Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871
The generals who commanded the entry into Paris are great military men. (Thiers to the National Assembly 22 May 1871)
At two o'clock Dombrowski arrived at the Hôtel-de-Ville, pale, dejected, his chest bruised with stones ploughed up by shot. He told the Committee of Public Safety of the entry of the Versaillese, the surprise of Passy, his useless efforts to rally the men. As he was pressed for news, as they appeared astonished at such a rapid invasion, so little did the Committee know of the military situation, Dombrowski, who misunderstood them, exclaimed, What! the Committee of Public Safety takes me for a traitor! My life belongs to the Commune. His gesture, his voice, testified to his bitter despair.
The morning was warm and bright as the day before. The call to arms, the tocsin, set three or four thousand men on foot, who hurried towards the Tuileries, the Hotel-de-Ville, and the War Office; but hundreds of others at that moment had abandoned their posts, left Passy, and emptied the fifteenth arrondissement. The Federals of Petit-Vanves came back to Paris at five o'clock, and seeing the Trocadero occupied by the Versaillese, refused to hold out. On the left bank, at the St. Clothilde Square, some officers attempted to stop them, but were repulsed by the guards. It is now a war of barricades, said they; everyone to his quarter. At the Légion d'Honneur they forced their way; the proclamation of Delescluze had released them.
Thus began that fatal proclamation posted up on all the walls:
Enough of militarism! No more staff-officers with their gold-embroidered uniforms! Make way for the people, for the combatants bare-armed! The hour of the revolutionary war has struck! The people know nothing of learned manoeuvres. But when they have a gun in their hands, a pavement under their feet, they fear not all the strategists of the monarchical school!
When the Minister of War thus stigmatizes all discipline, who will henceforth obey? When he repudiates all method, who will listen to reason? Thus we shall see hundreds of men refusing to quit the pavement of their street, paying no heed to the neighbouring quarter in agonies, remaining motionless up to the last hour waiting for the army to come and overwhelm them.
At five o'clock in the morning the official retreat began. The chief of the general staff, Henri Prodhomme, had the War Office precipitately evacuated, without carrying off or destroying the papers. The next day they fell into the hands of the Versaillese, and furnished the courts-martial with thousands of victims.
On leaving the Ministry, Delescluze met Brunel, who, set at liberty only the evening before, had at once rallied his legion, and now came to offer his services, for he was one of those men of convictions too strong to be shaken by the most cruel injustice. Delescluze gave him the order to defend the Place de la Concorde. Brunel repaired thither, and disposed 150 tirailleurs, three pieces of 4 cm., one of 12 and two of 7 on the terrace of, the Tuileries and by the bank of the river. He provided the St. Florentin redoubt with a machine-gun and a piece of 4; that of the Rue Royale, at the entrance of the Place de la Concorde, with two pieces of 12.
In front of Brunel, at the Place Beauvan, some men of the 8th legion made vain efforts to stop the fugitives from Passy and Auteuil, and then betook themselves to put the quarter in a fit state of defence. Barricades were thrown up in the Faubourg St. Honoré as far as the English Embassy, in the Rue de Suresne and Ville-Leveque; obstacles were heaped up at the Place St. Augustin, the opening of the Boulevard Haussmann, and in front of the Boulevard Malesherbes, when the Versaillese presented themselves.
Early in the morning they had begun their onward march. At half-past five Douai, Clinchant, and Ladmirault, passing along the ramparts, set foot on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. The artillery, men of the Porte-Maillot, turning round, beheld in their rear the Versaillese, their neighbours for some ten hours. Not a sentinel had denounced them. Monteret marched off his men by the Ternes; then, alone with a child, charged one of the cannon of the Porte-Maillot. fired his last round at the enemy, and succeeded in escaping by the Batignolles.
The Douai column remounted the Avenue as far as the barricade in front of the Arc de Triomphe, which they took without a struggle, the Federals hardly having time to carry off the cannon that were to have surmounted the Arc de Triomphe. The soldiers marched up the quay, and ventured onto the silent Place de la Concorde; suddenly the terrace of the Tuileries lit up; the Versaillese, received with a pointblank volley, fled as far as the Palais de I'Industrie, leaving many dead.
On the left the soldiers occupied the abandoned Elysée, and by the Rues Morny and Abbatucci emerged on the Place St. Augustin, where the barricades, hardly begun, could not resist, and towards half-past seven the Versaillese installed themselves at the Pepiniere Barracks. The Federals formed a second line in the rear, closing the Boulevard Malesherbes at the top of the Rue Boissy d'Anglas.
On the left of Douai, Clinchant and Ladmirault continued their movement along the ramparts. The important works at the gates of Bineau, Courcelles, Asnieres and Clichy, directed against the fortifications. became useless, and the Ternes were occupied without striking a blow. At the same time one of the Clinchant divisions passed by the outer ramparts. The Federal battalions on duty at Neuilly, Levallois-Perret, and St. Ouen were assailed with balls from the rear — (this was the first intimation they got of the entry of the Versaillese) and many Federals were taken prisoners. Others succeeded in returning to Paris by the gates of Bineau, Asnieres, and Clichy, spreading panic and rumours of treason in the seventeenth arrondissement.
The rappel had been beaten all night in the Batignolles, and had called out the sedentary guards and the youths. A battalion of engineers rushed forward to encounter Clinchants skirmishers, and began firing in front of the Parc Monceaux and the Place Wagram, when the National Guards, deceived by their red trousers, opened a deadly fire upon them. They retreated and laid bare the Parc, which the Versaillese occupied, and then pushed on to the Batignolles.
There they were stopped by barricades rising on all sides; on the left, from the Place Clichy to the Rue Lévis; in the centre, in the Rues Lebouteux, La Condamine, and Des Dames; on the right, La Fourche, the rival position of the Place Clichy, had been fortified, and soon the Batignolles formed a serious outwork for Montmartre, our principal fortress.
The latter, for seventeen hours, had looked silently on the entry of the troops of Versailles. In the morning the columns of Douai and Ladmirault, their artillery and their waggons, had met each other, and become entangled on the Place du Trocadero. A few shells from Montmartre would have changed this confusion into a rout, and the least check met with by the troops on their entry would have been for Paris a second 18th March; but the cannon of the Buttes remained mute.
Monstrous negligence, which alone would suffice to condemn the Council, the War Office, and the delegates of Montmartre. Eightyfive cannon and about twenty machine-guns were lying there, dirty, pell-mell, and no one during these eight weeks had even thought Of cleaning them. Projectiles of 7 cm. abounded, but there were no cartridges. At the Moulin de la Galette three pieces of 24 cm. alone were supplied with carriages, but there were neither parapets, blindages, nor even platforms. At nine o'clock in the morning they had not yet fired; after the first discharge the recoil overthrew the carriages, and much time was required to set them up again. These three pieces themselves had very little ammunition. Of fortifications or earthworks there were none; merely a few barricades at the foot of the external boulevards had been begun. At nine o'clock La Cécilia sent to Montmartre, and found the defence in this disgraceful state. He immediately addressed despatches to the Hôtel-de-Ville, conjuring the members of the Council to come themselves, or at least to send reinforcements of men and munitions.
A similar thing occurred at the same time on the left bank at the Ecole Militaire. Face to face with its park of artillery, the Versaillese since one o'clock in the morning were manoeuvring on the Trocadero without a single cannon shot being fired at them. What, then, was the governor of the Ecole about?
At daybreak the Langourian brigade attacked the huts of the Champ-de-Mars. The Federals defended themselves several hours, and were only dislodged by the shells of the Trocadero, which enkindled a conflagration. They then fell back upon the Ecole, and for a long time checking the effort of the troops, gave the seventeenth arrondissment time to rise. The quay as far as the Légion d'Honneur, the Rues de Lille, De I'Université, and the Boulevard St. Germain up to the Rue Solferino were being barricaded. Half-a-dozen of the armlet conspirators, led by Durouchoux and Vrignault, were coming down the Rue du Bac at great speed, when a member of the Council, Siscard, arrested them before the Petit St. Thomas. A bullet struck Durouchoux, his acolytes carried him away, and took advantage of the occasion not to appear again. The Rue de Beaune, Verneuil, and St. Pères were put in a state of defence, and a barricade was thrown up in the Rue de Sevres at the Abbaye-au-Bois.
On the right Cisseys soldiers descended the Rue de Vaugirard without hindrance as far as the Avenue du Maine; another column filed off along the railway, and at half-past six reached the Montparnasse station. This position, Of supreme importance, had been utterly neglected; about twenty men defended it, and they were soon short of cartridges, and obliged to retreat to the Rue de Rennes, where, under the fire of the troops, they constructed a barricade at the top of the Rue du Vieux Colombier. On his extreme right Cissey occupied the Vanves gate and lined the whole railway of the west.
Paris rose to the roar of the cannon and read the proclamation of Delescluze. The shops were at once shut up again, the boulevards remained empty, and Paris, the old insurgent, resumed her combative physiognomy. Despatch riders dashed through the streets, and remainders of battalions came to the Hôtel-de-Ville, where the Central Committee, the Committee of Artillery, and all the military services were concentrated.
At nine o'clock twenty members of the Council had assembled. A miracle! There was FéIix Pyat, who had cried To arms! in his paper that very morning. He had put on his patriarchal air. Well, my friends, our last hour has come. Oh, for myself what matters it! My hair is grey, my career run out. What more glorious end could I hope for than that of the barricade. But when I see around me so many in the prime of youth, I tremble for the future of the Revolution! Then he demanded that the names of the members present should be entered, in order to mark out distinctly those true to their duty. He signed his name, and, with tears in his eyes, the old comedian trotted off to a hiding-place, surpassing by his last cowardice all his former villainies.
A sterile meeting this, spent in discussing the news of the day; no impulsion given, no system of defence propounded. The Federals were left to their own inspirations — left to look after themselves. During the whole past night neither Dombrowski, nor the War Office, nor the Hotel-de-Ville had thought of the battalions outside the town. Henceforth each corps had nothing to expect but from its own initiative, from the resources it might be able to create and the intelligence of its leaders.
In default of direction proclamations abounded. Let good citizens rise l To the barricades! The enemy is within our walls. No hesitation. Forward, for the Commune and for liberty. To arms!
Let Paris bristle up with barricades, and from behind these improvised ramparts still hurl at her enemies her cry of war, of pride, of defiance, but also of victory; for Paris with her barricades cannot be wiped out.
Great words; nothing but words.
Mid-day — General Cissey had turned on the Ecole Militaire, and thereby forced its last defenders. The soldiers invaded the Esplanade des Invalides and entered the Rue Grenelle St. Germain, when the Ecole d'Etat-major exploded and put them to flight. Two of our cannon flanked the Rue de I'Université; four gunboats, anchored under the Pont-Royal, opened fire on the Trocadero. In the centre, in the eighth arrondissement, the Versaillese skirmished. At the Batignolles they did not advance, but their shells harassed the Rue Lévis. We also lost many men in the Rue Cardinet, where children were fighting furiously.
Malon and Jaclard, who directed this part of the defence, had since morning in vain applied to Montmartre for reinforcements; so towards one o'clock they themselves went in search of them. Not one of the staff-officers could give them the slightest information. The Federals were wandering about the streets or chatting in small groups. Malon wanted to take them back with him, but they refused, reserving themselves, they said, for the defence of their own quarter. The cannon of the Buttes were mute, being short of cartridges; the Hotel-de-Ville had sent only words.
Still there were two generals on the heights, Cluseret and La Cécilia, the ex-delegate melancholily airing his somnolent incapacity, while La Cécilia, unknown in this quarter, at once found himself powerless.
Two o'clock — The Hôtel-de-Ville had again assumed its grand aspect of March. On the right the Committee of Public Safety and on the left the War Office were overrun. The Central Committee was multiplying its orders and exclaiming against the incapacity of the members of the Council, though itself incapable of setting forth a single precise idea. The Committee of Artillery, more beset than ever, could not yet make out its cannon, did no know to whom to give them, and often refused pieces for the most important positions.
The delegates of the Congress of Lyons, conducted by Jules Amigues and Larroque, came to offer their intervention, but they had no mandate, and id not even know whether M. Thiers would admit them. They were received rather coldly. Besides, many at the Hotel-de-ViIle believed in victory, and almost rejoiced at the entry of the Versaillese; for indeed Paris seemed to be rising.
The barricades increased quickly. That of the Rue de Rivoli, which was to protect the Hotel-de-Ville, was erected at the entrance of the St. Jacques Square, at the corner of the Rue St. Denis. Fifty workmen did the mason-work, while swarms of children brought wheelbarrows full of earth from the square. This work, several yards deep, six yards high, with trenches, embrasures and an outwork, as solid as the Florentin redoubt, which had taken weeks to raise, was finished in a few hours — an example this of what an intelligent effort at the right time might have done for the defence of Paris. In the ninth arrondissement, the Rues Auber, De la Chaussée d'Antin, De Châteaudun, the cross-roads of the Faubourg Montmartre, Notre Dame de Lorette, De la Trinité, and the Rue des Martyrs were being unpaved. The broad approaches, La Chapelle, Buttes Chaumont, Belleville, Méndmontant, the Rue de la Roquette, the Bastile, the Boulevards Voltaire and Richard Lenoir, the Place du Chateau d'Eau, the broad boulevards especially from the Porte St. Denis; and on the left bank the whole length of the Boulevard St. Michel, the Panthéon, the Rue St. Jacques, the Gobelins, and the principal avenues of the thirteenth arrondissement, were being barricaded. A great many of these works of defence were never finished.
While Paris was preparing for the last struggle, Versailles was wild with joy. The Assembly had met at an early hour, and M. Thiers would not leave to any of his Ministers the glory of announcing the first butcheries in Paris. His appearance on the tribune was hailed by ferocious cheers. The cause of justice, order, humanity, and civilization has triumphed, screamed the little man. The generals who have conducted the entry into Paris are great men of war. The expiation be complete. It will take place in the name of the law, by the law, with the law. The Chamber, understanding this promise of carnage, to a man, and by a unanimous vote, Right, Left, Centre, Clericals, Republicans, Monarchists, swore that the Versailles army and chief of the executive power had merited well of the country. sitting was at once raised, the deputies rushing off to the Lanterne Diogène, Châtillon, and Mont-Valérien, to all the heights whence they could, as from an immense Colosseum, observe the butchery of Paris without incurring the least danger. The population of idlers accompanied them, and on this Versailles road deputies, courtesans, women of the world, journalists, functionaries stung by the same craving, sometimes crammed into the same carriage, displayed before the Prussians and France the spectacle of a saturnalia of the bourgeoisie.
After eight o'clock the army ceased to advance, save in the eighth arrondissement, where the barricade before the English Embassy was turned by the gardens. Our line of the Faubourg St. Germain resisted from the Seine to the Mont-Parnasse station, which we were cannonading.
With nightfall the shooting slackened, but the shelling still went on. A red light glared in the Tuileries; the Ministry of Finance was burning. It had during the whole day received part of the Versaillese shells, destined for the terrace of the Tuileries, and the papers piled up in its upper storeys had taken fire. The firemen of the Commune had at first extinguished this conflagration, interfering with the defence of the St. Florentin redoubt, but it had soon lit up again, and become unquenchable.
Then began those nights of horror, where, amidst the roaring of the cannon, by the glimmer of burning houses, men sought each other in pools of blood. The Paris of the revolt had at length been roused. Her battalions descended towards the Hotel-de-Ville headed by bands and the red flag. Small in number, a battalion perhaps two hundred strong, but resolute, these Federals marched on in silence; there were seen also, muskets on their shoulders, those men, devoted to the Social Revolution, whom personal jealousy had kept at a distance. But in this hour none thought of such recriminations. Because of the incapacity of the chiefs ought the soldiers to desert their flag? The Paris of 1871 represented against Versailles the Social Revolution and the new destinies of the nation; one must be against or for her despite the faults committed. Cowards only abstained. All the true revolutionaries rose, even those who had no illusions as to the issue of the struggle, eager to defy death in the service of their immortal cause .
Ten o'clock — We proceeded to the Hotel-de-Ville. An irritated group of Federals had just arrested Dombrowski. The general, without any command since morning, had repaired with his officers to the outposts of St. Ouen, and believing his role terminated, wanted in the night to ride through the Prussian ranks and gain the frontier. A commander, who was afterwards shot as a traitor, had incited his men against the general under the pretext that he was betraying them. Led before the Committee of Public Safety, Dombrowski indignantly exclaimed, They say I have betrayed! The members of the Committee welcomed him affectionately, and the incident had no further consequences.
Messengers arrived at the War Office from all the points of the battle. A great number of guards and officers issued orders and despatches in the midst of a continual bustle. The inner courts were full of waggons and carriages, the horses all ready harnessed; munitions were being taken out or brought in, and not the least sign of discouragement, or even of anxiety, was visible, but everywhere an almost gay activity.
The streets and boulevards, with the exception of the invaded quarters, had been lighted as usual. At the entrance of the Faubourg Montmartre the light ceased abruptly, giving it the appearance of an enormous black hole. This obscurity was guarded by Federal sentinels, uttering every now and then their cry, Passez au large! Beyond this only a menacing silence. These shadows moving about in the night seemed to assume gigantic forms; one fancied oneself haunted by a sinister dream; the bravest were appalled.
There were nights more noisy, more glaring, more grandiose, when the conflagrations and the cannonade enveloped Paris, but none made a more lugubrious impression. A night of meditation this, the vigil of battle. We sought each other in the gloom, spoke softly, giving and taking comfort. At the cross-roads we consulted each other in order to examine our positions, and then to work! Now for the spade and the — paving-stones! Let the earth be heaped up where the shells may flatten themselves against it; let the mattresses thrown from the windows shelter the combatants. Henceforth there is to be no more rest; let the stones cemented with hate press against each other like the shoulders of men arrayed for the battlefield. The enemy has taken us by surprise, defenceless. May he tomorrow encounter a Saragossa or a Moscow!
Every passer-by was requisitioned. Come, citizen, lend a hand for the Republic! At the Bastille and in the interior boulevards one met crowds of workers, some digging the earth, others carrying the paving-stones; children using spades and mattocks as big as themselves. The women encouraged the men; the delicate hand of the young girl raised the heavy pickaxe that fell with a sharp sound, emitting fiery sparks. It took an hour to seriously break through the soil. What matter! they will spend their night at it. On the Tuesday evening, at the intersection of the Square St. Jacques and the Boulevard Sebastopol, many dames de la halle [market women] worked for a long time, filling earth sacks and wicker baskets.
And these were no longer the traditional redoubts two storeys high. Save four or five in the Rue St. Honoré and the Rue de Rivoli, the barricades of May consisted of a few paving-stones hardly a mans height; behind these sometimes a cannon or a machine-gun; and in the midst, wedged in by two paving-stones, the red flag, the colour of vengeance. Behind these shreds of ramparts thirty men held regiments in check.
If this general effort had been directed by the least thought of combination, if Montmartre and the Panthéon had crossed their fires, the Versaillese army would have melted away in Paris; but the Federals, without directions, without military knowledge, saw no further than just their own quarter, or even their own streets; so that instead of 200 strategical, solid barricades, easy to defend with 7,000 or 8,000 men, hundreds were scattered about which it was impossible to arm sufficiently. The general mistake was a belief that they would be attacked from the front; while the Versaillese, thanks to their numbers. everywhere executed flank movements.
In the evening the Versaillese line extended from the station of the Batignolles to the extremity of the Railway of the West on the left bank, passing by the St. Lazare Station, the Pépiniere Barracks, the British Embassy, the Palais de I'Industrie, the Corps Législatif, the Rue de Bourgogne, the Boulevard des Invalides, and the Montparnasse Station. To face the invader there were but embryo barricades. If with one effort he were to break through this line still so weak, he would surprise the centre quite disarmed. But these 130,000 men did not dare to. Soldiers and chiefs were afraid of Paris. They fancied the streets would open, the houses fall upon them; as witness the fable of the torpedoes, of the mines under the sewers, invented later on to justify their indecision. On the Monday evening, masters of several arrondissements, they still trembled, fearful of some terrible surprise. They needed all the tranquillity of the night to recover from their conquest, and convince themselves that the Committee of Defence, despite their boasting, had neither foreseen nor prepared anything.