Simon Murray | 6 mins



All boys have daydreams – or there is something seriously wrong. Today these may be to play for Manchester United or pilot a shuttle into space. Fifty years ago there were still dreams, but different.

For most of those now nudging sixty the first memories were of the Second World War. Heroes were either the great sporting giants – Bradman, Matthews, Finney, Compton – or the war heroes. The games we played were cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, goodies and baddies. By common consent we protested at being cast as the baddie because the goodies always won.

The games we played mirrored the dreams we had and they evolved around the accomplishing, one day, of great feats of derring-do. The feats would be in emulation of the heroes and, the Saturday film show at the local Odeon apart, these came from books.

With no television or videos, we read voraciously and in our dreams we would ride the prairie against the Sioux, or go with Alan Quartermain to discover King Solomon’s mines, or fly with Guy Gibson against the Mohne Dam. And those who read the immortal classic Beau Geste would defend their fort against the wild and fearsome Tuaregs of the Sahara Desert.

I do not know how many boys growing up in the Forties and Fifties read Beau Geste, but there must have been many thousands. It was approved reading and profoundly exciting. It introduced us to a weird regiment of desert fighters and among English boys was certainly the only knowledge they ever had of that regiment, the French Foreign Legion.

And for all of them the Legion remained just a dream. Bar one. Simon Murray actually did it. And for the most romantic of possible reasons – for a girl. Digby would have been proud of him.

The Legion of 1960 was a long way from Fort Zinderneuf, but it still contained sergeants as brutal as LeJeune. It still involved a barracks full of misfits and runaways, harsh discipline, immense physical toughness, a tradition of shared hardship and unswerving loyalty to the Legion and to comrades and service under the flag of France in the cruel deserts of North Africa.

The period when Simon Murray joined was in any case among the most tumultuous in that extraordinary combat unit’s history. France was in the fifth year of a bitter war to prevent the nationalists of Algeria achieving independence. The F.L.N. was a cunning and ruthless foe. Before Simon had been more than thirty months engaged, the Legion would split on the issue of Algerian independence, granted by De Gaulle for July 1st, 1962, and a sizeable portion of the Legion’s elite would march out of their Oran barracks, singing ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ and pass into mutiny and exile.

As a Reuter correspondent in Paris from May 1962 onwards I covered the amazing events of those years; of the OAS, including dedicated Legion veterans, trying to assassinate their own head of state, of the lofty president defying their attempts and crushing the mutiny, of the vicious manhunts through France as the French counter-terrorist barbouzes (bearded ones) sought to kill men who had once been heroes.

I little dreamed from my Paris office that somewhere out in the bled of the Algerian desert was a wiry fellow-countryman, sun-blackened and hard as ball bearings who would one day recall and record what it was like to be a legionnaire through it all.

Nor did I think that I would one day read his book, then meet him and become a friend.

Forty years on, it remains a remarkable volume; a story of true adventure, of an age gone by, of a period of history now taught in schools, of a Legion that has also changed much. Some things remain the same. I have attended Camerone Day at the new headquarters barracks at Aubagne and held the wooden hand of Danjou. The uniform, the strange slow march, the white kepi and scarlet epaulettes – these abide. But the story Simon Murray has to tell will never happen again, and there is no other story and no other testimony like it in modern literature. That is why I believe it will become a modern classic and be read when other more transient tales have been forgotten.


Hertford, April 2000



I joined the French Foreign Legion on 22 February 1960. I was nineteen years of age at the time and I stayed for five years. During that time I was never without pen and paper and I recorded the events of each and every day with very few exceptions. In this book I have extracted from those diaries what might be of interest and left out, I hope, much of the boredom. There were long periods of boredom in the Legion and sometimes that was the hardest part of all. I have picked out the characters at random and none receive undue attention because that’s how it was – we were all loners at the end of the day – and I have highlighted the incidents which have left the deepest impressions on my memory because they mark the stepping-stones of my journey through those five long years.

When I arrived in Paris so many moons ago and stood in front of the Legion gates on that cold wet day in February, I was in a very uncertain frame of mind about it all. I knew that this was going to be something very different to what my somewhat sheltered life had shown me so far. I was not exactly classic material for the Foreign Legion although there had been a commitment to military affairs by my family in the past.

I had an elder brother who was an officer in the Scots Greys and a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather and a great-great-grandfather who had all served as officers in the army in such fine regiments as the Black Watch and here was I about to become a second-class private in the Foreign Legion.

I had been to one of the England’s oldest public schools and was the product of good middle-class stock that had made some money from the Industrial Revolution and stockbroking and finally lost most of it through the follies of my spendthrift grandparents. Nevertheless, the traditions of the family and school combined to instil in me the values that were, and indeed still are, considered as those befitting a young gentleman about to make his way in the world.

I had read Wren’s Beau Geste as every Englishman has and I held the traditional English view that service in foreign armies in foreign lands was an acceptable way to begin life – crusading it used to be called! What I did not know at the time was that Wren had painted a picture of the Legion that was not all that inaccurate and I was about to step into a very hard way of life indeed for which I was totally unprepared. It could not have been less romantic and as a recruit I could not have been further away from normal intake.

Many people have asked me why I joined the Legion and whilst there is no great mystery, there is no clear answer. A perceptive mind may draw conclusions from these diaries – yes, there was a girl called Jennifer – but it was more than that – I was living in digs in Manchester working in an iron foundry on seven pounds a week – not much fun and going nowhere. The British Army had turned me down; told me to come back in six months’ time – I think perhaps I was just a young buck without much confidence in himself setting an extreme challenge to see if he could hack it in a man’s world – proving something to myself; to see if I measured up. I had done my reading, I had my heroes and I had my dreams.

Perhaps it was in those days so long ago when there was less of a rush through life. We had more time to sow our oats and have our adventures. We had less to lose – we had nothing. Maybe life was longer and maybe the reason is not that important anyway. What matters is that I went, and this is what happened.