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French Military Justice and the Aeronoult-Rousset Affair

John Cerullo

Publication Year: 2010

On February 11, 1912, an estimated 120,000 people in Paris participated in a ceremony that was at once moving and macabre: a public procession to Père Lachaise cemetery, where the remains of a soldier named Albert Aernoult were incinerated following a series of angry speeches denouncing the circumstances of his death. This ceremony occurred at a pivotal point in the “Aernoult-Rousset Afair,” a tumultuous, three-year agitation over the practice of French military justice labeled by contemporaries a “proletarian Dreyfus Affair.” Aernoult had died on July 2, 1909, in one of the French Army’s Algerian penal camps, allegedly at the hands of his officers. His death came to the attention of the public through the intervention of a fellow prisoner, a career criminal named Émile Rousset, who had provoked prosecution in a military court in order to launch his own “J’Accuse” against camp officers. Rousset’s charges had seemed to be bearing fruit, until he himself was indicted for murder in September 1911. At that point, the entire Affair took on a new intensity—an intensity reflected in the massive turnout at Aernoult’s funeral. Military prosecutors, convinced that Rousset was a predator with a genius for gaming France’s military-justice system, built a powerful case against him. His supporters, for their part, campaigned in the legislature, in the press, in court, and on the street, using the interlocked Aernoult and Rousset cases to shine a very public light on the “judicial minotaur” that was, in their view, the military jurisdiction. Cerullo’s lively, suspenseful account of this dramatic story, which has never been fully told, will become the standard. Minotaur will interest historians of modern France; military historians; students of military justice; legal scholars; and general readers of modern European history.

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. 7-8

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pp. ix-xi

Writing this book has been one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Compiling this list of acknowledgments has been one of the most humbling. In recalling just how many people contributed to this project, and how vital those contributions were, I have been reminded of something I thought I had known but apparently had forgotten: there is no such thing as solitary creation. ...

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pp. 3-9

On the evening of July 2, 1909, an obscure French soldier named Albert Aernoult was found dead in a cell of the military penal camp of Djennan-ed-Dar in Algeria. Earlier that day Aernoult had endured a special punishment detail in a sandy courtyard (the “Court of Miracles”) reserved for such things at that camp. ...

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ONE—“L’Armée, c’est la Nation”

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pp. 10-22

... The army was an institution Bourelly had known and loved for a long time. Born into a military family in 1853, he was an estimable soldier-scholar who had fought in both the Italian campaign of 1859 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, and then written books about each.2 His study of Abraham de Fabert, France’s first plebeian marshal, had been honored with the Thérouanne Prize by the Académie Française, and he had ...

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TWO—The Theory and Practice of French Military Justice

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pp. 23-45

One of the most common charges hurled at French military justice by its left-leaning critics was that this “exceptional jurisdiction” harkened back to the ecclesiastical and seigneurial courts of the ancien régime, where “justice” meant accommodating the special needs and interests of society’s most privileged strata. To suggest that military tribunals dispensed a similar brand of justice was to represent them as radically incompatible with republican civic culture and ultimately doomed to fall before ...

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THREE—The View from the Left

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pp. 46-68

If there was anything France’s Third Republic did not lack, it was enemies. For the first decade or so after the new regime’s troubled inception in 1871, most Frenchmen would probably have named their recent conquerors as the most significant of those. Indeed, to much of France, invasion, defeat, and above all, the loss of the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine had raised the newly federated German Empire to the status of blood foe. ...

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FOUR—The Dreyfus Affair and the Debate over Military Justice

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pp. 69-91

Antimilitarism was common currency across the entire French left, but there were significant differences in both tone and content. Those differences roughly corresponded to the key divide between the première gauche (first left) of Socialists oriented toward the conquest of state power, and the deuxième gauche (second left) of anarchists and syndicalists who disdained the political arena in favor of ground-level actions against capital. ...

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FIVE—“Can the Judge of Liberty Be the Judge of Obedience?”

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pp. 92-107

Jaurès lost his seat in the Chamber of Deputies in the election of 1898, but he was in some ways more politically effective out of office than he had been in it. Initially indifferent to the Dreyfus matter (shortly after Dreyfus’s 1894 conviction, he famously remarked that ordinary soldiers were routinely shot for less heinous offenses than Dreyfus’s), he would eventually enlist in the Dreyfusard cause. ...

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SIX—Djennan-ed-Dar, 1909

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pp. 108-128

The settlement was situated within the Figuig oasis, very near the Moroccan border, about four hundred kilometers south of Oran—a dangerous place in general. Life in the desert outside the oasis was precarious at best, and not much more secure within it. The territory was periodically contested by the sultan of Morocco, and rebellious Zenaga tribesmen had attacked no less a personage than the governor-general of Algeria in 1903.1 ...

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SEVEN—The Aernoult-Rousset Affair

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pp. 129-145

Prior to their consideration of the Rousset case, delegates to the Socialist Congress at Nîmes had witnessed a heated debate on a legislative measure, sponsored by Jaurès, establishing retirement pensions for workers. The real subject of that debate, of course, was (once again) reformism itself. Jaurès, Renaudel, and Vaillant had defended the tactics of gradualism and state-sponsored ameliorations of working-class ...

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EIGHT—Triumph of the Political

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pp. 146-160

The sixteen signers of the offending poster were represented by three attorneys (Jacques Bonzon, Jean Robin, Joseph Hild), whose strategy was to openly politicize the case.1 Their clients were to be seen not as criminals but as activists who were unashamedly using the courtroom as a political rostrum: “To make ourselves accusers,” explained one signer, the sociologist Charles Albert, “we first had to get accused.”2 ...

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NINE—The Rousset Murder Case

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pp. 161-179

In 1902 General Jules Bourelly had countered the argument that military officers were unqualified to perform judicial functions with the claim that those officers, however unschooled in the fine points of juridical argumentation, were nonetheless far more attuned than any civilian jurist to the specific subculture that military courts were designed to regulate, as well as to the requirements of discipline within it.1 They knew their men, Bourelly insisted, and they knew what it took to make soldiers ...

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TEN—Breaking Codes

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pp. 180-194

Captain Godiot didn’t submit his report to General Oudard in Algiers until November 29, 1911. He quietly dropped the attempted theft charge that Pan-Lacroix had suggested be added to the indictment, since after all, no theft had ever been attempted. But he was much less circumspect regarding the murder charge. ...

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ELEVEN—“Glory to Rousset”

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pp. 195-213

The government had precluded Marseilles as a point of disembarkation for the small delegation that brought Aernoult’s body from Algiers to France. Instead, they made port at the small Pyrenean fishing village of Port-Vendres. Demonstrations held between February 8 and 10 in Toulon, Rochefort, Nancy, Chalons, Lyons, Bordeaux, and elsewhere drew crowds numbering only in the hundreds.1 But one reason for the poor ...

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TWELVE—Marmande Agonistes

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pp. 214-231

A fair number of successes could, in fact, be claimed by the political groupings that had invaded France’s military jurisdiction on behalf of Émile Rousset. The minotaur had not been slain; but it had been checked repeatedly, its aura of invulnerability dissipated. Political pressure, after all, had occasioned the reversal of two separate conseil de guerre judgments. ...

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Afterword—Theseus Unbound

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pp. 232-239

If at this point we return to the central theme of the entire Aernoult-Rousset Affair, the contest between insularity and accountability with respect to military justice, then the multiple ironies of the situation simply clamor for attention. In fact, as we step back and survey the entirety of this story, those ironies practically define it. ...

Appendix A

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pp. 241-254

Appendix B

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pp. 243-244

Appendix C

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pp. 245-246

Appendix D

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pp. 247-260


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pp. 249-270


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pp. 271-276


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pp. 277-295

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090517
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875804330

Page Count: 298
Illustrations: 16 halftones
Publication Year: 2010