The Mexican campaign: the Battle of Camarón (contemporary account)

Author(s) : NOIR Louis
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The Battle of Camarón

The Battle of Camarón occupies an important position in the history of the Foreign Legion. The heroic resistance of sixty-five Foreign Legion soldiers against two thousand Mexican soldiers symbolises the mentality of the Foreign Legion, who preferred to fight on to the death rather than surrender. With only three Foreign Legion soldiers surviving the battle, it has been suggested that the Foreign Legion glorified a tragic defeat. Yet there is no doubting the courageous actions of the legionnaires in the Battle of Camarón. The wooden hand of the Legion's commander that day, Captain Danjou, is considered one of the most important historical relics in the Foreign Legion's collection.

Account of the battle

“That day we were expecting delivery of a considerable amount of money: roughly three million francs. Until Palo Verde, we had not met a single Juarist: Captain Danjou called a halt and instructed his staff to prepare the coffee. Dawn was starting to break.
Soon the fires were burning, the soldiers sat around their pots preparing their morning coffee; each one warmed himself as he broke his biscuit into his  little mess tin. They chattered happily, huddling close to the fire for the breeze was cool.

Suddenly, the cry went up: to arms! In an instant everyone was on their feet, the boiling coffee knocked over, bags buckled, and the company was in battle formation. Six hundred cavalrymen poured out of the Palo Verde streets, before which we had made camp. The situation was serious. Our handful of men had ten leagues to cover, under fire and facing [repeated] charges from a cavalry ten times our number; the company took up a defensive position, and the two sides observed each other.
The Juarists manoeuvred their troops in order to advance on our small company, […] but the legionaries threw themselves into the undergrowth to the right of the road. Putting up a covering rearguard of several skilled skirmishers, they beat a retreat through [nearby] fields. […] Milan [leader of the Juarists] sought in vain to go after the company; their horses crashed into the bushes which our infantrymen were able to slip round easily. Moreover the volleys fired by our shooters found their mark amongst the enemy, and we watched them disappear, clearly intent on cutting off our retreat further down the line. […] The French column advanced unmolested on to Tamasone [today Camarón de Tejeda]. Milan appeared to our right just as we reached the houses.
Captain Danjou, hoping to intimidate the enemy and extricate [the company from the situation] with an audacious move, marched on the guerrillas. Unfortunately, the Juarists were battle-hardened warriors: first they withdrew, drawing the French [troops] out from the buildings; once they had decided that the distance between our column and the houses was sufficient, the performed an about-turn, enveloping the company, cutting of any retreat, and descending on [our troops] with savage cries. […]
Our legionaries coolly formed a circle; the guerrillas were met by heavy and well-aimed fire. They stopped twenty paces from the bayonets. Milan sought to break the circle with his elite group but the horses, their muzzles stung [by the bayonets], reared up and threw their riders. The squadrons withdrew.
Captain Danjou took advantage of this first success to lead his column up an embankment which dominated the road; then he marched on the village, scattering and driving away the disorganised squads that lined the streets and barred his route. Thus he reached a farm of sorts. […] Imagine a perfectly square courtyard, each side sixty-three metres in length, with a wall along three sides and a building forming the fourth. The company entered by the building's main door and took possession of it; Milan, joined by one hundred men whom he had rallied to his side and ordered to dismount, arrived at the same time and entered the farm by the small door in the far right-wing. Fortunately, the courtyard could only be reached from this wing by a window, whilst the section we had occupied had two exits onto this courtyard; [whilst] we were able to get down [to the courtyard], the enemy found it impossible. Our soldiers split up and took up position on each side, ready to defend them; some climbed onto the roof.
As if by tacit agreement, a cease fire had reigned during these preparations, each [soldier] concerning himself with taking up position. […]
The enemy left his best shots at the window of the only room in their wing that offered a view of the courtyard. These men were charged with decimating the defenders at the doors. But these latter directed a volley so true and so sustained against this window that the Juarists dared not show themselves, [choosing instead] to fire aimlessly from inside the room.
The space being defended was so large that the assailants could scale the poorly guarded walls with ease. From there they unloaded their weapons upon us. We ran to them and drove them away, but they reappeared elsewhere. There were soon [French] wounded and dead. Captain Danjou was killed at almost the very beginning. Second Lieutenant Villain took over command. […] Until midday Milan's men were kept at a distance; despite their massive numerical superiority, they dared not launch an assault. Suddenly the drumbeat struck up; the legionaries thought a relief force had arrived. They watched as nearly three enemy battalions poured into the streets around the farm. Yet the besieged did not give in, and they saluted in ironic fashion the arrival of enemy [reinforcements] with defiant huzzahs. […] The Juarists, stung by the insolent cries of our countrymen, fell on the farm. They received a volley at twenty paces, then again at ten, after which they stopped, spun around and fled. Fifty bodies covered the ground. Despite these failures, Milan persevered, […] restored courage to his infantry, and reignited their spark. Two breaches were hacked open: one in a courtyard wall, the other enlarging the window of the room occupied by the Juarists. They now began to rain [fire] down on us from these two openings. The company held strong, but after three years it had lost its lieutenant and two thirds of its men.
Milan finally decided that the hour had come to put an end to [things]. He formed his battalions into columns, but the infantry refused to advance. The bayonets belonging to the few remaining survivors gleamed through the breaches and the Juarists dreaded the terrible weapons wielded in our hands.
Milan had bundles of straw piled up in front of the farm and set fire to them. The smoke blinded us, and our firing became uncertain. We lost another ten or so men. The enemy colonel, who knew we were in dire straits, tried to intimidate us. He counted out his men to us and offered quarter. M. Maudet, a volunteer who had signed up as an amateur reconnaissance officer, replied by flying a black flag made from a strip of tunic [a black flag, as the opposite of a white flag, was allegedly used on occasions to indicate that no quarter would be offered or accepted: however no other accounts refer to this moment in the battle, suggesting perhaps that Noir's fictional tendencies overcame him at this point in the retelling].
Milan then ordered his troops to march in front of the breaches, showing them the exterminated company, the wounded and dead that lay strewn about the courtyard, and the few French survivors exhausted by the heat, hunger, fatigue and thirst. He harangued his companies, called on the bravest to take up the column heads, ordered his dismounted cavalrymen to lead his hesitant infantrymen, before finally placing himself at the front.
The legionaries used up their last cartridges and repelled the first column with their melee weapons. But the walls were attacked from all angles, and in the hand-to-hand fighting [that followed], almost all of the legionaries perished. M. Maudet and seven men hastened to a shed and barricaded themselves inside. For ten minutes, this squad held the enemy forces at bay… Finally the last cartridge had been fired. M. Maudet and his men demolished the barricades and, with bayonets affixed, fell upon the troops in the courtyard. They were met by a most fearsome volley and were finished off with sabre blows. One soldier received twenty-eight bullets. The last to fall was M. Maudet, mortally wounded. [In actual fact, there were three survivors from the battle: further suggestion that Louis Noir's account is heavily romanticised.] [Noir]

The author

Louis Etienne Salmon [Louis Noir was his nom de plume] signed up for the Zouaves aged seventeen (1854). He completed tours in the Crimea, Africa and Italy, and published his account Souvenirs d'un zouave in 1866. He also began recording contemporary accounts of the expedition with the intention of writing a eulogy to a private. He later became an established author, making his name on the back of adventure novels and his Histoire de l'invasion, detailing events of the war of 1870.

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