The French Foreign Legion

THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION emerges from almost two decades of research on the French Army. Following the highly successful pattern utilized in THE CONQUEST OF MOROCCO (1982) and THE CONQUEST OF THE SAHARA (1984), Porch thoroughly investigates primary materials and related memoirs, briefly establishes a context, then narrates his theme through lively personal accounts of the men involved. If it is perhaps too full of detail—twenty-seven pages, for instance, on the 1849 siege of the Zaatcha alone—the narrative is humane and full of the stuff of which legends are made.

The Legion’s history, as Porch continually reminds the reader, is far more complex than novels and films such as BEAU GESTE and MOROCCO have suggested. From its original purpose as a protective siphon during the 1831 flood of political refugees, it went through several stages, at each point having to justify its existence and redefine its role. Porch includes surprisingly little on the “High Renaissance” of Legion culture between 1900 and 1914, but has covered the period so thoroughly in previous works on North Africa that the material is easily found. Perhaps the best parts of his work are those regarding Legion myths, where the author’s wide research has paid rich dividends in substantiating and clarifying such factors as anonymity and asylum in the development of its esprit.

No one is likely to supplant this meticulously researched study, in either style or detail. The specialist will occasionally want more rigorous analysis, but will not have far to look for materials with more than seventy pages of notes and bibliography. Aficionados of military history will find it irresistible.