Investigation and the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus

Investigation and the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus

The Dreyfus Affair began when a "bordereau" (detailed memorandum) disclosing French military secrets was found in the possession of the Germans. Blame was quickly pinned upon Alfred Dreyfus.

French Espionage

Among the military services reorganized after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was that of the Intelligence Department (the secret service), which watched the German embassy as one of its principal occupations. The ambassador, Count Münster, had promised on his word of honor that his attachés would abstain from bribing the French officers or officials. However, it was known at the Intelligence Office that the new attaché, Colonel Schwarzkoppen, probably without the knowledge of the ambassador, continued to pay spies and was in direct correspondence with the War Office in Berlin. According to indications furnished by a former Spanish military attaché, Señor Val Carlos, Schwarzkoppen and the Italian military representative, Colonel Panizzardi, had agreed to exchange the results of whatever discoveries they might make.

To keep an eye on this plotting, the Intelligence Office secured the help of a woman employed at the German embassy, Madame Bastian. Bastian carefully collected all the scraps of paper, torn up or half-burnt, which she found in the waste-paper baskets or in the fireplace of Schwarzkoppen's office. She put them all in a paper bag, and once or twice a month took them or had them taken to the "section de statistique." There the pieces were carefully fitted together and gummed. By this means it was ascertained that since 1892 certain secret information concerning the national defenses had leaked out. Some large plans of the fortress at Nice had been given up by an individual who was alluded to in one of Schwarzkoppen's notes as "that scoundrel D?" ("cette canaille de D?"). The fragments of another memorandum of Schwarzkoppen conveyed the idea that the German attaché had found an informant who pretended to bring him the documents just as issued from the War Office. There was therefore a traitor in the French services.

The anonymous letter

During the summer of 1894 a document arrived at the Intelligence Office which was far more alarming than any which had preceded it, and which was credited to the German embassy. This was the anonymous letter which has since become celebrated under the name of the "bordereau." This letter, written on so-called "papier pelure" (thin foreign notepaper), ruled in squares and almost transparent, was torn from top to bottom in two places, but was otherwise intact. The writing was upon the two sides of the first page.

According to the official version, which was long believed to be the true one, the paper had arrived by the usual means, through Madame Bastian; but the appearance of the document, which was hardly torn, makes this story unlikely. It would appear from other disclosures that the letter was taken intact from the letter-box of Colonel Schwarzkoppen in the porter's lodge at the embassy, and brought to the office by an agent named Brucker, who had formerly acted as a go-between for Madame Bastian and the Intelligence Office. The documents which the letter announced as being sent off did not reach the War Office; and the envelope of the letter has never been produced. Here is a translation of this famous document:

: "Being without information as to whether you desire to see me, I send you nevertheless, monsieur, some interesting information, viz".:

: "1. A note concerning the hydraulic brake of the 120, and the way this gun has worked." [The reference is to the hydropneumatic brake of the gun called "120 court Baquet, Modele 1890." It was a heavy field-piece, recently brought into use; the mechanism of the brake which overcame the recoil of the gun was a profound secret.]

: "2. A note upon the 'troupes de couverture' (some modifications will be carried out, according to the new plan)." [This referred to troops that would be called to the frontier at the commencement of mobilization. They were destined to "cover" the concentration of the rest of the army; hence their name. The "new plan" is the plan No. XIII. adopted in 1895.]

: "3. A note concerning a modification in the formations of artillery." [Most likely the "formations de manuvre," which were just about to be altered by the new regulations.]

: "4. A note relative to Madagascar." [The War Office was preparing an expedition to conquer that island.]

: "5. The proposed 'manuel de tir' of field-artillery (March 14 1894)." [See below]

: "This document is exceedingly difficult to get hold of, and I can have it at my disposal for only a very few days. The minister of war has distributed a certain number of copies among the troops, and the corps are held responsible for them."

: "Each officer holding a copy is required to return it after the maneuvers."

: "Therefore if you will glean from it whatever interests you, and let me have it again as soon as possible, I will manage to obtain possession of it. Unless you would prefer that I have it copied in extenso, and send you the copy."

: "I am just starting for the maneuvers."

: "-D." [The initial was taken to be Dreyfus']

This communication was clearly written in August, 1894, at the latest. The "manuel de tir" for field-artillery is the résumé of the methods used to regulate the actual firing of ordnance on the battle-field; this shooting never takes place during the grand maneuvers in September but only during the "écoles à feu," which begin in May and finish in August. It is these "écoles à feu" that the writer incorrectly as "maneuvers," and the word probably has the same meaning in the last sentence.

It seems evident that the bordereau was handed over to Major Henry, who, with Major Cordier, was then assisting Colonel Sandherr, the head of the Intelligence Office. According to General Auguste Mercier, the letter in question arrived at the office with other documents whose dates ranged from August 21 to September 2. It is probable that Henry kept it in his possession a considerable time, which makes it the more surprising that he did not recognize the undisguised writing of one of his former fellow soldiers, Major Esterhazy. It was not until September 24 that he spoke about the document to his fellow workers and to his chief, Colonel Sandherr. Sandherr immediately informed the head of staff, General de Boisdeffre, and the secretary of war, General Auguste Mercier. They concluded that the informant of the German military attaché was a French officer, and further, from the tone of the letter, that he was a staff-officer. Nothing justified this last supposition. On the contrary, the technically and grammatically incorrect wording, the difficulty which the author had in procuring the "manuel de tir" (which was distributed freely among the staff), and the small importance which the correspondent appeared to attach to his disclosures, often leaving him for a considerable time "without information", all pointed to its not being by a staff-officer.


Nevertheless, this "first falsehood," suggested perhaps by the previous warnings of Val Carlos, was generally accepted; right from the start, the investigations led down a false path. At first no result was obtained from an examination of handwritings in the bureaus of the department. But on October 6 Lieutenant-Colonel d'Aboville suggested to his chief, Colonel Fabre, the idea that the bordereau, dealing as it did with questions which were under the jurisdiction of different departments, must be the work of one of the officers going through their "stage" (i.e., staff-schooling), they being the only men who passed successively through the various branches to complete their military education; moreover as, out of the five documents mentioned, three had reference to artillery, the officer probably belonged to this branch of the army. It remained only to consult the list of "stage" officers on the staff who had come from the artillery. While looking through it, the two colonels came to a halt before the name of a Jewish officer, Captain Dreyfus. Dreyfus had been in the office of Colonel Fabre during the second quarter of 1893, and Fabre remembered having given him a bad record on the report of Lieutenant-Colonel Roget and Major Bertin-Mourot. Dreyfus had given these gentlemen the impression (upon the most superficial grounds) of presumption and overbearing, and of neglecting the routine of service to go into matters which were kept secret. Fabre and D'Aboville immediately began to search for papers bearing the writing of Dreyfus. By coincidence the writing of Dreyfus showed a likeness to the writing of the bordereau. These officers, inexperienced and prejudiced, mistook a vague resemblance for real identity.

The Arrest

From the end of 1892 to September, 1894, Dreyfus went through his "stage" in the Staff Office, receiving excellent reports from all hands, except Colonel Fabre. From October 1 1894, he went through a "stage" in a body of troops, the Thirty-ninth Regiment of the line, in Paris. His personal characteristics, little fitting him to command, and his slightly foreign accent, combined to prejudice people against him; he had also a rather haughty demeanor, associated little with his military companions, and appeared rather too self-confident. But his comrades and superiors, without being much attached to him, recognized his keen intelligence, his retentive memory, his remarkable capacity for work; he was known as a well-informed officer, a daring and vigorous horseman, with decided opinions, which he knew how to set forth skillfully and to uphold under discussion. In short, he was a brilliant and correct soldier, and seemed marked out for a glorious future. Added to all this, he possessed a comfortable private fortune (which brought him an income of $5,000 or $6,000 a year) soundly invested in his brothers' business; he was without any expensive vices, if not without failings, and was leading a settled life. It is difficult to imagine what motive could possibly have incited him to the vile traffic of which he was destined to be suspected.

His patriotic sentiments were fervent almost to the point of Jingoism. He had also come under the influence of the Boulangist movement, which, for many of his equals, meant revenge on Germany. Antisemitism appears to have been behind the idea that he was a traitor. Even the wording of the bordereau should have shown the absurdity of this supposition; Dreyfus would not have written, "I am just starting for the maneuvers," since that year none of the "stage" officers went to the maneuvers, having been officially advised by a circular on May 17 not to do so.

Without pausing to consider these objections, Fabre and D'Aboville took their "discovery" to General Gonse, deputy-chief of the staff, and to Colonel Sandherr, an anti-Semite of long standing. General de Boisdeffre, informed in his turn, told the story to the secretary of war. General Auguste Mercier had held this office since December, 1893. Brought face to face with the bordereau, his concern was to act swiftly, because, if the affair came to be known before he had taken any steps, he would be reproached for having shielded a traitor. This fear, and perhaps the hope of being able to pose as the savior of his country, decided him; once started he was forced to pursue the matter. However, he sought the opinion (October 11) of a small council formed of the president of the cabinet (Charles Dupuy), the minister of foreign affairs (Hanotaux), the keeper of the seals (Guérin), and himself.

The council authorized Mercier to proceed to a careful inquiry; he ordered an examination by an expert in handwriting. The matter was entrusted to Gobert, an expert Forensic document examiner of the Bank of France, who had been recommended to him. With great conscientiousness Gobert pointed out the striking differences between the writing of the bordereau and that of the documents which were given to him for comparison, the "personal folio" of Dreyfus, from which his name had been erased but the dates left, so that it was easy to identify him from the army list; there were some letters which struck the experienced eye at once, such as the open g (made like a y) and the double s made in the form fs, features which were to be found only in the bordereau.

Gobert concluded (13 October) "that the anonymous letter might be from a person other than the one suspected." This opinion was pronounced "neutral"; a second inquiry was called for, and this time the "expert"'s qualifications for the task were doubtful. Alphonse Bertillon, head of the "service de l'identité judiciaire" at the Prefecture of Police, had already been entrusted with certain photographic enlargements of the bordereau. Bertillon, who already knew the identity of the suspected man, sent in his report the same day. His inference was as follows: "If we set aside the idea of a document forged with the greatest care, it is manifestly evident that the same person has written all the papers given for examination, including the incriminating document." Sheltered by this opinion, Mercier no longer hesitated to order the arrest of Dreyfus. The arrest was conducted in a melodramatic fashion, according to the plans of Major Du Paty de Clam, who, as an amateur graphologist, had been involved from the very beginning in all the details of the affair.

Dreyfus was ordered to appear before the minister of war on the morning of October 15, in civil clothes, under pretense of an "inspection of the 'stage' officers." He answered the summons without suspicion. In the office of the head of staff, he found himself in the presence of Du Paty and three others, also in civil dress, whom he did not know at all; they were Gribelin (the archivist of the Intelligence Office), the "chef de la sûreté," Cochefert, and the latter's secretary. While awaiting the general, Du Paty, pretending that he had hurt his finger, asked Dreyfus to write from his dictation a letter which he wished to present for signature. The wording was most extraordinary; it was addressed to an unknown person, and asked him to send back the documents which had been lent to him by the writer before "starting for the maneuvers"; then followed the enumeration of these documents, taken word for word from the bordereau. Du Paty had flattered himself that the culprit, on recognizing the words, would confess; a loaded revolver lay on a table to allow him to execute justice upon himself.

Things did not turn out as Du Paty had expected. Dreyfus wrote tranquilly on under the major's dictation. There was a moment when Du Paty, who was closely watching him, imagined he saw his hand tremble, and remarked sharply upon it to Dreyfus, who replied, "My fingers are cold." The facsimile of the letter shows no sign of disturbance in the writing, hardly even a slight deviation. After having dictated a few more lines, during which "Dreyfus entirely regained his composure," he ceased the experiment, and placing his hand on the captain's shoulder, he cried: "In the name of the law I arrest you; you are accused of the crime of high treason!" Dreyfus, in his stupefaction, hardly found words to protest his innocence. He pushed away the revolver indignantly, but allowed himself to be searched without resistance, saying: "Take my keys, examine everything in my house; I am innocent." Du Paty and his associates assured him that a "long inquiry" made against him had resulted in "incontestable proofs" which would be communicated to him later on. Then he was placed in the hands of Major Henry, who had been listening from the next room, and whose mission it was to deliver him over to the military prison of Cherche-Midi. In the cab that took them there, Dreyfus renewed his protestations of innocence, and asserted that he had not even been told what were the documents in question, or to whom he was accused of having given them.

At Cherche-Midi Dreyfus was turned over to the governor of the prison, Major Forzinetti, who had received orders to keep his imprisonment secret, even from his chief, General Saussier - an unheard-of measure. Apparently, the minister had some doubts as to the guilt of Dreyfus, and did not wish to publish his arrest until the inquiry furnished decisive proofs.

The conduct of the inquiry was entrusted to Major Du Paty de Clam. Immediately after the arrest he went to see Madame Dreyfus, and ordered her, under the most terrible threats, to keep the matter secret, even from her brothers-in-law. He then made a minute search of the rooms, which furnished no evidence whatever: no suspicious document, no "papier pelure" (foreign notepaper) was found: nothing but well-kept accounts. A similar search made in the house of M. Hadamard (Dreyfus' father-in-law) ended in the same failure.

Du Paty repeatedly visited Dreyfus in prison. He made him write standing up, seated, lying down, in gloves -- all without obtaining any characteristics identical to those of the bordereau. He showed him fragments of a photograph of that document, mixed up with fragments and photographs of Dreyfus' own handwriting. The accused distinguished them with very little trouble. Du Paty questioned him without obtaining any other result than protestations of innocence broken by cries of despair. The suddenness of the catastrophe, and the uncertainty in which he was left as to its cause, reduced the wretched man to such a terrible state of mind that his reason was threatened. For several days he refused to take any food; his nights passed like a frightful nightmare. The governor of the prison, Forzinetti, warned the minister of the alarming state of his prisoner, and declared to General de Boisdeffre that he firmly believed he was innocent.

Not until 29 October did Du Paty show the entire text of the bordereau to Dreyfus, and then he made him copy it. The prisoner protested more forcibly than ever that it was not his writing, and regaining all the clearness of his intellect when faced by a definite accusation, tried to prove to his interlocutor that out of five documents mentioned in the bordereau, three were absolutely unknown to him.

He asked to see the minister: consent was given only on condition that "he start on the road to a confession" In the meantime, writing experts had proceeded with further examinations. Bertillon, to whom the name of the prisoner had now been revealed, set to work again. To explain at the same time the resemblances and the differences between the writing of Dreyfus and that of the bordereau, he said that Dreyfus must have imitated or traced his own handwriting, leaving enough of its natural character for his correspondent to recognize it, but introducing into it, for greater safety, alterations borrowed from the hands of his brother Matthew Dreyfus and his sister-in-law Alice, in one of whose letters they had discovered the double s made as in the bordereau. This is the hypothesis of "autoforgery," which he complicated later on by a supposed mechanism of "key-words," of "gabarits," of measurements by the "kutsch," of turns and twists. Bertillon's provisional report, submitted on 20 October, inferred that Dreyfus was guilty "without any reservation whatever".

General Auguste Mercier, still not satisfied, had the prefect of police appoint three new experts, Charavay, Pelletier, and Teyssonnières; Bertillon was put at their disposal to furnish them with photographic enlargements. Pelletier simply studied the bordereau and the documents given for comparison, and concluded that the writing of the bordereau was in no way disguised, and that it was not that of the prisoner. The two others, influenced by Bertillon, declared themselves in favor of the theory of identity. Teyssonnières, an expert of no great repute, spoke of feigned writing. Charavay, a distinguished paleographer, judged the prisoner guilty, unless it was a case of "sosie en écritures"--a most extraordinary resemblance of handwriting. He also spoke of simulation to explain away the palpable differences. On October 31 Du Paty finished his inquiry, and handed in his report, which accused Dreyfus but left it to the minister to decide what further steps should be taken. By this time General Mercier was no longer free to decide; the press had interfered. On October 28 Papillaud, a contributor to the "Libre Parole," received a note signed "Henry"--under which pseudonym he recognized without hesitation the major of that name; "Henry" revealed to him the name and address of the arrested officer, adding falsely, "All Israel is astir."

The next day the "Libre Parole" publicized the secret arrest of an individual suspected of espionage. Other newspapers were more precise; days later, on November 1, the anti-Semitic newspaper founded by Edouard Drumont announced the arrest of "the Jewish officer A. Dreyfus"; there was, it declared, "absolute proof that he had sold our secrets to Germany"; and what was more, he had "made full confession." All this was very awkward for General Mercier. It was too late to drop the case; he would have risked his position as a minister. He summoned a council of ministers, and, without revealing any other charge than that concerning the bordereau, declared that the documents mentioned in the memorandum could have been procured by only Dreyfus. The ministers, most of whom were hearing the story for the first time, unanimously decided to institute proceedings. The papers were made over to the governor of Paris, who gave the order to investigate.

No sooner had the name of Dreyfus been pronounced than the military attachés of Germany and Italy began to wonder if he had been in direct correspondence with the War Office of either country. They made inquiries at Berlin and at Rome, and received answers in the negative. In his impatience, Panizzardi had telegraphed in cipher on 2 November: "If Captain Dreyfus has had no intercourse with you, it would be to the purpose to let the ambassador publish an official denial, in order to forestall comments by the press." This telegram, written in cipher, and of course copied at the post-office, was sent to the Foreign Office to be deciphered. The first attempt left the last words uncertain; they were thus translated: "our secret agent is warned." This version, communicated to Colonel Sandherr, seemed to him a new proof against Dreyfus. But a few days later the real interpretation was discovered, of which Sandherr himself established the accuracy by a decisive verification. From that time it became morally impossible to bring home to Captain Dreyfus any document which would infer that the traitor was in communication with Panizzardi.

The Judicial Inquiry

The judicial inquiry had been entrusted to Major Bexon d'Ormescheville, judge-advocate of the first court martial of the Seine "département". Comrades of Dreyfus said that they remembered, or thought they remembered, that in his past conduct he had shown signs of excessive curiosity. One officer testified that he had lent him the "manuel de tir" for several days, but that was in July, whereas the bordereau was now believed to have been written in April. An agent named Guénée, charged by Major Henry with the task of inquiring into the question of his morals, picked up a collection of tales which represented Dreyfus as a gambler and a libertine, whose family had been obliged several times to pay his debts. Another inquiry by the Prefecture of Police showed the inanity of these allegations: Dreyfus was unknown in gambling-houses, and Guénée's informants had confused him with one of his numerous namesakes. There was no visible motive; the accusation rested solely on the disputed handwriting.

However, public opinion had already condemned him. The press claimed that Dreyfus had exposed the system of national defense. All the treachery that had remained untraced was blamed on him. People were indignant that the penalty of death for political crimes had been abolished by the constitution of 1848; even death seemed too light a punishment. The only excuse that they found for him was that his race had predisposed him to commit an act of treason, the "fatalité du type."

The yellow press also blamed the minister of war, for keeping the arrest a secret, in the hope of being able to hush up the affair; he was said to be in league with "the Jews". General Mercier now understood that the condemnation of Dreyfus was a question of his own political life or death; convinced or not, he determined to establish the man's guilt. On November 28, he declared in an interview with "Le Figaro" that Dreyfus' guilt was "absolutely certain." Then, aware of the defects of the evidence, he ordered that a secret dossier should be prepared by collecting from the drawers of the Intelligence Department whatever documents concerning spies could more or less be ascribed to Dreyfus. This dossier, revised and put into a sealed envelope by Mercier himself, with the cooperation of Boisdeffre and of Sandherr, was to be communicated only to the judges in the room where they held their deliberations, without either the accused or his counsel having been able to see it.

As soon as it had become known that General Mercier had decided to pursue the matter, public opinion changed in his favor. "One must be for Mercier or for Dreyfus," proclaimed General Riu. Cassagnac, who, as a personal friend of Dreyfus' lawyer, maintained some doubts as to his guilt, summed up the situation in these words: "If Dreyfus is acquitted, no punishment would be too severe for Mercier!"

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