With the French Foreign Legion in Syria

Peter Lyderik

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somewhere in the north
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December 31st, 2010

“With the French Foreign Legion in Syriaâ€￾
by Ben Steelman

For the end of the year, here’s a golden oldie I pulled off my shelf the other day: “With the French Foreign Legion in Syriaâ€￾ by John Harvey. Originally published back in 1928, it’s generally available today in a reprint issued in this country in 1995 by the venerable military publisher Stackpole Books.

For lovers of militaria, this one is just a hoot.

As editor Martin Windrow explains in an introduction, “Harveyâ€￾ is almost certainly a pseudonym for a Welsh World War I veteran who was laid off from the coal pits in the early 1920s and enlisted, drawn by the usual overblown promises of pay, bonuses and frequent leaves in Belle Paris. (Kids, always take anything a military recruiter tells you with a grain of salt, no matter how nice he is.)

“Harveyâ€￾ — whose real name was possibly Hargreaves or Barrington — clearly dictated his yarn to a London tabloid reporter, as indicated by such turns of phrase as referring to his fellow Legionnaires as “the broken playthings of Fate.â€￾ Still, his accounts tally with those of an American veteran of the Legion from the same period, Bennett Doty, whose book “With the Legion of the Damnedâ€￾ must have been a hoot. Still, at least some of what they were writing has some truth of it.

(Which reminds me of the old Marine adage, somewhat cleaned up: What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale begins “Once upon a time …â€￾ while a war story begins, “Now, this is no bull …â€￾)

Both Harvey and Doty were cashing in on the incredible popularity of “Beau Geste,â€￾ the 1924 best-selling novel by the Englishman P.C. Wren, which inspired a number of movie versions including “The Last Remake of Beau Gesteâ€￾ (1977) with Marty Feldman.

Wren’s book, of course, was a piece of romntic period nonsense, in the manner of Rafael Sabatini. Harvey and Doty tried to explode the “Beau Gesteâ€￾ myth by introducing their own myths — the myth of the Legion as being the dregs of the planet, every enlisted man a drunken deserter, half the officers being corrupt or dangerously crasy.

In Harvey’s day, the Legion apparently drew a large number of White Russians, refugees from the Revolution. (Harvey opted for the Legion cavalry, so a lot of his comrades were Cossacks.) All of these are moody men, heavy drinking, either morose or deliriously happy, yet oddly chivalric — they’re always off on leave, rescuing some Russian damsel in depressed circumstances from the greasy clutches of some Turk or Arab.

As Windrow notes, Harvey was a Briton of the old “Wogs start at Calaisâ€￾ school, and he was writing in the ’20s, so his text bears no traces of political correctness. His Arabs, his Frenchmen, almost all his non-Anglo-Saxon ethnics are walking stereotypes, and his treatment of the French African troops — terrified subhumans who have to be driven to the line by whips — is neaueating.

Given that, however, the book has a certain flair. What Harvey calls “Syriaâ€￾ was in fact both the modern-day countries of Syria and Lebanon. (His column makes a stop in Beirut, or as he spells it “Beyroot.â€￾) His campaign is the Druze uprising of 1925-1927, and like most soldiers, Hazvey marches away with a grim respect for his foes. (Harvey repeats the canard that the Druze worshipped a golden calf; in fact the sect descends from Ismaili Islam, and takes the calf emblem from the nickname for one of its early leaders.)

For all his faults, Harvey tells a ripping yarn.


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Just an addenda to the book "With The Foreign Legion In Syria". I have an old copy of the book, and there is a cutting from the Daily Telegraph dated 24th June 1937 glued to the title page. I quote the item in full....
Escaped From The Foreign Legion
Sentenced For Bigamy
An ex-miner who escaped from the French Foreign Legion while serving in Syria was at the Old Bailey yesterday sentenced to 12 months' hard labour for bigamy.
He is John Henry Harvey, 37, now stated to be an author. He was said to have served two terms of imprisonment.
Harvey was married to Miss Jane Price at New Tredegar, Monmouthshire, in 1921. Three years later he deserted her, and joined the Foreign Legion. He went through a form of marriage with Miss Ellen Ada Carpenter at a London register office in 1932.
A police officer said Harvey, whose real name was David Harvey John Jones, had written his memoirs.
Mr.B. M. Goodman, in his defence, declared that Harvey lived happily with his bigamous wife for five years. Then quarrels arose, and he disclosed that he was a married man. He was still very fond of Miss Carpenter........
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