JOURNEY TO DEATH
Leaving for Algeria
On August 21, 1870, after a few days of preparations, Bazille entered military life. The Zouave Corps, to which he now belonged, had been created in Africa, and the unit he was to join had its depot at Philippeville [Now called Skikda]. The Zouave Corps was to be formed at the end of the war.
Less than a week after enlisting, he thus left his people and embarked for Algeria. Obliged step, but contrary to his desire to fight and, from August 26, he writes to his parents : "I will act according to what seems to me the best to leave quickly. Perhaps it will be Wednesday, perhaps later". In fact, his stay in Algeria will last about a month, during which he will not stop observing things and people around him; and the first show he will see is that of the troop. Because of the war, almost all the men who composed his regiment are already in France; in their place flows from day to day a mass of recruits and if Bazille, for his part, is already dressed and armed, there are only empty stores to equip the newcomers, of which he makes a very unflattering description; "The young soldiers are in immense majority a filthy and filthy scum, I do not know from where they came. Few peasants, almost all of them are convicts and crooks who take advantage of the lack of formalities to get food and clothing... On arrival at my barracks, a murderer was arrested. Immersed in such a society, it is hardly surprising that he speaks little. "I only enjoy the moments when I can walk alone", he writes. Because, fortunately, these moments exist: if Bazille declares that he does "a dog's job" and is "quite disgusted with the mess tin", he is generally free from two in the afternoon to nine in the evening. He took advantage of this time to have dinner at the hotel, to go to the café by the sea, and especially to discover the new world around him. To tell the truth, Philippeville itself offered little interest. But nature is not the same as in France and he notes this with precision. His painter's instinct remains alert, especially when he looks at the local people. "The Arabs are always poor and filthy, however there would be enough to make very nice paintings", he says; and one guesses here his regret, because he has, of course, no material to paint. But perhaps he still draws; there are indeed some sketches that he could have made in Africa. If this hypothesis were verified, these would be the last testimonies he would have left us of his art.
Barely disembarking, he had the good fortune to find Major Lejosne who, it will be remembered, had been transferred to Algeria for having given a performance of Ruy Blas at his home. Lejosne is now a major of the Constantine place and will make "feet and hands" so that his young cousin is allowed to come and visit him. This was difficult to obtain because all the recruits that had just been gathered at the Philippeville depot had to be sent to France as soon as possible. A few days passed, during which Bazille suffered both from inaction and from not knowing anything about what was going on, for lack of newspapers. On September 6, however, he learned of the fall of the Empire and wrote: "I am still bewildered by the latest news, but I am quite happy with the Republic, as long as it lasts. He succeeded in registering to be in the first convoy that will return to France, but the departure order is still not given. On the other hand, the permission requested for him by Lejosne has finally arrived. That same day, he therefore set out for Constantine.
He will spend part of September there and he has every reason to be happy, for he will finally see a truly Arab city and, moreover, he will lodge with the commander and eat at the NCO table. We do not know anything else about his stay but, towards the end of the month, Lejosne wrote to Gaston Bazille and congratulated him on his son's bearing, tact, good looks, military bearing and intelligent air.
We also do not know when he returned to Philippeville, nor when he sailed for France. Still eager to go promptly to fight for his country, he initially hoped that his regiment would go to reform in Paris, at the Pépinière barracks. But what happened was even more satisfying for him, since after having been landed in Toulon, he was sent to Montpellier. We are now in the second half of September [We read in Le Messager du Midi of September 16, 1870 : "Yesterday arrived in Montpellier a part of the depot of the 3rd Zouaves, coming from Philippeville by Toulon; the rest of the depot is expected soon and will bring the total of these soldiers to about 4,000 men. A large number of these men, among whom we found some compatriots, are partly dressed and equipped. The population, seeing them circulate, yesterday, in our streets, could not help admiring the resolute and martial air of this elite troop. "Le Messager du Midi reports that several other battalions arrived in Montpellier between September 16 and 30. Bazille had managed to get himself signed up to be in the first convoy, so it is not impossible that he reached Montpellier as early as September 15, but we cannot be certain of this].
Bazille now belonged to the 3rd Zouave marching regiment, the creation of which had just been decreed by the government of National Defense, and which was to be formed and trained at the Montpellier depot. The 3rd Zouaves regiment, an elite unit based in Philippeville, had been killed or captured at Sedan and only about 50 men remained in Algeria when Bazille arrived. But the Republican government created four new regiments of Zouaves, called marching regiments. The third, which was formed in Montpellier, was made up of volunteers, Zouaves who had come out of the ambulances or who had survived the disaster of Sedan, as well as elements of the former regiment stationed in Algeria. [See Lieutenant Duroy, Historique du 3e régiment de zouaves, Paris, Lavauzelle, pp .71-72 and Paul Laurencin, Nos zouaves, Paris, 1888, pp.207-209]. He thus spent a few weeks near his family, then was transported by rail with his unit to Besançon. It was a matter of saving what was not yet lost in eastern France, by recreating an army from very disparate elements and by incorporating, among others, the remnants of the former Army of the Rhine. The government of National Defense wanted to take advantage of the possibilities of resistance offered by the Besançon region and transform the city into an entrenched camp. It is there that troops are concentrated and that Bazille, now a sergeant, arrives on October 22. Bazille's letter to his parents dated October 22 provides us with proof that he was promoted to non-commissioned officer before leaving Montpellier for Besançon. In it, he explains that he took advantage of his train's stop in Nîmes to get into a 2nd class carriage intended for non-commissioned officers, which he had not had time to take when he left.
Facing the battle
Precisely then the Germans had reached the Oignon Valley, very close to Besançon, and there was fighting. Yet Bazille would not take part in any combat during the two weeks he spent in this region; day after day, it would be nothing but marches and counter-marches, to go and repel an enemy that was said to be only a few kilometers away and that he never met. No more than Stendhal's Fabrice at Waterloo, Bazille cannot interpret in a coherent way the movements in which he participates, nor understand as a whole the action that is taking place near him. We are two steps from Besançon", he wrote on October 27, "wandering without motive from camp to camp... The little walks and useless changes of position that we are made to make bore the men a lot and take away from them a little of their first fire. He too is bored and that is the only ailment he suffers from, despite the rain and cold of autumn. He was lucky enough to have made a friend of his leader, the young Captain d'Armagnac who "is a charming man, and moreover a man of value"; he got together with him, his second lieutenant, a captain adjutant-major and two non-commissioned officers. They have a soldier who cooks for them, and he has a brewer who sets up his tent, washes his clothes and carries his luggage. He takes advantage of the slightest moments of rest or respite to write to his parents and sends off as best he can letters whose refrain is that he has still not seen a single Prussian. "There is talk of armistice or peace", he writes on October 30, "I would be furious to return without seeing a bit of serious business "; and he also announces that he is going to be appointed sergeant major.
But if he manages to give news fairly well, the mail, in the other direction, is very irregular, and he complains about it. He knows nothing about his friends, who know nothing about him. It is the case of Maître who is now cut off from the world, because Paris, where he remained, was completely invested on September 19 and does not communicate any more with the outside world except by pigeon or by balloon. Having received no letter from anyone since September 10, Maître wrote to Gaston Bazille on October 31 to ask him what had become of his son: "Locked up in Paris and reduced to a horrible solitude, I would be very pleased to learn that he has escaped these calamities, he who is of all my friends the one I prefer. We don't know if Gaston Bazille will be able to respond to Maître. But Frédéric Bazille, for his part, would hear no more of him, nor of Monet who, from Le Havre, had gone to England after Sedan, nor of the cuirassier Renoir, nor of the artilleryman Manet, nor of Courbet who had remained as Maître in Paris, nor finally of Sisley to whom his status as a British subject allowed him to remain in France without taking part in the military operations.
During his stay near Besançon, Bazille was allowed a few hours' leave to visit the city quickly, but without time to inspect the museum. The troop continued its useless movements: "We are going around Besançon without doing anything but poop" he wrote on November 4. One day he thought he was about to go on the attack; another, he feared that he and his comrades would be locked up in the city - like rabbits - and taken prisoner. But this period of incoherence ended on November 8. Things had indeed changed: the Germans had moved away from Besançon; on the other hand, on October 31, they had occupied Dijon and were pushing their patrols to Beaune. Communications between eastern and central France were in danger of being cut off and Lyon was threatened. To ward off this new danger, the army of the East moves and will regroup at Chagny between Beaune and Chalon.
"I'm under severe strain"
When he set out, Bazille did not know where he was going and wondered whether he was being sent to Lyon or to the Loire, but his letters give us precise information about his route. He left Saint-Ferjeux near Besançon and camped on November 8 at Paroy, on November 9 at Chamblay, on November 10 at Grand-Deschaux, on November 11 at Terrans, on November 12 at Chauvort, opposite Verdun, on the Saône, and on November 13 at Saint-Loup south of Beaune, reaching Chagny on November 14. There are not only elite soldiers in the heterogeneous, poorly equipped and poorly commanded army corps to which he belongs and, speaking of the lesser elements, he writes: "We should, in order to hold them completely, shoot a few more. This very surprising wish on his part can only be explained by the mass of accumulated observations that have modified his judgment of men; and as the few lines that follow prove, his correspondence is far from revealing all the experience he has acquired since he became a military man : "I don't have time to tell you about what I feel and my feelings about everything I see and hear. I store everything up, I don't know if I will have the courage to say later what I think of men, but I am at a tough school". He is fortunate enough to have fallen in with a good company; moreover, no sooner is he in Chagny than he is comforted by a pleasant surprise, that of seeing the arrival of the Midi ambulance.
It is a good thing that he is in a good company.
It is worth recalling here that the War of 1870 gave rise to a vast movement of solidarity, and that many private ambulances were sent to the theaters of operations. One of them, the "Ambulance du Midi", came from Montpellier, and among those who equipped it, Bazille counted old friends he had known in his native city, Planchon, Leenhardt and Sabatier, who had come to look for him and were there just to see him. He received two visits from them, on November 14 and 15, and a letter from Leenhardt gives us the memory he left them on this occasion : "We found this nice boy marvelous, greatly appreciated by his men, he did not want to leave his comrades to come with us for fear that he would be needed" [We thank René Leenhardt for having kindly communicated to us the Golden Book of his family in which this information appears].
Bazille's stay at Chagny would be very brief. The fifty-five thousand men who were assembled there had the essential mission of opposing a German breakthrough to Lyon. But Chagny was an important railway junction from which it was possible to reach not only Dijon or Lyon, but also Nevers and the Loire. Now, it is on this side that the most decisive operations seem to take place. Orleans was taken back; they wanted to go on the offensive and to reinforce the army of the Loire. As a result of this sudden change of objective, the order was given on November 15 to transport immediately by rail forty thousand men from Chagny to Gien - the extreme point beyond which trains could no longer go. Begun on the 16th, this hastily improvised undertaking was to last three days. Bazille probably left on the 17th, for he had written to his parents the day before: "We have received orders to leave tonight. As the artillery is embarking with us, it is likely that we will not get on the railroad until tomorrow morning. I suppose we will join the army of the Loire, and at last attempt a great effort towards Paris, it may be the only way to get us out of trouble".
This time, he was right and understood the maneuver in which he was going to participate. The goal is indeed, for the army of the Loire, to open a passage to the north in order to lend a hand to the troops locked up in Paris, who, in turn, are going to attempt a breakthrough to the south. Bazille was therefore directed northward from Gien and we find him, on the evening of November 23, at the Bordes camp, not far from Bellegarde, where he will be at noon on the 24th. It was only then that he saw his first Prussians, prisoners. The cannon thundered from one side and from the other, and the shooting got closer. The right wing attacks Montargis, the left wing Pithiviers. The hour seems to have finally come when Bazille will fight.
Time to fight
It would not come, however, until three days later. Nothing must have happened on November 25, for in the evening he writes only "We have pushed forward a little and I am settled with my ordinary companions in a very miserable, but quite warm farmhouse". This being the last letter, we do not know how the next two days were occupied. On November 26, the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Zouaves took part in the action that flushed out the Germans from the village of Ladon. But Bazille's company belonged to the 3rd Battalion and it is likely that it was held in reserve. On the 27th, Bazille was appointed sergeant-major. [And not second lieutenant as Poulain mistakenly states. For proof, see Frédéric Bazille's letter of November 16, 1870 (n° 298), and the letter from Captain d'Armagnac, who became a general, to Marc Bazille]. In the evening, he was in the hamlet of Quiers, near Bellegarde, and had dinner with Captain d'Armagnac. They knew that the next day they would be attacking Beaune-la-Rolande, where the Germans were entrenched, and that it would be a hot affair. They discuss it and Bazille exclaims "For me, I am quite sure not to be killed; I have too many things to do in life" [The comment is reported by Captain d'Armagnac in the letter he addressed much later to Marc Bazille, the painter's brother].
Towards his destiny
On the november 28 at 6 a.m., his regiment was put on the march. Beaune-la-Rolande, his destination point, is a small, once-strong town whose surrounding wall remains in part. The Germans were hidden behind it; they had completed it by crenellating it, by piercing loopholes and by barricading the streets. The battle, one of the bloodiest of the war, began at eight o'clock. Captain d'Armagnac's company, after having made its way through the mud, gathered near Batilly and its role was first to cut off the Germans' communications between Beaune and Pithiviers. It was then that Bazille fought for the first time, "full of enthusiasm, always forward, firing his rifle, launching himself after a convoy. [Gaston Bazille's notes, quoting the report given to him by Captain d'Armagnac, whom he met a few days after the battle when he was bringing back to Montpellier the body of his son. At the end of the morning, d'Armagnac led his company back in the direction of Beaune. He arrived two hundred meters from the walls and was greeted by a violent and deadly fusillade, while the French artillery, anxious to spare the civilian population, hardly protected him. Wounded around noon and pinned to the ground, d'Armagnac lost sight of Bazille. Nevertheless, it is known that in the afternoon, a new assault was given, and the Zouaves advanced under a hail of bullets, towards walls in which the cannon had done nothing to open gaps. Bazille was only fifty meters away. Women and children ran past to seek shelter in isolated farms. It is then that he rushes forward shouting: "Don't shoot the women and children" [Poulain, 1932, p. 195]. He is in the open and despises the danger; his high height [He was 1m88 tall] points him out to the enemy, whom he cannot see. He receives a bullet in the arm, another in the belly and falls face down never to rise again.
He would live for a few more moments, while the battle continued until after dark. Around four o'clock, thanks to a lull in the fighting, he is picked up and laid down a little lower down by a stream. He had a clear conscience and knew he was lost. Some of his men, of whom he is adored, are near him. To one of them he entrusts his ring, asking him to send it to his parents; he offers the money he has on him - some hundred francs - to another who refuses it. Then it is all over.
The next day he is buried in a grave with other soldiers killed during the battle. Of all the units that participated, the 3rd Zouave Regiment paid the heaviest tribute. And for Frédéric Bazille, the baptism of fire, which he had so desired, became one with death.
Many times in these pages we have been struck by the strength of the family bond in the Bazilles, but we did not know that it could lead to heroism. We have yet to discover it.
"My beautiful Frédéric"
To Montpellier came uncertain news. The Bazilles have learned that their son has been seriously wounded, but do not know if he is alive or dead. Gaston Bazille wants to get rid of this doubt at all costs. "Should I die in pain, he says, I want to find my son, and I will find him" [Louis Albin, Mon brave regiment, Paris, 1913, p. 39]. To do this, he had to overcome difficulties of all kinds, obtain authorizations from civilian and military officials; and even so, the enterprise, pursued in a devastated, invaded region, where fighting was still going on, appeared both dangerous and chimerical. Gaston Bazille, in his notes, recounted his ordeal. By rail, he reached Gien on December 5 and had to continue his journey by car. With a coachman who was not very reassured, he reached Bellegarde, where the Germans passed by again and again, and obtained a pass from them to Lorris, where he was welcomed at the presbytery and vainly looked for his son in all the ambulances. A new pass finally allowed him to reach Beaune-la-Rolande. He arrived there on the evening of December 6, the day when, under other circumstances, his son's twenty-ninth birthday would have been celebrated. The aide-de-camp of the German general, no doubt touched by his pain, provided him with lodging. On the 7th, the vicar took him to the battlefield, still covered with all kinds of debris, and showed him the place where his son had fallen. He has now lost all hope of finding him alive. He is shown the grave where, he is told, three sergeants of the Zouaves are buried. He has it opened and recognizes his son: "He is hardly changed, his blue eyes are wide open, his expression is proud, calm, nothing tormented, it is still my beautiful Frederic. We cut hair and beard, I take the mittens, the jacket, the knitting, the belt. I look at him again, and I walk away, choking back my sobs".
"Alive ? No, dead"
It remains for him to return with the body and, in the words of Poulain, "it is then that the painful return begins, a slow funeral march unceasingly hindered in its course by the most miserable and painful details". A makeshift coffin is made, the gravedigger's horse is hitched to a cart, and they leave under the snow on December 8, along roads often clogged with German columns. Gaston Bazille ate and stayed as best he could on the way, stopped in Orleans, which was once again occupied by the enemy, and, with a pass, continued his journey south. Because of the progress of the invasion, the place where he hoped to take the railroad kept receding before him. First it was La Motte-Beuvron, then only Vierzon. But these two cities were successively abandoned by the routed French army, and it was finally in Issoudun that he could embark. He sometimes heard the thunder of the cannon and crossed places where there had just been a battle; he finally left the occupied regions, but it was to encounter difficulties of another kind. In Lury, he was mistaken for a spy and the mayor had him arrested; the coffin was opened to verify its contents, and then he was apologized to. Finally, on the evening of December 12, he boarded a train. The next morning, in Périgueux, he found himself in a carriage in the presence of Captain d'Armagnac, evacuated because of his wounds, who told him everything he knew about the battle and the end of his son's life [This meeting of Gaston Bazille and Captain d'Armagnac was not an extraordinary coincidence, since the latter had been evacuated to the depot of his regiment, which was in Montpellier. This also explains why the captain was able to be present at the funeral of Frédéric Bazille].
On the evening of December 13, he arrived in Montpellier and found his house, where one sensed the worst, without being entirely sure. All the family is waiting for him, gathered in his office.
"I'm bringing him back, he says.
- Alive ? No. Dead".
The funeral is on December 15. [And not the 16th, as was mistakenly written. Cf. the announcement published in Le Messager du Midi of December 15, 1870 : "The funeral will take place today, December 15, at 10 o'clock very precise in the morning"] at 10 o'clock in the morning. Captain d'Armagnac accompanied Gaston Bazille at the head of a very large convoy, and along the route, a crowd massed to pay his son the supreme honors.
It is in the Protestant cemetery of Montpellier that, from now on, he rests.