War Classic: Zola’s ‘The Debacle’

Nick Spenceley recalls one of the great novels of military history.

In July 1870, the French Empire under Napoleon III (nephew of Bonaparte), alarmed at what it perceived as a waning of influence across continental Europe, launched a war against the neighbouring Germanic state of Prussia.

Yet the jingoistic campaign soon backfired spectacularly on the French, as Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, gathering together an alliance of Germanic states, inflicted a series of humiliating battlefield defeats on their enemy. The most notable of these was at Sedan on the first two days of September 1870, after which Napoleon III was captured and deposed.

Although the memory of the conflict has been eclipsed by the two world wars that followed it, the Franco-Prussian War fundamentally reshaped the balance of power in Europe. The victorious Bismarck melded together the alliance of Germanic states to form a new global power.

Émile Zola’s La Débâcle, translated as The Debacle or The Downfall, is an epic novel detailing the war, particularly the events in and around Sedan. The 19th in the monumental 20-volume Rougon-Macquart saga, the novel was researched and written well within living memory of the events it describes. It was highly acclaimed on publication in 1892, and is still widely acknowledged as one of the finest war novels ever written.

Émile Zola

Born: 2 April 1840
Died: 29 September 1902
Nationality: French
Born in Paris, Émile Zola was the only child of a French mother and an Italian immigrant father. The family lived in poverty and the young Zola struggled to establish himself as a writer until a clerical position afforded him some financial security. He wrote prolifically, but it was not until the publication of his 1882 novel, L’Assommoir, the seventh instalment in the Les Rougon-Macquart series, that he achieved celebrity and wealth. Zola remained a champion of the downtrodden and persecuted throughout his life, mostly memorably during the events known as the Dreyfus Affair.

The author is the narrator of the action, but he limits what he describes to what can be seen or heard by a small handful of characters. There is no attempt to describe events from the German perspective. This is France’s tragedy, and we are immersed in it at ground level. This makes the experience of war visceral, frightening, and confusing – a far cry from the maps, battle plans, and neatly orchestrated manoeuvres of historical accounts.

Zola never served in the army; indeed, as we will see, he earned the enmity of the military establishment in the celebrated Dreyfus Affair. However, he was a first-hand witness of intense military action in 1870-1871 when the French army bloodily suppressed the Paris Commune, the revolutionary government that briefly seized power in the capital in the aftermath of the war. At the time of this conflict, he was a reporter for the Paris newspaper, La Cloche.

The first two-thirds of La Débâcle follows a small section of the French 106th Regiment. They represent a microcosm of French society, encompassing the bold and the fearful, the loyal and rebellious, grafters and slackers. Many subsequent novels have used this format, from Flanders to Vietnam, and they all owe much of their genesis to La Débâcle.

At the heart of this group is a sturdy peasant corporal, Jean Macquart, and the urban intellectual Maurice Levasseur. Between them, they embody the qualities of France as seen by Zola: stolid, enduring, and conservative, but also idealistic, dashing, and volatile.

Zola makes it clear from the start of the novel that the army is doomed. This is frequently couched in the religious language of sacrifice:

The four army corps, hastily bodged together, with no firm links between them, were the army of desperation, the scapegoats sent to the sacrifice in an effort to avert the wrath of destiny. That army was about to climb its Calvary to the very end and redeem the sins of all with the red stream of its blood and find its greatness in the very horror of disaster.

For the soldiers, this means a daily struggle to keep going in the face of an administrative shambles:

…hunger was twisting their guts, boots were hurting their feet, this march was a torture, with unforeseen defeat growling threateningly in their rear. Nothing good left to expect, their leaders losing their grip, the commissariat not even feeding them…

By contrast, a civilian reporting on the Prussian artillery galloping through a village at night conveys a chilling image of a relentless advance that spares no one:

It was a hell-for-leather ride to victory… Nothing was respected, they smashed everything and simply went on. Horses that stumbled had their harness cut off at once and were rolled over, trampled on, and thrown out as bits of bleeding wreckage. Some men trying to cross the road were similarly knocked down and cut to pieces by the wheels.

Napoleon III is described as ‘a sick man, incapable of any quick decision… carried round like some useless clutter in the baggage of his troops’, with his oversized train of courtiers, caterers, and flunkeys causing increasing resentment.

In the midst of this, the initial hostility between Maurice and Jean is replaced by an increasing tenderness as Jean exercises an almost maternal care for the sensitive city-dweller. The language used may seem erotic to modern readers, but in truth it draws on the universal experience of soldiers forging intimate bonds in the heat of battle.

The actual battle is described from a number of viewpoints, the most prominent of which are those of the 106th Regiment and the defenders of the village of Bazeilles, on the outskirts of Sedan. It starts with the 106th ordered to a field where they come under shellfire and lie prone. The account is eerily modern. Here we have the ‘empty battlefield’:

They could still see nothing and knew nothing. It was impossible to have the slightest conception of the battle as a whole – was it even a real big battle? … Not that a single Prussian could be seen anywhere on the horizon, just puffs of smoke…

The Last Cartridges, an 1873 painting by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. French snipers are depicted ambushing Bavarian troops during the Battle of Bazeilles. The wider battle of Sedan saw over 4,500 casualties. Image: Wikimedia Commons

With casualties mounting, nerves fray: ‘Eyelids fluttered over worried eyes, and voices went thin as though they could not get out properly.’

The actions of the 106th are interwoven with descriptions of the developing battle at the village of Bazeilles, which is held tenaciously by the French against overwhelming numbers of Bavarians. We see this through the eyes of Weiss, the civilian husband of Maurice’s sister, Henriette. This account follows a more conventional heroic form, with intense street-fighting and enemies gunned down in plain sight. Having witnessed a woman blown apart by shellfire, Weiss impulsively seizes a musket and defends his home.

Zola seems ambivalent about the infamous ‘Francs-Tireurs’, irregular military formations deployed by France in the war’s early stages. On the one hand, Weiss and his fellow villagers are heroic, patriotic, and united: ‘Bourgeois, workmen, people in overcoats or overalls, all of them were firing frenziedly through the windows.’

On the other hand, French partisans are later shown seizing a German, trussing him up, and bleeding him to death like a pig. They are shown as venal and debased, and resented by the local population.

The village falls, and Weiss is summarily executed. Zola uses an element of racial stereotyping in describing the Bavarians who shoot Weiss and restrain his wife, but he never suggests that they murder any uniformed prisoners or unarmed civilians. Furthermore, it is clear by the end of the novel that the worst atrocities have been perpetrated by Frenchmen against Frenchmen, in the horrific last days of the Paris Commune.

Returning to the 106th, we see them ordered to take and hold a hill. Again, we see modern war:

Instead of the classical assaults as in manoeuvres, in straight lines, all that could soon be seen was humped-backs creeping along on the ground, soldiers alone or in little groups crawling or suddenly jumping up like insects and reaching the top by dint of agility and subterfuge.

Decimated by shellfire on their hill, they cheer when artillery gallops up in fine style to support them, only to be horrified as the guns, crews, and horses are smashed by Prussian artillery, barely able to land a single shot in return.

We follow Jean and Maurice as their unit dissolves and takes part in the flight to the illusory security of the town walls. Surrender and humiliation follow.

The battle at Sedan, a fortress town on the river Meuse on the north-eastern border of modern-day France, saw two German armies totalling 200,000 men close in on the 130,000-strong French Army of Châlons. The event is replayed in macabre fashion in the third part of the book, when Silvine searches for the body of her sweetheart, Honoré, among the gruesome human wreckage of the battle.

The book draws inexorably to its tragic conclusion when Maurice joins the Communards on the Paris barricades, and Jean, with the government forces, unwittingly bayonets him from behind, and fails to save him from his injury. This personal tragedy reflects Zola’s ambivalence towards the conflict – neither a socialist nor a revolutionary, he nevertheless had Republican sympathies, but was repelled by the carnage unleashed by the Commune.

Six years after the publication of the novel, Zola would set himself against the establishment by publishing his famous open letter, J’Accuse. He boldly exposed the anti-Semitism and corruption of the French military, which had unlawfully jailed the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus on a rigged charge of espionage. Following the subsequent prosecution for libel, Zola fled to England.

La Débâcle is a visionary novel. It prefigures both the changing nature of warfare, and the ongoing struggle of France’s national identity. Within 22 years, another generation would be sacrificed defending their homeland. The next generation after that would once again face national moral collapse and humiliation at the hands of the Germans.