Captain Alfred Dreyfus: “The Soldier On Devil’s Island”

Captain Alfred Dreyfus: “The Soldier On Devil’s Island”

At the time of preparing this article for our January newsletter, it is coincidently the first anniversary of last year’s horrific massacre in Paris, popularly referred to as the “Charlie Hebdo” incident, remembered of course for its savage acts of murder, violation of free speech, and of course the far-reaching ramifications of anti-Semitism. These are always lurking in the ugly shadows of any city today, it seems.

Yet just over one hundred years ago, a rather timid 36-year-old French Jewish army career officer was publicly threatened and humiliated on a hostile parade ground in Paris. He had previously been falsely accused of spying for Germany. His name was Alfred Dreyfus, and for this miscarriage of justice, he would suffer immensely in the heat and tropical diseases of the privations of exile known today as “Devil’s Island.”

The travails of Alfred Dreyfus began when a French cleaner (also a paid spy for the French secret service) found and kept the remains of a torn-up letter in the waste bin in the German embassy in Paris and brought it to her master, to collect her money as well.

The handwriting on the crumpled letter retrieved from the German embassy and copies of Dreyfus’ handwriting was later secretly examined by many to implicate him as the writer of the letter. Other so-called experts, including Alphonse Bertillon, the inventor of the fingerprint system, seem to suggest perhaps rather weakly that Dreyfus was the main suspect. It also seems he was not popular amongst his fellow officers. One wrote of him, “That he had a sly character and was little liked by his comrades.” By now the cards of suspicion were stacking up against him. Dreyfus’ days as a free man were numbered.

Dreyfus was a happily married man with two children. He and his wife had inherited money so he had no need to sell secret documents to the Germans.

In the meantime, Dreyfus had been summoned to the headquarters of the General Staff of War Ministry for discussions, perhaps about his future postings, or so he thought. After threatening him to write a fictitious note copied from the crumpled note, he was immediately arrested. He had arrived as a free man, but sadly he would not be returning home for dinner that night, or for a very long time.

Soon after the handwriting had been compared, and with a weak match at that, he was accused of the heinous crime of “high treason” and quickly arrested, then taken protesting to a cell already prepared for him, but not before he was offered the choice of shooting himself with an offered pistol, which of course he naturally refused.

Poor Dreyfus. He must have been so confused about what was happening to him. His world of family and routine would now forever be turned upside down, and perhaps never to return to his former comfort of home and family.

(Dreyfus’ odd scribble of drawings to his wife)

It has to be remembered also that historically, the French Republic was still a battered and bloodied nation after the Franco-Prussian War, with the Republic now very vulnerable and with behind-the-scenes forces from the Catholic church and their devious henchmen, the Jesuits, scheming to bring back the lost monarchy (something which didn’t happen). France, after all, was supposed to be the oldest daughter of the Catholic church, was she not? Perhaps, thought these clerical enemies of the Republic now speculating amongst themselves, this was the right time for restoration of the monarchy? Or so the Vatican thought.

Dreyfus the prisoner was to be held for several weeks before an army court-martial had been prepared. Dreyfus “always awkward and abrupt” must have felt confident about the coming outcome. And with his wife Lucia and his brother Mathieu Dreyfus, they all must have hoped this sorry business and the “absurd charges” would be cleared up, then allowing him after a short period of leave to quietly return to his army life and maybe seek a promotion as a goodwill gesture for the false accusations laid against his reputation and character.

Two months after his confinement the court-martial proceeded (in camera, naturally). The date was 19th December 1894, and amazingly it seems none of the seven judges who were chosen had any qualifications in the workings of the law. Most, it seemed, had arrived from a cavalry background. Hence, a mockery of French justice that would harm Dreyfus with later falsified evidence.

Once Dreyfus’ harsh sentence of permanent exile was announced to his astonished and shocked family and to the prisoner, his humiliation as an officer and a gentleman was just about to commence, staged on an army parade ground. It had been decided (perhaps before his trial) by the Army High Command that public humiliation of Captain Dreyfus would satisfy the public, and of course the army and the High Command of the Paris École Militaire.

On Saturday, January 5th 1898, at 8 am (the Jewish Sabbath incidentally), Dreyfus was marched under close military escort to the parade ground in front of four to five thousand soldiers. His travesty was now to commence.

As he stood before a mounted officer, the charge was shouted at him, that being, “Alfred Dreyfus, you are not worthy to bear arms in the name of the French people. We degrade you.” The crowd, now numbering thousands, jeered and cursed him and revelled in its entertainment. This rather sounds like the rabble before Pilate that day 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.

The prisoner shouted to anyone who would listen or could hear over the mob’s cries for his innocent blood, “Soldiers, they are degrading an innocent man….they are dishonouring an innocent man. Long live France. Long live the army.” His desperate pleas to be heard were practically drowned out by this dangerous crowd. None would have it. He was simply “a dirty Jewish traitor,” and “off with his head” they shamefully screamed.

A willing soldier then approached him and roughly tore off his shoulder epaulettes, and then the gold braid from his sleeves, and the red ceremonial stripes from his trousers. His cap was also assaulted. Then the worse indignity to happen to any serving officer: his sword was taken from its scabbard and snapped in two (it had in fact been scored the night before for easier use for this purpose). Now the insignia of his rank, as well as his reputation and honour, lay in tatters. Justice had not prevailed that day, much to the shame of France and her colluding army.

Dreyfus was now alone on the parade ground, listening as disgusting Jewish insults were now directed at him and his family. Yet he still protested his innocence to an impassive sea of soldiers’ faces, then was quickly marched away to embark for Devil’s Island to meet the horrors that would await him there (it had previously been a leper colony). Sadly, Alfred Dreyfus would not see France again for almost five long years. His journey into the unknown had now begun.

On arrival at this fearsome French penal colony after a difficult sea journey, Dreyfus would be immediately isolated from other prisoners and secured in a purpose-built solitary confinement cell. Communicating in any way with him would be refused. He was also to know nothing of what was happening in the outside world. Any mail from home would be sporadic, and he would know nothing of the considerable efforts his family and friends were making to press for a retrial of the case back home in France. (Incidentally, his books in his cell were mainly secular, except for four Bibles).

Meanwhile on this rock of desolation, Dreyfus the prisoner experienced a long and torturous incarceration and nearly starved, also suffering a deep and lingering depression as well as malaria and dysentery. Did the thought of suicide ever enter his mind, offering him that window of opportunity if needed?

It’s interesting that the 1958 film on the Dreyfus tragedy presents a scene where Dreyfus attempts suicide in prison after his return to Paris. I’m not sure about this scene, though, because my research found no evidence of this ever happening, so maybe it was simply scriptwriters’ licence (artistic licence). It seems also that after his return to France a specialist had diagnosed him with suffering from “a possible tuberculosis of the spinal marrow.”  Because the original court charge of spying for Germany was falsely brought against Dreyfus on very flimsy evidence, it was viewed by the army and then the government as a done deal. In other words, he had been found guilty and a suitable punishment on the island would be sufficient to keep him away from France and from those who still claimed he was innocent. As far as his accusers cared, he could languish there until he died. Sadly, most who did leave that island would be placed into a tied and weighted Hessian sack and quickly dispatched into the churning sea.

To most of us, the fear of failure is transitory, but to an innocent and serving soldier such as Dreyfus, a treason charge must have been demoralising and degrading, as he would suffer so long on this island of despair alone and almost forgotten, as far as he knew, and of course oblivious to what was being mounted in France to gain his freedom.

Yet all that was to change dramatically in Paris, when the eminent French novelist Émile Zola (maybe a freemason and probably murdered in 1902) made a passionate plea from the heart for justice for the ailing Dreyfus in publishing his famous “J’accuse” statement. I’m told it’s still admired today as great journalism.

One interested commentator correctly observed at the time: “J’accuse put life back into the campaign to free Dreyfus.” The wheels of justice had at last been kick-started. Dreyfus would not go to his watery grave on the island as a guilty man but return home to face his guilty accusers at last.

After much hesitation, a new trial was announced, stating ” that a new element had emerged,” which was claimed to perhaps offer a different verdict from the one that had originally condemned an innocent man. Dreyfus would now be recalled from his exile to stand in court. His day had arrived after so long; he must have been overcome with joy and happiness. His campaigning family and friends welcomed this major unexpected news. Dreyfus was then back on French soil in 1899 after being brought back on the warship the “Sfax.” He must have hoped (maybe prayed) for an annulment to his previous conviction and to be united with his loving and loyal family. But he wasn’t free just yet.

This coming court appearance was apparently so important to a watching world media that Queen Victoria even sent her own Lord Chief Justice as an observer, and even the U.S. president took a keen interest in the matter. Yet “many in Britain blamed the Dreyfus affair on the Catholic church,” said the London Times in an editorial on the matter.

On the opening day of the trial/court martial, a London journalist wrote of the first sight of the prisoner Dreyfus as he entered the crowded courtroom: “And in he came shuffling… a little white-haired (what was left of it) man of 39 years old.” How sad, but probably true.

To the arrogant French high command, his only crime in their hostile eyes was that he was born a Jew and married to a wealthy Jewess. In fact, what made it worse was they both came from wealthy families. Ah, the sins of envy!

Dreyfus would later be pardoned but not without strings which he grudgingly had to accept. Soon afterwards, he retired to resume (if possible) family life. Yet Dreyfus became an unlikely hero who remained proud of the army and its traditions (but not in his case) and a patriot all the same; a rare trait in today’s selfish society.

He retained his faith in France and her army, and surprisingly even in the justice system. Of his relationship with God, I know very little. To all doubters and scoffers, there will be a final price to pay for this. In John 3:18 we are informed: “But he that believeth not is condemned already because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” This severe warning should not be ignored.

“On 19th September 1906, the President of France signed the decree pardoning Alfred Dreyfus for the crime of treason.” It was finally over. He was now free and the shadow of infamy on his name had been lifted, at last.

He would later be reinstated into the army, and go on to see action in the First World War. On top of this, he would be awarded the Legion of Honour and even survive an assassination attempt which has never been completely explained. Alfred Dreyfus died in 1935 peacefully and surrounded by his family. But I suspect the hellish horrors of Devil’s Island never left him, whether awake or asleep. Perhaps his simple perspective of life saved his sanity.

He would forever have to face those demons of the island alone, and always unprepared when they arrived to taunt and mock him. His son Pierre would later write: “My father was not by nature very demonstrative. Five years of torture and solitude had made him even more introspective. He lived an intense inner life… he loathed self-pity and the display of his sufferings. He seemed very cold and distant to those who did not know him well.” His son’s recollections only offer half the story of his father’s life after the trial.

In retrospect, I also suggest it was not the tatters of his torn and faded uniform (or the broken Toledo blade of his ceremonial sword) that lay trodden in the dirt on that cold parade ground in 1898, but rather the patronising honour of the French army that even today has not completely clawed back some of its tarnished reputation, and maybe never will.

In fact, the French military/polytechnic academy declined to receive a 10-ft. bronze commissioned statue of the prisoner some years ago. I believe that proud statue depicting Dreyfus clutching a broken sword today languishes somewhere in a secluded Parisian park, seen only by passing dog walkers and children, perhaps playing soldiers, with each and all under his watchful stare.

Without the dedicated tenacity of the Dreyfus family, especially his elder brother Mathieu and wife Lucie, and the professionalism of Colonel Picquart, and the zealous campaigning of Émile Zola, Alfred Dreyfus would have slowly rotted away on Devil’s Island, never to be exonerated. This was what the conspirators wanted all along, I suggest. But it was not to be. Dreyfus did not return to that stinking hole in the Atlantic sea ever again. The slate of shame had been wiped clean.

Yet somehow the Dreyfus drama has never really receded. Today, virulent anti-Semitism still stalks the boulevards of Paris with bombs and guns on open display, not as the contrived and whispered insinuations of a century ago that were once rife behind closed military doors and Masonic lodges in the so-called “City of Light” that robbed an innocent man of 5 years of his life.

“It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).


Devil’s Island is still there today, looking much the same. Some forced labour brought to the island could bring the prison up to standard, perhaps even to imprison future Christians during the coming Great Tribulation. And more importantly, it even has a disused guillotine situated on the grounds.

(Devil’s Island today)

The book of Revelation states that the guillotine will be used again in the future on those who refuse to take the mark of the beast. So watch out! If you’re not born again, what are you waiting for? Life is short, but eternity is forever.

The crude sketch above purporting to be a chained Dreyfus languishing in his cell cannot be verified as being him, I suggest. But I was intrigued by the scratched cross on the wall by his bed. Perhaps he had been witnessed to by a kind Christian jailor and had found some comfort from the Holy Bible?

We cannot know. Dreyfus was a remarkable man, all the same, who seemed to hold no bitterness but only sought justice to clear his own name and the name of his patient family who never, it seems, gave up hope for him or his release.

Reference books

The Dreyfus Affair, Piers Paul Reid

An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris



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January 2016