Georges Picquart was born in Geudertheim, Alsace, in 1854. A bright student of the Lycée Impérial, in Strasbourg, his schooling was interrupted when war broke out with Prussia, in 1870. Following the annexation of Alsace-Moselle, his family fled to Versailles. The trauma of defeat and the effect of being uprooted doubtless played a part in his decision to pursue a military career, which got off to a very promising start: fifth in his year group, he graduated with flying colours from the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. A brilliant officer committed to republican values, Picquart rose rapidly through the ranks. A highly cultured polyglot, fluent in six languages, he was a regular frequenter of salons, museums and theatres. A music lover, he became a friend of Gustav Mahler, travelling across Europe to attend concerts conducted by him. After a number of campaigns in Algeria and Tonkin (a former French protectorate in northern Vietnam), in 1893 he joined the staff of General Galliffet. It was in this role that he became involved, without playing a central part, in the investigation into Captain Dreyfus, accused of spying for Germany. Alfred Dreyfus was tried behind closed doors by a council of war which, at the end of 1894, stripped him of his rank and deported him for life to French Guiana.
In July 1895, Georges Picquart replaced Colonel Sandherr as head of counter-espionage in what was known as the “Statistics Section” of the Deuxième Bureau. In other words, he became head of the French intelligence service. Meanwhile, he taught topography at the École Supérieure de Guerre. A man of few words who respected military order, he was driven by a desire to modernise the army for the sake of technical efficiency. On 6 April 1896, he became the youngest lieutenant-colonel. Trusted by his superiors, his appraisals commended his “friendly, likeable” character, his “very sound” judgment, his “perfect” manners, his “very wide-ranging” education, and his “superior” intelligence. He unquestionably represented the future of the French army.
Everything was to change a year later.
In March 1896, Picquart discovered, in a bundle of papers from the German Embassy, a document that would lead to the reopening of the Dreyfus case. In Picquart’s opinion, this sheet of paper - the famous petit bleu - taken in conjunction with the document unjustly attributed to Dreyfus at his trial, provided irrefutable evidence of the innocence of the Devil’s Island deportee. His mind made up, Picquart undertook with absolute determination to see that the truth prevailed. This sense of a duty of truth, this concept of justice which he set above all other considerations - including an uncertain higher interest of the army - were decisive traits in Picquart’s personality. Relaunching his predecessor’s inquiry, Picquart soon became convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and of the culpability of Ferdinand Esterhazy. As his conclusions were not in line with the official version of the affair, Picquart’s career came to an abrupt halt: sacked from his post as intelligence chief in October 1896, he was sent on an open-ended tour of inspection around France, followed by Algeria and Tunisia, in a sector so exposed that, on 2 April 1897, feeling in danger, he drew up his will.
But Georges Picquart was unyielding in his quest for the truth, and the humiliations he suffered only made him more determined to seek justice. He aligned himself increasingly with Dreyfus’s supporters, the dreyfusards, which led him in turn to be a target of accusations. It should be noted that war minister General Mercier was himself a fierce anti-dreyfusard. The fact that the French President, Félix Faure, was also hostile to any revision of the Dreyfus case helps give a clearer idea of Picquart’s tenacity. It was because of that tenacity that he was discharged - i.e. dismissed - from the army in February 1898, then arrested and imprisoned for 11 months, from 13 July 1898 to 9 June 1899, for passing on the evidence he had in support of Dreyfus’s innocence to a politician, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.
A hero for the dreyfusards and a traitor for their adversaries, Picquart played a key role in the Rennes case of 1899, which ended with Dreyfus’s pardon and amnesty. But Picquart, who now had no more than his army discharge pension to live on, did not abandon his fight for the truth: the verdict, which spared the army’s honour without restoring his own, made him sick to the heart. The uncompromising Picquart was ardently opposed to all those he considered too hasty in forgetting the past. On his journey through the wilderness, his only goal was to get his name cleared. Dreyfus must be retried in order for his innocence to at last be recognised; that alone could both erase the injustice done to the degraded captain and make amends for the damage inflicted on the honour and career of the discharged lieutenant-colonel. Picquart’s quest for truth therefore caused his own destiny to become tied to that of Dreyfus.
On 12 July 1906, the French court of appeal annulled the Rennes judgment, recognising Dreyfus’s innocence and clearing his name. As for Picquart, it was not a case of getting his name cleared, because he had not been convicted. But his military career had come to an abrupt end, and he was determined to obtain recompense. On 13 July 1906, two bills were tabled, one concerning Dreyfus’s reinstatement, the other Picquart’s. Both were passed with a very large majority, in the National Assembly and the Senate. The text of the bill read as follows:
“The proclamation of Dreyfus’s innocence shows that the efforts made loyally and courageously since 1896 by Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart, at the risk of ruining his career irrevocably, to ensure that truth prevailed, were justified. This senior officer, discharged on 26 February 1898, can only be reinstated into the ranks of the military by law. We request, in addition, that you permanently erase the effects of his discharge, promote him to the rank of brigadier, to which 64 officers of the rank of lieutenant-colonel with the same or fewer years of service than he have been appointed, and backdate his appointment to 10 July 1903, the day before the longest-serving of these officers was promoted.”
Justice had been done for Picquart. His honour restored, he progressed once more in his career. Now a brigadier with three retroactive years of service, he was promoted to major-general on 23 October 1906. Meanwhile, the elections brought victory for Georges Clemenceau’s radicals, the very same Georges Clemenceau who had previously worked for L’Aurore, the daily that published ‘J’accuse... !’, Émile Zola’s open letter in support of Alfred Dreyfus. France’s “number-one cop” became prime minister. He knew the Alsatian general well, having witness his strength of character, independence of spirit and courage. To everyone’s astonishment, beginning with that of Picquart himself, he made him his Minister of War.
The former outlaw knew more than anyone else how much the Dreyfus Affair had left marks and divisions within the army. Once in government, he strove to rebuild it more democratically. The new minister made frequent tours on the ground, showing a concern for improving the lives of the ordinary troops through advances in the areas of lodging, food, hygiene, transport and employment conditions. He intended to show the country that the government cared about its soldiers. He improved soldier training and urged Foch and Joffre to modernise the military academies. He worked to reconcile the army with itself and with the nation. His actions eased political tensions and asserted the core values of the Republic. Finally, the guiding principle of his work as war minister was the desire to modernise military hardware, in particular artillery. In late July 1909, with the fall of the Clemenceau government, it was almost with relief that Major-General Picquart left his ministerial functions, despite a more than respectable administration.
After a few months’ freedom which he spent travelling, Picquart was given a command role in February 1910. At the age of 56, he became - what was a constant throughout his career - the youngest commander of an army corps, when he took command of the 2nd Army Corps, stationed at Amiens.
On 14 January 1914, as every day, Georges Picquart set out on horseback. It was 7.30 am, bitterly cold, and the ground had been frozen solid for several days. He mounted Voltigeur, a notoriously agitated horse, accompanied by his flag-bearer. At full trot along a mud track between Dury and Saint-Fuscien, Voltigeur stumbled, then kicked. His rider lost hold of the reins and was thrown to the ground, landing on his head. He got up, quite composed despite considerable bleeding, and, refusing to rest, got back on the horse and set off for Amiens. On arrival at his headquarters, he alighted from his horse and, as usual, did not leave without first giving him a sugar cube. That day and the next, contrary to the advice of his doctor, friends and family, the general was at his post. But his condition deteriorated: the violent fall had caused facial swelling, which got worse, bringing on ever more severe fits of breathlessness. The last one was fatal. Georges Picquart died on the morning of 19 January 1914. He was not yet 60.
The portrait of Georges Picquart by Eugène Carrière is reproduced by kind permission of the Musée Eugène Carrière.