At the Edge of the World
The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion
Bloomsbury Press New York, 2017, 272 pages
Book Review published on: June 30, 2017
In his latest work, At the Edge of the World, Jean Vincent Blanchard explores the history of the French Foreign Legion during its pivotal decades: the early 1880s through the 1930s. Given the most difficult assignments by the French government, the Legion was the tip of the spear for both building France an empire and enforcing its policies. Concentrating on the Legion’s role in Algeria, Indochina, Madagascar, and Morocco, Blanchard shows that the legend and romanticism of the Legion—heroically fighting in exotic locales at the far reaches of the French empire—were sometimes at odds with the reality of life in the Legion and French colonial policy in general.
Blanchard has two goals for At the Edge of the World. The first is to show the “complicated history of feelings about and perceptions of the Legion.” In proving this, he demonstrates that newspaper articles, memoirs, novels, movies, and songs filled with the Legion’s exploits and published at the start of the twentieth century fueled the legend of the legionnaire and subsequently attracted men looking for the adventure of faraway exotic locales and the excitement of combat. Using first-person accounts, Blanchard shows how the image of the legionnaire—resilient, defiant, and loyal—was actually tempered by the harsh realities of combat and the dilemmas associated with spreading what was believed to be the benefits of French civilization to the empire.
Blanchard’s second goal is to show that the Legion had a complex military history often intertwined with French colonial policy and the culture of the French military. Blanchard deftly integrates the major themes that make the history complex: the “narrowmindedness and mediocrity” of French military culture following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War; turbulent foreign relations, especially with Germany, who had many citizens in the Legion; and French colonial policy that was enforced by the Legion who rejected the “culture that promoted and benefitted from colonialism.” In describing this complex history, the book simultaneously serves as a biography of Hubert Lyautey, who was instrumental in developing the “oil stain” strategy for “civilizing” the empire. Eventually rising to become the resident general of Morocco, Blanchard shows how the Legion was Lyautey’s instrument for both fighting and building an empire for France.
The book succinctly captures the romance and reality of the Legion. It shows how the Legion adapted to its different missions while confronting its challenges. At the Edge of the World shows why the legend of the Legion endures today. I recommend this book for any reader interested in the French Foreign Legion, the history of French colonialism, or counterinsurgency.
Book Review written by: Robert J. Rielly, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas