E. Belfort Bax

The Paris Commune

XII. The Barricades

The night of Monday-Tuesday was a night of silent preparation (all too late) and of gloom. In all quarters the pickaxe was to be heard removing paving stones and digging the foundations of barricades, which rose by the hundred. Men, women, and children were at work. Now began that enthusiasm, that limitless courage arid contempt of death-displayed in defence of an ideal – the colossal proportions of which dwarf everything similar in history, and which alone suffices to redeem the sordidness of the nineteenth century. Here was a heroism in the face of which the much-belauded Christian martyrs cut a very poor figure. The Christian died believing that the moment the tooth or claw of the panther tore open his throat was the moment of his transition to a new and endless personal existence of honour and glory. His steadfastness was purely selfish. The Communist workman believed that the moment the ball of the Versaillese soldier struck his heart his personal existence came to an end for ever. Yet he was willing to surrender himself completely for a future that meant the happiness of his class and a nobler life for humanity, but which he himself would never see. Yes, this unparalleled devotion, this gigantic heroism of the whole working-class of Paris, was indeed magnificent, but, alas! it was not war. Had Cluseret, had Rossel, had the Committee of Public Safety but organised a comparatively simple system of barricades and made due preparations beforehand, a few well-equipped battalions of National Guards might have saved the situation. But no one had taken the trouble to see to this. Everything had been let run to confusion. Finally, the senseless cry of “Every man to his arrondissement!” when every man ought to have been out of his arrondissement at strategical points, settled matters. An immense number of barricades were thrown up, without system, in each arrondissement, and heroically defended, without method, with the inevitable sequel of capture and massacre, and thus was the Paris of the Revolution annihilated piecemeal. It is useless to go in detail over the sad tale of barricade after barricade, protected for hours, sometimes for two or three days, by a handful of men only at last to be overwhelmed by a whole regiment of “regulars,” or maybe taken in flank, as often happened with barricades impregnable to direct attack. So incredible did it appear to the enemy that the defenders of Paris should have made no effective preparations for his reception, that they should have had no organised plan of defence, that up to Tuesday evening it was only with great hesitation the Versaillese pressed forward. They suspected their unresisted entry and capture of important positions to hide a trap for the annihilation of the whole Versaillese army once fairly inside the city by means of ambuscades, underground mines, or what not. Unfortunately, their fears were utterly groundless and their caution wholly unnecessary.

At one time on the Monday a few well-directed shells from Montmartre and the Pantheon might have annihilated two of the main columns of the Versaillese army, which had met each other and got entangled with their artillery on the Place de Trocadero. But Montmartre remained silent. At 10 o’clock on the Monday night the Ministry of Finance behind the Tuilleries blazed up, the first of the great conflagrations. It took fire from the Versaillese shells directed against the Federal entrenchments on the terrace of the Tuilleries, the vast masses of documents in the upper storeys supplying combustible material which effectually spread the flames. Early on the Tuesday morning Bismarck surrendered the neutral ground and the forte St. Ouen to another division of the Versaillese army which poured into Paris – a proof, if such were needed, of the hollownessof the sham sentiment called “patriotism” as against the solidarity of real class interest. The “patriotic” French bourgeois was ready to lick the boots while imploring the aid of the hated “Prussien the French proletaire. Meanwhile, before the common danger the men of the Commune rose above the petty squabbles and personalities of the council-room, the public meeting, and the street. Members of the “majority” and “minority” met in generous rivalry who could do the most. But how little there was to be done! Cluseret was powerless; La Cecilia, an old general of Garibaldi’s and a man of some military capacity, was not obeyed, and could not get artillery or ammunition for important positions. Montmartre, the almost impregnable fortress, was defended by a few hundred disorganised Federals. The few pieces of artillery on the height had been allowed to get into disorder, and were little better than useless. Before mid-day on Tuesday Montmartre was captured in a mere walk-over, scarcely one effective blow having been struck in its defence. The Batignolles had been already occupied earlier in the morning. On Montmartre took place the first of the wholesale massacres of the “bloody week.” Forty-two men, women, and children were taken to the Rue des Rosieres, and butchered as a holocaust to the manes of the scoundrels Lecomte and Clement Thomas. The soldiers tried to force them all to kneel; but one woman with a child in her arms refused to kneel, shouting to her companions, “Show these wretches that you know how to die upright!”

On the south side of the Seine the forces of the Commune made a rather better show. A Polish exile named Wroblewski, who knew something of military matters, extemporised a rough system of defences which served to keep the enemy at bay for a while over a considerable area Wroblewski’s ultimate idea was to concentrate the whole defence on this left bank under cover of the forts, the gunboats of the Seine and the Pantheon, and he proposed this plan to Delescluze. But it was impossible to rally matters in accordance with any tactical scheme extending beyond the material immediately at hand and the exigencies of the moment, so complete was the disintegration of the defence. Lisbonne, the member of the Commune, commanded a body of Federals in the Pantheon quarter. He achieved wonders with small means, defending the approaches to the Luxembourg for two whole days. The Committee of Public Safety issued a placard calling upon the Versaillese soldiery to refuse to fire on their brothers of Paris. The “Central Committee” did the same. But it was of no avail. By the Tuesday night scarcely the half of Paris remained to the Commune. The Versaillese, no longer apprehensive of snares, were pushing boldly forward in every direction.

In the course of the evening Raoul Rigault, maddened by the horrors he saw perpetrated on all sides by the friends of “order,” but acting on his own responsibility alone, went to Sr. Pelagie and ordered Gustave Chaudey, accused of having instigated the firing from the hotel de Ville in January, to be taken out into the prison yard and shot, together with three gendarmes. They had all been taken as hostages, and their lives had been forfeited a thousand times, but the Commune had spared them with its usual criminal good nature in such matters. Things were now going from bad to worse with the defenders of the Commune. To absence of superintendence insufficiency of ammunition was now added, in many cases want of food. Conflagrations now broke forth in all quarters of Paris, lighting up the midnight sky, some caused by the shells of the Versaillese, some caused by the action of the Communards to defend themselves from unseen enemies on the roofs and upper storeys of houses whence they were fired upon.


Last updated on 12.3.2004