French Foreign Legion: The Lineage

The current French Foreign Legion has officially derived its origin from the “old” Foreign Legion (Légion Etrangère) established in March 1831, by a royal ordinance of then France’s king. Nevertheless, the lineage of the current Legion is far more complex.

France has a long history of using foreign volunteers in its military, mainly the Swiss. The first Swiss units had served the French king since the late 15th century. In August 1792, during the French Revolution, a law allowed creation of a Free Foreign Legion (Légion Franche Etrangère), a composite force including infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers, consisting of “foreigners solely”. During the Napoleonic Wars, tens of thousands of foreign volunteers were in service of then French Empire, until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.

In September 1815, Royal Foreign Legion (Légion Royale Etrangère) was established by France’s King Louis XVIII. The Legion absorbed the Swiss and other foreign recruits from eight foreign regiments, recently disbanded. In 1816, the Royal Foreign Legion was retitled to Hohenlohe Legion. Five years later, in 1821, the Legion was once more redesignated and became Hohenlohe Regiment. The unit was commanded by Colonel Louis Aloysius, Prince of Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Bartenstein, a German prince having served France since 1792.

Since August 1830, foreigners couldn’t been admitted into the French Army. Because of that, the Hohenlohe Regiment would be dissolved, in early January 1831. The French or naturalized officers, NCO and soldiers of the dissolved regiment would be transferred to the 21st Light Infantry Regiment, created the same day. The foreigners had to leave the Army. Not for a long time.

Having seen problems with dismissed foreign veterans and with several hundreds of foreign deserters asking an asylum in France, the French government had to react quickly. In early February, the first military depot for foreign deserters was established in northeastern France, at Langres. Led by an Italian officer, Major Sicco, the depot saw mainly German-speaking volunteers asking for service in France.

On March 9, 1831, a new law was issued. Adopted by France’s Chamber of Deputies and signed by then king, the new law gave permission to a potential establishment of a legion to be placed in France, and composed of foreigners. In French colonies, the new law also gave permission to a potential establishment of units composed of natives or foreigners.

Next day, March 10, following the freshly issued law, then 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 would serve outside France, in Algeria (North Africa).

The foreigners having previously served with the Hohenlohe Regiment joined the freshly created Foreign Legion, followed by the volunteers of the depot in Langres.

The 1831 Legion, called now Old Legion (Ancienne Légion) had served in Algeria before being handed over to Spain, in late June 1835. Its around 4,100 legionnaires would fight in the First Carlist War for 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 from Spain to France. At Pau (southern France), to be dissolved. The original Legion officially ceased to exist on January 17, 1839. Out of its 200+ survivors, 64 legionnaires would join the “New Legion” in Algeria.

The new Foreign Legion was retitled in 1855 to 1st Foreign Legion, during the Crimean War. 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, an interesting redesignation took place. Swiss legionnaires from the fresh 2nd Legion formed the 1st Foreign Regiment. Legionnaires from the 1st Legion formed the 2nd Foreign Regiment (2e REI now). The reasons for that crosswise retitling should have its origins in the long tradition of Swiss regiments in France.

In 1862, the 1st Foreign Regiment (still nicknamed Swiss Legion by legionnaires from the original 1st Legion, later 2nd Regiment) was dissolved. Since that time, this Foreign Legion has never been disbanded and has still served la France.

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) of 1931, marking the anniversary of the famous Battle of Camerone of 1863. The tradition was accepted and hasn’t changed since then.

Today, to mitigate problems with the complicated lineage, someone inside the Legion decided to replace the 10th March (used as the anniversary date of the Legion until the 2000’s) with the neutral date of the 9th March (the date the law to create “a legion” was issued).

What’s the most important thing, the Foreign Legion is still active and has already maintained a very long tradition of providing brave foreign volunteers ready to fight and die for France…

Foreign Legion - Legion Franche Etrangere - 1792
The French law of the 1st of August 1792, allowing the creation of a (Free) Foreign Legion. Then Legion should be composed of four cavalry squadrons, four infantry battalions, four rapid reaction companies (chasseurs, hunters), two artillery companies and a company of military engineers. Almost 2,800 men in total. It would be organized near Dunkirk, northern France. The unit became Légion batave (Batavian Legion, of Dutch volunteers) in 1793.
Foreign Legion - Ordinance of King Louis Philippe 1831
The Ordinance of King Louis Philippe I, from March 9, 1831.


Royal Ordinance of March 10, 1831 of King Louis Philippe
Art. 1 It will be formed a Legion composed of Foreigners. This Legion will be called Légion étrangère.
Il sera formé une Légion composée d’Étrangers. Cette Légion prendra la dénomination de Légion étrangère.
Art. 2 Battalions of the Foreign Legion will be formed as the French elementary infantry battalions, exept for elite companies. Every company, if possible, will be composed of men of the same nationality and speaking the same language.
Les bataillons de la Légion étrangère auront la formation que les Bataillons d’infanterie de ligne francaise, excepté qu’ils n’auront point de compagnie d’élite. Chaque compagnie sera, autant que possible, composée d’hommes de méme nation et parlant la méme langue.
Art. 3 As for the salary, the masses and its administration, the Foreign Legion will be assimilated into the French regiments. The uniform will be blue with simple rose madder piping and trousers of the same color, the buttons will be yellow and will carry the words Légion étrangère.
Pour la solde, les masses et son administration, la Légion étrangère sera assimilée aux régiments français. L’uniforme sera bleu avec le simple passepoil garance et le pantalon de même couleur, les boutons seront jaunes et porteront les mots Légion étrangère.
Art. 4 Any foreigner who wants to join the Foreign Legion will not be accepted until having signed a volunteer contract in front of a medical officer.
Tout étranger qui voudra faire partie de la Légion étrangère ne pourra y être admis qu’après avoir contracté, devant un sous-intendant militaire, un engagement volontaire.
Art. 5 The duration of the contract will be for a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years.
La durée de l’engagement sera de trois ans au moins et de cinq ans au plus.
Art. 6 To be capable to join, the foreigners will have to be not more than forty years old, and have to be at least eighteen years old, and 1 meter and 55 centimeters tall. They also have to be holders 1) of their birth certificate or any other similar document; 2) of an acceptance certificate of a military authority stating that they are qualified to provide good service.
Pour être reçus à s’engager, les étrangers devront n’avoir pas plus de quarante ans, et avoir au moins dix-huit ans accomplis, et la taille de 1 metre et 55 centimetres. Ils devront en outre être porteur 1) de leur acte de naissance ou de tout autre pièce équivalente; 2) d’un certificat d’acceptation de l’autorité militaire constatant qu’ils ont les qualités requises pour faire un bon service.
Art. 7 In the absence of such documents, a foreigner will be sent in front of a general who will make a decision if enlistment can be accepted.
En l’absence de pièces, l’Étranger sera envoyé devant l’Officier Général qui décidera si l’engagement peut être reçu.
Art. 8 The soldiers being a part of the Foreign Legion can be re-engaged for a minimum of two years and a maximum of five years. Re-engagements will not guarantee the right for a high pay such as the soldiers having completed five years service.
Les militaires faisant partie de la Légion étrangère se pourront rengager pour deux ans au moins et cinq ans au plus. Les rengagements ne donneront droit à une haute paie qu’autant que les militaires auront accompli cinq ans de service.
Art. 9 Our Minister of War is responsible for the execution of this presented ordinance.
Notre Ministre Secrétaire d’État au Département de la Guerre est chargé de l’exécution de la présente ordonnance.


Foreign Legion - 1831 - establishment


Louis-Philippe I, King of the French - Foreign Legion Etrangere - France
Louis-Philippe I, King of the French. He established the Foreign Legion in March 1831.

Related article:
French Foreign Legion History