This Georges Surdez story is from Adventure Magazine (15 May 1928). It’s not technically about the Foreign Legion as it concerns the unique corps of troops known as the Bataillons d’Infanterie Légère d’Afrique (Battalions of Light Infantry of Africa) or simply the Bat’ d’Af’. They are also known as Biribi, les réprouvés, Zéphyrs or les Joyeux (the merry ones). Back in the day, in France, nobody escaped their military duty. All able bodied males were called up for service for several years and those who were of age but were sitting in jail with sentences over six months were sent to Africa to serve out their military obligation in one of the five Bat d’Af Battalions. The Bat d’Af is basically a penal unit but with the intention of segregating the bad apples who need to do their military duty from influencing the non-criminals doing their duty in French regiments. The units were created in 1832, just after the Foreign Legion was established, and were stationed in North Africa like the Legion until the 1960s. The last remaining units, less than a company, were finally disbanded in 1972. Many people confuse the Bat d’Af with the Foreign Legion but there was little connection between the two. During the classic era of of the Foreign Legion (before WWI) the Legion wore the regular blue capote while the Bat d’Af wore the same jacket but theirs were dyed brown. Also, the Foreign Legion, like many military organizations had it’s own disciplinary units and for the most part did not send their trouble makers to the Bat D’Af. Those malcontents unfit for service in the Legion would be separated from that corps and then moved into the Bat d’Af if this was thought to be necessary or sent back to prison in France. The odd thing was, the Joyeux were expected to train and fight as infantry–and they did so very well in Algeria, Crimea, Mexico and World War I.
This story actually concerns the worst of the worst–the trouble makers from the Bat d’Af who are sent to their own discipline detachment (at Sidi Okba in north eastern Algeria) and put to punishing work making roads. It takes place during the WWI when the only French elements left in Africa were portions of the Foreign Legion (where they kept their German legionnaires under close watch), native detachments and bits of the Bat d’Af. Surdez does a great job with this story and it clearly shows he is an expert on the French military and the situation in North Africa.