1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bazaine, Achille François
BAZAINE, ACHILLE FRANÇOIS (1811-1888), marshal of France, was born at Versailles on the 13th of February 1811. He entered the army as a private soldier in 1831, with a view to service in Algeria, and received a commission as sub-lieutenant in 1833. By his gallantry in action he won the cross of the Legion of Honour, and he was promoted lieutenant in 1835. He served two campaigns with the Foreign Legion against the Carlists in Spain in 1837-38, returning to Africa as captain in 1839. During the succeeding decade he saw continual active service in Africa, and rose to be a brigadier-general with the charge of the district of Tlemçen. In the Crimean War he commanded a brigade, and maintained his reputation in the trenches before Sevastopol. On the capture of the south side he was appointed governor of the place, and was promoted general of division. He also commanded the French forces in the expedition to Kinburn. In Lombardy in 1859 he was wounded when in command of a division at Melegnano, and took a conspicuous part in the battle of Solferino. For his services in the campaign he received the grand cross of the Legion of Honour, of which he was already (1855) a commander. He commanded with great distinction the first division under General (afterwards marshal) Forey in the Mexican expedition in 1862, succeeded him in supreme command in 1863, and became marshal and senator of France in the following year. He at first pursued the war with great vigour and success, entering Mexico in 1863 and driving President Juarez to the frontier. The marshal’s African experience as a soldier and as an administrator stood him in good stead in dealing with the guerrilleros of the Juarez party, but he was less successful in his relations with Maximilian, with whose court the French headquarters was in constant strife. Here, as later in his own country, Bazaine’s policy seems to have been directed, at least in part, to his own establishment in the rôle of a mayor of the palace. His own army thought that he aspired to play the part of a Bernadotte. His marriage to a rich Mexican lady, whose family were supporters of Juarez, still further complicated his relations with the unfortunate emperor, and when at the close of the American Civil War the United States sent a powerful war-trained army to the Mexican frontier, the French forces were withdrawn (see Mexico, History). Bazaine skilfully conducted the retreat and embarkation at Vera Cruz (1867). On his return to Paris he was but coldly received by his sovereign; public opinion was, however, in his favour, and he was held to have been made a scapegoat for the faults of others.
At the outbreak of the Franco-German War (q.v.) Marshal Bazaine was placed in command of the III. corps of the Army of the Rhine. He took no part in the earlier battles, but Napoleon III. soon handed over the chief command of the army to him. How far his inaction was the cause of the disaster of Spicheren is a matter of dispute. The best that can be said of his conduct is that the evil traditions of warfare on a small scale and the mania for taking up “strong positions,” common to the French generals of 1870, were in Bazaine’s own case emphasized by his personal dislike for the “schoolmaster” Frossard, lately the Prince Imperial’s tutor and now commander of the army corps posted at Spicheren. Frossard himself, the leader of the “strong positions” school, could only blame his own theories for the paralysis of the rest of the army, which left the corps at Spicheren to fight unsupported. Bazaine, indeed, when called upon for help, moved part of his corps forward, but only to “take up strong positions,” not to strike a blow on the battlefield. A few days later he took up the chief command, and his tenure of it is the central act in the tragedy of 1870. He found the army in retreat, ill-equipped and numerically at a great disadvantage, and the generals and staffs discouraged and distrustful of one another. There was practically no chance of success. The question was one of extricating the army and the government from a disastrous adventure, and Bazaine’s solution of it was to bring back his army to Metz. For the events which led up to the battles before Metz and the investment of Bazaine’s whole army in the fortress, see Franco-German War and Metz, Battles.
It seems to be clearly established that the charges of treason to which later events gave so strong a colour had, as yet, no foundation in fact. Nor, indeed, can his unwillingness to leave the Moselle region, while there was yet time to slip past the advancing enemy, be considered even as proof of special incompetence. The resolution to stay in the neighbourhood of Metz was based on the knowledge that if the slow-moving French army ventured far out it would infallibly be headed off and brought to battle in the open by superior numbers. In “strong positions” close to his stronghold, however, Bazaine hoped that he could inflict damaging repulses and heavy slaughter on the ardent Germans, and in the main the result justified the expectation. The scheme was creditable, and even heroic, but the execution throughout all ranks, from the marshal to the battalion commanders, fell far short of the idea. The minutely cautious methods of movement, which Algerian experience had evolved suitable enough for small African desert columns, which were liable to surprise rushes and ambushes, reduced the mobility of a large army, which had favourable marching conditions, to 5 m. a day as against the enemy’s rate of 15. When, before he had finally decided to stay in Metz, Bazaine attempted half-heartedly to begin a retreat on Verdun, the staff work and organization of the movement over the Moselle was so ineffective that when the German staff calculated that Bazaine was nearing Verdun, the French had in reality barely got their artillery and baggage trains through the town of Metz. Even on the battlefield the marshal forbade the general staff to appear, and conducted the fighting by means of his personal orderly officers. After the cumbrous army had passed through Metz it encountered an isolated corps of the enemy, which was commanded by the brilliant leader Constantin von Alvensleben, and promptly attacked the French. At almost every moment of the day victory was in Bazaine’s hands. Two corps of the Germans fought all day for bare existence. But Bazaine had no confidence in his generals or his troops, and contented himself with inflicting severe losses on the most aggressive portions of the German army. Two days later, while the French actually retreated on Metz—taking seven hours to cover 5 to 6 m.—the masses of the Germans gathered in front of him, intercepting his communication with the interior of France. This Bazaine expected, and feeling certain that the Germans would sooner or later attack him in his chosen position, he made no attempt to interfere with their concentration. The great battle was fought, and having inflicted severe punishment on his assailants, Bazaine fell back within the entrenched camp of Metz. But although he made no appeals for help, public opinion, alarmed and excited, condemned the only remaining army of France, Marshal MacMahon’s “Army of Châlons,” to rescue Bazaine at all costs. The adventure ended at Sedan, and with Sedan the Third Empire collapsed.
Up to this point Bazaine had served his country perhaps as well as circumstances allowed, and certainly with enough skill and a sufficient measure of success to justify his appointment. His experience, wide as it was, had not fitted him for the command of a large army in a delicate position. Since his Mexican expedition, moreover, he had himself fallen into a state of moral and physical lethargy, which, imperceptible on the field of battle, because his reputation for impassive bearing under fire was beyond question, was only too obvious in the staff offices, where the work of manoeuvring the army and framing plans and orders was chiefly done. But, in spite of these defects, it cannot be asserted that any one of Bazaine’s subordinates would have done better, with the possible exception of Ladmirault, and Ladmirault was one of the junior corps commanders.
Bazaine, therefore, in the main justified his reputation for ability. He was now to justify his reputation for intriguing and underhand diplomacy. If in Mexico he aspired to the rôle of mayor of the palace, it was far more so in Metz, where, as commander of the only organized army of France, he conceived himself to be the ruler of the country’s destiny. Accordingly he engaged in a series of diplomatic intrigues, some of which to this day have never been properly cleared up. Negotiations passed between the outer world and the besieged commander, the purport of which remains still to some extent obscure, but it is beyond question that he proposed with the permission of the Germans to employ his army in “saving France from herself.” The scheme, however, collapsed, and the army of the Rhine became prisoners of war to the number of 140,000. At the moment of the surrender a week’s further resistance would have enabled the levies of the National Defence government to crush the weak forces of the Germans on the Loire and to relieve Paris. But the army of Prince Frederick Charles, set free by the surrender, hurried up in time to check and to defeat the great effort at Orleans (q.v.). The responsibility for this crushing blow was naturally enough, and justly enough, placed on Bazaine’s shoulders, and although, when he returned from captivity, the marshal enjoyed a brief immunity, he was in 1873 brought to trial before a military court. He was found guilty of negotiating with and capitulating to the enemy before doing all that was prescribed by duty and honour, and sentenced to degradation and death, but very strongly recommended to mercy. His sentence was commuted to twenty years’ seclusion, and the humiliating ceremonies attending degradation were dispensed with. He was incarcerated in the Ile Sainte-Marguérite and treated rather as an exile than as a convict; thence he escaped in 1874 to Italy. He finally took up his abode in Madrid, where he was treated with marked respect by the government of Alfonso XII. He died there on the 23rd of September 1888. He published Épisodes de la guerre de 1870 (Madrid, 1883). He also wrote L’Armée du Rhin (Paris, 1872).
See the bibliography appended to the article Franco-German War; also memoir by C. Pelletan in La Grande Encyclopédie; for Bazaine’s conduct see Bazaine et l’armée du Rhin (1873); J. Valfrey, Le Maréchal et l’armée du Rhin (1873); Count A. de la Guerronière, L’Homme de Metz (1871); Rossel, Les Derniers Jours de Metz (1871). See also the article Bourbaki for the curious Regnier episode connected with the surrender of Metz.