The French Foreign Legion has motor vehicles, now -- planes and helicopters as well as jeeps and trucks -- and it boasts paratroopers, frogmen, radio technicians, specialists in demolition and gurerrilla warfare. But if you can ignore the curious absence of camels in this abridged diary and overlook modern equipment, you will find the legends intact walking around, drinking, fighting and singing "La Legion Marche" with lusty vigor and a variety of non-French accents.
Simon 'Murray was given an IQ test when he joined the Legion early in 1960 (one can hear serried ranks of ghosts muttering "merde, alors "), but this contemporary ritual ushered him into an organization substantially the same as the one you saw in all those old movies and read about in "Beau Geste." Even the motives that brought him in were traditional ("there was a girl called Jennifer, but it was more than that"). Beyond Jennifer (whom he marries, in the end, after leaving the Legion), the most important elements in his decision were perhaps the fact the his ancestors had been military officers for four generations and that he was 19 years old.
He found what he might have expected. Some recruits had criminal pasts, and quite a few turned out to have criminal futures as well. Discipline was so strict that it often bordered on saidsm and sometimes crossed that border. Desertionns were frequent and increased steadily during the author's five years in Algeria.
Violence was a matter of everyday routine -- against Arab guerrillas when they were available, against the civilian population (Arab) on occasion, and against other legionnaires when there were no other targets in sight. The mildest froms of violence were the parties, amopng which the following (with no fights) was nearly unique:
"We had a great celebration in the refectoire tonight... The refectoire was decimated, all the windows in the barrakcs smasshed, the tables and chairs thrown in every direction and the bottles and plates being throewn throught the air looked like feathers expolding out of a bust pillow. There were no fights, it was just 20-odd people getting something out of the system..."
More memorable was the celebration when a leigionnaire, drinking whisky, "staggered us all by breaking the top off the bottle and eating it. He was pouring Scotch down his throat and then taking great bites at the bottle and chewing it. There was blood all over the place and he was bellowing at the top of his voice, totally and absolutely right out of his mind."
Amind such surroundings, the quiet Englishman sitting over in a corner and writing in his diary at the end of each day must have seemed an oddity. However, Murray earned the respect of his comrades by being willing to fight for it, He could match them drink for drink and would hustle off to the brothel nmaintained and inspected by the government as a part of its military operations) every apyday with the rest of them. In his odd moments he also managed to have illstarred romances with two young ladies de bonne famille and to go out hunting guerrillas in the Algerian mountains.
Fortunately for author and reader alike, Murrayhs period of service in the Legion concided with one of the most dramatic moments in French history since World War II -- the climax of the struggle against the FLN (National Liberation Front), along with the reluctant decision of the French people, prodded by Charles de Gaulle, to give up their claim to Algeria. Also, there was the counter-revolution of the French settlers in Algeria, an attempted coup by the military leadership and the formation of the OAS (Secret Army Organization) to fight a last-ditch battle for colonialism.
This history is woven into Murray's day-by-day narrative as it happened and as it became known to him. Being a diarist, not a historian, he does not attempt to give a synoptic vision of such events. Instead, he offers sharply focused portrayal of his immediate experence:
"In all this there is one amazong, incomprehensible fact. One question has not yet been answered at all clearly and that is, which side are we really on? We crawled through the outskirts of Algiers in the late evening and occupied the barracks of French regulars, who appear to have temporarily disappeared -- still unbelievably no attempt at explanation by an officer. This credits us with nil intellignece. They assume we will just obey orders as we have always done; so we remain at the mercy of rumor based on snatcvhes of information from transistor radios."
The climax of the book as history (though not as a personal memoir) is an event that never happened: the dropping of Legion paratroiopers (of whom Murray was one) on Paris as part of the coup. "Imagine landing with a parachute on the Arc de Triomphe or even on the Tour Eiffel (not so good)," he reflects. Then, the next day, more sober second thoughts: "De Gaulle has brought up tanks in France and threatened to shoot parachutists out of the air if a drop is made. This has dampened some of yesterday's thoughts of dancing in Paris and put thoughts of dinner at Maxim's slightly further away."
Even without the sight of our hero floating down into the City of Lights, however, "Legionnaire" embodies an experience that many have enjouyed in fantasy, few in reality. After reading the book, one is inclined, on the whole, to think that a bok is iprobably the best way to have this particular experience.