Foreign legionnaires marching in Algeria. Postcard dating from 1905.
Foreign legionnaires marching in Algeria. Postcard dating from 1905. Wikimedia

The Foreign Legion

The Foreign Legion was established in 1831. Since then the French elite troop has lured thousands of Swiss, including figures from the arenas of culture and politics.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

The Foreign Legion was created in 1831 by the French King Louis Philippe. After the July Revolution of 1830, his predecessor Charles X had fled into exile and abdicated. Charles’s reign and his absolutist behaviour had deeply divided French society and, in particular, had incensed the people. The revolution had attracted scores of radicals from throughout Europe. These were now hanging around in France and, like sections of the French army, posed a potential threat to the new monarch. To keep these men under control, and even put them to ‘productive’ use, the Foreign Legion was established in March 1831. The Royal Ordinance began with the following words: ‘A Legion will be formed and composed of foreigners. This Legion will be known as the French Foreign Legion.’ This army was only allowed to serve outside France. And the force’s first deployment wasn’t long in coming, because Charles X had conquered Algeria in June 1830. However, the resistance in North Africa was unwavering, and the new conquest became more and more of a strain for France. By September 1831, five battalions under the command of Swiss officer Christoph Anton Stoffel had been sent to Algeria. Originally hailing from Thurgau, the colonel had previously served in France’s Swiss regiments for a number of years, and is considered the first commander of the Foreign Legion.
A Swiss regiment in action. Painting by Karl Jauslin, 1887.
A Swiss regiment in action. Painting by Karl Jauslin, 1887. Swiss National Museum
Uniform of the Foreign Legionnaires, 1852.
Uniform of the Foreign Legionnaires, 1852. Wikimedia
In the crack force’s early stages the Swiss, who had a long tradition in foreign military services, were strongly represented. Until 1927 it was even legal for Swiss citizens to join the Foreign Legion. Entry into foreign troops had been prohibited since 1859, but this rule didn’t apply to the Foreign Legion, as it was classified not as a mercenary army, but as a national force. It wasn’t until Switzerland’s military justice system was overhauled in 1927 that this option too was removed. And the consequences for flouting the law were steep: prison sentences and the assumption of legal costs, with every case being heard, were a daily occurrence. Despite this, scores of Swiss men continued to go to France to join the Legion. They were fleeing from criminal prosecution, seeking a way out of poverty, or joined the force ‘out of depression’, as Alma Mollet-Zysset, the mother of one offender, told the authorities when explaining her son’s actions. But melancholy and a plea from his mother notwithstanding, Arthur Mollet was convicted all the same. In addition to 14 months’ imprisonment and assuming the legal costs involved, he was also banned from the Swiss Armed Forces.
Letter relating to a court judgment against a Foreign Legionnaire, 1950.
Letter relating to a court judgment against a Foreign Legionnaire, 1950. Swiss Federal Archives
Foreign legionnaires attack, Bir Hakeim, 1942.
Foreign legionnaires attack, Bir Hakeim, 1942. Wikimedia
Many were drawn to the Legion’s service out of a thirst for adventure, a desire fuelled by famous legionnaires such as Friedrich Glauser. The writer joined the Foreign Legion in 1921 and later immortalised his experiences in a novel.  And a former Federal Councillor even donned the traditional white képi after being voted out of office. Together with six other men, Ulrich Ochsenbein from Bern was part of Switzerland’s first Federal Council. When he was not re-elected in 1854, he decided to go to France and join the Foreign Legion. He was given a commanding role and rose to the rank of Brigadier-general.
Portrait of Federal Councillor Ulrich Ochsenbein in uniform, around 1850.
Portrait of Federal Councillor Ulrich Ochsenbein in uniform, around 1850. Swiss National Museum
Friedrich Glauser in the psychiatric clinic in Münsingen (Canton of Bern), 1931.
Friedrich Glauser in the psychiatric clinic in Münsingen (Canton of Bern), 1931. Wikimedia
To date – depending on estimates – between 40,000 and 80,000 Swiss have served in the Foreign Legion. Compared to the early days, the number has decreased significantly. Nevertheless, the force remains a topical issue in the 21st century, not only in books, films and articles, but also in politics.  With the reappraisal of colonialism, the operations of the Légion étrangère are increasingly being re-scrutinised. Will this destroy the myth of the ‘toughest soldiering outfit in the world’? One thing is certain – there are still many more legionnaire stories to be told…
TV documentary about the French Foreign Legion. YouTube

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