190 years ago, the Foreign Legion was created in France - a military unit that eventually became one of the most elite in the army of the republic. A distinctive feature of this formation is the lack of French citizenship among most of the recruits. Experts assess the role of the Foreign Legion in history ambiguously. On the one hand, the legionnaires have repeatedly shown courage, serving the interests of official Paris, on the other hand, they were often accused of cruelty towards civilians during operations to seize sovereign territories.
On March 9, 1831, the Foreign Legion was created - a special unit of the French army, staffed by immigrants from other countries and designed to solve military tasks abroad.
According to historians, the practice of attracting foreigners to solve military problems has existed in France for centuries. For example, the French crown was served by units of Scots and Swiss. At the beginning of the 19th century, representatives of many European countries served in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, but after the end of the great wars, they were left idle.
“By the early 1830s, a significant number of immigrants from other states had accumulated in France, who had previously participated in various wars on the side of official Paris or fled their homeland, fearing political or criminal prosecution. Often these were people prone to adventurism, lacking the means of subsistence and provoking all kinds of riots. The French authorities needed to channel their energy in a constructive direction, "Andrei Koshkin, a full member of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, said in an interview with RT.
As Yuri Rubinsky, head of the Center for French Studies at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted in a conversation with RT, at the same time, official Paris needed volunteers for the campaign to conquer Algeria.
“It was not so easy to recruit people for colonial operations in the absence of general conscription. So they were looking for those who were ready to fight for money,”the expert explained.
According to Andrey Koshkin, the French authorities soon found a single solution to both problems.
“On March 9, 1831, King Louis Philippe signed a decree establishing the Foreign Legion, which was officially intended to operate exclusively outside mainland France. Most of the officer corps were former servicemen of the Napoleonic army, and the soldiers were recruited from natives of Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Poland and other European countries. Soon seven battalions of these "legionnaires" landed in Algeria to suppress the demonstrations of the local population, dissatisfied with the French invasion, "said Koshkin.
He stressed that in the Foreign Legion, the practice gradually developed not to be interested in the personality of the recruit, as well as in why he left his homeland. Those who entered the service could actually become a new person, and those who survived the battles could receive French citizenship. At the same time, in the first decades of the legion's existence, the conditions of service in it were not the best in comparison with other parts of the French army. According to Koshkin, the legionnaires had low salaries, and the medical service and logistics were less well organized than in other infantry units.
As historians note, during the Algerian campaign, the soldiers of the Foreign Legion treated the local population extremely cruelly, committing massacres, rapes and robberies.Legionnaires slaughtered entire settlements, so when they were captured by the Algerians, they usually faced a painful death under torture.
However, the Foreign Legion was also involved in the implementation of purely peaceful tasks. His soldiers, under fire from local rebels, paved roads, laid out gardens and built new cities.
In 1854, the French government transferred a significant part of the legionnaires to Russia to participate in the Crimean War. They played an important role in the siege of Sevastopol, but faced with the regular Russian army, the legion suffered significant losses.
Subsequently, the Foreign Legion took part in hostilities against Austria and in the French intervention in Mexico.
“The foreign legion was glorified by the events of April 30, 1863, when a group of several dozen soldiers was attacked by a detachment of two thousand Mexicans. The battle lasted almost a day. The last three legionnaires who survived agreed to surrender only on honorable terms - with the preservation of weapons,”military historian Yuri Knutov said in an interview with RT.
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, the Foreign Legion did not play a noticeable role, but its actions were of great importance in the defeat of the Paris Commune. Contrary to the law, the legionaries were brought into Paris, where they defeated the Communards, surrounding their fortifications from the flanks.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Foreign Legion made a significant contribution to the capture of Indochina, Madagascar and Morocco by France. In Asia, legionnaires had to adapt to fighting in the jungle, where many died from infectious diseases.
During the First World War, the soldiers of the Foreign Legion fought with the Germans, accomplishing many feats. At the same time, the legion suffered significant losses.
“The future Soviet Marshal Rodion Malinovsky fought in the ranks of the Foreign Legion for some time. He ended up in France as part of the expeditionary corps of the Russian army, and after its disbandment he joined the legion,”said Yuri Knutov.
According to the military historian Ivan Konovalov, after the Russian Civil War, former soldiers of the imperial army played an important role in the Foreign Legion.
“A significant number of well-trained Russian servicemen, Cossacks, found themselves in exile, many of whom decided to continue their military careers in the ranks of the Legion. By the way, Russian emigrants participated in the formation of the legion's cavalry, which was later transformed into units equipped with armored vehicles,”the expert said in a conversation with RT.
The senior brother of the famous revolutionary Yakov Sverdlov and the godson of Maxim Gorky, General Zinovy Peshkov, an associate of French President Charles de Gaulle, served in command positions in the Foreign Legion.
During the Second World War, the Foreign Legion was divided. Some of his units fought on the side of the Free France movement of Charles de Gaulle, while others submitted to the collaborationist Vichy regime, which supported the Nazis.
After the end of World War II, the Foreign Legion fought in the Indochina War, trying to regain control of Paris over Southeast Asia, however, despite some success, this campaign was generally a failure for France. Later, the legion was involved in the attempts of the French authorities to suppress the national liberation movements in Africa. Some of the legionnaires supported in 1961 the unsuccessful uprising of units stationed in Algeria against the policy of Charles de Gaulle.
Today the number of the Foreign Legion is about 8 thousand troops. Its parts are based in mainland France, on the islands of Corsica and Mayotte, in the Pacific and South American possessions of Paris, as well as in the UAE. According to experts, the legion is regularly involved in operations under the auspices of the UN and NATO.
“There is a widespread belief that legionnaires are mercenaries, but it is fundamentally wrong. The Foreign Legion is an elite army unit in France, which is simply staffed by immigrants from other countries. If earlier the legion acted independently, today, as a rule, it is used as part of consolidated groups and formations, "Konovalov explained.
As a researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Vadim Kozyulin told RT, today the soldiers of the legion are involved in special operations in those African countries where France has strategic interests. In particular, they are participating in the anti-terrorist operation in Mali.
“Over the years of its existence, the Foreign Legion has grown in status from an auxiliary unit of the colonial infantry to one of the most elite units of the French army. It includes motorized infantry, airborne, armored cavalry units. He is constantly at the forefront of the foreign policy of official Paris and acts where the French authorities do not consider it necessary to negotiate peacefully. This is a fairly effective geopolitical tool, the specific direction of which depends on who is in charge of France,”summed up Andrei Koshkin.