Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XIII
The commune is defeated at Marseilles and Narbonne

The same sun that saw the scale turn against Paris looked also on the defeat of the people of Marseilles.


The paralytic Commission still continued to doze, when, on the 26th, Espivent beat the réveille, placed the department in a state of siege, and issued a proclamation à la Thiers. The municipal council began to tremble, and on the 27th withdrew their delegates from the prefecture. Gaston Crémieux and Bouchet were at once sent to the mairie to announce that the Commission was ready to withdraw before the council. The council asked for time to consider.

The evening was passing away, and the Commission searching for a loophole by which to escape from a position become untenable, when Bouchet proposed to telegraph to Versailles that they would resign their powers into the hands of a Republican prefect. Poor issue of a great movement! They knew what the Republican prefects of M. Thiers were. The Commission, jaded, discouraged, let Bouchet draw up the telegram, when Landeck, Amouroux, and May arrived, sent, they said, by Paris. They spoke in the name of the great town. Bouchet wanted to verify their powers and contested their validity, which were indeed more than contestable, whereat the members of the Commission grew indignant. The magic name of victorious Paris resuscitated the enthusiasm of the first hours, and Bouchet left the place. At midnight the municipal council decided to maintain its resolution, and communicated this to the club of the National Guard, who immediately followed their example. At half-past one in the morning the delegates of the club informed the Commission that their powers were at an end. The Liberal bourgeoisie, coward-like, stole away, the Radicals backed out, and the people remained alone to face the reaction.

This was the second phase of the movement. The most exalted of the three delegates, Landeck, became an authority paramount to the Commission. The cold-blooded Republicans who heard him and knew of his past dealings with the Imperialist police, suspected a Bonapartist under the grossly ignorant bully. He was indeed but a juggler, meant for the itinerant stage, of grotesque vanity, and shrinking from nothing, because ignorant of everything. The situation waxed tragic with this mountebank for a leader. Crémieux, unable to find another issue, was still for the solution of the evening before. On the 28th he wrote to the municipal council that the Commission was ready to retire, leaving them the responsibility of events, and urged his colleagues to release the hostages; this only rendered him the more suspect of moderatism. Closely watched, threatened, he lost heart at these disputes, and that same evening left the prefecture. His secession divested the Commission of all authority. It succeeded in discovering his retreat, made an appeal to his devotion to the cause, and led him back to the prefecture, there to resume his strange part of a chief at once captive and responsible.

The municipal council did not answer Crémieux’s letter and on the 29th the Commission renewed its proposal. The council still remained silent. In the evening 400 delegates of the National Guard met at the museum, decided to federate the battalions, and appointed a commission charged to negotiate between the Hôtel-de-Ville and the prefecture. But these delegates represented only the revolutionary element of the battalions, and the Hôtel-de-Ville plunged more and more into a slough of despond.

A war of proclamations now ensued between the two powers. On the 30th the council answered the deliberations of the museum meeting with a proclamation from the leaders of the reactionary battalions. The Commission launched a manifesto demanding the autonomy of the Commune and the abolition of prefectures; immediately after, the council declared the general secretary of the prefect the legal representative of the Government, and invited him to retake his post. The secretary turned a deaf ear and took refuge aboard La Couronne, many councillors also betaking themselves to the frigate — gratuitous cowardice, since the most notorious reactionaries went to and fro without being in the least interfered with. The energy of the Commission was mere show; it arrested only two or three functionaries, the procureur Guibert, the deputy, and for a short time the director of the customhouse, and the son of the mayor. General Ollivier was set free as soon as it became known that he had refused to form part of the Mixed Commissions of 1851. They were even so loose as to leave a post close to the prefecture in the hands of chasseurs forgotten by Espivent. The flight of the council, therefore, appeared only the more shameful. The town continued to be calm, gay, facetious. One day the patrol boat Le Renard coming to show its cannon at the Canebière, the crowd thronging on the quay hooted so much that it was obliged to slip its cable and rejoin the frigate in the new harbour.

The Commission inferred that no one would dare to attack them, and thus took no measures of defence. They might easily have armed the heights of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, which commanded the town, and enlisted a great number of Garibaldians, some officers of the last campaign having offered to organize everything. The Commission thanked them, said that the troops would not come, and that even if they did, they would fraternize with the people. They contented themselves with hoisting the black flag, addressing a proclamation to the soldiers, and accumulating at the prefecture arms and cannon without projectiles of corresponding calibre. Landeck, for his part, wanting to distinguish himself, declared Espivent’s grade forfeited, and in his place nominated a former cavalry sergeant named Pelissier. ‘Until the assumption of his functions,’ said the decree, ‘the troops will remain under the orders of General Espivent.’ This gross farce dated from the 1st April. Before the court-martial which tried him, Pelissier hit the mark . When asked, ‘Of what armies were you general?’ ‘I was general of the situation,’ was his reply; and indeed he never did lead any troops. On the morning of the 24th the workmen had returned to their work, for the National Guards, save the guardians of the prefecture, were not paid. Men to garrison the posts were found with difficulty, and at midnight the prefecture had but a hundred defenders.

A coup-de-main would have been easy, and some rich bourgeois wanted to try it. The men were there and the manoeuvres agreed upon. At midnight the Commission was to be carried off and the prefecture taken possession of, while Espivent was to march on the town so as to get there by daybreak. An officer was despatched to Aubagne. The general refused under the pretext of prudence, but his retinue revealed the true motive of the refusal. ‘We have stolen away from Marseilles like thieves,’ they told the messenger; ‘we want to re-enter it as conquerors.’

Such a performance seemed rather difficult with the army of Aubagne, 600 or 700 men, without cadres and without discipline. One single regiment, the 6th Chasseurs, showed a more martial carriage. But Espivent relied upon the sailors of La Couronne, the National Guards of order, in continual relations with him, and above all, on the well-known supineness of the Commission.

The latter tried to strengthen itself by the adjunction of delegates from the National Guard. They voted the dissolution of the municipal council, and the Commission convoked the electors for the 3rd April. This measure, if taken on the 24th March, might perhaps have settled everything, but on the 2nd April it was only a stroke in the air.

On the 3rd, at the news from Versailles, Espivent sent an order to the leaders of the reactionary battalions to hold themselves in readiness. In the evening, at eleven o'clock, Garibaldian officers came to inform the prefecture that the troops at Aubagne were moving. The Commission recommenced its old refrain: ‘Let them come; we are ready to receive them.’ At half-past one they decided to beat the retreat, and towards four o'clock some men mustered at the prefecture. About a hundred franc-tireurs established themselves at the station, where the Commission had not even thought of placing a battery.

At five o'clock Marseilles was on the alert. Some reactionary companies appeared at the Place du Palais de justice and in the Cours Bonaparte; the sailors of La Couronne were drawn up before the Bourse; the first shots were fired at the station.

Espivent’s troops presented themselves at three points — the station, the Place Castellane, and La Plaine. The franc-tireurs, notwithstanding a fine defence, were soon surrounded and obliged to retreat. The Versaillese shot the Federalist stationmaster under the eyes of his son, a child of sixteen, who threw himself at the feet of the officer, offering his life for his father’s. The second stationmaster, Funel, was able to escape with only a broken arm. The columns of La Plaine and L'Esplanade pushed their advanced posts as far as 300 yards from the prefecture.

The Commission, still in the clouds, sent an embassy to Espivent. Crémieux and Pélissier set out, followed by an immense mass of men and children, crying ‘Vive Paris!’ At the outposts of the Place Castellane, the seat of the staff, the commander of the 6th Chasseurs, Villeneuve, came forward towards the delegates. ‘What are your intentions?’ asked Crémieux. ‘We want to re-establish order. “What! you would dare fire on the people?’ cried Crémieux, and commenced haranguing, when the Versaillese threatened to order their infantry to march on. The delegates then had themselves conducted to Espivent. He first spoke of putting them under arrest, but then would allow them five minutes for the evacuation of the prefecture. Crémieux on his return found the infantry men struggling with the crowd, who sought to disarm them. A new current of people, preceded by a black flag, arrived, making a vigorous push against the soldiers. A German officer of Espivent’s staff arrested Pelissier, but the Versaillese leaders, seeing their men waver, ordered a retreat.

The mass applauded, believing they would disband. Two infantry corps had already refused to march, and the Place de la Prefecture was filled with groups certain of success. Suddenly, towards ten o'clock, the infantry men emerged from the Rues de Rome and De l'Armény. The people shouted and surrounded them, when many raised the butt-end of their muskets. One officer who, urging on his company, made them cross bayonets, fell, his head pierced by a bullet. His men charged the Federals, who took refuge and were taken prisoners in the prefecture, whither the infantry men followed. The volleys of the National Guards of order and the infantry men from the Cours Bonaparte and from the house of the Freres Ignorantins, keeping up a running fire were replied to by the Federals from the windows of the prefecture.

The shooting had lasted two hours, and no reinforcement arrived in support of the Federals. Untouchable in the prefecture, a solid square building, they were none the less vanquished, having neither provisions nor sufficient ammunation, and it would have sufficed to wait with arms shouldered till they had exhausted their cartridges. But the general of the Sacré Coeur would not put up with such a half-triumph. This was his first campaign; he wanted blood, and, above all, noise. Since eleven o'clock he had had the prefecture bombarded from the top of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, a distance of about 500 yards. The Fort St. Nicolas also opened its fire, but its shells, less far-seeing than those of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, dashed down upon the aristocratic houses of the Cours Bonaparte, killing one of those heroic guards of order who fired from behind the soldiers. At three o'clock the prefecture hoisted a flag of truce. Espivent continued to fire. An envoy was sent to him, but he insisted upon their unconditional surrender. At five o'clock more than 300 shells had traversed the edifice, wounding many Federals. Little by little, the defenders, seeing that they were not supported, left the place. The prefecture had long ceased firing when Espivent was still bombarding it. The fright of this brute was so great that he continued firing shells till night-fall. At half past seven the sailors of La Couronne and Le Magnanime courageously stormed the prefecture, void of all its defenders.

They found the hostages safe and sound, as were the chasseurs taken prisoner in the morning. Yet the Jesuitic repression was atrocious. The men of order arrested at random, and dragged their victims into the lamp-stores of the station. There an officer scrutinized the prisoners, made a sign to one or the other of them to step out, and blew out his brains. The following days there were rumours of summary executions in the barracks, the forts and the prisons. The number of dead the people lost is unknown, but it exceeded 150, besides many wounded who concealed themselves. The Versaillese had thirty killed and fifty wounded. More than 900 persons were thrown into the casemates of the Château d'If and of the Fort St. Nicolas. Crémieux was arrested at the porter’s of the Israelite Cemetery. He voluntarily gave himself up to those who sought him, strong in his good faith, and still believing in the judges. The brave Etienne was also taken. Landeck, of course, had made his exit in good time.

On the 5th Espivent entered triumphantly, acclaimed with savage frenzy by the reactionaries. But from the further ranks of the crowd cries and hisses rose against the murderers. At the Place St. Ferréol a captain was fired at, and the people stoned the windows of a house from which the sailors had been cheered.

Two days after the struggle, on its return from La Couronne, the municipal council recovered its voice to strike the vanquished.

The National Guard was disarmed, a fierce reaction raged, the Jesuits again lorded it, and Espivent paraded about, receiving ovations to the cries of ‘Vive Jésus! Vive le Sacré Coeur!’ The club of the National Guard was closed, Bouchet arrested, and the Radicals, insulted, persecuted, once more saw what it costs to desert the people.

Narbonne, too, was subdued. On the 30th March the prefect and the procureur-general issued a proclamation in which they spoke of ‘the handful of factious men’, presented themselves as upholders of the true Republic, and telegraphed everywhere the failure of the provincial movements. ‘Is this a reason,’ Digeon answered in a poster, ‘to lower before force this red flag dyed in the blood of our martyrs?

Let others consent to live eternally oppressed.’ Whereupon he prepared for battle, and barricaded the streets leading to the Hotel-de-Ville. The women, always to the fore, pulled up pavements and piled up furniture. The authorities, afraid of serious resistance, sent M. Marcou to his friend Digeon. The Brutus of Carcassonne strode through the Hôtel-de-Ville, accompanied by two Republicans of Limoux, to offer in the name of the procureur-general a full and complete amnesty to those who would evacuate the edifice. They offered Digeon twenty-four hours to gain the frontier. Digeon assembled his council, and all refused to fly. M. Marcou hastened to inform the military authorities that they might now act.[115] General Zentz was at once sent to Narbonne.

At three o'clock in the morning a detachment of Turcos reconnoitred the barricades of the Rue du Pont. The Federals, anxious to fraternize, cleared it, and were received with a volley, killing two men and wounding three. On the 31st, at seven o'clock, Zentz in a proclamation announced that the bombardment was about to recommence. Digeon at once wrote to him, ‘I have the right to reply to such a savage menace in the same style. I warn you that if you bombard the town, 1 shall have the three prisoners who are in my power shot.’ Zentz answered by arresting the envoy, and had brandy distributed to the Turcos, the only troops who would march. These brutes arrived at Narbonne eager to loot, and had already pillaged three cafés. The fight was about to begin, when the procureur-general again sent two envoys, offering amnesty to all those who would evacuate the Hotel-de-Ville before the opening of the fire, but the execution of the hostages would be punished by the massacre of all its occupants. Digeon wrote out these conditions under the dictation of one of the envoys, read them to the Federals, and left every one free to withdraw. At this moment the procureur-general presented himself with the Turcos before the terrace of the garden. Digeon rushed thither. The procureur harangued the multitude, and as he spoke of indulgence, Digeon protested that amnesty had just been promised. The procureur drowned the discussion in a roll of drums, read the legal sommation in front of the Hôtel-de-Ville, and asked for the hostages, whom the soldiers who had deserted delivered over to him.

All these parleys had profoundly enervated the defence. Besides, the Hôtel-de-Ville could do nothing against a bombardment that would have battered the town. Digeon had the edifice evacuated, and shut himself up alone in the cabinet of the mayor, resolved to sell his life dearly; but the people, in spite of his resistance, carried him off. The Hôtel-de-Ville was empty when the Turcos arrived. They plundered in all its corners, and officers were seen to deck themselves with stolen valuables.


Notwithstanding the formal promises of amnesty, numerous warrants of arrest were issued. Digeon refused to fly, and wrote to the procureur-general that he might arrest him. Such a man at Toulouse would have saved the movement and raised the whole South.

Limoges had one glimpse of hope on the fatal day of the 4th April. That revolutionary capital of the Centre could not look on the efforts of Paris unmoved. On the 23rd March the Société Populaire centralized all the democratic forces and passed a vote of thanks to the army of Paris for its conduct on the 18th. When Versailles called for volunteers, the Society enjoined the municipal council to prevent such an incitement to civil war. The working men’s societies despatched a delegate to Paris soon after the proclamation of the Commune, there to inquire into its principles, and to request the sending of a commissar to Limoges. The members of the Commune replied that this was impossible for the present, that they would consider it by and by; and never sent anybody. The Société Populaire was thus obliged to act alone. It urged the municipal council to hold a review of the National Guards , certain that it would result in a demonstration against Versailles. The council, composed, with few exceptions, of timid men, tried to gain time, when the news of the 3rd April became known. On the morning of the 4th, on reading on the walls the triumphant telegram from Versailles, the workmen revolted. A detachment of five hundred soldiers was about to leave for Versailles; the crowd followed them to the station, and the workmen urged them to join the people. The soldiers, surrounded, much excited, fraternized and surrendered their arms, many of which were taken to the Société Populaire, and hidden there.

The call-up was at once beaten. The colonel of cuirassiers, Billet, who, accompanied by orderlies, rode. through the town, was hemmed in by the people, and constrained to cry, ‘Vive la République!’ At five o'clock the whole National Guard was in arms on the Place de la Mairie. The officers met in the Hôtel-de-Ville, where a councillor proposed to proclaim the Commune. The mayor objected, but the cry resounded on all sides. Captain Coissac took upon himself to go to the station in order to stop the train ready for the departure of the troops. The other officers consulted their companies, which answered with one unanimous cry, ‘Vive Paris! À bas Versailles!’ Soon after, the battalions, filing off before the Hôtel-de-Ville, preceded by two municipal councillors in their official costume, went to ask the general for the release of the soldiers arrested during the course of the day. The general gave the order to set them free, and at the same time sent word to Colonel Billet to prepare against the insurrection. From the Place Tourny the Federals repaired to the prefecture, occupying it in spite of the resistance of the Conservative National Guards, and commenced throwing up some barricades. A few soldiers arrived from the Rue des Prisons, and several citizens urged the officers not to commence a civil war. These hesitated, retired, when Colonel Billet, at the head of about fifty cuirassiers, came out on to the Place de l'Eglise St. Michel, and ordered his men to advance and draw swords. They fired their pistols, the Federals answered, and the colonel was mortally wounded. His horse turning about, carried its rider as far as the Place St. Pierre, the other horses following, the Federals thus remained masters of the field. But lacking organization, they disbanded in the night and left the prefecture. The next day the company that occupied the station seeing themselves abandoned withdrew. The arrests began, and many were obliged to hide.

Thus the revolts of the great towns died out one by one like the lateral craters of an exhausted volcano. The revolutionaries of the provinces showed themselves everywhere completely disorganized, without any faculty to wield power. Everywhere victorious at the outset, the workmen had only known how to pronounce for Paris. But at least they showed some vitality, generosity, and pride. Eighty years of bourgeois domination had not been able to transform them into a nation of mercenaries; while the Radicals, who either combated or held aloof from them, once more attested the decrepitude, the egotism of the middle-class , always ready to betray the working men to the ‘upper’ classes.