The Greatest Last Stand You’ve Never Heard of
The French Foreign Legion is among the most legendary fighting forces in the world. Created by French King Louis-Philippe in 1831, the Legion is unique in allowing volunteers from foreign nations to enlist and fight on behalf of the French state. Recruits may enlist under an assumed name and after three years’ service are eligible to receive French citizenship, meaning that for much of its history the Legion has been a haven for criminals, rogues, and others seeking a fresh start in life. While modern recruiting standards are considerably more restrictive, the Legion has lost little of its mystique and elite image, though this often comes at steep price. Considered an essentially expendable force, the Legion has long been dispatched to the most remote and hostile corners of the French Empire, often facing near-insurmountable odds. But time and time again the men of the Legion have proven more than up to the challenge, earning a fearsome reputation as a tough-as-nails unit ever ready to fight to fight to the last man – a martial spirit perfectly captured by their unofficial motto: “March or Die.”
Every elite military force has its one legendary battle – a single action that forever defines the unit and its men. For the French Foreign Legion, that action is the 1863 Battle of Camarón – the most badass last stand you’ve never heard of.
The Battle of Camarón was part of a conflict that is all but forgotten today: the Second French Intervention in Mexico, also known as the Mexican Adventure. In 1860, following a three-year civil war, liberal politician Benito Juarez ascended to the presidency of Mexico and began implementing reforms meant to weaken the power of Mexico’s traditional ruling classes – the Catholic Church and wealthy landowners – as well as the influence of foreign nations. This included declaring a two-year moratorium on debt repayments to France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In response, on October 31, 1861, these three nations signed the Convention of London, threatening Mexico with invasion unless it resumed payments and opened up free trade in the region. But Emperor Napoleon III of France had ulterior motives for invading Mexico, seeking to turn the country into a client state of the French Empire with a government friendly to French political and economic interests. To this end he planned to install Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico, an arrangement which also served as a gesture of reconciliation between France and Austria in the wake of the Second Italian War of Independence. This strategy was risky due to the American Monroe Doctrine of opposing foreign intervention in Latin America. However, the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War, and wary of foreign governments recognizing the legitimacy of the Confederacy, the American government did little to oppose the intervention.
Troops of the Tripartite Alliance landed in Veracruz on December 8, 1861 and began pushing inland towards Mexico City. Following a series of Allied victories, in early March 1862 the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, Manuel Doblado, met with Spanish General Juan Prim to explain that the moratorium on debt repayment was only temporary. Convinced by his explanation and alarmed at France’s plans to conquer the country, Spain and the United Kingdom withdrew their forces from Mexico. On May 5, 1862, the French suffered a serious setback when their army was defeated at the Battle of Puebla, an event still celebrated in Mexico as Cinco de Mayo.
Fighting alone and with their advance halted by the defeat at Puebla, in early 1863 the French brought in fresh reinforcements – including the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the French Foreign Legion – and mounted a new advance on Mexico City. On March 16, an army of 28,000 men under General Élie Forey began laying siege to the city of Puebla, the last Mexican stronghold before the capital. As part of this operation the Foreign Legion was tasked with protecting French supply lines from attack by Mexican troops and bandits, with the 2nd Battalion protecting the road from Tejeria to Soledad, and the 1st Battalion the road onwards to Chiquihuite. It was a miserable, exhausting task, the kind the Legion was so often called upon to perform. The tropical lowlands around Vercruz were unbearably hot and humid and prone to frequent rainstorms and flash floods, making the already primitive roads even more impassable. As Legionnaire Diesbach de Torny wrote in his diary:
“These marches are terribly tiring, [with] privations of food, of clothes. We sleep for five or six days at the foot of trees in the water. Almost always torrential rain, and no change of clothes, no way to get dry. Impossible to light a fire…always sleeping in wet clothes. The next day the march resumes in the same clothes. It is an ordeal few people realize.”
Adding to the misery was the dreaded vomita or Yellow Fever, which by the end of intervention had killed off more than a third of the Legion’s strength.
In late April 1863 a convoy was dispatched from Veracruz to Puebla carrying 3 million Francs in gold bullion, siege guns, and sixty wagons of ammunition. However, native spies had informed the French that a large Mexican force was waiting to ambush the convoy near Palo Verde, and Legion foot patrols were sent out to find it.
In the early morning hours of April 30, the 3rd Company of three officers and 62 Legionnaires was en route from Chiquihuite to Palo Verde, around 50 kilometres southwest of Veracruz. The company was commanded by Captain Jean Danjou, a decorated veteran of the Crimean War who had lost his left hand in 1853 when his musket exploded, and wore a wooden prosthesis in its place. At 7AM the company reached Palo Verde and set about preparing their morning coffee. But an hour later a lookout spotted a force of 250 Mexican cavalrymen under the command of Captain Tomas Algonzanas heading south. Seeking a more defensible position, Captain Danjou ordered his men to fall back to the Hacienda La Trinidad in nearby Camarón, an abandoned 2-storey farmhouse enclosed by stone walls three metres tall and 50 metres wide. Unknown to the Legionnaires, 10 kilometres northeast of Camarón lay La Joya, headquarters of Colonel Fransico de Paula Milán and his 3,000 men. Soon after Captain Algonzanas’s patrol reported the presence of the Legionnaires, Milán dispatched a squadron of dragoons and four infantry battalions to Camarón to annihilate them before they could discover the location and size of the force preparing to attack the convoy.
Soon after reaching the Hacienda, Captain Danjou attempted to withdraw his men along the road to Paseo del Mancho, but the company was suddenly attacked by Milán’s cavalry. Danjou ordered his men to form a hollow square and unleashed volley after volley at the charging Mexicans, breaking up the attack and allowing them to retreat down a cactus-filled ditch back to the farm compound. However, 16 Legionnaires were captured during the retreat, leaving only 49 to defend the position. The Mexicans launched a second attack, but again the Legionnaires easily repelled them with concentrated gunfire.
Meanwhile, the convoy, warned of the 3rd company’s predicament, turned around and retreated back to La Soledad. At the same time, Colonel Milán arrived at Camarón with a force of 1400 men and completely surrounded the hacienda. He sent Captain Ramon Laine forward with a white flag of truce to offer surrender terms to the French, but Captain Danjou refused, stating simply:
“We have plenty of ammunition and shall continue to fight.”
Once Laine had departed, Danjou turned to his men and made them swear on his wooden hand that they would fight to the death rather than surrender. He then passed around a bottle of wine to lift their spirits. Corporal Louis Maine, one of the few French survivors of the battle, later explained the logic of Danjou’s decision:
“As the enemy had shown neither infantry nor artillery, we could defend ourselves for a long time against cavalrymen no matter how numerous. It was not with their short carbines without bayonets that they could overwhelm a company of the Legion behind walls.”
At 11 o’clock the Mexicans attacked, only to be repulsed again by disciplined fire from the Legionnaires. However, during the engagement Captain Danjou was struck in the chest by a bullet and was killed, and 2nd Lieutenant Napoleon Vilain assumed command. For a second time the Mexicans sent Captain Laine forward to offer surrender terms, only to be answered, in typical French fashion, with a single word: “Merde.”
Despite the blazing sun and being nearly out of water, the Legionnaires fought on for another 4 hours, repulsing attack after attack. But their numbers were rapidly dwindling, and by 2PM only twenty remained who could still fight. At 2:30 Lieutenant Vilain was shot and killed and command passed to 2nd Lieutenant Clement Maudet. At 5PM the roof of the farmhouse caught fire, filling the compound with choking black smoke, and Mexican soldiers managed to scale the walls and pour deadly plunging fire down onto the Legionnaires. By 5:30, only 12 Legionnaires remained. Colonel Milán ordered his men out of the compound and offered the French surrender for a third time. But once again the Legionnaires refused and the attacks continued. By 6PM the company’s ammunition was all but exhausted, and their numbers down to only five men: Lieutenant Maudet, Corporal Maine, and Legionnaires Wenzel, Catteau, and Constantin. Louis Maine later described what happened next:
“We held the enemy at a distance, but we could not hold out much longer as our bullets were almost exhausted. Soon, we had only one each, It was six o’clock and we had fought since the morning. “Ready…fire!” said the Lieutenant. We discharged our five rifles and, he in front, we jumped forward with fixed bayonets. We were met by a formidable volley. Catteau threw himself in front of his officer to make a rampart with his body and was struck by 19 bullets. Despite his devotion, the Lieutenant himself was hit by two bullets. Wenzel also fell, wounded in the shoulder, but he got up immediately. Three of us were still on our feet, Wenzel, Constantin, and I. We were about to jump over the lieutenant’s body and charge again, but the Mexicans surrounded us with their bayonets at out chests. We thought we had breathed our last, when a senior officer who was in the front rank of the assailants ordered them to stop and with a brusque movement of his saver raised their bayonets which threatened us. “Surrender!” he told us. “We will surrender,” I replied. “If you will leave us our arms and treat our Lieutenant who is wounded.” He agreed. He offered me his arm, gave the other to the wounded Wenzel and they brought a stretcher for the Lieutenant. We arrived behind a small rise where Colonel Milán was. “Is this all that is left?” He asked when he saw us. And when told yes,“These are not men. They are demons!”
In the end, the 65 Legionnaires at Camarón managed to hold out for nine hours against a force of some 3,300 Mexicans, inflicting nearly 500 casualties. Only 17 Frenchmen survived the battle, most of whom had been captured early in the battle. They were imprisoned in La Joya before being freed in a prisoner exchange on July 14.
The Battle of Camarón became the stuff of legend, the defining battle that perfectly encapsulated the Legion’s martial virtues. To this day, April 30 is celebrated by the Legion as “Camerone Day.” On that day, the preserved wooden hand of Captain Danjou is taken out of the Legion Museum of Memory and paraded down the “Sacred Way” at Legion headquarters in Aubagne, outside Marseilles. Along with the Battles of Tonkin and Tuyen-Quang during the 1884-1885 Sino-French War, Camarón is also immortalized in the Legion’s official marching song, “Le Boudin.”
While the Battle of Camarón forged the French Foreign Legion’s immortal reputation, France’s global image would not be so lucky. On June 7, 1863, French troops finally occupied Mexico City, and on April 10, 1864 Ferdinand Maximilian assumed the throne as Emperor Maximilian I. But his rule was doomed from the start. Not only did he fail to win the support of the country’s substantial indigenous population, but his liberal reforms such as abolishing child labour and land tenancy laws alienated conservative Mexicans, leaving Maximilian with few allies. Furthermore, the presence of a foreign national on the Mexican throne gave Benito Juarez’s Republicans an air of righteous patriotic legitimacy, and the country was plunged once again into civil war, with French troops fighting a brutal insurgency in the countryside. In 1865 the end of the American Civil War allowed the U.S. Government to turn their attention to the situation south of the border, and in May 1866 American pressure forced Emperor Napoleon III to withdraw his forces from Mexico. In 1867 Emperor Maximilian was captured by Republican forces, convicted of treason, and executed by firing squad on June 19. The government of Benito Juarez was reinstated soon afterwards, and Mexico has remained a republic ever since.
Meanwhile the French Foreign Legion would go from glory to glory, serving with distinction in the far corners of the French Empire such as Indochina, Algeria, Morocco, and equatorial Africa; as well as in the trenches of the First World War and as part of the Free French forces following the fall of France in 1940. And they are still going strong today, largely operating in former colonial hotspots such as Chad and Djibouti. An elite organization steeped in tradition and with a uniquely strong esprit de corps, the French Foreign Legion will likely serve as the French military’s go-to unit for tough jobs for decades to come.
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Porch, Douglas, The French Foreign Legion, HarperCollins 1991
The Mexican Adventure or: The Phantom Crown, http://gisby.info/mindex.htm
Porch, Douglas, French Foreign Legion, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/French-Foreign-Legion
1863 Battle of Camerone, Foreign Legion Info, http://foreignlegion.info/battle-of-camerone/
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