Jean de Voilement: the notorious French count of Harpenden
PUBLISHED: 14:19 29 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:19 29 May 2017
Spying, a military cover-up, anti-Semitism and the fight to clear an innocent man’s name – the tense political scandal of the Dreyfus Affair split 19th century France violently in two. Michael Long follows the unlikely links to Harpenden and a fading tombstone
You wouldn’t give it another glance, if you didn’t know who was under it. In the parish churchyard of St Nicholas in Harpenden stands the heavily weathered and lichen splattered gravestone of Count Jean de Voilement. The Frenchman died in the town in 1923 having lived there with his countess wife since 1909. The inscription can barely be made out on the eroded headstone, which is perhaps appropriate, for the man buried there was in the small west Herts town hiding from his notorious past and one of the most infamous scandals in French political history.
Count Jean de Voilement did not exist. It was the alias used by an officer in the French army of the Third Republic, Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, a central figure in the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal that dominated and divided French politics at the end of the 19th century.
What polarised France was the guilt or innocence of a Jewish French Army captain, Alfred Dreyfus. In 1894, he fell under the suspicion of officials trying to find the leak of military secrets being passed to the Germans by a highly placed spy. He was convicted of treason after damning evidence was produced. Initially, French public opinion believed in Dreyfus’ guilt, fuelling anti-Semitism in the right-wing French press at the ‘disloyalty’ of French Jews. Dreyfus was publicly disgraced with the physical stripping of his rank and sentenced to life on the notorious penal colony at Devil’s Island in French Guiana. Back in France, however, his family and a growing band of supporters convinced there had been an injustice, fought to clear his name.
A senior colonel, George Picquart, discovered evidence that the key document used against Dreyfus had in fact been forged by Esterhazy and that the major was in fact a German spy. The accusations resulted in Esterhazy’s court-martial but the French military found him not guilty. Picquart himself was accused of forgery and dispatched to a remote post in Tunisia. This decision lit the touch paper. In protest against the decision by the army, the novelist Emile Zola published a damning news piece entitled ‘J’accuse,’ blaming the High Command for falsely convicting Dreyfus, fabricating evidence and accusing them of knowing of Dreyfus’ innocence. The left wing in France hailed the article as heroic. The right called it outrageous. There followed riots and anti-Semitic attacks across France.
Why did the French High Command protect Esterhazy? Perhaps it was the old boys’ network - he was one of ‘them’, distantly descended from an old aristocratic family. But more likely, if they acknowledged Esterhazy’s guilt, then they admitted their own error in convicting Dreyfus. Whatever the reason, it became a struggle between the reputation of the French High Command and the injustice done to an innocent man.
Opponents of Dreyfus were convinced of his guilt and believed the whole affair was an attempt by France’s enemies to discredit the army and weaken the country. His supporters saw it as the state quashing of individual freedom and wanted tighter oversight of the army. All the while, Dreyfus suffered in the hell of Devil’s Island.
In 1898, four years after Dreyfus’ conviction, a senior army officer Colonel Henry confessed to forging evidence for the prosecution in Dreyfus’ trial. Following his confession, Henry committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. The army held a second court martial of Dreyfus and despite the flimsy evidence, again found him guilty. It took the French President, recognising how the scandal was polarising the country, to step in and pardon Dreyfus.
He would not be declared officially innocent however until 1906, and the French Army would not acknowledge his innocence until 1995.
By August 1898 it was clear that evidence against Dreyfus had been forged, the military had been involved in a cover-up and that Major Esterhazy had spied for Germany. Esterhazy, now an embarrassment to the Army High Command and the government, was allowed to flee to England. He once dined with Oscar Wilde and was described as ‘a charmer, elegant, distinctive and a womaniser.’ Esterhazy was in debt, disgraced and now in permanent exile from his homeland.
By 1909 Esterhazy had abandoned his wife, and with his younger English mistress Alsace Mathey, settled in Tennyson Road, Harpenden using the aliases Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald. Mr Fitzgerald must have puzzled locals, speaking little English as he did. He continued to hide his true identity and wrote articles for French newspapers mostly with an anti-Semitic tone. In 1910, the couple rented a large house at 140 Station Road where they remained for three years. By 1913, with war in Europe edging ever closer, Esterhazy bought the property at 21 Milton Road and by then was using the alias Count de Voilement. Locals remembered him walking in a large black cloak to the Post Office in Station Road or occasionally riding out on horseback across Harpenden Common.
Esterhazy continued his writing at Milton Road, following his usual practice of working into the early hours. This brought conflict with the authorities during Zeppelin raids when the lamps in his house showed during the blackout. During the First World War, he wrote a series of pro-German articles for the Parisian press. His study where he did his writing overlooked the garden but locals recalled the house had windows shut and doors bolted.
It’s not clear why Esterhazy chose Harpenden; he had never visited the area before 1909, but it had advantages for him. In the years before the war it was still a village, but one with excellent rail links to London. There he could hide from the world in plain sight. The French Consulate knew of his existence and possibly supported him financially. The police, too, knew his real identity. Esterhazy would meet each week with Harpenden’s Sergeant Bevins. Bevins never revealed his true identity.
In May 1923, aged 74, Esterhazy died of pneumonia. His mistress, Alsace Mathey ‘Countess de Voilement’, paid for his headstone in the nearby churchyard. He left just £190, all of it to Alsace. It was not until three months after his death that the Herts Advertiser newspaper ran a story revealing his true identity, surprising locals who had no idea of the notorious character in their midst. They described him as ‘charming,’ and ‘very interesting.’
All his papers and correspondence passed to the French authorities after his death.
In life, he was a notorious figure who divided opinion and even today historians argue the case, with one arguing recently that he was in fact a double-agent and a patriot.
His remains lie anonymously in a Hertfordshire churchyard but the spying, army cover-up and anti-Semitic scandal he was central to, which so polarised French society, resonates in French politics to this day.