7 – OTHE COLD LIGHT OF DAY (2)
The army the empire could bring in the field consisted, besides the French, of an Austro-Belgian auxiliary force of 8000, and a national army of about 6000 men. By the Treaty of Miramar, signed on the day of Maximilian’s accession, it was concluded that the French shall withdraw, but gradually: from 35,000 in 1864 to 28,000 in 1865, to 25,000 in 1866, and to 20,000 in 1867. The Foreign Legion, 8000 strong, shall remain in Mexico for at least six years. This would give Maximilian ample time to build a national army that could take over from the French. All this may look very sensible and reasonable on paper, but when, finally and far too late, it was tried in practice, it proved a virtually impossible task.
The commander of the Belgian auxiliary force, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred van der Smissen to the Belgian Minister of War: “In Belgium, one cannot form an idea of the Mexican army, that is to say the five or six thousand bandits it is composed of, mule drivers, bakery boys, risen from the ranks to become Colonels. Mendez himself, one of the best, was, twelve years ago, a tailor’s hand persecuted for theft of handkerchiefs in Mexico-city.”
“To recruit men, one takes them by force and conveys them to barracks between two rows of bayonets. From the moment one leads them through a field of sugar cane where they can hide, they desert. (…) The day the French army embarks, the empire will fall with a crash”.
The auxiliary corps developed into an additional source of difficulty. The officers of the Austrian contingent had not forgotten Solferino and Magenta, and tempers were rising whenever a difference occurred with the French allies. This situation is complicated by Maximilian, who establishes a military cabinet through which the Austro-Belgian forces are independently administered, thus placing it beyond the jurisdiction of the man who is supposed to be their C-in-C, Marshal Bazaine.
Although the country is now apparently in the hands of the French, their force, scattered over such a vast territory, is hopelessly insufficient to hold it permanently. The predatory bands fighting under the flag of the republic are ever on their heels, ready to pounce upon the village or town which the French must perforce leave unprotected, and wreak terrible vengeance upon the inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, the intervention quickly gains in unpopularity.
At the beginning of 1865 martial law is proclaimed, by which Bazaine tries to check not only brigandage, but also the brewing military disorganisation which the state of things must inevitably create. He finds but little support on the part of the imperial government. Indeed, Maximilian insists upon all cases being submitted to him personally before any sentence is being carried out. Many times, as part of his conciliatory policy towards the Liberals, he grants pardon to the prisoners, which naturally enrages Bazaine, who is “tired of sacrificing French lives for the sole apparent use of giving an Austrian Archduke the opportunity to play at clemencies”.
Commandant Loysel explains it once again to the Emperor: “If one takes from the courts martial their authority, they are no longer of any use. In any event, one must be on one’s guard for the over-sensitiveness of those that out of fear intervene in favour of the wrongdoers”.
Max wisely decides that he does not wish to be informed of the proceedings of the military courts any longer. Still, complaints from Maximilian about Bazaine and vice versa begin to rain down on Paris. The Marshal doesn’t lose Napoleon’s trust, but Napoleon does lose his patience with Maximilian. The Empress Eugénie writes curtly to Charlotte: “The Marshal is our best soldier. He judges the events with a straight mind and a firmness that are in every respect remarkable”. And that’s the end of it..
While the cruelties on both sides multiply, Napoleon insists on draconian measures. A redoubtable character appears on the scene: Colonel Dupin, sent to take charge of the contra-guerrilla. Despised and detested by the regular troops, Dupin, who likes to boast how much he enjoys pillaging the villages that he purges of the Juaristas, is placed at the head of a band of hooligans that are as ruthless as their commander: immigrants from Louisiana, Spanish deserters and Mexicans that are prepared to do just about anything not to starve.
In the autumn of 1865, the (false) news is spread in the capital that Juárez has passed the border and left the country. Maximilian, elated, issues the infamous decree of October 3, the “bando negro” or “black decree”. In this fatal enactment, drafted and amended by Bazaine (as Maximilian spitefully declares afterwards), it is assumed that the war is over, and consequently styles all armed republicans outlaws who, if taken, will from now on be summarily shot within 24 hours.
When a few days later the republican Generals Arteaga and Salazar surrender to General Mendez and are shot under the decree, such a clamour of indignation is raised that it must have demonstrated his mistake to the Emperor.
The war has become a death struggle, and the sound of the gunshots echo beyond the borders and reach as far as the Senate of the United States: “An inhuman and barbarous decree, issued in violation of the laws of war, the rights of the Mexican people, and of the civilization of the 19th century”.
©2010, M.S.F. Wick