10 Noblemen Who Fought in the French Foreign Legion

By Jp.negre FAL
By Jp.negre FAL

Established in 1831, the French Foreign Legion gathers adventurers from all over the world, often ones with a criminal past, who are looking for a fresh start in this special unit. The French Foreign Legion was formed by King Louis Phillipe of France, as a colonial army in Africa (with its headquarters in Algeria), but also as a way to remove problematic individuals from the society. At first, it wasn’t necessary for candidates to give their real name, or to make any disclosures about their past.

This has changed the course of years since the Legion today is highly selective towards its candidates. The unit is comprised of men from different cultures that come from all over the world. Even though the Legion is part of the French Military, they swear allegiance to no one, but the Legion itself. This cult-like worship of the unit comes from its leadership which incites strong esprit de corps, translated as morale, or the belief in a goal or, in this case, an institution, in the face of opposition or hardship.

The Legion offers many benefits, like the gaining of French citizenship, by becoming “French by spilled blood”, as its called. Even though it was, throughout its history, deemed as a haven for criminals and soldiers of fortune, usually of lower class origin, many men of royal descent served in the Foreign Legion. The discipline, comradeship and spoils of war attracted the aristocratic thrill-seekers and high-society political exiles from all over the world.

 1. Alexandre Florian Joseph, Count Colonna-Walewski

Count Walewski, a portrait. By By Pierre-Louis Pierson - Bibliothèque nationale de France
Count Walewski, a portrait. By Pierre-Louis Pierson – Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Alexandre Florian Joseph, Count Colonna-Walewski, was a Polish nobleman, widely rumored to be the illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte. His mother, Countess Marie Walewska, was married to Phillip Antoine, Count of Ornano and Napoleon’s second cousin. The Count accepted the child as his own, even though many claimed Emperor Bonaparte was at that time having an affair with the countess.

Alexandre Florian Joseph got involved in a plot concerning the November Uprising of 1830 in Poland which was then part of the Russian Empire. Polish officers-cadets rebelled against the Russian rule which led to a full-scale insurrection in Warsaw.

The uprising was crushed by a numerically superior detachment of the Russian Imperial Army. After this event, Count Colonna Walewski fled to France in which he gained citizenship, and embarked on a journey to Algeria, where he joined the newly-formed French Foreign Legion. He served for five years as a chasseur in the light cavalry unit of the French Army in Africa. Alexandre Walewski received the Legion of Honor, the Medal of the highest order in France, for his military achievements.

 2. Peter I Karadjordjevic of Serbia

Peter I of Serbia.
Peter I of Serbia.

After his father, Prince Alexander was forced to abdicate in favor of the rival dynasty; young Peter moved to Geneva with his family. From there he would enroll the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy and after that the Higher Military School in Metz. Just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he and his relative Nikola Nikolajevic joined the Foreign Legion.

Given the rank of lieutenant, Peter served in the 5th Legion Battalion of the 1st Foreign Regiment. He participated in the Second Battle of Orleans on the 3rd and 4th of December 1870 and the Battle of Villersexel on the 9th January 1871. Peter I of Serbia, then fighting under the pseudonym Peter Kara, distinguished himself as a fearsome fighter. In 1903, after a bloody military coup, he became the King of Serbia, restoring the rule of his dynasty.

In Paris, an avenue near the Champs-Élysées is named after him, Avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie. There is a modest monument dedicated to King Peter I of Serbia in Orléans, France, for his service during the battle. A large monument to King Peter and his son Alexander I of Yugoslavia was unveiled in 1936, at the Porte de la Muette in Paris.

 3. Louis II Prince of Monaco

Prince Louis II of Monaco, By Unknown - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.05670.
Prince Louis II of Monaco.

The only child of Prince Albert I of Monaco and Lady Maria Victoria Hamilton, Louis II also attended the Saint-Cyr Academy. Four years after his graduation he requested to be transferred to the French colonies in Africa, where he served as a member of the Legion. In Algeria, he fell in love with a cabaret singer, Marie Juliette Louvet, who by that time already had two children.

His parents disapproved of his relationship, and he was, in the end, forced to abandon his love. Some sources say that he actually married her, ignoring his father’s wishes, but there is no evidence to this claim. There is, however, evidence that the Prince had an illegitimate daughter with this woman, named Charlotte Louise Louvet, but the official biography of Prince Rainier III, the grandson of Louis II, has no mention of the child, nor her mother.

For ten years, Louis served in the military with distinction, being awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor. In 1908 he returned home, leaving behind his mistress and daughter. At the outbreak of World War I, he re-enlisted in the French Army, proving to be one of the Fifth Army’s most outstanding soldiers. He was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor and eventually became a Brigadier General.

 4. Aage, Count of Rosenborg

Aage of Denmark in the French Foreign Legion. By Bain News Service, publisher - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.07732.
Aage of Denmark in the French Foreign Legion.

In 1909, Prince Aage joined the Danish Army and rose to the rank of Lieutenant. During the First World War, he was sent to Italy to act as an observer. Upon his return, the Danish Prince was promoted to the rank of Captain.

Love and war seemed to be the two greatest passions of the nobleman, since Aage renounced his right to the Danish throne, due to his marriage with an Italian countess, Matilda Calvi. With the permission of the King, he left the Royal Danish Army and joined the French Foreign Legion. Aage’s managed to keep his rank and began his service as a captain of the Legion in 1922.

After a year of service, the Prince got transferred to Morocco, where he participated in the so-called Rif War, against the Moroccan Berbers, who sought independence from Spain. Aage was shot in his left leg and received a Croix de Guerre medal. The Danish nobleman served the Foreign Legion for 17 years.

During this time, he attained the rank of a lieutenant colonel and received the Legion of Honor award. He documented his years in service in his autobiography, written in English ― “A Royal Adventurer.” He died in Morocco in 1940 but was buried in Algeria. After the North-African colony gained its independence in 1962, his remains were among three others to be transferred to the Foreign Legion’s new headquarters in Puylouber, France.


5. Louis, Prince Napoléon

Louis Jérôme Victor Emmanuel Léopold Marie, from the House of Bonaparte, was the son of Victor, Prince Napoleon. Due to a law established during the Third French Republic, that banned the heir of any French ruling dynasty residing in France, he was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1914.

On the outbreak of WWII, Louis offered Edouard Daladier, the prime minister of pre-War France, to serve in the French Army, but was declined. Under a nom de guerre, Louis Blanchard, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, seeing some action in North Africa. Louis was demobilized in 1941 after France capitulated and the Legion received orders to end all hostilities.

He decided to join the resistance. In an attempt to reach London via Spain, to join the Free French Forces, he was arrested by the German border patrol. After this event, he spent most of the war in various prisons but managed to get himself released. As soon as he got out of prison, he joined the resistance once again, under a false name of Louis Monnier. The Prince was badly wounded in 1944, after a patrol of which he was part of fell into a German ambush.

He was the sole survivor of a seven-man team. Louis, Prince Napoleon was decorated for bravery after the war and was allowed the return to France in 1950, after the abolishment of the law which forbade it.

6. Dimitri Zedguinidze-Amilakhvari

Dimitri Amilakhvari in the French Foreign Legion, 1942. By Unknown Author, Public Domain.
Dimitri Amilakhvari in the French Foreign Legion, 1942.

Amilkhvari’s family emigrated from Gori, Georgia, after the revolution in Russia, in 1905, to a remote town of Bazorkino in North Ossetia-Alania.  The house of Zedguinidze-Amilakhvari had formerly served as Hereditary Master of the Horse to the Georgian Crown (Amilakhvari) and retained their princely dignity during the Imperial Russian rule of Georgia.

In 1924, Dimitri enrolled in the famous Saint-Cyr Academy and 1926 joined the French Foreign Legion as a lieutenant. Dimitri Amilakhvari participated in all major operations in South Morocco from 1933 to 1934. After his active military service within the Legion, he became the head of the French military school in Agadir, Morocco, holding the position for five years. During this period, he reached the rank of captain.

When the Second World War broke out, following the invasion of Poland in 1939, Dimitri Amilakhvari was stationed in North Africa. Soon after he participated in the Battle of Narvik together with the British forces, trying to resist the German invasion of Norway.

He retreated to London, where he became part of the Free French Forces, under Charles De Gaulle and continued to fight in the North African theater of war, in Libya. He was killed in action in 1942 and received the Legion of Honor posthumously.

7. Henri of Orléans, Count of Paris

Henri, Comte de Paris (1980-1999) in 1987. Photo Credit
Henri, Comte de Paris (1980-1999) in 1987. Photo Credit

The House of Orleans and its descendants were pretenders to the French throne and the restoration of the French monarchy. Henri of Orleans grew up in Morocco where he was home-tutored. Henri was fluent (besides from French, his native language) in Arabic, English, German and Italian.

In 1926, he became the unofficial Dauphin of France (heir)  when his father became the Orléanist claimant to the throne. In 1939, Henri joined the Foreign Legion, after being rejected from the service within the regular French Army, as well as the British Armed Forces. As a member of the Legion, he participated in WWII and the Algerian War for Independence. For his military service, he was decorated with the French Legion of Honor, Cross for Military Valour, Combatant Cross, and the Colonial Medal.

After the Law of exile had been abolished in 1950, Henri of Orleans returned to France, where he advocated the restitution of monarchy, until his death in 1999 due to prostate cancer.

8. Sisowath Monivong

King Sisowath Monivong. By Ravivaddhana - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
King Sisowath Monivong. Photo Credit

Sisowath Monivong was the king of the French Protectorate of Cambodia from 1927 until his death in 1941. In 1906, he traveled to France with his father and enrolled in yet another major military school besides from Saint-Cyr ― Saint-Maixent. He was then the Crown Prince of Cambodia. Two years later, the young prince was a Second Lieutenant in the Foreign Legion. During his early service, he was stationed in France.

In 1909, he returned to Cambodia. Next year he received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant and in 1916 he became a captain. During the First World War, he actively recruited volunteer military personnel and workers. These services were recognized with the Cross of Commander of the Foreign Legion and the Cambodian title of Samdech Preah Keofea.

He was then appointed Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers and President of the Council of the Royal Family. In 1922, he was promoted to the rank of Chief of Batallion. That same year he finished his service with the Legion.

Before WWII, in the 1930s, the French colonies in Indochina began their struggle for independence, ending it almost twenty years later with much bloodshed. The Kings influence began to deteriorate steadily until the abolishment of monarchy in 1953 and the establishment of the independent Cambodian state.

9. Shapour Bakhtiar

Portrait of Bakhtiar. Public Domain.
Portrait of Bakhtiar.

Bakhtiar was born on 26 June 1914 in southwestern Iran into a family of Iranian tribal nobility, the family of the paramount chieftains of the then powerful Bakhtiari tribe. He attended the College of Political Sciences in Paris and then joined the Republicans in Spain at the outbreak of the Civil War where he fought against Franciso Franco’s fascists.

Later, he joined the Foreign Legion and served in the 30th Artillery Regiment of Orleans. When France was defeated, Bakhtiar joined the resistance in Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem. In 1945, he received his P.h.D in political science, as well as degrees in law and philosophy, from the Sorbonne.

After the war, he returned to Iran and became the Minister of Labor in the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. The government was overthrown in a CIA-directed coup (Operation Ajax) and the monarchy was restored under Shah Reza Pahlavi.

After a series of imprisonments, Bakhtiar was declared the Prime Minister under Shah in 1978, as a compromise towards the radical opposition of Ayatollah Khomeini. In his brief time as a Prime Minister, he tried to organize democratic elections but was deemed a traitor by the opposition. He was exiled to France, where he was assassinated, together with his secretary, by Khomeini’s agents in 1991.

10. Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Bảo Long

Crown Prince Bao Long as a child playing with his father, the Emperor. By Bởi Không rõ
Crown Prince Bao Long as a child playing with his father, the Emperor.

Bao Long was born in 1936, in Hue, Vietnam. In 1939, he was declared the official heir to the Nguyen dynasty. Bao was supposed to succeed his father,  Emperor Bao Đai, but due to political complications in his home country, shortly after the end of WWII, which will lead to the proclamation of the Republic of Vietnam, he decided not take on the role of a monarch.

Crown Prince Bảo Long served in the French Foreign Legion in the Algerian War, and he distinguished himself, earning the Croix de Guerre (Cross of Military Valor) with three stars for his courage in battle.

His other decorations are the Grand Cross of the National Order of Merit, the decoration of the Golden Gong 2nd Class, the Grand Cross of the Royal Order of Cambodia, the Order of the Million Elephants and White Parasol of Laos and a commemorative medal for attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

After ten years of service in the French Foreign Legion, he returned to Paris, France, where he worked in a bank, working as an investment banker for the rest of his life.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE