At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion

Jean-Vincent Blanchard. Bloomsbury, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8027-4387-9
Blanchard (Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France), a professor of French studies at Swarthmore College, investigates the momentous existence of the French Foreign Legion, a curious and romantic organization formed in 1831 that persevered through the 20th century’s interwar years. The book is an entertaining, boisterous history of the French colonial project writ large, in which the Legion, with all its faults and contradictions, played a central role: “France, claiming that its glorious, oftentimes tragic, past, exemplified the universality of its values, would soon entrust itself with a civilizing mission that the troops of the Foreign Legion... would carry out in an adventure of epic scale.” Tracing the career of Gen. Hubert Lyautey, who influenced both the Legion and French military culture more broadly, the story traverses Algeria, Indochina, Madagascar, and Morocco following the troops, whom Blanchard says “could be both superb operators of and troublesome obstacles to French rule.” Most of the Legionnaires, who were renowned for their fearless fighting and their prodigious drinking, hailed from France itself, the disputed territories of Alsace-Lorraine, and Germany—an interesting WWI-era dynamic. Blanchard adroitly captures the almost surreal absurdity of placing such a corps at the spearhead of a global project promising liberté, egalité, et fraternité. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/13/2017
Release date: 04/04/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
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