Drinking to forget: The Asylum of Misfortune

Following on from part one the casual observer may be wondering how the French Foreign Legion managed to build up a reputation for being an elite fighting force rather than a ragtag bunch of paralytics.

The képi blanc was never worn more rakishly than in the classic 1939 film version of Beau Geste (though Burt Lancaster had a good go). Its tale of desertion, casual brutality and murder caused such a stink in the Legion that it was banned in France until 1977.

Despite the problems caused by drunkenness the culture of heavy drinking clearly did not conspire to impede the Legion’s overall operational effectiveness – if it had then there were only too many members of the army brass who would happily have seen it disbanded and forgotten.

A more pertinent and overriding question to ask – and one Donald Porch sets out to do in his seminal history of the Legion – is, why?

The psychology of legionnaires in the early days of the Legion and even up until the present day can be difficult to fathom. Who were these men? Why did they choose to fight in the service of a foreign army for causes that weren’t their own? And to what extent, if any, was drinking a cause or a symptom of various aspects of Legion life?

Part of the problem with an institute such as the Legion is the cloak of lore, mythos and mystique that has built up around it – fuelled in no small measure by old sweats only to happy to tell a newspaperman or novelist anything they liked in exchange for paying his bar slate and by the Legion itself which instituted and even invented a number of ‘traditions’ in the 1920s and ‘30s in a bid to legitamise the Legion in the eyes of an ever-sceptical French public and government.

The wave of novels such as PC Wren’s Beau Geste[1] that appeared in the early-20th century, particularly soon after the First World War, have absolutely cemented the image of the Foreign Legionnaire in popular consciousness; harking back as they did to what was already seen as a ‘lost’, almost chivalric age in the ‘clean’ deserts of North Africa before the mechanised slaughter of Passchendaele and Verdun in stinking mud wiped away that supposedly gentler Belle Époque.

The problem is this image is one of a Legion full of romantic idealists, all clean cut, handsome and fundamentally decent rogues (Gary Cooper’s 1939 rendition of ‘Beau’ Geste or Burt Lancaster’s ‘Mike Kincaid’ in the 1951 film Ten Tall Men are perfect archetypes).

Life in the Legion is forever an exotic adventure or comedic caper where the heroes are bold and noble and if anyone is sticky-fingered it’s always in a good cause or as light relief. Even Laurel and Hardy got in on Legion-mania with their 1931 film ‘Beau Hunks’, which lampooned even as it pandered and added to the Legion myth that foreign legionnaires all joined because of unrequited or lost love; in this case having Oliver Hardy, the entire company and even the Riffian[2] war chief all finding out they’re in love with the same woman – the capricious Jeanie-Weenie.

The Legion high command abhorred the “abracadabran fantasy” the golden age of Hollywood wove around it; especially the idea of enlisted men casually drinking wine in the company of NCOs, officers and “semi-nude native women jumping around in the streets” – though to little avail as the fiction was lapped up in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries and rarely to the Legion’s detriment.[3]

One might of course be tempted to over-correct and say the life of a legionnaire was one of absolute horror but that too would be its own myth, once again perpetuated by the novelists and memoirists gingering up their experiences and, from 1903 onwards, sustained propaganda from the German government who wanted to stem the flow of German volunteers (and army deserters) to the Legion.

Suffice to say the Legion was neither a bellyful of laughs nor continuous torture. But it was a hard life and these were hard men – in the truest sense – and they were treated that way by their superiors, with punishments such as the ‘crapaudine’ and more straightforward physical violence meted out for even minor transgressions.

Legionnaire Flutsch recalled a Corsican named Vittini who after a night out on the town and a skinful of wine in Sidi-bel-Abbés made the mistake of talking back to a corporal on guard duty.

Another film version of the Legion that exaggerated its realities, this time for comic effect when Laurel and Hardy realise that not only Ollie but everyone else in the Foreign Legion and the local war chief are all suffering from a bout of unrequited love for the same girl – Jeanie-Weenie

Flutsch recalled: “Two seconds later, Vittini, dazed by a head butt right in the face, sat on the floor leaning against the table. The corporal, taking him by the shoulder and drawing him up, threw him down on his stomach. Holding him down with his knee, he grabbed a fist full of hair, and hammered his face on the flagstones, ignoring the cries of his victim….I saw Vittini, his face completely masked in blood which flowed from his nose, his mouth, his forehead… ‘Warning to you new boys who don’t yet know how to respect a corporal in the Legion,” [said the corporal.] “This is the first lesson.”[4]

From its very inception the Legion was not a romantic getaway for heartbroken lovers and gentleman rankers[5] but a dumping ground for the French government to put its undesirables and political and social radicals.[6]

It filled its ranks with those cast adrift by their respective societies, misfits, perhaps criminally inclined or social outcasts and (very desperate) debtors, sometimes those simply bored and restless or actively seeking adventure, soldiering for soldiering’s sake, those booted out of other arms of the service (usually for drunkenness) or even just the promise of a regular square meal.

A few officers might indeed be the younger, penniless sons of fallen noble houses but the enlisted men were often the scrapings from an increasingly urban, disenfranchised, grindingly poor, uneducated and politically volatile underclass in an ever more industrialised world. And France, the home and beacon of modern revolution and revolutionaries until Russia usurped it in 1917, did not want disaffected domestic or foreign nationals within its borders.

As Porch relates: “It [the Legion] served as a release valve for political and even political tensions, absorbing the unemployed (and the unemployable), the troublemakers and the penniless foreigners who might make mischief.”[7]

Minister for War Marshal Jean Soult, was even more damning in his appraisal soon after the Legion’s founding in 1834. He wrote: “As the Foreign Legion was created with the only purpose of creating an outlet and giving a destination to foreigners who flood into France and who could cause trouble… The government has no desire to look for recruits for this Legion. This corps is simply an asylum for misfortune.”

The notion of the Legion as a cast of noble castaways was partly created by legionnaires themselves through free and occasionally wild (mis)use of the anonymat, by which men perhaps seeking to escape the law or debt could sign up under a false name, with which often went an elaborate back story.

If a lot of Legion lore is fabricated then the amount they drank is perhaps the one thing that is not embellished. It was a time when people drank more than they do now as a matter of course and serious alcoholism was endemic in many societies – although even the amount that was consumed in the Legion was considered extreme.

The drinking culture of the Legion in its early days was undoubtedly fuelled not only by exaggerated social norms but the harsh discipline, dismal surroundings and the stress induced by the very real threat to life and limb through violence and disease.

There was also boredom and melancholy, known in the Legion as, ‘le cafard’ – ‘the cockroach’ – which was to be feared as much as any enemy ambush or psychotic martinet.

If the long stretches spent rotting away in sunbaked forts in the bled or in the malarial swamps of Madagascar and Tonkin was dreaded by the average Legionnaire, so too was the indignity of being used for menial labour by the French high command.

Being used as labour for road building was one thing – the tradition of soldiers building important infrastructure goes back to Roman times[8] – but being farmed out by unscrupulous officers to break their backs in quarries or fields while the locals looked on and mocked them was a smarter blow to their martial pride than any petty punishment for defaulting and it contributed to not only reduced operational effectiveness but also that most serious of all military problems – low morale.

Bad morale and melancholy was the canker that ate away at the heart of units left out of action too long and without officers and NCOs with the wherewithal to keep their men suitably occupied and motivated drunkenness and insubordination was often the result.

The view of the Legion as a home of dangerous malcontents and social outcasts also meant that in the early days there was very little interaction between the men and the locals wherever they were based. Girls from local European communities that emigrated to North Africa (the ‘colons’ or ‘pieds noirs’) turned their noses up at invitations to a drink or a dance and her watchful brothers would quickly descend on the would-be gallant with threatening intent.

This brutality and forced isolation no doubt partly explains, “the inclination of the legionnaires toward drunkenness,” wrote the Italian veteran Aristide Merolli (the high proportion of Germans was thought of as another by French generals), but, as ever, unpicking whether drink, “was a cause or a symptom of a deeper institutional malaise,”[9] is a Gordian task that defies easy answers. Suffice to say both drink and melancholy exacerbated the other.

Nonetheless, despite it all the Legion survived and prospered[10], carving out a reputation for itself built in no small measure on sheer bloody-mindedness.

A good example is the Legion’s defining moment, the Battle of Camarón (or Camerone) on 30 April 1863 during the French intervention in Mexico.

Legionnaires die hard at the Camarón hacienda in Mexico, 1863. The last stand of Captain Danjou’s detachment against overwhelming odds has gone down in military history and Legion lore as the epitome of the unit’s fighting spirit.

In what became a classic of the famous last stand genre Captain Jean Danjou and 64 legionnaires trapped in a little hacienda held off 3,000 Mexicans for 10 hours until nearly everyone was dead or wounded and the water and ammunition had run out. The Mexicans were so impressed by the legionnaires that they let the three survivors go – Danjou not among them. Before he was shot dead he is reported to have inspired his men with fine words and a good deal of wine. His wooden hand is a treasured relic of the Legion today and paraded before the legionnaires every 30 April at the Legion base in Aubagne.

If alcohol was the bane of Legion life it could also be its boon. There’s no doubting that legionnaires gained the fighting reputation they did thanks to the strong bonds that grew between them as a result of shared hardships and getting good and drunk together – all of which coalesced into the absolute intangible every military strives to cultivate; ‘esprit de corps’.

If the Legion was despised then it despised everyone else back twice as much and its members took pride in being able to march further, fight harder, drink more and swear more imaginatively than any other unit in the metropolitan or African armies. The Legion came to view itself as a band apart and, naturally, one that was superior to other units.

Never has the scornful chant of the terraces and bleechers, ‘everyone hates us and we don’t care,’ been more appropriate.

It was often noted that drunk legionnaires roaming the streets went quietly when picked up by a Legion patrol but were liable to kick up a stink if manhandled by men from other corps.

March or die might have been the order of the day in Madagascar or Tonkin but between themselves to turn down help to a fellow legionnaire was tantamount to treason.

As much as they may have fought each other during their fortnightly ‘cuite’, the rallying cry of ‘a moi, La Légion!’ echoing down a back alley was enough to bring every nearby legionnaire homing in to rescue a brother-in-arms and give his assailants (be they other French soldiers, police or the young local toughs) a thoroughly good kicking and tales of outnumbered legionnaires defending themselves against impossible odds in bar brawls were as revered as any Camarón.

As ungovernable as the legionnaires sometimes made themselves when in barracks, when in action they were transformed and many Legionnaires remembered how even the most hard-bitten brawler and inveterate drinker was transformed into the image of a perfect soldier when the bullets began to fly; kepi tipped back on his head, cigarette dangling from his lips as he calmly worked the bolt on his rifle and fired into the mass of enemies to his front.

The social lubricant of alcohol also had its uses in bridging the language gap between the polyglot recruits – an idea put forward by French psychoanalyst Roger Cabrol in a dissertation of 1971.[11]

Singing was the other and one actively nurtured by the Legion to this day. The Legion has a number of sombre but moving ‘chants’ either French or ‘borrowed’ from other countries especially Germany.

Despite French being the nominal language of the Legion, many soldiers in the early days only learnt enough to understand very basic words of command and these were as likely to be given in German much of the time given the high number of German and German-speaking legionnaires.

Although many men became good linguists, a large group of Germans of Poles in one unit might see no reason to learn much French which could make life rather lonely for a French, English, Spanish or Italian speaker with few compatriots around.

Flutsch described Legion life as a silent one, “punctuated by periodic periods of drunkenness.”[12]

Then again, just as it was in the equally linguistically diverse saloons of late 19th and early 20th century America, shared drinks in the canteens and local bars of Legion bases were important places for the men to get to know one another, their imperfect French anyway transformed into a unique Legion ‘argot’ peppered with all manner of buckshee words from the many homelands of the legionnaires (with ‘Goddam’[13] being the most popular English word).

Language skills are often touted as improving with a certain amount of moderate drinking and then past a certain point (when language skills of any sort are out of the window anyway) what anyone was speaking presumably didn’t matter. No doubt many generations broke the ice with fellow foreign (quite literally) legionnaires over a bottle of wine or two – when they weren’t breaking them over each others’ heads that is.

Next: The Legion tumbles through a tumultuous 20th century and acquires a taste for ‘Tiger blood’.

Previously: Drinking to forget


[1] Published in 1924.

[2] The ‘Riffians’ were tribesmen from the Rif Mountains in Morocco who resisted Spanish then French incursions in the 1920s in a brutal and largely forgotten conflict.

[3] ‘Beau Geste’ was made into a silent movie in 1926. The film was so disliked by the Legion high command and subsequently became so controversial in France for its depiction of villainous Legion officers and NCOs and mutiny in the ranks that the classic 1939 version of the film starring Gary Cooper was banned in France until 1977. Incidentally, the name of the character that sets the plot of ‘Beau Geste’ in motion and is the central character in the sequel, ‘Beau Sabreur’ is Major Henri de Beaujolais.

[4] Porch, op cit. p190

[5] Although in 1857 Lt Charles Zédé (of dueling fame) claimed rather entertainingly that his company was “permeated with the wreckage of vanquished parties” and included in its ranks a defrocked bishop of Florence, the descendant of an Eastern European dynasty and a Hungarian general who’d picked the wrong side in the revolution on 1848, as well as Spanish Carlists, Parisian revolutionaries and even a Chinese whose pigtail hung down beneath his képi. (Porch, op cit, p121)

[6] So too, in a way, were the penal battalions known as the ‘Battalions d’Afrique’ – the ‘Bats d’Af’.

[7] Porch, op cit, p172

[8] At least one Legion colonel roped his men into excavating old Roman sites in North Africa as it happens (which might at least have been somewhat interesting).

[9] Porch, op cit p

[10] Barring when it was briefly disbanded in 1838 after being effectively destroyed in the Carlist civil war in Spain. It was reconstituted in 1839.

[11] L’adaptation a la légion etrangère; etude socio-psychologique, 1971; Porch, op cit, p308

[12] Porch, op cit, p186

[13] Strangely enough echoing the Hundred Years War when the French referred to the English as the ‘Goddams’ after what was clearly the medieval English soldiery’s favourite invective.

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