Caught on film: Captain Dreyfus' final humiliating return

● Publicly stripped of his rank, he spent five years in solitary confinement on Devil's Island ● Then he sailed home for his retrial - but no one was allowed to utter a word to him

March 31, 2011

It is more than a century since these photographs were taken, but the Dreyfus affair still resonates in France.

Alfred Dreyfus, from a wealthy Jewish family, was a captain in the French army in October 1894 when he was arrested on charges of high treason, accused of leaking military secrets to the Germans.

Dreyfus was courtmartialled and in the face of doctored evidence - the real culprit was Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy- was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. In a humiliating ceremony on January 5 1895, Dreyfus was paraded at the Ecole Militaire in Paris and stripped of his epaulettes and military insignia. A crowd gathered and chanted: "Death to Judas, death to the Jew"; then he was shipped off to Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guyana.

Dreyfus was kept in unimaginable conditions on Devil's Island, in solitary confinement, guarded by officers who were forbidden to speak to him, and fed, allegedly, a diet of scraps of rancid pork.

In 1896, evidence came to light identifying Esterhazy as the real culprit. However, high-ranking military officials suppressed this new evidence and Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted after the second day of his trial in military court. Instead of being exonerated, Dreyfus was further accused by the army on the basis of false documents fabricated by a French counter-intelligence officer, Hubert-Joseph Henry, seeking to re-confirm his conviction.

But word of a cover-up began to spread. The writer Emile Zola published his now famous polemic "J'accuse" in a Paris newspaper, in January 1898; public pressure began to build and in June 1899 Dreyfus was brought back from Devil's Island, on board the Sfax, to face a second court case.

The voyage from Devil's Island took 22 days and, once again, the crew was forbidden to speak to Dreyfus - perhaps giving rise to the belief that he had almost lost the ability to speak.

One jailer, who muttered: "Courage, Dreyfus", was sacked for talking to the prisoner. Dreyfus was assigned a cabin normally occupied by a petty officer, out of the way of other officers; and was obliged to ask in writing for anything he wanted. He asked for newspapers, but since nearly all the French papers were full of discussion of "l'affaire Dreyfus", permission was refused and he was allowed only books.

Dreyfus was re-tried in Rennes in September of 1899 and was once again convicted, although he was later pardoned by the French president. When, finally, Esterhazy was shown to have been the real spy, Dreyfus was exonerated and was eventually reinstated in the French army, this time with the rank of major, in 1906. After serving throughout the First World War, Dreyfus died in July 1935.

Seven photographs were taken of Dreyfus on board the Sfax as it brought him back from Devil's Island, one showing him asleep in his cabin, others showing him exercising on the deck.

The set of pictures are on display and on sale at London's Diemar/Noble Gallery, in Wells Street, next month. Gallery owner Michael Diemar says that the original pictures have never been exhibited before, although copies were made which have gone on sale from time to time in France.

To bid for the pictures:

Last updated: 1:59pm, March 31 2011