This is a FANTASTIC and poignant memoir, one of the best that I've read for a long while.
When I first picked up this book and read its flyleaf, what it described seemed too incredible to be true. Susan Travers, born in England from a materially comfortable (albeit not affluent) background, with parents of Victorian sensibilities not well-matched for each other, went to live in France with them in the early 1920s. There, after finishing school, she learned to live life to the full, feeling more French than British. She was an accomplished tennis player on the amateur level and an avid skier.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Susan offered her services to the French Red Cross. There she learned the rudiments of nursing and in early 1940, was sent with her unit to Finland, where she spent several months helping wounded Finnish soldiers from the recently concluded Russo-Finnish War to recuperate and convalesce. But with the Fall of France in June 1940 and the withdrawal of French forces from Scandinavia, Susan found herself back in England. Determined as ever to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort, she offered her services with the Free French then being formed under the leadership of General de Gaulle from various elements of the French military who rallied to his call to continue the fight against the Germans. Thus began her relationship with the French Foreign Legion, which took her to Dakar (where Free French forces suffered a bloody repulse later in 1940 after trying to establish a toehold in Equatorial Africa against the Vichy French), East Africa, and the Levant (where the Free French won their first battles in Syria and Lebanon, assisting the Allies in wresting both protectorates from Vichy control in 1941). It was also in the Levant while Susan was recovering from jaundice that she found love with one of the high-ranking Free French officers. A man who would play a pivotal part in her life throughout the war.
Later, after the Foreign Legion was sent to North Africa to assist the British and Commonwealth forces in holding the line against Rommel's Afrika Korps and Italian forces, Susan earned herself a special place in the Legion for staying at Bir Hakeim, a vital strongpoint in Libya, which Rommel needed to capture in order to push forward to Egypt and control of the Suez Canal, without which the Allies could not expect to maintain its precarious hold over North Africa, and by extension, the Middle East. At this time, she was the official driver for this officer, K, (promoted to General), who commanded the French forces at Bir Hakeim. Rather than stay safe in the rear area far from the front, Susan opted to return to Bir Hakeim, where German and Italian forces outnumbered the Legion by 10 to 1.
Despite a personal ultimatum from Rommel himself requesting that all French forces surrender Bir Hakeim or face annihilation, General K resolved on a plan to breakout with his troops under cover of darkness after having received approval from his British superiors to do so. It was a bold gamble as Susan bravely drove the General and one of his junior officers through a minefield and 3 lines of defense firmly held by the enemy. Several hours later, when it seemed that all hope was lost, they found safety upon reaching a British forward position. Gradually, those troops who survived the mines and vicious attacks from Italo-German forces, were able to reassemble in British controlled territory. This battle helped to further bolster De Gaulle's claim to be the "real leader" of Free France, and lend credibility to the Free French military.
For a variety of reasons, Susan had to sever her ties with General K (who later came to occupy one of the highest positions in the French military, earning De Gaulle's deepest respect and trust), and continued to serve with the Legion in Italy and France, seldom far from the frontlines.
With war's end in May 1945, Susan was a bit of a loss as to what to do with her life. With the help of some officers she had known in the Legion, Susan was able to be officially admitted into the Legion --- as an officer. Service in Indochina followed, where she found love and marriage with a fellow Legionnaire. (Susan Travers went on to live with France with her husband and 2 sons. Her husband predeceased her in 1995.)