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The French Foreign Legion has a long and proud history of military service to France. It was created in 1831 as a way for foreign nationals from around the world to serve in the French military. Since its inception, there has only been one woman who has served in the French Foreign Legion. Her name is Susan Travers. She is remembered for her bravery and commitment during the time she served.
On September 23, 1909, Susan Mary Gillian Travers was born in Kensington, England. She was part of a wealthy family. Her father, Francis Eaton Travers, was a Royal Navy Admiral. Her mother was the heiress Eleanor Catherine Turnbull. She did not grow up in a healthy environment. When asked about her childhood, Travers would say she was happier the further she was away from her parents.
When she first left home, Travers made money by being a semi-professional tennis player. In 1939, when war broke out, she was living in the South of France. Travers initially was part of the French Red Cross. She quickly discovered she could not deal with blood or sickness. Travers then became an ambulance driver after joining the French Expeditionary Force. She was sent to Finland to assist the locals who were fighting the Winter War against the Soviet Union.
French Foreign Legion
When the Nazis took over France, Travers went to London. There she joined the Free French who were serving under de Gaulle and fighting the Nazis. In 1941, she started driving an ambulance for the 1st Free French Division as Allied forces. It was a military unit that controlled areas in Lebanon and Syria. This is when she was sent to serve in the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion. Her job was as a driver for a high-ranking medical officer. This is when she earned the nickname from those in her unit of “La Miss.”
Battle of Gazala
It was May 1942 when the British Eighth Army was preparing for an attack by Germany’s Panzer Army. All women were ordered out of the area. Travers got permission to stay. The attack occurred on May 26, 1941. It would be known as the Battle of Gazala. The British held the line but their water, food, ammunition, and other supplies were dangerously low. A decision was made to leave the area. The path to freedom would involve dealing with a minefield and Axis forces determined to destroy them.
Travers was asked by a senior officer to lead the escape in his staff car. She claimed her only concern was the engine stalling. During their escape, a mine did explode. Then tracer fire was seen as bullets and tank shells started coming from all different directions. Travers was ordered to keep going. She did and others followed. Travers even drove through a line of parked German tanks.
Travers didn’t stop for several hours and eventually reached Allied lines. Her vehicle had 11 bullet holes and significant damage from shrapnel when she arrived.
Joining the French Foreign Legion
Travers wanted to be an official member of the French Foreign Legion. She formally applied in May 1945 to become part of the organization. On her application, Travers did not mention her gender. She was accepted. Charles de Gaul, who had recently been elected to head the French government, made her a General. The French Foreign Legion had never before had a female in its ranks. This meant Travers had to design and make her own uniform.
During her time with the French Foreign Legion, Travers saw action in Germany, France, and Italy. Towards the end of her career in the French Foreign Legion, she was involved with the First Indochina War.
Travers remains the first and only woman ever to serve with the French Foreign Legion.
Travers was awarded the Médaille Militaire, which is France’s highest military honor. She was also awarded the Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and others.
Travers married Chef Nicolas Schlegelmilch. He was a French Foreign Legion Adjutant who had been with Travers military unit that fought in Libya. The couple chose to live on the outskirts of Paris. During their time together they had two sons named Francois and Thomas.
In 2000, a book about Travers’s experiences during World War II, “Tomorrow to be Brave” was published. She was ready to tell the story of her life and experience in the French Foreign Legion. Travers said the time was right. She told the author that everyone is gone, and she is left alone with her medals. One of her motivations to write the book was for her grandchildren to know how she had been.
Susan Travers died at the age of 94 on December 18, 2003. She was survived by her two sons and two grandchildren named Eleanor and Adela.
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