A History of the French Foreign Legion, Part II: World War One

NEW YORK, NY / ACCESSWIRE / March 3, 2020 / Welcome back to our exploration of the fascinating history behind one of the world’s most intriguing military units, the French Foreign Legion. In our last installment, we learned about how the Legion went from a struggling, straggling corps of outlaws and ne’er-do-wells to a top-notch group of intrepid soldiers. When we left off, the Legionnaires were enjoying their exotic reputation and inspiring moviemakers, novelists, and the public at large.

In the decades leading up to the fin de siècle, the French Foreign Legion had been instrumental in the development of French imperialism. Its star had been rising, but it was cut down to size by several events of the early 20th century – particularly the first world war.

World War I saw the Legion experiencing some unrest, including serious problems with morale and even some mutinies, notably during the 1915 Artois offensive. This was partly attributable to the large numbers of foreigners flocking to the country, and especially to this branch of its military.

1913 to 1915: What Goes Up

In the early days of WWI, political pressure from other governments led to something of an open-door policy on the part of the Legion. The men who signed on did so out of a deep fondness for France, and because the war was expected to be a short one. In addition, factories all across Europe closed their doors temporarily as workers were being mobilized as members of the military. The Legion, therefore, became an attractive alternative to unemployment.

As a result, the ranks of Legionnaires swelled, doubling to some 22,000 men from 1913 to 1915. To cope with the influx, the Legion experimented with organizing these men into units based on their nationality – an idealistic approach that ultimately backfired. Moreover, clashes between new Legionnaires and the established veterans who had seen and survived colonial conflicts didn’t help matters much.

1915 to 1918: …Must Go Down

The second half of the war saw a decline in the number of Legionnaires, as volunteers returned to their home countries to fight as those nations entered the war. In 1915, the foreigners who had joined up with the Legion were given the opportunity to transfer to other branches of the French military. These changes, as well as casualties of combat – which amounted to a total of 5,316 Legionnaires who lost their lives – resulted in a drop to 12,000 in the later years of the war.

This winnowing was actually beneficial to the French Foreign Legion, however. Although there were fewer members, those who remained came together to create a more efficient military than ever before, and one that exemplified high morale and battle-tested camaraderie.

What would the post-war period have in store for the Legionnaires? Make sure to follow us on social media or check back here for updates so you can join us when we pick up the exciting tale of the French Foreign Legion next time.

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