The French Foreign Legion Essay, Research Paper
The French, being a thrifty and practical people, have always been willing to let any foreigners assist them in any necessary bleeding and dying for La Patrie. Writes American historian John Elting, From the Scots who rode with Joan of Arc to the Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu, the foreign soldier, idealistic volunteer or hard-case mercenary, is an integral part of the French military tradition. Since its inception on March 10, 1831 by King Louis Philippe, the Legion has attracted soldiers, mercenaries and outcasts of every nationality, race and creed in society. It is often assumed that the Legion is merely a mercenary army of society s unwanted thugs, brutes and criminals to serve France s less amiable military endeavors. But these assumptions, though understandable, are far from the truth. The legion is a rigorously trained, elite outfit of volunteers that have, throughout their history, displayed outstanding courage, preferring to fight to the death, rather than retreat or surrender. So given the legion s history of elite service, bravery and incredible romantic appeal, it is clear there is much more to the legion than meets the proverbial eye.
The employment of foreign mercenary soldiers in France dates back to the twelfth century when King Philippe Auguste resolved to acquire a force more dependable than the feudal armies that dotted the kingdom. These Feudal levies were only obliged to stay under arms for forty days and thus could not be counted on for reliable defense or offense against France s enemies. Auguste instituted a system of payment for his Knights in lieu of their service, the income from which was then invested (by the knights) in the acquisition of routiers or free companions. The practice of employing foreigners grew during the Hundred Years War with England during the 14th and 15th centuries. When, in 1439 France created fifteen companies to form the heart of a standing army, two of these were Scottish. An attempt was made to create a national infantry in the form of the francs-archers French bowmen exempt from taxation – between 1449 and 1509. This initiative failed causing the French Kings to rely on mercenaries and foreigners to fight for them. France s size and power meant the government was not held hostage to turbulent mercenaries, as were the small and fragmented Italian states during Machiavelli s time. One important consequence of the use of mercenaries, however, was the government s frequent inability to pay for their military service, causing the unpaid and often disbanded mercenaries to be scattered across the countryside, which afforded them a bandit reputation. This unsavory image deepened during the 18th century resulting from France s defeats in the Seven-Year s War, growing nationalist sentiment and calls for political reform in France. Needing to assign blame for their defeats elsewhere, the French turned their anger to the foreign soldiers and the French government that was viewed to have rested their authority on the bayonets of foreigners. (Porch, xvii) This view increasingly called into question the use of foreign soldiers, while at the same time, the growth of similar sentiments elsewhere gradually reduced the number for foreigners available for recruitment as the practice of conscription became more prevalent. Switzerland remained the exception, as poverty, tradition and government encouragement continued to hemorrhage men into the armies of foreign monarchs. (Porch, xvi) Nevertheless, when the French Revolution erupted in 1789, foreigners were very well represented in the French army, constituting nearly a quarter of its strength.
In the West, prejudiced against mercenaries, runs at least to the end of the feudal age, when the expansion of the cash economy allowed Italian city-states to hire condonttieri to actively enforce their foreign policies. According to Machiavelli, one of the first western proponents of conscription, the result was disastrous. The present ruin of Italy is the result of nothing else than reliance upon mercenaries, he wrote in the 14th century. He described pitched battles between bands of these mercenaries in which the only men who died were those unfortunates who fell from their horses and drowned in the mud. He gave a comprehensively damning appraisal of the fighting abilities of mercenaries as a whole based on the condonttieri They are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, disloyal, overbearing among friends, cowardly among enemies, there is no fear of God, no loyalty to man. And while most kingdoms relied upon mercenary armies between Machiavelli s time and the French Revolution, the resentful sentiment toward them was held even by their commanders, whose great reputations were often built on their blood. Even King Gustavus Adolphus, whose mercenary armies devastated Germany during the Thirty-Year s War saw them as faithless, dangerous and expensive. After the fighting, Adolphus fought to keep the mercenaries far away from his native Sweden.
As shown by the views of prominent politicians and even military leaders in history, mercenaries are viewed not as real soldiers but as cowardly brutes. They are seen as being preoccupied only with their own financial gain, having no honor and no loyalty to their superiors or mission. While this point may be argued regarding mercenaries in general, an important distinction must be made between mercenary armies and the French Foreign legion. The distinction can be shown via the legion s code of honor and the story of its most historic battle, which demonstrates the incredible courage of the Legionnaires.
The code of honor that governs the Foreign Legion is not merely a document signed upon recruitment, it lives in every legionnaire as a doctrine that supercedes all others. Legionnaires are often individuals who have joined because of a personal or family crisis or an upheaval in their social or political life. Striking examples of this can be found in the mass enlistment of Alsatians after 1871, of Spaniards in 1939 and of Eastern Europeans after 1945. For others, those who are unable to deal with the limitations of a middle-class life, the Legion represents a life of adventure. The legionnaire is seldom an angel but never a criminal. In joining the Legion, a recruit often severs his roots, and consequently is ready to give all he has, including his life. This state of mind binds the legionnaires together and would serve to explain their mythical cohesion sealed with discipline, solidarity and respect for traditions. The initial training indoctrinates the Legionnaire to place all his trust in his leaders, which fosters attachment between the legionnaire and his leaders. Alive, he [the legionnaire] will follow them [ the commanders] everywhere, dead, he will never be abandoned. These attitudes lend tremendous romanticism to the already mysterious legion.
A man who has left behind his past, his social and family background, transfers to the Legion his need of an ideal, his affection equating the Legion with that of a homeland, to the point of sacrificing everything to it with a generosity which has astonished the world.
On every Foreign Legion flag is a reference to the battle near Palo Verde, Mexico on April 30, 1863 where sixty-two Legionnaires held off over two thousand Mexican soldiers in a poignant example of the Foreign Legion s remarkable courage and devotion. After a night of patrolling for Mexican guerillas, the legionnaires prepared for breakfast, but were attacked the Mexican cavalry. Captain Jean Danjou successfully repelled the first wave without suffering any casualties. He moved his men into the Hacienda de la Trinidad, a square-walled farm yard, two hundred yards east of Camaron. This newly created fortress was roughly fifty square yards. The ten-foot high-wall had two doors and a third cavity that had once been used as an entranceway. Danjou set about shoring up his defenses, unopposed by the Mexicans presence. Danjou s problem was that though the Mexican soldiers could not see within the compound, Danjou could not see them either. A lookout reported that he could see sombreros as far as the eye could see, furthermore, they appeared to be well armed and were dismounting their horses. The oppressive heat had the legionnaires rapidly running out of water, finally though much time had passed a Mexican soldier waving a white handkerchief approached Danjou with a proposition. Noting that the legionnaires were vastly outnumbered he proposed the idea of them peacefully surrendering without bloodshed. However, Danjou refused his offer. Corporal Louis Maine, a survivor, explained, As the enemy had shown neither infantry nor artillery, we could defend ourselves for a long time against cavalrymen no matter how numerous. Danjou then instructed his men to fight and defend themselves until death. Initially the battle was fairly even until the tide turned as Danjou was fatally wounded by a bullet to the chest. The Mexicans, reinforced by a third infantry battalion. Finally the makeshift fortress caught fire, and by then the battle was already lost. Despite this the five remaining legionnaires clinging to any hope of victory stormed the remaining Mexican troops, and literally fought until death. A Mexican recalled, these are not men, they are demons. Corporal Louis Maine recounted afterwards of the legionnaires following of Danjou s plea for fighting till death, that Hope no longer existed. Still, no one thought of surrender .
The French Foreign Legion initially a way of France having foreigners fights their battles later evolved into a group full of valor and courage. A group of men so dedicated that even when all odds were stacked against them, there was no waning of their determination or spirit, fighting until death could make them fight no longer. The French Foreign Legion is now recognized not as a mere assembly of foreigners fighting for France but as a strongly respected courageous corps of men fighting for honor.
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