It is a paradox that the legend of the Foreign Legion should have such international currency and that, in this country at least, it should rest on a deeply ambiguous adventure and mystery novel, P C Wren’s Beau Geste. Beau Geste was in no conceivable manner clear advertising for the Legion and its values. The middle-class heroes of that novel join out of a sense of familial duty and in order to cover up the selling of a treasured family gem. They live a rough life in north and west Africa, with their commanding officers committing suicide or displaying extraordinary greed. Ultimately the narrator deserts the Legion. This portrayal was grim indeed and the novel became established as a response to the myth of the Legion. Yet Beau Geste has become the familiar point of reference for the often unspecific heroic days of the French Foreign Legion. In France the Piaf song, Mon Légionnaire, revived by Serge Gainsbourg in the 1980s, sealed the romantic allure of this elite force.
Today the Legion still exists, even though most of its barracks are now on French soil; it has its mythology and its heroes, its historians, museum and history. Yet even its fundamental principles are now questioned. The new identity given to Legionnaires when they enlist and the sometimes