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About History: Camaron—The Legend of the French Foreign Legion Is Born
Mannequin in 1863 Uniform
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.
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.
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.
Tending Wounded Legionnaires
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.
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.
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.
Captain Danjou's Wooden Arm
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.
Legionnaires in Operation Desert Shield
© 2012 David Hunt