Friends of Padre Steve’s World
As a career military officer who has served in a thankless war I have a special affinity for soldiers who have served in similar wars, and especially for those who fight epic battles against overwhelming opposition. Some of these men fought in wars that were certainly not just, but they served nonetheless, earning the admiration and respect of friend and foe alike. But seldom are such fighters, even while earning the respect of their enemy, honored by them over a century later.
This is a fascinating story which I do believe that civilians need to read to understand the world of volunteer soldiers, fighting unpopular wars. I think that it helps bring a bit of humanity to history to remember such men.
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.
This is the story of the 65 officers and men of the 3rd Company of the 1st Battalion Légion Étrangère (Foreign Legion) 152 years ago at the Battle of Camarón. On April 30th, 1863 which the United States was involved in a great civil war, these few would battle nearly 3000 Mexican Soldiers at a small Hacienda called Camarón.
The unit had arrived in Mexico as part of a French invasion designed to usurp the Mexican government and place a puppet government loyal to Emperor Louis Napoleon, or Napoleon III while the United States was too busy to intervene.
The men of the company had been in country just a few weeks when they were ordered to escort to a supply convoy to relieve French forces besieging Puebla.
The 3rd Company was severely undermanned due to dysentery and 50 Legionnaires and all of the company officers were incapacitated. The battalion Quartermaster, Captain Danjou took command of the remaining Legionnaires and was joined by two other officers, Lieutenant Clement Maudet and Lieutenant Jean Villian.
These men began their march to immortality at 0100 and had marched 15 miles before 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. Abandoning breakfast that their still brewing coffee they 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 2200 infantry soldiers. Colonel Milan realized that the Legionnaires situation was hopeless and offered Captain Danjou the chance to surrender. He warned the Legionnaire commander “you will be needlessly slaughtered.” Despite the fact that his force had been reduced to under 50 men following the skirmishes with the Mexican cavalry, Danjou refused the offer and replied “We have munitions. We will not surrender.”
The Legionnaires defense held against several assaults but casualties were mounting and ammunition dwindling. Without food or water in the scorching heat Danjou rallied his men. The gallant Danjou had lost his left hand in Algeria 10 years before and had a wooden hand. 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 as he did this the Mexican forces launched another assault. Danjou was shot in the chest and died about noon.
Lieutenant Villian took command. As the battalion’s Paymaster he had been universally hated by the men. However he volunteered for the mission and somehow, the formerly hated officer inspired the Legionnaires to continue the fight. Villian called out to his soldier’s “Mes enfants! I command you now. We may die, but never will surrender.” The Mexican commander offered the survivors another chance to surrender and Legionnaire Sergeant Vincent Morzycki responded with one word: “Merde.” On the Legionnaires fought and Villian, true to his word was shot dead about 1600 hours. During those desperate hours Villian and the Legionnaires fought on suffering immensely under the fierce and accurate fire of the Mexican troops.
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 third 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. By the time that assault was finished only Maudet and five soldiers remained.
It was now about 1800 and the unequal battle had been raging for eleven hours. Maudet surveyed the situation. The Mexican troops were massing for yet another attack and his troops were down to one round of ammunition each. He ordered his men load their weapons and he ordered a charge into the massed Mexican infantry. They engaged the Mexicans in furious hand to hand combat in which 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.”
When the battle was over the French had lost 43 men killed and 19 wounded with only three men left unwounded. The survivors were captured and exchanged. During the course of the day they had killed 190 Mexican soldiers and wounded about 300 more.
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.
Ninety-one years later in another epic and hopeless battle the Legionnaires of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, surrounded in the “Hell” of Dien Bien Phu remembered the sacrifice of their predecessors at Camarón as their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lemeunier read the story over the radio to the embattled and doomed Legionnaires.
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 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 by all. It is a fitting tribute to the men that fought that day.