At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion

  • By Jean-Vincent Blanchard
  • Bloomsbury Press
  • 272 pp.

Part biography, part history, part homage to manly men in the mercenary service of colonial overreach.

It’s an enduring if hoary image: With a steely eyed, thousand-yard stare, a man stands alone at the edge of a vast desert, rifle in hand, sun-bleached kepi hat casting a shadow across his rough-hewn visage. Perhaps he is replaying for himself the missteps in life that brought him here, for he is society’s outcast, a man without a country: He is a soldier of the French Foreign Legion.

If this were a scene in any of the dozens of cinematic treatments of the legion, at this point the camera might pan wide (as the music swells) so the audience sees the battalion of brave legionnaires arrayed behind our lone antihero, as a line of Arabian horsemen crests the sand dune and charges.

Author Jean-Vincent Blanchard dissects the facts and fiction behind the legendary outfit in this wide-ranging, heavily researched discussion of the history, culture, defining characteristics, and raison d’être of the French Foreign Legion.

In many ways, this is a biography of one of the primary sculptors of the legion’s character, General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey, who spent much of his army career in command of legion forces and was a principal architect of its longstanding presence — first in Vietnam and later in Morocco — in support of French colonial expansion.

The legion was born in 1831 when France found itself with a surfeit of unemployed immigrants and a nascent colonial enterprise in Algeria. Forming army regiments out of idle foreigners solved two problems: It gave those people jobs to keep them out of trouble, and it allowed France to avoid the political fallout of sending its citizens overseas to fight and die.

After Napoleon III’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, a sharp division solidified between the legion, as France’s force for colonization, and the homeland army, whose French citizenry stayed put to protect the borders from further German incursion.

In Algeria in 1841, Governor-General Robert Bugeaud gave the legion its first dose of true military discipline and leadership, as well as its first decisive victories over an entrenched foe, the Emir Abdelkader. At the same time, though, he introduced them to brutal, scorched-earth warfare. It was here that the strong bonds of legion tradition first took hold. Men likened joining the legion to joining a monastery, with less religion and more blood.

Enter Lyautey. A true believer in the value of French colonialism, he wanted to conquer by demonstrating the benefits of French civilization, to encourage Francophilia through a method dubbed tache d’huile, “oil slick”: a persistent, pervasive spreading of France’s culture in all the places it touched. The men of the legion included engineers, craftsmen, and artisans who could be put to use in infrastructure improvement and building projects in between pitched battles.

For a man of his time, Lyautey could be considered enlightened, since he had honest respect for Arab and Islamic traditions, and his protection of those traditions won him a measure of favor with Moroccans.  

He was equally popular with the legionnaires he commanded, since he also treated them with an evenhandedness and respect that was otherwise often in short supply. He shared with them their tendency toward periods of dark brooding called le cafard — the cockroach — that burrowed into a legionnaire’s brain during long, lonely nights in the jungle or desert. In sympathy, he forgave them their hard drinking and carousing, knowing that a cry, anywhere, of “la legion!” would summon every legionnaire within hearing distance, no questions asked.

Still, for all the bonds of loyalty and brotherhood that made this a fighting force to be reckoned with, it is hard to square the activities of the legion with anything that can remotely be termed “heroic.”

Perhaps Lyautey viewed other cultures with some measure of respect, but he certainly led his share of slaughter at the pointy end of colonization. And despite the theory of a civilizing oil slick, the indigenous populations were never given to share in the riches of the folks who crashed in, guns blazing, to set up shop and milk the surrounding lands for the greater glory of France.

As Camille Pelletan noted in 1885, “We are told that we have this imperious need, as men of a superior race, to go about civilizing the barbarians of the world with cannonballs. If we asked those barbarians, I think they’d be just fine being left alone.”

In response to a comment that “superior races have a right with regard to inferior races,” Georges Clemenceau pointed out that the Germans resorted to much the same argument, since they believed the French were inferior to Germans.

(Ironically, Germans had long been favored recruits for the legion, even after the ugly 1870 war. Many of the best troops were thought to be from Alsace-Lorraine because they had French affiliation but were of Germanic build.)

It’s not as though the French were in any way unique among European and New World powers in their quest for colonial expansion, but it’s always interesting to pull the thread of historical cause and eventual effect. For example, the legion left its Algerian headquarters of Sidi Bel Abbès in 1962 after losing the fierce battle against Algeria’s independence.

Blanchard notes that “one of the most ardent fighters against the Algerians was a former legionnaire named Jean-Marie Le Pen.” He, of course, is the father of ardent French nationalist and current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Perhaps she can find some Algerians or Moroccans to commiserate with her over her abiding sense that her homeland is being overrun by uninvited newcomers.  

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle, and reviews regularly for both the Independent and the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. She is serving as chair of the 2017 and 2018 Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference, and is president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association.

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