CHAPTER XX. GENERAL BOULANGER.
Up to 1886 the name of General Boulanger commands no place upon the page of history. After that year it was scattered broadcast. For four years it was as familiar in the civilized world as that of Bismarck.
A new word was coined in 1886 to meet a want which the general's importance had created. That word was boulangisme, though it would be hard to give it a definition in the dictionary. We can only say that it meant whatever General Boulanger might be pleased to attempt.
George Ernest Jean Marie Boulanger was born in the town of Rennes, in Brittany, in 1837. His father had been a lawyer, and was head of an insurance company. He spent the latter days of his life at Ville-d'Avray, near Paris; and as he did not die till 1884, he lived to see his son a highly considered French officer, though he had not then given promise of being a popular hero and a world-famous man. General Boulanger's mother was named Griffith; she was a lady belonging apparently to the upper middle class in Wales. She had a great admiration for George Washington, and the future French hero received one of his names from the American "father of his country." In his boyhood Boulanger was always called George; but when he came of age he preferred to call himself Ernest, which is the baptismal name by which he is generally known.
[Footnote 1: Turner, Life of Boulanger.]
In 1851 his parents took him to England to the Great Exhibition. He afterwards passed some months with his maternal relatives at Brighton, and was sent to school there; but he had such fierce quarrels with the English boys in defence of his nationality that the experiment of an English education did not answer. At the age of seventeen he was admitted to the French military school at Saint-Cyr, and two years later was in Algeria, as a second lieutenant in a regiment of Turcos. His experiences in Africa were of the kind usual in savage warfare; but he became a favorite with his men, whom he cared for throughout his career with much of that fatherly interest which distinguished the Russian hero, General Skobeleff. -
When the war with Italy broke out, in 1859, Boulanger and his Turcos took part in it. He was severely wounded in his first engagement, and lay long in the hospital, attended by his mother. He received, however, three decorations for his conduct in this campaign, in which he was thrice wounded. On the last occasion, as he lay in hospital, he received a visit of sympathy from the Empress Eugenie, then in the very zenith of her beauty and prosperity.
Boulanger's next service was in Tonquin, where on one occasion he fought side by side with the Spaniards, and received a fourth decoration, that of Isabella the Catholic.
He was next assigned to home duty at Saint-Cyr; and when the terrible war of 1870 broke out, and all the cadets were drafted into the army as officers, he was made major of a regiment, which was at Mezieres, on the Belgian frontier, when MacMahon and the emperor surrendered at Sedan. Boulanger and his command escaped with Vinoy's troops from the disaster, and got back to Paris, where he kept his men in better order during the siege than any other officer. They took part in the sortie made to join Chanzy's Army of the Loire, in November, 1870, and in a skirmish with the Prussians he was again badly wounded. When the Prussian army entered Paris on March 5, 1871, Boulanger and the regiment under his command had the unpleasant duty of guarding the streets along their line of march to insure them a safe passage.
In 1874 when thirty-seven years of age, Boulanger was a colonel, with the breast of his uniform covered with decorations; but he had taken no part whatever in politics, and was not known to have any political views, save that he called himself a fervent Republican, and personally resented any aristocratic assumptions on the part of inferior officers.
In 1881 he was sent by the French Government to the United States, in company with the descendants of Lafayette and Rochambeau, to attend the Yorktown celebration. Amongst all the French delegation Boulanger was distinguished by his handsome person and agreeable manners, while his knowledge of English made him everywhere popular. He was already married to his cousin, Mademoiselle Renouard, and had two little daughters, Helene and Marcelle.
When the Minister of War gave Boulanger his appointment on the mission to Yorktown, he cautioned him that he must not shock the quiet tastes of American republicans by wearing too brilliant uniforms. Fortunately Colonel Boulanger did not accept the hint, and on all public occasions during his visit to this country he attracted the admiration of reporters and spectators as the handsomest man in the French group, wearing the most showy uniform, with the greatest number of glittering decorations. He was tall, with handsome auburn beard and hair, and very regular features. Even in caricatures the artist has been obliged to represent him as very handsome.