Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 18 February 2016

I was desperate to ask Maurice, my guide, how many people he’d killed but his quiet modesty stopped me

In the Foreign Legion’s Museum of Memory at Aubagne, near Marseilles, I examined the kit, weapons and uniforms from the Legion’s formation in 1831 up to the present day. Uniforms from the Crimea, the Mandingo war, the Mexican expedition,the second Madagascar expedition, the first world war, the Algerian war, the first Gulf war: there they all were, displayed in glass cases. My museum guide was Maurice, a proud Legion veteran. Green Legion tie, natty silver-buttoned regimental waistcoat, close-cropped head and an impressive row of medals on his chest. You only had to look at his lean face to see how fit he was. A tour of duty in the Légion Étrangère is five years. Maurice has five under his regimental turquoise belt.

Next we silently meditated on the prosthetic hand and forearm of Captain Jean Danjou. The fighting spirit of the Légion Étrangère is embodied by this macabre artefact. It is its most sacred possession. Danjou fought in the Crimea, lost the hand fighting in Algeria, and was killed in Camarón in Mexico, where he and his 62 men defended a hacienda against a besieging Mexican army of 2,500 infantry and 500 cavalry. It was France’s Rorke’s Drift. During the battle, Danjou made his exhausted men swear on his wooden hand that they would fight to the last round and the last man. When the ammunition ran out, the six légionnaires left standing fixed bayonets and charged the Mexican army. Three were killed, three captured. The honourable Mexican general applauded this display of French courage by allowing these three to leave the field bearing their arms and the body of their slain commander. Camerone Day, 30 April, is the Foreign Legion’s big commemoration day. Danjou’s prosthetic hand is taken out of its glass case and paraded before the assembled Legion at their Aubagne barracks.

Confronted with the beautifully crafted wooden hand, and the do-or-die courage represented by it, and conscious of Maurice’s quietly scintillating pride, I wanted to say something appropriately reverential.

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