April 30 is a special day for the French Foreign Legion. It is known as Camerone Day, after the Battle of Camarone. In 1863, about 40,000 French troops held Mexico City and a corridor between the capital city and Vera Cruz. The Mexican forces continually harassed the French and attacked their supply lines. In April, 1863, a company from the 1st Battalion of the French Foreign Legion was assigned to guard a supply convoy. Only 62 men were healthy enough to march. Most of the rest were suffering from yellow fever. These 62 men, led by Captain Danjou and two other officers, left early in the morning, ahead of the supply convoy, to ensure the way was clear.
The French intelligence about what their opponents were doing was very poor, and they did not know that word of the convoy had reached the guerillas. Colonel Milan, the sector commander, had assembled a force of about 2,000 to attack the convoy.
The legionnaires were attacked by about 800 cavalry. They formed a square and kept the attackers at a distance. The terrain was not good for cavalry and the French marksmanship was good, so even though they were greatly outnumbered they managed to hold off the attacking force. The commander, Captain Danjou, realized their position could not be sustained and ordered a fighting retreat to a large house they had passed about a mile back. They arrived at the house with 42 men, many of them wounded. This was an abandoned inn known as Hacienda Camarón.
The house was surrounded by a thick wall and was a better defensive position than the legionnaires had any right to expect. They fired on the attacking force from the windows on the second floor.
Around 9 AM reinforcements for the Mexican force arrived in the form of about 1200 infantry. Towards 11, the Mexican commander called on Danjou to surrender. He refused, even though the legionnaires had lost all of their water and their extra ammunition in the retreat to the hacienda. The attackers got into the upper story of the house and Danjou was killed. The second-in-command, Lieutenant Vilain, took charge. He was killed about 2 PM, and the third officer, Lieutenant Maudet, took command.
By 5 PM, only Maudet and 12 men remained. The Mexicans set the house on fire, and the legionnaires ran across the courtyard to a small outbuilding. After a brief lull in the action about 6 PM. The massed infantry moved in. Maudet and five others were all that remained alive. It was hopeless so they had to surrender. But they did not. These six men, exhausted from a long day’s fight with no water, out of ammunition, surrounded by 2,000 soldiers, fixed bayonets and charged. The commander of the Mexican forces managed to stop his soldiers before they killed all the legionnaires. Two survived. They were allowed to keep their rifles, bury their dead, and given safe passage home. Colonel Milan said, “What can I refuse to such men? No, these are not men, they are devils.”
Camarone Day is still the most important day on the Legion’s calendar.
Think about it. Six men, with no bullets, against 2,000, and their decision was to attack. This story would make a great movie.