CAMERONE DAY – A month ago Balladeer’s Blog examined the 1895 collection of short stories Garrison Tales From Tonquin (Tonkin), written by American James O’Neill. The tales were fictionalized accounts of his experiences in the French Foreign Legion in the 1880s and 1890s in Algeria and Vietnam. O’Neill’s insights into the French occupation of Vietnam during and after the Sino-French War were astonishingly ahead of their time.
Today’s blog post is nowhere near as profound or steeped in existentialism as Garrison Tales From Tonquin, but I couldn’t help but reflect on it since the yearly anniversary of the Battle of Camerone in Mexico has been THE major event on the French Foreign Legion’s calendar since 1863. It is often viewed as the battle that helped cement the Legion in the imaginations of people around the world in the 19th Century, and no doubt its legend was well known to James O’Neill by the time he enlisted in the fighting outfit in the 1880s.
THE BATTLE OF CAMERONE (Camaron in Spanish) – Getting back to the topic of this blog post, it’s sort of the French Foreign Legion’s central Alamo event. And I say central because many of the most famous battles of the Legion are like a long series of Alamos. Camerone set the standard, though. As usual, the Legion’s cause was not a virtuous one by our standards. The execrable Napoleon the Third was using the FFL and other French forces to try to prop up his Austrian ally Maximilian, the so-called “Emperor of Mexico.”
The Mexicans wanted the foreign-imposed emperor out and ultimately prevailed in 1867, but on April 30th, 1863 a mere 65 members of the French Foreign Legion held off what ultimately grew to a force of THREE THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED (3,300) Mexican soldiers.
ROUGH TIMELINE OF EVENTS
*** 1:00AM – The 3rd Company of the FFL’s 1st Battalion, consisting of 62 enlisted men and 3 French officers (Captain Jean Danjou overall commander), was sent forth from Chiquhuite to add to the numbers of a convoy guard force. The convoy was transporting 3 million Francs in gold, 60 wagons of ammunition and a number of siege guns. The 3rd Company would never link up with the convoy.
*** 5:45AM – The Legionnaires arrived at Camerone, specifically La Trinidad Hacienda, an abandoned ranch with a 10 ft high wall which ran approximately 55 yards around a 2-story ranch house and a stable.
*** 7:00AM – 3rd Company reached Palo Verde and stopped for a morning coffee break, then resumed their march.
*** 8:00AM – Sighting Mexican cavalry in the distance, Captain Danjou led 3rd Company back to La Trinidad Hacienda, since it was a better defensive position as opposed to fighting the Mexican forces out in the open.
*** 9:00AM – Since the Mexicans had not yet been spotted again, Danjou tried to return to Chiquhuite, given that 3rd Company was obviously very outnumbered. The Legionnaires had not gotten far when Mexican units encountered them and attacked. 3rd Company fired a few salvos which momentarily stopped short their foemen, then retreated along a cactus-lined ditch back to the hacienda. Unfortunately, 16 FFL men had been captured along the way, the company’s supply mules had bolted, and Mexican soldiers now occupied the ranch house at La Trinidad Hacienda.
Captain Danjou noted that his unit was surrounded and led his men in an oath to fight to the death instead of surrendering. The captain had a wooden hand and, as the legend goes, had his men swear that oath on his wooden appendage. He then rationed out some wine for all of the company and awaited what was to come.
The Mexicans encouraged Danjou to surrender since the situation was hopeless. He refused, replying “We have plenty of ammunition and will continue to fight.”
*** 11:00AM – Captain Danjou was shot to death through the chest as the enemy charged from the south and west sides. Lieutenant Jean Vilain assumed command of 3rd Company.
*** 1:00PM – By now only 32 Legionnaires were still alive. Again the Mexicans ceased firing and offered to accept a surrender. Lt Vilain replied
“Nuts” “Merde” and the fighting resumed.
*** 2:00PM – Only 20 Legionnaires remained alive.
*** 2:30PM – Lt Vilain was shot to death. Lieutenant Clement Maudet assumed command of 3rd Company.
*** 5:00PM – By now only 12 Legionnaires were alive and the roof of the ranch house had been burned off. Another opportunity to surrender was offered to 3rd Company and was refused.
*** 5:30PM – The Mexicans charged the FFL men and captured Karl Magnin, Everiste Burg, Leon Gorski, Hippolyte Kunnasseg and Heinrich Pinzinger. This left just Lt Maudet and 6 enlisted men still fighting.
*** 6:00PM – By now down to just Maudet and 4 enlisted men, the Legionnaires were out of ammunition. Lt Maudet and his men fixed bayonets and charged the surrounding Mexicans. Two of the Legionnaires were killed and the remaining 3 surrounded and contained.
A Mexican officer ordered the trio to surrender, and Corporal Phillipe Maine replied that they would surrender only if Lt Maudet, who had been wounded in the bayonet charge, received medical attention and only if they could keep their (empty) guns and equipment. (Talk about balls the size of Notre Dame Cathedral!) The Mexicans, to honor the courage shown by the Legionnaires, agreed.
EPILOGUE – The Mexican commander said that the surviving trio were “Not men, but demons!” Lt Maudet was patched up, then he joined his two surviving subordinates as “an honor guard” accompanying Captain Danjou’s wooden hand back to their own lines. Maudet lingered in medical care before passing away on May 8th.
Seventeen Legionnaires were still prisoners of the Mexican forces, but most were returned during a prisoner exchange on July 14th (Bastille Day) of 1863. To this day Captain Danjou’s wooden hand is on display at the French Foreign Legion Museum in Aubagne and is paraded around every April 30th.
AFTERWORD: THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION – The words “morally ambiguous” don’t even begin to describe the French Foreign Legion. Scholars and writers alike have used the Legion as examples of all the angels and demons of mercenary soldiering and of colonialism.
Regular readers know I’m not a slave to political correctness by any means but I can definitely state that I mostly sympathize with the opposing side in the wars into which the French government sent the Legion. Obvious exceptions, of course, include World Wars One and Two.
“They’re just foreigners, after all” as the possibly apocryphal French politician said. And yes, the majority of the officers may have been French, to ensure that the Legion put France’s interests first, but the soldiers were overwhelmingly non-French. Not only that, but as P.C. Wren and so many others have reminded the world, the French Foreign Legion accepted whatever name enlistees wanted to use, whether it was their real identity or not.
That fact had always made it a haven for outlaws, political refugees, fallen aristocrats, naive adventurers and, rarely but nevertheless true – heartbroken men fleeing romantic tragedies. Because the Legionnaires were mostly foreign, French public opinion was seldom stirred by the numbers of dead suffered by the mercenaries.
The toughest postings in the most inhospitable parts of the world were reserved for the Legion. In my view the French Foreign Legion MAY be a better embodiment of the Irish Wild Geese’s poetic motto “War-battered dogs are we/ Gnawing a gnarled bone/ Fighting in every land and clime/ For every cause but our own.”
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