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A Few Good Foreigners
by James Dunnigan
April 30, 2009

Despite the end of imperialism (European colonies around the world), most Western European militaries find ways to make good use of the legacy of colonialism and the thousands of native soldiers that served for centuries under European command. One way of doing this is to retain some colonial units and form them into an n elite “army within and army”. 

At least three European nations currently do this and the results are usually impressive. The British still retain the regiment of elite Nepalese Gurkhas, a colonial unit left over from the Indian British Raj. Widely respected for their courage and stubborn fighting ability, Gurkhas have formed an integral part of Britain’s land forces for over a century. 

Across the English Channel, the French made extensive use of colonial troops during counter-insurgency operations in Algeria and Indochina (Vietnam), especially Vietnamese and French Foreign Legion soldiers. The use of these types of troops in far-off wars provided numerous advantages to the Europeans then, as they do now. This is because colonial troops are mercenaries. The units tend to be stocked not with raw conscripts or politicized citizen recruits, but with well-trained, well-disciplined professional soldiers for whom the army is a career and a better alternative to other forms of employment back home, which pay far less. Such troops perform better under fire and are less likely to complain about the controversial nature of deploying to fight in far-off lands for dubious causes. 

With the era of colonialism at an end, these regiments are disbanded or transferred over to the new respective national governments of former colonies. But sometimes Europeans keep some of these forces for the same reasons they raised them in the first place: they’re tough professional, and don’t complain about why they’re fighting. It’s their job.   Retaining such units, like the Legion and Gurkhas, makes it easy for the French and the British to deploy dependable troops in quick fashion to hotspots around the world. Instead of simply incorporating them as “just another formation”, playing up a battalion or regiment’s colorful colonial history often produce a surprising amount of esprit de corps and unit cohesion. Being bound together by tradition and a fighting history sometimes centuries old, such soldiers are almost always more reluctant to protest combat deployments for fear of bringing shame to their fellow soldiers and their unit as a whole. 

Although perpetually overshadowed by its French counterpart, the Spanish Foreign Legion (now often simply called “The Spanish Legion”) is an example of how this concept can be perfected. The Legion was founded in the 1920s to fight rebellious tribesmen in Spanish Morocco, the first men being largely recruited from prisons and the criminal class of Spain. The Spanish Legion is a small (only about 8,500 officers, NCOs, and enlisted men), highly motivated, well-trained, professional entity in itself that serves as a component of the regular Spanish Army. Although possessing a shorter history than its French equivalent, the Spanish force gained a reputation for stubborn, ferocious fighting during the Spanish Civil War under the command of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. 

The corps is issued the same weapons and equipment as the regular army and comes under the authority of the army chief of staff and the King. The Legion these days retains its colonial traditions which sometimes border on medieval, including a flamboyant uniform, mascot, and relics with Catholic symbolism such as a life-sized crucifix paraded by an honor guard, to heighten unit pride. It is now foreign only in name since almost all its troops are Spaniards. Still, the Legion, with its battle cry of “Vive Meurte!” (Long Live Death!), is retained by the monarchy as the most effective shock troops at Spain’s disposal, able to deployed anywhere in the world to fight for King and Country with a minimum of grumble. Indeed, Legion tradition holds that battle is something to be desired to prove the legionnaire’s mettle.   Whether French, British, or Spanish, some European countries have discovered it’s always useful to have a few good, dependable men.   -- Rory Walkinshaw


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