my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.
Travers was born in London in 1909, the daughter of Francis Eaton Travers, an admiral in the Royal Navy and wealthy heiress Eleanor Catherine Turnbull.
The family moved to fashionable Cannes when Travers was young, but despite their wealth, her childhood was not a happy one. Her parents’ marriage was troubled, her father was cold and reserved and her mother cowed and nervous, and Travers felt trapped and lonely. She was saved by her free-spirited aunt Hilda who provided her with the funds to follow a career as a semi-professional tennis player across Europe, including Wimbledon.
She was thirty years old when war broke out and while the great powers shadow-boxed through the Phoney War, Travers joined the French Red Cross as a nurse and then as an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force in Finland. As Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, she was forced to escape to Iceland before returning to England where she joined the Free French forces.
By 1941, Travers had become chauffeur to a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, during the Syrian campaign in which Vichy French legionnaires fought Free French legionnaires. She was nicknamed ‘La Miss’ by the legionnaires and travelled with them to North Africa the Congo and Dahomey. During this time, she had a brief affair with Dimitri Amilakhvari, the Georgian who became an iconic figure of the Free French Forces.
The job of driver in the desert was a hazardous one. The roads were often mined and subject to attack and Travers survived numerous crashes, as well as being wounded by shellfire. For her part, she admired the Legion’s code of ‘honneur et fidelite’, and formed good friendships with many of her comrades, among them Pierre Mesmer, later Prime Minister of France.
Her life was to change in June 1941 when she was assigned as driver to the commanding officer, Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig. The two quickly fell in love, Koenig bringing Travers roses while she was in hospital recovering from jaundice.
Her affair with the married Koenig had to be carried out in private with no public show of affection, but the pair enjoyed a few blissful months together until the spring of 1942 when their unit was attached to the 8th Army and sent to hold the bleak fort of Bir Hakeim at the southern tip of the Allies’ defensive line in the Western Desert.
At the beginning of May, the Germans and Italians under General Rommel attacked the allied line in force, expecting to overwhelm the fort in a matter of minutes. For their part, the allied command hoped that Bir Hakeim could hold out for a week. In fact, the 1,000 legionnaires and their allies resisted for fifteen days, becoming a symbol of defiance for all of France.
The Axis forces surrounded Bir Hakeim with minefields and three cordons of panzer forces and in the heat of the desert, the defenders had exhausted both ammunition and water. Koenig determined to to lead a break out under cover of darkness, taking the lead himself and driven by Travers.
The escape attempt was discovered when a mine exploded and Travers risked shot and shell as she burst through the axis lines, blazing a trail for the other allied vehicles to follow. The car was riddled with bullets, and at one point she drove into a laager of parked panzers, but Travers was able to lead them to the British lines. Of the 3,700 Allied troops who had been at Bir Hakeim, more than 2,400 escaped with her. Koenig became the hero of France and Travers was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Ordre du Corps d’Arme for her actions.
Sadly for Travers, it was Koenig’s growing fame that led him to end their affair. Although heartbroken, Travers stayed with the legion until the end of the war, serving as a driver and nurse in France and Italy. She later said that by May 1945 ‘I had become the person I’d always wanted to be’ and, not wanting any other life, applied to join the Legion officially.
She took care to omit her sex from the form, and her application was accepted. She was appointed an officer in the logistics division, and so became the only woman ever to serve with the Legion. Travers served in Indo-China and married a fellow non-commissioned officer, Nicholas Schlegelmilch. She resigned her commission in 1947 in order to raise their two sons.
In 1956, Travers was awarded the Medaille Militaire in recognition of her bravery at Bir Hakeim and the medal was pinned on her by Koenig, by then Minister of Defence. Forty years later, in 1996, she was given the Legion’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur, in recognition of her unique part in the force’s history.
Travers died in Paris in 2003, but had published her memoirs three years earlier, after both her husband and Koenig had died, taking the title from the poem The Art of Preserving Health by John Armstrong in 1774 quoted to her by Koenig:
Distrust yourself, and sleep before you fight
‘Tis not too late tomorrow to be brave