CDG 60 – French Foreign Legion in Mexico, 1863
The January 2014 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “French Foreign Legion in Mexico, 1863.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Captain Jean Danjou, commander of the French Foreign Legion’s 3d Company, 1st Battalion, which was part of an army that France’s Emperor Napoleon III sent to seize control of Mexico.
The Mexican republic, however, fiercely resisted this blatant aggression by the much stronger European power. Indeed, Mexican forces defeated the first French attempt to capture the capital, Mexico City, at the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla. Yet Napoleon III persevered in his campaign to conquer Mexico and sent troop reinforcements beginning in September.
On March 16, 1863, in another attempt to capture Mexico City, a French army began a siege of Puebla. However, it was operating at the end of a long and tenuous supply line extending through hostile Mexican countryside back to the main French base at Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico coast. To protect French supply convoys from attacks by Mexican army forces and guerrillas, French units were assigned sectors of the route to patrol and provide security.
On April 30, 1863, Danjou’s 3d Company was given responsibility for the Chiquihuite-Soledad section of the road in advance of an important convoy transporting much needed supplies to the French forces at Puebla. Early that morning when the legionnaires reached a point on the road east of the village of Camerone, they were suddenly confronted by a force of 800 Mexican army cavalrymen.
Danjou’s company repelled the initial enemy attack, which was launched by only 50 of the enemy cavalrymen. But as the Mexicans massed for another charge, the captain’s mission was to determine how best to defend against the much larger enemy force.
As Danjou considered his options, a second and much more powerful Mexican cavalry charge cut off and captured 16 of his legionnaires. He then quickly led his remaining 49 men to the walled farmstead, Hacienda de la Trinidad (CDG COURSE OF ACTION TWO: DEFEND AT THE HACIENDA). Enclosed on all four sides by thick, 10-foot-high walls and with only two entry gates that could be barricaded, the hacienda was, in effect, a natural fortress. Additionally, its size was such that it could be stoutly defended by Danjou’s small group of men.
After the legionnaires occupied the hacienda, the Mexican force was reinforced by regular infantrymen and irregular guerrillas, bringing its number to at least 2,000 attackers, and perhaps as many as 3,000. The Mexicans called upon Danjou to surrender, but he replied, “We have cartridges and we will surrender only when you have killed every one of us!”
Danjou’s defiant words proved prophetic; after repelling attacks all day, 3d Company’s legionnaires were all either dead or wounded and captured. Danjou was killed around noon, and Lieutenant Maudet took command until the final Mexican victory at approximately 6 p.m.
Yet 3d Company’s heroic sacrifice was not in vain. Engaged in attacking Danjou’s legionnaires, the Mexicans were unable to intercept the vital supply convoy, which made its way safely to Puebla.
Years later, Danjou’s prosthetic wooden hand came back into the possession of the French Foreign Legion. Every April 30, the Legion brings out the revered relic as part of its “Camerone Day” commemoration.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION TWO: DEFEND AT THE HACIENDA or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of a hasty defense. (See “After Action Report.”) This plan, which called for quickly occupying the formidable defenses of the walled farmstead, offered 3d Company its best chance to repel the much larger Mexican force’s attacks for as long as possible, while also inflicting the greatest number of enemy casualties. It allowed Danjou to keep his force concentrated, thereby assuring maximum sustained firepower, rapid redistribution of ammunition, and the ability to shift legionnaires to any point threatened by an enemy breakthrough.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: DEFEND AT CAMERONE divided Danjou’s already heavily outnumbered company into several smaller sections among the town’s buildings, thereby fatally fragmenting his defense effort. His legionnaires would have been unable to concentrate their firepower and inflict significant casualties on the enemy, while the Mexicans could have massed against the company’s individual sections and overrun them one by one.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: BREAK OUT CROSS-COUNTRY might have saved many of Danjou’s men from death or capture; however, that assumption is problematic since the legionnaires would have fled over completely unfamiliar terrain while being pursued by 100 Mexican guerrillas. Moreover, abandoning the supply road almost certainly would have dealt a serious blow to French operations since the Mexican force would have intercepted the vital supply convoy, thereby putting at risk the success of the French siege of Puebla.
AFTER ACTION REPORT
Key Points for a Hasty Defense
- REACT IMMEDIATELY. Respond at once to the enemy threat.
- ASSESS THE TACTICAL SITUATION. Quickly determine the size, strength and movement of the opposing force.
- ACT DECISIVELY. Promptly develop a course of action and implement it without delay.
- KEEP THE UNIT TOGETHER. Do not weaken the defensive effort by fragmenting the unit or dispersing the defenders.
- DEFEND FROM THE STRONGEST POSITION. Make the best use of terrain, cover and natural or man-made obstacles.
- INFLICT MAXIMUM ENEMY CASUALTIES. Concentrate all available firepower for as long as possible.