La Debacle

La Debacle

La Debacle

La Debacle

Synopsis

The penultimate novel of the Rougon-Macquart cycle, La Debacle (1892) concerns the dramatic events of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71. During Zola's lifetime it was the best-selling of all his novels, praised by contemporaries for its epic sweep as well as its attention to historical detail. The novel seeks to explain why the Second Empire ended in crushing military defeat and revolutionary violence. It focuses on ordinary soldiers, showing their bravery and suffering in the midst of circumstances they cannot control. Often War and Peace, La Debacle skilfully integrates the narrative of events and the fictional lives of characters to provide the finest account of this tragic chapter in French history.

Excerpt

A mile from Mulhouse, near the Rhine, in the middle of the fertile plain, the camp had been set up. In the fading light of this August evening, beneath a troubled sky laden with heavy clouds, the tents were pitched in rows, and the stacks of arms could be seen glinting at regular intervals along the edge of the camp, with sentinels standing guard over them, rifles at the ready, motionless, eyes somewhere on the far horizon, lost in the purplish mists drifting up from the great river.

They had arrived there from Belfort at around five o'clock. It was now eight, and the men had only just got hold of their provisions. But the firewood must have got lost along the way, for none had been issued. And so it was impossible to light fires and cook the soup; they had to make do with chewing on cold biscuits, washed down with great swigs of brandy, which turned their legs, already wobbly with fatigue, to jelly. However, behind the rifle stacks, near the cookhouse, two soldiers were stubbornly trying to set light to a pile of green wood, young saplings they'd cut down with their bayonets, which obstinately refused to burn. Thick, black, lazy smoke drifted up into the evening air, infinitely sad.

There were only twelve thousand men gathered here, all that General Félix Douay still had with him from the 7th army corps. The 1st Division, called up the day before, had left for Frœschwiller; the third was still at Lyons; and he had decided to leave Belfort and advance just as he was, with the 2nd Division, the reserve artillery, and an incomplete division of cavalry. Fires had been spotted at Lorrach. A dispatch from the Schelestadt Sous-Préfet announced that the Prussians were set to cross the Rhine at Markolsheim. Feeling too isolated on the right flank of the other corps and out of communication, the general had made haste to push on towards the frontier, all the more so since news had arrived the previous day of the disastrous defeat at Wissembourg. Even if he didn't have to offer direct resistance to the enemy, he risked being called on at any . . .

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