New College of the Humanities

The Foreign Legion: Our Friends Beneath the Sands

Our Friends Beneath the Sands:
The Foreign Legion in France's Colonial Conquests 1870-1935
Martin Windrow
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 784pp £25

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With the publication of P.C . Wren’s novel Beau Geste in 1924 the French Foreign Legion entered the imperial imagination within the English-speaking world. Set under a baking North African sun, his stories were a runaway success in Britain and the US. Readers loved this hard, male universe of desert forts, warring natives and frontier campaigns; one where foreigners could escape dubious pasts by immersing themselves in France’s imperial mission.

Wren’s fiction made the French Foreign Legion, or at least his particular version of the legion, into one of the most famous military organisations in the world. Yet the legion had already been in existence since 1831, just one year after the invasion of Algeria.

With their barracks at the town of Sidi Bel Abbès, near the Moroccan border, the legion had played a crucial role in France’s colonial expansion during the period up to the First World War. During the 1920s and 1930s it completed the conquest of Morocco’s rebellious interior, while post-1945 legionnaires were on the front line of France’s struggle to preserve the empire, taking a leading role in the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria.

After Algerian independence in 1962 the legion’s home was relocated to Corsica. So although the imperial mission has gone the legion’s role as France’s elite special force remains.

In Our Friends Beneath the Sands Martin Windrow covers the Legions’ heyday from 1870 through to 1935, showing how it was a creation of French colonial expansion. In 1875 the legion was a single regiment of 3,000 men. But by the early 1930s it had mushroomed to six regiments and 33,000 men made up of 18 battalions, six cavalry squadrons, plus five independent companies of mounted infantry, four of sappers and two artillery batteries.

In charting the legion’s campaigns Windrow does not fall into the trap of dry military history. At every point he has a fine eye for detail. Complemented by detailed maps and a fine array of photographs, Our Friends Beneath the Sands brings a lost world alive. He goes beyond the Beau Geste clichés to give a physical, military and political context to each of the legion’s campaigns. This is a vivid and welcome piece of history writing.

Martin Evans' most recent book is Algeria: France's Undeclared War (Oxford University Press, 2010)

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