Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XII
The Versaillese beat back the Commune patrols and massacre prisoners


That very day, the 2nd April, at one o'clock, without warning, without summons, the Versaillese opened fire and launched their shells into Paris.

For several days their cavalry had exchanged shots with our advance posts at Chatillon and Putteaux. We occupied Courbevoie, that commands the route to Versailles, which made the rurals very anxious. On the 2nd, at ten o'clock in the morning, three brigades of the best Versailles troops, 10,000 strong, arrived at the cross-roads of Bergeres. Six or seven hundred cavalry of the brigade Gallifet supported this movement, while we had only three federal battalions at Courbevoie, in all five or six hundred men, defended by a halffinished barricade on the St. Germain road. Their watch, however, was well kept; their vedettes had killed the head-surgeon of the Versaillese army, whom they had mistaken for a colonel of gendarmerie.

At mid-day the Versaillese, having cannonaded the barracks of Courbevoie and the barricade, launched themselves to the assault. At the first shots from our men they scampered off, abandoning on the road cannon and officers. Vinoy was obliged to come himself and rally the renegades. Meanwhile the 113th of the line outflanked Courbevoie on the right, and the infantry of the marines turned left, marching through Putteaux. Too inferior in number and fearing to be cut off from Paris, the Federals evacuated Courbevoie, and, pursued by shells, fell back on the Avenue de Neuilly, leaving twelve dead and some prisoners. The gendarmes had taken five, one of whom was a child of fifteen, beating them unmercifully, and shot them at the foot of Mont-Valérien. This expedition concluded, the army regained its cantonment.

At the report of the cannon all Paris started. No one believed in an attack, so completely did all, since the 28th, live in an atmosphere of confidence. It was no doubt an anniversary, a misunderstanding at the utmost. When the news, the ambulance-carriages, arrived; when the word was spoken, ‘The siege is recommencing!’ an explosion of horror shook all the quarters. An affrighted hive, such was Paris. The barricades were again thrown up, the call to arms beaten everywhere, and the cannon drawn to the ramparts of the Porte-Maillot and of the Ternes. At three o'clock 80,000 men were on foot crying, ‘To Versailles!’ The women excited the battalions, and spoke of marching in the vanguard.

The Executive Commission met and posted up a proclamation: ‘The royalist conspirators have attacked; despite the moderation of our attitude, they have attacked. Our duty is to defend the great city against these culpable aggressions.’ In the Commission, the generals Duval, Bergeret, and Eudes declared for an attack. ‘The enthusiasm,’ they said, ‘is irresistible, unique. What can Versailles do against 100,000 men? We must sally out.’ Their colleagues resisted, especially Félix Pyat, confronted with his rant and vapourings of the morning. His buffoonery stood him in the stead of a life-preserver. ‘One does not start,’ said he, ‘at random, without cannon, with cadres, and without leaders;’ and he demanded the return of the strength of the troops. Duval, who since the 19th March had been strongly bent upon a sortie, violently rebuked him: ‘Why, then, for three days have you shouted, “To Versailles"?’ The most energetic opponent of the sortie was Lefrançais. Finally, the four civil members — that is, the majority — decided that the generals should present a detailed statement as to their forces in men, artillery, munitions, and transports. The same evening the Commission named Cluseret delegate at War jointly with Eudes, who, being a member of the so-called party of action, owed this post only to the patronage of his old cronies.

In spite of the majority of the Commission, the generals set out. They had, anyway received no formal order to the contrary. Félix Pyat had even concluded by saying, ‘After all, if you think you are ready . . .’they saw Flourens always ready for a coup-de-main, other colleagues equally adventurous, and, on their own authority, certain of being followed by the National Guard. They sent the chefs-de-légion the order to form columns. The battalions of the right bank were to concentrate at the Place Vendôme and Place Wagram; those of the left bank, at the Place d'Italie and Champ-de-Mars.

These movements, without staff officers to guide them, were very badly executed. Many men marched hither and thither, grew tired. Yet at midnight there were still about 20,000 men on the right bank of the Seine and about 17,000 on the left.

From eight o'clock to midnight the Council was sitting. The inexorable Félix Pyat, always pertinent, demanded the abolition of the budget of public worship. The majority immediately satisfied him. He might just as well have decreed the abolition of the Versaillese army. Of the sortie, of the military preparations deafening Paris, no one breathed a word in the Council — no one disputed the field with the generals.

The plan of the latter, which they communicated to Cluseret, was to make a strong demonstration in the direction of Rueil, while two columns were to march on Versailles by Meudon and the plateau of Chatillon. Bergeret, assisted by Flourens, was to operate on the right; Eudes and Duval were to command the columns of the centre and the left. A simple idea, and easy of execution with experienced officers and solid heads of columns. But most of the battalions had been without leaders since the 18th March, the National Guards without cadres, and the generals who assumed the responsibility of leading 40,000 men had never conducted a single battalion into the field. They neglected even the most elementary precautions, knew not how to collect artillery, ammunition-wagons or ambulances, forgot to make an order of the day, and left the men for several hours without food in a penetrating fog. Every Federal chose the leader he liked best. Many had no cartridges, and believed the sortie to be a simple demonstration. The Executive Commission had just posted up a despatch from the Place Vendôme, headquarters of the National Guard: ‘Soldiers of the line are all coming to us, and declare that, save the superior officers, no one wants to fight.’

At three o'clock in the morning Bergeret’s column, about 10,000 men strong and with only eight ordnance pieces, arrived at the bridge of Neuilly. It was necessary to give the men, who had taken nothing since the evening before, time to recover themselves. At dawn they moved in the direction of Rued. The battalions marched by sections in line in the middle of the road, without scouts, and cheerfully climbed the Plateau des Bergeres, when suddenly a shell burst into their ranks, followed by a second. Mont-Valérien had opened fire.

A terrible panic broke up the battalions, amidst thousandfold cries of ‘Treason!’ the whole National Guard believing that we occupied Mont-Valérien. Many members of the Commune, of the Central Committee, at the Place Vendôme, knew the contrary, and very foolishly concealed it, living in the hope that the fortress would not fire. It possessed, it is true, only two or three badly appointed guns, the range of which the Guards might have escaped by one quick movement; but, surprised when in a state of blind confidence, they fancied themselves betrayed, and fled on all sides. Bergeret exhausted every means to stay them. A shell cut in two the brother of his chief-of-staff, an officer of the regular army gone over to the Commune. The greater part of the Federals dispersed in the fields and regained Paris. The 91st only and a few others, 1,200 men in all, remained with Bergeret, and, dividing into small groups, reached Rueil. Shortly after, Flourens arrived by the road of Asnières, bringing hardly a thousand men.[112] The rest had lagged behind in Paris or on the way. Flourens, pressing forward all the same, arrived at the Malmaison, put Gallifet’s chasseurs to flight, and the Parisian vanguard pushed on as far as Bougival.

The Versaillese, surprised by this sortie, only drew up very late, towards ten o'clock. Ten thousand men were launched against Bougival, and the batteries placed on the hill of La Jonchere cannonaded Rueil. Two brigades of cavalry on the right and that of Gallifet on the left defended the wings. The Parisian vanguard — a mere handful of men — offered a determined resistance, in order to give Bergeret time to operate his retreat, which commenced towards one o'clock, on Neuilly, where they fortified the bridge-head. Some valiant men, who had obstinately held out in Rueil, with great difficulty gained the bridge of Asnières, whither they were pursued by the cavalry, who took some prisoners.

Flourens was surprised at Rueil, and the house which he occupied with some officers surrounded by gendarmes. As he prepared to defend himself, the officer of the detachment, Captain Desmarets, cleft his head with so furious a blow of the sabre that the brains gushed out. The body was thrown into a dust-cart and taken to Versailles, where the fine ladies gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thus ended the large-hearted man, beloved of the Revolution.

At the extreme left Duval had passed the night with six or seven thousand men on the plateau of Chatillon. Towards seven o'clock he formed a column of picked men, advanced to Petit-Bicetre, dispersed the outpost of General du Barail, and sent an officer to reconnoitre Villecoublay, that commanded the route. The officer announced that the roads were free, and the Federals advanced without fear. When near the hamlet firing commenc d. The m en deployed as skirmishers, and Duval, uncovered in the middle of the road, set them the example. They held out for several hours. A few shells would have sufficed to dislodge the enemy; but Duval had no artillery. Even cartridges were already wanting, and he had to send to Chatillon for more.

The bulk of the Federals who occupied the redoubt, confounded in an inextricable disorder, already believed themselves surrounded on all sides. The messengers of Duval on their arrival begged, menaced, but could not obtain either reinforcements or munitions. An officer even ordered a retreat. The unfortunate Duval , totally abandoned, was assailed by the Derroja brigade and the whole Pellé division, 8,000 men. He retired with his troops to the plateau of Chatillon.

Our efforts in the centre were not more fortunate. Ten thousand men had left the Champ-de-Mars at three o'clock in the morning with Ranvier and Avrial. General Eudes as his whole battle array had ordered the troops to move on. At six o'clock the 61st reached the Moulineaux, defended by gendarmes; these were soon forced to retreat to Meudon, strongly occupied by a Versaillese brigade entrenched in the villas and armed with machine-guns. The Federals had only eight pieces, while Paris possessed hundreds, and each of these had only eight rounds. At six o'clock, weary of shooting at walls, they retreated to Molineaux. Ranvier went in search of cannon, and mounted them in the fort of Issy, thus preventing the Versaillese from taking the offensive.

We were beaten at all points, and the Communalist papers shouted ‘Victory!’ Led astray by staffs which did not even know the names of the generals, the Executive Commission announced the junction of Flourens and Duval at Courbevoie. Félix Pyat, again become bellicose, six times cried in his Vengeur, ‘To Versailles!’ [113] Despite the runaways of the morning, the popular enthusiasm did not flag. A battalion of 300 women marched up the Champs-Elysées, the red flag at their head, demanding to sally forth against the enemy. The evening papers announced the arrival of Flourens at Versailles.

At the ramparts the sad truth was discovered. Long files of guards re-entered by all the gates, and at six o'clock the only army outside Paris was the guards on the Chatillon plateau. A few shells falling in their midst completed the disorder. Some of the men threatened

Duval, who was making desperate efforts to keep them together. He remained, surrounded only by a handful of men, but always equally resolute. The whole night he, usually so taciturn, did not cease repeating, ‘I will not retreat.’

The next day at eight o'clock the plateau and the neighbouring villages were surrounded by the Derroja brigade and Pellé’s division. ‘Surrender and your lives will be spared,’ General Pellé had told them. The Parisians surrendered. The Versaillese at once seized the soldiers fighting in the ranks of the Federals and shot them. The prisoners, between two lines of chasseurs, were sent on to Versailles, while their officers, bare-headed, their braid torn off, were put at the head of the convoy.

At Petit-Bicetre they met the general-in-Chief, Vinoy. He commanded that the officers be shot, but the leader of the escort reminding him of General Pellé’s promise, Vinoy said, ‘Is there a commander?’ ‘Myself,’ said Duval, darting from the ranks. Another advanced: ‘I am the chief of Duval’s staff.’ Then the commander of the volunteers of Montrouge placed himself by their side. ‘You are awful scoundrels,’ said Vinoy; and, turning to his officers, ‘Shoot them.’ Duval and his comrades disdained to reply, cleared a ditch, leant against a wall on which were inscribed the words, ‘Duval, gardener.’ They disrobed, and, crying ‘Vive la Commune!’ died for it. A horseman tore off Duval’s boots and carried them about as a trophy, [114] and an editor of the Figaro took possession of his bloodstained collar.

Thus the army of order inaugurated the civil war by the massacre of the prisoners. It had begun on the 2nd; on the 3rd, at Chatou, General Gallifet had three Federals shot who were surprised in an inn taking their meal, and then he published a ferocious proclamation: ‘War has been declared by the bandits of Paris. They have assassinated my soldiers. It is a merciless war which I declare against these assassins. I had to make an example.’

The general who called the combatants of Paris ‘bandits’ and these assassinations ‘an example’ was a scamp of high life, first ruined, then kept by actresses. Famous for his brigandage in Mexico, he had in a few years obtained a generalship of brigade by the charms of his wife, prominent in the orgies of the Imperial court. Nothing is more edifying in this civil war than the standard-bearers of the ‘honest people.’

Their band in full strength hastened to the Paris Avenue at Versailles to receive the prisoners of Chatillon. The whole Parisian emigration, functionaries, dandies, women of the world and of the streets, all came with the rage of hyenas to strike the Federals with their fists, with canes and parasols, pushing off their képis and cloaks, crying, ‘Down with the assassins! To the guillotine!’ Amongst these ‘assassins’ was the geographer Elisée Reclus, taken with Duval. In order to give them time to glut their fury, the escort made several halts before conducting their prisoners to the barracks of the gendarmes. They were thrown into the docks of Satory, and thence carried to Brest in cattle-trucks.

Picard wanted to associate all the honest people of the provinces in this baiting. ‘Never,’ telegraphed this pimply-looking Falstaff, ‘have baser countenances of a base demagogy met the afflicted gaze of honest men.’

Already, the evening before, after the assassinations of Mont-Valérien and of Chatou, M. Thiers had written to his prefects, ‘The moral effect is excellent.’ Odious repetition of those words, ‘Order reigns in Warsaw,’ and ‘The chassepot has done wonders.’ Ali! it is well known that it was not the French bourgeoisie, but a daughter of the people who spoke those great words, ‘I have never seen French blood shed without my hair standing on end.’