This one page article came from The Illustrated London News of 13 November 1926. It’s a unique instance of a writer of Foreign Legion fiction commenting on the writings of another author’s non-fictional memoir of actual experiences in the Legion during WWI. In this case P. C. Wren (of Beau Geste fame, writing here to promote the first movie) who writes critically of the American author Maurice Magus and his posthumously published book Memoirs of the Foreign Legion (1924).
Reading this piece for the first time I immediately felt that Wren may not have read the book he is commenting on or that if he did his opinions of the author were nonetheless entirely prejudiced by D. H. Lawrence’s long and boorish introduction to the book. Wren casts doubt on Magnus being fit for the Legion by noting what him old, fat and short and attacks his character as dishonest, mean and lacking mental, moral and physical fiber. Wren gives zero credit to Magnus, who at first, in late 1915, tried joining the Red Cross efforts of Italy, Russia, France and Serbia before deciding on serving with other noble foreigners in the Foreign Legion. His mind made up to join the Foreign Legion and in early 1916 (not late in the war as Wren states) Magnus traveled from Italy to Tunis and persistently made his way to Sidi Bel Abbes presenting himself to the surprised staff of the headquarters there and signing enlistment paperwork without really having a clue what he was getting into. He had just joined the rear-rear echelon of one of the most hard-fighting and bloodied units of the Allied forces. Almost immediately, Magnus was made very aware of his personal and physical failings and this experience quickly cleared his head of all patriotic notions of serving in the multinational Foreign Legion. Yet, despite being a duck out of water, he stuck with the Legion and was eventually sent onward to France. However, after spending months in squalid camps nowhere near the front, his disillusionment in the Legion became total and he deserted across the border into Italy. Wren then delights in taking his “high horse” and trampling all over the straw man he builds of Magnus and his book for the remaining 3/4 of the article. This is pretty bold for Wren–a man who quite possibly never served a day in the Foreign Legion himself but somehow was given the popular mantle of “Foreign Legion Expert” for decades based on his fiction writing.
To clarify things a bit more…Magnus went to Africa in the naive and completely mistaken belief that this was the proper route to take to enlist in the Foreign Legion. Along the way he was fed some high grade bullshit (misinformation) by an American diplomat in Algiers and a Dane he meets on the train. He did not, as Wren states, join the Foreign Legion to take refuge there. His motives to “do something in this great struggle” were genuine and he anticipated joining a force of honorable volunteers from all over the world. Wren is correct that Magnus complained bitterly throughout his book about the Germans and German culture he encountered in the Legion and Magnus also wrote a scathing commentary about the “dregs” he encountered there. Yet, contrary to what Wren claims, Magnus DID write that within days he realized he was in the wrong place. He found out that the RMLE (full of those fellow Americans, Swiss, Scandinavians and other nationalities he was hoping to join) fighting on the front lines in France and the Legion Headquarters in Algeria were not the same thing. Magus was very specific about how disappointed he was about this. Also, most German Legionnaires were indeed kept away from the front lines for obvious reasons and Magnus wrote about this as well yet Wren calls him unfair and not impartial for not mentioning this. These are some pretty baseless and cheap points for Wren to make which, to repeat, makes me wonder if he actually read the book.