Desert Daze

The world's most feared fighting force, the French Foreign Legion celebrates its chequered history this month, on the anniversary of a crushing defeat
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One of the most courageous acts in the history of the French Foreign Legion is celebrated each year on 30 April. Oddly, it is the anniversary of a defeat.

In 1863 a group of 63 men headed by Captain Danjou was ordered to keep the road between Vera Cruz and Mexico City open so that a convoy carrying arms, ammunition and three million francs in gold could be sent to the capital. The troops were besieged, however, by 2,000 Mexicans and forced to withdraw to a farmhouse in the village of Camerone. Danjou made his troops swear that they would fight to the bitter end. Nine hours later, when the battle was over, Danjou, two officers and 20 soldiers were dead, one officer and 20 soldiers were wounded, and 20 soldiers had been taken prisoner. The Mexican casualties numbered over 300. The battalion had been wiped out, but the route had been defended for long enough to allow the arms and the money to reach Mexico City without incident.

Today, Captain Danjou's wooden hand, which was rescued from the farmhouse, is the Legion's most treasured relic and it is honoured in a solemn annual parade at the Legion's headquarters at Aubagne, near Marseilles. "We celebrate the fact that they kept their oath," says Colonel Pierre Jaluzot, who served in the Legion from 1948 to 1963. In one part of the ceremony, a former Legionnaire carries the captain's hand from its sanctuary to the monument to the dead (a black and gold globe surrounded by four statues).

For the Legion, the importance of the occasion is immense. Jaluzot fought in Vietnam and still has a dent on his head to prove it. He may have been the only officer who managed to defend his post at Phu Tong Hoa, but when asked what his most cherished memory of the Legion is, he replies that it was being chosen in 1991 to be the one to carry the wooden hand up the "sacred route".

But celebrations are not limited to Aubagne and the other Legion bases. "Wherever there are two Legionnaires, they get together to celebrate," says Jaluzot. On the same day in Paris, there is a mass at Saint Louis des Invalides, followed by a recitation of the tale of the battle. In the evening, the flame of the unknown soldier is lit at the Arc de Triomphe. British former Legionnaires gather in London.

THE FRENCH Foreign Legion was created in 1831 after uprisings throughout Europe brought political refugees, revolutionaries and army deserters flooding into France. King Louis-Philippe felt uneasy about these hordes of exiles, especially as the French army was engaged in a war in North Africa. A Belgian adventurer named Lacroix, who had already gath- ered together a group of foreigners whom he intended to send to Algeria to fight alongside the French army, proposed the creation of a foreign legion. Recruits were to be lured by the promise of French citizenship after five years' service - a reward which still exists today.

However, the Legion did not get off to the most auspicious start. One eyewitness who saw the first detachment disembark at Algiers compared it to a circus. On the first day, 35 of them deserted; on the second, one company got so drunk the men attacked their officers. A few weeks later, a regiment was abandoned by the regular army and wiped out by the Arab enemy.

But the soldiers were soon brought into line with ruthless discipline and training. "March or Die!" has long been the slogan of the Legion and recruits were expected to walk 30 kilometres a day, loaded down with their packs, rifles and shovels, in the sweltering Saharan heat. If a man could not get to his feet, he was tied up and dragged along behind the mule cart, which followed the troops. Early Legionnaires were more likely to die of heat exhaustion and dysentery than in battle. Even when it was not fighting, the Legion was expected to build roads, bridges and even construct complete towns. Although the training may have verged on the sadistic, it turned the Legion into the most efficient fighting force in the world.

The Legion has also long been famed for giving refuge to everyone from robbers to royalty. In the Thirties, Denmark's Prince Aage became a celebrated Legionnaire, and a future king of Yugoslavia also took the oath before suceeding to the throne. The American songwriter Cole Porter even served with the force at the close of last century.

The Legion's successes have stretched from Indo-China to Central America, but even its heroic defeats have added to its mystique. In 1892, for example, during a battle in West Africa against 10,000 Dahomey troops, Legionnaires were hacked to death and had their noses bitten off by hordes of bare- breasted females. In 1950, the First Parachute Battalion was wiped out at Cao Bang in Vietnam and, just a few years after being recreated, was crushed again at Dien Bien Phu in the Legion's worst defeat.

But Legion legend does not always equal Legion reality. Italian-born Giuseppe van Toso signed up in 1950 to flee an arranged marriage. "The image I had was one of deserts, smugglers and camels in North Africa," he says. "The Legion had something mythical and exceptional about it and the Legionnaire himself was an outstanding adventurer." His illusions were soon swept away. "At our fort in Marseilles, somebody threw some bed covers at me. They were full of dust and bugs. We used to say that there were so many bugs that they could move the beds." He also recalls having to pick up cigarette butts if he wanted to have a smoke. None of this put him off, however, and he spent over 10 years in the Legion; others were not so resistant.

Books by former Legionnaires carry titles including Hell in the Foreign Legion, Slaves of Morocco and Legion of the Damned. In his book March or Die!, deserter Michael Donovan wrote: "If the real conditions of Legion life were known, the Legion as such would soon cease to exist."

But the Foreign Legion does still exist, even if it no longer resembles the army of the past. There is little left of the French empire to police and there are no forts in the Sahara (the Legion withdrew from its last base at Sidi bel Abbes in 1962, at the end of the Algerian war). In the Seventies, the Legion evacuated French nationals and rescued hostages in former French protectorates. During the Eighties, Legionnaires saw service in the Lebanon, assured the security of Yasser Arafat when he was evacuated from Beirut, and taught Afghan mujaheddins how to neutralise Soviet mines. More recently, they have buried the dead in mass graves in Rwandan refugee camps and helped keep the peace in Somalia, Bosnia and the Central African Republic. Legionnaires may have seen service during the Gulf War, but now they are more likely to be seen patrolling Paris streets as part of the anti-terrorist force.

Nevertheless, the Legion maintains much of its reputation and renown. Take, for example, the view of one US Marine Corps commander: "No other fighting force can outdo the Foreign Legion in terms of exploits in war, professional knowledge and courage."

AT PRESENT, the Foreign Legion is composed of roughly 8,500 men - compared to 36,000 in the early Sixties - from over 100 different countries. "We always see the repercussions of events in each country," says the Legion's PR officer, Colonel Jean-Claude Bertout. During the late Thirties, there was a wave of Spanish recruits as a result of the Civil War. After the Second World War, 60 per cent of Legionnaires were Germans, and since the Berlin Wall came down there has been a rush from East European countries, especially Poland and Russia. It is also rumoured that the Legion has taken in former Stasi members (the disbanded East German secret police). Around 5 per cent of Legionnaires are British. According to Bertout, the majority join because of political problems, debts, family disputes and - for a small minority - a taste for adventure.

Recruits are accepted between the ages of 17 and 40, but the average age of newcomers is 23, and around 60 per cent of these already have some military experience. Jaluzot remembers the Legion scouring prisoner-of- war camps after the Second World War to drum up members, but today it has eight times as many candidates as it needs.

Legion life starts at one of the 21 recruitment posts scattered around France. How foreigners who should have visas manage to enter France without one is apparently of no concern to the Legion. "They simply have to find their own way to a recruitment centre," asserts Bertout.

The training remains remarkably tough, even if Bertout insists that "we are not in the business of creating Rambos". After tests at Aubagne which last 10 days, each successful candidate signs an unbreakable five-year contract and joins one of the Legion's 10 units - the crack parachute regiment is based at Calvi in Corsica, the infantry at Nimes, and the cavalry at Orange in the south of France.

Each Legionnaire also spends up to two years outside France, perhaps guarding the space-rocket launch platform at Kourou in French Guiana, or patrolling the island of Mayotte near Madagascar, or the base in the desert of Djibouti which embodies what is seen as the glorious past of the Legion in North Africa. Troops stationed until recently on Mururoa, the atoll where the French carried out nuclear tests, have now been transferred to Hao, another island in the Pacific.

The brutal training can take place high up in the Alps and Pyrenees, in temperatures of 40C in Djibouti, or in the 100 per cent humidity of the rainforests of Guiana. A series of month-long courses are then rounded off by 48 or 72-hour missions, during which recruits carry out high-altitude parachute drops, amphibious landings and simulated hostage rescues, or wade through rainforest swamps and canoe down rapids in the dark.

Recruits do not have to declare their real identity as all Legionnaires have an "adopted identity" during their first year of service. This allows French nationals to slip into the ranks by pretending they are Belgian, Swiss, Canadian or Monegasque. After 12 months, they have the chance to reveal their true identity because, once accepted into the Legion's family, soldiers will not be dismissed if it is discovered that they are French. Some Legionnaires, however, prefer to retain their false names and there is an unwritten rule that nobody asks any questions about a Legionnaire's background.

The Legion still acts as a haven for criminals. Legionnaires have been known to be transferred abroad when the police have come knocking at bases in France. Jaluzot remembers a man who had killed his wife: "Everybody said, 'That's not really a crime' because a crime passionnel is not considered in the same way as other offences in France."

Nowadays, however, the Legion works closely with Interpol and does not accept anyone suspected of murder, sexual abuse or drug offences. Those who have committed petty crimes, though, can still find a welcome. "If somebody has stolen a bicycle, we can easily forget about that," says Bertout. And what if they have robbed a bank? "A bank?" he hesitates. "Well, we could always see about that." !

Troops relaxing during a commando-training session in the rainforest of Gabon (right); on 30 April, Legionnaires - including this paratroop regiment in Corsica - put on their finery and join in parades and feasts to mark the legendary last stand at Camerone, Mexico, in 1863 (far right, top); a recruit at the selection centre in Aubagne, France. After three weeks of tests, one in eight is allowed to enlist for the minimum term of five years (far right, bottom)

The Legion was part of the Nato Rapid Reaction Force sent to Bosnia in 1995 where, despite adverse conditions, troops had to maintain a tidy appearance at all times (right); soldiers on an assault course at Regina in French Guiana (second right)

During this particular training session, the recruits had to scale a three-metre-high wall. They also had to get their rifles, and rucksacks filled with sand, to the other side (right); a Legionnaire on Mount Igman, Sarajevo, in 1995 (second right)

Tough tactics: a Legionnaire from Eastern Europe runs a jungle assault course in French Guiana. He has to overcome a total of 10 obstacles in under 10 minutes, including a swim across a fetid pool. If he swallows any of the water, he will vomit for a week (above); Africa, Djibouti, 6.30am, future corporals have already finished their daily sports training (below) Soldiers in Chad on Christmas day, 1995. After spending the previous day on duty, they rode through the villages to mark the Legion's presence (left); a soldier in Corsica celebrates the end of a harsh amphibious test consisting of 48 straight hoursof m arching and swimming (below, left)