Achille Bazaine came from a family established in Scy, near Metz. His grandfather was a wine maker who as a result of the Revolution “went up to Paris” to become a Contrôleur-Jaugeur; he also wrote a book on the new metric system that was proving difficult to apply in France. The Larousse dictionary describes the grandfather as a French mathematician. Bazaine’s father, Dominique, student at the Polytechnique from 1803, left for Russia to set up the Institut des ingénieurs des voies et communications. He became a Russian lieutenant general, and he was imprisoned in Siberia during the campaigns of Napoleon I. Dominique Bazaine was only able to regain his rank and honours after the fall of the empire. He returned to France late in 1835.
In 1807 Dominique had met a young woman, Marie-Madeleine Vasseur, known as Melanie, who was a lingère-mercière in Versailles. She became his companion, but he hid his relationship from his family.
Dominique Bazaine and Mélanie had three children. These illegitimate children were looked after through subsidies by the father. The eldest child became a chief engineer on the railways, while the daughter married Émile Clapeyron, engineer of mines who built the Paris–Saint-Germain line, then the Paris–Versailles line. Achille, their third child, was born on 13 February, 1811. The future Maréchal studied at the collège Saint-Louis. He flunked the Polytechnique and in 1831 immediately enlisted in the 37e de ligne at Auxonne. He became Caporal and then Sergent-Fourrier in 1832. He participated in Algeria, serving in the Foreign Legion, becoming Sergent-Major, Sous-Lieutenant in 1833. He was wounded in the battle of Macta against Abd el-Kader and made knight of the Légion d’honneur. Promoted to Captain in 1839, he followed the Duc d’Orléans in his Algerian Campaigns. He became a freemason and was promoted to master in 1834. In the same year he married Maria-Juane de la Soledad Gregorio Tormo (born in Murcia) at Tlemcen.
Bazaine was appointed Chef de Bataillon in 1844 and officer of the Légion d’honneur the following year. He also received the surrender of Abd el-Kader alongside that of Lamoricière. He became Lieutenant-Colonel in 1848, then Colonel in command of the 1st regiment of the Foreign Legion in 1851 and Général de Brigade in 1853. Maréchal Pélissier described him as “being by far the most brilliant chef de corps of the division, who serves in a remarkable way, and will soon be placed in the top rung of the army and he will fill this role with dignity”.
Achille Bazaine commanded the Foreign Legion in the Crimean campaign in 1855. Appointed as Général de Division at the age of 44, commander of the Légion d’honneur, he distinguished himself in Italy at the battle of Melegano, where he was injured. He equally stood out at Solferino. He was promoted to Grand Officier of the Légion d’honneur, and he was selected to be part of the expeditionary corps in Mexico. The taking of the town of Puebla led to his being awarded the Grandcroix de la Légion d’honneur. He conquered Mexico and triumphantly installed Emperor Maximilian on 30 August, 1864. He was made Maréchal de France after this victory, at the age of 53. His promotion was welcomed with enthusiasm by the army as well as by the emperor and empress of Mexico. He was the golden child of the army, as he demonstrated a great physical courage and knew how to remain calm in all circumstances. Bazaine was an excellent officer of the army and on good terms with the rank and file; he would ride through the bivouacs smoking an eternal cigar and he would mix with his men, without arrogance and with familiarity. Furthermore, as an experienced organiser, he was the very model of military efficiency.
His modus operandi in Mexico (for which he was criticised) was that of the Arab office, fighting a classically colonial combat in the style of those he had undertaken in Algeria. He was occasionally brutal in the Pélissier manner, the later famous for suffocating Algerians with smoke. Bazaine was notable in signing a circular which prescribed: “No more prisoners. All individuals who take up arms will be shot; this is an all-out war between barbarity and civilisation.”
And in his management of the terrain, his behaviour was that of a veritable proconsul, barely aware of his nominal sovereign, Maximilian, who thus put up no resistance to this usurpation of his prerogatives. Some, notably Général du Barail in his memoirs, maintained that Bazaine’s ambition was to be proclaimed emperor of Mexico, though apart from Barail there is no other evidence to this. Other claimed that he took bribes, but regardless of the truth of the matter he was to return from Mexico poor and to remain so up to his death.
In 1867 Bazaine returned to France and, after what some have called a brief period of disgrace, he retook command of the 3rd corps of the army of Nancy where he replaced Maréchal Forey. He had just remarried during his time in Mexico, this time to Maria Josepha de la Pena y Paragon, only 17 years old, while he was 54. She was called “la petite maréchale”; and she was to remain childlike for the rest of her life.
Provided with a commanding position in France, Bazaine believed that war with Prussia was inevitable and the country was not ready to confront it. He addressed the minister of reports about the incoherence of the supply of magazines of his army, poor education and discipline of his recruits. He played a significant role in the Franco-Prussian War and in French politics during the establishment of the Third Republic. He died on 23 September 1888, hastened by an injury he received in 1886.
Source: Dictionnaire du Second Empire, p. 129, Paris: Fayard, 1995, ed. PH and AM