Commemorating Camarón, or Drawing from the very source of the fighting spirit
Every year, commemorating the Battle of Camarón is a major event for the Foreign Legion. The battle, which took place on 30 April 1863, between 60 men of the 1st Foreign Regiment’s Danjou company and 2 000 Mexicans, occupies a central place in Legion history and is the occasion for the Legionnaire community to affirm and strengthen its cohesion.
To solemnly commemorate this battle, among the population invited for the occasion, is first and foremost to pay tribute together to the glorious dead. It is also to show an adherence to the values expressed by the collective action of this handful of men. Finally, it is to proclaim before the world a commitment to the individual values demonstrated by each Legionnaire of Captain Danjou’s company, modern heroes for the foreigners who today carry the arms of France. The action of the Legionnaires made this encounter the stuff of legend, whereby an ill-fated battle is turned into a strategic victory, for the soldiers’ conduct surpassed the very idea of military advantage: the fierce will to win and the spirit of sacrifice were decisive to the outcome of the battle, and aroused respect even among the enemy ranks. On the occasion of its commemoration, Camarón is one of the bonds that unite this troop formed of soldiers of some 150 different nationalities.
Shedding light on present and future
The cornerstone of Legionnaire identity, the Battle of Camarón gives meaning to the collective actions of Legionnaires. Its commemoration is a means of affirming Legion identity and passing on its memory, without being stuck in the past. Every year, a specific angle is taken, to reflect the present-day reality of the Foreign Legion. It is this close relationship between past and present that gives this commemoration its relevance, even today, 156 years on. Its longevity was not laid down, but rather developed over time, as General Olié wrote in 1962: “When Napoleon III decided that the name Camarón should be inscribed on the flags of the Foreign Legion, he undoubtedly thought he was doing no more than immortalising an obscure battle, yet in fact he was establishing a tradition for this corps.”
Of all the values promoted by the commemoration of this battle, two are of particular relevance to foreign soldiers serving in the Legion: self-sacrifice and keeping one’s word. Indeed, the generosity and voluntary spirit of the men at the heart of this battle are in all ways exemplary: sent belatedly on this obscure mission, Captain Danjou took command of the 3rd Company himself, supported by officers who joined him spontaneously. The voluntary engagement of these leaders echoes the Legionnaires’ oath to “fight to the death”. This sealed the fate of the soldiers of Camarón, who stopped at nothing to accomplish their mission, and by keeping their word, renewed their oath to serve France with honour and loyalty. Still today, their story reminds each Legionnaire of the value of their word and the obligation of loyalty to their adoptive country.
The ceremony of 30 April 2019 at the 1st Foreign Regiment’s barracks in Aubagne, presided over by General Jean-Pierre Bosser, French army chief of staff, involved
the fourragère in the colours of the War Cross for Overseas Operations (Croix de Guerre des TOE) being attached to the flag, then awarded to the soldiers of the 1st Foreign Regiment. © Marco Fiorillo/Armée de Terre/Défense
Revealing the exemplarity of the soldiers of Camarón
The bravery of those who fought at Camarón is much more than an example: it permeates the combative spirit of Foreign Legion units. The epic battle of Camarón highlights four essential qualities of the soldier: willingness to risk one’s life to accomplish a mission, rigorous performance, brotherhood in arms and the refusal to abandon the wounded and the dead. In his report of the battle to Colonel Jeanningros, commander of the 1st Foreign Regiment, Captain Berg put it in these terms: “The 3rd Company of the 1st Foreign Regiment is dead, Colonel, but it has done enough for us to say of it: it had only good soldiers.” To be a good soldier, to belong to the lineage of the Legionnaires of Camarón and, by extension, of all those who came before and after them, is to be true to one of the Foreign Legion’s mottoes: More majorum, “in the manner of our forefathers”. It is to be worthy of the sacrifice of the 40 000 Legionnaires killed in action since 1831. It is to offer France the assurance that the Legion will be true to its reputation as a solid, resilient and loyal fighting force, willing to sacrifice itself.
The Battle of Camarón still offers the Foreign Legion this solid foundation, on which it has progressively built an important part of its identity, its values and some of its myths. At the very source of the fighting spirit, this living legacy gives structure to the Legionnaires’ commitment and takes on special relevance on 30 April, when it is commemorated. Accordingly, every year, wherever there are Legionnaires, whether a garrison of a thousand or ten in an isolated outpost far from home, this battle is commemorated.
At Aubagne, the home of the Foreign Legion headquarters, none can fail to be moved by the sight of veteran and serving Legionnaires, chosen from among the bravest of their peers, marching ceremoniously up the sacred way, bearing Captain Danjou’s hand. At that moment, when time appears to stand still, the meaning of the Legionnaires’ commitment comes fully to the fore, sowing in each person’s consciousness the seed of future victories or Camaróns to come.