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BBC Celebrates Susan Travers, The Only Woman in the French Foreign Legion

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This week, BBC Online Magazine proudly celebrates the life and complete badassery of the late Susan Travers, who would have been 100.

Travers was (and is) the only woman to have been a member of the French Foreign Legion. During her later years, surprised reactions to seeing her with the tell-tale red and blue ribbon would not have been unusual, especially given the Legion’s reputation and standing within France. For our American and non-French readership, let us say that the Foreign Legion, a military unit for foreign nationals who wish to serve in the French Armed Forces that is commanded by French officers, is notoriously tough. Because soldiers in the Legion hail from all over, a sense of cohesion is developed through rigorous training that is both physically and mentally extreme. Starting to get the idea?

Travers is also a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, the Medaille Militaire, and the Croix de Guerre, which are among France’s highest honors for military service. As told by biographer, and friend, Wendy Holden, Travers was no stranger to the military. The British-born daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, she joined the French Red Cross when World War II broke out across Europe. Instead of taking up the expected position of being a nurse, Travers was drawn to the daredevil role of ambulance driver. She first served with French forces in Finland against the Russians in the Winter War, then, when the Nazis took hold of Southern France, joined up with General De Gaulle’s Free French, making her way to Africa as part of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Legion Etrangere. As Holden says,

Volunteering as a driver to the brigade’s senior officers, she exhibited such nerves of steel in negotiating minefields and enemy attacks that she earned the affectionate nickname “La Miss” from her thousand male comrades.

Travers’ entire life reads like an epic pulp serial. She even, before meeting the great love of her life, Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, as his driver, had an affair with a White Russian Prince. Of the significant engagements and campaigns Travers took part in, perhaps none is as significant as when Koenig’s forces held out against Germany’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert for 15 days, against planes, tanks, and much heavier artillery than the French were equipped with. When all other female personnel were evacuated, Travers refused to leave Koenig. When supplies ran out, Travers, still formally the Colonel’s driver, led the fort’s forces in a daring midnight escape, flooring it across desert terrain littered with mines, and under heavy fire. Said Travers of the experience, “It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark.”

Escaping to fight another day, Travers would go on to have many adventures, joining the fight in Italy, Germany, France (where she drove a ‘self-propelled anti-tank gun’, a phrase lifted straight from dieselpunk fantasies). After the war, she became an official member of the Legion, omitting her gender on the application, and creating her own uniform.

Why her life story hasn’t been summarily processed into a blockbuster biopic is beyond us. British-born woman becomes daredevil French ambulance driver, travels the world, meets her true love, kicks Nazi butt? Get on making that already, we’d like to watch the hell out of it.

For further details of this remarkable woman, see the full article at BBC Online.


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