WITH THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION IN SYRIA (1928) – Written by a British former member of the French Foreign Legion using the alias John Harvey. Previously, Balladeer’s Blog examined the excellent 1895 short story collection titled Garrison Tales From Tonquin (Tonkin), a fascinatingly ahead of its time look at the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam during and after the Sino-French War. American James O’Neill wrote those powerful stories based on his own experiences in the Legion during the 1880s and 1890s.
This John Harvey work is nowhere near as literary as O’Neill’s forgotten writing. Harvey was a deserter who presents a fairly self-serving account of his time in the French Foreign Legion, largely depicting himself as a victim fooled into enlisting based on false promises by the recruiter. He doesn’t deal with larger issues the way O’Neill did.
John Harvey’s With The French Foreign Legion In Syria instead wallows in the tawdry and brutal side of the Legion. Instead of James O’Neill’s poetic, astonishingly prescient tales, this volume presents an ugly and sensationalistic take on the FFL. It would have stood in stark contrast to stories romanticizing the Legion as written by P.C. Wren and others. No movies of the time would have touched these violent, vulgar Peckinpah-style antics. Get ready for a look at some Legionnaires who would make The Wild Bunch look genteel.
Harvey provided a very readable, albeit bleak, account of the FFL’s First Cavalry Regiment, or 1er REC. That cavalry unit was headquartered at Sousse in Tunisia, rather than in Algeria, like most other French Foreign Legion units in North Africa. That provides an element of novelty for readers of Legion history, as does the Syrian setting during the Revolt of 1925-1927.
CHAPTERS ONE TO THREE – We readers are introduced to John Harvey, a former miner from South Wales who served in the British Army during World War One then returned to mining at war’s end. Laid off in the 1920s, the poverty-stricken John enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, based – he claims – on assurances that with his military experience he would soon reach officer status and on assurances of a pay rate much higher than the Legion actually paid. (Lesson: Never sign a contract in a foreign language that you are not yet fluent in.)
There’s a definite March Or Die feel to John Harvey’s fellow Legionnaires – unemployed veterans from both sides of the Great War, criminals, bigamists, naive adventurers and pro-Tsar Russians who were on the losing side of the Russian Civil War. The biggest change comes in the fact that Harvey was in a Cavalry unit, not infantry.
John meets “Georgia” ( as in Russian Georgia), a former captain in Russia’s Imperial Army. When the Bolshevists had won the Civil War they burned his home plus killed his wife and children. Many of his fellow White (as in pro-Tsar) Russian officers had been tortured to death but he was among those who had escaped. Georgia often expressed gratitude that his wife and children had merely been put to death and did not suffer the way the loved ones of so many others had.
“The Dane” was another fellow Legionnaire. He had worked in his father’s successful shipping business in Denmark, but eventually fell in love with a sultry older woman. She had expensive tastes and just to stay in her good graces the Dane took to gambling and to embezzling from his father’s business to keep her in style. When his illegal activities caught up with him he had begged the woman to run away with him but she had laughed at him and said she had no intention of tying herself to a poor thief and fugitive. In a fit of passion he had strangled her and fled into the Legion.
Koryalov, another Russian, had served under General Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel in the Russian Civil War. When that army had collapsed in defeat Koryalov was one of the many fleeing to other nations to escape an ugly fate at the hands of the victors. He met a young anti-Bolshevist woman while fleeing but she had died while they made their way across the frozen landscape, so no romance had ever formed between them.
At length their unit was shipped from Marseilles to Tunis, the largest city in Tunisia. The heat was intense, the food awful and their bedding verminous. When not taking part in military drills they were used as virtual conscripted labor to build long stone walls around the existing barracks. Several days later they were marched into train cars with internal temperatures over 100 degrees and taken to the FFL’s Cavalry Headquarters at Sousse.
CHAPTER FOUR: SOUSSE – Harvey and his unit immersed themselves in horse riding drills, grooming and cleaning their horses and in saber and rifle drills. Many of the riding-masters were Cossacks who literally whipped Legionnaires who fell short in any way. In that cosmopolitan Mediterranean seaport there was also horse-racing, boxing, swimming, conjurer acts, casinos and concerts. Our narrator met a Legionnaire who played the piano like a master, but who had joined the Legion following a series of murders.
Six Legionnaires tried to desert by stealing a boat and fleeing with their rifles and handguns. Legion authorities pursued them in a second boat and, when the deserters decided to shoot it out rather than surrender, they wound up shooting to death all of the deserters. On the other hand, Houssman, a former soldier in the Kaiser’s army, started a romance with a cafe waitress named Louise and managed to flee with her after she stole 10,000 francs from her employer. They were never caught.
Harvey’s accounts of prostitution in Sousse are pretty damned UN-sexy, but at least the professional ladies got regular medical checkups from the Legion’s doctors. Alongside every imaginable sex act there were frequent brawls among the Legionnaires over the ladies and occasionally a shooting or two – sometimes fatal. An Armenian named Zorab, a drug dealer before joining the FFL, had an ugly history of abusing prostitutes in sadistic ways and ultimately faced punishment for abducting and mutilating one of the Sousse hookers.
A young, naive Bulgarian, who had joined the French Foreign Legion under the illusion that he would find glorious adventures, developed a flirtatious relationship with a (non-prostitute) daughter of an Arab trader. The trader had the Bulgarian stabbed to death and tossed into the sea one night.
John was stationed at Sousse for four months and then, shortly after Christmas of 1924, was sent to Syria with other members of his unit.
CHAPTER FIVE: OFF TO THE FRONT – Harvey was among a group of 66 men plus a few sergeants and a lieutenant to be shipped out for Syria. At each port along the way, multiple Legionnaires deserted. The unit disembarked at Beirut and boarded a train for Damascus.
Along the way the train was attacked a few times by hundreds of Druze forces and the Legionnaires had to return fire. Here and there the attackers would succeed in reaching the train cars and would kill & plunder as well as they could. On a previous occasion the Legion had been left with over 150 dead and injured while 200 rifles, 15,000 rounds of ammunition and thousands of francs’ worth of rations had been stolen.
At last reaching Damascus, the unit was temporarily quartered in the Citadel. The next morning they were marched to another railway station and put on a train for Mesmie.
CHAPTER SIX: MESMIE – John Harvey, Georgia and others grew accustomed to the fighting in Syria. The French Foreign Legion were always sent in to absorb the worst of the action, and were frequently under-supplied or supplied with faulty ammunition, a fifth of which would often misfire. Regular readers may well remember the supposed French politician’s remark about how expendable the Legionnaires were: “They’re just foreigners, after all.”
Even when the men were on garrison duty, hundreds of Druze warriors would periodically stream out of the desert at any moment and attack Mesmie. The Druze took no prisoners. The French Captain Landriau at Mesmie (the overwhelming majority of the Legion’s officers were French) was, in contrast with P.C. Wren’s often cruel officers, fairly decent to his men, but Harvey noted that the man’s service in the Legion had made him prone to maniacal violence against enemies in the field.
At Mesmie our narrator met Legion Corporal Toschinko, a Cossack, and an 18 year old Legionnaire from Switzerland. The Swiss lad had fallen in love with a beautiful rider in a traveling circus. He stole 50,000 francs from his employer and ran off with the rider to Marseilles. When the money was gone she had left him for another man. So he had joined the French Foreign Legion.
During the war, John Harvey also encountered irregular Bedouin allies who got paid 100 francs for every Druze head they turned in to the French colonial authorities. At one point an old-fashioned biplane dropped a note to the Legionnaires. The note informed them that the Druze had cut the rail lines and were approaching Mesmie in large numbers, hoping to overwhelm the Legion before reinforcements could arrive by train since the rails were destroyed.
Our narrator and his comrades held off the first few waves, but when attempting to repair the barbed wire which the Druze had cut through, Legionnaires were suddenly attacked by still-living Druze men playing dead among their slain colleagues. At last that long night was over and the Legionnaires, John Harvey among them, went out at sunrise and looted the dead bodies littering the desert. Since they had no facilities for prisoners they had to kill any wounded among the Druze.
By noon a train arrived on the repaired rail line with reinforcements and supplies of all kinds. Some of the Bedouin irregulars showed up to behead the Druze that had already been killed by the Legionnaires so they could collect their standard 100 francs per head without having to work for it this time.
CHAPTER SEVEN: RAYEK – At length, Harvey’s unit was replaced at Mesmie and sent “on rest” to Rayek. At that Syrian town were plenty of cafes, taverns and women to occupy the Legionnaires’ time when they were not on their usual drills. As Cavalrymen one of their duties was to break in wild horses brought in from the desert by Arab traders and train them for military use.
During their unit’s stay at Rayek, John, Georgia and another Russian named Bedakov happened upon a Russian refugee girl taken as a slave by Muslims in Beirut. Bedakov and the girl ran away together and supposedly made it all the way to South America, from where the Russian had sent a letter to his former comrades.
In the middle of their posting in the Syrian town, Harvey’s unit was sent on a punitive expedition against a half dozen villages near the ruined temple of Baal Bek. Those villages were providing aid for enemy forces who had stepped up their attacks on the rail lines from there to Damascus. Our narrator’s Cavalry unit served as guards for an artillery unit sent to bombard the villages.
While the artillery did its business, John, Georgia and another Russian named Stanchinko found hidden chambers under the ruined temple, hoping to find plunder but instead found a cache of hidden weapons for the Druze forces. Also during the bombardment, word came that enemy troops, attracted by the sound of the shelling, were closing in on the Legion’s location. The priority was to prevent the artillery from falling into the hands of the Druze, so while the artillery units skedaddled back to Rayek our narrator’s Cavalry unit charged ahead and defeated the approaching enemy.
Soon after, a German named Klaus, who had been a professional thief before joining the Legion, deserted with a Syrian girl with whom he had started a romance. He had stolen money from our narrator and other members of the unit and run off with the woman. Klaus and the girl had sought shelter with her chieftain father’s people. Klaus showed his prospective father-in-law a modern, efficient way to derail the French trains that traversed the desert, hoping that he’d be given high rank among the bandit tribe.
Actually, the chief had gratefully accepted the lessons, appropriated all the stolen loot from the train and then turned Klaus over to the French authorities as a Legion deserter. Because of his role in the train derailment, Klaus was shot by a firing squad.
CHAPTER EIGHT: COLLECTING THE TAXES – With their time at Rayek now at an end, Harvey’s unit was dispatched to the fortress of Rashaya, with a side mission to assist French colonial tax collectors on the way there. A biplane accompanied the Cavalry unit overhead in order to fly the collected taxes back to Damascus.
At the mountain village of Tel-y-Ded the Captain and the tax collectors gave the village 24 hours to provide the taxes they owed or face violence. The Legion Cavalry were stationed surrounding the village to prevent anyone from leaving or entering until the taxes were paid. When the 24 hours were up, the village chief said his people refused to pay.
The biplane flew back to Damascus to relay that information and get orders about what to do next. Those orders arrived: Tel-y-Ded was to be burnt and pillaged. First the plane circled overhead, dropping bomb after bomb until it had no more left. Any paniced villagers who tried to flee the village were killed by the Legionnaires. At length the Cavalry unit charged the remaining inhabitants, killing all the men, women and children, some of the women clutching children to their breasts.
NOTE: I warned upfront that this was an ugly, ugly book. I also made it clear this was not a story of heroes nor was it a romantic adventure. Escapades like this are horrific.
The now uninhabited village and the dead bodies were looted for whatever could be found. 500 sheep, 200 goats and 12 horses were sent under escort to Damascus to make up for the taxes the village owed. The Legionnaires were allowed to keep all the chickens of Tel-y-Ded to make a meal for themselves.
CHAPTER NINE: RASHAYA – This chapter deals with the well-known Battle of Rashaya from the Great Syrian Revolt. John Harvey’s unit was stationed there in the lead-up to that battle AND for the battle itself, which lasted from November 20th to November 24th, 1925.
This famed multi-day battle is up there with Camerone and others among the “series of Alamos” which dot the history of the French Foreign Legion. Because of how well-known this battle is I’ll just gloss over it in this review. Roughly 100 members of the Legion Cavalry held the Fortress of Rashaya against over 3,000 of the enemy led by Zayd al-Atrash from the 20th to 24th.
The usual collection of dramas played out over the course of those days, as witnessed at so many similar battles over the centuries. On the 24th French planes arrived to bomb Zayd al-Atrash’s besieging forces, driving them into retreat. The French Foreign Legion had suffered 58 dead and wounded in the battle, while their enemies had suffered 400 dead and 34 wounded. This battle was the turning point in the war, and from then on, the conflict went mostly against the Druze rebels until their ultimate defeat.
Our narrator’s squadron was replaced by a Spahi regiment and was sent to Damascus for a brief rest.
CHAPTER TEN: DAMASCUS – More carousing, whoring, gambling and drinking. At a nightclub which refused to serve Legionnaires our hero and his pals started a massive brawl which got them in a little trouble with the captain. Harvey and Georgia survived an armed encounter with Arab muggers in the nighttime streets of Damascus, too, by his account. Two Legionnaires named Rylev and Maletski were arrested for abducting and torturing two prostitutes for days with whips.
Verlozzi, an Italian member of the Legion, was notorious for his ways of seducing willing, “non-professional” women. While in Damascus he started an affair with the wife of a Colonel in the Legion Cavalry. After the affair had gone on for some time the Colonel apparently got wise. Verlozzi was found stabbed to death in a Damascus alleyway, supposedly by Arabs, and the Colonel’s wife was found dead of “suicide.”
CHAPTER ELEVEN: IZRA AND AS SUWAYDA – Eventually the unit’s time in Damascus was done and they were sent to Izra to take part in larger campaigns. Izra was roughly just 70 miles north of British Palestine, so John Harvey started to seriously consider deserting and making his way there, where, as a British citizen, he would be shielded from the long arm of the Legion.
After a week or so at Izra, Captain Landriau assigned Harvey to recon duty with Sergeant Crukov. This assignment allowed John to ride beside Crukov, ranging all over the area, doing what they could to note the positions and likely strength of Druze forces. This added to our narrator’s temptation to desert to Palestine, but a running skirmish with a Druze detachment in the hills ended any immediate opportunity.
Days later the Cavalry unit and others headed for As Suwayda, which had become notorious early in the war. During the 6-day journey Druze snipers sometimes peppered the French forces. On the 7th morning the assault began, led by the French Foreign Legion and black colonial troops.
Amid all the shelling, artillery and rifle fire from the front, Harvey’s Cavalry unit was attacked from a gully by a force of Druze who had been waiting in ambush. The black colonial troops were routed but Captain Landriau led our narrator and his unit in attacking the emerging Druze. They wiped them out and additional troops moved up to re-form the line and the advance toward the city continued.
At long last the Legion and the other forces charged the city itself. After fighting through the gaps opened up in the city gates by the artillery bombardment, Harvey and his comrades engaged in street to street fighting with the enemy. Female Druze fought alongside the men. The city fell back into French hands and, our narrator tells us, he and his fellow Legionnaires looted everything they could.
CHAPTER TWELVE: ESCAPE – Not long after, John Harvey and a few comrades were involved in driving off Druze guerillas who were raiding the French supply line. Now just 60 miles from Palestine, our narrator gathered a few like-minded Legionnaires around him and launched his desertion attempt.
Eventually, following an armed exchange with neutral Arabs in the desert, the deserters were captured and arrested just a few hundred yards short of their destination.
CHAPTERS THIRTEEN TO FIFTEEN – The deserters were court-martialed and sentenced. John Harvey received 8 years and was imprisoned in the Citadel in Damascus where he and other prisoners received nearly inedible food plus contended with rats and insects and the screams of tortured political prisoners. After more than a month in the Citadel he and others were transported to Beirut and from there to Marseilles, Lyons, Albertville and Clairvaux to serve the remainder of their sentences.
After serving 18 months of the 8 year sentence, John Harvey was released thanks to the intervention of the British consul and the “clemency” of France. He returned to England and set about writing this book.
Overall, With The French Foreign Legion In Syria is an odd book to categorize. In a way it’s like a gangster story crossed with a military memoir. Despite what Harvey viewed as his misfortunes, he was very, very lucky to have been taken out of the Citadel and shipped back to France before the Druze assaults on Damascus began during the Great Revolt. To say nothing of the way he was the beneficiary of the efforts of the British government to obtain his release.
The best that can be said may be that this book is a good antidote to the overly flattering picture of the French Foreign Legion presented by writers like Wren or Theodore Roscoe. It may fall far short of James O’Neill’s Garrison Tales From Tonquin but it provides an interesting account of a less-covered aspect of the Legion’s history.
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