CAMERONE DAY: THE 158th ANNIVERSARY

French Foreign Legion flagCAMERONE 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. 

White Kepis of the French Foreign LegionTHE 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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11 Comments

Filed under Neglected History

11 responses to “CAMERONE DAY: THE 158th ANNIVERSARY

  1. theburningheart

    I don’t get it, the French Legion has mad a big deal of a skirmish, that Colonel Francisco de Paula Millán at the head, of the Mexican forces reported as such, a mere skirmish, not even a battle at the Hacienda of Camaron, and he was leading mainly “leva”, (impressment practices in Great Britain’s Royal Navy.) not properly armed some with nothing but a lance, or a slingshot, or a machete, mainly ‘peones’ pawns, farm laborers forced to serve by being handed by their rich Hacendados as a a payment, like a tax demanded by the army, the Hacendados always could call on the Army to suffocate discontent at the Haciendas, not even paid, but given food, and maybe a blanket, severely punished if they deserted, or disobeyed, a practice followed for centuries, until the end of the Mexican Revolution, in 1920. When a law was passed that no men could be forced to serve by “Leva” or impressment, and that naturally, they needed to have a proper salary, not just foods and handouts.
    Anyway since the cooperation by foreign publics affairs, even in Mexico the French version of the events are the more well known, I am even have problems to find online the original inform, or “parte” from Colonel Millan, who I read years ago and translated and upload to Youtube on a video of glorifying the skirmish, since so much other videos, and the phony French version, it’s the only one you find that comes on top.
    After a lot of search I founded, it’s long, but here it is.

    http://reformapolicialmex.blogspot.com/2011/04/la-batalla-de-camaron.html

    But here in short it’s the juicy part, of

    DE FRANCISCO DE PAULA MILÁN A IGNACIO COMONFORT
    Tengo la honra de participar a usted que, en cumplimiento de las ordenes que recibí de su gobierno y de este Cuartel General el 12 del mes que finaliza, salí a Jalapa a interponerme en el camino que conduce de Veracruz a Córdoba, llevando al efecto la Brigada del Centro, compuesta de los batallones “Independencia” Guardias Nacionales de Jalapa “Zamora” y “Córdoba” los cuales -con las fuerzas federales que logre reunir por estos rumbos- forman un número de seiscientos cincuenta infantes y doscientos caballos. En la mañana de hoy salí, como frecuentemente lo hago a reconocer algunos puntos del camino, llevando fuerza de caballería. Al llegar a dicho camino encontramos una fuerza francesa de que bajaba del Chiquihuite y al momento dispuse cargar sobre ella pero, habiéndose formado en cuadro, resistió el choque, replegándose a paso veloz a una casa de material que hay en el punto del Camarón, donde se parapetaron y abrieron aspilleras, en las paredes para hacer fuego. Nuestra caballería cercó la casa y entre tanto, hice venir violentamente las fuerzas de infantería que había dejado en el campamento y emprendí en ataque. Sin embargo los enemigos estaban bien guarnecidos, y carecíamos de artillería para hacer brecha y útiles de zapa para hacer horadaciones. Medio día ha durado el combate, que terminó cerca del oscurecer y que fue sostenido por nuestros contrarios por un valor infundado en la creencia que éramos guerrillas y no les perdonaríamos la vida. Al fin sucumbieron, después de estar muertos dos oficiales y estar herido el otro y fuera de combate la mayor parte de la fuerza. Esta pertenecía a la 3ª compañía del 1er Batallón de la Legión Extranjera; la mandaba un capitán que fungía de mayor del cuerpo y que murió, así como otro subteniente, quedando gravemente herido y prisionero el otro, que era abanderado del regimiento. De los sesenta soldados que mandaban murieron veinte; de los restantes diez y seis gravemente heridos y 24 prisioneros cayeron en nuestro poder, sin que escapase uno solo. Hemos levantado el campo recogiendo todo el armamento y los heridos enemigos han sido asistidos con todo esmero por la acción médica de la brigada. Por nuestra parte hemos tenido que lamentar algunas desgracias que participaré a usted detalladamente, luego que reciba los Partes de los Jefes de los Cuerpos. El C. Teniente Coronel José Ayala, Jefe de mi Estado Mayor, fue muerto al principio del combate; han sido heridos tres tenientes y tres capitanes y nuestras pérdidas en la clase de tropa han sido diez y seis muertos y ocho heridos. Todos los ciudadanos que componen la Brigada del Centro han cumplido con su deber. Oportunamente comunicaré a usted los nombres de los que han perdido la vida o han derramado su sangre en defensa de nuestra Independencia. Entre tanto suplico a usted se sirva poner en conocimiento del C. Presidente de la República, este pequeño hecho de armas, manifestándole que los invasores no dejaran de ser hostilizados en el territorio veracruzano.
    DE IGNACIO COMONFORT A MIGUEL BLANCO
    Y tengo la honra de transcribirlo a usted para conocimiento del C. Presidente Constitucional, a quien se servirá presentar mi más cordial felicitación por la victoria que nuestras armas alcanzaron la jornada de que se trata. Libertad y Reforma. San Lorenzo 7 de Mayo de 1863
    Tropas mexicanas
    DE MIGUEL BLANCO A IGNACIO COMONFORT
    Se ha recibido en este Ministerio, el oficio de usted de fecha 7 del actual, en que comunica el encuentro el encuentro que el Comandante del estado de Veracruz tuvo con una fracción enemiga de 60 hombres que bajaban del Chiquihuite a la cual batió hasta obligarla a rendirse, lo cual ha sido muy satisfactorio al Presidente de la República. Independencia y Reforma, mayo 12 de 1863, Blanco, C. General en Jefe del Ejercito del Centro.
    *Reyes Montaño, Pedro. Comunicación Personal 2004
    ** Secretario de Estado y del Despacho de Guerra y Marina (23 de mayo, 1862 a 25 de Mayo de 1863).

    • That is an intriguing alternate take on this! You know how I love differences between public perception and actual events, so this is definitely fascinating information!

  2. theburningheart

    It should be, in Mexico no one new of Camaron, or in French Camerone (shrimp) because was not even a battle but a skirmish where the Legion got the worst part, not until the French Government asked the Mexican Government in 1892 under president Porfirio Diaz dictator of Mexico for thirty-five years to put a small plaque on the site, a place no one cared to visit except the occasional French tourist, until in 1964 seeking to foment business relationships with France, they built the monument a Hundred and One years later!
    Hell in Mexico, even the battle of 5 de Mayo (May 5th) it’s not celebrated much, is more celebrated more in the US, because at the time in the US the Civil War was raging, and the North, and president Lincoln did not wanted the French in Mexico, but could do nothing about it, but celebrated that particular defeat of the French troops, more than in Mexico, defeat that took them a whole new year to regroup, and Napoleon the III sent more troops to Mexico, and install Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico.
    Ironically dictator Porfirio Diaz fought bravely against the French invasion, but as years went by he seek advice of many foreigners specially the French because he got familiar with many of them he took as prisoners’ on the seven years he fought the French. After the end of his dictatorship he seek asylum in France, in May 1911 and was treated with many honors by his old enemies. Upon arriving in Les Invalides on July 20, the former president spoke with retired French soldiers who had fought in the war of intervention fifty years earlier. General Gustave Léon Niox, in charge of the building, escorted Díaz to the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the Mexican general admired. Niox, suddenly, took out the sword that Bonaparte used in 1805 during the Battle of Austerlitz, and placed it in the hands of Díaz, who made public his emotion for having the sword and that he did not deserve to have it in his hands, to which Niox he replied, “It has never been in better hands.”
    Well, anyway he lived in Paris until he died in 1921, he was given many medals even the French Legion of Honor in 1888, and there’s an anecdote at his old age he threw himself in to the river Seine, to rescue a girl from drawing, but I don’t know if it’s really true.
    There is a French writer Jean Mayer who went to Mexico, and look for old archives, for some years, and did also research in France, from families who posses old letters written by many soldiers who participated on the invasion of Mexico, and he wrote a book relatively recently that I posses and read.
    I doubt it’s translated into English.
    Anyway very informative mainly about the experiences of many French soldiers in Mexico, and quite a few who served in the Legion.

    Here I translate the review:

    Alsatian by birth, historian by profession, Jean Meyer has written some of the most important and rigorous works on the history of Mexico. Me, the French is perhaps his most ambitious and accomplished work. He tells at least three stories: that of the officers who took part in the French expedition in Mexico, that of a historian in the process of creation, and those minimal stories that branch off from the central narrative. Supported by the rigor of the doxographer, in letters, official letters, and other documents, Jean Meyer not only reconstructs the history of the group of officers who, between the bells of Africa and the defeat of Sedan, the Franco-Prussian War of 1872-, are sent to Mexico, but also manages to include the very process of the author who writes the story: it is the ISTOR of Herodotus, the buscon, the hound, the researcher, the one who copies data. A game of overlaps between objective knowledge and the subjective passion of those who find themselves as a witness, character and narrator of the story.

    • Thanks for the breakdown on this! I was familiar with the war to oust to Maximilian but not some of these other items. That old saying that “History is Rashomon” never seems to go out of style!

  3. theburningheart

    Well, the so call History it’s full of myths, and basically yes, it becomes a sort of Rashomon to sort out all the different versions, of an event. But the thing is the more you find out the better idea, you get of the whole thing, and make your own judgment.

  4. Frodo Lives

    This is one of the most famous epic battles of the 1800s.

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