Two legionnaires demonstrate the uniform worn in Mexico. While the red trousers and dark blue jacket are almost identical to the 1831 uniform, the man on the left wears the white kepi cover that was to become synonymous with the Legion. His colleague wears a broad-brimmed sun hat, an item of clothing that remained popular with legionnaires in warmer climes until the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Between 1857 and 1860, Mexico was in a state of civil war, and as a consequence of this costly conflict, the president, Miguel Miramon, covered some of the nation’s debts by issuing bonds to European investors. The bonds proved worthless, and the damage this did to the Mexican economy was such that Miramon’s successor, Benito Pablo Juarez, suspended payment of foreign debts. The investors – who even without the benefit of hindsight could be said to have been rather foolhardy – were incensed, and demanded that their governments take military action.
The British, Spanish and French governments were persuaded by the case, and decided that a joint effort was necessary. On 31 October 1861, they signed a convention in which they agreed to occupy the Mexican fortresses at Vera Cruz, Cordoba, Tehuacan and Orizaba as a means by which they could impose their will on the Mexicans and recover their investment. Juarez reluctantly accepted this intervention, since the allied powers at least suggested that their presence would be temporary (until the money had been recovered) and that attempting to colonize Mexican territory was not their intention. Napoleon III, however, appears to have regarded this promise as being nothing more than an inconvenience, since he wished to impose a new Francophile monarch on Mexico, giving France a valuable foothold on the American continent. His choice fell upon Maximilian of Austria, brother of the emperor Franz Josef, and in a demonstration of the workings of diplomacy, the two nations that had been engaged in bitter fighting just three years before began negotiations to install the eager would-be monarch on the Mexican throne.
In December 1861 the European force, comprising 7000 Spaniards, 2500 Frenchmen and 700 Royal Marines (perhaps demonstrating that the British Government was not as committed to the expedition as its allies) landed and occupied Vera Cruz. The occupation was not a success, and the troops were beset with disease, as well as facing attacks from local inhabitants. The British and Spanish forces withdrew in April 1862, but Napoleon was now free to try to put his plan for Mexico into action. Since the United States was fighting a civil war, he could be confident that there would be little, if any, American interference with his plans.
However, the Mexicans had other ideas, and when the French marched on Mexico City, they were driven back at Puebla on 5 May. Undaunted, Napoleon III sent reinforcements – and discovered that the guerrilla war that the French presence had unleashed demanded an ever-increasing supply of manpower. It was not surprising, therefore, when the Legion was chosen to be sent to bolster the forces in Mexico.
Napoleon III toyed with the idea of handing over the Legion to Maximilian, with the intention that it would remain under French control until Maximilian was securely upon the throne, whereupon it would be placed under the authority of the Mexican government. The first part of this process, of course, was to send the Legion to Mexico, and it was duly despatched on 9 February 1863. Two battalions and associated support elements left Mers-el-Kebir, arriving at Vera Cruz on 28 March. They arrived at a bad moment. The French campaign had reached something of a stalemate, with the Mexicans holding off the attackers at Puebla. To its disappointment, the Legion was not sent to join the French forces there, but given the apparently boring task of escorting supply convoys and carrying out guard duties.
The rationale for this lay in the attitude of the French commander. General Forey, who made clear that the Legion was guarding an area in which disease was rife – he preferred that foreigners, rather than Frenchmen, should face the rigors of confronting these conditions.
The Legion soon found that there was rather more to contend with than just disease, however. Mexican guerrillas began attacking convoys, giving the legionnaires their first taste of action when a guerrilla force attacked a railway work camp. It appears that the guerrillas were expecting a relatively easy time, but the small squad of legionnaires slaughtered the attackers.
The end of the battle at Camerone as Mexican troops move in on the few legionnaires left standing. The bravery and persistence of the legionnaires amazed their captors, who treated their prisoners with considerable respect.
A republican force was destroying all crops near the French to deny them supplies, so Forey assigned French Foreign Legion troops to guard supply caravans. One convoy was escorted by Captain Danjou and 64 legionnaires when they were attacked on April 30 at Camerone by hundreds of Mexican guerrillas. The legionnaires sought refuge in a barn and fought all day, refusing every offer to surrender. The final five men made a bayonet charge but were taken prisoner, although two later died of their wounds. The battle is commemorated by the Foreign Legion every April 30.
The battle at Camerone had been sufficient to dent Colonel Mariano Camacho Milan’s confidence to the extent that he ordered no further attacks on convoys in Legion-controlled territory. The arrival at Puebla of the cannons from the convoy that 3rd Company had sought to protect was decisive.
Assailed by heavy artillery, the fortress fell on 17 May leaving the road to Mexico City was open. Maximilian was enthroned the following month, but the war continued for four more years. The Legion continued to face the problems presented by guerrilla warfare in which a mobile enemy with considerable local knowledge attacked when he held the advantage. The Legion’s cavalry became of great importance in this form of warfare, being used as a means to assist units that had run into difficulties. In March 1866, the cavalry was called upon to rescue 44 legionnaires who had been forced to barricade themselves into a church. In July, the cavalry prevented another Camerone by riding to the aid of 125 legionnaires who had barricaded themselves in a farmhouse near Matehuala, and spent two days fighting off attacks by over 500 Mexicans before the cavalry arrived and put the enemy to flight.
Although the cavalry were decisive in such engagements, the Legion’s reputation was such that the Mexicans proved reluctant to attack a position known to be defended by legionnaires. However, the Mexicans were far more skilled at mobile warfare. and on 15 June 1866 a convoy of Austrian troops and Mexicans loyal to Maximilian was attacked near Camargo. The Austrians fought bravely, but their cause was undermined when the two battalions of Mexicans changed sides in the middle of the battle. The Austrians were forced to surrender. Over 1000 prisoners were taken by the Mexicans, illustrating how difficult ultimate victory in Mexico would be.
The End in Mexico
By 1866, Napoleon Ill’s idea of gaining influence in Mexico was in serious danger. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular with the French public, while the Legion began to suffer from large numbers of desertions. In December 1866, Napoleon III ordered the withdrawal of all French troops, with the last Legion unit leaving for Algeria on 18 February 1867. Napoleon III was not totally ungrateful for the Legion’s efforts in Mexico. As a sign of his respect for the Legion, he ordered that the word ‘CAMERONE’ and the names of Captain Danjou, and Lieutenants Vilain and Maudet be inscribed in gold on the walls of Les Invalides in Paris. He awarded the Legion a battle honour for Camerone, and the date of the sacrifice made by a small party of legionnaires is now one of the key dates in the Legion’s year, commemorated with great ceremony. The Legion’s reputation was further enhanced, and its reputation for a willingness to fight against heavy, if not impossible, odds was born.
Legionnaires would have plenty of opportunities to ensure that this reputation was maintained in conflicts to come, beginning with its first deployment for use in France when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870.