Cinco de Mayo

A great history lesson from Jesús Ávila for gringos like me who see Cinco de Mayo as the Mexican St. Patrick’s Day:

The Battle of Camarón, April 30, 1863:
I write this tedious and long entry at this time of patriotic celebrations and to celebrate that infamous battle of May 5, but the main reason is to emphasize something very specific: it is little known about the influence of historical events occurred in that have led our nation in his remembrance flags and / or foreign symbols, that is why today we will have a bit of history in a comprehensive text that can not be summarized.

On July 17, 1861 Mexican President Benito Juarez issued a moratorium on external debt of the country, suspending for a period of two years, after which pledged to resume, this problem opted as historically known as the French Intervention.

It was May 5, 1862 when General Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Earl of Lorencez, commanding the French troops ordered the assault on the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, who defended the city of Puebla under General Ignacio Zaragoza, the army invader was repulsed with heavy losses while trying to repeatedly take the fortifications. In the end, had to leave the field and retire defeated and pursued by the Mexican cavalry.

In 1863, with the arrival of numerous reinforcements and another general, Frederick Elie Forey, it was decided to strike again Puebla. The new troops received from France were three battalions of the Foreign Legion under Colonel Jeanningros, an efficient veteran with over 30 years of service, who had participated in the Battle of Moulay-Ishmael in Algeria. Two of its battalions landed at Veracruz on March 31, 1863 and the third would in the coming days.

In March of that year, and 13,000 French soldiers marched on the Mexican subsidiary heroic city of Veracruz separating the capital. A French Legionnaires, to their disappointment, they were assigned menial tasks such as guarding convoys in the eastern section, where there were many diseases such as yellow fever and typhoid. In this regard, the commander of the French army, General Elie Forey Frederic, had indicated that he preferred that they were foreigners and French who had the responsibility to defend the most unhealthy area, ie the tropical zone between Veracruz and Cordoba, where reigned malaria.

Since its establishment in 1831 by King Louis Philippe, much of French public opinion regarded the Legion as a disgrace and was deeply offended by the fact that foreign mercenaries were employed to fight the battles of France, for all boxes, except for the officers, but were not French citizens of other countries listed under very difficult conditions.

On 15 April a convoy of 64 wagons carrying several guns intended to demolish the defenses of Puebla, ammunition, supplies and chests of gold to pay troops, sailed from Veracruz. Mexican intelligence was good, because she soon became aware of the existence of this convoy.

The civil and military governor of the State of Veracruz, Colonel Don Francisco de Paula Milan, joined a force of three infantry battalions of 400 men each: the National Guard battalion from Veracruz, the National Guard battalion of Cordoba and the National Guard battalion of Xalapa, plus 800 -500 Lancers cavalry and 300 irregular-to intercept and capture the enemy precious cargo. At first glance appeared to be an easy task, particularly because the Mexican cavalry was very efficient and was armed with repeating rifles, at the same time, maintain the safety of this convoy was of particular concern to the French, why on 27 April the commander of the Legion, Colonel René Jeanningros, who had established his headquarters in Chiquihuite, decided that the third company of the First Regiment of the Legion was to carry out the task of escorting him as tread the area of ​​responsibility. Most of that company officials were ill. Three officers volunteered: Captain Jean Danjou, assistant staff of the company, Lieutenant Napoleon Villain and Maudet Second Lieutenant. These men formed a formidable trio. Captain Danjou was a legionary with several years old who served with distinction in Algeria, Crimea and Italy. In Crimea lost a hand, which was replaced with a wooden prosthesis. Villain and Maudet apparently were French, but enlisted as a Belgian since, as noted, the Legion forbade French citizens enrolaran soldiers. These men started as privates, effectively fought and were promoted to the rank of officers in recognition of the behavior demonstrated in the Battle of Magenta. The company to which they belonged was composed of a total of 120 soldiers, but at that time only 62 men of Polish, Italian, German and Spanish, were suitable for the task.

Captain Jean Danjou

Second Lieutenant Maudet

Lieutenant Napoleon Villain 

On 29 April, four weeks after his arrival in Mexico, the troops under Danjou were prepared to perform this action routine and joined the convoy to protect the next phase of its journey. At midnight the third company, provided with 60 rounds per man, left Chiquihuite in advance mission in anticipation of the convoy to travel to check the path was clear. At 02:30 on 30, reached a post defense prepared by the Legion at Paso del Macho and the commander of this, Captain Saussier, impressed by the small number of the escort, offered a firing Danjou reinforcement, which this declined, continuing the march, for which divided his force into two sections separated by 200 meters away, while he, center, leave with the supplies. Behind was a small detachment of rear. However, lacked advanced Danjou, because the Legion did not have cavalry.

Shortly before 06:00, the third company passed through the village of Camarón, or “Camerone” as the name given by the French, which, like all villages in the region, was half destroyed by the war. The main building, known as the Hacienda de la Trinidad, was a modest little house with adobe buildings around. A mile and a half of shrimp, Danjou ordered his troops to stop for breakfast rations, and as a preventive measure ordered to deploy some sentries. A few minutes later came the alarm. The Legionaries noted that a strong contingent of Mexican cavalry was approaching the place. Danjou immediately ordered his men to prepare their rifles and defensive form a rectangle. The Legionnaires had only a natural advantage in that open field, what was the profuse vegetation, which became a natural barrier against cavalry opponent. When Mexicans were within walking distance, the legionnaires, shouting “Long live the Emperor!” Opened fire blocking their advance. Mexicans chose not to risk a charge and ejecutarron a maneuver to encircle them. Danjou then ordered a retreat to the only place where they could organize and maintain a sustained defense, not the Paso del Macho as some claimed, but the Shrimp farm. In small groups, the Mexican cavalry harassed the company of the Legion while it was heading towards its goal, making your withdrawal hell. Legionnaires twice stopped and drove back with shock. Finally Danjou and most of his men reached their objective but at the cost of rations and ammunition mules. Forty-six of them reached the farmhouse, some wounded, others 16 were intercepted and captured by the forces of Milan. The worst thing for the French was that the Mexicans were able to reach the shrimp almost simultaneously, which were located in the upper and one of the stables located at the corners.

The Legionnaires were in a very difficult position. The outer walls of the ruined property had a perimeter of 50 meters wide and 50 long and a height of three meters. Two large doors on the west side and a hole in the east were the points of access. Furthermore, only had 60 rounds per man. But Danjou was a veteran accustomed to impossible situations. He immediately ordered the clear barricade and deployed his men into defensive position. For Legionnaires’ bad luck, the courts were exposed to fire from above and Mexican Danjou could do nothing to neutralize them. Another part of the Mexican cavalry dismounted and ran fierce attacks, but the Legionnaires refused. Shortly after 09:00, in the midst of a scorching sun, Colonel Milan sent a Mexican officer of French origin, the young lieutenant Ramon Laine, demanding the surrender of the legionaries. Danjou dismissed the suit with a resounding no and then went to each of his men who promised to fight to the end.

At approximately 11:00 a bullet fired by a sniper, possibly hidden in the stables, took the lives of Danjou. Villain Lieutenant quickly took command of the defense. Around noon the legionnaires heard the sound of bugles, and the Zouaves, located on the roofs, they observed a column of soldiers approaching. There was a general enthusiasm thinking that it was French military reinforcements, but the excitement soon faded when he realized that Mexican reinforcements were ordered by Colonel Milan, consisting of three battalions of infantry Vercruz the National Guard, the National Guard Xalapa National Guard and Cordoba. The situation was complicated Legionnaires, as well as the loss of their energetic commander, were now surrounded by two thousand enemy soldiers. With these troops, the Mexican fire became more intense and raids occurred more frequently. The hours passed, the heat increased, and the legionaries began to suffer the effects of thirst and dehydration, as water from their canteens had a good time was up. Villain had a defense as courageous as that of Danjou, but around 14:00 hours fell riddled with intense Mexican fire. The command fell to second lieutenant Maudet.

Again Colonel Milan, a man of honor, prouso the surrender of the legionaries, ensuring life. Maudet refused. The Mexicans decided it was the right time to launch a frontal assault and reduce once and for all his enemies. One however was not enough. Consequently, waves of attacks attempted to break the tight defense but the accurate shooting of the disciplined French troops held them. On several occasions Maudet men crossed the yard to help their fallen comrades, which was usually fatal. Failed attacks, Mexicans set fire to the surroundings of the French position, which was becoming a living hell. Great courage was displayed by both parties while the struggle reached its climax. Even the poorly trained Mexican irregular fought with stoic courage during repeated attempts to enter through the doors and windows. The vast majority of them were killed by impact of bullets and bayonets of the legionaries, and their bodies were returned helpless on the patio.

Colonel Francisco de Paula Milan

Around 17:00 hours only 12 remained standing Legionnaires to contain the Mexican offense. New calls were made to surrender not accepted. Surrounded by the corpses of their comrades in arms, were willing to die. At 18:00 hours only had five legionaries, capes Maine and Berg and soldiers Constantin, Leonard and Wensel, who had very little ammunition. Over the next few minutes Maudet, who by then was wounded, ordered his men to shoot the last volley of bullets, bayonets and charge prepare Mexican troops to die with honor. During the fight the legionnaires had fired over 3,000 rounds. In seeking to perform this action Maudet again received a bullet and fell unconscious, while two of his men were killed. The survivors, capes Maine and Berg and satin Wensel, a Polish-retreated to be shoulder to shoulder against one of the walls of the hacienda, presenting their bayonets as the only defense.

Before this show Mexican soldiers hesitated whether to finish them or spare their lives. His doubts were resolved with the emergence of a Mexican officer, Colonel Lucio Cambas Angel, who also was of Gallic origin. After appeasing his men, he addressed his adversaries in perfect French with the words: “Now I guess you will pay.”

Corporal Maine realized that although this man had the bearing of a Frenchman and spoke perfect French language was as Mexican as Juarez and therefore an enemy, who, for purely humanitarian reasons, wanted to save their lives. Watching his two comrades, said: “We surrender, but let us stay with our arms and care for our wounded.” Colonel Cambas responded with a military salute, and raising his sword in sign of respect said: “A man like you is granted whatever”. Cambas demonstrate an attitude of chivalry and the behavior of a true soldier, with a high sense of honor to the army uniform who fought with courage. He immediately ordered the wounded Legionnaires were served.

On being informed of the surrender, Colonel Milan said: “But these are not men, are demons”. The Mexicans gave their opponents the major considerations. Twenty-three legionaries were assisted by the troops and 16 of them survived their wounds. He did his best to save the life of Lieutenant Maudet and sent along with a sergeant, also severely wounded, hospital Huatusco, a distance of 80 kilometers. Given the precarious situation of the hospital, Maudet was finally brought home from Marredo Juana Gomez, distinguished Mexican lady known for her charitable work. Despite the efforts provided by Dona Juana, the French officer pass away, but not before writing the following words: “I left a mother in France, I found another in Mexico.”
The Mexicans caused the Legionaries 26 deaths: three officers and 23 soldiers, but to turn 300 of his men lay dead and wounded. Nor could they take possession of guns nor the spoils, as the convoy, heard the shots and found a distance, managed to evade the action, bringing the initiative to march in advanced Danjou gave an appropriate result for French interests. The next day, Colonel Jeanningros Shrimp arrived at the head of a column of rescue, but it was too late. The Mexicans had departed, leaving only the bodies of legionaries killed in action. Beside them stood a wounded man, who was presumed dead, with eight bullets in his body, who narrated the heroic episode starring his comrades before superior forces. From prison, Corporal Berg Evaristo was able to get a note to Jeanningros which concluded with these words:

“The 3rd Company of the 1st Regiment Colonel’s dead, but she did too, and so it can be said, had a few brave soldiers.”
The return from captivity Berg would be promoted to officer. The other prisoners involved in the incident Shrimp, including the 16 Legionnaires captured during the retreat to the farm, ie a total of 32 men, were exchanged for Mexican officers captured by the French and most remained at the legion. The Maine place was also promoted to officer and attained the rank of captain. The other survivors and Wensel, Schaffner, Fritz, Pinzinger and Brunswick were made Knights of the Legion of Honor of France, while the classes Magnin, Palmaert, Kunassec, Schreiblick, Groski Rebares and received the Military Medal.

This extraordinary act of courage, which lasted continuously for eleven hours, was a victory for the French unprecedented moral being fought against all odds. And while a valuable combat unit made up of men loyal and determined to give his life for the French cause had been exterminated, their action helped save a valuable convoy and raised the morale of the soldiers who fought for the implementation of the French strategy in Mexico. More importantly for the traditions of the Legion, the wooden hand of Captain Danjou was found by Colonel Jeanningros in the ruins of the Shrimp and became the most precious relic of the military. Such was the impact of the action of the third company of the first regiment of the Legion, for the rest of the French occupation of Mexico, that country’s troops had to stop and present arms when crossing against the estate of Camarón.

The date of the Battle of Camarón was erected in 1904 in a ritual event for the Foreign Legion, and today is celebrated with great pomp and respect in the courtyard of the headquarters of the Legion in Aubagne, near Marseille. The hand of Captain Danjou, stored in a small urn, is displayed in front of the regiments and a count of the battle is read each of the units of the Legion on the day of the ceremonies. The ashes of others killed in the shrimp are preserved in a reliquary, while the Mexican eagle, which became the flagship of the first regiment is paraded around the chapel. The word “Camerone” is inscribed in gold letters on the walls of Les Invalides in Paris.

The celebrations have spread to Mexico. In 1892 France was authorized to erect a monument, renovated in 1963 by the Mexican government, at the one hundredth anniversary of this battle, whose inscriptions read: “There were less than sixty opposed to an army. Life these French soldiers left before that courage the April 30, 1863. ” The ceremonies are attended by French citizens living in that country and Mexican army officers, for whom of course not surprising the maximum of the Legion: “Every legionnaire Shrimp has carved his heart.”

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