The current French Foreign Legion has inherited the lineage of the Foreign Legion established by a royal decree of King Louis-Philippe I on March 10, 1831. Because of that, the 10th March marks the anniversary of the current Foreign Legion. Nevertheless, the origins and the history of the current Legion are more complex.
In September 1815, Royal Foreign Legion (Légion Royale Etrangère) was established by France’s King Louis XVIII, absorbing the Swiss and foreign recruits from recently disbanded eight foreign regiments. In 1816, the Royal Foreign Legion was retitled to Hohenlohe Legion and in 1821 to Hohenlohe Regiment. The unit was commanded by Colonel Louis Aloysius, Prince of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Bartenstein, a German prince serving France since 1792.
Since August 1830, foreigners couldn’t been admitted into the French Army. In January 1831, the Hohenlohe Regiment was dissolved. The French or naturalized officers, NCO and soldiers of the regiment were transferred to the 21st Light Infantry Regiment, created the same day. The foreigners had to leave the Army.
On March 9, 1831, a new law was issued. Adopted by France’s Chamber of Deputies and signed by the king, the new law gave permission to a potential establishment of a legion composed of foreigners in France. In French colonies, the law gave permission to a potential establishment of units composed of natives or foreigners.
Next day, on March 10, following the freshly issued law, King Louis-Philippe I ordered the establishment of the Foreign Legion (Légion Etrangère). The Legion would be composed of seven battalions, devided into eight companies. Each company had to comprise the men of the same nationality, speaking the same language. The candidate had to be between 18-40 years old, with the minimal height of 155 cm. The Legion will serve in Algeria (North Africa). The foreigners having left the Hohenlohe Regiment joined the Foreign Legion. The Foreign Legion took many traditions of the Hohenlohe Regiment, including the 88 steps/minute marching speed (while French regular units march 120 steps/minute).
The 1831 Legion, called now Old Legion (Ancienne Légion), was handed over to Spain in late June 1835. Its around 4,100 legionnaires had to fight in the First Carlist War for Queen Maria Christina, Regent of Spain. In Spain in December 1838, the original “Old Legion” was officially disbanded by the Spanish government.
Meanwhile in France in 1836, a new Foreign Legion was established by a December 1835 royal decree of King Louis-Philippe I, to serve in Algeria. In November 1836, September and December 1837, three battalions of this Legion (called now New Legion, Nouvelle Légion) were formed.
In early January 1839, 223 survivors (63 officers + 159 legionnaires) of the “Old Legion” returned to France. At Pau (southern France), they were dissolved. The original Legion officially ceased to exist on January 17, 1839. Its 64 legionnaires asked for joining the “New Legion” in Algeria.
The new Foreign Legion was retitled in 1855 to 1st Foreign Legion. The 2nd Foreign Legion (nicknamed Swiss Legion), comprising Swiss volunteers only, was created in January 1855. In 1856, both Legions (each consisting of two regiments) were disbanded.
In the summer of 1856, Swiss legionnaires from the 2nd Legion formed the 1st Foreign Regiment. Legionnaires from the 1st Legion formed the 2nd Foreign Regiment (2e REI now). Since that time, the Legion has never been disbanded.
Because of that complex history, the very first commander of the Foreign Legion, General Paul-Frédéric Rollet, decided to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Legion on Camerone Day (April 30), marking the date of the famous Battle of Camerone of 1863. The tradition was accepted and hasn’t changed since then.
French Foreign Legion history