The French Foreign Legion

The notion of employing foreigners to serve in ones armed forces is an age old concept. These troops had no attachments in their adopted land, so the theory was that they would be completely loyal to the ruler that had enlisted them (or at least to his/her gold). No one mourned a foreign soldier, so they could be given the most dangerous missions with little fear of social unrest at home.

It is easy to be seen then why countries formed these corps of expatriates. French kings were protected by Croatians, the Pope by Swiss Guardsmen, and the British had their crack King's German Legion, used to great effect during the Napoleonic Wars.

Though France had employed foreign soldiers throughout it's history, the French Foreign Legion is a relatively modern invention. It arose from France's need to police it's massive colonial empire. Unsurprisingly enough, the French were having trouble recruiting soldiers willing to serve overseas in nearly inhospitable conditions for extended periods of time. A posting to a colony was dangerous, and the populus of France was a revolutionary bunch, unwilling to spill French blood so easily when so much had already been spilt that century.

The French Foreign Legion was not to be comprised of aristocrat's sons, it was rather viewed as a way to put the disruptive elements of society to work. The Legion forgave all crimes and handed out new identities to those who wanted them. It was originally based in Toulon, but it was soon transferred to Algeria, which would be it's de facto home until the 1960's. The Legion also served on many of France's international campaigns of the time.

It was in Mexico in 1863 that the Legion's most famous action occurred. A company of Legionnaires, numbering 65 men, was charged with protecting a supply convoy en route to the besiegers of Puebla. They were ambushed and surrounded by a more than 2000 Mexican troops. The Legionnaires refused to surrender, and fought to nearly to the last man. They held up in the Inn at CamarĂ³n. After several assaults, only six men remained, though more than 500 Mexicans lay dead or dying. The Legionnaire's commander, Captain Jean Danjou, had been killed, and the commander of the remaining Legionnaires, Lieutenant Maudet, ordered a bayonet charge. Four of the six were shot at point blank range, but two were saved from execution by the Mexican commander. They were allowed to return to France with their comrades bodies. The supply convoy managed to get through, enabling the French capture of Puebla.

This action added much to the legend and mysticism of the Legion, which continues to this day.