Like the 7th Cavalry, the Waffen SS or the Special Air Service the French Foreign Legion is one of those iconic (be that through fame or infamy) military units that most students of military history know something about. This book by Alex Lochrie (its subtitle – “memoirs of a Scottish Legionnaire” – make it clear from the outset his origins!) is not a long read at only one hundred and seventy pages. But it is a fascinating one.
The author had what can only be described as a chequered history before joining the Legion at the grand old age of 38. He was in advertising, joined two separate Scottish police forces (moonlighting at one point as a commercial pilot), became a down and out and attempted suicide! He then journeyed to Paris and joined not just one of world’s best and most well known fighting forces, but went on to become part of an elite within this elite – the 2eme Regiment Etranger Parachutiste (2eme REP); the Legion’s paratroopers! He worked his way up to Caporal Chef and was decorated for bravery.
Over a series of nineteen chapters the author takes us through his early jobs, his joining and induction in the Legion and his training and operational deployments over a decade long career from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. So we have various deployments to Tchad in Africa (as part of France’s military commitments to its ex-colonies); to Saudi Arabia/Iraq as part of the first Gulf War and, in the final (and longest) part of the book, to his 6 months in Sarajevo as part of the UN peace keeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These deployments are interspersed with re-collections of tough commando training (reminiscent of SAS style training), exercises with US forces and a move over to an intelligence gathering role (at a time when digital technology was part of a new frontier in this field of military operations).
As someone who during the early nineties had all the misery of the Balkan tragedy beamed regularly into his house it was the author’s description of his tour in Sarajevo that left the biggest impression on me. For those that have studied this conflict the tale is a familiar one; a seemingly spineless UN, highly restrictive rules of engagement, barbarism by all the main indigenous participants and misery and starvation for those trapped by the fighting. 2eme REP’s mission was to hold the International Airport to allow relief flights. Despite their blue helmets and UN status they were shot at and shelled throughout the tour. However being the Legion they didn’t take this lying down, despite those pesky rules of engagement. Some effective deployment of counter snipers with Tac50 Sniper rifles (“The Big Mac” – delivered in guitar cases so nobody could spot these non-defensive weapons) combined with a highly efficient and innovative way of mapping sniper positions ended the airport’s status as a shooting gallery. Also when shelling by the Serbians became too persistent and too close for comfort the French commander fetched in his 120mm mortars from home base and threatened to reduce the local Serbian HQ to rubble if one more round fell on the airport. The Legion’s reputation built up over months of patient diplomacy backed by the threat that only armed legionnaires can bring meant that the shelling stopped!
The whole book is well observed and very crisply written. As the author says his book is not meant to be an advertisement for the Foreign Legion, but he does a damned good job of making it look like a good life if you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk! On many occasions he compares the attitude and approach of the Legion with other units from the French armed forces and finds the latter wanting on nearly every occasion. The Legion follows the “any idiot principle” (although the author doesn’t call it this). So any idiot can be uncomfortable, too cold, too hot, not have decent cooking or recreation facilities. Whether in the deserts of Tchad or the harsh conditions of a Balkans winter the Legion makes sure that as far as possible its base areas are comfortable, well supplied and well fed. Always through their own efforts and resourcefulness.
The book is something of a historical document covering a period of around twenty five years ago-the Legion has moved on since then – but as a view of a period when the geo-political map of the world was being re-drawn it is a highly insightful one (especially given it is from the narrow perspective of a single military unit).
The book finishes with the end of the author’s career and some of his comments on how the Legion treated ex-Legionnaires in difficulties (which appears to be extremely well), makes one question the treatment of soldiers in the UK on their release from the British Army (I am in no position to comment on other nations) following their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. I won’t be giving the game away to say the author’s story ends well; this is no embittered memoir from someone who has been hard done by. This is the tale of a well-motivated soldier from an elite unit who has, overall, had a very good experience of military life.
The book is supported by a number of black and white photographs showing various aspects of the author’s career and interests. This kind of thing is de rigueur for this kind of book and always add something to text.
I am not particularly interested in the Foreign Legion as a subject, regular readers of these occasional reviews will know my military interests lie elsewhere; however, I have to say this was an excellent read and something of a page turner. So if the Legion is your thing then you will love this book. If you are interested in modern day soldiering then I think this will also be for you. There wasn’t a lot here for wargamers in terms of scenarios etc (the author’s career did not involve a great deal of direct kinetic action) but elements of the Sarajevo tour could provide some ideas.
“Fighting for the French Foreign Legion” available now in paperback from Pen & Sword Books, normal price £12.99/$19.95 (ISBN 9781783376155)