About History: Camaron--The Legend of the French Foreign Legion Is Born

Uniform of a legionnaire during the 1863 Mexican campaign.
Uniform of a legionnaire during the 1863 Mexican campaign. | Source

The Legion is Created and Later Enters the Franco-Mexican War

In 1831, France was a hub for refugees gravitating from its far-flung empire. This influx of outsiders brought many problems, one of which was what to do about the growing number of foreign troublemakers. Since the French also had difficulties abroad, they formed the Foreign Legion, a force made up of non-French soldiers commanded by French officers to fight outside the country in the empire's trouble-spots and against France's enemies.

In 1861, Mexico stopped paying interest on its foreign debts. Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and Emperor of the Second French Empire, used this as an excuse to land troops in Mexico in an effort to establish a monarchy friendly to France and, not incidentally, secure Mexico's silver mines. The United States, embroiled in its Civil War, could do little more than protest. In December 1861, French, British and Spanish ships arrived at the port of Veracruz, Mexico. Britain and Spain had joined France in an effort to pressure Mexico to pay her debts, but when it became obvious the French had conquest on their mind, the British and Spanish ships withdrew. Undismayed, French troops landed in Mexico and the Franco-Mexican War began.

On March 31, 1863, the first of several thousand French Foreign Legionnaires arrived. Regular troops and officers looked down on them as undisciplined ruffians and common thugs and this was not entirely undeserved. They were not trusted to work with the regular army and so were assigned tasks like guarding roads or to posts in fever-ridden regions.

Captain Jean Danjou (1828 - 1863).
Captain Jean Danjou (1828 - 1863). | Source

Escorting a Convoy

Just after midnight on the morning of April 30, 1863, the 3rd Company of the French Foreign Legion's First Battalion left Veracruz, accompanying a convoy taking supplies and 3 million francs in gold bullion to the French Army near Puebla, nearly 100 miles inland. The 3rd Company, originally staffed with around 150 men, had been decimated by illness and only 62 men and none of their officers were fit for duty. Captain Jean Danjou, the one-handed adjutant major of the First Battalion, and two other officers volunteered for the mission. The company of 65 Legionnaires led the way with the convoy trailing a few miles behind.

American soldiers in a square formation. Similar to infantry squares defending against cavalry charges.
American soldiers in a square formation. Similar to infantry squares defending against cavalry charges. | Source

Attacked By Mexican Cavalry

After 15 miles the Legionnaires passed an inn called the Hacienda Camaron. They continued on another mile or so and camped for morning coffee at 7:00 am, but, before it could be served, Mexican cavalry was spotted and the French threw away the coffee and reloaded their mules. When they realized they faced about 800 horsemen, Captain Danjou formed the men into an infantry square-- the best defense against a cavalry attack-- and the formation slowly retreated back to the inn they'd passed. They repulsed the first attack, but, in the confusion, the mules, carrying their food, water and extra ammunition, broke away and scattered. Several more cavalry charges were successfully fought off before the French gained the Hacienda Camaron with its protective walls, though 16 Legionnaires had been captured, most of them wounded, along the way. The French 70-caliber rifles inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers.

Postcard from the late nineteenth century. Mexican soldiers tending wounded legionaries at the end of the Battle of Camerone April 30, 1863
Postcard from the late nineteenth century. Mexican soldiers tending wounded legionaries at the end of the Battle of Camerone April 30, 1863 | Source

Defending at Camaron

Once at Camaron, the French prepared their defenses. Each man had about 60 rounds of ammunition. The Mexican cavalry charged twice, but could not maneuver among the walls and outbuildings. Under a flag of truce, the Mexican commander, Colonel Milan, demanded their surrender, but they refused, despite the odds, the heat and shortage of water. The attacks continued. Danjou went man to man, comforting them and urging them to fight on.

Mausoleum Camarón de Tejeda , Mausoleum dedicated to the fallen soldiers at the Battle of Camarón.
Mausoleum CamarĂ³n de Tejeda , Mausoleum dedicated to the fallen soldiers at the Battle of CamarĂ³n. | Source

Mexican Infantry Joins In

At 11:00 am, about 1,200 Mexican infantry joined the battle, but the French position was such that the repeated Mexican attacks were funneled into the small courtyard right in front of the Legionnaire's rifles. Around noon, Captain Danjou was killed by a sniper and Lieutenant Vilian took over. He, too, urged the men on for four more hours of battle until he was killed, leaving 2nd Lieutenant Maudet in command. The pouches of the dead and severely wounded were searched for ammunition.

At 5:00, Maudet had 12 men still standing. Again, Colonel Milan called on them to surrender, but they didn't even bother to answer.

Bayonet Charge

By 6:00, there was only Maudet and five Legionnaires left; they each had one bullet left. The six formed up, fired their last volley and charged the Mexicans with bayonets. The Mexicans fired and Legionnaire Catteau, a Belgian, threw himself in front of Lieutenant Maudet, but Maudet was killed by two bullets; Catteau fell dead with 19 bullets in his body. The others all received gunshot wounds and the enemy converged on the survivors, beating them to the ground. Colonel Milan finally managed to stop his troops from exacting their vengeance and ordered the two surviving Legionnaires to surrender, but they would agree only if they were allowed to keep their weapons, have safe passage home and bury the body of their captain, Jean Danjou, with honor. The colonel, out of respect, agreed to these terms.

Wooden prosthetic of the captain Jean Danjou
Wooden prosthetic of the captain Jean Danjou | Source
A Legion honour guard in Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Shield. circa 1992.
A Legion honour guard in Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Shield. circa 1992. | Source

Aftermath

All but two of the original 65 Legionnaires were dead, dying or wounded. At least 52 died. The Mexicans lost 200 dead and more than 300 wounded. The convoy made it safely to its destination. The French adventure in Mexico ended in failure in 1866, suffering defeats in the years after Camaron (the French spell it Camarone) and under pressure from the Americans once the Civil War ended.

After the battle, Captain Danjou's artificial hand was found and, sometime later, found its way to the French Foreign Legion's headquarters, where it remains today as a reminder of the battle that defined the Legion. Every April 30th is Camarone Day in France and Danjou's wooden hand, the Legion's most cherished artifact, is paraded in a protective case. On that day, officers prepare and serve coffee to the lesser ranks to celebrate the coffee those in the Battle of Camaron never got to drink.

Both the Mexicans and the French honor those who fell during the battle. The French erected a monument on the battlefield in 1892. Its plaque, translated into English, says:

They were here less than sixty

opposed to a whole army.

Its numbers crushed them.

Life rather than courage abandoned

these French soldiers

on 30 April 1863.

In their memory, the motherland has erected this monument.

Every April 30, the Mexican government holds ceremonies at Camaron de Tejeda, as it is now called, at the monument they constructed in 1964 commemorating the battle. Many times, these events are attended by French officials. Traditionally, Mexican soldiers that pass the monument salute it.

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Comments 25 comments

joanveronica profile image

joanveronica 3 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

Hi there, UH, this was, as always, an excellent read! Congratulations once again. Well researched and well presented. Voted up, awesome and interesting. Happy New Year!


xstatic profile image

xstatic 3 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

What an entertaining story of great courage! I have always been fascinated by the Foreign Legion, and I'm sure you could do a series of hubs about their exploits. They have been romanticized in novels and movies, my favorite being the orignal 1939 Beau Geste, with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston.

Cooper and Burt Lancaster weres in an interesting 1954 movie, not dealing tith the legion, but about that war, called Vera Cruz, which I rememeber quite well for some reason.

I hope to see more about this interesting military force.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Happy New Year to you, too, joan. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed this. It took me longer to write it because I had to do a lot more research about this period.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi xstatic. I first learned of the French Foreign Legion watching the 1939 Beau Geste (I later read the book). I also remember Laurel and Hardy in the Foreign Legion. I bet most people have romanticized the Legion over the years, based on movies and fiction. It seemed almost anyone could get in (if not stay in) regardless of their background. Nowadays, they are truly an elite force and recruits are checked against Interpol records. Also, French citizens can now enlist in the lower ranks.


xstatic profile image

xstatic 3 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

More interesting info in that response. Great hub, I will say again. Oh, and don't forget that Sinatra song, "If You Turn Me Down Once More, I''ll Join the French Foreign Legion."


xstatic profile image

xstatic 3 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

Darn, was going to comment on that rifle. I am not expert on firearms, but that 70 caliber must have been an armload to carry around. I assume it was a muzzle loader, and the ammo must have been heavy too.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

xastatic-- ah, yes. The old "he joined the Legion to forget". I understand that 70-caliber was a smoothbore so it wasn't that accurate at long range, but it would have hit like a small cannon. And you must be right about the weight. 70-caliber is almost 18 mm!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

Good read, UH. This 70 Calibre, was it based on British army rifles that were available around the time of the Zulu War, such as the Martini Henry that the Zulus took from the dead at Isandlwana and used at Rorke's Drift? They would have had a formidable effect on troops not used to heavy rifles (the Americans didn't have anything like that at the time did they?)

After WWII the French pressed captured SS men into serving with the Foreign Legion and were sent to French Indo China (later Vietnam), emerging heavily decimated. The alternative was execution, like a choice between the devil and the deep blue... Now the Legion's HQ is in Corsica, I believe, and French officers actually compete to be given postings to the Foreign Legion.

We had "CARRY ON FOLLOW THAT CAMEL" on the box last night, with the old 'Carry On' crew (minus Sid James) but with Phil 'Bilko' Silvers as a skiving legionary sergeant alongside Jim Dale's Beau - and Peter Butterworth as his manservant. The old business of burying miscreants up to the neck in sand cropped up, and Bernard Breslaw did his Arab leader up to the jewelled hilt of his scimitar! Ever seen it? (Get it from Amazon!)

Have a good New Year 2013!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi, alan. As far as I can tell, the legionnaires might have been using the M1859 French rifle, also called the "Vincennes rifle", a percussive single shot. Some of these were used at Gettysburg during the American Civil War.

I haven't seen that Carry On episode, but I can't think of anyone (of that period) any more skiving than Phil Silvers. And I hadn't heard of the SS men being forced to fight in the Legion. Thanks for the info and you and yours have a Happy New Year also!


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

Knew hardly anything at all on the Franco-Mexi War and little on the FFL so this was an enlightening and enjoyable read, David. 70 cal rifles-wow what a wallop they must have delivered. The respect for the forlon Legionaries still shown says it all for Camaron.


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 3 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

I must say I am fascinated by the modern French Foreign Legion and hearing about its roots is just as riveting, Harald.

Thank you for adding to my interesting, but probably useless, fund of knowledge :)

Voted up and shared.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for commenting, Alastar. I guess the Mexicans went over a fiscal cliff in 1861 :)


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Angie, my head is filled with useless knowledge and trivia-- that's why I like HubPages so much :)


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 3 years ago from London, England

I knew nothing of this battle, until reading this. Come to think of it how many Mexican battles have I heard of? hmm the Battle of the Alamo? :)

Excellent work David. Voted Up and Interesting!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi Steve. Always good to hear from you. Thanks for your comments! Here's something else I found surprising: in 2011, with all the wars and fighting going on in the world, including, of course, the War in Afghanistan, by far the most deaths due to ongoing conflicts occurred in the Mexican Drug War, with 24,000 fatalities. Afghanistan had 9,000 and Syria had about 10,000.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Oh...I don't know about, "useless." It's interesting and exciting enough to entertain and enlighten. That makes it worthwhile sharing. I always enjoy these hubs on Historic events/people, I never knew about....and probably never would, Harald, if not for your knowledge and love of sharing them.

Just now, I really learned of how the French foreign legion was born...I went along on a battle, as a witness as you reported....and I'm impressed by the way you tell a story. The fact that this is memorialized today and actually celebrated annually on April 30th...and a monument was erected, tells me it was an important, treasured bit of History worth repeating......UP+++


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

fpherj48, thanks for your great comment. Actually, I think what I mean is that I love turning my "useless" knowledge into something useful via HubPages... therefore my knowledge is no longer "useless" is it? In the business world, that might be termed "value-added". Huh. Never thought of it that way before, though I'm no businessman. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment of creating a hub. I always enjoy hearing from you.


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 3 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

I was amazed by tradition to serve coffee to lower ranks. Great hub!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi Pavlo. I thought that was very touching, too-- and to think it still happens 150 years later! Thanks for your comment, as always.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 3 years ago from North Carolina

Well something was familiar lol- twice the pleasure my friend!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Ha ha! Thanks for commenting, Alastar.


old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi David. I salute you. Absolutely first class, again your research and presentation are perfect. It must be satisfying for the French to know the Mexicans honour their dead. As in Africa today the Legion led from the front.

Voted up and all.

Graham.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks very much, Graham. From what I understand, few expected the Legionnaires to even fight (hence their being assigned to escort duty), let alone fight to the last man.


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 3 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

I think today's Legionaires would enjoy your retelling of one of their favorite battle histories. well done, voted totally UP !


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks, carolina. I thought it was incredible that these "misfits" fought to the death like that. Perhaps they found comradery with each other that they couldn't find anywhere else.

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