Lieutenant Clement Maudet Leads Surviving Legionnaires in a Final Charge at Camarón
“We may die, but never will surrender.” Lieutenant Jean Villian
Almost every Army or nation has a story of a heroic group of soldiers that fight valiantly and often die against enemies of far greater strength. The United States has the Texan defenders of the Alamo and in World War II the Marine defenders of Wake Island. The British the Battle of Rourke’s Drift in the Zulu War. In 1989 the 9th Company of the Red Army’s 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment conducted a heroic defense against Afghan Mujahideen at Hill 3234 during Operation Magistral.
However, seldom are “the few” honored by friend and foe alike. Among these are the 65 men of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion Légion Étrangère (Foreign Legion). These few would battle nearly 2000 Mexican Soldiers at a small Hacienda called Camarón on April 30th 1863 while proving an advance guard escort to a supply convoy which was to relieve French forces besieging Puebla.
Captain Jean Danjou
The 3rd Company severely undermanned due to dysentery and 50 Legionnaires and all of the company officers were incapacitated. The battalion Quartermaster, Captain Danjou took command and was joined by two other officers, Lieutenant Clement Maudet and Lieutenant Jean Villian joined the remaining 62 Legionnaires. Beginning their March at 0100 and had marched 15 miles stopping for breakfast at 0700. While brewing their coffee with the convoy several hours behind scouts saw a force of several hundred Mexican cavalry approaching. The fought a battle with the cavalry for several hours before getting into the Hacienda around the middle of the morning. The Mexican forces under the command of Colonel Francisco Milan were joined by additional forces bringing their total to 800 cavalry and 1200 infantry. Milan realizing that the Legionnaires situation was hopeless offered Danjou the chance to surrender. With his force reduced to under 50 men following the skirmishes Danjou refused replying “We have munitions. We will not surrender.”
The Legionnaires defense held against several assaults but with casualties mounting, ammunition dwindling and without food or water in the scorching heat Danjou rallied his men. He had lost his left hand in Algeria 10 years before and had a wooden hand fashioned. He went to each Legionnaire offering words of support, a sip of wine and had each man swear on his wooden hand that they would not surrender. While doing so he was shot and killed about noon.
Lieutenant Villian, the battalion’s much disliked Paymaster who volunteered for the mission took command and the Legionnaires fought on suffering immensely under the fierce and accurate fire of the Mexican troops. Somehow as happens in battle, the formerly hated officer inspired the Legionnaires to continue the fight until he was shot dead about 1600 hours. Lieutenant Maudet then took command of the few remaining Legionnaires. Around 1700 Colonel Milan approached the now burning Hacienda to offer the surviving Legionnaires a chance to surrender. He looked inside the charnel house and saw Maudet rallying about a dozen Legionnaires amid piles of dead and wounded. Maudet refused the offer and Milan went back to his troops and ordered another assault.
With only himself and 5 remaining Legionnaires Maudet surveyed the situation. The Mexican troops were massing for another attack and his troops were down to one round of ammunition each. He and his men loaded their weapons and he ordered a charge into the massed Mexican infantry. They engaged the Mexicans in hand to hand combat, Maudet and one Legionnaire were killed and four captured. The senior surviving NCO Corporal Maine requested that the survivors be treated for their wounds and be allowed to maintain their weapons and escort the remains of Captain Danjou to France. Acceding to the bloodied Corporal’s request Colonel Milan, a valiant and honorable officer was overwhelmed with emotion and said “What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.” Something similar to what the German Army called the U.S. Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.
The sacrifice of the Legionnaires enabled the relief convoy to reach the French at Puebla. Emperor Napoleon III ordered the name Camarón embroidered on the Legion’s flag and the battle became legendary in the history of warfare. The Legion came into its own after Camarón. Danjou’s wooden hand and forearm were recovered from the battlefield and returned to France 2 years following the battle.
Today Camarón is still marked by the Legion wherever its troops are stationed much as the United States Marine Corps marks their founding. The wooden hand of Captain Danjou is removed from its case in the museum and paraded with the assembled troops. The officers serve their troops coffee symbolizing the coffee the defenders never drank and the commander of Legion at the headquarters as well as units deployed read the account of the battle. The week before the fall of their besieged redoubt at Dien Bien Phu was overrun the Legionnaires of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion remembered the sacrifice of their predecessors at Camarón with their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lemeunier read the story over the radio to the embattled garrison.
The Mexican Army too marks the courage of the Legionnaires with a parade, speeches made and French dignitaries including the French Ambassador and Legion veterans honored. It is a fitting tribute to the men that fought that day.