Second Foreign Legion – Swiss Legion

The Second Foreign Legion (also 2nd Foreign Legion, 2nd Foreign Brigade or Swiss Legion) was a Swiss unit within the French Army, created in France by Emperor Napoleon III in early 1855, to participate in the Crimean War. However, the war was over faster than expected. The 2nd Legion was therefore transformed into the 1st Foreign Regiment in 1856 and stationed in Algeria. The unit, wearing a green uniform, retained its Swiss character until 1859. That year, the 350-year epoch of the Swiss in the French service is definitively over.

La version française de cet article: Deuxième Légion Etrangère – Légion Suisse

 
2nd Foreign Legion - Swiss Legion - History

 

Introduction

In December 1848, Napoleon III (nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815) became the first president of the French Republic, and after his proclamation of the Empire in December 1852, the last monarch of the country and the last French emperor. In 1854, to reduce Russian military power in the Black Sea and to prevent threatening of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) by Russia, Napoleon III and Great Britain decided to intervene and to attack the Russian naval base of Sevastopol in the Crimea. The war began.

But the Crimean War demanded men. The two governments, French and British, are forced to find new volunteers, even abroad.

Switzerland seemed ideal for both countries. Emperor Napoleon III, who had long lived in Switzerland and who had served in its military, decided to restore the long Swiss presence in the French Army (violently interrupted in 1830) and to form a Swiss brigade consisting of two regiments. The British have the same idea. Consequently, two Swiss Legions will be formed: one in France, the other in Great Britain.

But France already has a Foreign Legion (well known due to the Conquest of Algeria in the 1840s), being deployed to the Crimea at that time. This Legion will therefore be renamed the First Foreign Legion.

 

Second Foreign Legion: Organization

By the imperial decree of Napoleon III of January 17, 1855, the Second Foreign Legion (Deuxième Légion Etrangère, also Swiss Legion, Légion Suisse) is to be created in France. The 2nd Legion should consist of two infantry regiments with two battalions (each of six companies) and, besides the regiments, a battalion of skirmishers with ten companies (tirailleurs; light infantrymen considered as very good shooters, who are deployed ahead of the main columns to skirmish).

General Ulrich Ochsenbein took the command of the 2nd Foreign Legion. A Swiss politician, a Federal Council former representative and a military officer, he is a close friend of Napoleon III.

The depot of the 2nd Legion is placed in eastern France, in Besançon, about forty miles (60 km) from Switzerland. The majority of Swiss volunteers are recruited in French-speaking cantons of this country of four national languages. First recruits arrive in France in February.

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - General Ochsenbein
General Ulrich Ochsenbein, the commanding officer of the 2nd Foreign Legion/Swiss Legion.

 

Second Foreign Legion: Units

The 1st Regiment of the Second Foreign Legion is formed in Dijon on 26 March and commanded by Colonel Bonaventure Meyer. This Swiss-born officer served in a Swiss regiment in the French service between 1820 and 1830. In 1831, as Lieutenant, he joined the “old” Foreign Legion (1831-39) and fought in Algeria and Spain. In 1838, he is transferred to the “new” Foreign Legion (formed in 1836-37) in Algeria; the latter became by the same imperial decree of 17 January 1855 the First Foreign Legion. Bonaventure Meyer retired in 1851 as a battalion commander. He received the rank of Colonel to join the Swiss Legion.

The 2nd Regiment of the Second Foreign Legion is formed in Besançon on 16 March. Two weeks later, the regiment leaves the town for Langres. The unit is led by Colonel Marie de Granet-Lacroix de Chabrières. This French officer joined the 2nd Regiment of the Foreign Legion (2e RLE) in Algeria in 1843. He served there as a battalion commander until 1848, when he resigned from the Army.

Il late May 1855, Colonel de Chabrières is appointed to be head of his former unit, the 2nd Regiment of the First Foreign Legion in Crimea. He died heroically at the Battle of Magenta in Italy in 1859, while leading the charge of his regiment. Today, the barracks of the 2e REI (ex-2e RLE) in Nîmes are named after him.

He is replaced with Colonel Benoît de Caprez who assumed command of the 2nd Regiment of the 2nd Legion in Langres. This old Swiss-born officer swaps places with Colonel de Chabrières at the head of the 2nd Regiment of the 1st Legion in Crimea, which he had commanded since late 1851. Colonel de Caprez began his impressive military career in 1816, as Second Lieutenant in a Swiss regiment of the Royal Guard, a military part of the French royal household. In May 1831, he joined the old Foreign Legion and fought with it in Spain. In 1837, he is transferred to the new Foreign Legion in Algeria.

The Skirmisher Battalion (Bataillon de tirailleurs) is organized in Auxonne on 13 March. The battalion is under the command of Major Lion, a French officer who has never served in the Legion.
 

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Regiment - Cravat
Cravat of the regimental color of the 1st Regiment, 2nd Foreign Legion.

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 2nd Regiment - Regimental Color
Regimental color of the 2nd Regiment, 2nd Foreign Legion. On the reverse side, an inscription ValeurDiscipline. This Napoleonic motto was replaced on Foreign Legion flags in 1920 by Honneur – Fidélite.

 

Second Foreign Legion: Uniform

Regiments

The uniform, armament and equipment of the 2nd Legion regiments are the same as those of the regiments of the 1st Foreign Legion. As for the uniform of the Swiss Legion, the only difference is the color of the fabric: the ordinary dark blue is replaced by light green.

The bonnet (headgear, future képi) has a red turban with a light green stripe/ribbon. The front is decorated with the regimental number. The officers wear a green shako, a tall, cylindrical military cap with a plume.

The tunic and jacket (this one intended for the barracks only) are in light green color. The buttons are stamped in the center with the regiment number and surrounded by the inscription “2e LEGION ETRANGERE”. The grenadiers wear red epaulettes; the voltigeurs (elite skirmishers) have yellow epaulettes. The fusiliers (riflemen) wear green epaulettes with scarlet neck/bezel. The greatcoat (capote) is in bluish iron grey color.

The Swiss legionnaires wear red trousers. At the barracks, they have cream-colored canvas pants.

The men of the 2nd Legion are equipped with the Mle 1822T infantry rifle and a sword bayonet.
 

Skirmisher Battalion

The men of the Skirmisher Battalion, consisting of very good shooters, have the same armament and equipment as French chasseurs à pied (“hunters”, light infantry sharpshooters trained to skirmish) at the time. The only particularity is their light green tunic. They also wear a bluish iron grey capuchon (a shortened sleeveless hooded cape) of the chasseurs.

The skirmishers have as headgear a light green shako with a dark green plume. The tunic and jacket are in light green color. The buttons are stamped in the center with a hunting horn (the insignia of French chasseurs) and surrounded by the inscription “2e LEGION ETRANGERE”. Their epaulettes are green with yellow neck/bezel. The trousers are in bluish iron gray color, with yellow seam-piping. The skirmishers bear a belt with a special open-frame buckle and a leather cartridge box of the chasseurs.

They, too, are equipped with the Mle 1822T infantry rifle and a sword bayonet.
 

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Tirailleurs - Skirmishers
Tirailleurs (Skirmisher Battalion), 2nd Foreign Legion and their officer during training in France. They wear green shako, light green tunic and bluish iron gray trousers. Watercolor by Adjudant Escher of the 2nd Legion. His paintings are very rare documents to show us the French Swiss Legion.

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Soldiers
Another watercolor by Adjudant Escher presenting the Swiss Legion. From left to right: musician, an NCO of skirmishers, vivandière (or cantinière, serving in French regiments as sutlers or canteen keepers), pioneer-sapper, captain, sergeant (of voltigeurs) and another captain.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Buttons
Buttons of the 2nd Foreign Legion/Swiss Legion. Left, that of the 1st Regiment. Right, that of the Skirmisher Battalion, with a hunting horn of French chasseurs. Painting by ADC Burda.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Skirmishers - Capuchon
Capuchon of the Skirmisher Battalion, 2nd Foreign Legion. A sleeveless coat of French chasseurs. Painting by ADC Burda.

 

Second Foreign Legion: Men

Enlistment in the 2nd Legion is in principle reserved for the Swiss. Many of them are young men; minors (under the age of 21) represent thirty percent.

On the other hand, the colonels of the regiments recruit German shoemakers, tailors and musicians as specialists for their regimental workshops and military bands. However, among the new legionnaires of the 2nd Foreign Legion, one can also find some Frenchmen or Italians.

Out of more than 130 non-commissioned officers, there are twenty-five French being transferred from other French Army units and twelve Swiss coming from the 1st Legion. Three or four NCOs are of other nationalities. For the rest, they are chosen from among the Swiss candidates.

The officers, too, are mostly of Swiss origin (40 officers, including General Ochsenbein). Two thirds of these Swiss officers belong to nobility.

 

Second Foreign Legion: France in 1855-56

Still in France, the legionnaires of the Swiss Legion are occupied with the organization of their units in their garrisons or with training and maneuvers.

Since August 1855, the monthly number of recruits is decreasing rapidly. In November, the Crimean War is almost over. The same month, there are only forty-nine new Swiss volunteers wanting to join the 2nd Legion. The enlistment bonus is therefore increased from 30 to 50 francs. Unfortunately, it is too late. In addition, the British Swiss Legion always pays a bonus of 150 francs to its recruits.

In early January 1856, a year after its creation, the Second Foreign Legion is still in poor condition. The 1st Regiment comprises only seven companies (1st Battalion + 1st company of the 2nd Battalion). In the 2nd Regiment, four complete companies and staff for the 5th + 6th Companies of the 1st Battalion are organized. The Skirmisher Battalion has managed to set up only three companies of those ten expected.

The Treaty of Paris of 30 March 1856 ended the Crimean War. Up to that date, the Swiss Legion has only 58 officers and 1,170 men. Recruitment does not give the results one had hoped for at the start of the unit’s organization.

By the decree of 16 April 1856, the two French Foreign Legions have to be inactivated. Not long afterwards, the legionnaires of the 2nd Legion are sent to the Sathonay Camp near Lyon. Here, the Swiss Legion was officially disbanded on June 25, 1856.

General Ochsenbein is laid off. Seventeen Swiss officers resigned and received one year’s pay. But the other officers and men are ready to form a new military unit.
 

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Legionnaires - Garrisons - Map
The garrisons of the 2nd Foreign Legion/Swiss Legion in France. The main depot is based in Besançon. The 1st Regiment is stationed in Dijon, the 2nd Regiment in Langres. The Skirmisher Battalion is organized in Auxonne. In May 1856, the 2nd Legion is placed at the Sathonay Camp nearby Lyon to be disbanded there.

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Legionnaires - Garrison
Watercolor by Adjudant Escher presenting the Swiss Legion regiments men at their garrison. From left to right: two fusiliers (riflemen) with green-scarlet epaulettes and a bluish iron grey capote (greatcoat), a legionnaire wearing a garrison service uniform, a sergeant of voltigeurs with yellow epaulettes, and a grenadier with red epaulettes on guard duty.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - Lieutenant Bochatay
Lieutenant Bochatay of the 2nd Foreign Legion/Swiss Legion. One of the very rare photos.

 

1st Foreign Regiment: Algeria in 1856-59

By the decree of April 16th, the two Legions were dissolved to create new foreign regiments. It was therefore at the Sathonay Camp on 26 June 1856, that the 1st Foreign Regiment (1er RE) is organized with the men of the former Swiss Legion. Colonel Bonaventure Meyer of the 1st Regiment, 2nd Legion took the command.

Why the 1st and not the 2nd? Because the Emperor considered the Swiss Legion as the custodian of the traditions of the Swiss units in French service before 1830, while the 1st Legion was only created in 1831 (the old Legion), or in 1836-37. That is why the 1st Legion, although more senior and more experienced, was transformed in Algeria into the 2nd Foreign Regiment (2e RE, now 2e REI), under the orders of Colonel de Chabrières.

The new 1st Foreign Regiment is still considered a Swiss unit. The regiment is made up of the Swiss and all Swiss recruits are assigned to it. The unit also keeps the green uniform and all the distinctions of the disbanded 2nd Legion.

The regiment has two battalions, each comprising eight companies (the former 1st Regiment formed the 1st Battalion, the former 2nd Regiment formed the 2nd Battalion). The Skirmisher Battalion was transformed into two companies of chasseurs who keep their equipment and their uniform (only the shako is replaced by a green kepi). Each of the two companies is assigned to one battalion.

On July 6, 1856, with a weak strength of 1,021 men, the 1er RE embarked for Philippeville in Algeria (Skikda now, the city would become the garrison of the 2e REP a century later). There, in August, the regiment received 600 men from the 2e RE having returned from the Crimea.

In June-July 1857, a task force of the 1er RE (600 men under the command of Major Lion) took part in operations against the rebels in Kabylia (northeastern Algeria). Later, road works began for the Swiss legionnaires in Grande Kabylia, in the sectors of Bône, Sétif and Bougie.

In 1858, the 1st Foreign Regiment (still called “Swiss Legion” by their 2e RE colleagues) began to lose its unique nature. In April, the commanding officer of Swiss origin, Colonel Meyer, retired. He is replaced by Colonel Dupin de Saint-André (captain in the 2e RLE in Algeria in 1847-52), then in August by Colonel Granchette (a veteran of the Crimean War, who has never served in the Legion) and, finally, in November, by Colonel Michel Brayer. A French officer, also for the first time with the Legion.
 

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - 1856-59 - Algeria - Map
In Algeria, the 1st Foreign Regiment (ex-2nd Foreign Legion) is stationed in Philippeville. In 1856-59, its men took part in military operations and road works in the sectors of Bône, Sétif and Bougie.

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - 1856-59 - Algeria - Chasseurs - Légionnaire
Legionnaire of Chasseur Company, 1st Foreign Regiment (Hunters, ex-Skirmisher Battalion, 2nd Foreign Legion) in Algeria, around 1857. In Africa, the green shakos were replaced by a green bonnet de police (future kepi). An original study of Major Brecht from the 1er RE (ex-2nd Legion).
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - 1856-59 - Algeria - Chasseurs - Clairon
Clairon (bugler) and a chasseur (in a uniform used for operations) of Chasseur Company, 1st Foreign Regiment in Algeria, around 1857. A study of the time of Major Brecht.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - 1855-59 - Colonel Meyer
Colonel Meyer. A Swiss officer, he headed the 1st Regiment, 2nd Foreign Legion in France in 1855-56, and the 1st Foreign Regiment (ex-Swiss Legion) in Algeria in 1856-58. He served with a Swiss regiment in France before 1830, with the “old” Foreign Legion (1831-39) and since 1838, with the “new” Foreign Legion (formed in 1836-37) in Algeria.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - 1856 - Flag
Regimental color of the 1st Foreign Regiment (ex-Swiss Legion), obtained in December 1856.

 

1st Foreign Regiment: Italy and Algeria in 1859-62

At the beginning of 1859, the majority of the Swiss legionnaires had already returned to civilian life, having their contract of two to three years finished. The regiment’s strength is no more than 500 men (at the same time, the operational strength of the 2e RE is 1,400 legionnaires).

Meanwhile in Europe, a new war is planned. Now in Italy, between France and Austria. In April 1859, the 1er RE of Colonel Brayer moved to Corsica, to try to recruit Italians who would like to fight alongside the French. But recruitment did not give good results.

In May, the regiment entered Italy and in early June, its 480 men fight bravely at Magenta, with their comrades from the 2e RE, led by Colonel de Chabrières. This former colonel with the 2nd Legion is killed there.

In August 1859, the 1er RE returned to Corsica. There, two months later, the men learn about the imperial decree of 14 October 1859 that imposes a ban on the unit’s Swiss character, green uniform and all the specific distinctions of the former 2nd Foreign Legion. The decree gives the 1st Foreign Regiment the same look and structure as the 2nd Regiment possesses. The existence of the Swiss Legion is definitively over.

The reorganized 1er RE, officially open for all nationalities now, will remain in Corsica until February 1860. Being stationed again in Philippeville, the regiment is finally disbanded two years later, in late February 1862. Only the original Legion remains (2e RE); the latter is redesignated as the Foreign Regiment.

With this regiment, a number of men from the former Swiss Legion participated in the Mexican campaign in 1863-67. Among them, for example, a certain Lieutenant de Diesbach de Torny, the son of an officer of the Cent-Suisses (an elite company in the service of the French king before 1830), or Lieutenant Trog, the brother-in-law of Colonel Meyer; he joined the 2nd Legion at the age of twenty-one and retired in 1894 with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.
 

2e RE - 2 RE - 2nd Foreign Regiment - Foreign Legion - Battle of Magenta - 1859 - Colonel de Chabrieres
Battle of Magenta in Italy on 4 June 1859 and the death of Colonel Granet-Lacroix de Chabrières of the 2e RE (now 2e REI), a former head of the 2nd Regiment, 2nd Foreign Legion/Swiss Legion. He was among first officers to join the second Legion in 1855. Watercolor by P. Benigni.

Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - 1858-59 - Colonel Brayer
Colonel Brayer. A new commanding officer of the 1st Foreign Regiment (ex-Swiss Legion) in Algeria in 1858-59. A French officer, he has never served in the Legion before.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - Lieutenant de Diesbach
Lieutenant Gabriel de Diesbach de Torny in Mexico in the 1860s, as an officer of the Foreign Regiment. He comes from a Swiss noble family with a long military tradition in the French Army (e.g. Régiment de Diesbach in the 18th century). He joined the 2nd Legion/Swiss Legion in April 1855 and served with legionnaires until 1866.
Second Foreign Legion - 2nd Legion - Swiss Legion - 1st Foreign Regiment - Johann Eduard Torg
Major Torg. A Swiss citizen, Johann E. Torg joined the 2nd Legion/Swiss Legion in June 1855 as a simple soldier, at his 21. He was with the 1st Regiment of his brother-in-law, Colonel Meyer. 2d Lieutenant in 1857, he served with the Legion until 1867, in Algeria, Italy and Mexico. Johann E. Torg stayed in the French Army and retired as Lt-Colonel in 1894.

 

Conclusion

For the Crimean War (1854-56), both France and Great Britain were looking for Swiss volunteers to organize their own Swiss Legions. That of the British was eventually more successful in recruitment and its organization. On the other hand, the French Swiss Legion was to be a unit that would continue in the long tradition of the Swiss in the French service from 1481 to 1830. But the recruitment did not produce results that the Emperor Napoleon III had expected. Not surprisingly. Britain was offering the enlistment bonus five times higher than that of the French, and the Swiss still remembered the way they were treated during the revolution in France in 1830.

Eventually, the Crimean War finished earlier than expected and the two Swiss Legions took no part in it. That of the British, with the strength of 3,300 men of Colonel Dickson, was inactivated in May 1856 (the dissolution would last until October). On the contrary, the French Swiss Legion was transformed into a new foreign regiment in June 1856. The unit was keeping its Swiss character until October 1859. The same month, a Swiss federal law prohibited the service of its citizens in a foreign army. The famous 350-year epoch of the Swiss in the French service is irretrievably over.

What is interesting, in a symbolic way, is the green beret which was ordered as an official headgear for the whole Foreign Legion a hundred years later, in late 1959. It evokes the distinctive green color of the forgotten Swiss Legion…

 

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Main information & images sources:
Képi blanc magazines
LCL Henry Dutailly: La 2ème Légion Etrangère (Képi blanc, 1975)
Raymond Guyader: Le légionnaire suisse 1855-1859 (Uniformes, 1983)
Gén. Grisot, Ltn Coulombon: Légion étrangère 1831 à 1887 (Berger-Levrault, 1888)
Evelyne Maradan: La Légion suisse au service de la France (Revue Militaire Suisse, 1989)
P. Cart-Tanneur + Tibor Szecsko: La vieille garde (Editions B.I.P., 1987)
Raymond Guyader: La Légion Etrangère 1831/1945 (Gazette des Uniformes, 1997)
Adolf Merz: Johann Eduard Trog (Oltner Neujahrsblätter, 1960)
Fanion Vert et Rouge (Fr)
Google Maps
Wikipedia.org

 
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The page was updated on: January 22, 2020

 

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