Tuesday, 30 April 2013

It's Camerone Day!

So, what are we all doing for Camerone Day?

Two battalions of the Foreign Legion formed part of the French expeditionary force in Mexico. In 1863, their role was one of protecting the French lines of communication, but disease and combat took a heavy toll of the men. On April 30, one company of the 1st Battalion had been reduced to 62 men by attrition, and led by Captain Jean Danjou and two other officers (Sous-Lieutenants Maudet and Vilain) detached from headquarters to replace the company's own officers, who were ill. It was assgned to patrol along a road that was to be used by an important convoy. Not long after 0700, a patrol flushed out a large force of nearly 2,000 Mexican infantry and cavalry intent on ambushing the convoy. Danjou withdrew his command into an old hacienda near the village of Camerón de Tejeda. When the Mexican commander demanded the surrender of Danjou and his legionnaires, Danjou replied: 'We have ammunition. We will not surrender' and swore to fight to the death. 

The legionnaires fought for nine hours, by the end of which nearly all had been killed, including Captain Danjou, or wounded. The last five legionnaires on their feet (Sous-Lieut. Maudet, Corporal Maine, Soldiers Catteau, Wensel and Constantin) fought until their ammunition ran out, then decided to charge with fixed bayonets. When they did, Maudet was wounded, and Catteau killed. Maine offered to surrender, providing the Mexicans would say that the legionnaires had done their duty. 'One can refuse nothing to men like you' was the supposed reply. 

Of the 65 engaged, 31 were killed in action and a further 9 died of their wounds; 17 were wounded; the fate of 8 is not recorded. The nominal roll is here, with more detailed information about some of the participants here; the pages of the regimental war diary covering the action are here.

Danjou had lost a hand in Algeria some years before and replaced it with a wooden one. He was buried in Mexico, but his wooden hand was brought back to France. Each year it is solemnly paraded before the men, and an account of the battle read out. According to issue 623 (June 2001) of the Legion's magazine, Képi Blanc, the first time the story of the battle was read out like this took place at the fort of Ta-Lung, Tonkin (in Cao Bằng province of the modern Vietnam), in 1906, at the intiative of Lieutenant François. But the modern parade achieved its present form in 1930. The account read out on the centenary of the battle in 1963 can be heard here. The parade has always been an attraction for film makers, and a selection of parades can be seen online: 1946 (silent), 1958 (silent), 1959 (silent) - all three at Sidi-bel-Abbes - 2006 (part 2) at Aubagne, 2010 at Aubagne (in four parts - here, here, here and here) and 2012 at Orange. The Legion's march, Le boudin, was written on the eve of departure for Mexico, although the words were not added until around 1870. Feel free to join in here.

This year is, therefore, the 150th anniversary of the battle. As part of the celebrations, a new museum will be opened at the Legion's HQ at Aubagne, increasing the floor area from 800 to 2,000 square metres. A new CD featuring the Legion's band will be released on Deutsche Grammophon. The ceremony will be broadcast on the French TV channel, France 3 Provence-Alpes. The second part of the celebration will take place on the Bastille Day parade on 14 July, when detachments from all of the Legion's current units will take part in the march past.

Whether the men involved actually said what they were supposed to have said, and did all they were supposed to have done is, in these more cynical days, perhaps open to question. To modern ears, the dialogue has the whiff of Victorian melodrama. But that is rather irrelevant, because the battle is now a Symbol. Almost from the time of the action, this struggle against the odds gave the Legion the reputation of a unit that would fight to the end, even in a skirmish that had little influence on the outcome of the overall campaign. Further, it established within the Legion a cult of sacrifice, of death in battle - so much so that even one hundred or so years later in the 1960s, some legionnaires on the point of retirement felt they had actually let down their comrades by surviving. The formalisation of the ceremonies in the inter-war period was part of a plan by the Legion's then commander, General Rollet, to link the post-war Legion with the 'old' Legion; by creating new traditions and reviving old ones, it strengthened and embellished the Legion's reputation at a time when some in the War Ministry would have had the Legion disbanded completely. This process continued after the Second World War, because as these parades here (from 1918), here (from 1942) and here (from 1944, marching past Marshal de Lattre de Tassigny) show, the Legion is quite capable of marching past at conventional speed, instead of the 'traditional' ponderous tread used today.
But, as fans of the films of John Ford know, 'when the legend becomes fact, print the legend'.

Pictures: a plan of the hacienda complex; a contemporary photo of the hacienda; the final charge interpreted by the artists Baudé and Benigni; Captain Danjou; the modern Camerone Day parade at the Legion's depot at Aubagne; this year's Camerone Day poster; and Danjou's wooden hand, complete with its reliquary case.

Edit: added the 1944 parade link (thanks to Michael Bourlet)

Second edit:  Camerone 2013 parades here, here and here.