Saturday, April 28, 2012

To me the Legion!


You've probably heard of the French Foreign Legion - I certainly have though I'm not quite sure why. It may have been that film, Beau Geste, reserved specifically for BBC2 on wet, winter, Sunday afternoons or maybe it was that Frank Sinatra song but thinking back I rather suspect that it was Airfix who made me aware of them. There were Foreign Legion soldiers available in the same scale as the Afrika Korps and the Eighth Army – blue jackets, white trousers and that funny flap on the back of their hats. What I didn't know, till I saw them on the march past on the televised celebrations for “Hispanic day” on 12 October was that there is a Spanish Legion too. Like the French unit it has a reputation for being a crack fighting unit born of a strong esprit de corps and a hard military regime.

The Legion was founded in January 1920 by José Millán Astray and, not to put too fine a point on it, the man was bonkers. He was dead impressed by a completely inaccurate book about Samurai and he built what he thought were Samurai ideas into his new army unit. He came up with some of the phrases for which the Legion is still famous, like calling its soldiers “The Bridegrooms of Death” and for repeating catchy little slogans like "Long Live Death."

The Spanish Legion was originally known as the Spanish Foreign Legion or as El Tercio in memory of the Sixteenth Century Spanish infantry formations that were hugely successful in Flanders and all over Europe. The Legion is intimately associated with the Spanish presence in Morocco and North Africa. Unlike its French counterpart the Spanish Legion got the Foreign part of it's name not because it was made up of foreigners but because it was expected to fight in foreign lands. When Milán formed the Legion the man he recruited to join him as second in command was one Francisco Franco Bahamonde - the man who went on to rule Spain for 40 years.

The Legion, along with colonial troops from Morocco, formed the spearhead of the Nationalist armies that eventually overthrew the legitimate Government in the Spanish Civil War. They seemed virtually unstoppable until they came up against the equally well trained International Brigades. On the other hand they also got their backsides well and truly kicked by irregular untrained troops in Morocco in the late 1950s. Oh, and they shot down a bunch of unarmed demonstrators in the 1970s again in Morocco. The Legion is currently on active service in Lebanon and Afghanistan where they seem, by all accounts, to be doing a good job.

The Legion has some funny ways that set it aside from other army units. The modern Legion uniform is plain khaki job topped off with a cap with red tassel and braiding. Legionnaires can wear beards and leave their shirts open more or less to the waist. Its members are called Knight Legionnaires, and, as we know, they call themselves "The Bridegrooms of Death". These little mottoes and the dress code may be causing them some difficulties now that there are women in the regiment; I suppose Dame Legionnaires and Brides of Death work fine though beards and open shirts may or may not be appropriate! When Legionnaires march in the big military parades they seem to shoot past, swinging their arms high in the air and across their bodies at a cracking march step of some 190 steps per minute as against the more usual 90 spm. Their mascot is a fast moving uniformed goat.

Just like the US Marines there is a pride amongst the legion that they don't leave anyone behind. Indeed when they find themselves in a spot of bother on the battlefield and shout ¡A mi la Legión! (To me the Legion!) anyone within earshot has no option but to lend a hand however great the peril.

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