The Eastern army interned in Switzerland

The Eastern army interned in Switzerland

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Title: Bourbaki Panorama

Author : CASTRES Edouard (1838 - 1902)

Creation date : 1881

Date shown: 1871

Dimensions: Height 1000 - Width 11200

Technique and other indications: Painting on canvas

Storage location: Panorama Bourbaki website

Contact copyright: © Panorama Bourbaki, Lucerne - Photograph by Hans Eggermann and Heinz Dieter Finck.

© Panorama Bourbaki, Lucerne - Photograph by Hans Eggermann and Heinz Dieter Finck.

Publication date: November 2003


The Eastern army interned in Switzerland


Historical context

The army saved by the first internment agreement

The last army to fight against the Prussian invader, the Eastern Army, commanded by General Bourbaki [1], went from success to rout in January 1871. The 140,000 men, decimated by cold and hunger in the frozen Jura, are still pursued by the German armies after the surrender of the siege of Paris, because the armistice excluded this army, whose fate is unknown. He asks for refuge in Switzerland.

In a Siberian cold, 87,847 French soldiers arrived at the border post at Les Verrières and three other towns on February 1 and 2, 1871, in unbroken columns of men, draft animals, cars and cannons. On this basis and subject to subsequent reimbursement of costs by France, the first internment agreement [2] in a neutral country was concluded on the night of February 1, 1871.

Accommodation in Switzerland lasts six weeks, as Bismarck opposes the return of troops to France before the peace preliminaries are signed. It was settled in August 1872 by France, and Switzerland then returned the seized equipment: 140,000 weapons, 285 cannons and mortars, 1,158 cars and 11,800 horses.

Reported in the foreign press, this dramatic rout has elicited only rare testimonies in France. However, a young 20-year-old recruit (conscription of 1870), Julien-Jean Poirier, originally from the surroundings of Nantes, left a simple and factual account [3] of this difficult journey.

Image Analysis

An epic without heroes

First established in Geneva in 1881, then transferred to Lucerne in 1889, the Panorama Bourbaki once again gives access to the spectacular stage of Les Verrières, since the restoration of the rotunda (40 meters in diameter) in 2000. The immense snowy landscape unfolds over 112 meters in circumference. The Eastern Army descends from the French Jura. Driven by the instinct of self-preservation, the men progress with great difficulty in the snow, with the teams, in a continuous line. In the foreground, the massive disarmament of the 34,000 French who entered Les Verrières was carried out on the railroad embankment, closely watched by the Swiss army because it left the vanquished helpless [4] and the Swiss at the mercy of an incident.

Once disarmed, the soldiers still have to march to one of the internment sites, spread throughout Switzerland (except Ticino). A cuirassier deprived of his horse walks in his magnificent red cloak. The army has colonial units such as the Algerian Kabyle riflemen, the "turcos" and the Zouaves, who wear the special attire of the African infantry. All these uniforms stand out against the snow with paltry splendor as the battalions have turned into a cohort of wounded and exhausted men.

At the railway tracks, sick and weakened soldiers and civilians find refuge around small fires. They receive wood, straw, blankets, soup, bread and tobacco. Only the wounded are transported by rail. Many walk barefoot or wrapped in ragged cloth because their shoes cannot withstand walking in the snow [5]. In the Swiss Jura, where the defeated army is spreading, help is spontaneously taken in by the inhabitants [6] to feed, comfort, help and treat the tens of thousands of soldiers. In all the villages, the “Bourbaki” are sheltered in makeshift cantonments. A few soldiers have typhus or smallpox, all have respiratory ailments and will need treatment [7]. A Red Cross priest is seen giving Extreme Unction to a soldier slumped in the snow; 1,700 men die in Switzerland.

A talented painter, Edouard Castres [8] experienced the rout of the Eastern Army as a volunteer with the Red Cross; he pictured walking beside his small ambulance. The artist preferred to make his many sketches of the landscape at Les Verrières itself rather than resorting to the tricks borrowed by panoramas from photography to draw the outlines.

After several years of preparations to render and assemble the landscape, the uniforms, the weapons, the living and dead horses, Castres produced his gigantic canvas, in five months, in 1881, in the rotunda of the panorama itself. In front of the canvas which originally measured 14 meters in height is installed a rolling scaffolding where twelve young painters, his collaborators, work. From the central platform, intended for the public, Castres organizes the whole, controls the effect of shapes and colors; he performs the most important parts himself. When it was inaugurated on September 24, 1881, the panorama aroused enthusiasm: "The illusion is complete [...] and the whole ensemble has a striking effect," wrote the Journal de Genève at the time.


The first settlement of a humanitarian disaster

In contrast to the realistic panoramas installed across Europe in the aftermath of the war of 1870, Castres's painting deliberately abandons the heroic or the pathetic side of war. It doesn’t show victory but the situation born out of defeat. With the sobriety of an eyewitness, he shows the misery of men and the remedies given to an extreme situation.

The dilapidated state of the troops, the fact that they were also spread over the whole of Switzerland, struck the imagination deeply. The large canvas of Castres is designed in the general feeling that it was possible to remedy this event of an unprecedented scale thanks to the sense of responsibility, organization, efficiency, respect for people and solidarity.

Many problems have been mastered: hunger, cold, care for the wounded, their transport, surveillance of livestock affected by foot-and-mouth disease stopped at the border or even the illegal sale of horses to peasants: Castres has chosen the register of the reality of the situation and concrete solutions. The foundation of the Red Cross (1863) is recent. The artist is inhabited by the feelings of neutrality and humanitarian vocation which animate the young federal state.

The war of 1870 exposed serious uncertainties as to the rules applicable to the conduct of hostilities. The retreat of the Bourbaki ”present in all minds leads one to foresee the problems posed by the internment in a neutral country of such a considerable army and to resolve the new legal problems which came under the law of war as well as that of neutrality. They will directly inspire articles of the Hague Convention which still governs these questions.

  • army
  • defeat
  • War of 1870
  • Mountain
  • military
  • Prussia
  • realism
  • horse
  • Third Republic


Henz Dieter Finck and Michael T. Ganz,The Panorama Bourbaki,Besançon, Editions Cêtre, 2002.François Bugnion "The arrival of the" Bourbaki "at Les Verrières. The internment of the French First Army in Switzerland on February 1, 1871 "in International Review of the Red Cross, n ° 311, 1996.Martine ILLAIREWar memoirs of Julien-Jean Poirier, veteran of 1870 (1850-1940, in Bulletin of the Nantes and Loire-Atlantique Society of History and Archeology1975-1977. t. 114, p. 135-159

To cite this article

Luce-Marie ALBIGÈS, "The Eastern Army interned in Switzerland"

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