"Bon appetit, messieurs!" a brash young lieutenant of France wished his superiors at an officers' mess in Indo-China last week, "And may you all die with the last mouthful so that I may get a promotion."
It was a grim joke to be making in a land where death waits in every jungle thicket, but to the officers and men of France's famed Foreign Legion, death must be joked about. For more than a century since its founding by King Louis Philippe in 1831, the men of the Foreign Legion, the Kepis Blancs, have fought and died for France in almost continuous campaigning in Algeria, in the Crimea, in Mexico, Tonkin, Dahomey, the Sudan, Madagascar, Morocco, the Dardanelles, Syria, Serbia and France itself. In six years of fighting the Communists, more than 7,000 Legionnaires have died in Indo-China alone. "You Legionnaires," a French general once promised them, "you are soldiers who were meant to die, and I am sending you where men can die."
Home for the Hopeless. In the Legion's headquarters at Algeria's Sidi-bel-Abbès, which looks like a set from Beau Geste, Legionnaires speak often with scorn and sometimes with hatred of the nation that hires them. Lili Marlene, sung in German, is heard on their lips more often than La Marseillaise. The 35,000 men of the Foreign Legion offer their lives to France and keep their loyalty for each other. Ask a soldier in Sidi-bel-Abbès his nationality and he will usually reply, "I am a Legionnaire."
Time & again the Legion has been bled white, but the world's hopeless and desperate have always poured in to swell its numbers. The recruit applying at Sidi-bel-Abbès needs no identification papers, and may, if he chooses, keep his past to himself. If he is over 5 ft. 1 in., well set up and seemingly aged between 18 and 42, he will be accepted. Czarist refugees from Russia, Spanish Communists fleeing Franco, ex-members of Rommel's Afrika Corps, embezzlers and down-and-outs from all parts of the globe have sought sanctuary in the hard military life at Sidi-bel-Abbès.
Tact for le tombeau. France pays her foreign fighters little ($3.89 a month for a recruit, $14.20 for a veteran of five years), and sends them to fight her toughest fights. No U.S.O. benefits or Coca-Cola bottling plants follow the Legion into battle. Old punishments like le tombeau (burial in sand up to the neck without food or water) and la crapaudine (24 hours in the sun with arms and legs tied together behind the back*) are no longer in official use, but discipline is still stern and often meted to a whole company for one man's offense. The favors France grants in return are citizenship (after five years' service), a tactful silence about the past, and the chance of death.