or: The Phantom Crown.

They Fought Like Lions - The Soudanese Battalion in Mexico

The Mexican Adventure: They Fought Like Lions

They Fought Like Lions
by Samir Raafat
Egyptian Mail, 25 June 1994

A year before Viceroy Ismail (later Khedive; r.1863-79) ascended Egypt's throne, France, Britain and Spain sent expeditionary forces to Mexico to prop up what would later be known as France's 'Mexican folly' that culminated with the assassination of Emperor Maximilian. He was the first and last European Emperor of Mexico.

European troops under the command of Jurien de la Gravière were decimated by Mexico's harsh tropical climate and their numbers reduced to less than half. Because 'white man' could not fare well in Tierra Caliente, Gravière recommended the importation of reinforcements from Senegal and the West Indies. Thereupon, the French emissary in Egypt approached Viceroy Saïd Pasha (r. 1854-63) requesting the loan of a Negro regiment to serve under the French flag.

On 9 January 1863, nine days before the Viceroy's death, the troopship "Seine" sailed from Alexandria with 447 men on board. The 'Ottoman Auxiliary Battalion' under the vicregal flag consisted of four companies commanded by officer Yarbit-Allah.

The battalion consisted of Egyptian officers and troops serving in the Sudan (then an Egyptian protectorate) and Upper Egypt. Hence the different shades of black from inky to Mediterranean olive. According to contemporary reports, some men were practically naked having been gazetted into the army the eve of their departure. With them aboard the Seine were several interpreters.

Forty-four days later, the contingent less those who died from a typhus breakout during the crossing, disembarked in Vera Cruz.

Once in the Americas, the Egyptian battalion was placed under the command of French commandant Mangin of the 3rd Zouaves Regiment. To facilitate the chain of command, Algerian soldiers were brought in to help with the language barrier.

Once the Egyptian battalion was issued new French rifles (those brought from Egypt were not up to par) the men were re-deployed between the port of Vera Cruz and the outpost of Soledad. Their mission was to protect a railway line in the course of construction--a task they would carry out in other parts of Mexico during the next two years.

The going was bad even as the troops landed in Mexico. To begin with the area around Vera Cruz was infested with both guerrillas and banditos led by Mexican nationalist Pablo Juarez (1806-72). Then, in May 1863, Yarbit-Allah and several of his troops succumbed to a fatal bout of yellow fever. Yarbit was replaced by his second, Captain Mohammed Almaz.

A subsequent spreading of dysentery knocked out 1/5 of the battalion. And the combat hadn't even begun!

By early 1864 the Egyptian Battalion had lost 22 more men. Cause of death: pulmonary complications and dysentery.

Following the successful June 10 attack on the town of Mexico (afterwards, Mexico City), General Elias Frederic Forey continued his advance on Tlaliscoyan where Juarez had regrouped. Accompanying Forey on his campaign were 80 members of the Egyptian infantry. Referring to these soldiers a French commander remarked "these were not fighting men, these were lions."

In the meantime, Juarez who by now was acclaimed a national hero, was propped up with American money and diplomacy. The United States was not about to welcome an imperialist European implantation in its backyard. In fact, France's request to Khedive Ismail (who had replaced his Uncle Saïd Pasha) for the enlistment of more Egyptian battalion had met with violent protest from the US government on the grounds that "it would increase the Negro population in America".

As war dragged on, the French government started to feel the financial pinch. Moreover, the flack from the opposition at home had grown to intolerable levels. Napoleon III was ready to bail out abandoning his fellow monarch to the mercy of the Mexican republicans.

The 326 survivors of the Egyptian Battalion left Mexico in 1867. Since many among them had learned French during the Mexican campaign it was with perfect ease that they spent time in Saint Nazarre, France, on their return journey home.

On 9 May 1867 at 15:00, Emperor Napoleon III accompanied by Shahin Pasha, the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, reviewed the Egyptian battalion during its passage through Paris. Fifty-six men were decorated with the Legion d'Honneur while Mohammed Almaz received the Officer's Cross pinned on him by the the French Emperor himself.

Egypt's returning combatants were greeted by a jubilant population in Alexandria two weeks later. The following day they were reviewed by Viceroy Ismail at a special banquet in Ras al-Tin Palace on May 26. Thereupon Almaz was promoted to colonel and the rest of the troops were collectively upgraded.

Meanwhile in Mexico Emperor Ferdinand Joseph Maximilian, 35, was executed on June 19, 1867 and Juarez duly elected president of Mexico.

For more information:

A Black Corps D'Elite: An Egyptian Sudanese Conscript Battalion With the French Army in Mexico, 1863-1867, and Its Survivors in Subsequent African History
by Richard Leslie Hill, Peter Hogg (Contributor)
Publisher: Michigan State Univ Pr; (May 1995) ISBN: 087013339X

An interesting read, it traces the subsequent careers of the unit's members, and the effect it had on French & Egyptian military thinking.


Last Updated on June 19, 2009 by Tim Peterson