Hell in the Foreign Legion by Ernst F. Löhndorff

Hell in the Foreign Legion by Ernst F. Löhndorff.  Translated by Gerard Shelly. Published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 40 Museum Street, London, Great Britain.  June, 1931.  349 pages.

I’ve had this book for several years but only got around to reading it recently.  What kept me away was the impression that this was just another sensationalized, non-factual screed against the evils of the French Foreign Legion from the typical anti-Legion viewpoint of the German press at the time.  Now I can pass on to you that Hell in the Foreign Legion is indeed anti-Legion and to a great degree non-factual story telling.  However, there were some redeeming portions that make this book a fairly decent memoir and an enjoyable read if you understand the perspective of the author.

Ernst Friedrich Löhndorff is listed on Wikipedia as a German sailor, adventurer, writer and painter.  He was born 13 March 1899 in Frankfurt am Main but later moved to Vienna.  There, in 1912, he was expelled from school due to “too frequent absences” and it is safe to say that at this time he began his life as a vagabond adventurer leaving home at age 14 to travel the world.  Löhndorff departed on a ship to Mexico at the end of September 1914 but upon arrival the ship and crew were impounded because of the outbreak of the First World War.  Bored with confinement, young Ernst absconded to shore and pursued various itinerant jobs and eventually falling in with some revolutionary troops of Pancho Villa who used him to translate English press reports.  Because of his involvement with the rebels responsible for murdering eighteen American engineers in 1916 the U.S. military put a bounty on his head but he was never captured.  He decided to flee Mexico and together with other deserted sailors captured the ship “Alexander Agassiz“.  They sailed under the German flag, but after about four weeks were captured in the Pacific Ocean by the U.S. Navy gunboat USS Vicksburg. “Löhndorff was arrested and imprisoned in Los Angeles in February 1918 and later confined in Utah as Prisoner of War No. 638.  At the end of the war, Löhndorff was allowed to leave the United States eventually arriving at Karlsruhe where his family had relocated in 1914.

After the war, Germany had fallen into chaos and revolution and many former German soldiers and unemployed young men felt the need to escape the violence and poverty.  They were easily enticed into joining the Foreign Legion by French authorities particularly along the Rhineland border.  In 1920 Löhndorff enlisted in the Foreign Legion.  What motivated him to do so is unknown; perhaps it was financial hardship, the situation in post-war Germany, or his urge for adventure–he never gives a reason in his book nor does he mention his previous adventures apart from time spent hunting orchids in the Amazon.  Also, noticeably absent in this book, is any lengthy mention of the Great War.  On November 13, 1920, he signed a five-year commitment in Saarbrücken as “Ernesto de Naca e Villaverde,” born in Veracruz on March 13, 1899 (according to the “Etat signaletique et des services” of the Foreign Legion.

This is where Hell in the Foreign Legion begins as Löhndorff is tossed into a mass of desperate German recruits.  His account of travels via Metz to Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille lasts for the first 88 pages.  From Marseille, he boards the often referenced ship Sidi-Brahim to Oran, Algeria and then travels by train to Sidi bel Abbès.  Here he gives a wonderful account of the military barracks known as Caserne Vienot (the Legion’s training base, barracks and headquarters).  He very quickly lays into the ineptness of the Legion, the brutality of it’s cadre, the sadism of the medical doctor, and the various sicknesses of his fellow Legionnaires such as alcoholism, thievery, sodomy, and of course le cafard.   In real life, just two months after enlisting, the 22-year-old Löhndorff deserted and fled Algeria.  In his book however it takes until page 159 before his first escape attempt which fails and lands him in detention.  He tries three more times and fails each time.  Eventually he says he spent 60+ days in solitary nighttime confinement alternated with days spent running around the “quad” with sand bags on his back.

A conscientious commander takes pity on him and sends him to a mounted company of the 2nd Legion Regiment (2REI) at Saïda.  In the remainder of the book he recounts forced marches, more brutal punishments (Legionnaires buried in sand with their head exposed to the sun) and the hellish experience of occupying a lone desert outpost for months on end with nothing but the heat, an insane commanding officer called Captain Machinegun (Captain Mitrailleuse), locusts and lone visiting prostitutes who literally walk away into the desert after several days of work with every bit of cash that was in the fort.  After this brutal posting his unit shuffled between various camps and forts in western Algeria to include Aïn Séfra (real), Fort Jonnart (?) Hadshera-M’Guil (?), and Jenien-bou-Rezg (which I believe was to become the Legion’s Disciplinary Camp).

, Eventually he is moved north to fight the Rif near the base of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.  During a harried maneuver through rough canyon country his company is attacked repeatedly and he is presented with an opportunity to make good his desertion from the Legion by swapping his uniform with that of a dead Riffian. The last 20+ pages recount his flight from the battle and eventual salvation as a stowaway on an American freighter.

Keep in mind that most all of this book is fabricated (probably everything that occurs after Sidi Bel Abbes) and as one reviewer puts it “Here, too, as in almost all his adventure novels, real experiences were mixed with poetry. The autobiographical style repeatedly gives the impression that Löhndorff was writing down his own experiences. Although this was not true, his travels and adventures were inspiration for his works.”  Hell in the Foreign Legion was written in 1930 and was his third book.  There was plenty of material available at this time to use in his embellishments to include other Legion memoirs and accounts of real fighting against the Rif which didn’t begin in scale until April 1925.

Hell in in the Foreign Legion reminds me of books written by the Englishman Francis A. Waterhouse, also an actual Legionnaire, that were also part fact-but mostly fiction.  In fact, this is a tradition that goes back to Erwin Rosen, another German adventurer who kicked about the Americas before spending several months in the Foreign Legion, deserting and then writing a book about it in 1910.

The book was was released with the German Title “Afrika weintTagebuch eines Legionärs” or “Africa Cries – Diary of a Legionnaire”.  His travels in Mexico, South America and Africa (including his time in the Legion) inspired him to write thirty novels and books.  These appeared from 1927 to 1966 and were very successful at the time and to this day his books are collectable.  (He passed away in 1976).  NOTE: You can see a much older Ernst in this video.


Sources: 1, 2.


About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
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3 Responses to Hell in the Foreign Legion by Ernst F. Löhndorff

  1. William says:

    Well written and very informative article!


  2. Marvin says:

    Fascinating tale about a colourful character!


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