Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The French Foreign Legion vs. The British Gurkhas: A Light Comparison

Almost 20 years ago I took a class or so every semester toward earning my Associates Degree in Avionics Technology. I wrote the following paper for an English class taught by one of the best teachers from whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning--Mr. Bill Garvin. This little paper was the culmination of that class. I knew I couldn’t go wrong writing about mercenaries, and everyone is fascinated with Gurkhas and Legionnaires. For all you out there looking for info for a school project on Gurkhas and The Legion, this little research paper is somewhat dated; so I highly suggest further reading using more recent sources. Note: There also exists the Spanish Foreign Legion, but in practice it recruits almost exclusively from Spaniards.

English 10013
Professor Bill Garvin
November 11, 1988

Thesis: How do the French Foreign Legionnaires and the British Gurkhas compare and contrast as the last two important mercenary military outfits still actively part of any western power’s army?

I. Legion and Gurkha beginnings

A. French Foreign Legion origins
B. The Carlist Campaign
C. British Gurkha origins

II. The Motives and background of the men

A. The Legionnaire

1. Where he comes from, his outlook
2. Why he fights

B. The Gurkhas

1. His personable outlook
2. Where they come from, why they fight

III. The training of these mercenaries

A. Gurkha training

1. The innate mountain soldier
2. Special training requirements

B. Legion Training

1. The brutal indoctrination
2. The men who train them

IV. Pivotal battles in their histories

A. The battle of Camerone
B. The Bengal Army Mutiny

V. A final analysis


Comparing the French Foreign Legion with the British Gurkhas is like comparing two brothers: one saintly and responsive, the other ornery and self-destructive. Both outfits have been in existence since the early 19th century, and both have been important units in their respective country’s army in every major conflict of the 20th century. Both French Legionnaires and Gurkhas are elite mercenary fighters that would have been disbanded long ago, if they hadn’t proved their worth in scores of wars and skirmishes since their inception.

I. Legion and Gurkha beginnings

The Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis Philippe in 1831. He did so in an effort to keep thousands of unemployed foreigners in France from further unemployment and mischief. They were shipped in mass across the Mediterranean to the new French colony of Algeria. There they performed miserably in battle and were relegated to road building and well digging (Mercer 4).

In 1835, The Legion was loaned to Spain for almost two years to fight the Carlist rebels for Queen Christina. They were rarely paid and had to forage for food. Out of the thousands that went, less than 200 rag-clad Legionnaires crossed the mountains to France. Those not killed in battle or by disease had deserted.

Near the end of the Carlist campaign, The Legion found itself in The Battle of Barbastro against Carlist mercenaries, most of which were deserters from the French Legion. The Spanish on both sides paused fascinated, as the two groups of mercenaries struggled to destroy the other. The bitter fight lasted from dawn to dusk, and most of the combatants ended up dead or wounded. This was the beginning of the compelling myth of The Foreign Legion (Mockler 135).

The Gurkhas became part of the British Army after being defeated by a British force of 39,000 from 1814-16. They fought bravely, and the much-impressed British didn’t wait for the war’s end before starting to raise Gurkha battalions. In April 1815, the first Gurkha battalion was authorized and serves still (Farwell 33).

II. The Motives and background of the men

By examining the motives for enlisting, the training, and the outlooks of the individual “mercenaries,” we can get an idea how they established themselves as fighting legends. It’s important to understand why the individual riflemen fought to the death so many times for countries not their own (Mockler 20).

Over the years, The Legion has picked up its soldiers from the lost causes of Europe. After WWI, ultra-nationalist Germans joined in great numbers. As Hitler rose to power, Jews, Austrians, Czechs, Poles and Hungarians signed on. The end of WWII began the era of Nazis and fascists recruitment right out of prison camps (Mercer 7).

When trying to describe the individual soldiers, few have said anything positive about Legionnaires. Kipling described them as the “The Legion of the lost ones and cohorts of the damned” (Bocca 34). It’s not surprising that the Foreign Legion has appealed to so many with suicidal tendencies. In the same vein, the slower suicide of alcoholism is the pride, tradition and vice of the Legion (Mercer 5).

Yet, it is impossible to generalize the Legionnaires. To some, The Legion is their love and family. On the other hand, thousands have deserted and describe their experience as hellish. Modern Legionnaires can be described as tough young men, used to hardship and looking for adventure. They see fighting as a good career, and some may feel the mythological past is too emphasized (Mercer 322).

The Foreign Legion is renowned for its toughness and admired for its fighting skills, but few have loved them. Herein lies an acute difference with their French Legion counterparts. Where the Gurkhas are known for their physical toughness, they lack the brutish Legion traits. Harsh discipline is not found in Gurkha regiments. They charm and are admired by all they meet but their enemies (Farwell 14).

If you were to meet one of the pleasant little Gurkha mercenaries, you couldn’t imagine that in a firefight this little fellow is a quick and vicious killer. So personable are they, many people have become confirmed Gurkhaphiles after going on a single patrol with them (Weller 50).

Most of the Gurkha mercenaries aren’t of the warrior castes such as there are in India to the south, even though many generations have served father to son. They come from the trader, farmer and herdsmen castes (Farwell 21). Most are family men. They marry young, usually between 15 to 17 years of age (Farwell 147).

Why these pleasant little mountain men join and fight so hard for England must be examined. It’s been said they fight for the money, but that has been the solo reason for very few. One Gurkha said, “The army is the easiest way to demonstrate one’s braveness to the world.” Others want to leave the confined and restricted life of the village. All of them it seems, simply love battle and excel at it (Farwell 82). An old Victoria Cross winner, retired to his native village in Nepal, was asked why the Gurkhas are so brave. He answered, “Only that we have such bad tempers when something makes us angry” (Farwell 280).

III. The training of these mercenaries

We’ve seen that both mercenary groups have two different kinds of recruits to train, which explains the wide difference in training regimens.

At the time of the Gurkha beginnings, the British regiments were filled with society’s rejects, and it was felt that fierce discipline was required to maintain control. But that didn’t work with the Gurkha recruits. They were already naturally enthusiastic soldiers, requiring little disciplinary action. For instance, Captain F. Young, a battalion commander, recorded in seven years only one court martial. This is an unheard of statistic in any other army in the world. Desertions are almost nonexistent, although nothing would be easier (Farwell 48).

In Gurkha basic training there is no bullying or intimidation. No Gurkha has ever been flogged, even back in the 1800s. The NCOs in charge of recruits use humor, example, persuasion and great patience (Farwell 84).

Things most of us take for granted, all must be introduced to the young Gurkha recruit. The toilet is a curious idea to them that there should be a particular place to defecate. Time is a concept that must be learned in more than general terms. Eating utensils, furniture and boots are all new. The first month is agony for him as he gets used to wearing boots after a lifetime of bare feet (Farwell 84).

The Foreign Legion uses the traditional method of stress and hardship in its recruit training. The recruit must be 18 to 42 years old and at least 5 feet 2 inches tall (Mercer 34). An interesting irony is that many Gurkha soldiers, renowned as they are, wouldn’t even make the Legion height requirements.

As the Legion developed, a fixed indoctrination process also developed. A recruit learns that the Legion is all, and the individual is nothing (Mercer 33). The 16 weeks of initial training on the island of Corsica is unbelievably brutal, and beating up the recruits is traditional (McLeave 156). The brutality is a constant part of a legionnaire’s career. To cure a man of cracking up under the stress of combat, he is beaten so badly, he realizes death is better than being a coward (McLeave xvii). This is the make or break period. The training is so intense that the authorities expect desertions within the first six months (McLeave 156).

At the initial processing center at Marseilles, recruits are launched into a depressing atmosphere for the psychological effect. Once they pass their physical, they are met by the grim quote attributed to General F. de Negrier, a Legion officer from the last century, “You are soldiers in order to die, and I’m sending you where one dies” (Mercer33).

All training is administered by NCOs. This is to keep the officers out of sight and above the men. The French officers are one of the most important aspects in creating the Legion spirit (Mercer46). After WWI, France began to assign only its best officers to the Legion, as it proved itself worthy in one battle after another (Bocca 73).

IV. Pivotal battles in their histories

In each of their histories, the Gurkhas and Legionnaires can look back on a single battle that defines them as two of the world’s premiere fighting elites. It would be remiss not to look at these crucial pivots in each outfit’s past.

On April 30th of each year, The Legion stops what it’s doing and throws a huge orgy of drinking, eating and singing Legion songs as they celebrate the battle of Camerone.

At Camerone, Mexico, on 30 April 1864, 59 Legionnaires in the service of Emperor Maximilian found themselves facing 2000 Mexican Juarista troops. The French legion detachment was led by Captain Danjou, who had one hand made of wood designed to grasp the reins of his horse that he might stay in the Legion. He pledged each man to fight on to the death, and each man agreed. They fought for over nine hours in the searing heat and dust of a farmhouse that was to be their final redoubt. There were just four wounded men left standing, when the Mexican commander asked for their surrender. They answered by charging with fixed bayonets into the massed Juaristas (Mockler 137).

A legionnaire explains, “The Camerone appeal to us is as natural as instinct. The Legionnaire reaches out to it with his heart, because it is part of his pain. It is a great reminder that sand is always in the eyes, of the battleground ill-chosen, of the odds too great, of the insufficient cause to justify death, and the tools always wrong. Above all, nobody cares if we win, lose, live or die. Camerone gives the Legionnaire strength to live with his despair. It reminds him he can’t win, but makes him feel there is dignity in being a loser. It is an expression of his desolation” (Bocca 8).

As Camerone defines the despair of the Legion, the Bengal Army Mutiny at Delhi, India, in 1857 separated and defined the Gurkha soldier from the rest of Britain’s ethnic units. In this fateful rebellion virtually every ethnic group of Britain’s supposedly loyal Indian army rose up to hack their surprised British officers to death. The Gurkhas faithfully helped put down the rebellion and refused to allow religious scruples to interfere with duty. That fact made them important and versatile to the British.

At the siege of Delhi, no sooner were the Gurkha loyalists in position, then a large body of mutineers attacked them. They fought in extreme heat and dust for almost 16 hours. It was only the first of 26 determined attacks beaten back over a week’s time.

After the amazing display of bravery and loyalty, the Gurkhas were recognized as truly special, and the British officially styled them as riflemen rather than as sepoys. The highest compliment paid them was that the British considered Gurkha troops interchangeable with British troops, and only the best British officers were allowed to lead the amazing little fighters (Farwell 139).

V. A final analysis

In the final analysis, it can be stated that the British Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion are more fundamentally different than similar. The Gurkhas are culturally and physically homogenous; while the Legion has had 101 different nationalities serve in their ranks over the years (Mercer 6).

But, an important similarity is that both outfits are products of different values and societies than those of the 20th Century (Beaumont 1). It was typical of the times that the French Legion and the British Gurkhas were used by their countries to help in colonial expansion and keeping control of those colonies.

The despair and loyalty of the French Legion both contrasts and compares to the cheerfulness, good humor and loyalty of the Gurkhas. The motivations of both groups are on the extreme ends of the scale; yet both have finely honed, well-disciplined troops absolutely faithful to their units.

Legionnaires and Gurkhas have demonstrated repeatedly that death is preferable to defeat, and that is why both mercenary outfits have been so successful. It looks as if they will continue as uniquely elite forces in this century and probably well into the next, until men learn for good the folly of war.

Phil Spear

Works Cited

Beaumont, Roger A. MILITARY ELITES. Indianapolis, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974.

Bocca, Geoffrey. LA LEGION! New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1964

Farwell, Byron. THE GURKHAS. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984

McLeave, Hugh. THE DAMNED DIE HARD. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973.

Mercer, Charles. LEGION OF STRANGERS. New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Mocker, Anthony. THE MERCENARIES. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1969.

Weller, Jack. FIRE AND MOVEMENT. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1967


Mr. Garvin, my teacher for that class, wrote the following remarks on my paper:

Grade: A/A

Fascinating paper. I have acquired McLeave’s and Mockler’s books for further reading on the subject. Excellent paper in both content and construction. You have been an integral part of the class, Philip. It isn’t every semester that I have a student with such insight and perspicacity. I have, at times, found myself teaching to you. Best always in your further academic endeavors. If I can be of assistance, give a big, Southern yell.

Just call ME perspicacious! .... grin....


Anonymous said...

Perspicacious indeed! Loved it Phil!

Both for content and style.

CONTENT: I'm fascinated with the Legion too, and wrote them at their old HQ in Sidi-bel-abes (Yes! Algeria! I guess I dated myself with THAT revelation) once when I was a kid, asking for enlistment information and was so disappointed when they didn't reply.

STYLE: I love the academic style of writing and wish I had access to some of my old research papers. I put a lot of energy into them, as you did here. Isn't it amazing how we did that in those pre-internet days? We had to expend a lot of effort to find source material from various libraries and now folks just go online (and many, I'm sure, merely clip and paste!). I'm embarrassed now that I've gotten sloppy in my writing, no longer give it the supreme effort like I did in the college days. Blogging doesn't demand fine writing, nor do emails to friends.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Why thank you Opass!

One of the reasons I published this paper is because of the current happenings in France and how it reminds me that nothing ever really changes, to wit:

"The Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis Philippe in 1831. He did so in an effort to keep thousands of unemployed foreigners in France from further unemployment and mischief."

Too bad Sarkozy can't do what was done in 1831 with all the current unemployed mischief makers!

KA said...

... Teachers pet!


sorry, i'm just envious at the moment because my academics are going rather poorly.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Heh heh... doesn't happen often. Most of the teachers over here don't much care for me coz I'm always asking them uncomfortable questions. In the US its called being perspicacious, over here its called being a pain! Oh well, I yam what I yam... och och och och och! toot toot!

Amadeo said...

One of my co-employees at the last hotel I worked for was a bigger-than-usual Frenchman named Jacques, of course, who had served in the French Foreign Legion, with assignments in Africa, specifically Algeria.

I liked Jacques because of the things he knew and learned from his previous assignments. And he was Catholic, too.

Sadly, he had despaired of his old homeland and has been here in US as a long-time immigrant. So the things that are wrong in France today were exactly the same plaints he had articulated.

So I can say that I have met and known a genuine French legionnaire.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I always thought the whole idea of serving in the French Foreign Legion is that you be a foreigner. If French, why not just join the French army? Hmmmm.

Amadeo said...

Since he was ethnically French and he did say he served, then he must have been a commissioned officer in the Legion.

Never bothered to inquire further.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Ok, that's probably true. Oh, and one of the mottos of the FFL is: "...a proud history of defeat!" Sounds very French doesn't it? grin...

Amadeo said...

Phil, I see that it is almost noon time over there.

Here it is about 5pm. Have been house-bound since it has been showering since very early this morning. Thus, have been in front of the PC for a while.

Jacques, the Frenchman, once told me that during long weekends other expats of his gather in a place in one of the wine county places here in Northern CA, and spend the time reminiscing about old times in the old motherland. And of course, sipping fine CA wine.

Since we both worked graveyard then, we used to spend much time conversing. And he was one reasonable and logical Frenchman that one could find. According to him when he did visit France on occasion, even his close relatives found him strange and alienating in his thinking and ways.

I wonder what he thinks now, with Sarkozy at the helm.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Sarkozy, the last great hope of France. In one fell swoop, suddenly, I like the French again. Well, anyway, in a probationary way. After all, its difficult to truly like a people that overwhelmingly hates the USA.

Amadeo said...

In another front, US politics is now front and center here. Go to media, print, broadcast, TV/Cable, and its all politics. The primaries are drawing near.

Thus, have stayed away from TV or radio for now.

Where you are, I have been inundated by news about the last stand-off at the Manila Pen, with both military and media involved in the scuffle.

How's the weather been? I plan to get there in Jan.'08.

PhilippinesPhil said...

"The last stand...?" What's that? No idea what you are talking about. Honestly, I follow the local news very little. I did watch a little of the last coup attempt. That was laughable as always. Something like that takes absolute secrecy among a select few individuals and that is impossible here. Its been the source of mirth for some of us who kind of understand the mindset here.

The rainy season is about winding down. By the time you get here it should be well into the dry season.

Amadeo said...

The last stand-off is the biggest item of discussion in the local blogosphere, involving a renegade and beleaguered neophyte Senator, who with his cohorts took over of all places the posh Manila Pen to mount a coup' of some kind.

The hotel entrance was rammed by a military personnel carrier, and the malcontents arrested, including the cute media personalities who decided to stay when asked to leave by the military.

Of course you know by now what kind of politics inhabit the islands. The wife is content watching the two Filipino channels here playing local telenovelas and game shows like WoWoWee. HeHeHe.

PhilippinesPhil said...

My apologies to your wife, but I can not long watch the local TV fare. Thank you Lord for cable! Jesus and cable TV, my salvation! ...grin...

I call that one show Kawawa-wowee, after what happened to all those people trampled to death trying to get into a show a couple years back. Remember that?