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Before eating, the recruits drank large field cups of water, and inverted the empty cups on their heads to demonstrate the achievement. He was the platoon commander, Fred Boulanger, 36, a muscular Frenchman with a military bearing and an air of easy authority. He knew from experience that the recruits were doing well enough. There were parade-ground exercises during which they learned the strange, slow cadence of the Legion’s ceremonial march, and the lyrics to meaningless Legion songs. There were weapon-disassembly-and-cleaning classes. And there were endless housekeeping chores, the tedious that constitute much of garrison life. He called the British Army the best in the world and said he would return happily if only it would have him back.

Watching him watch the recruits, I asked how the training was going. Boulanger was a non-commissioned the equivalent of a warrant officer. During one of these intervals the unhappy Scotsman named Smith approached me with a mop in his hand and asked for news from the outside. By comparison, he said, the Foreign Legion had no sense of humor.

It’s the dark romance of the French Foreign Legion: haunted men from everywhere, fighting anywhere, dying for causes not their own.

Between 18, more than 900 legionnaires died while reinforcing the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War. After the war ended, the Legion stayed on and helped with the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune—a civilian revolt during which legionnaires dutifully killed French citizens on French streets, often by summary execution.

During the pacification of Algeria, 844 legionnaires died. Of the 4,000 legionnaires sent off to help with the war, roughly half did not return.

During a foolish intervention in Spain in the 1830s, nearly 9,000 died or deserted. Then came the French invasion of Mexico of 1861–65, whose purpose was to overthrow the reformist government of Benito Juárez and create a European puppet state, to be lorded over by an Austrian prince named Maximilian. Early on, 62 of them barricaded themselves in a farm compound near a village called Camarón, in Veracruz, and fought to the finish against overwhelming Mexican forces.

On the one hand, he needed to make legionnaires of them. ,” the recruits had to shout, “” (and put the kepis on their heads, wait two seconds, and slap their hands to their thighs). They wore bulky packs, with assault rifles slung across their chests. I walked beside him and ranged backward down the line.

On the other, he had already lost five to desertion. Then they had to shout in unison, with pauses, “We promise! The Russian sergeant brought up the rear, watching for strays.

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