“Marche ou creve”; March or Die
Unofficial Legion Motto
Today is Camerone Day
Camerone Day is the most important day in the calendar of the French Foreign Legion, their holy day.
This is Part 2 of the Camerone Day article, and retells the events of the battle
Part 1 of this article, which briefly outlines the history of the Legion up to Camerone, can be found here
Part 3 is about Camerone Day itself and what happens on the day, can be found here
The battle of Hacienda Cameron
On April 30th 1863, a Legion reconnaissance force of 65 men and officers were on patrol near the village of Cameron. The legionnaires were led by Capitaine Jean Danjou, a hero of the legion’s Crimean war. Danjou had lost his left hand in battle and had a wooden hand in its stead.
On foot, Danjou’s force suddenly encountered 1,200 Mexican cavalry, busy setting an ambush for the main French army. Forming a square, Danjou unleashed a fusillade of rifle fire that completely shattered the Mexican charge. Danjou moved his command to the Hacienda Cameron, a large ranch some two hundred yards away. Here, with matchless courage, the legionnaires fought the huge Mexican force.
“We have munitions, we will fight”
By 11.00 am the legionnaires had fought for three hours, without water and with only the ammunition they carried. Their mules carrying water and ammunition had been run off by the Mexican’s at first contact. When offered the chance to surrender, Danjou simply replied “We have munitions, we will fight”. The legionnaires swore an oath to fight to the death.
A simpler reply
The legion’s situation soon a turn for the worst. The Mexicans were joined by 600 infantrymen. This gave them the ability to storm the compound. By this time Danjou, who have been leading bravely, was dead. As the fighting intensified, the Mexicans offered the legionnaires a second opportunity to surrender. The second reply was shorter “Merde!”
The legion fought on. Incendiaries and the intense rifle fire set fire to the Hacienda. Still the legion fought on, standing in the smoke and flames. In the words of Corporal Louis Maine “Hope no longer existed, still, no one thought of surrender”.
The Mexicans stormed the compound; the five surviving legionnaires each fired their single last bullet and then bayonet charged the astonished Mexicans. The last officer, Second Lieutenant Maudet, died instantly with 19 bullets in him, along with Catteau, a legionnaire who tried to act as a human shield for Maudet. Wenzel, Constantin and Maine, the surviving Legionnaires, were about to be bayoneted when a Mexican officer halted their killing.
“Will you surrender?”
The officer begged them to surrender. The three legionnaires agreed to do so, as long they could keep their weapons and that Wenzel be treated for his wounds. With this agreed, they were taken to the Mexican commander, a Colonel Milan. When he saw them he exclaimed “Is this all that is left?” “These are not men, these are demons!”.
The incredible story of the battle became the enduring myth of the Legion. Danjou and the brave men who would never surrender. Camerone has resonated throughout the Legion’s history as the moment when the Legion was truly born.
The Legion’s Alamo
To understand the importance of Camerone, one has to understand that Camerone is the Legion’s Alamo, brave men fighting against impossible odds, refusing to surrender. There are other parallels. Like the battle of the Alamo, Camerone so shocked the Mexican forces that they lost a major battle to the French soon after.
Part 3, is about Camerone Day itself and what happens on the day, can be found here
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