The Golden Age
Most of what you’re picturing for the Foreign Legion dates to the period between World War I and Dien Bien Phu. This was the period when the Legion was at its peak enlistment, various bits of the French Empire were falling apart or coming together, and floods of refugees went looking for a fresh start overseas.
Almost 43,000 men fought with the Foreign Legion during World War I, and around 70 percent of them were either killed or wounded. For comparison, convicts who’ve been sentenced to death in Texas have an annual mortality of around 10 percent. Service in the Legion was thus seven times more dangerous than the death row in Huntsville. After the war, Europe was left largely bankrupt and in turmoil, as revolutions again gripped the continent and economic dislocations sent whole nations into hyperinflationary spirals that wiped out their middle classes (a.k.a. the history majors who knew how to overthrow governments).
World War II landed on France like a sandbag to the head. With the collapse of the Third Republic, France was split between a government-in-exile in England and a collaborationist government in Vichy. The Legion was likewise split between loyal and “loyal” factions. Units of the Legion even fought against each other for a time in North Africa until the Vichy morons came to their senses and realized what they were doing (to be fair, the German defeat at Stalingrad probably helped clarify things a little bit).
After the war, an unsurprisingly large number of Germans with military backgrounds (nothing to see there! Why not stop asking nosy questions?) found a fresh start in the Legion. Contrary to rumors that circulated at the time, the Legion wasn’t actively recruiting ex-SS men, and in fact it refused admittance to anyone with the customary Waffen-SS blood group tattoo. Despite the ban, plenty of Germans had seen their lives ruined by the war, or lost their homes to the Soviet occupation, and managed to get past the recruiting officers. By 1950, the Legion was nearly 60 percent German, which probably made things awkward for the Polish, Russian, and Jewish recruits who were also at loose ends.
The Foreign Legion’s main job throughout the 1950s and ’60s was to lose wars. That wasn’t really the Legion’s fault, as it could only do what its leaders said to do and there wasn’t an infantry force on Earth that was a match for the Viet Minh. Whole units were slaughtered wholesale in Indochina, between 1945 and 1954, which segued really nicely into the mass slaughters in Algeria between 1954 and 1962.
After the fall of the empire the Legion was founded to protect, the force became a kind of international pest control agency. From time to time, as former French colonies found themselves with domestic insurrections from communists, Islamists, or—worst of all—Islamic communists, the Legion would be deployed to do a quick sweep through the disputed zones and kill off enough insurgents (and people who would totally have been insurgents if they’d lived to adulthood) to stabilize friendly governments across North Africa. It’s a job they’re still at, with the last major deployment being in Mali in 2013-14.
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Okay, so you’re sold on the job, and you can’t wait to get started fighting your way across Africa in the summer. How does one go about joining up? According to ForeignLegion.info, first you have to travel (at your own expense) to France. The Legion has about half a dozen recruiting stations across the country, and it’s almost as simple as walking up and knocking on their door.
Recruits must be between the ages of 17 and 40, physically fit, and not currently wanted by Interpol (for anything serious, at least). The Legion has rules against facial tattoos, as is the case with all the best employers, and there’s no way you’re getting in with that swastika tattoo on your neck—so bring a scarf. Aside from that, the Legion is basically willing to scrape you off the streets of Paris, hand you a uniform, set you up with temporary housing until your training class starts, and then march you into the desert to die.
Your job is probably pretty cool, too, though.