Telegraph Magazine, 1 June 1996


At least once in his life, it is every man’s dream: to forget the past and to be born again in the anonymity of the French Foreign Legion. Each year a surprising number of British men take the first step. But what happens next? EDWARD FOX joins a bunch of raw recruits as they embark on the gruelling experience of being transformed from civilian into Legionnaire. Photographs by Jeremy Hunter

Sergeant Coco stood out as a real bastard right from the start, the model of the sadistic French Foreign Legion drill sergeant. In appearance, he was a disturbing mixture of choirboy and psychopath -- chunky in build and as short as Napoleon, with blond hair cut into the regulation boule a zero hajrcut. His high cheekbones and temples twitched with barely contained viciousness, yet he had rosy cheeks and soft blue eyes that showed his raw youth.

Camaraderie is the life-blood of the Foreign Legion, yet nobody ever seemed to talk to Coco. When he came into the sous-officiers' [NCOs'] bar, no one even glanced in his direction. He would order a cup of coffee, drink it in silence, pause for a moment, sending dagger-sharp glances around the room, then leave. Anyone familiar with the Lord of the Flies sociology of enclosed, all-male institutions will know the type: someone who could make your life an absolute misery if he wanted to. He was an enigma, like a lot of the men I met in the Foreign Legion base at Castelnaudary in south-western France. I found out nothing about him, except that he was originally from Poland. Now he was no longer a Pole but a Legionnaire, and everything that he had been was behind him, his own affair, something you could never ask about. Heartbreak and trouble make men join the French Foreign Legion -- that or a nihilistic pride that makes it impossible to find a worthwhile place in civilian life. The beauty of the French Foreign Legion is that it takes men like Coco and gives them a purpose in life. He may not have been popular, but he probably wasn't a bad sous-officier. His job was to turn the mixed bag of raw recruits info Legionnaires, which is not a task that calls for a light touch.

There is probably not a man reading this who has not, on a bad day, given at least a minute's thought to joining the Foreign Legion. It is the ordinary guy's chance to metamorphose from failure into heroic being. It is the most dramatic gesture of self- renunciation a man can make: the surrender of the self to an enclosed military sodality. By joining, you express your solitary suffering, your alienation from the mainstream, from relationships with women, from your personal history. It offers oblivion, the chance to forget your sorrow while at the same time expiating it through pain and physical hardship; the threat or promise of death constantly hangs over you. As one Legionnaire put it, three types of people join the Legion: 'Idiots, mean, evil types, and people who are completely lost.'

AS A LEGIONNAIRE, you have no family, no friends, no home, no hope except in the Legion. This is not some romantic notion from a misty imaginary past but a vital part of the Foreign Legion's current recruiting pitch. 'We offer you neither ease nor fortune,' a solemn voice declares in a recruitment video entitled Le Contrat. 'Life in the Legion is tough and harsh. But we offer you something no one else will' -- and here appears the image of an ornate regimental flag fluttering nobly in the wind, all eagles and gold laurel leaves -- ' Honneur et Fidelite!'

Although it may seem like a military anachronism, a relic of 19th-century colonialism, the Foreign Legion is still as useful to France as it was when it was established in 1831 -- even though it is somewhat reduced in size. Not only is it the only fully professional part of the French army, with a current strength of about 8,500 men, but 80 per cent of the men in it are not French. The French government can therefore send the Foreign Legion into the most dangerous war zone (there is, for example, a complement of Legionnaires in Bosnia, as part of the UN peace-keeping mission's rapid reaction force) without worrying about domestic opinion. When the Legion marches down the Champs Elysees, with its slow, menacing pace, the citizens of France cheer with genuine gratitude.
If you decide to join, it is best to do it in a single spontaneous action, to preserve the dramatic integrity of the gesture. If you ring directory enquiries, and ask for the Foreign Legion, you get a London number that is answered by an ex-Legionnaire named Jim Worden. Worden answers about 200 enquiries a year. He tries to discourage most callers, particularly if they have a criminal record, or think they can be in Bosnia shooting people within three weeks.

The Foreign Legion does not encourage too many British recruits: as Legionnaires they drink too much, tend to behave badly and are prone to desertion. You may need the Legion, but the Legion might not need you: only one in seven of those who apply becomes a Legionnaire. But if Jim Worden hasn't managed to put you off, you then get on a ferry, typically drink yourself silly, and present yourself at the Legion's recruiting station at Lille, north of Paris, before you have completely sobered up. The advantage of this approach is that if you thought too much about what you were about to do, you might not make it to the fort.
The process of turning a man into a Legionnaire starts at Aubagne, the Legion's headquarters, outside Marseille. The recruits -- called candidats -- are brought here in coachloads from the recruiting stations around the country.
Turning a man into a Legionnaire is a process of stripping down as well as building up. The aim is to make him think like a Legionnaire and to eliminate thoughts of his past life. One recruit I spoke to had a list of his friends' names and addresses in his wallet. A sous-officier took it and tore it up. 'You won't be needing that,' he said.

For the next four months, until they pass out as fully-fledged Legionnaires, they are not allowed any contact with the outside world. Their clothing and possessions are taken away and inventoried, dismantling the civilian identity. Awaiting their Legion uniforms, they stand in their underwear on the cold cement floor, ritually denuded in the transition between civilian and Legionnaire.
They are mustered into a classroom. The lesson is in French, translated by Legionnaires into English and perhaps another language. If you don't understand, too bad. 'You have come here voluntary. Nobody forced you to come here. There are three rules -- discipline, camaraderie, proprete -- discipline, friendship and hygiene: keep the things clean what you find around you,' was the rough translation I heard.
A geography lesson follows. There are two names on the map of the world. The sous-officier indicates them with a slap of his pointer: Outre Mer and Metropole. Metropole means France. Outre Mer is everywhere else.
Then the candidats are told what will happen to them in the next three weeks: they will be subjected to medical tests, psychological tests, a physical fitness test and a haircut. They will also be interrogated remorselessly by what Legionnaires call the 'Gestapo', the BSLE or Bureau de Statistique de la Legion Etrangere. The BSLE's job is to try to find cracks in a man's story, to see if he is lying about himself, and to find out if he is psychologically sound. 'Are you homosexual? Do you hate dirt under your fingernails? Do you think you are in your own separate reality?' Saying yes to any of these questions puts you back on the street with your sports bag in your hand and a ticket back to where you came from.

Legion training deliberately hammers you into the approximate shape of a Frenchman. Before long, you breakfast on baguette and coffee as if you had done so all your life, whether you are a Japanese, a Zulu or an Irishman. It is the objective of French colonialism -- mission civilatrice -- imposed on its own army. By turning everyone into a Frenchman, military cohesion is achieved. This only works because of the rigid, monolithic unity of French culture. A British Foreign Legion would never work because no one would be able to agree on what version of British culture to impose. And the food wouldn't be any good.
Sergeant Coco talked to me about this one day over lunch, in the comfortable sous-officiers' dining room at an otherwise spartan training camp outside Castelnaudary. 'In Poland,' he said, in his exotic Franco-Polish accent, 'we used to eat our food in about 30 seconds. Here, I learned about wine, all the different types, just to drink one or two glasses with the meal, not the whole bottle all at once, and to fill the glass just half full. And afterwards, you eat cheese to aid the digestion, and then drink coffee to finish it all off. Some people come here not knowing how to hold a knife and fork. They hold their fork like this,’ he said, holding it in his fist. ‘We have to teach them everything.’

In explaining the Legion to outsiders, Foreign Legion officers like to use the metaphor of children. A colonel said to me, 'When you come to the Foreign Legion, you choose to forget everything in your past. You learn a completely different way of life, and the officers are like your parents. It is like a new birth. It is the chance to start again, and to have the same opportunities you had when you were born. Who else can give you that? What other organisation in the world?'

This is why the use of the French language from the very start is so important. It makes men think like a Legionnaire, and stops them thinking like anything else. A British caporal-chef explained how it was taught: 'You just have a big hairy guy shouting words at you in French. Actually, your average squaddie doesn't have a very big vocabulary: rifle, shoot, shovel, dig. That's about all you need to know. You twig pretty soon.'

The French Foreign Legion French course is a little booklet containing 500 vocabulary items: Le fusil, le barman, le sac a dos. These 500 words define the world as it is experienced by a Legionnnaire. ' La canette', a can, is accompanied by a picture of a can of Kronenbourg 1664, the Legionnaires’ favourite beer. 'Un paquet de cigarettes' means a packet of Marlboro, the Legionnaires' brand. Anything else is not beer, or not a cigarette. I met an American sous-officier who had been in the Legion for 15 years. He had fought in Vietnam and was originally from Kansas. His French accent was dreadful, yet he told me he thought in French. He said he rarely spoke English and had trouble remembering it. All he could speak was Legionnaires’ French: outside the semantic universe of the Legion, he was lost for words.

The furthest a man can go in abolishing his past identity is to opt for anonymat, the traditional right of anonymity .A Legionnaire sous anonymat changes his name on joining the Legion, and on leaving -- after completing the minimum five-year hitch – can have legal French citizenship, with passport and all under this new name. He is forbidden any communication with his family and cannot be photographed. He ceases to exist except as a Legionnaire.

Whether a Legionnaire takes up anonymat is negotiated between him and the BSLE. If a Legionnaire has had a 'justice problem', and a court appearance or a prison sentence are still pending in the civil realm, he may be given anonymat whether he wants it or not. But if a man has just walked away from wife, family, house and job out of sheer boredom, taking a new identity is more a matter of convenience. The new name the Legionnaire is given usually begins with the same letter as the one he was born with, as a link with the person he used to be, but from a practical point of view, it is improved -- made easier for Francophones to spell and pronounce.

After three weeks at Aubagne, those who remain are initiated into the religion of the Legion in the salle d'honneur, a room with blood-red walls where the Legion's holiest relics are kept. In the centre of the room are a table and four elaborate wooden chairs, which were carved by a single Legionnaire out of ammunition cases with a pocket knife, while he was in prison in Indochina. But the focal point is a glass-fronted reliquary containing the wooden hand of Capitaine Danjou. Danjou was the hero of the battle of Camerone in Mexico in 1863, in which a dwindling band of Legionnaires held off a large Mexican force, and died in the attempt. According to the legend, the captain's artificial hand was found in the embers of the farmhouse where the Legionnaires made their doomed last stand. Camerone is a lesson in the supreme value of unquestioning obedience, and represents the elevation to the level of religious principle of what military scholars have always known: that a soldier fights primarily for his comrades, not for his country.

IT IS A mistake to call the Foreign Legion a mercenary force, A mercenary fights for money, not for ideals. The Legionnaire’s life is dominated by ideals. He learns that he lives and dies for the Legion, and that the noblest thing he can do is to obey orders and die a glorious martyr’s death, to faire Camerone. For this, an ordinary Legionnaire earns about 1,700 francs a month (about 200). Anyone who applies to join the Legion saying he is attracted by the money is immediately rejected for lack or intelligence.

A rare quality or masochism is needed to endure the basic training. 'We try to break them down a bit,' a sous-officier exlained to me. The sous-officiers are the 'masters of trauma '.

What do you mean by 'break them down'?

'Oh, do sit-ups and press-ups until the guys start moaning among themselves. We'll find something wrong with one person, and make everyone in the section do press-ups. They mustn't feel too good.' He said nothing about hitting the candidats, which is not officially allowed, but which no one escapes.

Breaking them down is the purpose or appel, the evening roll call. This takes place just before bedtime, at 9.45pm. It would be hard to explain to someone who didn't understand the strange military psychology behind it: the pointlessness or the exercise, repeated night after night, inculcates unquestioning obedience, cauterising free will. A group or young men with severely shorn heads sleep in a single room on narrow beds. They are supplied with identical personal belongings, all of which must be stored in an identical arrangement. If one man's belongings are arrayed incorrectly -- if, say, if his footwear is in the wrong order, something that would probably not offend most people -- he is subjected to intense verbal abuse and physical punishment, as if he has committed some outrage against humanity.

After inspection of effects, the men are ordered into the corridor, to stand to attention against the wa1l, their toes all on the same line on the linoleum floor. This has to be done at the greatest speed, with the utmost urgency. Once in line, they count off in French, at the top of their voices -- 'Un!', Deux!', 'Trois!' and so on. Few of them yet know how to count in French at this stage. 'If anyone gets it wrong, I'll bring them out a second time and if it's still not right, I'll make them do press-ups again. I'll make them do it five or six times until they get it right,’ the corporal said. When the corporal is satisfied they can go to bed. 'Bonne nuit,' he says to them. 'Bonne nuit, Caporal!' they boom back, still standing at attention. If the Legion is your family, this is how Mum tucks you in.

After a few weeks of this, the thumb-screws are tightened further, when the recruits are taken out to the Farm. They spend four weeks here, running up hills, doing press-ups, going for late-night marches of increasing length, carrying packs of increasing weight, learning basic weaponry, French, and the Legion's repertory of songs, and undergoing unexpected, will-destroying punishments. After this, some of them will undergo further specialist training in the jungles of French Guyana, up to their necks in muddy water. The Farm is an hour's drive from Castelnaudary, in the beautiful countryside of sunflower fields and medieval towns the French call  La France Profonde. Here Sergeant Coco was in his element. On their arrival at the Farm, Coco gave his new charges a threatening stare. 'From now on, you are in my section. I want you to know that I hate layabouts, and I hate thieves. From now on you will do everything together. You will eat together, sleep together, piss together, everything. If one of you messes up, you'll all take the blame. You will all be clean. There are showers here, and toilets, so no one has any excuse to be dirty. I detest filth.' The toilets were surgically clean, probably the cleanest in this district of France. There was overt psychopathic weirdness in the emphasis on uncleanness that was profoundly frightening.

One night, at appel, Coco wasn't happy. The kit was put away in the dormitory in a manner that offended his acute eye for symmetry. It put him into a state akin to demonic possession. He went red in the face. He ordered his training officer to go around the room. ' Pas bonl' he shouted, ' Pas bonl' and strode around the room sweeping the things off the shelves with his arm. Then, under Coco's steely gaze, he ordered the stunned recruits to put it all back, then run up the nearby hill and back, and do press-ups. ' Haut! A bas! Haut! A bas! Vite!' Then he threw all the gear out the window, sending them out into the night to pick it up and starting the whole business again.

The Foreign Legion has a disproportionate number of odd, traditional practices that seem even more point- less than the pointless things you have to do in other armies. You couldn't start the Foreign Legion from scratch today. But without its traditionalism, its strange ways of doing things, it would not be the Foreign Legion. It defends its right to do things its own way, resisting efforts to harmonise its practices with the rest of the French army. For instance, when addressing an officer, a Legionnaire must bawl out, Legionnaire Dupont [or whatever his name is], troisieme compagnie, six mois de service, a vos ordres, mon capitaine!' It's a terrible waste of time, but that's not the point.
Another quaint old custom is the Legionnaires' brothel. This used to be known as the BMC, the Bordel Mobile de Campagne, because it followed the Legion on campaign, and there is one attached to most Legion bases. Now they are unofficial, in that the women are no longer on the payroll, as in the past, but they were an essential part of Legion life. The beauty of the Legion brothel was that you could keep a slate: the cost of services was deducted from a soldier's pay, a perhaps unique instance of prostitution available on credit.

The Foreign Legion's old-fashioned -- one might say reactionary -- military values of loyalty to the status quo have often been liabilities at times of political crisis in France. During the Second World War, it was split by allegiance to Vichy and the Free French. Two of its regiments even fought against each other in Lebanon after the defeat of France by the Nazis in 1940. In 1961 the Legion was nearly disbanded after some of its officers mutinied against de Gaulle and joined French colonists who were resisting Algerian independence. Instead, it was expelled in disgrace from its original headquarters in Algeria and moved to Aubagne.
One of the strongest Foreign Legion traditions is its singing. Legionnaires who have served in more conventional national armies are at first dismayed by the amount of time and effort that is devoted to teaching recruits the repertoire of about 20 traditional Legion songs. They learn them parrot fashion, and only gradually come to understand the meaning of their often historically obscure lyrics. 'It's like a cult, almost a Moonie thing,' a Legionnaire told me.
As so often when observing the Legion from the outside, the comparison with a monastic existence is unavoidable. Visiting a Foreign Legion base early in the morning or at sunset, one is likely to see a phalanx of severely tonsured, muscly, tattooed men marching in tight ranks across a parade ground, singing at the tops of their voices these austere, unaccompanied songs of heartbreak and redemption, in a slow, menacing tempo counted out by the tread of their heavy boots.

Nos anciens ont su mourir,
Pour la gloire de la Legion.
Nous saurons bien tous perir,
Suivant la tradition.
('Our predecessors knew how to die for the glory of the Legion. We will all know how to die, following the tradition.') One inevitably thinks of monks on their way to matins or vespers -- although these men are probably on their way to the foyer, the Legionnaires' bar, to drink staggering amounts of beer.

A two-part documentary, 'The French Foreign Legion', produced by Ecosse Films, will be screened on Channel 4 on June 24 and 25.