The French Foreign Legion was founded in 1831. Their spiritual home and old training centres are in the former colonial French North Africa although they now train mainly in Southern France. What made them the legendary force they were and still are? What success lessons can we learn from them?
Recently twelve volunteers chose to do four weeks basic training in Legion style in the Western Sahara desert. They were under the harsh but experienced and encouraging regime of three ex-legionnaires, Sergeant Chef Peter Hauser, Sergeant Glenn Ferguson and Corporal Richard Sutter
Their experiences were filmed by Channel 4 TV and can teach us much about motivation and success. I have also talked with Sergeant Glenn Ferguson and gained some more insights into what motivated him and the other legendary legionnaires.
He joined the Legion at the age of 19. He was motivated at first by fear of punishment and then by pride. He hated to fail at anything and could also appreciate the pride of an elite group. One of his favourite sayings is:
“You will never be the best if you constantly have to lower the bar so the weaker elements can join”
Throughout the program the three ex-legionnaires appeared keen for some of the volunteers to ring a bell as a symbol of their wish to leave the group. They wanted to weed out the weaker elements. Legionnaires with low standards can get their fellow legionnaires killed.
Elite groups do not have the time to tolerate the weak or half hearted. They only want members who are willing to give 100% effort. They would rather that ‘losers’ (people who are lazy and half-hearted) did not join. Another saying of Sergeant Glenn Ferguson puts this well:
“If you didn’t come to be the best, then stay with the other losers”
In the modern world where everyone must be encouraged to join everything, this seems to be very old-fashioned and elitist but note that this saying does in fact make sense even today. It is not saying that you must be the best before you join up.
You must just want to be the best. This leaves room for the less talented so long as they have the right attitude. Any weakness will soon leave them as they endure the pain of the tough training regime of the Legion.
As the Sergeant commented to his suffering protégés in the TV program:
“Pain is weakness leaving your body”
Several of the volunteers started the training as ‘the weak’ but ended up as ‘the strong’. One former legionnaire commented in the program that when he entered the legion, he believed he could do nothing. When he left after five years he believed he could do anything. Such belief is a key element in any success.
I was a teacher for over 30 years in London Comprehensive schools. Everyone is accepted into these schools whether they are ‘weak’ or ‘strong’. They are all given the opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, a minority are not only ‘weak’; they don’t want to become ‘strong’ or are too lazy to become ‘strong’ and they don’t want anyone else to be ‘strong’.
When such lazy and disruptive pupils leave the school, the rest make much faster progress and can even enjoy their education. A touch of the French Foreign Legion attitude towards the half-hearted and disruptive might well improve our Comprehensive system.
Occasionally a ‘loser’ shows up in my martial arts classes; they don’t want to work hard except at the bits they enjoy and they distract the others. I don’t care about their ability or lack of it. The key factor is their attitude. Fortunately I am not forced by the Government to keep these students. I can either ask them to leave or give them a chance to improve.
I usually give them a chance but, if their attitude does not improve, I am pleased when they go. I do not want the majority of the class with a keen attitude to lose their opportunity to concentrate and make speedy progress. Training with like minded people is the quickest road to success in any venture.
The French Foreign Legion does not usually give lazy people a second chance. They are out on their ear immediately or are quickly disciplined into accepting the rules.
I was impressed by the French Foreign Legion ‘aperitif.’ This took the form of 10 pull ups before the evening meal. The volunteers found this tough as most of us would.
Sgt. Glenn Ferguson explained that this ‘aperitif’ was important in battle. It is no use being able to travel miles on foot and then not being able to pull yourself up over a wall when you reached the place of battle. Upper body strength is essential for a soldier. One of the Sergeant’s favourite saying makes the point:
A man who can’t pull his own body weight is a waste of oxygen
I especially liked the ‘aperitif’ exercise because it involves daily effort at a precise time. Any consistent daily effort produces impressive results. Performing the drill before a meal or reward is also a great idea. Having an immediate reward after some action makes it easier to perform the action. Daily efforts are a key factor in any success story.
Sergeant Chef Peter Hauser, who had served with the legion’s elite parachute regiment all over the world, taught the volunteers about the weapons and tactics of the legion.
The volunteers were in similar territory (in the Western Saharan desert) to that in which the Legion in the sixties were the last line of defence as France ‘s colonial Empire crumbled.
Simon Murray was a legionnaire from 1960 to 1965. He described the huge amount of equipment a legionnaire had to carry:
“It is a tough life because you’re carrying six days of rations. You were probably carrying about 40 kilos and you’ve got 4 hand grenades; you’ve got 200 rounds of ammunition; you’ve got a sten gun; you’ve got a couple of water bottles; you’ve got a shovel, you’ve got your sleeping kit and half a tent. You’re quite weighed down and very often you are going u phil l and long, long, long hard slogs and frequently men would be absolutely done and collapse; and then the sergeants would kick them and move them along and would start screaming at them. You might have a fever; you might have this that and the other. Nobody gave a damn.”
The ruthless attitude of the sergeants did not allow for excuses and excuses are a major cause of failure in any venture. The sergeants like Sergeant Glenn Ferguson believed in pushing men beyond their limits. Most success stories contain this element of extending your boundaries and breaking through your limitations. One of the sergeant’s favourite sayings is:
“If you never are shown that your limits can be pushed, you will never know how far you can really go.”
Near the end of the 4 weeks, the volunteers had to do a standard Legionnaire eight km run in 60 minutes with a bad fitting 12 kilogram pack on their backs. They had to walk two hours to get to the start of the run after a night on sentry duty. Will, one of the volunteers, had very sore ankles but with the help of Corporal Rutter, he made it.:
“You can do it – little steps. One in front of the other. Come on Will – a last bit of effort – you can do it. Come on; last little bit of effort; you can do it; it come on. Come on! Grit your teeth! You’re there! “
Will just made it with ten seconds to spare. He put his success down to Corporal Rutter’s help but the Corporal put it down to him. “If you delve deep in yourself you can do it – it’s a mind thing – it’s all in your mind.”
Again this kind of attitude and the encouragement that went with it leads to success and achievement. I think taking little steps in anything is a big factor in achieving success.
The main reason recruits to the Legion drop out is because of foot problems caused by the frequent long marches and runs. Why do some keep going while the others drop out?
Bobby, one of the remaining four volunteers, gave one reason:
“The positive people seem to still be here. It shows that a smile and good nature can carry you through most things.”
On their final day, the four successful volunteers faced the kepi march. The night before the march they are told the heroic story of Camerone. During the Franco Mexican war in 1863 the Legion retreated to a farm house called Camerone where they were surrounded by 2000 Mexican soldiers.
When the Legionnaires fought down to the last three men without surrendering the Mexican captain let the three surviving men go with their weapons and wounded comrades. He said:
“What can we do with men such as you?. You have shown such courage.” This esprit de corp is what the volunteers would need on the Kepi march.
Will likened the Kepi march to giving birth. “At the time it is very painful but later you forget all the pain and think it would be a good idea to have or do another one. “
An Irish ex-legionnaire who featured briefly in the TV program commented that the kepi march is difficult but that’s just the way it is. “If it wouldn’t be difficult, you wouldn’t be there. The blisters came forth and then the blood came forth.”
Sgt Glenn Ferguson described the real march done through the Pyrenees : “180 k’s in 3 and a half days; 18 hours a day of marching . You walk on these bloody stumps that used to be your feet. You know they are in a bad way because you can feel it ( the Sergeant’s description was more colourful) but you just keep walking and in about ten minutes your brain just turns off and you just keep going. At the end your boots had to be cut off – lots of blood and lots of skin.”
Eventually all three staff and the four remaining volunteers, Bear, Bobby, Will and Loic finished the march and reached the Atlantic sea. Loic liked the symbolism of going through the desert and then landing in the sea. Everyone rushed into the Atlantic to celebrate.
Later all four were presented with the kepi blanc as a souvenir. They would not be allowed to wear it but could keep it to remember their experience. Only real legionnaires could wear the Kepi blanc
Loic had learned that at the end of the day he could live a very simple life on a lousy bed with a cold shower and that the materialistic issues which bother us mean absolutely nothing.
Bear, the leader of the volunteers, commented:
“We didn’t find Beau Geste and the romantic myths of the legion. We found only pain but from that pain came pride and honour. Whatever you say against the legion you have to realize that for the people who come through it gives a huge sense of pride. And the strength of the legion is that it gives people family and pride and a second chance. It builds good things through the hardship.”
The following key success lessons can be learned from this account:
Surround yourself with keen, hardworking people who want to be the best. Expel the lazy and half-hearted.
Take daily action to make yourself stronger in every way.
Push yourself beyond your imagined limitations
Keep smiling and stay good natured.
Accept pain and hardship as a road to strength
Remember past achievements by yourself or others
Encourage each other and if necessary take small steps to reach your goals
Don’t indulge in making excuses