A century ago today, Raymond Caillemin, Elie Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined in Paris for their exploits with Third Republic France’s most celebrated band of anarchist bank-robbers, the Bonnot Gang.
It was actually not Bonnot but Octave Garnier who was the original moving spirit for the gang, which took shape in 1911 around a core of anarchist adherents to the philosophy of illegalism — criminality as resistance. The outlaws were revolutionaries, vegetarians, working-class. Though respectable anarchist communists fled from them, the philosophy bit wasn’t a pose.
“It’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal,” Garnier wrote in a memoir discovered after he was killed in a police shootout.
To Garnier the gang owed its signature innovation of using automobiles: they were the first ever to use this novel machine to flee the scene of a crime after knocking over a Paris bank in December 1911. Between their internal combustion engine and their repeating rifles, they had a decided technological advantage on the police who pursued them.
For obvious reasons they were initially dubbed the “Auto Bandits.” But Jules Bonnot stole the marquee by marching into the office of La Petit Parisien in January 1912 to indignantly correct some of its reporting. The newspaper gave him an interview, and started branding the outlaws the “Bonnot Gang” (La bande a Bonnot), a name which has stuck for posterity and titles a 1968 film about them.
And the “Bonnot Gang” moved plenty of papers.
For the next three months, they would repeatedly crash the headlines on either side of the French-Belgian border by stealing cars to perpetrate new robberies, often shooting policemen and bank tellers into the bargain.
Meanwhile, they magnetized admirers and enemies alike with their Gallic intrepidity and self-confessedly impossible struggle. Garnier mailed his fingerprints to the police chief. Ground-down proletarians fell into their orbit, cracking bitter fatalistic jokes. Under the pen name La Retif, a young writer extolled the masculine, doomed outlaws: he was the Russian expatriate Victor Serge, at the start of a long revolutionary career.*
To shoot, in full daylight, a miserable bank clerk proved that some men have at least understood the virtues of audacity.
I am not afraid to own up to it: I am with the bandits. I find their role a fine one; I see the Men in them. Besides them I see only fools and nonentities.
Whatever may result, I like those who struggle. Perhaps it will make you die younger, or force you to experience the man-hunt and the penal colony; perhaps you will end up beneath the foul kiss of the guillotine. That may be! I like those who accept the risk of a great struggle. It is manly.
Besides, one’s destiny, whether as victor or vanquished, isn’t it preferable to sullen resignation and the slow interminable agony of the proletarian who will die in retirement, a fool who has gained nothing out of life?
The bandit, he gambles. He has therefore a few chances of winning. And that is enough.
The bandits show strength.
The bandits show audacity.
The bandits show their firm desire to live.
By April and May the authorities were finally overcoming the audacious bandits, though desires to live showed firm to the last: both Bonnot and Garnier were overcome and killed only after holding off protracted sieges against overwhelming numbers.
Although the headline attractions were gone, the ensuing massive trial soon fitted four for death:
- Raymond Callemin, Serge’s own friend and reading-companion since childhood
- Elie Monier (or Monnier), the onetime refugee draft-dodger whose will grandiloquently bequeathed to the Paris library his copy of Darwin, and to the Paris museum the pistol he was arrested with, provided it be engraved with the phrase “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
- The sickly Andre Soudy, reckless in his outlaw adventure since tuberculosis that he was too poor to fend off already had him coughing his way to an earl grave
- The joiner Eugene Dieudonne, a friend and compatriot of the gang members but not an actual bank-robber himself. Dieudonne was reprieved on April 20th and dispatched instead to the French penal colony at Devil’s Island
Other prison sentences from a few years up to a lifetime at hard labor were meted out to various other Bonnot gang members and fellow-travelers, several of whom showed themselves dedicated enough to their heroic fatalism to take their own lives. One who attempted an escape only to find himself stymied when he attained the roof of the prison worked fellow-inmates into a frenzied chant of Viva l’anarchie as he hurled slate shingles at the guards who treed him, then wrapped up the performance by hurling himself off the roof, too.
“I would have liked to eat black bread with black hands,” that man’s last testament read. “But I was forced to eat white bread with red hands.”
* Serge got himself in some hot water as an anti-Stalinist in the Soviet Union. Serge’s mature (1945) appraisal of his youthful infatuation with the Bonnot gang, as well as his first-person recollections of the Bonnot gang trial (which got Serge himself a five-year sentence) can be read here