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Modern History Sourcebook:
John Leighton:
One Day Under the Paris Commune, 1871

[Tappan Introduction] According to the terms of the 1871 Treaty of Versailles, which ended the Franco-Prussian War, France ceded to Germany some 4700 square miles of territory, and agreed to pay within three years five billion francs for indemnification. The Red Republicans, or Communists, rebelled against these humiliating terms, and the capital now fell into the hands of the Commune of Paris. By order of the National Government the regular army was brought up, and a second siege of Paris took place, infinitely more full of horrors than the previous one by the Germans. The Government at length got control, and the Third Republic was fully organized, under the presidency of Thiers. The author of the following extract was in Paris at the time of the Commune.

THE roaring of cannon close at hand, the whizzing of shells, volleys of musketry. I hear this in my sleep, and awake with a start. I dress and go out. I am told the troops have come in. "How? Where? When?" I ask of the National Guards who come rushing down the; street, crying out, "We are betrayed!" They, however, know but very little. They have come from the Trocadero, and have seen the red trousers of the soldiers in the distance. Fighting is going on near the viaduct of Auteuil, at the Champ de Mars. Did the assault take place last night or this morning? It is quite impossible to obtain any reliable information. Some talk of a civil engineer having made signals to the Versaillais; others say a captain in the navy was the first to enter Paris. Suddenly about thirty men rush into the streets, crying, "We must make a barricade." I turn back, fearing to be pressed into the service. The cannonading appears dreadfully near. A shell whistles over my head. I hear some one say, "The batteries of Montmartre are bombarding the Arc de Triomphe"; and strangely enough, in this moment of horror and uncertainty, the thought crosses my mind that now the side of the arch on which is the bas-relief of Rudé will be exposed to the shells. On the Boulevard there is only here and there a passenger hurrying along. The shops are closed; even the cafes are shut up; the harsh screech of the mitrailleuse grows louder and nearer. The battle seems to be close at hand, all round me. A thousand contradictory suppositions rush through my brain and hurry me along, and here on the Boulevard there is no one that can tell ne anything. I walk in the direction of the Madeleine, drawn there by a violent desire to know what is going on, which silences the voice of prudence. As I approach the Chaussee d'Antin, I perceive a multitude of men, women, and children running backwards and forwards, carrying paving-stones. A barricade is being thrown up; it is already more than three feet high. Suddenly I hear the offing of heavy wheels; I turn, and a strange sight is before me---a mass of women in rags, livid, horrible, and yet grand, with the Phrygian cap on their heads, and the skirts of their robes tied around their waists, were harnessed to a mitrailleuse, which they dragged along at full speed; other women pushing vigorously behind. The whole procession, in its somber colors, with dashes of red here and there, thunders past me; I follow it as fast as I can. The mitrailleuse draws up a little in front of the barricade, and is hailed with wild clamors by the insurgents. The Amazons are being unharnessed as I come up. " Now," said a young gamin, such as one used to see in the gallery of the Theatre Porte St.-Martin, "don't you be acting the spy here, or I will break your head open as if you were a Versaillais."---"Don't waste ammunition," cried an old man with a long white beard---a patriarch of civil war---"don't waste ammunition; and as for the spy, let him help to carry paving-stones. Monsieur," said he, turning to me with much politeness, "will you be so kind as to go and fetch those stones from the corner there?"

I did as I was bid, although I thought, with anything but pleasure, that if at that moment the barricade were attacked and taken, I might be shot before I had the time to say, "Allow me to explain." But the scene which surrounds me interests me in spite of myself. Those grim hags, with their red head-dresses, passing the stones I give them rapidly from hand to hand, the men who are building them up only leaving off for a moment now and then to swallow a cup of coffee, which a young girl prepares over a small tin stove; the rifles symmetrically piled; the barricade, which rises higher and higher; the solitude in which we are working---only here and there a head appears at a window, and is quickly withdrawn; the ever-increasing noise of the battle; and, over all, the brightness of a dazzling morning sun---all this has something sinister, and yet horribly fascinating about it. While we are at work they talk; I listen. The Versaillais have been coming in all night. The Porte de la Muette and the Porte Dauphine have been surrendered by the 13th and the 113th battalions of the first arrondissement. "Those two numbers 13 will bring them ill luck," says a woman. Vinoy is established at the Trocadero, and Douai at the Point du Jour: they continue to advance. The Champ de Mars has been taken from the Federals after two hours' fighting. A battery is erected at the Arc de Triomphe, which sweeps the Champs Elysees and bombards the Tuileries. A shell has fallen in the Rue du Marche Saint-Honore. In the Cours-la-Reine the 138th battalion stood bravely. The Tuileries is armed with guns, and shells the Arc de Triomphe. In the Avenue de Marigny the gendarmes have shot twelve Federals who had surrendered; their bodies are still lying on the pavement in front of the tobacconist's. Rue de Sevres, the Vengeurs de Flourens have put to flight a whole regiment of the line: the Vengeurs have sworn to resist to a man. They are fighting in the Champs Elysees, around the Ministere de la Guerre, and on the Boulevard Haussmann. Dombrowski has been killed at the Chateau de la Muette. The Versaillais have attacked the Western Saint-Lazare Station, and are marching towards the Pepiniere barracks. "We have been sold, betrayed, and surprised; but what does it matter, we will triumph. We want no more chiefs or generals; behind the barricades every man is a marshal!"

Close to Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois women are busy pulling down the wooden seats; children are rolling empty wine-barrels and carrying sacks of earth. As one nears the Hotel de Ville the barricades are higher, better armed, and better manned. All the Nationals here look ardent, resolved, and fierce. They say little, and do not shout at all. Two guards, seated on the pavement, are playing at picquet. I push on, and am allowed to pass. The barricades are terminated here, and I have nothing to fear from paving-stones. Looking up, I see that all the windows are closed, with the exception of one, where two old women are busy putting a mattress between the window and the shutter. A sentinel, mounting guard in front of the Cafe de la Compagnie du Gaz, cries out to me, "You can't pass here!"

I therefore seat myself at a table in front of the cafe, which has doubtless been left open by order, and where several officers are talking in a most animated manner.

One of them rises and advances towards me. He asks me rudely what I am doing there. I will not allow myself to be abashed by his tone, but draw out my pass from my pocket and show it to him, without saying a word. "All right," says he; and then seats himself by my side, and tells me, " I know it already, that a part of the left bank of the river is occupied by the troops of the Assembly, that fighting is going on everywhere, and that the army on this side is gradually retreating.---Street fighting is our affair, you see," he continues. "In such battles as that, the merest gamin from Belleville knows more about it than MacMahon . . . It will be terrible. The enemy shoots the prisoners." (For the last two months the Commune had been saying the same thing.) "We shall give no quarter."---I ask him, "Is it Delescluze who is determined to resist?"---"Yes," he answers. "Lean forward a little. Look at those three windows to the left of the trophy. That is the Salle de l'Etat-Major. Delescluze is there giving orders, signing commissions. He has not slept for three days. Just now I scarcely knew him, he was so worn out with fatigue. The Committee of Public Safety sits permanently in a room adjoining, making out proclamations and decrees."---"Ha, ha!" said I, "decrees!"---"Yes, citizen, he has just decreed heroism!" The officer gives me several other bits of information: tells me that "Lullier this very morning has had thirty réfractaires shot, and that Rigault has gone to Mazas to look after the hostages."

While he is talking, I try to see what is going on in the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. Two or three thousand Federals are there, some seated, some lying on the ground. A lively discussion is going on. Several little barrels are standing about on chairs; the men are continually getting up and crowding round the barrels, some have no glasses, but drink in the palms of their hands. Women walk up and down in bands, gesticulating wildly. The men shout, the women shriek. Mounted expresses gallop out of the Hotel, some in the direction of the Bastille, some towards the Place de la Concorde. The latter fly past us crying out, "All's well! " A man comes out on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville and addresses he crowd. All the Federals start to their feet enthusiastically. ---"That's Valles," says my neighbor to me. I had already recognized him. I frequently saw him in the students' quarter in a little crémerie in the Rue Serpente. He was given to making verses, rather bad ones by the bye; I remember one in particular, a panegyric on a green coat. They used to say he had a situation as a professional mourner. His face even then wore a bitter and violent expression. He left poetry for journalism, and then journalism for politics. Today he is spouting forth at a window of the Hôtel de Ville. I cannot catch a word of what he says; but as he retires he is wildly applauded. Such applause pains me sadly. I feel that these men and these women are mad for blood, and will know how to die. Alas! how many dead and dying already! Neither the cannonading nor the musketry has ceased an instant.

I now see a number of women walk out of the Hôtel, the crowd makes room for them to pass. They come our way. They are dressed in black, and have black crape tied round their arms and a red cockade in their bonnets. My friend the officer tells me that they are the governesses who have taken the places of the nuns. Then he walks up to them and says, "Have you succeeded? "---"Yes," answers one of them, "here is our commission. The school-children are to be employed in making sacks and filling them with earth, the eldest ones are to load the rifles behind the barricades. They will receive rations like National Guards, and a pension will be given to the mothers of those who die for the republic. They are mad to fight, I assure you. We have made them work hard during the last month; this will be their holiday!" The woman who says this is young and pretty, and speaks; with a sweet smile on her lips. I shudder. Suddenly two staff officers appear and ride furiously up to the Hôtel de Ville; they have come from the Place Vendôme. An instant later and the trumpets sound. The companies form in the Place, and great agitation reigns in the Hôtel. Men rush in and out. The officers who are in the cafe where I am get up instantly, and go to take their places at the head of their men. A rumor spreads that the Versaillais have taken the barricades on the Place de la Concorde.---"By Jove! I think you had better go home," says my neighbor to me, as he clasps his sword-belt; "we shall have hot work here, and that shortly." I think it prudent to follow this advice.

One glance at the Place before I go. The companies of Federals have just started off by the Rue de Rivoli and the quays at a quick march, crying, "Vive la Commune!" a ferocious joy beaming in their faces. A young man, almost a lad, lags a little behind; a woman rushes up to him, and lays hold of his collar, screaming, "Well, and you! are you not going to get yourself killed with the others?"

I reach the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, where another barricade is being built up. I place a paving-stone upon it and pass on. Soon I see open shops and passengers in the streets. This tradesmen's quarter seems to have outlived the riot of Paris. Here one might almost forget the frightful civil war which wages so near, if the conversation of those around did not betray the anguish of the speakers, and if you did not hear the cannon roaring out unceasingly, "People of Paris, listen to me! I am ruining your houses. Listen to me! I am killing your children."

On the Boulevards more barricades; some nearly finished, others scarcely commenced. One constructed near the Porte Saint-Martin looks formidable. That spot seems destined to be the theater of bloody scenes, of riot and revolution. In 1852, corpses lay piled up behind the railing, and all the pavement was tinged with blood. I return home profoundly sad; I can scarcely think---I feel in a dream, and am tired to death; my eyelids droop of themselves; I am like one of those houses there with closed shutters.

Near the Gymnase I meet a friend who I thought was at Versailles. We shake hands sadly. "When did you come back?" I ask.---"Today; I followed the troops." ---Then turning back with me he tells me what he has seen. He had a pass, and walked into Paris behind the artillery and the line, as far as the Trocadero, where the soldiers halted to take up their line of battle. Not a single man was visible along the whole length of the quays. At the Champ de Mars he did not see any insurgents. The musketry seemed very violent near Vaugirard on the Pont Royal and around the Palais de l'Industrie. Shells from Montmartre repeatedly fell on the quays. He could not see much, however, only the smoke in the distance. Not a soul did he meet. Such frightful noise in such solitude was fearful. He continued his way under the shelter of the parapet. On one place he saw some gamins cutting huge pieces of flesh off the dead body of a horse that was lying in the path. There must have been fighting there. Down by the water a man fishing while two shells fell in the river, a little higher up, a yard or two from the shore. Then he thought it prudent to get nearer to the Palais de l'Industrie. The fighting was nearly over then, but not quite. The Champs Elysees was melancholy in the extreme; not a soul was there. This was only too literally true, for several corpses lay on the ground. He saw a soldier of the line lying beneath a tree, his forehead covered with blood. The man opened his mouth as if to speak as he heard the sound of footsteps, the eyelids quivered and then there was a shiver, and all was over.

My friend walked slowly away. He saw trees thrown down and bronze lamp-posts broken; glass crackled under his feet as he passed near the ruined kiosques. Every now and then turning his head he saw shells from Montmartre fall on the Arc de Triomphe and break off large fragments of stone. Near the Tuileries was a confused mass of soldiery against a background of smoke. Suddenly he heard the whizzing of a ball and saw the branch of a tree fall. From one end of the avenue to the other, no one; the road glistened white in the sun. Many dead were to be seen lying about as he crossed the Champs Élysées. All the streets to the left were full of soldiery; there had been fighting there, but it was over now. The insurgents had retreated in the direction of the Madeleine. In many places tricolor flags were hanging from the windows, and women were smiling and waving their handkerchiefs to the troops. The presence of the soldiery seemed to reassure everybody. The concierges were seated before their doors with pipes in their mouths, recounting to attentive listeners the perils from which they had escaped; how balls pierced the mattresses put up at the windows, and how the Federals had got into the houses to hide. One said, "I found three of them in my court; I told a lieutenant they were there, and he had them shot. But I wish they would take them away; I cannot keep dead bodies in my house." Another was talking with some soldiers, and pointing out a house to them. Four men and a corporal went into the place indicated, and an instant afterwards my friend heard the cracking of rifles. The concierge rubbed his hands and winked at the bystanders, while another was saying, "They respect nothing, those Federals; during the battle they came in to steal. They wanted to take away my clothes, my linen, everything I have; but I told them to leave that, that it was not good enough for them, that they ought to go up to the first floor, where they would find clocks and plate, and I gave them the key. Well, messieurs, you would never believe what they have done, the rascals! They took the key and went and pillaged everything on the first floor! " My friend had heard enough, and passed on. The agitation everywhere was very great. The soldiers went hither and thither, rang the bells, went into the houses and brought out with them pale-faced prisoners. The inhabitants continued to smile politely but grimly. Here and there dead bodies were lying in the road. A man who was pushing a truck allowed one of the wheels to pass over a corpse that was lying with its head on the curbstone. "Bah! " said he, "it won't do him any harm." The dead and wounded were, however, being carried away as quickly as possible.

The cannon had now ceased roaring, and the fight was still going on close at hand---at the Tuileries doubtless. The townspeople were tranquil and the soldiery disdainful. A strange contrast; all these good citizens smiling and chatting, and the soldiers, who had come to save them at the peril of their lives, looking down upon them with the most careless indifference. My friend reached the Boulevard Haussmann; there the corpses were in large numbers. He counted thirty in less than a hundred yards. Some were lying under the doorways; a dead woman was seated on the bottom stair of one of the houses. Near the church of "La Trinité" were two guns, the reports from which were deafening; several of the shells fell in a bathing establishment in the Rue Taitbout opposite the Boulevard. On

the Boulevard itself, not a person was to be seen. Here and there dark masses, corpses doubtless. However, the moment the noise of the report of a gun had died away, and while the gunners were reloading, heads were thrust out from doors to see what damage had been done---to count the number of trees broken, benches torn up, and kiosques overturned. From some of the windows rifles were fired. My friend then reached the street he lived in and went home. He was told during the morning they had violently bombarded the College Chaptal, where the Zouaves of the Commune had fortified themselves; but the engagement was not a long one, they made several prisoners and shot the rest.

My friend shut himself up at home, determined not to go out. But his impatience to see and hear what was going on forced him into the streets again. The Pepiniere barracks were occupied by troops of the line; he was able to get to the New Opera without trouble, leaving the Madeleine, where dreadful fighting was going on, to the right. On the way were to be seen piled muskets, soldiers sitting and lying about, and corpses everywhere. He then managed, without incurring too much danger, to reach the Boulevards, where the insurgents, who were then very numerous, had not yet been attacked. He worked for some little time at the barricade, and then was allowed to pass on. It was thus that we had met. Just as we were about to turn up the Faubourg Montmartre a man rushed up saying that three hundred Federals had taken refuge in the church of the Madeleine, followed by gensdarmes, and had gone on fighting for more than an hour. "Now," he finished up by saying, "if the curé were to return, he would find plenty of people to bury!"

I am now at home. Evening has come at last; I am jotting down these notes just as they come into my head. I am too much fatigued both in mind and body to attempt to put my thoughts into order. The cannonading is incessant, and the fusillade also. I pity those that died, and those that kill! Oh! poor Paris, when will experience make you wiser?


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. V: Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, pp. 406-418.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu