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Foreign Legion (France)

Légion étrangère

Last modified: 2011-11-11 by ivan sache
Keywords: foreign legion | legion etrangere | sontay | fanion de la legion (le) | piaf (edith) |
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[Pennant of the Foreign Legion]

Pennant of the Foreign Legion - Image by Ivan Sache, 8 August 2001

See also:

External sites of interest:

Presentation of the Foreign Legion

The Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère) was founded by King Louis-Philippe on 10 March 1831 as an infantry regiment composed of foreign soldiers. Stationed in Algeria and once part of the famous Army of Africa, the Foreign Legion was repatriated to France after the independence of Algeria (1962). Its headquarters are located at Aubagne, a town located between Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence.

The Foreign Legion has been engaged into several war actions, including the Spanish Civil War between Isabel II and the Carlists and the Conquest of Algeria (1835), the Crimean War (Battle of Alma and Siege of Sebastopol, 1854), the Second Italian War of Independence (1859), the French Intervention in Mexico (1863-1867), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the colonial conquests of Tonkin (1883), Dahomey (1892), Madagascar (1896) and Morocco (1914), the First World War (1914-1918), the pacification of Syria (1922), the Rif War (Morocco) against Abd-el-Krim (1921-1926), the Second World War (Norway, 1940; Cambodia, 1941; Dakar, Erythrea, Lebanon, Libya [Bir-Hakeim)], Syria, 1932; liberation of France and Italy, 1943), the First Indochina War (1945-1954, Diên-Biên-Phu), the Algerian War (1954-1962), the Kolwezi campaign (Katanga, 1978), the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) and the Licorne operation in Côte-d'Ivoire.

The status of the Foreign Legion was last amended by Decree 2008-956 of 12 September 2008, "On soldiers serving as foreigners", published in the French official gazette on 16 September 2008, superseding Decree 77-789 of 1 July 1977.
Article 2 of the Decree says: "The soldiers serving as foreigners are committed to serve France with honour and loyalty [honneur et fidélité]", highlighting the Legion's motto Honneur et Fidélité (instead of Honneur et Patrie used for the other French regiments).

Ivan Sache, 25 October 2009

Units of the Foreign Legion

In 2007, the Foreign Legion was made of 7,700 servicemen (400 officers, 1,700 non-commissioned officers and 5,600 soldiers) incorporated into 11 regiments subordinated to the COMLE (Commandement de la Légion étrangère, Command of the Foreign Legion).

Three regiments are in charge of the administration of the Legion:
- 1er RE (1er Régiment étranger, First Foreign Regiment), supporting the COMLE. Founded in 1841 and stationed at Aubagne since 1962, the 1er RE is known as the "Mother House" of the Legion and is in charge of the preservation of the Legion traditions.
- 4e RE (4e Régiment étranger, Fourth Foreign Regiment), for training. Founded in 1920 and stationed at Castelnaudary, the 4e RE is the single training unit of the Legion; it cannot be involved in war acts.
- GRLE (Groupement de recrutement de la Légion étrangère, Foreign Legion Recruitment Group). Founded on 10 July 2007, the GRLE is stationed in the fort of Nogent, near Paris.

The eight other regiments are fighting units:
- 1er REC (1er Régiment étranger de cavalerie, First Cavalry Foreign Regiment). The only armoured regiment of the Legion, the 1er REC has been stationed at Orange since 1967.
- 1er REG (1er Régiment étranger de génie, First Engineers Foreign Regiment). Founded in 1984 as the 6e REG, the 1er REG, based at Laudun (west of Orange), was renamed 1er REG after the creation of the 2e REG.
- 2e REG (2e Régiment étranger de génie, Second Engineers Foreign Regiment). Founded in 1999 and the younger of the foreign regiments, the 2e REG is stationed at Saint-Christol (Plateau d'Albion).
- 2e REI (2e Régiment étranger d'infanterie, Second Infantry Foreign Regiment). Founded in 1841, the 2e REI, stationed at Nîmes, is the biggest infantry regiment in the French army.
- 2e REP (2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes, Second Paratroops Foreign Regiment). The follower of the Paratroops regiment of Indochina and Algeria, the 2e REP is stationed at Calvi (Corsica).
- 3e REI (3e Régiment étranger d'infanterie, Third Infantry Foreign Regiment). The follower of the RMLE (Régiment de marche de la Légion étrangère, March Regiment of the Foreign Legion) that existed in 1915-1918 and 1943-1945, the 3e REI, stationed at Kourou (French Guiana), is the most awarded regiment of the Legion.
- 13e DBLE (13e Demi-brigade de Légion étrangère, 13th Half-Brigade of the Foreign Legion). Founded in 1940, the DBLE is stationed at Djibouti as part of the FFDJ (Forces françaises stationnées à Djibouti).
- DLEM (Détachement de Légion étrangère à Mayotte, Detachment of the Foreign Legion at Mayotte). Founded in 1976, the DLEM is based at Mayotte.

Ivan Sache, 25 October 2009

Pennant of the Foreign Legion

The pennant of the Foreign Legion, horizontally divided green-red (the colours of the Legion), is hoisted, for instance, in the Institute for the Disabled Veterans of the Foreign Legion (Institution des Invalides de la Légion étrangère), located in the small village of Puyloubier, near Aix-en-Provence, and in the CPLEM (Centre des permissionnaires de la Légion étrangère), located in La Malmousque, Marseilles.

The well-known colours of the Foreign Legion are green and red, but little is known on their origin.
Several sources, official or not, report in a more or less certain manner, but without giving precise evidence, that the Swiss soldiers serving in the 2nd Foreign Legion in 1855 wanted to keep their uniforms. There are also far-fetched references to the colours of the uniforms of the Swiss Guard of the King of France. Green is said to symbolize hope, while red is said to symbolize sacrifice.
The green epaulettes with red fringes, characteristic of the Legion, were adopted in 1868. The colour of the legionnaire's cravate was fixed as green in 1947. Most legionnaires wear green socks, to match the cravate, but there is no regulation prescribing such an use. The green beret, designed in 1948 to distinguish the paratroopers of the Legion from the other paratroopers, who wear a red beret, was officialized in 1957 and allowed to all legionnaires, not necessarily paratroopers.
The green jacket of arms, with 18 golden or silver buttons, shall be used only by officers and NCOs of higher rank who have attended at least once the Camerone commemorative ceremony.

Use of the pennant by the ship Sontay

In 1936, the shipping company Union Méditerranèenne, a subsidiary of Messageries Maritimes, purchased the steamer Bayern, launched in 1921, from the Hamburg Amerika Linie, and renamed it Sontay, for a town of Tonkin. Located on the Red River, close to Hanoi, the town of Sontay was seized by Admiral Courbet in 1883; after the pacification of Tonkin, it became the main garrison town of the French Foreign Legion in Tonkin.
The Sontay was commissioned to the transport of legionnaires to Indochina, succeeding the Kouang-Si operated by the shipowner Valoussières. Captured on 26 February 1941 by the British fleet, it was then operated by Union Castle until given back to France in July 1947 et reincorporated to the Messageries Maritimes in March 1948. Used until 1953 to transport troops in Indochina and Korea, the Sontay was sold to a Panamanian shipowner in June 1955. Renamed Sunlock, the ship was eventually scraped in Japan in 1959.

Captain Émilien Brignaudy (1886-1972), commander of the Kouang-Si from 1924 to 1936 and of the Sontay from 1936 to 1941, was awarded the rank of Honorary Sergent of the Foreign Legion - something exceptional.
The Sontay flew the French ensign, the house flag of the Messageries Maritimes and the pennant of the Foreign Legion. After the sale of the ship in 1955, its last French Ensign was offerred to the Legion and placed in the Hall of Fame of the Legion in Siddi-Bel- Abbès (Algeria).
The subsequent history of the flag is not described, but it must have been transferred to the Legion Museum at Aubagne when the Foreign Legion was repatriated to France after the independence of Algeria.

Source: Website of the Amicale des Anciens de la Légion Étrangère de Paris

Ivan Sache, 6 December 2009

Le fanion de la légion song

The Foreign Legion was, especially between the two World Wars, the source of a rich mythology, associated to exotism and colonialism.
In 1936, the singer Marie Dubas (1894-1972) performed for the first time the song Mon légionnaire (lyrics by Raymond Asso, himself a veteran of the French Legion; music by Marguerite Monnot), a song relating a love affair between a romantic woman and a mysterious legionnaire refusing to give his name and eventually dying, "not seen, not caught", in the desert. Dubas' rather colourless performance of the song was quickly superseded by Édith Piaf's tragic, expressionist rendition. Modern renditions of the song, without changing the lyrics, have been performed by Serge Gainsbourg, Amel Bent, Ute Lemper and Jil Aigrot.
In 1936, Marie Dubas performed from the first time a song from the same authors, Le fanion de la légion. Édith Piaf recorded the song the next year and performed it all over her career, although it was a minor success (compared to others, of course).

Le fanion de la légion relates the heroic resistance of 30 legionnaires entrenched in an outpost in Sahara, three of them surviving at the end without surrendering. Most probably inspired by the Battle of Camerone, Mexico (1863), the action was "relocated" to the Sahara, the hotspot of the Legion myth (as highlighted in Mon légionnaire). While Mon légionnaire was a quite intimist song, Le fanion de la légion is an heroic war song, in which Piaf could express her outstanding skills in stage acting (whatever we may think of the background of the song; the performance dates back to 1954 and has to be considered in the context of the increasing "troubles" in Algeria, while remembering that the song had been written decades before).
Fanion can be translated as "pennant" but must be read here as "flag" and be understood as the French national flag. The flag appears at the end of each main stanza, highlighting the progress of the action, as follows:

Ah la la la, la belle histoire,
Là-haut sur les murs du bastion,
Dans le soleil plane la gloire
Et dans le vent claque un fanion.
C'est le fanion de la légion !

Ah la la la, la belle histoire,
Claquant au vent sur le bastion
Et troué comme une écumoire,
Il y a toujours le fanion,
Le beau fanion de la légion !

Ah la la la, la belle histoire,
Ils sont toujours dans le bastion
Mais ne peuvent crier victoire :
On leur a volé le fanion,
Le beau fanion de la légion !

Ah la la la, la belle histoire,
Les trois qui sont dans le bastion,
Sur leurs poitrines toutes noires
Avec du sang crénom de nom
Ont dessiné de beaux fanions.
Ah la la la, la belle histoire,
Ils peuvent redresser leurs fronts
Et vers le ciel crier victoire.
Au garde-a-vous sur le bastion,
Ils gueulent "présent la légion".

The beautiful story,
Up on the walls of the bastion,
In the sun glides glory
In the winds flutters a flag,
The flag of the legion!
The beautiful story,
Fluttering in the wind on the bastion
And riddled with holes like a skimmer,
The flag still stands,
The beautiful flag of the legion!
The beautiful story,
They are still inside the bastion
But they cannot crow over their victory:
They have been stolen the flag,
The beautiful flag of the legion!
The beautiful story,
The three who are still in the bastion,
On their black chest
With blood, dash it all!
Have drawn beautiful flags.
The beautiful story,
They can lift up their forehead
And to the sky crow over their victory.
Standing to attention on the bastion,
They shout "Present at call the legion".

To Asso's great disappointment, the song was not adopted by the Legion, in spite of using part of the Legion's official march song, the boudin. On 10 November 1960, during the War of Algeria, Piaf dedicated her record of Non, je ne regrette rien (No regrets) to the Foreign Legion. Supporting the attempt of coup by the Generals in Algiers on 23 April 1961, the Legion adopted the song, which was also used by the supporters of French Algeria.

Ivan Sache, 14 February 2009