So there I was waiting for the bank to open after the two-hour lunch and hoping to persuade Thierry (the man who knows everything about everyone’s finances) to open the coffers and hand over some of my money. I was early so a little fossick around the old town of Chalabre was just the thing. I called in at the tourist office and learned about Chalabre’s most famous citizen- Capitaine Jean Danjou of the French Foreign Legion.
During military action in Algeria his rifle blew up taking one of his hands in the process. He had a wooden substitute made, articulated and painted. Nothing daunted, our hero saw further action during the Crimean War and eventually went out with the Legion to Mexico to quell the rumbumptious natives.
Now it happened that on 29 April 1862 an important convoy of francs (3 million to be exact) plus all the other paraphernalia needed to mount a siege required an escort; that was the task of the Legion. Unfortunately there was no officer of suitable rank available to lead the escort troops so Capitaine Jean (who ran the commissariat) took an executive decision and stepped into the breach. Two other officers, one from regimental accounts and the other a colour-bearer also volunteered and so it was they set out with 62 Legionnaires escorting the convoy.
The Battle of Cameron
At Paolo Verde, it being 7.00am, the troop stopped for a coffee break but spotting a Mexican force of cavalry and infantry-about 2000 in all – they ceased their coffee making duties and formed squares. After repelling several cavalry charges Capitaine Jean spied a local hostelry -the hacienda Cameron that just happened to have a 10ft high wall around it. Beating a strategic retreat the Legionnaires ensconced themselves behind the wall and made ready for battle. Our noble Capitaine is said to have taken a bottle of vino around to each of his men and got them all to swear an oath never to surrender
The Mexicans attacked; the Legionnaires ran out of water; at lunchtime our brave hero was shot through the chest and breathed his last. The troop continued to fight until by 5pm just a dozen Legionnaires remained and, an hour later, they were reduced to five. This handful, by now out of ammo, mounted a bayonet charge. Just two survived and were allowed to go free and take the body of Capitaine Jean home with them.
However the wooden hand of the Capitaine didn’t make it. According to different accounts it was either overlooked on the battlefield and returned later or it was nicked by a local farmer and sold. Either way it found its way back to the HQ of the Legion where it remains in the museum to this day -a potent symbol of derring-do and valour for which the Legion is legendary. It is, apparently, brought out and paraded every year on the 30 April to celebrate the bravery of the Capitaine and his men and the Officers make coffee for the Legionnaires as a reminder of the coffee they never had.