The Irish men of the French Foreign Legion

Ciaran Sunderland speaks to former soldiers of the fabled French Foreign Legion and learns why the Legion is our Homeland

“Legio Patria Nostra” is the motto and bond of fraternity of the French Foreign Legion. Meaning the “Legion is our homeland,” it is a mantra the recruits go on to embody everyday of their service. There are countless stories and multiple myths about the Legion and a romantic aura hangs over its history. Since the Legion’s beginning there has been a long history of Irish service, and no one ever joined for a quiet life.

For the unaware, the French Foreign Legion is an elite division of the French army. Accepting recruits of any nationality and every walk of life (so long as you’re male), the Legion operates across the world and developed a reputation for extreme training and fearsome dedication to the mission. The Legion is highly regarded as one of the fittest regiments in the world, particularly the paratrooper wing.

Today’s French Foreign Legion was formed in 1831 by King Louis Philippe to employ the numerous foreign and unemployed soldiers in France at the time. The remnants of the continental army were causing all manner of problems and were soon put to appropriate use. Later in the 19th century, some prominent Fenians served in the Legion. Famous figures like John Devoy, who served briefly were accompanied later by James J. O’Kelly who saw action in North Africa and later Mexico. O’Kelly deserted for four years to rebuild the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) after the failed Fenian Rising before serving again France in the Franco-Prussian War. He was made colonel, so he must have had a good excuse.

Less well known than the regiment themselves is the huge Irish involvement in the Legion. With over 60 veterans currently in the “Amicale de la Légion étrangère en Irlande,” there is no shortage of Irish perspectives into the elite military force. Speaking to a range of of retired Irish Legionnaires soon brings the memories to life.

Enlisting

It was from this initial period of the Legion’s conception that the myths evolved. The most resilient? The man on the run. Speaking to Trinity News by telephone, David Cooper, a former paratrooper who served between 1986 and 1992 describes how he joined the French Foreign Legion.

“I joined when I was 18,” Cooper said, “I was one of the youngest, although I know of some who joined at 16”. Cooper is quite understated about his youthful decision to enlist describing his reasoning as, “it was something kind of exotic and interesting and it was something a bit different than what was available to me as a kid”.

Cooper describes taking a ferry from Dover and finding himself in Aubagne, the Legion’s headquarters and recruitment centre. Here the recruits undergo physical and psychological tests as well as background checks. “There is the myth around that the Legion will take anyone, murderers, I didn’t serve with any murderers.” Cooper says the myth “hasn’t been true for a very long time” and that, “you go through a lot of selections, security interviews, they want to find out who you are, why you want to join the Legion. There are a lot of people who want to join the Legion and they don’t want people who are gonna cause trouble, they want people who are going to knuckle down.”

Knuckle down they did. After a successful selection process the recruits are taken to Castelnaudary. Here the recruits attempt to complete four months of basic training at what is better known as “the Farm”. Dermot O’Shea who served in the Engineer wing between 2008 and 2013 described the training as “extraordinarily demanding, like nothing I’d ever experienced” and “the most mentally exhaustive period in your entire life”. O’Shea, a laid-back Balbriggan native still smiles ruefully at the memory of it all.

“They really do break you down,” he says. “A certain switch has to be flipped to get you into that military way of thinking.” O’Shea credits the basic training with building the integrity of the Legion, the Esprit de Corp and explains how this works: “You could be in the pouring rain doing your 1070th push up and you feel like your elbows are going to explode inside you but when you look to the left and right and you see your mates doing it as well, it’s grand but when you’re pulled out or you’re on your own to do it, you’ll break.” The training culminates in a march in full military pack and gear. Upon completion, the recruits are awarded their distinctive white caps – les képis blancs.

O’Shea describes the Legion as “something I always knew about” but really became interested when he watched a documentary made by Bear Grylls. Like all the interviewees, O’Shea is aware of the Irish history of military service in the Legion: “There’s a good solid history of Irish guys going through and doing their time in the French Foreign Legion.” However this is not as well known as it could be.

Amicale de la Légion étrangère en Irlande

Paul Hoey from Raheny, Co. Dublin is President of the Amicale de la Légion étrangère en Irlande (French Foreign Legion Association of Ireland). He explains why this may be the case. “Most Irish military history is always associated with British Army” and as a result sometimes Irish Military service in other armed forces is overlooked, “So you’re trying to get over the idea and get across what your principles are and who we are. Because when you think about it, the Irish men who have died in the French Foreign Legion, does anyone really remember who they are? It’s essential we remember all nationalities who died in the Legion.”

Hoey recently took part in a Franco-British remembrance service at Glasnevin for Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. He served four years in the Irish navy before leaving Ireland with a friend in 1985 to join the Legion. He learnt about the Legion when his friend found a pictorial history of the force in Easons. Following the economic downturn, there were few opportunities and Hoey described leaving only his battered Mazda behind.

Hoey served widely in Africa as a paratrooper and listed tours in Rwanda, Central African Republic, and Chad. He said his two year tour in Djibouti were nearly the best years he spent in the Legion, where he performed bush patrols of the border with Ethiopia and Eritrea during the Ethiopian Civil War. He is remarkably casual about a serious truck crash in Djibouti that broke his collarbone, “our truck did a few rolls over,” but marvels at his own luck that the truck landed on the “only part of the road that had sand on it” in the rocky, barren landscape.  

“You do become a man of the world in the Legion depending on how long you spend in it,” Hoey says, pointing out that there over 165 nationalities in the Legion when he served and now believes there are over 200. He also gives credit to the Legion for marshalling a cohesive military army from so many different nationalities: “What a fucking task getting all these people together.” He describes an exceptional loyalty to injured soldiers: “The Legion never get rid of ye.” He remembers an instructor with one arm performing a rope climb during his corporal training course and notes: “In any other army he would be gone.” French citizenship can also be claimed as compensation for serious injury through “French by the Blood spilt”. Hoey himself has not claimed French citizenship after so long living in France but holds a “great affinity”. He left the Legion in 2000 ranked Chief Sergeant.

The Legends

Veteran Padhraic MacGiobuin has a personal favourite myth about the French Foreign Legion: that all recruits train and raise “a pure-bred Alsatian from a pup” and that at the end of training they hand you a gun and tell you to kill it. He laughs heartily at the ludicrousness of the idea. The only dogs he saw in the French Foreign Legion were working dogs in Calvi and he would certainly not lay a hand on them. Mac Giobuin was well read, “I knew the Legion existed,” and joined the Legion straight after college in 1999.

“Like a lot of people, I thought it was a little bit of a mythical thing,” said MacGiobuin. He always wanted to join the army and thought he would progress to elite service. “I always thought if I joined the Irish Army I would join the Ranger Wing, elite forces” but preferred the Legion because “it seemed to offer that elite service immediately”. He discounted the British army due to his patriotic upbringing. MacGiobuin described the selection process in Aubagne as “boring as hell” but recognises the logic to how they recruit and train new legionnaires. “They will form you physically any way they want once they have broken you psychologically”. MacGiobuin recounts the “stringent discipline” that eventually melds recruits into a functioning unit and to train you to “work for the group rather than for yourself”.

MacGiobuin, the eldest of seven, came from a single parent background. Aware of the proverbial chip on his shoulder, that he thought himself “hard done by,” MacGiobuin approved of the Legion’s attitude to potential recruits. “They don’t care who you are or where you come from,” once you subscribe fully to the Legion you are one of them.

“I am extremely happy with my time there,” MacGiobuin smiles but grows serious for a moment. “There are certainly things you have seen, there are certainly things you have heard, there are certainly things you have witnessed, you have done, that you would not do in a normal sort of society”.

MacGiobuin also trained as a paratrooper and, in 2003, he served in the Ivory Coast during the civil war. “You certainly see the worst of people and you certainly see the worst of situations,” he said. “You certainly see why wars happen, why conflicts ensue.” He served twelve weeks on the jungle front line to prevent rebels infiltrating from the North before transferring to Abidjan to supplement the government defence forces. He acknowledges, “how lucky you were to get out of some situations” but ”when it comes to close quarter combat, you’ll learn to live with it, but you’ll never forget it”.

After his service MacGiobuin took a step back and reflected on his career up until that point. He thought about how the Ivory Coast and the “aftermath and trauma that went with that” could change you as a person and his “value system in terms of social justice and equality that had just started to come together”. MacGiobuin points out the political expediency of having a large force of well trained foreign volunteers that militarily gives France more room for manoeuvre when French citizens are not the casualties.

An unbreakable bond

Still, MacGiobuin believes he adjusted well after leaving and counts friends in “50 to 60” countries that can “always be called on”. “From a social side of things,” MacGiobuin says, “the friends who are there for life”, is one of the best things about the Legion but “jumping out of an aeroplane, that’s fantastic, once you’ve done that 46 times, it’s good fun!”

Hoey also fondly remembers the camaraderie and loyalty between the Legionnaires. “You go out on the town, you drink together, you fight together, you fight with each other together,” Hoey laughs, “it’s a special bond and camaraderie”. He also fondly remembers “the quirkiness from everyone around the world”. He recalls one time a driver from former Communist Eastern Europe leaving a truck in neutral to descend a hill. “What the fuck are you doing?” he mimes bellowing. The driver it turns out was trying to save fuel. Hoey shakes his head exasperated to this day, “you’re not here to save fucking diesel!”

There is also a great sense of tradition in the French Foreign Legion to coincide with all the different languages and nationalities. All Legionnaires must learn French, as it is the working language of the Legion and there are numerous ceremonies and commemorative days. “The Legion is full of traditions,” David Cooper says. “You know to remember a number of important battles, Battle of Camarón being one of them, in 1863.” The Battle of Camarón is the most famous battle of the Legion and the defining reason of the Legion’s fearsome reputation for fighting to the death. During the Maximilian Affair between the Second French Empire and Mexico, 65 Legionnaires held off more than 2,000 Mexican cavalry and infantry at Hacienda Camarón. The Legionnaires fought until only five of them were left. A last ditch bayonet charge mortally wounded the last officer and killed two others. Surrounded and out of ammunition, the last two legionnaires had to be persuaded to surrender.

Legionnaires also sport beards, uncommon in the traditionally clean shaven armed forces. This myth was a favourite of Dermot O’Shea’s: “I did think it was an incredibly fascinating tradition” and comes from a time when the sappers, soldiers who dug the trenches constructed roads and cleared obstacles, were afforded certain privileges due to the danger of their jobs. Known in the French army as pioneers these tasks were often carried out under enemy fire and so pioneers got to grow beards. Small compensation but one that stands to this day.

Conversations with the Legionnaires continuously drifts towards identity and the questions Irish people field when they serve another country. “There’s always been a tradition of Irish people joining the Legion,” David Cooper says. “It goes back to the time when Irish folks fought with Napoleon and were under the banner of being the Wild Geese. We pride ourselves on being the dignified descendants of those people.” Cooper simplifies the nature of service is in the Legion: “The Legion is your country. When you serve in the Legion, the Legion decides who it is going to fight for.”

MacGiobuin keeps things even simpler: “I was a Legionnaire in the service of France,” he says and holds his chin higher, “but I was still very much Irish”.

Ciaran Sunderland

Ciaran Sunderland is the current Deputy Editor of Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister History student, and former Investigations Editor.