He studied at the College of Saint Cyr and at the Staff-College. During the Franco-Prussian War he was a major of cavalry and aide-de-camp of General Chanzy, and in 1882 was promoted to be colonel. In 1890 he became assistant chief-of-staff, and in 1893 chief-of-staff.
At the trial of Émile Zola (1898), during the Dreyfus affair, he appeared full-uniformed in court, and in a much-applauded address to the jury, affirmed the existence of a third secret document incriminating the accused officer. When subsequently it transpired, through the confession of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry, that the document to which he had referred in good faith was a forgery, he tendered his resignation and retired from public life. He retained a semi-official role only with respect to Russian officials, including Nicholas II, who received Boisdeffre twice when the Czar visited France.
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