La Légion des Mille (The Thousand Legion) brought together one thousand volunteers of the First World War, drawn from the youngest and most deserving, around the motto :
“Duty, and beyond duty”
Its name was chosen in remembrance of Groupement des Mille (the Thousand Group), founded in Italy by the patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose descendants participated in an Italian legion which came to fight on French territory in the early days of the First World War.
The first batch comprised 100 young volunteers of less than 18 years old. On the whole, they had 210 wounds, 280 commendations, 100 war crosses, 77 military medals and 33 Legion of Honour crosses.
The first membership status of the Legion was granted to Désiré Bianco, a 13-year old volunteer who outstandingly incarnated the unflinching determination to serve one’s fatherland, but who, unfortunately, died at the same age.
Subsequent members of the Legion included: one volunteer aged 14 and a half, five volunteers aged 15, six volunteers aged 15 and a half, eighteen volunteers aged 16, ten volunteers aged 16 and a half, and the bulk of legionnaires were aged between 17 and 18 and a half, while the ages of the twelve oldest ones ranged from 19 to 20.
Examples of bravery and tenacity exhibited by these volunteers abound. Despite their tender ages, they were always ready to overcome all obstacles preventing them from going to the front. Quarterly reports published and archived as from 1935 put forward some interesting facts about these boys. The reports hold that Désiré Bianco, for fifteen days, had to sneak from one train to the other and from one convoy to the next before finally succeeding to be drafted for the front, where he was wounded three times and received as many commendations, that Jean-François Perettre, who was enlisted at the age of 17, had been decorated at the age of 19 with the military medal by General Estienne for his courage and wounds in the attack artillery (the tanks), that Albert Pico had scaled the wall of the school for children of the military (Prytanée) to find himself at the regiment where his father had served and where he exhibited exceptional courage, that President Estripaut, aged 16, had been discovered by a sergeant, dying of hunger after going for three days without food while hiding in an ammunition store of a troops carrier heading for the East front, that Marcel Beslay, as soon as he turned 17, joined the regiment where his two elder brothers had just died, that Yvon Nicolas wasn’t up to 17 years old when he received the military medal for having single-handedly resisted the enemy with his ‘loyal’ machinegun, that Auguste Thin had the unprecedented honour of choosing the “Unknown Soldier” from among eight coffins of First World War soldiers exhumed on both sides of the front line, and, finally, that President Poirot was only 15 and a half years old when he got himself enlisted in the French Navy.
A great majority of these legionnaires returned home disabled, having sacrificed not only their youthfulness but part of their body and their health for the defence of France. The last Légion des Mille member died in 2003.