1871: Louis Rossel, Théophile Ferré, and Sergeant Bourgeois, Communards

On this date in 1871, three very disparate men of the recently quashed Paris Commune were shot together at Satory.


Louis Rossel (top) and Theophile Ferre. The mysterious Bourgeois will have to be imagined.

Louis Rossel (French Wikipedia link | English) got the press — the public sighs, the clemency campaign, the big show by Adolphe Thiers of considering mercy. “Rossel,” French scribbler Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire wrote, “is a man whose hand we grasp even when we shoot him.”

Rossel, to the elites of the Third Republic, was one of them. (Here’s a very sympathetic extended biography via Google books.)

The highest-ranking officer (a colonel) to serve the Commune, a writer of books and thinker of thoughts, the fuzzily lefty Rossel had gone to Paris to serve “the people” when France’s capitulation during the Franco-Prussian War put the capital at the mercy of the Germans.

Rossel was briefly Minister of War for the Commune, but he broke with its leadership’s fire-eating ways and then hung about the city while events played out around him. For his adherents, he was the loyal patriot who had renounced the rebellion. For the rebels … pretty much the same (Rossel resigned/was forced from power three weeks before the Commune fell).

But for the brass, the youngster’s March resignation letter abandoning the Thiers government for the Parisian masses was a little more dangerous than your garden-variety liberalism.

Having learned … that two parties are struggling for mastery of the country, I do not hesitate in joining the side which has not concluded peace [with the Germans], and which has not included in its ranks generals guilty of capitulation. (Source)

Without doubt, Theophile Ferre (French Wikipedia link | English) was a true believer, a radical agitator from way back. Ferre was part of the Commune leadership, and directly involved in the execution of hostages during its desperate last week.*

As such, his sympathy from the bourgeois public was zero, and his prospects of commutation were even worse than that. Ferre took his solace from his faith in the cause.

Joining these two in a sort of literary triad was one “Sergeant Bourgeois” (seriously), a straight-from-central-casting grunt “condemned to death for having struck one of his officers, and for having afterwards taken part in the Commune.”** His role in the story is to be the virtuous avatar of The People, understood to have died in a manner confirming the interlocutor’s take on the Commune, whatever that take might be.

Thus, Lissagaray (French link), eloquently reviling that milquetoast fop Rossel:

For twelve weeks death remained suspended above the heads of the condemned. At last, on the 28th November, at six o’clock in the morning, they were told that they must die. Ferré jumped out of bed without showing the slightest emotion, declined the visit of the chaplain, wrote to ask the military tribunals for the release of his father [also imprisoned -ed.], and to his sister that she should have him buried so that his friends would be able to find him again. Rossel, rather surprised at first, afterwards conversed with his clergyman. He wrote a letter demanding that his death should not be avenged — a very useless precaution — and addressed a few thanks to Jesus Christ. For comrade in death they had a sergeant of the 45th line, Bourgeois, who had gone over to the Commune, and who showed the same calm as Ferré. Rossel was indignant when they put on the handcuffs; Ferré and Bourgeois disdained to protest.

The day was hardly dawning; it was bitterly cold. Before the Butte of Satory 5,000 men under arms surrounded three white stakes, each one guarded by twelve executioners. Colonel Merlin commanded, thus uniting the three functions of conqueror, judge, and hangman.

Some curious lookers-on, officers and journalists, composed the whole public.

At seven o’clock the carts of the condemned appeared; the drums beat a salute, the trumpets sounded. The prisoners descended, escorted by gendarmes. Rossel, on passing before a group of officers, saluted them. The brave Bourgeois, looking on at the whole drama with an indifferent air, leant against the middle stake. Ferré came last, dressed in black and smoking a cigar, not a muscle of his face moving. With a firm and even step he walked up and leant against the third stake.

Rossel, attended by his lawyer and his clergyman, asked to be allowed to command the fire. Merlin refused. Rossel wished to shake hands with him, in order to do homage to his sentence. This was refused. During these negotiations Ferré and Bourgeois remained motionless, silent. In order to put a stop to Rossel’s effusions an officer was obliged to tell him that he was prolonging the torture of the two others. At last they blindfolded him. Ferré pushed back the bandage, and, fixing his eyeglass, looked the soldiers straight in the face.

The sentence read, the adjutants lowered their sabres, the guns were discharged. Rossel and Bourgeois fell back. Ferré remained standing; he was only hit in the side. He was again fired at and fell. A soldier placing his chassepôt at his ear blew out his brains.

By unsurprising contrast, the New York Times reporter found Rossel’s act more convincing than Ferre’s.

Throughout this trying morning ROSSEL was calm and resigned to his fate, and all of his remarks are manly and touching …

It was a cold, dark, November morning, a heavy fog obscuring everything at 6 &frac12, and the street lamps were still lighted. During this time FERRE had dressed himself with unusual care, putting pommade upon his hair, and spending a long time in brushing his clothes … BOURGEOIS rose jauntily from his bed, made his ablutions like a soldier, then listened to the consolation of the priest. After this he lighted a cigar, and went out jauntily, with light military tread, and with his kepi cocked upon one ear. He was cool, but there was no bravado about him, while FERRE seemed to be constantly searching for effect …

ROSSEL … stood calmly before the platoon awaiting the signal to fire.

Meantime Bourgeois had marched gaily to his post, saluting the troops as he passed, and in a business-like way threw down his cigar, threw open his coat, and stood in an easy position, awaiting the word. FERRE was a poseur to the last. A number of times he changed his position, looking at his legs and then at the few spectators, but no position seemed to satisfy him. He then cast a rapid glance toward BOURGEOIS, and immediately struck the soldier’s attitude.

Seeing these archetypes reduced to corpses, the London Times‘ correspondent could hardly resist.

As I cast a last look at them, I could not but feel how different was the spirit which had animated each at the last moment. Rossel had died commending his soul to God; Borugeois had gone through the form of confession, and died probably in the ignorance of a superstitious soldier, while Ferre died, caring as little for his own life as he had for those of others … a Materialist.

* Ferre is supposed to have personally announced the death sentence to Archbishop Georges Darboy, the marquee martyr to the Commune.

** London Times, Nov. 30, 1871.

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