French Foreign Legion

views updated Jun 27 2018


French military unit created by Louis Philippe in 1831 and made up of foreign volunteers.

Deployed only outside metropolitan France, the French foreign legion saw combat first in Algeria. It played a decisive role in the capture of Constantine in 1837 and fought in numerous engagements as the conquest proceeded. Although the legion served in the Crimea, Italy, and Mexico in the 1850s and 1860s, and throughout the French Empire later in the century, an encampment established in 1843 at Sidi-bel-Abbès, southwest of Oran, remained its headquarters.


The legion helped check the insurrection of the Walad Sidi Shaykh in western Algeria in 1881 and 1882, but much of its work in that country in the last quarter of the nineteenth century involved efforts to expand French influence into the Sahara as a prelude to linking North Africa with France's possessions south of the desert.

Legionnaires participated in many of the military operations that resulted in the establishment of a French protectorate over Morocco. They formed part of the forces that consolidated French power along the ill-defined southern MoroccoAlgeria border during the first several years of the twentieth century and were involved in occupations of the Moroccan cities of Oujda and Casablanca in 1907. Thereafter, they helped maintain security in the areas around both cities. In 1911, a company of the legion was among the troops that lifted a rebel siege of Fez, the sultan's capital, thus paving the way for the inauguration of the protectorate the following year. During the pacification of Morocco's mountainous and desert regions in the 1920s and 1930s, French commanders relied heavily on the legion. Its men also took part in the fighting that ended the rebellion of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim alKhattabi in 1925 and 1926.

During World War I, a battalion of legionnaires landed with other Allied soldiers at Gallipoli. After the war, legionnaires were dispatched to the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon. They saw action in the Druze uprising of 1925 and remained on garrison duty in the Levant in the 1930s.

In World War II, units of the legion made up part of the Free French contingent that seized Syria and Lebanon from the Vichy government in 1941. Subsequently attached to the British army in Egypt's Western Desert, they fought in the battle of Bir Hakeim in 1942 and advanced westward with the British following the battle of al-Alamayn. Other legionnaires from Sidi-bel-Abbès worked with American and British forces upon their arrival in Morocco and Algeria late in 1942 until the defeat of the Axis in Tunisia the following spring.

After 1954, the legion was heavily involved in French efforts to end the Algerian rebellion. Para-troopers, who had been added to the legion in the late 1940s, were instrumental in breaking up Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) cells during the 1957 Battle of Algiers. A legion paratroop battalion also formed part of the French expeditionary at Suez in 1956. When Algeria acquired independence in 1962, the headquarters of the legion were transferred from Sidi-bel-Abbès to France.

See also Algiers, battle of (19561957); Front de Libération Nationale; Khattabi, muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-.


OBallance, Edgar. The Story of the French Foreign Legion. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.

Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Kenneth J. Perkins

Foreign Legion, French

views updated May 23 2018

Foreign Legion, French Professional military group, created in 1831 to serve in French colonies. In 1962, after fighting in two World Wars and later French colonial struggles, the Legion moved its headquarters from Algeria to s France.

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