By James Field
January 1870, a French army General retreating through Switzerland after a punishing defeat at the hands of the Germans. Exhausted and humiliated, delegates his responsibilities to his second in command, takes out a pistol and fires a shot at his own forehead. But much like his disastrous command, this doesn’t work out the way he intended.
June 1940, France, a seven year old boy wakes in his house to the sound of a car pulling up. It’s a car he doesn’t normally see, he calls it ‘the big car’, a beautiful ‘Rosalie Voiture’. It’s driven by his father, who seems in hurry. He gets all the people in the house together, the boy’s grandma, his grandaunt and his cousin. “We have to leave” says his father, but today they’re not going for an ordinary ride in ‘the big car’, today the Germans are invading.
The boy is Michel Barrot, now 83 he sits in the garden next to his former farm in Montargis, France. He smiles and makes rude jokes to his wife, as she leaves for choir practice. I can hear the sound of sheep and chickens in the background as he recounts his life. The intriguing connection between these two stories, and how the young boy ended up with a room dedicated to the old General.
He recalls vividly the day he was evacuated to the country, “I remember that day like it was yesterday, after my father collected us we drove to my uncle’s farm, but on the way we were stopped in Gien, at the bridge. The Germans were there, shooting. We got out of the car and a French officer grabbed me and threw me in the ditch next to the road. He jumped down and covered me with his body, my father did the same for my cousin.”
Eventually, after more fighting they made it across the bridge. It’s a journey Michel would never forget, “along the road there were dead cows and horses, they were shooting everything, I remember seeing a dead donkey and a dead woman.” The matter of fact tone in Michel’s voice as he describes these horrors, is telling of the how common place the sights would soon become.
The German invasion of France began on the 10th of May 1940, the French and allied forces resisted but were overrun. After much fighting and bloodshed they were forced to sign an armistice on 22nd of June 1940. Thus began four years under occupation, until the allied landings in Normandy in June 1944.
After successfully escaping to his uncle’s pig farm in the country, Michel rode out the rest of the war with his mother, “we couldn’t go back home so we stayed in the country, my Mum made a garden and we lived on vegetables that she grew.”
Four years later, the day the Germans left was another hard to forget for Michel, as for many, “I realised the war was over when I saw a German biker speeding past, he didn’t pay anyone any attention. Everyone was happy.”In the warm sunlight and calm setting, Michel’s perma-cheeky grin belays the tragedy in some of his stories. “After that, we went to another farm that my parents got from a man who had been captured in the first war. He saw the Germans coming and killed himself because he couldn’t face it again”.
Despite its inauspicious history, this was to be the farm that Michel would eventually take over and work on for most of his adult life, before passing it to his son-in-law Jean Michel, who continues working it to this day.
Rocking back on his chair Michel looks off into the distance across the garden, to the forest in-front of the farm. Just for a moment lost in memory and time, then he lets out a long sigh and then a chuckle, as he tells of his earliest memory, how he used to love cycling around for hours as a boy with his pet lamb. An appropriate pet for a farmer perhaps? but Michel insists it wasn’t always his dream to work the land, “When I was studying philosophy, I was very interested in cinema, it was the 1950s. In fact I had no interest in any job whatsoever.” It’s comforting to note how some interests, or lack there of, can be universal and timeless.
After the war Michel went to Paris to study Law, which he says, “can lead you to anything and nothing, I was a specialist of general ideas.”
However, towards the end of his studies he became ill and had to return home to his parents farm in Montargis. He recovered enough to take on a legal internship, but just as he was about to begin, they abolished the position. Around this time his father passed away, leaving him with somewhat of a dilemma. “I wanted to become a magistrate, I had no interest in taking over my parents farm, my mum wanted to keep the farm but couldn’t do it in her name, so the responsibility was mine.”
He was not interested in the farming life, but it was here the ‘Specialist of general ideas’ would cross paths with ‘The General’.
Back on the farm the sheep are now quiet, busy eating. We stand in Michel’s private museum he calls ‘Salle Bourbaki’, nestled in a small, crumbling brick building around the back of the farm. Michel becomes increasingly animated as he talks of the old General. The General in question is Charles Denis Sauter Bourbaki, a French General in the army of Napoleon III. Bourbaki fought in the 1870-71 war against the kingdom of Prussia, now Germany.
Hands flailing and gesturing at the faded pictures and ‘possibly’ antique swords hanging from the grey plaster walls in ‘Salle Bourbaki’, Michel begins to unravel the history of his favourite fascination. “The story of the farm began my interest in Bourbaki. The landlord of the farm and the local Chateux was an important officer of Bourbaki’s, he was going to Switzerland with him, but before they arrived Bourbaki shot himself, he didn’t want to face the humiliation of defeat, but the bullet ricocheted off his head and he survived.”
After his failed campaign and failed suicide Bourbaki recovered. He returned to France and lived for another 11 years, long enough to eventually have a failed senatorial election campaign, before he died in 1897, no ricochet to protect him this time.
The story of Bourbaki and Napoleon III’s war is not a popular one in France. There are, according to some hyperbolic speculation from Michel, “only five people interested in it, nobody wants to talk about the defeat.” However, standing in the dimly lit room, listening to Michel paint his picture of the travails of the poor General, surrounded by the impressive collection of books and memorabilia accumulating dust in ‘salle bourbaki’, part museum part vegetable storeroom, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to make that number six.
Michel discovered that the old landlord of his farm, Eugene d’Eichthal, Bourbaki’s officer, had written a book, of which only five copies existed, “I spent a long time looking for that book.” It was seeming like a fruitless search, but luckily for Michel, one of his three son’s Martin, an archivist, managed to find an elusive copy in Lyon. Not allowed to take the book out, he made a complete copy of it, page by page, an expensive, time consuming endeavour, but now Michel has one of the few copies of the former landlord’s long sought after book.
The book, which now rests in ‘Salle Bourbaki’, the small brick building behind Michel’s farm, revealed that the very building in which it sits, surrounded by dusty biographies of Bourbaki and less dusty pumpkins, had in fact been used as a field hospital for injured soldiers during Bourbaki’s disastrous 1870 campaign.
Despite a popular unwillingness to remember the less-than-successful War of 1870-71, this September Michel attended the first ever commemoration of the war, in his local town. Even though at the ceremony the French army was described as “lions led by donkeys”, Michel likes to believe that Bourbaki was not responsible.
Also in attendance, and playing the drums at this ceremony, was Michel’s son-in-law Jean-Michel. As well as inheriting the farm, he is also a keen reader of history, who according to Michel’s long suffering grand-daughter, “can also bore you to death about the war”. So perhaps the family traditions are in safe hands, for one more generation at least.