10th March 1831 was the day on which the French Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis-Philippe of France. It proved to be one of the world’s most iconic fighting forces, and it is still in existence today.
The Legion was originally recruited for the purpose of fighting a revolt in Algeria, and it was stated at the outset that it would never be used on home soil. Throughout its history it has played a major role in fighting France’s colonial wars, particularly in Africa but also in other parts of the world including Mexico and Vietnam.
The structure of the Legion, which it has always maintained, is that the officers are French but the junior ranks are from other countries. The original officers were remnants from Napoleon’s Army who had been doing very little since Waterloo, while the men were drawn from all over Europe.
The reputation of the French Foreign Legion for being a bolt-hole for wanted men was well deserved. Many criminals from all over the world soon found that they could escape from justice by enlisting in the Foreign Legion, where they would gain not only anonymity but considerable respect as a member of an elite fighting brigade. There was, of course, the danger of getting killed in the process, but for some recruits this merely transformed a probability of dying on the gallows into a mere possibility of being killed in battle.
Today, the French Foreign Legion is about 9,000 strong, with around 100 countries represented in its ranks. However, any ne’er-do-well who thinks that a career in the Legion is there for the asking might be in for a shock. Every year there are around 500 applications to join, but only 10% are successful. It must also be stressed that the vast majority of the Legion’s members are professional soldiers with not the slightest trace of a criminal past!