In 1888 the French Foreign Legion was authorised to create a ‘Hall of Honour’ – a place where trophies and souvenirs of past campaigns could be presented. A building was erected in the Legion’s original home of Sidi Bel Abbes, Algeria. After Algerian independence, in 1962, the French Foreign Legion Headquarters was transferred to Aubagne in the south of France. The contents of the ‘Temple of Honour’ were housed in a specially erected edifice at the end of the ‘sacred way’ behind the impressive ‘Monument to the Dead’, which had also been brought back from Algeria.
In 2005 a project to enlarge and modernise the museum began, with work starting in 2010. The museum was officially inaugurated during the festivities of Camerone Day 2013, marking the 150th anniversary of the epic battle, where 65 Legionnaires faced off against a far superior force of over 2,000 Mexican troops. Camerone Day is universally a Day of Remembrance for all Legionnaires.
Originally 800 square metres, the museum is now situated on a single ground floor of 1200 square metres. On entering, you are greeted by a room presenting the cultural impact of the Legion in film, literature, and song. To the left is a room dedicated to temporary exhibitions, currently ‘La Légion dans La Peau‘ – a photography exhibition of Legionnaires and their tattoos. This is to be followed by ‘The Legion and the Mediterranean’, an exhibition of paintings of Legionnaires and their environment.
The visit to the permanent collection begins with the origins of the Legion: its creation in 1831 by the French King Louis Philippe and its early conflicts and postings.
The following ten rooms give the visitor a unique view of the history and evolution of the Legion through the uniforms, equipment, and personal items of the Legionnaires. The colonial period is of special interest as it was in the colonies that the Legion established its reputation for soldiering and building. One display window, from the North African campaigns, traces the development of the famed kepi blanc, the white dress kepi still worn with pride by the Legionnaires today. In a small courtyard a monument originally erected in Annaba, Algeria, to commemorate the completion of a major public-works project carried out by the Legion has been re-erected as a dedication to the Legion engineers.
The Legion’s experience in Indochina and the Far East are seen in the tropical uniforms and relics acquired during the jungle campaigns. There are statues, vases, and artifacts from the East as well as oriental weapons, some of which may have actually been used by the Legionnaires themselves.
The following rooms present the Legion’s role in the major conflicts including WWI, when they wore great coats, used trench knives and long bayonets, and carried the necessary gas-masks. During WWII the Legion made up a large part of the French Free Forces and were armed with the American Thompson submachine-gun, the Garand rifle, and the M1 carbine.
We then find ourselves among memorabilia of the Algerian conflict, with the famous French ‘lizard’ camouflage uniform on display. The more recent war in Afghanistan is typified by the detailed display of one of the deadly IEDs, the homemade road-side bombs which have been responsible for over 60% of coalition troop causalities.
Closing the exhibition, one room shows the more personal side of the Legionnaire, with paintings, writings, and personal effects. Another room is dedicated to the ‘Pioneers’ of the Legion – the builders who were responsible for the development of the infrastructure, roads, and bridges in the colonies. The Pioneers, with their beards, leather aprons, and axes still lead the Legion on the parade-ground.
Passing from here, the visitor can see the impressive ‘Monument to the Dead’, with its four statues of Legionnaires from different eras, and the globe on top symbolising the Legion’s overseas role and the many conflicts in which it was engaged both in France and on foreign soil.
The visit ends in the ‘Hall of Honour’, where Legionnaires officially sign their enlistment papers and where they are officially discharged. From the Hall of Honour the visitor can view the ‘Crypt’, a sacred place which holds the Legion’s most esteemed relic: the wooden hand of Captain Danjou, hero of Camerone.
A visit to the Legion Museum is not only interesting and informative, but allows outsiders to visit the heart of the French Foreign Legion. As much as the museum is for the general public, it is also for the Legionnaires themselves. At the inauguration, General Christophe de Saint Chamas, Commander of the French Foreign Legion, summed up this sentiment:
The Foreign Legion is both myth and reality. Founded in 1831, the Legion is unique in its kind.
But more than just an institution, what makes the Legion is its men, the Legionnaires, coming from all social classes, from all countries. It is they who remain the focal point of this project. The myth of the legionnaire and the French Foreign Legion has been an inspiration in literature, in the cinema, and in an inexhaustible body of stories, songs, poems, novels, and scenarios. The new Museum of the Legion is designed to reconcile the myth and the reality, to allow the visitor to enter the secret and very real world of the French Legionnaire.
A Legionnaire’s life begins here at the museum. It is here at the museum that his service will end. It is in the Hall of Honor of the museum that the Legionnaire receives his first contract. It is through a visit to the museum that he confirms his initial enlistment before joining his regiment. Finally, it is here at the museum where he is presented a certificate of honorable discharge when he leaves the ranks of the French Foreign Legion. This museum strengthens the identity of these ‘men without a name’.
It is with pride that we welcome your visit.
If you’re in the Provence region, Aubagne lies about 40km south-east of Aix en Provence and 20km east of Marseille. Exit Aubagne Centre, follow the signs for ‘Légion étrangère‘. If you pass the main entrance to the Camp, on the route de la Légion, you can be guided to the museum, which is on the GPS Chemin de la Thuillière, Aubagne.
The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10-12 and 2-4pm.
Closed from 23 December to 31 January annually. Group tours in several languages available by appointment in advance. Entrance is free.
Tel: 04 42 18 12 41
Musée de la Légion Etrangère
Chemin de la Thuillière
13400 Aubagne, France
May 08, 2017 0