History of the French Foreign Legion

History of the French Foreign Legion

The French Foreign Legion have had a long and unique history amongst the units of the French Army.


The French Foreign Legion was created by Louis Philippe, then King of the French, on March 10, 1831. The direct reason was that foreigners were forbidden to serve in the French Army after the 1830 July Revolution.Porch p. 2-4]

The Legion was to remove disruptive elements from society and put them to use fighting the enemies of France. The recruits came from failed revolutionaries from the rest of Europe, soldiers from the disbanded foreign regiments and troublemakers in general, both foreign and French. Because Algeria was proving to be a very unpopular posting with regular regiments in the French Army, the Legion was welcomed.

In late 1831, the first legionnaires landed in Algeria, the country that would be its homeland for 130 years and shape its character. The early years in Algeria were hard for the Legion because they were often sent to the worst postings, received the worst assignments and were generally uninterested in the new colony of the French.Porch p. 17-18]

The Legion's first service in Algeria came to an end after only four years, since they were needed elsewhere to fight the enemies of France.

The French Foreign Legion in Spain

In order to support Isabella's claim to the Spanish throne against her uncle, the French government decided to send the Legion to Spain and so, on 28 June 1835, the Legion was handed over to the Spanish government. The Legion landed at Tarragona on 17 August with around 4,000 men. One of the first things the commander did was to dissolve the national battalions in order to create a greater "esprit de corps".

Later, he also created three squadrons of lancers and an artillery battery from the existing force to increase independence and flexibility. They were called "Los Argelinos" (The Algerians) by the locals because of their previous posting. The Legion was dissolved on 8 December, 1838, when it had dropped to only 500 men. The survivors returned to France, many reenlisting in the new Legion along with many of their former enemies, the Carlists.

Italy 1859

The two Foreign Legion regiments took part in the war in Italy against the Austrians as a part of MacMahon’s II Corps. They took part in the Battle of Magenta where the II Corps played an important part in the French victory and the Foreign Legion performed well.

After the battle the under-strength 1st Foreign Regiment remained in Milan to recruit. Meanwhile the 2nd Foreign Regiment took part in the French Army’s two week pursuit of the Austrians which culminated in a bloody French victory at Solferino.


It was in Mexico on 30 April 1863 that the Legion earned its legendary status. A small infantry patrol led by Capitaine Danjou, numbering 62 soldiers and 3 officers, was attacked and besieged by over a thousand Mexicans [http://www.channel4.com/life/microsites/E/escape_to_the_legion/legion.html] , organized in three battalions of infantry and cavalry, and was forced to make a defense in Hacienda Camarón. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, they fought nearly to the last man, with just three survivors and no ammunition and only the option to surrender, they fixed bayonetts and attacked. The Mexican General was so impressed he assigned an honorguard to escort the body of Capitaine Danjou back to his battalion.

Franco-Prussian War

According to French law the Legion was not to be used within Metropolitan France, and thus, it was not a part of Napoleon III’s Imperial Army that capitulated at Sedan. With the defeat of the Imperial Army, the Second French Empire fell and the Third Republic was created.

The problem was that the new Third Republic was desperately short of trained soldiers, so the Legion was ordered to provide a contingent. On 11 October, two provisional battalions disembarked at Toulon, the first time the Legion had been deployed in France itself. They attempted to lift the Siege of Paris by breaking through the German lines. They succeeded in re-taking Orléans, but failed to break the siege.

Colonial Warfare

During the Third Republic, the Legion played a major role in French colonial expansion. They fought in North Africa (where they established their headquarters at Sidi-Bel-Abbès in Algeria), Madagascar, and Indochina, where they participated in the celebrated Siege of Tuyen Quang in 1885.

The World Wars

In World War I the Legion fought in many critical battles of the war, including the Battle of Verdun. The Legion was highly decorated for its efforts in the war. Many young Americans like Fred Zinn volunteered for the Legion when the war broke out in 1914.

The Foreign Legion was heavily involved in World War II, playing a large role in the Middle East and the North African campaign. The 13th Demi-Brigade was deployed in the Battle of Bir Hakeim. Interestingly, part of the Legion was loyal to the Free French movement, yet another part was loyal to the Vichy government. A battle in Syria saw two opposing sides fight against each other in a short engagement, and later on the Vichy Legion joined its Free French brethren.


Units of the Legion were deployed in French Indochina and fought in the Franco-Chinese War, and one battalion was the key component in the celebrated defense of the fortress of Tuyen Quang when it was assaulted by Chinese troops many times its number.

Units of the Legion were involved in the defense of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indochina War and lost a large number of men in the battle. Towards the desperate end of the battle, Legionnaires formed the bulk of the volunteer relief force which were delivered by parachute to the base.

The Gulf War

In September 1990 the 2e REI, 6e REG and 1e REC were sent to the Persian Gulf as a part of Opération Daguet. They were a part of the French 6th Light Armoured Division whose mission was to protect the coalition's left flank.

After a four week air campaign the coalition forces began the ground campaign. It quickly penetrated deep into Iraq, the Legion taking the Al Salman airport with little resistance. The war ended after a hundred hours ground fighting and very light casualties for the Legion.



*Porch, Douglas. "The French Foreign Legion." New York: Harper Collins, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092308-3
*Evan McGorman "Life in the French Foreign Legion: How To Join and What To Expect When You Get There" is a 6" x 9" 224 page hardcover volume. Numerous photos are included.

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