A Miscarriage of Justice
By Quintin Barry
My first book, published by Helion in 2007, was a two volume history of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, a subject in which I have always had a profound interest. In volume 2 of that book I was particularly interested to explore the second phase of the war, after the battle of Sedan and the fall of the French Second Empire. That period has been covered much less thoroughly than the campaign that led up to Napoleon III’s surrender at Sedan. As the war began thereafter to spread to the rest of France, there immediately followed the siege of Metz, where the French Army of the Rhine, under Marshal Bazaine, was surrounded by the besieging Prussian army under Prince Frederick Charles.
I went on to write a number of other books, some on the Franco Prussian war, and some on other subjects, but then came back to the history of the Army of the Rhine and the subsequent trial of its commander. As a lawyer, that trial interested me enormously, and so I began to research the book which has now been published by Helion under the title Bazaine 1870. Working on the book, it was not long before I realised that in my original history I had not done him justice, having in some instances followed the prevalent opinion of a number of other historians; as a result my analysis of him was unpardonably superficial.
This became very apparent to me when I read Bazaine: Coupable ou Victime? This, written by Generals Edmond Ruby and Jean Regnault, was published in Paris in 1960. It is a hugely impressive demolition of the popularly held view of Bazaine. In now publishing my own account of the course of his career as it progressed towards the events of 1870, I hope that I have made good my previous lapses of judgement. Much of the contemporary literature about Bazaine, and his trial, was ill informed, politically motivated and unremittingly hostile. Some later historians, such as Sir Michael Howard, have produced a more balanced account; but not all, as for instance the American historian Geoffrey Wawro, previously the author of a brilliant history of the Austro Prussian War, who in his history of the war of 1870-1871seems to have swallowed the anti-Bazaine narrative hook line and sinker.
The only comprehensive account in the English language of the tragic story of François Achille Bazaine was that written by Philip Guedalla in his vivid dual biography of Marshals Bazaine and Petain, published in 1943 under the title The Two Marshals. Guedalla succeeded in bringing to life the career of a man whose motivations remain to this day difficult to discern with any clarity. What was overwhelmingly clear, though, was just how unfairly Bazaine was treated. France needed a scapegoat for her shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and in Bazaine one was found ready to hand. For surrendering Metz he was tried for his life on military charges devised by the first Napoleon, enraged by the surrender by General Dupont at Baylen in 1808 during the Peninsular War. The transcript of the lengthy proceedings, held in the Grand Trianon at Versailles, is of absorbing interest. Looking at Bazaine’s decisions during his command, I have no doubt that his conviction (the death sentence was commuted to one of imprisonment) was monstrously unjust, and I am glad to have had the opportunity of setting the record straight.
‘Bazaine 1870. Scapegoat for a Nation’ is now available to buy here.