Battle of Camerone

Battle of Camerone - Captain Jean Danjou and his wooden hand

The Battle of Camerone is the most famous symbol of the French Foreign Legion. It is a sample illustration of bravery and determination of fighting to the death.

On April 30, 1863, during the French intervention in Mexico, the 3rd Company led by Captain Jean Danjou made a 23 miles (35 km) long reconnaissance mission between Chiquihuite and Palo Verde (in the state of Veracruz) to be sure an important French convoy heading for Puebla will not be attacked by Mexican rebels. The company belonged to the 1st Battalion, Foreign Regiment (then title for the Legion), based at Chiquihuite, the regiment’s HQ located near the town of Córdoba.

Near the abandoned native village of El Camarón (Camerone in French), some 2 miles (3 km) west of Palo Verde, while heading back to Chiquihuite, the company was two times attacked by Mexican cavalry.

Captain Jean Danjou with his company, consisting of 2 officers (2Lt Maudet + 2Lt Vilain) and 62 legionnaires, moved back and occupied a large farmyard of an old Spanish hacienda called La Trinidad, around 350 yards (300 m) east of Camerone. The farmyard had around 55 yards (50 m) long stone-built walls, which were 10 feet (3 m) tall. The company was subsequently besieged by the Mexican cavalrymen (some 600-800 men).

When a Mexican officer (Captain Laisné, of French origin) demanded the surrender of Danjou and his legionnaires, Danjou replied: “We have munitions. We will not surrender”. Then, he asked his men for fighting till the finish.

The battle started around 9:00 AM. Around 11:30 AM, 3 Mexican battalions arrived to Camerone to support the cavalry. They were led by Colonel Francisco de Paula Milan, the then governor of the Veracruz state and the state’s military chief. At that point, the Mexican force comprised almost 2,000 Mexican infantry and cavalry. Nonetheless, the legionnaires rejected even the second offer of surrender and continued to fight.

The battle finished around 6:00 PM (18h00). The majority of the company were killed, including Cpt Jean Danjou and 2Lt Vilain. The last five combat-ready men (2Lt Maudet + 4 legionnaires) had fought until their ammunition ran out, then decided to charge with fixed bayonets. When they did, a Mexican fusillade killed 1 legionnaire, seriously wounded 2Lt Maudet (who started his career as a simple legionnaire 15 years ago) and wounded 1 legionnaire. Then, another Mexican officer (Colonel Cambas, of French origin too) ordered his troops to cease fire and spared the last 3 legionnaiers. He also allowed them to keep their equipment and rifles, and protected them while heading to meet Colonel Milan in his field camp.

When Colonel Milan saw the 3 legionnaires, he exclaimed:
“That’s all what is left?? These aren’t men, they are devils!”

Out of those 65 men of the company, only 24 legionnaires survived the battle (being wounded in the vast majority, however) and returned from a prison camp later. 2Lt Maudet died from his injuries on May 8.

Between 300-500 Mexicans were killed or wounded during the battle.

Captain Jean Danjou lost his left hand in Algeria in 1853, when the canon of his rifle had exploded. He wore a precisely-made wooden hand to replace it. The hand was brought back to France. Today, the wooden hand of Captain Jean Danjou is paraded annually on April 30, during the event called Camerone Day, to commemorate the battle and the bravely fighting legionnaires.