General Charles Denis Bourbaki forged a long career fighting in the French Second Empire’s wars in North Africa, the Crimea, and Italy. He served as a lieutenant with the Zouaves from 1836 to 1838 and received a promotion to captain in June of 1842. He quickly rose to the rank of Colonel by 1851 and received advancement to general of division in 1857. He served with distinction at the Battles of Alma, Inkerman, and the assault of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. He fought in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859 and in July of 1870, was nominated as aide-de-camp to Emperor Napoleon, earning renown as one of his most resourceful generals.
With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he took command of the First Army of the North. Like most of Napoleon III’s most senior generals, he too proved to be unprepared and unqualified for the war. The Prussian superiority in modern firearms and tactics proved to be too much for the French, who at one time seemed to possess the best army in the world. The Franco-Prussian War ended the myth of French military superiority.
Famed Marxist philosopher and war correspondent Friedrich Engels called the January 1871 Battle of the Lisaine “Bourbaki’s shipwreck.” The battle and subsequent flight of Bourbaki and his army left most of his surviving soldiers without winter clothing, ammunition, or provisions.
Five days after his First Army of the North met defeat at the hands of the Prussians, Bourbaki and 80,000 surviving troops reached the French city of Besançon on their way to the Swiss border in search of sanctuary. They were cold and dispirited.
The choices were grim: flight across the neutral Swiss border or surrender to the victorious Prussians. The condition of his shattered ranks, coupled with the censure for his indecisiveness and poor decision-making during the battle, proved to be unbearable for Bourbaki. In thirty-plus years of campaigning, the general had never experienced defeat on this scale.
“The whole behaviour of Bourbaki, from the 15th to the 26th, seems to prove that he had lost all confidence in his men and that consequently he also lost all confidence in himself,” Engels reported in The Pall Mall Gazette on February 18, 1871. No one ever questioned Bourbaki’s bravery, but his ability to command an army left much to be desired.
Bourbaki’s staff officers worried about his mood over the days leading up to January 26. They intentionally hid his sidearm from him because they were afraid that he would attempt to take his life. Bourbaki located a gunsmith in the city to purchase another weapon, but the gunsmith turned him away, warned of Bourbaki’s suicidal intentions.
But the stubborn general was resolute. He would not be joining his men on their journey to Switzerland.
He commandeered a pistol from one of his aides and retired to his quarters. It was exactly seven o’clock on the evening of January 26, 1871 when his aides heard the single crack of a gunshot echo from Bourbaki’s room.
Bourbaki likely used a weapon like this “Pistolet Cavaliere Modele 1822 TBIS” – the sidearm issued to French officers at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.
One of Bourbaki’s aides burst through the door of his room and discovered the general slumped over on his bed with his face and head covered with blood. He was miraculously still alive, still able to speak but unable to recall the names of his staff officers.
Two doctors rushed to perform immediate surgery. They discovered a 12mm ball lodged into his temporal muscle. No fracture of the skull was found and the general appeared to only suffer slight amnesia from the concussion of the bullet’s impact.
Bourbaki attributed his attempted suicide to the fact that he was denied a glorious death in battle. But by June, the war was over and he resumed his duties in the French Army.
He lived another 26 years and died in Cambo-Les-Bains on September 22, 1897, well-established among the public as the French general whose failed suicide became his legacy.