Workers’ Republic, 17th July 1915.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton, August 2007.
In February, 1848, the monarchy of Louis Phillippe was destroyed by an insurrection in the streets of Paris, supported by risings in various parts of the country. This insurrection, like all previous risings of the same description, owed its success principally to the determined fighting of the working class. But whereas in previous insurrections the working class after doing the fighting were content to let the middle class reap the harvest, it resolved this time to demand certain guarantees for itself.
Education had progressed rapidly, and in addition the relative numbers of the workers were greater than at any other similar crisis. Hhence, after the victory, whilst arms were still in its hands, it demanded that the new government establish in its social constitution some provisions making for social well-being. The government consented reluctantly but with great show of zeal for the cause of labour, and established ‘National Workshops’, guaranteeing work to all comers.
This proposition was, of course, economically unsound and bound to fail, but it placated the workers for the time. The Republican Government got time to mature its plans against republicanism, and to organise its military force against labour. Thousands of workers were taken on in the workshops, and middle class poets talked enthusiastically and sang ecstatically about the Era of Labour. But all the time the government was quietly drafting its forces into Paris, removing from Paris all the city regiments and replacing them with battalions from remote country districts, perfecting its artillery, and calmly preparing to crush the workers should they persist in their idea that the Republic ought to regard them as its children, not as its slaves. Eventually when all was ready the government began to dismiss men in thousands from the National Workshops, and to form brigades of workers to be removed from Paris ostensibly to work at canal construction in the provinces.
One of these brigades was formed of 14,000 men, almost all of whom were Parisians, and members of various local Labour clubs. In addition to this wholesale removal of workers to unfamiliar provinces, the government on the 22nd June, 1848, summarily dismissed 3,000 more on the pretence that they were not born in Paris, and ordered them to leave the city at once. Money and tickets were supplied to them to pay their lodgings along the road to their birthplaces.
Out of this deportation sprung the Insurrection of June, 1848.
About 400 of the deported workmen returned to the city that evening and paraded the streets, calling upon their comrades to resist the plot of the government to destroy the Labour forces. In the morning the sound of the generale, the popular drum beat to arms, was sounded, and barricades began to be erected in the streets. All the working class districts rapidly rose, and the insurgents fortified their quarters so rapidly and skilfully that it was quite evident that astute minds had been busy amongst them preparing to meet the schemes of the government.
At the Porte St. Denis the fighting began. The barricade here was stormed alter the soldiers had been twice beaten off. At the Porte St. Martin and at several other points similar fights took place, at each of them the soldiery stormed the barricade. But at each of them it was found that after the barricade had become untenable the insurgents were able to fall back behind others that had been prepared for the purpose, and when the troops sought to pursue them they were met by a galling and terrible fire from all the side streets and houses. The insurgents had seized houses which commanded the passage of the streets, but were still so retired that they could not be swept from the front, and had prepared their house in the most scientific manner. The front walls were loopholed, the entrances were barricaded with furniture, boxes, trunks, and obstacles of all kinds, the party walls were cut through so that only one man at a time could pass, and as fast as one house was taken in desperate hand-to-hand fighting they retired through this passage to the next.
Some of the houses were compared to rabbit warrens, full of holes and galleries, and in every corner death was waiting for the soldiers. Windows were blocked with mattresses and sandbags, and marksmen fired from behind them, and women were busy casting bullets, raining slates and stones on the heads of the troops, carrying arms, and tending the wounded.
Before nightfall the troops had been driven back at numerous points, and the roar of artillery was heard all over the city.
Next morning it was found that most of the barricades destroyed during the day had been erected again during the night. To enumerate here the places and districts fortified would be a useless display of names, but sufficient to say that the insurgents had drawn a huge semi-circle around a vast portion of Paris, had erected barricades in a practically continuous line all along their front, had carefully prepared the houses and buildings at tactically strong points, and were now applying to their service everything within their lines that foresight or prudence could suggest.
Two great buildings served as headquarters in the various districts. The headquarters of the North were in the Temple, those of the South in the Pantheon, and in the centre the Hospital of the Hotel Dicu had been seized and held as the strategical bureau of the whole insurrection.
Meanwhile the soldiers in overwhelming numbers were being rushed to Paris from all the provincial centres, and as France was then at peace with all foreign powers the whole force of the army was available. General Cavaignac issued a proclamation that
“if at noon the barricades are not removed, mortars and howitzers will be brought by which shells will be thrown, which will explode behind the barricades and in the apartments of the houses occupied by the insurgents.”
No one heeded his threat, and on the next day the fighting re-commenced. But the shortage of ammunition on the part of the insurgents told heavily against them, and in addition, as the government had all along planned, the soldiers brought to Paris outnumbered the armed men in revolt, as well as being possessed of all the advantage of a secure source of supplies.
The first fighting at the Clos St. Lazare was typical of the whole and therefore the following description from the pen of an eye-witness is worth reproducing. He says:–
“The barricades in advance of the harriers were as formidable as regular engineers would have constructed, and were built of paving stones of a hundredweight each, and blocks of building stone cut for building a hospital, and weighing tons. The houses covering them were occupied. The tall houses at the barriers were occupied and the windows removed. The houses on the opposite side of the Boulevard were, moreover, in the possession of the rebels and manned with marksmen. What formed, however, the strength of their position was the perforation of the wall of the city which is twelve or fourteen feet high, at intervals of eight or ten yards for a mile in length, with several hundred loopholes of about six inches in diameter. During all Saturday and Sunday a constant and deadly fire was kept up from these loopholes on troops who could hardly see their opponents.
“The defenders ran from loophole to loophole with the agility of monkeys. They only left the cover of the high wall to seek ammunition, of which they had only a scanty and precarious supply.”
It was only when the insurgents’ ammunition gave out that the artillery became formidable. Then it was able to pound to ruins the building in which the insurgents were awaiting their attack, and to gradually occupy the district so cleared of its defenders.
By the 25th June all fighting had ceased in Paris. The isolation of that city from all provincial support, combined with the overwhelming number of the soldiery had won the day.
On the 10th of December 1848, Prince Louis Napoleon was elected President of the Republic, and four years afterwards he destroyed it by the aid of the army which the republican government had turned against the workers of Paris in the fighting just chronicled. When Louis Napoleon was destroying the French Republic its middle class supporters called in vain for the support of the brave men they had betrayed in June 1848.
The insurrection of June 1848 in Paris was the most stubbornly fought, and the most scientifically conducted, of any of the revolutions or attempts at revolutions in Paris. The lessons are invaluable for all students of warfare who wish to understand the defence and attack of cities, towns, villages, or houses. Whatever changes have come about as a result of the development of firearms and the introduction of smokeless powder have operated principally in increasing the power of the defence. In our next week’s issue we propose to sum up the military lessons of all the great uprisings dealt with in these notes up to the present.
Last updated on 28.9.2007