Battle of Camerone (April 30, 1863)

Battle of Camerone (April 30, 1863)


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The battle of Camerone is a founding episode in the Foreign Legion, which celebrates this French version "Fort Alamo" every year. In 1862, France came to the aid of Emperor Maximilian, which she imposed on the throne of Mexico. On April 30, 1863, a detachment of about sixty legionaries distinguished themselves in Camerone by standing up to 2,000 Mexicans. This minor event in history in the context of the Mexican expedition launched by Napoleon III allows us to understand how it was essentialized by the Legion to the point of becoming the keystone of its tradition.

The international operation against Mexico

Since its independence, Mexico has been a weakened country both territorially (cession to the United States of California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, part of Wyoming, etc.), politically (strong dissensions policies between conservatives and liberals) and above all economically. In 1858, under the presidency of the anticlerical Benito Juarez, a rebellion led by conservative generals shook the country. In 1861, President Juarez ended up pushing back the rebels, but the conflict dealt a fatal blow to the economy of the country which, despite the nationalization of Church property, found itself blatantly unable to repay its European creditors… Juarez decided then to suspend for two years the payment of the debt he contracted with Spain (9 million pesos), France (3 million) and especially the United Kingdom (70 million).

For Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, this was an opportunity to be seized. A military intervention would make it possible to replace a weak republic, in the grip of civil war and a bad payer, by a Catholic empire allied with France. A good way for France to extend its informal empire and its "soft power" over the New World. The opportunity was all the more beautiful as the United States itself in the midst of civil war was unable to intervene in its Mexican neighbor.

However, the Mexican expedition should not appear as a French imperialist initiative. Everything is in fact decided in collaboration with the other powers concerned by the Mexican debt: Spain and the United Kingdom. Thus, on October 31, 1861, the London Convention took place, which served as a framework for the military expedition in the name of debt repayment and the protection of European nationals. The official and shared aim of the intervention was to put pressure on Mexican power by seizing the ports on the east coast. But for Napoleon the idea was then to offer the Mexican crown to Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Emperor of Austria: which at the same time made it possible to strengthen ties in Europe between France and Austria. The Mexican emigrants convinced him: the people are tired of civil wars, they are only waiting for a monarchical restoration and will rise up as one man to fight alongside the French!

It is therefore a coalition which intervenes against the Mexican Republic: the Spaniards who were already in Cuba sent General Joan Prim against their former colony with 6,300 men, the British sent their centerpiece, the navy, commanded by Admiral Dunlop, as for France, she deployed the largest contingent. On December 17, 1861, the Spaniards landed, followed on January 8, 1862 by the French by Admiral Jurien de La Gravière. In Veracruz the French expected a jubilant crowd, favorable to the return of the monarchy, which would have provided them with numerous auxiliaries. But it is not ... They rally only the modest ragged troop of General Galvez (about 200 men). Worse, the health situation is deteriorating rapidly in this region known as the "hot lands" where yellow fever, vomito negro, is rife. Faced with this precarious situation, and the desire of the Mexican Republic to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, an agreement was signed at La Soledad. This agreement allows the allies to move further into the land, more spared from yellow fever, while they reach an agreement on the debt. The allies signed the convention, although Jurien de La Gravière did not like this implicit way of recognizing the Mexican government. Pressed to leave this inhospitable region, the Spaniards and the British quickly conclude a new financial agreement (which will not be respected any more than the previous ones…) and withdraw their troops. On the French side, however, Jurien de La Gravière was disowned, General Latrille de Lorencez took command of the troops and France entered alone into a phase of conquest. On the pretext of the ill-treatment suffered by French residents in Mexico City, the French Empire declares "war on an iniquitous government, which had committed unheard-of outrages".

The Beginnings of the Mexican Expedition: The Siege of Puebla

The French expeditionary force, with less than 7,000 men, 10 guns (small pieces of 4 moreover), little food and no reserve was therefore going to embark on a hazardous conquest of Mexico. From April 27, Lorencez marched on the city of Puebla de Los Angeles which had been presented to him as devoted to the monarchists and ready to open its doors to him. But on May 4, he found himself facing a fortified city defended by 12,000 Mexicans! Outnumbered, still receiving almost no support from the popular uprising so hoped for, Lorencez nevertheless attempted an assault that turned out badly. Fully aware of his lack of military means to carry out any conquest, Lorencez retreated (what is known as the Six Mile Retreat) to Orizaba where he took refuge while awaiting reinforcements from France. Lorencez's reports aptly describe the absence of any pro-France monarchical party, and as if this defection was not enough, Maximillian himself did not seem very involved in the future of his hypothetical future kingdom. But for the emperor it was not possible to withdraw so quickly after a failure, he therefore sent reinforcements: during the summer about 23,000 men land under the orders of General Elie-Frédéric Forey who reestablishes the link with the general Lorencez, dismissed from his post. For Napoleon III the situation became more complex, now his project would be rather to bring down the republic of Juarez, and to establish a stable government pending the organization of a popular consultation which would determine the political future of country (which is hardly possible in this country without an administrative organization). Whether it all ends with the coming to power of an Austrian or a Mexican, it does not matter to France in the end as long as the latter is a staunch ally in the future.

For now it was already necessary to conquer the territory, and for that Forey takes the time to equip himself, to buy mules and horses (in Cuba and in the United States), to tame his new theater of operations. : a hostile country both geographically (absence of roads, etc.) and its inhabitants (development of guerrillas, etc.). Between him and Mexico City stand General Ortega and the Mexican army, but also the city of Puebla. Forey decides to organize a siege in order around Puebla where he arrives on March 12, 1863. After a heavy preparation of artillery, Fort San-Javier is taken on March 28, therefore a long street battle begins and will not end. only in mid-May with the victory of the French.

Camerone

During the siege of Puebla, the line of communication with Veracruz is paramount. This is where food and ammunition arrive, it is a vital axis for the French army. So, of course, this is a prime target for the Mexican guerrillas who continually harass French troops in the area. To secure the area, the French deployed the 400 men of the Egyptian Negro Battalion (provided by the Viceroy of Egypt), General Dupin’s counter-guerrilla troops and the four battalions of the Foreign Regiment. It was in this context that the 3rd company of the 1st battalion of this regiment was exterminated in the village of Camaron (now Camerone) after heroic resistance. The details of the fighting that took place in the hacienda are known to us only from the accounts of the survivors. From these testimonies was written the official and epic account of the battle read to the legionaries each April 30:

« The French army besieged Puebla. The mission of the Legion was to ensure the movement and safety of the convoys over a hundred and twenty kilometers. Colonel Jeanningros, who was in command, learned on April 29, 1863, that a large convoy carrying three million in cash, siege material and ammunition was on its way to Puebla. Captain Danjou, his adjutant, decides to send a company to the front of the convoy. The 3rd Company of the Foreign Regiment was appointed, but did not have an officer available. Captain Danjou himself takes command and the second lieutenants Maudet, flag bearer, and Vilain, payer, join him voluntarily.

On April 30, at 1 a.m., the 3rd Company, three officers and sixty-two men strong, set out. She had driven about twenty kilometers, when at 7 a.m. she stopped in Palo Verde to make coffee. At this point, the enemy is revealed and the fight immediately begins. Captain Danjou had the square formed and, while retreating, victoriously repulsed several cavalry charges, inflicting severe first losses on the enemy.

Arrived at the level of the Auberge de Camerone, a vast building comprising a courtyard surrounded by a wall three meters high, he decided to take refuge there, to fix the enemy, and thus delay as much as possible the moment when the latter can attack the convoy.

While the men hastily organize the defense of this inn, a Mexican officer, arguing the great superiority of numbers, summons Captain Danjou to surrender. This one makes answer: "We have cartridges and will not surrender". Then, raising his hand, he swore to defend himself to the point of death and made his men take the same oath. It was ten o'clock. Until 6 o'clock in the evening, these sixty men, who had not eaten or drunk since the day before, despite the extreme heat, hunger, thirst, resist 2,000 Mexicans: eight hundred cavalry, one thousand two hundred infantry. .

At noon, Captain Danjou was shot dead in the chest. At 2 a.m., Second Lieutenant Vilain falls, struck by a bullet in the forehead. At this point, the Mexican colonel managed to set the inn on fire.

Despite the heat and the smoke that add to their suffering, the legionaries hold out, but many of them are struck. At 5 o'clock, around Second Lieutenant Maudet, only twelve men in a state of combat remained. At this moment, the Mexican colonel gathers his men and tells them of what shame they will cover themselves if they do not manage to bring down this handful of brave men (a legionnaire who understands Spanish translates his words as he goes) . The Mexicans will give the general assault through the breaches they have managed to open, but before that, Colonel Milan still issues a summons to Second Lieutenant Maudet; the latter rejects her with contempt.

The final assault is on. Soon there were only five men left around Maudet: Corporal Maine, the legionnaires Catteau,

Wensel, Constantin, Leonhard. Each still keeps a cartridge; they have bayonets on the cannon and, taking refuge in a corner of the courtyard, with their backs to the wall, they face it. At a signal, they unload their rifles at point blank range at the enemy and rush at him with bayonets. Second Lieutenant Maudet and two legionnaires fall, beaten to death. Maine and his two comrades are going to be slaughtered when a Mexican officer rushes on them and saves them. He shouts to them: “See you! "

"We will surrender if you promise to pick up and treat our wounded and if you leave our weapons to us." Their bayonets remain threatening.

“We refuse nothing to men like you! The officer replies.

Captain Danjou's sixty men have kept their oath to the end. For 11 hours, they resisted two thousand enemies, killed three hundred and wounded as many. By their sacrifice, by saving the convoy, they fulfilled the mission that had been entrusted to them.

Emperor Napoleon III decided that the name of Camerone would be inscribed on the flag of the Foreign Regiment and that, moreover, the names of Danjou, Vilain and Maudet would be engraved in gold letters on the walls of Les Invalides in Paris.

In addition, a monument was erected in 1892 on the site of the battle. It bears the inscription:

"They were here less than sixty

opposed to a whole army,

its mass crushed them.

Life rather than courage

abandoned these French soldiers

April 30, 1863.

in their memory, the fatherland raised this monument ”

Since then, when the Mexican troops pass in front of the monument, they present their arms. »

However, the official account says nothing of the sequence of events which enabled the survivors to tell their story. In fact, Captain Saussier's company, who arrived on the scene the next day, only found the Laï drum as their interlocutor, which had been left for dead with nine bullet and spear wounds. General Dupin's counter-guerrilla troops attacked the village of Cueva Pentada on June 13, where they freed one of Cameron's survivors: the legionnaire de Vries. On June 28, they took the village of Huatusco, defended by guerrillas who had participated in Camerone: they discovered the burial place of second lieutenant Maudet that two Mexican officers had in vain entrusted to the care of their sister. Finally, on July 14, 1863, twelve surviving prisoners were exchanged for Mexican Colonel Alba. Thus, 14 legionaries survived the battle. Most of them received promotions and decorations.

From event to myth

On the scale of the history of France, and even on the scale of the Mexican expedition, the battle of Camerone is only a very small event, a skirmish which only engages about sixty French soldiers. . Nevertheless, this French-style battle of Thermopylae is completely mystified, glorified, in such a way that it hides in the collective representations the final failure of the Mexican expedition. But then why this craze for Camerone? Each army corps needs its traditions, these “founding myths” in a few kinds, significant events where the elders are given as examples, and the Foreign Legion, which was then very young (it was only formed in 1831) should not be outdone. A few months after the event, Colonel Jeanningros obtained permission from the Emperor to have the name of "Camerone" embroidered on the flag of his regiment (now used on all the flags of the Legion). Napoleon III also had the names “ Camerone, Danjou, Maudet, Villain »On the walls of Les Invalides. On May 3, 1863, Colonel Jeanningros had a wooden cross erected on the site of the battle with the inscription " Here is the 3rd company of the 1st battalion of the Foreign Legion », This cross is then replaced by a solid column. In 1892, the French consul Edouard Sempé had a monument erected by subscription. The monument was redone and inaugurated in 1965.

Camerone is therefore indeed a concrete historical event in which a handful of legionaries distinguished themselves, but by commemoration the event is essentialized to draw its spirit. What is called "the spirit of Camerone", and which must permeate any legionary, is this ability to obey and fight to the death (since almost the entire workforce was wiped out) for the success of the campaign. mission (the Mexicans were delayed and the convoy saved). In other words, a real self-sacrifice and a sacred sense of duty. The sacred aspect is hardly exaggerated, since in the case of Camerone there is the recovery of what one might consider a relic: the wooden hand of Captain Danjou. This prosthesis had been sought in vain by the relief column, it would have been carried away by a Mexican guerrilla before arriving in the hands of a French ranch owner near Tesuitlan where the Austrian lieutenant Karl Grübert would have bought it. According to other sources, she was found during General Ramirez's arrest. Colonel Guilhem deposited it at Sidi Bel Abbes (motherhouse of the Legion) in 1865. Today it is in the crypt of the Musée du Souvenir de la Légion in Aubagne and only leaves for the commemorations of the battle. The hand of Danjou ultimately has all the attributes of a religious relic: a debated origin, a sacredness in a high place and a regular exhibition for a great feast.

Since 1906, the official account presented above has been read to legionaries every April 30, so that the example of these sixty men of the Second Empire becomes school. As for the expression "to make Camerone" it came out of the ranks of the Legion to spread throughout society as a synonym for "to fight to the ultimate sacrifice".

For further

- Camerone, April 30, 1863: The founding battle of the foreign legion, by André-Paul Comor. Tallandier, 2012.

- Camerone - The heroic campaign of the Foreign Legion in Mexico in 1863, by Pierre Sergent. Fayard, 1980.


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