SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 11: Beau Travail

Beau Travail research on French Foreign Legion
Kyle Pockock

*A Brief History of the Legion *

Probably the most unique military organization still in service, the French Foreign Legion has been serving France since 1831. After several units of Swiss and German soldiers under the Bourbon monarchy were disbanded and foreign nationals and veterans of the Napoleonic wars flooded into the country following the civil unrest and regime changes in France, King Louis Philippe gathered them into the newly formed French Foreign Legion. Initially, the Legion was divided into seven battalions based on nationality, (Swiss, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Dutch-Belgian) rather than the homogenous group it is today. According to the Royal Ordinance establishing their creation, the Legion would only serve outside of mainland France so the newly formed Legion exclusively composed of foreign soldiers was sent to Algiers to support French colonial efforts in Africa.

This first assignment and the subsequent battles fought in Algeria would lead to the Legion considering the country their spiritual home in later years. Lacking discipline and organization, the newly arrived Colonel Michel Combe (Meeshell Comb-bay) used engineering projects other units found beneath them as a way to continue ironing out the command structure while still helping to improve the region for colonization. Sent to Spain to help the then ally of France Queen Isabella II maintain her claim to the throne, the Legion saw reorganization under Colonel Joseph Bernelle into mixed nationality companies based on role rather than place or language of origin. Despite their many differences, it actually proved effective at building morale and the esprit de corps the Legion desperately lacked through a competitive environment of legionnaires wanting to prove their nationalities worth compared to their comrades.

Despite this, and following several command changes, some devastating losses in Spain, and a return to Algeria, the Legion had again been downsized and was suffering from low morale. Newly formed battalions began employing as light infantry, moving quickly on foot to pursue the Arab insurgents they faced in Algeria, leading to a more independent and tight knit set of skirmishing battalions rather than garrisons and forts.

Following combat in the Crimean War, a campaign in the Second Italian War of Independence, and yet another return to Algeria, The Legion found itself headed to support French involvement in the Second Mexican Empire guarding an Australian Archduke and his contingent from Mexican guerrillas. On April 30th, 1863, a small patrol of 65 men led by Captain Jean Danjou (Jawn Dan-joo) was set upon by over a thousand Mexican infantry and cavalry, forcing them to seek refuge in the meager shelter of Hacienda Cameron. Fighting desperately nearly to the last man, the 5 remaining survivors burst out from the flaming Hacienda in a last ditch bayonet charge only to be cut down in a hail of gunfire by the Mexicans sieging the house. When the Mexican commander Milan realized how few men had been fighting back ferociously he remarked that “these are not men, they are devils.” The wooden hand of Captain Danjou was returned to the Legion and remains one of their most important artifacts and is a testament to the ferocious and often selfless fighting spirit of the legion.

Continued colonial campaigns in North Africa and China, the Legion would be thrust directly into their first conflict on French soil; the First World War. Longtime hardened veterans of the Legion often butted heads with the fresh new, idealistic recruits while they served together across the globe during the war. Some of the largely German and Austrian groups of legionnaires were left to be garrisoned in North Africa for fears that they may have their loyalties challenged fighting their countrymen. Notable Legion involvement in the war includes campaigns in Gallipoli, the Balkans, and a sizable amount of legionnaires sent to the Battle of the Somme.

A staggering 70% of legionnaires were killed in the war, leaving a broken and weary Legion to rebuild their once full ranks back to their former glory. New idealistic recruits in the interwar period clashed with the battle hardened veterans. General Paul Rollet knew it was time to attract the sort of men he felt the legion needed a PR makeover, focusing on tradition and the romantic appeal of heroic battle that had gained the Legion its fame in the past. He brought back traditional aspects of their uniforms like the sun backed white kepi blancs (keppy blawnk), the bright red epaulettes, and the green neckties synonymous with the Legion today. Surprisingly, his endeavors were helped along by an explosion of French Foreign Legion films coming out of Hollywood at the time that helped guide many a wayward young man into their ranks.

With a rebuilt and reinforced Legion at the ready, France found itself once again at war with Germany, being invaded in 1940. Heavy losses in the face of the relentless Nazi blitzkrieg before French capitulation had shattered and scattered the legionnaires who fought in the Battle of France. Charles De Gaulles (Sharl duh Gawl), appalled at his country’s resignation, found himself in England and ready to continue the fight his government had given up on, forming the Free French Army out of any remaining French soldiers he could find, including the 13e Demi-Brigade (13e represents the French word for 13th; treizième or trezz-ee-emm) of legionnaires. One of the brigades and divisions (the 6th Regiment) still loyal to Vichy France would end up fighting the Free French 13e Demi-Brigade in Syria near Damascus.

Following the hard-fought liberation of France, the Legion was sent back to French Indochina (modern day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) to attempt to quel revolutionary uprisings in the area. While they knew French hold on the region was waning, the legionnaires fought ferociously to hold onto the territory they defended. In the ill fated battle to defend their base at Dien Bien Phu, thousands of legionnaires, some with absolutely no jump training, volunteered to jump into the battle to help reinforce their comrades. After losing some four thousand soldiers and finding themselves low on supplies and overwhelmed, the soldiers at Dien Bien Phu were forced to surrender. Though they did their best to protect French interests in the area, the Legion couldn’t help but feel that they had been cheated after France left the area for good, leaving a power vacuum until American involvement in the area and the subsequent war.

Their feelings of betrayal would boil over following an independence movement turned insurgency in Algeria. The Legion would partake in brutal desert fighting sometimes resorting to torture and reprisals to try to maintain their spiritual homeland for France. Running for his presidential term on promises of keeping Algeria French, De Gaulles would be forced to come to a peaceful resolution with the National Liberation Front in 1962. This infuriated members of the French military, notably some legionnaires who plotted assassinations of De Gaulle and possible coup attempts to keep France on the path they felt it should stay on. Thankfully for De Gaulle and his government, the attempts failed and despite knowing of the dissent within their ranks, he chose not to dissolve the Legion, being reminded of their stellar service under his Free French Army.

For the rest of their history, the French Foreign Legion would continue doing what they had always done, protecting French territory and interests around the world. Elements of the Legion would be involved in peacekeeping operations in former colonial territories like Congo and Mali as well as coalition interventions into Iraq and Afghanistan. Forever being seen as an almost disposable military force due to their foreign status and fierce devotion to the Legion, legionnaires would find themselves in far flung places of the world conducting the most dangerous missions France was too hesitant to send the French Army, fearing the public backlash should “real” French soldiers lose their lives. Historically, 1 in 10 legionnaires die in combat, a fact that almost seems unsurprising given the danger they have reliably been placed in time after time. The Legion seems to take pride in this fact, however, and attracts men hell-bent on seeing combat and joining a brotherhood of soldiers who swear loyalty to their Legion, not their Country. Reflected in this tradition is one of their current mottoes; Legio Pastra Nostra or The Legion Is Our Homeland.

Training and Organization

Given the combat heavy lifestyle ahead of them, training for new legionnaires is some of the most physically and mentally demanding available. Recruits have the opportunity to assume a completely new identity and avoid any sort of crooked past (short of especially serious crimes like murder) for the opportunity to make a fresh start in their 5 years of required service in the Legion. Aside from the shared suffering and their rich traditions, legionnaires are also bound together by their learning of French After a month of basic training resembling the stresses of American special forces training like Ranger school or the Navy SEAL’s BUD/S, the new legionnaires don their Kepi Blancs and from there are sent to a near constant routine of training and/or combat for the rest of their careers. In the words of a Legion officer, “a legionnaire who is not working is a legionnaire who can make mistakes,” and they intend to keep them busy as much as possible, sharpening their skills and equipping them with specializations as they rise through the ranks. Desert training is accomplished in Djibouti (as seen in the film), and jungle training occurs in French Guiana.

The Legion has its own officers and non-commissioned officers, functioning within the French Army as a strike group with infantry, paratroop, and cavalry battalions available to deploy around the world. Aside from their makeup of foreigners and their assignments, the Legion uses all the same equipment and vehicles as the rest of the French Army. Should a legionnaire be wounded in combat he will immediately be made eligible for French citizenship under the established practice known as "Français par le sang versé" or “French by spilled blood.” Additional information on the structure and traditions of the Legion can be found in the links below.

Additional Background Information For Beau Travail

Aside from their training presence in the area, the FFL was tasked by the Djibouti government with border security and protection from any terrorist threats Djibouti fears they may encounter with the unrest around them in neighboring countries (especially at the time of the movie in the late 90s). The FFL has similar duties around the world, including protecting the French Guiana Space Centre in use by France and other EU countries.
Khat, or qat, the plant we see the Commandant chewing on, is a plant native to Eastern Africa that is used as a stimulant. Chewing the leaves, similarly to coca leaves in South America, is a cultural and social custom but can also create dependency on the euphoric effects the leaves give the user.
The director, Claire Denis, made heavy use of the repetitive physical training as a sort of dance performance.
The title may (I’m quite sure, but haven’t been able to confirm) be a reference to the 1926, 1939, and 1966 films Beau Travail based on the novel of the same name by P. C. Wren about 3 English orphaned brothers who join the legion to fight in North Africa.