E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

XI. The Entry of the Versaillese

Sunday, the 21st of May, was one of those glorious spring days in which the avenues of the Champs Elysées and the Tuilleries Gardens show up in the clear air a splendour of young foliage, to which hardly another capital in Europe than Paris can offer a parallel. This afternoon a monster open-air concert was being held under the trees in the Tuilleries Gardens by order of the Commune, for the benefit of the widows and orphans of National Guards slain in defence of Paris. Thousands of Parisians in holiday attire thronged the grounds. At the close of the performance a staff-officer of the National Guards announced from the platform another concert at the same time and place for. the following Sunday. Alas! What a different scene was that following Sunday destined to present – a murky rainfall, Paris enveloped in thick smoke, blood running in the gutters, corpses and human remains piled-up, encumbering the streets. How many of those workmen – and their families then peacefully enjoying themselves were never to see another Sunday! At the very moment the above announcement was made the bandits of “order” were within the city unknown to those responsible for its safety. This is how it happened. The defence had become more completely disorganised than ever since the defection of Rossel. A large extent of the enceinte, including several gates was completely undefended. The Versaillese on their side had unmasked a formidable array of breech-batteries on the previous day. The sound of these, hour after hour, on the defences was insufficient to make the Parisians realise that the end was at hand.

The first detachment of Government troops entered at the gate of St. Cloud, one of the undefended points, at about 3 o’clock. Dombrowski, who for the last fortnight had been at the head of the now hopelessly disintegrated defence, was apprised of the state of affairs one hour later by an officer of the National Guard. He at once issued an order to the war office for seven cannon, for the immediate mobilisation of the best battalions, and had the Auteuil Gate occupied. Soon after, other points were occupied by National Guards, and the gate at the Jena bridge was barricaded. Dombrowski, of course, lost no time in communicating with the Committee of Public safety, which in its turn sent Billioray to inform the Commune. At that moment the Commune was trying Cluseret, on the impeachment of one of its members, Miot, but the charge of treachery being supported only by loose gossip was already falling through before the arrival of Billioray. The message the latter brought was received with consternation; the proceedings in hand were hurriedly concluded, and Cluseret acquitted. But instead of at once entering upon a serious discussion of the situation which might have led to a decision as to some definite plan of defence, the council practically broke up into groups of desultory talkers till eight o’clock struck, and the chairman formally proclaimed the proceedings at an end. It was the last sitting of the Commune of Paris. Every member to his arrondissement was now the fatuous cry. Instead of at once passing a resolution declaring the Commune as sitting in permanence, which was the obvious thing to do – thereby giving a centre and rallying point to the defence – the Commune abandoned the Hotel de Ville, deliberately committed suicide, and with this act of self-destruction sounded the death-knell of revolutionary Paris. The last hope lay in a strong, well-organised rally of all the forces at the disposal of the Commune within the city, with the construction of a system of barricades connecting the three chief strategic points, Montmartre, the Trocadero, and the Pantheon. Instead of a concentrated effort, all was confusion at this critical moment. Everyone left the Hotel de Ville for his arrondissement. Energy was not lacking, but it showed itself when too late and was dissipated in isolated disorganised action. The Committee of Public Safety fairly lost its head, not knowing which way to turn. Delescluze at the War Office remained calm, and quieted the Commune with the assurance that the street-fighting would be favourable to the Parisians.

The chief of the general staff, Henri Prudhomme, then sent for the commander of the observatory on the Arc de Triomphe, who declared he could see nothing of the Versaillese, whereupon a placard was issued casting doubt on the fact of the entry. At 11 o’clock at night, however, a member of the Commune riding down one of the outer streets near the enceinte, the Rue Beethoven, found the lights out and his horse stumbling in pools of blood. Ominous black figures lay against the wall, which proved to be corpses of murdered National Guards. At midnight General Cissey with a body of men scaled the ramparts at another undefended point and entered without encountering any resistance. They then opened several gates from the inside, and by dawn the Versaillese army was streaming into the city at five distinct apertures. Paris woke to find the fifteenth arrondissement captured, Passy and the Trocadero occupied by Versaillese, and Versaillese shells even falling in the centre of the city. There was a veritable sauve qui peut from the outposts yet held. “This is a war of barricades,” was the cry, “each man to his own arrondissement.” Such little discipline as had survived was now at an end. The anarchic element came everywhere to the front. A suicidal placard was issued by Delescluze (one is sorry to say) full of claptrap about the naked arms of the people being more than a match for all the military strategists in the world, pouring contempt on organisation and “learned manoeuverers,” and, in short giving official sanction to the scatter-brained idiocy of the impromptu demagogue and the worst elements in the National Guard.

Early in the morning the war office was evacuated, Henri Prudhomme neglecting, by a piece of criminal carelessness, to destroy the official documents, and thereby sending thousands to death and exile. The shopkeepers were beginning to take down their shutters in the inner parts of the city, not even yet fully realising the state of affairs, but soon closed up again, upon reading Delescluze’s proclamation and finding that the roar of the cannon came not from outside but from within the fortifications. Barricades, were hurriedly thrown up in different quarters without any system, and for the most part only just as the Versaillese were seen to be threatening the position.

At 9 o’clock a few members of the Commune, insufficient to form a quorum, presented themselves at the Hotel de Ville, and separated after a desultory conversation without anyone so much as suggesting any definite scheme of defence. Proclamations abounded on every wall – calls to arms, assurances of victory, demands for barricades. It would be useless without a map of Paris to describe in detail the slow but steady progress of the invaders on this day (Monday, May 22nd). Suffice it to say that the same characteristics were apparent in the street defence, only in an acuter form, that we have recorded as present when the battle was raging round the enceinte – the same limitless bravery, in some cases young boys fighting with desperation, the same impossibility of getting reinforcements, cannon, and ammunition when and where required. The heights of Montmartre were the main stronghold left to the Commune, now that the Trocadero was gone and the Pantheon threatened. As a position Montmartre was very strong, and, with a properly directed defence, might have held the enemy at bay for many days. But everywhere was the same cry, “We must defend our own quarter.” Nevertheless, as evening drew near barricades sprang up in every direction. Paris did indeed seem to be rising en masse. This deceived many who even still sincerely believed in victory.

Meanwhile the ferocious Assembly was voting by acclamation that the “Chief of the Executive” and the army had merited well of the country, and hilariously exulting in the orgy of carnage promised them by the infamous old man.


Last updated on 12.3.2004