Tell someone you served in the French Foreign Legion and you’ll get one of two responses, says Joel Struthers. “Generally the reaction is either: ‘Does the Foreign Legion even exist anymore?’ or ‘I’ve seen the movies, only killers and rapists join the Legion.’” For the 48-year-old Struthers, this sort of predictable cocktail party chatter “got so frustrating that I just came to avoid the whole topic.” And yet, having served in la Légion étrangère in France and Africa for six years in the 1990s, he is particularly well-positioned to confirm that yes − it still exists – and, no − it’s not full of killers and rapists.
Eventually Struthers, who now lives in Abbotsford, B.C. and pilots commercial helicopters for a living, decided he could no longer hold his tongue. “I gave up waiting for someone else to tell the truth about the modern Legion,” he says. “So I figured maybe it was on me.” The result is his fascinating book, Appel: A Canadian in the French Foreign Legion, published earlier this year, which answers the question of how a hockey-playing Canadian army-brat came to join this legendary fighting force. In doing so, Struthers also sets the record straight about the men who wear the distinctive white kepi hat and demolishes a few of those old movie myths.
The French Foreign Legion has an unusual origin story. It began as a way for Paris to rid itself of its most dangerous inhabitants. During the turbulent 1820s and 1830s revolutionaries, refugees, criminals and other undesirables were drawn in large numbers to the City of Lights, creating considerable risk of political unrest. Rather than imprison or expel them all, the French government chose to push them into a special military unit created exclusively for foreigners, and then shipped them off to fight France’s colonial wars in Algeria and beyond. If they survived five years in arms, they could return as French citizens. If not, it was still a problem solved.
The mongrel nature of the recruits and the discipline required to keep them in line caused the Legion to earn a reputation for brutality in punishment and recklessness in battle. “The Legion quickly became known as a corps that could be sacrificed,” notes historian Douglas Porch, author of The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force. “You might not want to send French conscripts into a dangerous situation, but you could always send the Legion. It was disposable.” The notion that the Legion was once an unhinged collection of “killers and rapists” is therefore not entirely off the mark.
It also proved formidable. Over its nearly two centuries, many of its greatest moments have come when hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded. At the celebrated battle of Camerone, Mexico in 1863, for example, 65 legionnaires and three officers fought off 2,000 Mexican soldiers in a burning farmhouse until their ammunition ran out. Then the five remaining soldiers fixed bayonets and charged over the wall; only two survived. “These are not men, they are demons,” remarked the Mexican colonel who accepted their reluctant surrender. The Legion similarly distinguished itself at Dien Bien Phu, France’s epic defeat in Vietnam in 1954.
Appel is the latest entry in a long line of English-language memoirs by former legionnaires promising to reveal the truth about life in this mysterious force. The genre began with Erwin Rosen’s In the Foreign Legion, published in 1910 – what might be considered the wellspring of every stereotype. Rosen, a German immigrant who worked as a journalist in America before joining and then deserting from the Legion, tells a tale of horrific punishments, wild bouts of drinking and brawling, brutal living conditions and comrades who could charitably be described as the scum of the Earth. “The Foreign Legion is a sin against the very first principles of humanity,” he wrote. Following Rosen’s lead, popular novels such as 1924’s Beau Geste by P.C. Wren added a doomed sense of romance to these manly adventures of legionnaires battling Arabs and each other on a sea of sand.
Then Hollywood took over. Everyone from Gary Cooper and John Wayne to Abbott & Costello and Porky Pig saw “action” in the desert. The notion that men with dark and dangerous pasts could join the Legion under an assumed name and redeem themselves through selfless bravery and hardship took a firm hold on the public consciousness. At one point, French Foreign Legion movies were second only to Westerns as Hollywood’s most-popular action dynamic. Among the last gasps of this genre was the 1977 desert epic March or Die, which offered up a star-studded cast including Gene Hackman, Max Von Sydow and Catherine Deneuve, and brazenly compared itself to Lawrence of Arabia.
After this postwar golden age of movie depictions, the next significant memoir was that of Englishman Simon Murray, who went on to become a prominent financier. Legionnaire, published in 1978, offers Murray’s experiences during the Franco-Algerian War of the early 1960s and contains more than a few similarities with Rosen’s tale. There are brutal punishments – like “tombeau,” in which miscreant legionnaires are forced to dig a coffin-sized ditch and lie in it with only a canvas cover for protection from the blazing sun − as well as macho brawling, boozing, sexual interludes with women in the nearby towns and plenty of battles with Algerian guerrillas.
Most significantly, Murray was in Algeria during the Legion’s attempted overthrow of the de Gaulle government in 1961, following the French president’s offer of independence to its colony. The coup found little support and quickly fizzled, and the regiment at its centre was promptly disbanded, but this event had a profound and lasting effect on the entire Legion. What remained was subsequently drawn much more tightly under regular French army command. Since then, the Legion’s place in the public consciousness has plunged. The last substantial movie was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Legionnaire from 1998.
As Struthers’ book reminds us, however, while the Legion has changed dramatically since its founding in 1831, it is still the tip of the French military’s spear and tasked with its most difficult and dangerous missions. In recent years the Legion has seen service in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as numerous wars and insurgencies across Africa; Struthers himself saw combat in Bangui, Central African Republic, and Brazzaville, Congo. And while most recent books – 1998’s Mouthful of Rocks by Christopher Jennings, for example – have tried to keep that old mythology alive with shocking tales of brutality, racism and chronic alcoholism, Struthers comes to praise the Legion, not bury it.
Appel is the first English-language memoir to be published with the Legion’s full cooperation. Struthers’ former commanding officer, Col. Benoît Desmeulles, even contributes a foreword. And rather than relying on old stereotypes, it strives to offer an updated account of what the life of a modern legionnaire is really like. It’s not always pleasant or romantic – Desmeulles praises Struthers for emphasizing “the quasi-monastic life” in the Legion – but it’s no longer an exercise in brutality or recklessness.
Struthers’ tale begins, as all Legion memoirs apparently must, with his decision to enlist. Growing up on military bases in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., he had some early success playing hockey. But he wasn’t disciplined enough to make a career of it, and started hanging around with the wrong crowd after high school. “I got myself into a bit of trouble as a young man,” he admits in an interview. “And realized I needed a change in direction.” Coming from a family with a long military tradition, Struthers sought to channel his need for excitement by becoming a paratrooper and in 1993 joined the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves in hopes of working his way into the fabled Canadian Airborne Regiment. But when that unit became embroiled in scandal in Somalia (and was disbanded in 1995), he realized he’d have to look elsewhere to soldier and jump. The Legion was his only option.
From there his story shares many elements with the rest of the genre. Struthers explains, for example, the Legion’s curious twin fixations with singing and Christmas decorating, something well-documented in other books. He also details the force’s incredible diversity, with citizens of 147 countries currently serving in the Legion. And, as might be expected, there’s no shortage of difficult training, stiff punishments and, on leave, sex and fist-fights. As one book reviewer has noted, Struthers’ exhausting descriptions of the various physical tests and competitions required of himself and other recruits almost always end with the phrase “…and then we ran 8 kilometres” (often wearing a 10 kg backpack). As for discipline, he once served a week in jail for failing to wear his seatbelt.
The book’s title, Appel, refers to the peculiar Legion roll-call that requires every legionnaire to smack his thigh at precisely the same time. Any deviation brings a kick, slap or a punch to the offender’s gut from an unforgiving corporal. (The Legion is also one of the last bastions of the concept of a man’s army. The only female legionnaire on record is British nurse Susan Travers, who was seconded to the Legion during the Second World War as a chauffeur to Free French Gen. Marie-Pierre Koenig, seeing combat during the Battle of Bir Hakeim, and was later enrolled as a full member of the force.) While no one gets buried in the sand these days, it’s still tougher than your average army.
According to Struthers, the Legion’s continued emphasis on strict discipline is a feature rather than a flaw. “I never had any issues with the punishment,” he says. “If you can’t take a bit of grief and physical abuse – getting punched in the stomach during appel − then maybe you aren’t cut out for a soldier’s life.” Since the dawn of warfare, such discipline has been used to transform an untrained rabble into a disciplined force that can fight and win – and to prepare each individual for the horrors of war.
The current trend away from tough physical punishment, at least in Western armies, may have opened the door to a more diverse and welcoming armed forces, but it may also create problems. “In some ways it’s unfair to the men and women who serve in our military that they don’t go through proper training anymore,” Struthers says in defence of the Legion’s ancient art of discipline. “They’re just not prepared for what they’re getting into, and the result is the high rates of PTSD we see these days.” The slaps, punches and verbal abuse in Legion life thus serve to cull those who are unsuited and toughen those who are, he observes. “This allows you to find the people who are going to survive and thrive in a hostile environment, and remove those who shouldn’t be there.”
As for the Legion’s reputation for brutality, particularly during the infamous Battle of Algiers in the 1950s, it is worth noting that its opponents were often far worse. Torturing prisoners was near-universal in Africa and Asia during colonial wars; Murray’s book offers many horrific descriptions of what happened to legionnaires captured by the Fellagha, or Algerian guerillas. To this day Afghans are wont to castrate their enemies, and in West Africa “armies” of drug-fuelled teenagers often casually lop off limbs.
While desertion is still a regular occurrence in Struthers’ time, the Legion no longer expends much effort tracking down or punishing the deserters. As only about one in every ten Legion applicants is accepted these days, it can afford to disregard those who later regret their decision. Even the legend that the Legion asks no questions of its recruits gets deflated by Struthers. “In fact, the Gestapo [slang for the Legion’s internal security bureau] asked plenty of questions and dug deep, clearing our names through Interpol,” he writes. No murderers or rapists need apply.
The skill and commitment of legionnaires today is likely the biggest difference between Struthers’ Legion and that of his predecessors. After the 1961 putsch attempt the Legion was transformed. Once numbering around 30,000 men, it is now a specialized, highly-trained, professional force of fewer than 9,000 men in eight regiments, a demi-brigade and some small detachments, with its main headquarters near Marseilles, and is integrated into the broader French military command. The modern Legion is as well-tuned and trained as any other army in the world. And it sees more combat than most.
Struthers’ competitiveness eventually earned him a place in an elite commando group within the 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes, the same regiment Murray served in (and currently based on the French island of Corsica). In addition to high-altitude and night parachuting, Struthers received specialized training in scuba diving, skiing, demolition, wilderness survival and a wide variety of other skills, similar to that of U.S. Navy SEALs and British SAS.
Struthers left the Legion as a corporal in 2000, aged 29, having achieved his goal of becoming a special forces paratrooper. But he was uninterested in French citizenship or spending the rest of his career in the Legion. His relationship was a contractual one. The Legion taught him to jump and control his need for adventure; in exchange he went where it sent him and did what he was told. Once he’d achieved all he desired, however, Struthers left on his own terms. The result is a positive but decidedly pragmatic and unglamorous view of his time spent serving under the motto Legio Patria Nostra (the Legion is my homeland). “I learned a lot and I owe France a big thank-you for getting me on the right track,” he says. “But it was never my family or my home.”
His military experience and the Legion’s reputation helped set him up for his subsequent adult career. To replace the excitement of high-altitude jumping, Struthers learned to fly helicopters, specializing in high-risk or critical missions such as supporting the UN during the 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He also spent several stints on the ground as a private military contractor in Afghanistan, Iraq and Algeria.
More recently, Struthers returned fulltime to Canada to work as a commercial helicopter pilot and look after his two children, a son aged 13 and a daughter 11. And with another Legion comrade he opened Ravenhill Risk Control, a Victoria-based security firm that handles tricky assignments such as executive protection and gold transfers from a B.C. gold mine. Struthers is also passionate about helping veterans with PTSD and has launched a clothing line, Légion Engineered, from which 25 percent of sales go to support veterans’ groups in Canada, France and Ireland.
“I wrote the book to give an honest account of life in the Legion because there isn’t a lot of factual information out there,” Struthers says of his current mission as an author. “It’s a tough army sent to do tough jobs. And it is a testament to the French Foreign Legion that it is able to take people from such diverse backgrounds and shape them into one of the world’s finest military units.” Having cleared up the common misunderstandings about the Legion, perhaps there’s only one question left. “Would I advise my son to do it?” he asks rhetorically. “No! Not at all.”
The Legion may have outgrown most of its myths, but it can still put a fright in the heart of any loving parent.
Peter Shawn Taylor is Senior Features Editor at C2C Journal and a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario.