The French Foreign Legion In Mexico

And a Train Wreck that Saved the Treasury
El Camarón, Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

El Camarón de Tejeda
A Late Sunday Night Story
My first contact with El Camarón started a long time ago.

On Sunday evenings in Veracruz, there isn’t much to do, so I took the kids over to visit some other Americans expats who were temporarily based in Veracruz working on a marine exploration project.The expats had 3 kids and my kids could play awhile.

They had some visitors from Florida. One guy was an older fellow who was sitting by himself in one corner of the patio where we were watching the kids play.

The Visitor´s Story about the French Foreign Legion
The guy was quiet and smelled of alcohol. He looked tired and worn out like he’d had a long day.

I don’t remember his name right now, but I do remember the story he told me. Although I’d lived in Veracruz for a year or two I’d never heard of El Camarón.

He told me in France the name of El Camarón is well known, because it is one of the few places where the French Foreign Legion has been defeated.Dien Bien Phu is one of those places. And, there are only seven such places in the world that are revered as Legion Shrines.

Homage to Fallen Comrades
Upon induction into the service each Legionnaire takes an oath to personally pay homage to his fallen comrades if he is ever in one of the countries.

The reason he knew some much about the French Foreign Legion is that he had spent many years as a soldier in the Legion and today had just returned from his own personal visit to El Camarón to pay homage. He looked overcome from the emotional stress of the trip.

Later I found out that what he said was true, and that each year on April 30 a ceremony is held at the parade ground monument to pay tribute to the gallant men who fought and died there in April of 1863.

This is the interesting story he told me. I´d never heard it.

Battle Monument in El Camaron, Veracruz
Mexico vs. France
On April 30, 1863, almost a year after the battle of Cinco de Mayo in Puebla, Captain Jean Danjou of the Foreign Legion, along with his two officers and 62 legionnaires, faced 2,000 Mexican soldiers and irregulars commanded by Col. Francisco de Milan at a farmhouse in El Camarón, Veracruz.

The battle lasted all day in the hot sun. The legionnaires had no food or water, and their ammunition was low.Repeatedly Col. Milan of the Mexican forces offered the legionnaires the possibility of surrender, but they refused.

At five in the afternoon all that remained were Lieutenant Clement Maudet and four men.

The Wooden Hand
They had one cartridge each. At the command each man fired his last round and charged the enemy with fixed bayonets.

Tradition has it that there were no survivors.

Today the Battle of El Camarón is the most important holiday for the French Foreign Legion, because it represents the best fighting spirit of the Corps. The wooden hand of Capt. Danjou was found after the battle and returned to France.

The wooden hand is still kept by the Legion as one of its most sacred relics, the stark symbol of one of its most gallant actions. Once a year the tradition-minded Foreign Legion removes the 100 plus year old hallowed object from its place of honor in the Legion's museum and honors it with a parade.

Parade Ground Monument in Spanish and French
April 30 is the Big Day
He told me that each year on April 30, the wooden hand is carried in an ornate glass box through the streets near Aubagne, France by a veteran white uniformed Legionnaire, leading the First Regiment in a ceremony honoring the Battle of "Camerone", as it's spelled in France.

It was in that tiny Mexican village over a hundred years ago that the owner of the left hand lost his life, and seventy-two Legionnaires were practically annihilated, giving the Legion a story to live by in the process.

The anniversary of el Camarón, kind of like the Alamo, has become one of the Legion's greatest holidays, a three-day Mardi Gras at its headquarters in France.

A One Day Celebration
It is a one-day celebration in every Legion outpost, and a day when at least one ceremony will be performed in even the smallest, most battle-weary Legion unit.

Tradition has it that the commanding officer of every unit in the world reads the grim story of the Battle of Camerone to his men, even if he must move from foxhole to foxhole to see that it is done.

After hearing the story, I knew I had to go to El Camarón. I wanted to see this place for myself.

The Parade Ground in El Camaron, Veracruz
Getting Lost
That Sunday night story was about 15 years ago, and a couple of weeks later on a hot Sunday morning, I headed out for Soledad de Doblado looking for El Camarón.

People told me it was about 30 kms. west of Soledad towards Paso del Macho.

After Soledad it became a dusty dirt road. I entered a small village called Adalberto Tejeda and it looked like the road ended at the abandoned railway station.

Following the highway I took a right and headed toward Paso del Macho.

After a ways, I decided to stop and ask for directions. They told me El Camarón was back towards Soledad.

Camarón de Tejeda
But there was only the village of Adalberto Tejeda, I replied. I was told that is El Camarón, which is still the local name. Many little towns in the area which are still known by their local names. Like Manlio Fabio Altamirano is the official name for the town the local people call "Purga" (Purge or Purgative).

I stopped and looked around the town. Just outside town towards Paso del Macho is a beautiful, but empty, parade ground in front of a small rural school. A little further over is "Mausoleos", or the town cemetery.

It looks like the parade ground is only used on April 30. And from the looks of the sign beyond a barbed wire fence, "Private Property, we reserve the right of admission". I guess that explains why there´s not many people around. It looks like a peaceful place to have a picnic or just walk around with friends and family.

Double decked bridge at Soledad de Doblado
Like the San Francisco Bay Bridge
According to a plaque at the railroad station in Veracruz, the first railroad was completed by the British in 1872.

The new railroad offered the first all weather transportation service for freight and passengers to Mexico City.

The route passed through Soledad de Doblado where in the 1870´s they built a modern double decked bridge kind of like the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

The Railroad Part Passes Overhead
I noticed how the railroad passed overhead. Driving across the one lane bridge is scary. Many of the boards are loose and you can look straight down about a half mile.

The short ride is not for the faint of heart, especially if you see someone approaching from the other side. But, like everything in Mexico, people are polite and wait until it’s their turn.

When the railroads were built, the roads at best must have been rough narrow dirt roads just wide enough for oxcarts and carriages to pass each other. During the dry season the trip from Veracruz to Mexico City through Xalapa by road took 22 days by one account. During the rainy season the roads must have been impassable and it is said to have taken 31 days to make the same trip. A carriage trip to Mexico City must have been shear torture.

So, with the advent of the railroads, people could now travel in comfort and speed between the port of Veracruz and Mexico in only 12 to 15 hours.

Little villages like El Camarón fortunate enough to have a railway station had struck it rich.When the trains came through they could sell food and different things to the passengers, plus the ease of having freight delivered to town.And the mail service must have really improved.

Civilization had arrived at small towns like El Camarón in the 1880´s.

El Camarón Depot(with its three signs)
The Second Trip: The Search for a Plaque
A couple of months ago I had become stranded in Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca and came across an old man in the market who told me the story of how a borrachito("borracho" means drunk in Spanish, and "-ito" at the end means "little") had saved the Mexican treasury.

His story was that one of the presidents after the Mexican Revolution was escaping the country with the national treasury and loaded a special secret train from Mexico City to Veracruz.

Abandoned Platform with Ticket Window
The track switching instructions were relayed by telegraph from station to station.

What they didn't count on was the station master at El Camarón was drinking tequila.

When he recieved his instructions he sent his assistant out to buy another bottle and asked him to switch the tracks on the way back.

The assistant came back with the bottle, but before the train got to El Camarón, there was a big train wreck.
Official Station Plaque is Still There
The National Treasury Was Aboard
Then it was discovered that national treasury was aboard.

Later the local authorities in town notified the government and it was shipped back to Mexico City safe and sound.

The old man in the market told me there was a plaque near El Camarón commemorating the event.

That´s what made me decide to go back to El Camarón to look for the plaque and perhaps stand in the very place the train wreck had occurred.

Walking around the platform, I was looking for the plaque and was surprised to see the official looking ticket window with the original station information plaque above the window.

It looks like it has been in place before 1872 when the British finished building the railroad and began service from Veracruz to Mexico City.
Technical Information
A Comforting Touch of Science
The altitude at the Camarón station is still 336m AMSL, and it´s 64 km to Veracruz, and 360.5 km. to Mexico City.

For the passengers on the train this touch of scientific knowledge in this remote area must have been comforting.
Living under the Abandoned Water Tower
Gerónimo and his son
Living in the Abandoned Water Tower
In walking around the train station we were surprised to find a man and his son living in a storage room under one of the abandoned water towers. His name was Gerónimo, and he told me the temperature was always cool here.

He told us a lot of the later history of El Camarón and the stories his grandmother had told him as a little boy. She had moved to el Camarón in 1927.

Even though the Mexican Revolution had been over for a couple of years, the town was still rough, and at times dangerous with frequent killings by the rural gangs in the area.

Later the town had a boom with sugar cane, but that the price of sugar had dropped so low that just about everyone is leaving town now.

People in small towns love to talk, and Gerónimo was a real entertainer living in his little free home raising a couple of chickens underneath the abandoned water tower.
"La Victoria"
Quiet Streets
We next stopped at the combination grocery store and bar, "La Victoria", named after a local brand of beer, and went in the grocery store side because Mexican polka music was blaring from the juke box on the bar side.

It was lunch time, and it was too hot to sit in the chairs out front. It was close to siesta time and there were only a few people around.

I guess we had come to the end of our fruitless search for the plaque and decided to call it a day. It was hot and we bought a canned coke from the seńora at the store and talked awhile longer.

The Streets of El Camarón
A Kid on a Donkey
Just as we were leaving a little boy came riding by on his burro. I guess El Camarón hasn’t changed a whole lot since the French were here in 1863.

And on each April 30, I will remember our visit to El Camarón with a certain reverence, the story of the gallantry of the French Foreign Legion, and where the National treasury of a country was rescued.

Even though the plaque about the train wreck is gone now, there is something special about walking through a town that is still undiscovered by tourists, and makes a short trip like this an adventure to remember.
Little Boy on a Donkey
On Rainy Days at the Office
On rainy days at the office, I sometimes look at these pictures suddenly wanting to sit in one of the chairs in front of "La Victoria", and chat with Gerónimo and his neighbors.

Or just watch the people walking down the street from in front of the store, and listen to the polka music coming from the juke box inside.

A couple of months later, I noticed we were getting closer to April 30, so I marked it on the calendar. Maybe I could get away and go back to El Camarón!

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>>> April 30, I Go to the Celebration at El Camarón