Simon Murray: Legionnaire

I have recently finished reading Simon Murray’s memoir of his life in the French Foreign Legion, which is titled simply Legionnaire: Five Years in the French Foreign Legion.  First published in 1978, it was recently reissued in 2006 as a mass market paperback.

He begins his tale simply, as all good personal narratives begin:

I joined the French Foreign Legion on 22 February 1960.  I was nineteen years of age at the time and I stayed for five years.  During that time I was never without pen and paper, and I recorded the events of each and every day with very few exceptions.  In this book I have extracted from those diaries what might be of interest and left out, I hope, much of the boredom.

And what an understatement this is!

For the period of Murray’s service in the Foreign Legion was one of the most difficult in its history.  France was embroiled in a futile war against the Algerian independence insurgency.  This war would not end well for France, as the war in Indochina did not end well.  But political considerations do not factor, in any significant degree, in this book.  This is, first and foremost, an intensely personal account.  We feel we are thrown right into the thick of the action from the opening entries.  How did young Murray come about the idea of joining the Legion?  We are left to infer the answers for ourselves, as he does not dwell on his motivations.  According to his telling, he simply made the decision to go, and went:

I was awake long before the dawn, and by the time there was a grayness in the sky I had finally made up my mind to go…I hammered on the huge doors [of the recruiting center of the Legion in Paris], which swung open in response, and stepped into a cobbled courtyard to be confronted by the first legionnaire I had ever seen…He slammed the great doors shut and beckoned me with his head to follow him.

But perhaps it is just as well that he gives no details about his motivations.  Indeed, what explanation would suffice?  To undertake a journey like this is an affair of the heart, not of the mind.  And so began the greatest and most harrowing adventure of Murray’s life.  It is incredible, to me at least, that he found the time and the inclination to write about his daily experiences through the brutal training, the forced marches in the Algerian mountains, and the bleak periods of boredom in bases in the middle of nowhere.

I know that when I was in the military, the last thing I would have wanted to do is re-live the events of the training day by scribbling about them in some wretched journal at night.  And this is what makes Murray’s first-hand account so valuable:  no one else was willing, or able, to pull it off in such a way that the prose is worth reading.

What will shock the non-military reader about the training methods of the Legion in 1960 is the physical punishment.  The Legion is no joke.  Indeed, it often seems like Murray is recounting time in a penal colony rather than in a military unit.  Beatings are handed down to recruits for the slightest infractions; food is sometimes withheld, and jail time is given away like candy for things like failing at inspection, not measuring up, or a variety of other transgressions.  Desertions were common.  Much of this is the product of necessity and the time period.  The Legion, unlike any other military organization, faced unique challenges of molding cohesive units.  Its members were collected from all over the globe (In 1960, there was a significant number of Germans, a few ex-Wehrmacht men, and some restless types escaping the poverty of post-war Germany).

The only way to keep such a multi-ethnic force in line was through the most strenuous discipline.  Not only this, but the Legion was in the midst of a brutal war against the FLN in Algeria, which had shown itself to be a cunning and ruthless foe.  Murray avoids the worst of the beatings and punishments because he is a tough son-of-a bitch as well as a damn good soldier.  Period.  He takes the abuse and asks for more, and this type of attitude is precisely what hard-core organizations like the Legion are looking for.  This is an account written with the Spartan terseness of a man who has no need to waste his words.  He, like Caesar, uses short, declarative sentences, even when describing the more grisly events of combat in the mountains (such as the time he carries the heads of two fallen insurgents back to his camp).  He is a snake-eater, pure and simple, to use an old Marine Corps phrase:  a hard-core operator who knows how to get the job done.

He gives us precious little information about his background and his motivations for joining.  This, I suppose, is in keeping with the Legion’s tradition of serving as a place where a man can remake himself and his identity.  Nevertheless, we can infer that this is a man who comes from good stock.  He speaks like a gentleman, deals honestly with his comrades, and has that indescribable spirit of the British 19th century adventurer.  Explorers Richard Burton and Wilfred Thesiger would have recognized him as a kindred spirit immediately.  Passages like this will ring familiar bells to military operators all over the world:

Midnight has gone and I have just completed two hours’ guard, standing in the open under torrential rain that never ceases.  I am covered from head to foot in mud.  Demar is asleep next to me in our tiny, ridiculous tent.  My sleeping bag is waterlogged, and I have no option but to climb into it as I am, with boots and everything covered in this fucking mud, and grope for sleep that will not come.

But Murray does not just survive his training and combat against the FLN; he thrives.  He is selected to attend a school for corporals, from which he graduates first.  He serves on the Legion’s shooting team.  He is even asked if he wants to become an officer.  This last request he declines, as he evidently has no desire for a military career; in any case, as a foreigner in the Legion, he could never rise above the rank of captain.  So he does his time with great distinction, and then leaves.  He had nothing further to prove.  Some of the most emotionally powerful passages in the book relate his reunions with old Legion comrades, often years later.  In one incredible encounter, he happens to be in a cab in Paris and recognizes the cab driver as an old comrade:

Twenty-six years after leaving the Legion, I was taking the night train from Bordeaux to Paris.  I arrived to a wet miserable morning in Paris at seven o’clock.  At the taxi-rank I ran into an evil-tempered driver, who refused to get out of his taxi to open the trunk because of the rain…We drove off full of ill-will, both our tempers frayed.  I kept looking at him in the rearview mirror.  He had a lean, tough face with a short, cropped haircut and I had the impression somewhere in the back of my mind that I had seen him before.

…Suddenly I could see him in my mind’s eye in the Legion uniform outside the guardhouse at Camp Pehaut in Philippeville all those years ago–it was Sergeant Schaffer…He was the sergeant of the guard who had put the pistol to my head when I was drunk on guard duty and gotten me fifteen days in the stockade.  I put my hand firmly on his shoulder and said, “Arretez la voiture–you were in the Foreign Legion–Philippeville, Camp Pehaut–1961.”  He slammed on the brakes so hard I practically went through the front window…

After leaving the legion, Murray went on to become a hugely successful international businessman based out of Hong Kong.  And yet military men will know that nothing quite compares–or measures up–to those formative experiences under extreme adversity in our early 20s.  Perhaps Joseph Conrad, in his Youth:  A Narrative, captured this sentiment best when he said:

I did not know how good a man I was till then…and I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more–the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort–to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires–and expires, too soon, too soon–before life itself.

This is one of the great first-hand accounts of adversity and achievement.  It ranks without doubt alongside Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast as a classic of the genre.  To struggle in our youth for great things:  is this not a transcendent ideal?  Forty years may go by, and the memory remains undimmed.  And Simon Murray has left us this wonderful account, and speaks to us directly, of a vanished age and a world gone by.

He ends with a timely and poignant appeal:

They were rough, those old Legion days, and they took some crucial years of my life.  But looking back now I do not regret it for a single second.  It was a magnificent experience…and the world was a much freer place in which to move than today…The corridors of life today seem narrow by comparison and the materialistic ends we seek require a constant progression along the path from the moment we take our first examination.

And this is what gives us the conviction to say with him, as we close his book:  Je ne regrette rien.

Je ne regrette rien, Mr. Murray.  I hear you, sir, and I say it back to you as well, with all the fervor that I can muster.


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