The Legendary French Drummer Boy Joseph Bara

The legendary French drummer boy Joseph Bara was raised to the status of hero in the 1790s. His story begins with his birth on 30 July 1779 to a woodranger and a domestic servant, both of whom worked at the Palaiseau estate of the Condés. Unfortunately, while Bara was still a youth, his father died, and, so, when the French politician Lazare Carnot appealed for men and created the conscription called levée en masse to raise any army, Bara’s mother enrolled him as a volunteer in the army at the tender age of twelve. He was then attached to a unit that fought counter revolutionaries in Vendée, and, it was during this time that he was killed. A General J.B. Desmarres gave a written account of his death to the Convention that stated:

“Yesterday this courageous youth, surrounded by brigands, chose to perish rather than give them the two horses he was leading.”[1]

Jean-Joseph Weerts “Portrait de Joseph Bara.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Desmarres written account, another more interesting story began to circulate. It happened after Maximilien Robespierre read about Bara and realized the propaganda value of his story. Robespierre then seized upon it and turned Bara’s circumstances into something a bit more appealing. The new story went something like this:

After joining the service, Bara attached himself to a major, learned to play the drum and the fife, and assisted the major by grooming and cleaning his horse. This major is the person claimed to have allowed Bara to follow him to Vendée. While there, the major also allowed the young boy to run through the bocage and beat his drum or play his fife. One day as he was doing so, he surprised a band of Vendean peasants. As the boy had delicate features and an aristocratic air, the peasants thought he was the son of a nobleman and told him if he cried, “Vive le Roi!” (“Long live the King”), they would let him go. Instead, he beat his drum and declared himself a staunch Republican crying, “Vive la République” (“Long live the Republic”). The peasants tried again to get him to declare “Vive le Roi!” But again he refused, so this time “twenty muskets were discharged at him, and he fell dead. Horrified at their rash act, the Vendeans [then] fled. But some of them afterward returned, picked up the corpse, and respectfully bore it to the camp of the Republican troops.”[2]

“La Mort de Bara” in 1883 by Jean-Joseph Weerts. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Robespierre’s version of Bara crying “Vive la République,” furthered Robespierre’s political agenda and turned the boy into a hero overnight. One twentieth-century historian wrote:

“Joseph Bara was perfectly suited to Robespierre’s objectives. What Robespierre wanted was to dampen the spirit of faction, to find a symbol of unity, to honor a hero who was outside the politics. Such a hero was Joseph Bara, a boy who had no political past, was beyond controversy, and with whom all good revolutionaries could identify.”[4]

Reportedly, Robespierre also said to the members of the Convention that “only the French have thirteen-year-old heroes,”[3] and then he continued by claiming:

“This small child supported his mother on his earnings; he divided his loyalties between his filial affections and his country. It would be impossible to find a more perfect example to kindle the love of glory, country, and virtue in young hearts.”[5]

Having died a tragic death on 7 December 1793, Bara seemed like the perfect hero for Frenchmen to idolize. They lauded him for his bravery and because of his supposed heroics, his mother received a pension. An engraving of Bara’s death was also created. It supposedly “hung in every school to show children how a child could be inspired by a noble sentiment.”[6]

Image of Joseph Bara. Public domain.

To further solidify his role as hero, a painting titled, “The Death of Joseph Bara” was begun by the famous French artist Jacques-Louis David in 1794. It was a nude version and one twentieth-century historian described it in the following way: 

“The moment represented is supposed to be the utterance of his last words as he expires, clutching to his chest a letter and the republican tricolor cockade. The distortions of the body imply the pain of the present moment, the legs in particular appearing paralyzed and weight to the ground, while the facial expression and the area of light on the right hand side towards which the head is moving, suggest the consolation of release from this world and immortality in death. In respect of age … Bara is shown between childhood and adulthood, pre-pubescent and still at the age of innocence. In respect of sexual identity, this naked figure is shown with neither male nor female sexual characteristics. It is a boy-girl child. The body is not masculinized; it is soft, with rounded hips and belly, the face pretty, the hair long and curling, and among the highest colour points are the pink lips and cheeks. … The sensual quality of this youthful, republican body has the effect destabilizing distinctions not only between masculine and feminine, but between the real and the ideal, and between life and death.”[7]

Shortly after Bara’s death, on 28 December 1793, Robespierre pronounced the boy a martyr and requested that his remains be transferred to the Panthéon where France’s greatest heroes laid. The transfer of Bara’s body was set to happen in 1794 during a revolutionary festival, which was also being held to honor another young hero named Joseph Agricola Viala. He had attached himself to the national guards from Avignon, but they were numerically inferior to their enemy, and to win the only solution was to cut the ropes of a bridge over the Durance River. However, to accomplish that task they had to cross a road taking heavy enemy fire. Everyone was hesitant to try but the heroic Viala:

“He slipped away without being noticed … picked up an ax which he hung on his belt and ran … unloading his musket … four times, then, taking his ax, he hacked at the cable with repeated blows. … a bullet hit him in the breast, the ax dropped, he took a few steps, staggered and fell, pronouncing these words “M’an pas manqua; Aquo es egaou. More per la libertat” [They have not missed me! All is equal – I die for liberty.”] One of his neighbors, who had followed him, heard his last words and tried, in the middle of gunfire, to remove his body, but he was forced to flee, and … the child pierced with bullets was thrown into the river. [8]

The ceremony to celebrate the heroics of Bara and Viala involved both the boys’ ashes being carried behind David’s painting of Bara that was to function as a banner. However, a day before the event was to occur, Robespierre was overthrown and the event was cancelled.

Although Robespierre was executed on 28 July 1794, his death did not deter or dampen the legend of Bara. A statue of the boy (called Barra) was completed by David d’Angers in 1838, and, in 1880, the painting “La Mort de Bara” by Jean-Joseph Weerts was created depicting the boy’s death. There was also another painting created under the same name that was completed by Charles Moreau-Vauthier. In addition, a statue was erected and inaugurated in September of 1881 at Palaiseau by Louis-Albert Lefeuvre. It represented Bara as a Hussar and showed him falling after being struck by a royalist bullet.

“La Mort de Bara” by Charles Moreau-Vauthier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Charavay, Étienne, Joseph Bara, 1884 , p. 11.
  • [2]  Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 13, 1882, p. 91.
  • [3] Charavay, Étienne, Joseph Bara, 1884 , p. 14.
  • [4] Roberts, Warren E., Jacques-Louis David, 1989, p. 301.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 13, 1882, p. 91. 
  • [7] Weston, Helen, “Jacques-Louis David’s ‘La Mort de Joseph Bara’: a Tale of Revolutionary Myths and Modern Fantasies,” in Painting and Narrative, November 1996, p. 237.
  • [8] Petit, Maxime, Le Courage Civique, 1885, p. 214-217.

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