Battle of Camarón: "These Are Not Men, They Are Devils"

 
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Battle of Camarón: "These Are Not Men, They Are Devils"

Capt. Danjou rallying his men, battle of Camarón, artist unknown
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History – April 30, 1863

[Long-time readers will realize that this is a re-post of a story first presented here in 2010 and again in 2013. However, I believe this event is so impressive it needs to be repeated.]

There is something odd in the human spirit that celebrates events where a small group of men, despite being badly outnumbered by a foe, will still resist and likely die. Greece has the 300 Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae; the United States has the Alamo and its "thirteen days of glory;" and Great Britain has the successful defense of Rorke's Drift in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Then, there is France and its Foreign Legion, which every year on April 30 at its headquarters in Aubagne, holds a solemn parade and celebration for the brave men who gave their lives far from home, defending their lives and honor, at a small town in Mexico called Camarón de Tejeda…

La Légion Étrangère (The Foreign Legion)

The 1830 July Revolution had brought a constitutional monarchy to France after three days of street fighting in Paris. As a result, all foreign regiments in the French army were disbanded. However, the new king, Louis-Philippe realized that he needed some way to expand the French military to continue the conquest of Algeria still going forward despite the upheaval in the capital. In addition, many liberal intellectuals and students were wandering the streets of Paris, and the new king was looking for a way to get them out of his kingdom.

Consequently, on March 9, 1831 King Louis-Philippe created the French Foreign Legion by a royal ordinance. Failed revolutionaries from other European nations, malcontents, criminals and other riff-raff were recruited from all over Europe. [French citizens were initially forbidden to enlist in the Legion.] When a man enlisted in the Foreign Legion, his past was…well, the past. Many men joined under assumed names. Many new recruits were told that they were no longer Germans, or Italians, or Poles, or Englishmen; they now had only one country, La Légion.

The new military unit was led by French officers, and was initially stationed in Algeria. The Foreign Legion originally consisted of a single regiment of seven battalions, with each battalion containing eight companies. Each battalion was comprised of men from a specific country or linguistic group. The training regimen was brutal, considering that the land to which they were assigned was equally brutal and unforgiving. The barbarous treatment the Legionnaires received, as well as the iron discipline instilled afterwards, inspired the organization's unofficial motto, "Marche ou crève" (March or die).

In addition, despite the fact that the men of the Legion were fighting for France, they were regarded as little better than mere criminals, thugs and ruffians – which, of course, many were. Most of them were hiding from something, which is why many enlisted under assumed names. The rate of desertion was high, and they could expect no mercy if caught. Addressing this problem, one French general wrote, "It is quite clear that a good many of them enrolled in the corps to get a free trip, but it [will] cost them dearly if they are caught."

In the years to come, even into the current century, the Foreign Legion would be assigned to nearly every campaign where French armed forces would go, and even places where regular French forces did not wish to go. These campaigns included such locales as the Carlist War in Spain (1835-1838); the Crimean War (1853-1856); the 2nd Italian War of Independence (1859); various 19th century colonial actions in North Africa, Indochina and Madagascar; the First and Second World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945 respectively); the French Indochina War (1946-1954); and, Operation Desert Storm (1991). However, the reputation of the French Foreign Legion would be established for all time on April 30, 1863.

Background to the Battle

French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873); Oil on canvas by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1855); Current location in the Museo Napoleonico, Rome, Italy
French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873)
Oil on canvas by Franz Xavier Winterhalter (1855)
Current location in the Museo Napoleonico, Rome, Italy

In the early 1860's, the nation of Mexico was essentially a fiscal basketcase. In order to keep the country running, the Mexican government had taken out a number of loans with banks in France, Great Britain, and Spain. In July, 1861 Mexican President Benito Juarez announced that he was suspending all interest payments to these three creditor-nations. By the first week in January, 1862 naval forces of all three nations had converged on Veracruz. Emperor Napoleon III of France – nephew of the more famous former emperor of the French – saw the problems of Mexico as a means to expand the French empire, sending more troops to take over the country. [Obviously, if the United States was not involved in the "The Great Unpleasantness," aka the American Civil War, the Monroe Doctrine would have been forcibly invoked.] British and Spanish forces left Mexico by the end of April, leaving the French to try and run things.

Despite losing a battle in May near the town of Puebla, the French continued their military operations. Additional French troops had landed in Mexico in early 1863, and began a march to Mexico City. On March 16 the French Army besieged Puebla, as the town presented an impediment to their approach to the Mexican capital. The siege dragged on for several months, with the city eventually surrendering on May 17.

However, in late April the French forces around Puebla were running short of supplies, munitions and money for the soldiers' pay. As a result, a convoy was assembled to deliver these items to the French forces near Puebla. Part of the convoy's materiel included gold bullion in the amount of three million francs (worth $600,000 in 1863, or $10.6 million in today's money). As guards for the 60 carts and 150 mules, the French commander selected the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion of the Foreign Legion.

A Foreign Legion company normally had an official strength of 112 men and 3 officers. The 3rd Company was badly under strength, with 50 of the Legionnaires and all three of their officers on sick call, probably with dysentery, yellow fever or from the deleterious effects of the local climate (at this time of year, daytime temperatures can range from 110º to 120º F). Only 62 men were well enough to escort the supply train. 2nd Lieutenant Maudet of the 1st Company volunteered, as did 2nd Lieutenant Villian, the company paymaster (though reluctantly, as he was *not* the most popular officer in the battalion). The undermanned company still needed a commanding officer (2nd lieutenants could not command companies); consequently the battalion quartermaster, Captain Jean Danjou, volunteered to take command.

Jean Danjou (1828-1863), artist unknown; In the Tableau musée de la Légion étrangère at Aubagne, France
Jean Danjou (1828-1863), artist unknown
In the Tableau musée de la Légion étrangère at Aubagne, France

Capt. Danjou had a distinguished career in the French army at only 35 years of age. He was a graduate of the military academy of St. Cyr (the French equivalent of West Point). He then joined the Foreign Legion, and served with distinction in Algeria, the Crimea, in Italy during the 2nd Italian War of Independence, and in Morocco. Danjou lost his left hand while serving in Algeria in 1853, but an articulated wooden one was manufactured to replace it. [He had the hand painted white to resemble a gloved hand. After being assigned to the Mexican situation, Danjou had the original wood color restored.]

As the men prepared for their perilous mission, the French battalion commander voiced his concern that the understrength company would be insufficient to guard the convoy. Capt. Danjou tried to allay the colonel's fears, saying simply, "They are Legionnaires."

The Battle of Camarón

The 3rd Company left their encampment at about 1 a.m. on the morning of April 30 (it was a somewhat cooler time of the day to march). Two files of men marched on either side of the road, Capt. Danjou taking the road with a small group of men guarding the pack mules carrying food, water and extra ammunition. The all-important convoy would follow two hours behind them. The men marched for about 15 miles until 7 a.m., an hour and half past sunrise, and then fell out to rest and make coffee. Just as the water was coming to a boil, a sentry reported several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching their position.

Capt. Danjou ordered his men to form ranks. The Legionnaires presented a colorful spectacle for the Mexican horsemen: blue, red-trimmed tunics with bright green-and-red epaulettes on their shoulders; white, baggy wool pantaloons (officers may have worn red ones); with white kepis on their heads with white havelocks protecting their necks from the brutal sun, or wide-brimmed sombreros covered with white cloths. No doubt their clothing was stained with dust and darkened with sweat. Most of them were probably armed with a .70 caliber Model 1853 or 1857 smoothbore musket that had been converted to use percussion caps, but its range was limited. Some of the NCO's may have been armed with the more recent Minié rifle musket (we know that Corporal Maine had one). In the confusion, the pack mules carrying the company's food, water and spare ammunition escaped; this event would have consequences later in the day.

Foreign Legion uniforms, 1862; enlisted (l) and officer
Foreign Legion uniforms, 1862; enlisted (l) and officer

To give his command a minimal chance against the approaching horsemen, Danjou ordered his men to form a square, the classic tactical defense against cavalry. He also made use of the many thickets of brush and growth to give his company some additional bulwarks to guard them. Several close-range volleys managed to drive off some of the Mexican cavalry, inflicting several casualties. Realizing they would soon be ridden down and swamped by overwhelming numbers, Capt. Danjou thought fast. On their earlier march, the Legionnaires had passed the small village of Camarón, where they had spotted the abandoned ruins of the Hacienda el Camarón, a farmhouse surrounded by a 10-foot high stone wall.

Capt. Danjou ordered his men to head for the hacienda, hoping the Mexicans would concentrate on his little command and ignore the convoy that was still approaching. They fought off three separate cavalry charges before reaching the hacienda. It was sometime during this withdrawal to the hacienda that a portion of Danjou's command was separated from the main body. The result was that 16 men were captured by the Mexicans, reducing his manpower to 49. By mid-morning, they made their way into the courtyard of the hacienda, heading for the main building. However, they were in for a nasty surprise: at some point during the first few minutes of their encounter with the Mexican horsemen, several had headed for the ruined building and took up positions inside to snipe at the Legionnaires. Their fire would bedevil the hacienda's defenders for the rest of the day.

As they made preparations to defend the dilapidated compound, the Mexican commander, Colonel Francisco Milan, approached the hacienda under a flag of truce. He shouted a demand that the Legionnaires surrender, as they were greatly outnumbered. Showing more bravado than good sense, Capt. Danjou replied, "We have munitions. We will not surrender." He then vowed to defend their position to the death, which was rousingly agreed to by his soldiers. Shortly thereafter, the first two attacks on the hacienda commenced with Mexican cavalry trying to enter the courtyard to assault the Legionnaires. However, the narrowness of the courtyard did not allow successful maneuvering. In addition, the firing of the defenders caused considerable casualties to the Mexicans.

At about 11:00 a.m., a lookout reported more cavalry and infantry joining the original attackers. The forces facing the hacienda's defenders now numbered some 800 horsemen and 1200 infantry (a figure that is disputed by several historians). Several waves of attacks were broken up by the concentrated and accurate fire of the Legionnaires. As noon approached, the defenders were suffering the effects of the heat, lack of food (they had not eaten since the night before) and water, and the constant sniping of sharpshooters close to hand. Capt. Danjou had hoped for a well within the walls of the hacienda; however he was disappointed to find the closest water supply was several hundred yards away. The one-handed commander went from man to man, offering a few words of encouragement – and a little "liquid courage" from a bottle of wine. As he went to each man, Danjou made each soldier swear an oath on his wooden hand that they would not surrender. But his command was dwindling, as the sheer volume of Mexican fire took down man after man. [The Mexican soldiers were primarily armed with a variety of American-made weapons. These included Sharps and Spencer carbines; Colt Walkers & Dragoons revolvers; Smith & Wesson and Starr pistols; and Henry repeating rifles.]

At about noon, as he continued to rally his men, Capt. Danjou was shot in the chest, probably by one of the snipers. Command then devolved upon Lt. Villian, the despised paymaster. Perhaps the past few hours had inspired him, but he made a quick short speech to his command, saying simply, "My children! I command you now. We may die, but never will surrender." The men fought desperately for several more hours, beating back several more assaults by the Mexican infantry. It was around 4:00 p.m., as the Mexicans made another assault on the hacienda, that Lt. Villian fell.

Legionnaires defending the Hacienda el Camarón, artist unknown (Illustration courtesy of http://seanlinnane.blogspot.com)
Legionnaires defending the Hacienda el Camarón, artist unknown
(Illustration courtesy of http://seanlinnane.blogspot.com)

With Lt. Maudet now in command, another attack was driven back with heavy casualties to both sides. Col. Milan approached the beleaguered Legionnaires once more under a flag of truce. Peering into a scene out of a mediaeval woodcut, he saw Lt. Maudet, 12 Legionnaires, and piles of dead and wounded men lying about. The heat was unbearable, helped along by the fact that the hacienda had caught fire during the fight, the flies buzzed frantically, and the wounded feebly cried out for water. Again asking for the Legionnaires' surrender, Col. Milan was rebuffed again. Returning to his men, Milan ordered another assault on the dwindling enemy, only to have their attack again thrown back.

It was now about 6:00 p.m., and the defenders of Hacienda el Camarón had dwindled down to Lt. Maudet and 5 Legionnaires. Seeing that the Mexicans were massing for another attack, the Legionnaires frantically searched the bodies of their comrades for spare ammo. They were now down to one round per man. Lt. Maudet ordered them first to load their weapons, and then informed them that once the Mexicans were within range, they would charge the enemy with bayonets. The men lined up in a V-formation, with their lieutenant at the apex.

Lt. Maudet (l) leads final Legionnaire charge, artist unknown (Illustration courtesy of http://seanlinnane.blogspot.com)
Lt. Maudet (l) leads final Legionnaire charge, artist unknown
(Illustration courtesy of http://seanlinnane.blogspot.com)

As the Mexicans charged, they were greeted by the sight of six men emerging from their positions. The Legionnaires fired their last volley, then charged into the massed Mexican infantry. Almost immediately, two of them were shot down (one Legionnaire threw himself in front of Lt. Maudet, and received 19 bullet wounds for his trouble), one was dragged away as an unwilling captive, while the other three were attacked with rifle butts and beaten to the ground. Shouts of anger filled the air, as the Mexican soldiers were prepared to tear the foreigners limb from limb with their bare hands.

Fortunately, a Mexican officer fluent in French managed to fight his way to the center of the maelstrom and confront the three remaining defenders of the hacienda. Calling for them to surrender, he was met with stunning bravado and a demand in return. Corporal Maine, the only surviving NCO, asked that the defenders who still survived be treated for their wounds, that the survivors be allowed to return to France with their arms, and that they be allowed to escort Capt. Danjou's body to a military burial. Overcome with emotion by the unexpected request, Col. Milan replied, "Que podré negar a cierto hombres? No, estos no son hombres, son demonios." (What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.)

Aftermath

The casualties to the Legionnaires: 33 killed or died of wounds, 23 captured – nearly all of whom were wounded – with four men missing and never accounted for, with Corporal Maine, Privates Leonard and Wenzel and Drummer Lai the last men standing (Lai had hidden among the dead, and made his way back to French lines on his own).

Estimates of Mexican casualties were about 90 dead and more than 300 wounded. Because of the Legionnaires' sacrifice, the all-important convoy bound for the siege lines of Puebla successfully reached its destination.

After reports of the battle reached Paris, Emperor Napoleon III ordered the word "Camerone" [French spelling of the town's name] embroidered on the flag of the Foreign Legion, to commemorate it as though it were a great victory – which, in a way, it was.

Parading of Capt. Danjou's hand, April 30, 2006 at Aubagne, France [Note gentleman in center rear of the formation, carrying the hand's display case]
Parading of Capt. Danjou's hand, April 30, 2006 at Aubagne, France
[Note gentleman in center rear of the formation, carrying the hand's display case]

Footnote #1: Capt. Danjou's wooden hand was stolen from the battlefield by a Mexican soldier. It was recovered two years later and sent back to France. Each year on April 30, at the Foreign Legion headquarters, a major celebration is held with all the pomp and circumstance that the French military can offer. At that time, Capt. Danjou's hand, now resting in a glass-enclosed wooden case, is removed from the museum of the Legion and presented on parade. Also on that day, a special mess is held across the globe, where Legion officers make and serve coffee to the soldiers under them, symbolizing the coffee that the defenders of Hacienda Camarón never drank. Also, in every Legion unit, the commanding officer reads an account of the battle to his men.

Capt. Danjou's wooden hand with display case
Capt. Danjou's wooden hand with display case

Footnote #2: Each year on the anniversary of the battle, the village of Adalberto Tejeda (the most recent name for the village where the events took place) holds a solemn celebration. Units of the Mexican army march, political speeches are given and visitors from faraway France – including the French ambassador from Mexico City – are welcomed. Often retired members of the Foreign Legion visit the village to honor their fallen comrades. After the formal ceremonies, the local and foreign dignitaries have a separate, formal luncheon with music, and the local people celebrate in their own homes along with families who come for this annual event in their village.

Footnote #3: In 1892, a monument commemorating the battle was erected on the battlefield containing a plaque with the following inscription in French: "They were here less than sixty opposed to a whole army. Its mass crushed them. Life rather than bravery gave up these French soldiers at Camerone on 30 April 1863. In memory of them, the fatherland has erected this monument". This monument is apparently no longer extant.

Footnote #4: In the 1960s, the local people found human bones during a construction job at the old site of the Hacienda el Camarón. With the help of the Mexican government, the site of the battle was excavated, digging up dozens of sets of remains of Mexican and French participants (apparently the dead were all consigned to a single mass grave). These remains were placed in a number of cedar boxes, which were then incorporated into a memorial and parade ground called "El Mausoleo" (the Mausoleum) on the outskirts of the village. Looking at the picture below, under the white platform are the cedar boxes containing the remains of the French and Mexican soldiers. [I want to give special recognition to Mr. John Todd, Jr. for allowing me to use this photo from one of his websites I found during my research for this article.]

Memorial and parade ground honoring the French and Mexican dead at Camarón (Illustration courtesy of http://www.johntoddjr.com)
Memorial and parade ground honoring the French and Mexican dead at Camarón
(Illustration courtesy of http://www.johntoddjr.com)

Footnote #5: The brave men of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion of La Légion Étrangère. Note the international flavor of the Legionnaires.

Officers: Captain Danjou, 2nd Lieutenant Maudet, 2nd Lieutenant Villian.
NCOs: Sergeant Major Tonel, Sergeants Germeys, Morzycki, Palmaert and Schaffner.
Corporals: Berg, Delcaretto, Favas, Magnin, Maine and Pinzinger.
Drummer: Lai.
Legionnaires: Baas, Bernardo, Bertolotto, Billod, Bogucki, Brunswick, Burgiser, Cathenhusen, Catteau, Conrad, Constantin, Dael, Daglincks, Dicken, De Vries, Dubois, Friedrich, Fritz, Fursbaz, Gaertner, Gorski, Groux, Haller, Hipp, Jeannin, Konrad, Kurz, Kunassec, Langmeier, Lemmer, Leonard, Lernoud, Merlet, Rerbers, Reuss, Rohr, Schreiblich, Schifer, Seffrin, Seger, Seiler, Timmermans, Van Den Bulcke, Van Den Meersche, Vandesavel, Van Opstal, Verjus, Wensel, Wittgens and Zey

Footnote #6: By the time the last French troops left Mexico, nearly 6700 French had died between 1862 and 1867. Foreign Legion deaths accounted for 29 percent of the total deaths.

Footnote #7: A number of Hollywood films have used the Foreign Legion in their stories. Beau Geste is probably the best known. It had three versions:

  • a 1926 silent version with Ronald Coleman, William Powell, and Noah Beery;
  • a 1939 version – likely the best-known – starring Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston; and
  • the 1966 version, featuring Dean Stockwell, Doug McClure, and Telly Savalas.

There was also a comedic take on this story, the 1977 film The Last Remake of Beau Geste. It was directed by and starred Marty Feldman, of Young Frankenstein fame. Another fairly well-known Legion-themed film was March or Die (1977), a TV-movie starring Gene Hackman, Terrence Hill, Catherine Deneuve, Max Von Sydow, Jack O'Halloran, and Ian Holm.

Beau Geste (1939) theatrical release poster
Beau Geste (1939) theatrical release poster

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