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Legionnaire: Five Years in the French Foreign Legion

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The French Foreign Legion–mysterious, romantic, deadly–is filled with men of dubious character, and hardly the place for a proper Englishman just nineteen years of age. Yet in 1960, Simon Murray traveled alone to Paris, Marseilles, and ultimately Algeria to fulfill the toughest contract of his life: a five-year stint in the Legion. Along the way, he kept a diary. Legionnair The French Foreign Legion–mysterious, romantic, deadly–is filled with men of dubious character, and hardly the place for a proper Englishman just nineteen years of age. Yet in 1960, Simon Murray traveled alone to Paris, Marseilles, and ultimately Algeria to fulfill the toughest contract of his life: a five-year stint in the Legion. Along the way, he kept a diary. Legionnaire is a compelling, firsthand account of Murray’s experience with this legendary band of soldiers. This gripping journal offers stark evidence that the Legion’s reputation for pushing men to their breaking points and beyond is well deserved. In the fierce, sun-baked North African desert, strong men cracked under brutal officers, merciless training methods, and barbarous punishments. Yet Murray survived, even thrived. For he shared one trait with these hard men from all nations and backgrounds: a determination never to surrender.


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The French Foreign Legion–mysterious, romantic, deadly–is filled with men of dubious character, and hardly the place for a proper Englishman just nineteen years of age. Yet in 1960, Simon Murray traveled alone to Paris, Marseilles, and ultimately Algeria to fulfill the toughest contract of his life: a five-year stint in the Legion. Along the way, he kept a diary. Legionnair The French Foreign Legion–mysterious, romantic, deadly–is filled with men of dubious character, and hardly the place for a proper Englishman just nineteen years of age. Yet in 1960, Simon Murray traveled alone to Paris, Marseilles, and ultimately Algeria to fulfill the toughest contract of his life: a five-year stint in the Legion. Along the way, he kept a diary. Legionnaire is a compelling, firsthand account of Murray’s experience with this legendary band of soldiers. This gripping journal offers stark evidence that the Legion’s reputation for pushing men to their breaking points and beyond is well deserved. In the fierce, sun-baked North African desert, strong men cracked under brutal officers, merciless training methods, and barbarous punishments. Yet Murray survived, even thrived. For he shared one trait with these hard men from all nations and backgrounds: a determination never to surrender.

30 review for Legionnaire: Five Years in the French Foreign Legion

  1. 5 out of 5

    KOMET

    I first became aware of Simon Murray when I watched on TV one night a special program about the French Foreign Legion in which he acted as the narrator. I was rather impressed with him, so when I came across this book (after having read the Douglas Porch history of the Legion in the early 1990s), I was eager to read it. From the moment Murray enlists in February 1960, he is put through the rigors of training, which at times was quasi-sadistic, for the NCOs exercised considerable control over the I first became aware of Simon Murray when I watched on TV one night a special program about the French Foreign Legion in which he acted as the narrator. I was rather impressed with him, so when I came across this book (after having read the Douglas Porch history of the Legion in the early 1990s), I was eager to read it. From the moment Murray enlists in February 1960, he is put through the rigors of training, which at times was quasi-sadistic, for the NCOs exercised considerable control over their charges (delighting in giving them grief for the slightest infractions), both in France and in Algeria. Murray saw a fair amount of combat in the Algerian War, mainly in the mountains. He writes honestly of his experiences, sparing no punches, as the following will attest: From diary entry of 17 December 1960: "DeGaulle has been in Algeria recently and he has been broadcasting speeches which many here regard as treasonous as he outlines his reasons why the Muslims of Algeria should be given the opportunity of deciding their own future. He is desperately seeking a solution to this war, not for the sake of peace itself but because this endless fight is draining French coffers and, unless the outflow is stemmed, France will soon become an economic wreck. In 1958 when he returned to power in France, deGaulle's words to the French colonials in Algeria were 'Je vous ai compris - Algerie francaise'. It now seems as though he is changing his tune and is looking for a different solution which will give the country independence and yet keep it tied to France. "But the Arabs are set on total independence, and the French colons are equally determined to retain all that they have here. The colons are extremists in every sense of the word; they do not understand compromise and they will go to extremes to keep what they believe to be theirs by birthright. "There have been riots during the last few days which have resulted in some two hundred people being killed. Because of this, we are not en alerte. At the beginning of January there is to be a referendum which will be held in France as well as Algeria. The referendum is understood to be deGaulle asking for a free hand to negotiate with the F.L.N. for the establishment of the Algeria of tomorrow, which will be the first real step to independence, but perhaps on his own terms." Two years later, Algeria wins its independence. As part of the agreement with France, the French are allowed a limited tenure in some areas of the country (inclusive of the former naval base at Mers-el-Kebir) and oil rights in the Sahara for 5 years. The Legion has to abandon its traditional headquarters at Sidi-bel-Abbes and relocate much of its staff, equipment, and assets to the South of France. But Murray's unit and a few other units of the Legion are allowed to remain in Algeria on a temporary basis. France was then in flux, having barely survived an attempted coup d'etat. Consequently, given that the Legion no longer had any wars to fight on behalf of la patrie, there was some uncertainty as to whether it would be allowed to remain in existence. (Some Legion officers had sided with the coup leaders who came out of the French Army.) But thankfully the Legion had some farsighted officers in its ranks who helped to secure for it a new raison d'etre and favor with Paris through developing a variety of special skills and roles for itself. Murray writes well and what struck me the most in reading this book was how a group of men from across the globe (who tended to stick together during basic training in rigid cliques defined by their respective nationalities) were able to be moulded into a cohesive whole, acquiring fluency in French and becoming wholly absorbed in the ethos and spirit of the Legion. Indeed, I would liken the French Foreign Legion of that time to the Jesuit Order as it was when Ignatius Loyola led it. This is an incredibly intense and enthralling story that anyone with a thirst for adventure will love.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Samya

    "There is nothing that strains a man more than uncertainty in front of knowledge, that something bad is coming. When the worst is known and recognized, then and only then can one begin marshalling the inner strength required to face it."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mike Steinborn

    A good book to read when you're feeling sorry for yourself, when you're feeling that your life is just too hard. When I read about the hardships, punishment, and outright sadism Simon Murray experienced in his five years in the French Foreign Legion, my life appears to be a mere picnic by comparison! But the experiences also seem to have resulted in a camaraderie with comrades-in-arms that lasted far beyond the five years the author signed up for. And they appeared to have well-prepared him for l A good book to read when you're feeling sorry for yourself, when you're feeling that your life is just too hard. When I read about the hardships, punishment, and outright sadism Simon Murray experienced in his five years in the French Foreign Legion, my life appears to be a mere picnic by comparison! But the experiences also seem to have resulted in a camaraderie with comrades-in-arms that lasted far beyond the five years the author signed up for. And they appeared to have well-prepared him for life as a businessman in Asia, an adventurer, and an explorer (after 5 years of hell in the Legion, everything else must seem like a piece of cake!). After working a number of years with investment houses, he several times started his own investment companies, in partnership with impressive folks like the Rothschilds and Deutsche Bank, which he then sold for enormous sums of money. He was also instrumental in helping start the British telecom Orange, something he found amusing considering that during his five years in the Legion, he never made or received a single phone call. At 60 years of age, he completed the Marathon des Sables, a 242 km race across the Moroccan desert. At the age of 63, Murray became the oldest man to reach the South Pole unsupported. His wife, Jennifer, was the first woman to fly around the world in a helicopter. Or maybe he was just a tough guy to start with :)

  4. 5 out of 5

    James

    A classic military memoir. I can't help but be simultaneously struck by the youthful energy of this five-year diary and at the same time by the unusual level of insight and reflection on his own thoughts, actions, and emotions and on the events of the world around him. Mr. Murray is not only an excellent observer and storyteller, he is very tough and very talented, as shown both by his accomplishments during his five years in the Legion and by his success in the business world in the decades aft A classic military memoir. I can't help but be simultaneously struck by the youthful energy of this five-year diary and at the same time by the unusual level of insight and reflection on his own thoughts, actions, and emotions and on the events of the world around him. Mr. Murray is not only an excellent observer and storyteller, he is very tough and very talented, as shown both by his accomplishments during his five years in the Legion and by his success in the business world in the decades afterward. I would love to have the chance to sit and talk with him. There was only one element, albeit not a minor one though he treated it as such, that marred this story for me - a recounting of a nasty incident in which, upon learning that an officer in charge of his platoon had made a homosexual pass at another member of the unit, Murray flew into a rage and beat the officer up - the homophobia involved was considered a normal attitude in the 1960s, and especially in a military organization, but it is nonetheless very ugly. If I could talk with Mr. Murray now, I'd also ask him how he felt about that event after decades of reflection. Still, overall this was a very well-written and remarkable story.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    A 5 year, 4 Star diary of a young Englishman who joins the French Foreign Legion in 1960 when he is turned down by the British Army and is stuck in an iron foundry job. He spends his tour in Algeria, the first two years during the Algerian War for independence. Plenty of patrolling the desert and occasional fighting. The second part of his tour of duty is spent in an FFL moving to a peacetime role. Overall, an interesting picture of the famed fighting organization. Cruel training, lots of wild, A 5 year, 4 Star diary of a young Englishman who joins the French Foreign Legion in 1960 when he is turned down by the British Army and is stuck in an iron foundry job. He spends his tour in Algeria, the first two years during the Algerian War for independence. Plenty of patrolling the desert and occasional fighting. The second part of his tour of duty is spent in an FFL moving to a peacetime role. Overall, an interesting picture of the famed fighting organization. Cruel training, lots of wild, alcohol-fueled celebrations and unique characters. Timeless picture of a foot soldier and a great peek into the FFL. Recommended.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Will

    This book is an excellent read. It is just a bunch journal entries composed into a book. The tone changes with the authors mood, and because he is a grunt in the French Foreign Legion, his moods can go from cheerful to royally pissed in a snap. He is a brit so there are some strange words tossed around. My likes about this book are pretty much every thing. My dislikes are, well, I don't have any dislikes. In my opinion, this is a great book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Biosyd

    Why would an Englishman join the French Forign Legion in the 1960's? After reading this book, I still don't know. It was however; an amazing adventure. He was lucky to come out alive...."that which does not kill you, will make you stronger".

  8. 4 out of 5

    Andy Lucy

    The seminal book by an Englishman who ran off to join the Legion, Murray served through a very difficult period on Legion history. De Gaulle, after having promised the pieds noir and the Legion that Algeria would always remain l'Algérie Française, reneged on his promise in 1959, and agreed to allow an Algerian referendum on freedom. Following the vote to separate from France, many pieds noir and some Legion regiments engaged in an attempted putsch, which failed. As a result of this, de Gaulle al The seminal book by an Englishman who ran off to join the Legion, Murray served through a very difficult period on Legion history. De Gaulle, after having promised the pieds noir and the Legion that Algeria would always remain l'Algérie Française, reneged on his promise in 1959, and agreed to allow an Algerian referendum on freedom. Following the vote to separate from France, many pieds noir and some Legion regiments engaged in an attempted putsch, which failed. As a result of this, de Gaulle almost disestablished the Legion... but remembered how the 13e DBLE stood beside him through World War 2. Murray describes the daily life of a legionnaire in detail in a daily journal he kept. The moments of terror fighting the Fel in the Atlas Mountains, the beatings and brutality of the non-commissioned officers, the crushing boredom. Murray described it all... and made it sound like something that a young man should do. If you only read a couple of books on the Legion, read this one, along with Douglas Porch's seminal history of the Legion.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alexandre Zulato

    Mr. Murray has been there and done that. And with a dose of flair rarely seen these days. Apart from a really impressive first-hand account of a turning point in the Legion, coinciding with the very end and short afterwards of the Algerian War, it is a riveting text, an open-hearted account of a young gentleman's venture through a rough, tough environment, under a humble and positive attitude. Even readers who are not that much into military history might find this book a refreshing narrative of a Mr. Murray has been there and done that. And with a dose of flair rarely seen these days. Apart from a really impressive first-hand account of a turning point in the Legion, coinciding with the very end and short afterwards of the Algerian War, it is a riveting text, an open-hearted account of a young gentleman's venture through a rough, tough environment, under a humble and positive attitude. Even readers who are not that much into military history might find this book a refreshing narrative of a boy's journey into adult life. For literature, just as the Legion Etrangere, may have the power to bring us all together - and expertly so under the pen of Mr. Murray. Couldn't put it down, and was completely carried away by the emotion conveyed by his lines - from laughter to the verge of tears.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Rice

    First read it when I was 15 and recently reread, a real life Boys Own story of a young Englishman from a privileged background who entered service with the French Foreign Legion. Perhaps the greatest mystery is why he decided to join, which was never discussed. Set out in the style of a diary, tracing his journey from green recruit to hardened Legionnaire. Almost makes you want to sign up - almost .....

  11. 5 out of 5

    Simon Scott

    This is one of my favourite books of all time and make a ha it of reading it every few years. I first read it as a 19 year old whilst serving with the Parachute Regiment in Kenya. It really captured my imagination. I’ve just finished reading it again aged 47 for the umpteenth time and still enjoy it as much as the first time.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Nash Mascaro Crimson River Productions

    Absolutely loved this book. I've always had an interest in military history and the Legion has been something of a mystery to me. This is a great insight into the history and day to day reality of life in the legion. Highly recommended.

  13. 5 out of 5

    ValeriZentsov

    This is actually well written, in an engaging and sympathetic voice, with a quality unexpressed by the trashy cover. The book is probably one of the most vivid portrayals of the struggles and rewards of life in the French Foreign Legion in the early 1960s.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Burton

    Fantastic read Great read from start to finish Style and format was excellent for the subject matter would definitely recommend for getting an insight into the legion

  15. 4 out of 5

    Charles Jobagy

    A youthful, romantic, impulsive gesture leads Simon Murray to run away to the French Foreign Legion and sets in motion this timeless classic story of becoming a soldier and a man. The coddled boy is thrust into the fires of adversity to be beaten by the merciless hammers of the Legion. After five years that break many of his comrades he emerges forged into a man capable of rising to any challenge in this life. Many of the characters and situations are familiar to anyone that has served but the r A youthful, romantic, impulsive gesture leads Simon Murray to run away to the French Foreign Legion and sets in motion this timeless classic story of becoming a soldier and a man. The coddled boy is thrust into the fires of adversity to be beaten by the merciless hammers of the Legion. After five years that break many of his comrades he emerges forged into a man capable of rising to any challenge in this life. Many of the characters and situations are familiar to anyone that has served but the real adventure is unique to his service in the Legion in Algeria at the end of colonial rule. Murray recounts these adventures in an intelligent and humorous manner that is reminiscent of how stories are told around the tables in any regimental mess. I have purposefully not given any details of these stories as it would be a shame to lessen the impact that it will have and if you are considering or pursuing a career in the military this is required reading. J'ai plein les couilles.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Maier Mircea

    One of the best books about the Foreing Legion out there . It explains very well the life of a Legionaire in Africa before 1964 when the Legion was stationed there . A lot of adventures within every page of the book . The life of a Legionaire from the perspective of an Englishman . I would recommand this book to anyone who is interested of finding out more about the Legion`s history and day to day life in Africa and for anyone who loves to read army stories . Do not compare it to the modern day One of the best books about the Foreing Legion out there . It explains very well the life of a Legionaire in Africa before 1964 when the Legion was stationed there . A lot of adventures within every page of the book . The life of a Legionaire from the perspective of an Englishman . I would recommand this book to anyone who is interested of finding out more about the Legion`s history and day to day life in Africa and for anyone who loves to read army stories . Do not compare it to the modern day Foreing Legion because they are very two different things . The best feeling I had while reading the book was , wanting it to shred it and after a few pages later wanting to get an extra copy , for me personaly was that good of a book . Great experience , had a blast reading it and will recommand it to anyone who enjoys army story books . 5/5

  17. 5 out of 5

    Radiah

    Strange... it is not a great work of fiction or non-fiction, it is not particularly well-known, and yet, this is one of the few books where I can honestly say, I did not want to put down and I continued reading till well past my bedtime. Simon Murray was a recruit and promoted to Corporal during a period of upheaval in the FFL. His motivations for wanting to be a Legionnaire are a little vague (besides a broken heart), but recognisable among all of us who have had the urge sometimes to test our Strange... it is not a great work of fiction or non-fiction, it is not particularly well-known, and yet, this is one of the few books where I can honestly say, I did not want to put down and I continued reading till well past my bedtime. Simon Murray was a recruit and promoted to Corporal during a period of upheaval in the FFL. His motivations for wanting to be a Legionnaire are a little vague (besides a broken heart), but recognisable among all of us who have had the urge sometimes to test our limits and to leave everything behind and take off into the great unknown. The romance of the Legion is quickly debuffed through Murray's writing. His observations were, at times, hilarious and sometimes chilling, and he certainly makes it clear that the FFL is no place for weakness.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Scott Holstad

    Interesting book. I enjoyed reading it. I learned the FFL does a hell of a lot of marching, most of it seemingly pointless. My only complaint is that for a legendary military unit, the author's amount of combat seen and his combat experience is massively unimpressive. I think your average US GI in Vietnam had to endure more and worse in one week than the author did in five years with the FFL. Sort of shattered the mystique for me. But nonetheless, an interesting book. Recommended.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Eudinbv

    An easy to read book. It's based on the author's dairy from the Foreign Legion in early 60's, in Algeria. The book is focused on the stories and the experiences that happened to the author during his 5 years military contract. It's interesting to see how this tough military force prepares it's soldiers and how tough it is to resist due to morale and psychical challenges. Overall, it's a nice book, especially for those who wanna get a feeling about the Foreign Legion.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Joe Jennings

    Great read and history lesson How anyone could keep a diary through five years in the Legion is beyond me, but I'm glad Murray did. The recounting of his day to day life in one of the toughest military units in the world is riveting. It also shows clearly why France hasn't won a war in the last 200 years or so. But that's another story.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Iustin

    I expected this to be more akin to a documentary, however it was much better: a mostly unfiltered journal, many times daily (especially at the beginning). This gives a much better understanding and sense of "being there" than prose; the result is excellent and I enjoyed the book tremendously.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mike Stewart

    A great book! This is a really good book; especially if you have experienced the army in some form or other. Simon Murray is an excellent writer with a great sense of humour as well. Read it. You will struggle to put it down once you start!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Lesurf

    I read this when I was a teenager in the 1980s. It was one of my favourite books at the time and was one of the reasons I pursued a career in the military. I've just read the book again and whilst its dated a little for me now its still a great read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Falso

    This book was a great account of a man's life. Written in such a humble fashion. It was lent to me for a holiday read and I couldn't put it down.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Very, very difficult to put down. A fascinating book. I see that Henry Kissinger was also a reader of this memoir.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Adi

    An amazing account of a different time. Simple words that paint a complex, elegant and fascinating picture of an incredible time in an incredible life.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Richard Sharp

    cracking read, a life well lived

  28. 5 out of 5

    Fred

    Insightful look into the life of legionnaires.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Luis Labesse-Méndez

    An English man in the French Foreign Legion at the height of Algeria's war of independence. In 1989 he brought the French Foreign Legion orchestra to play in Hong Kong.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Max Nova

    Merde! The French Foreign Legion is tough. I had seen a passing reference to the Legion in another book - something along the lines of "a legionnaire will drop dead before he stops marching." These guys were supposed to be the hardest of the hard-core. There doesn't seem to be much decent written about the Legion in English, but Simon Murray's "Legionnaire" seemed to get reasonable reviews. And I've got to confess - I loved this book. Murray's unflappable, deadpan commentary livens up a book whic Merde! The French Foreign Legion is tough. I had seen a passing reference to the Legion in another book - something along the lines of "a legionnaire will drop dead before he stops marching." These guys were supposed to be the hardest of the hard-core. There doesn't seem to be much decent written about the Legion in English, but Simon Murray's "Legionnaire" seemed to get reasonable reviews. And I've got to confess - I loved this book. Murray's unflappable, deadpan commentary livens up a book which would otherwise be overwhelmingly bleak. Murray's time in the Legion had its fair share of boredom, brutality and close calls with death (although fewer than I would have expected). He doesn't shy away from describing the senseless violence of the Legion, but he also always seems to find a bit of good in every bad experience. His writing style and perspective seem to be those of a much older man. Throughout his 5 years, he portrays himself as maintaining an aloof manner and a stiff-upper-lip British sensibility that I find a bit difficult to believe... but who am I to judge? The guy ran away from home and joined the French Foreign Legion at age 19 - and thrived. But man - is the Legion rough. I hadn't realized it, but anyone can join the French Foreign Legion - you don't actually have to be French. But, given that joining the Legion is like volunteering to get a burning poker jammed into your spleen... recruits end up mostly being criminals fleeing from justice. They hail from all over the place - but predominantly Western Europe. But your fellow soldiers aren't the ones to worry about - it's your commanding officers who can really make your life hell. The sadism of some of these guys is incredible. Murray spends a lot of the book detailing his adjustment to the brutality of his first year in the Legion. Murray was also in the Legion during a critical period of its history. During Murray's 5 years, Algeria was agitating for its independence and the Legion staged a putsch to try to prevent the French government from allowing Algeria to break away. Although Murray wasn't actually involved in any of the violence, it's fascinating to hear his perspective on the chaos and confusion that sloshed around the Legion at that time. It's a pretty incredible story, made even more so by the fact that Murray went on to found Orange (the telecom) and became chairman of DeutscheBank Asia. His life story is nuts - although it made a bit more sense when I found out that his family was super wealthy. But still!

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