How 65 French Legionnaires Held off an Army of Thousands

How 65 French Legionnaires Held off an Army of Thousands

Stephanie Schoppert - June 16, 2017

There is a wooden hand in a box and it is one of the most venerated artifacts of the Legionnaires. Getting to hold the hand on parade is considered to be one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon a Legionnaire. The hand belonged to Captain Danjou who led 64 men on a daring attempt to hold off a Mexican force of 3,000.

His courage, dedication and willingness to fight to the death made his story and that of the other men who fought at the Battle of Camarón one of the most cherished in Legionnaire history.

How 65 French Legionnaires Held off an Army of Thousands
Captain Jean Danjou 1828 -1863. Pinterest

In 1863 the French were in the middle of an intervention into Mexico. The French wanted to put pressure on Mexico to get her to pay her debts to the European countries that had loaned money to the country, namely Spain, France and the United Kingdom. The French had already tried once to take the Mexican capital of Puebla in 1862 but were pushed back. In March of 1863 they tried again and by the end of April the attempt to take the city was still dragging on.

On April 29, a supply convoy was getting ready to relieve the Siege of Pueblo. Carrying ammunition, artillery and a fortune in gold francs it was desperately needed. Two companies of Fusiliers were commanded to protect the convoy on its dangerous journey ahead. The 3rd Company 1st Regiment of the French Foreign Legion was asked to scout ahead and plot a safe course for the convoy. There were 65 men but no officers in the company so three men volunteered to lead the regiment, including Captain Jean Danjou.

On April 30 at 1am, Danjou and his men set out to roam the countryside. A few hours later they reached La Trinidad Hacienda, a two-story ranch house surrounded by a 50-meter wall. They continued on and reached Palo Verde at 7am where they stopped for coffee. At 8am they spotted a Mexican cavalry and Danjou ordered the men back west to the ten foot walls of the hacienda.

Mexican Colonel Francisco De Paulo Milan wanted to eliminate the French forces before they could alert the convoy and tell of the ambush that was planned. Captain Danjou wanted to draw the Mexican forces away from the path of the convoy.

The Legionnaires had not made it far before they were met by the cavalry. Danjou ordered the men to form a hollow square and preserve their ammunition by waiting to fire until the Mexican forces were close enough that they knew they would not miss. The Legionnaires defeated the cavalry and pushed them back. This allowed the French forces to make it back to the hacienda but along the way 16 men were captured and they had to defend against a second charge from the cavalry.

The retreat of the cavalry was not the end. Danjou knew they would be back and likely in greater numbers. He sent word for the convoy to retreat, if the Legionnaires failed to stop the Mexican force, the convoy would be next. Knowing the convoy was safe, Danjou and his men worked to fortify their position. They shoved debris into any openings and around the perimeter.

The fortifications cut off any view of the battlefield so they lifted a man up onto the roof of the house to look. He came back with the sobering news that there were Mexican troops as far as the eye could see. Colonel Milan after hearing what happened to his cavalry, assumed that he was facing a large French contingent and therefore brought 3,000 men to defeat them.

How 65 French Legionnaires Held off an Army of Thousands
Legionnaire 1860s.

Facing unbelievable odds Danjou and his men swore to fight to the death for the glory of France and the French Foreign Legion. Lacking a Bible, they took their oath upon Captain Danjou’s prosthetic wooden hand. Next they shared a bottle of wine and readied themselves for the end. At 11am, before the battle even began, Colonel Milan offered the men a chance to surrender.

Danjou responded that they had plenty of ammunition and were prepared to fight. The Mexican forces then charged the gateways on the west end of the hacienda and breached the south. The Legionnaires were able to hold off the attack but Captain Danjou was struck in the chest and died.

Lieutenant Vilain took command and soon casualties grew on each side. The Legionnaires suffered from not only being outnumbered, but a lack of food and water leaving them susceptible to heat stroke. The Legionnaires were offered another chance to surrender but they refused. After four long hours of fighting the Legionnaires were still able to keep the Mexican forces from getting close, but only 32 men were left.

By 2pm only 20 of the original force of 65 were able to keep fighting but still the Mexican troops could not take the ranch house. At 2:30 Lieutenant Vilain was killed and Lieutenant Maudet took command. At 5pm things were only getting worse for the Legionnaires. They were down to twelve men and the roof of the ranch house had been completely burned away. Colonel Milan ordered his men to retreat from the hacienda in order to offer the Frenchmen a third chance at surrender. They refused once again.

Milan with no other choice sent another onslaught capturing five of the remaining men. At 6pm only five men remained fighting including Lieutenant Maudet. They had been fighting for 12 hours since first meeting with the cavalry and they had not had food since the day before and they were without water. With nothing left to do they mounted a bayonet charge. Two men fell and the remaining three were surrounded. Victor Catteau had jumped in front of Maudet to protect him and had died in the Mexican barrage.

How 65 French Legionnaires Held off an Army of Thousands
Painting of the Battle of Camerone.

One last time the men were asked to surrender. Corporal Phillipe Maine said they would surrender only if they were left their weapons and equipment and if the Mexican forces agreed to care for the wounded Lieutenant Maudet. Glad just to end the fighting and amazed with the strength and tenacity of the men, the Mexican troops agreed to their terms. When the three men were brought to Milan as part of their surrender he was astounded that just three men were all that was left. He proclaimed “These are not men; they are demons!”

Lieutenant Maudet was treated as promised but he died from his wounds on May 8th. In the end 43 men were killed out of the 65 Legionnaires that set out on the reconnaissance mission. 19 of them were captured. Of the 19 captured men, 17 were wounded and some of them did not survive. Of those that did survive they were released in a prisoner exchange on the 14th of July 1863. In comparison, the Mexicans suffered losses of 190 killed and more than 300 injured. Captain Danjou’s hand was recovered and brought back to Aubagne, where it now remains in the Legion Museum of Memory.

How 65 French Legionnaires Held off an Army of Thousands
Captain Danjou’s Wooden Hand. Imgur

The battle of Cameron continues to be commemorated every year on April 30. On Camerone Day, the Legionnaires hold a parade and the wooden hand of Captain Danjou is brought out on display. A monument was also erected on the battlefield which bears a French inscription. Which says “Here there were less than sixty opposed to a whole army. Its numbers crushed them. Life rather than courage abandoned these French soldiers on April 30, 1863.

In their memory, the motherland has erected their moment.” The Mexicans also hold annual ceremonies to remember the lives lost that day with a parade of military units and political speakers. The nearby village also holds a fiesta. There is also a monument built to remember the Mexican lives lost and it is tradition that any Mexican soldier passing the monument give it a salute.