Verrières, Benjamin Locatelli, 2014. Photo/Foto. TES.

Bourbaki and Verrières

On 1 February 1871, the French general Justin Clinchard and his Swiss counterpart Hans Herzog (1819-1894) agreed in Verrières (canton of Neuchâtel) on the crossing of the border by the exhausted and the defeated French army of 90 000 men with their horses and carts.

Neutral Switzerland declared its readiness to accommodate the army on condition of disarmament and repatriation to France.

The French army had capitulated on 28 January 1871. The French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873) had already been captured at Sedan on 2 September 1870, after he had declared war on Prussia on 19 June 1870 in a mood of overconfidence or based on bad advice.

However, the French army of General Charles-Denis Bourbaki (1816-1897) was not part of the capitulation agreement but had to flee to Switzerland in the cold and snow of the Jura Passes.

The Swiss banker Henry Dunant (1827-1910)had founded the Red Cross in Geneva in 1863. The reception of the French army and the thousands of wounded and malnourished soldiers was his first major action.

The Red Cross can be seen in action on the Bourbaki Panorama by Edouard Castres (1838-1902) in Thun for the first time. Henri Dunant is and was also there, on the Panorama and in Verrières.

There was great solidarity in Switzerland. Almost all cantons accommodated the tens of thousands of soldiers and officers. The logistical  venture (food, medical care, shelter) was a smooth and efficient operation and within a few months the repatriation began.

For a small border village and the young Swiss Confederation (since 1848) it was the first humanitarian action for the French neighbour.

Basel had already provided support to the inhabitants of Strasbourg in September and October 1870 during the siege by the Prussian army. The monument on the square in front of the SBB station commemorates it. (see also Swiss Spectator Monuments).

The three generals are depicted in Verrières together with the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention and the Swiss ‘virtues’ neutralité, humanité and hospitalité.

The Bourbaki trail in Verrières shows the route of the French army and the aftermath of this event. (more information: