfit to continue his service in the Foreign Legion and he was honorably discharged with a meager pension. His discharge he believes was providentially achieved when he bumped into a former officer (now diplomat) from his time in India who apparently pulled strings with the French high brass. The last chapters of the book recount his attempts to carry on a normal life back in England as a destitute, wounded veteran of two armies. He eventually capitalizes on his former service in the Legion when he is hired to promote the theater presentations of the 1926 movie Beau Geste. His gig was to don a Legion uniform and tell tall tales of harsh discipline and savage desert fighting to stir up the audiences before the movie began.
Both books are written in a light and easy to follow manner and throughout each Waterhouse provides many unique insights into the publicity-shunning Foreign Legion as it existed between the wars. As a former British NCO who served in India and in France during WWI the author has a keen eye for drawing comparisons of the French military to that of the (much more humane) British forces. He is very critical of the inept, and bureaucratic French way of managing and caring for their soldier’s welfare and particularly for their wounded. Although he had opportunity and justified indignation to want to desert the Legion he never considered this an option fitting for a former British soldier.
The only issues I had with Waterhouse’s memoirs is that both appear to have been highly modified, most likely by a literary agent, to include some of the worst attempts to romanticize what would most likely have been a straight forward military memoir. Although Waterhouse is the eye-witness narrator for many of these sensational accounts it is doubtful that many actually happened at all. There are a host of legionnaires that appear in each book that have very elaborate backgrounds of dubious credibility. Such as the Chicago criminal who joins the Legion still retaining a suitcase of loot and two automatic pistols. There is the French maiden found working at an Arab cafe who is helped to make her escape while disguised as a Legionnaire (aided of course by Waterhouse and a Russian legionnaire). There are several half-dead lost souls Waterhouse comes across who are serving in the penal companies or the Bat’ d’Af’ (where French prisoners serve their military obligations). There are also lurid descriptions of Tuareg tortures, a fantastical story of the origins of the Druze (children of Baal!), the Foreign Legion Air Force that never got off the ground and the incredible power of English tea to bribe obstinate corporals and medical staff (though this one might be true). In Five Sous a Day Waterhouse takes pains to point out that the things described in his first book REALLY DID happen and that he, in fact, had to leave out the more sensational stories because nobody would believe them. I just wonder how much stuff the editors may have removed from the original draft in order to fit in the romantic fluff.
These books are probably not entirely accurate accounts of life and war in the Foreign Legion but nonetheless are highly entertaining. One can easily get absorbed in both of these books without fretting too much about the spicy bits or some military discrepancies. In fact, Waterhouse wrote three fictional tales of the Foreign Legion prior to publishing Five Sous a Day. These include Cafard, Bloodspots in the Sand, and Oasis. Waterhouse certainly had an imagination that ran amok in his two non-fiction works but I can’t say this is any reason to not read these two wonderful books.
NOTE: These books are increasingly hard to come by in the book market. Those living in the U.K. would have the best chance to score a copy while others who are interested will likely find copies at Abe Books.