Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XV
The Commune’s first combats

The rout of the 3rd April daunted the timorous but exalted the fervent. Battalions inert until then rose; the armament of the forts no longer lagged. Save Issy and Vanves, rather damaged, the forts were intact. All Paris soon heard these fine cannon of seven, which Trouchu had disdained, [119] firing so lustily and with such correct aim, that on the evening of the 4th the Versaillese were obliged to evacuate the plateau of Chatillon. The trenches that protected the forts were manned. Les Moulineaux, Clamart, Le Val-Fleury resounded with the shooting. To the right we reoccupied Courbevoie, and the bridge of Neuilly was barricaded.

Thence we continued to threaten Versailles. Vinoy received the order to take Neuilly. On the morning of the 6th, Mont-Valérien, recently armed with 24-pounders, opened fire on Courbevoie. After six hours of bombardment the Federals evacuated the cross-roads and took up a position behind the large barricade of the bridge of Neuilly. The Versaillese cannonaded it while it was protected by the Porte-Maillot.

This Porte-Maillot, which has become legendary, had only a few cannon exposed to the fire from above of Mont-Valérien. For fortyeight days the Commune found men to hold this untenable post. Their courage electrified all. The crowd went to the Arc-de-Triomphe to see them, and the boys hardly waited for the explosion to run after the fragments of shells.

The Parisian intrepidity soon reappeared in the first skirmishes. The bourgeois papers themselves regretted that so much ardour should not have been spent on the Prussians. The panic of the 3rd April had witnessed heroic deeds, and the Council, happily inspired, wanted to give the defenders of the Commune a funeral worthy of them. It appealed to the people. On the 6th, at two o'clock, an innumerable multitude hurried up to the Beaujon Hospital, whither the dead had been transported. Many, shot after the combat, bore on their arms the marks left by cords. There were heart-rending scenes. Morthers and wives bending over these bodies uttered cries of fury and vows of vengeance. Three immense catafalques, each containing thirty-five coffins, covered with black crape, adorned with red flags, drawn by eight horses each, slowly rolled towards the great boulevards, preceded by trumpets and the Vengeurs de Paris. Delescluze and five members of the Commune, with their red scarfs on and bare-headed, walked as chief mourners. Behind them followed the relations of the victims, the widows of to-day supported by those of to-morrow. Thousands upon thousands, men, women, and children, immortelles in their button-holes, silent, solemn, marched to the sound of the muffled drums. At intervals subdued strains of music burst forth like the spontaneous mutterings of sorrow too long contained. On the great boulevards we numbered 200,000, and 100,000 pale faces looked down upon us from the windows. The women sobbed, many fainted. This Via Sacra of the Revolution, the scene of so many woes and so many joys, has perhaps never witnessed such a communion of hearts. Delescluze exclaimed in ecstasy, ‘What an admirable people! Will they still say that we are a handful of malcontents?’ At the Pere la Chaise he advanced to the common grave. Wrinkled, stooping, sustained only by his indomitable faith, this dying man saluted the dead. ‘I will make you no long speeches; these have already cost us too dear ... Justice for the families of the victims; justice for the great town which, after five months of siege, betrayed by its Government, still holds in its hands the future of humanity ... Let us not weep for our brothers who have fallen heroically, but let us swear to continue their work, and to save Liberty, the Commune, the Republic!’

The following day the Versaillese shelled the barricade and the Avenue of Neuilly. The inhabitants, whom they had not the humanity to forewarn, were obliged to take refuge in their cellars. Towards half-past four the fire of the Versaillese ceased, and the Federals were snatching a little rest, when the soldiers emerged en masse on the bridge. The Federals, surprised, attempted to arrest their progress, wounding one general and killing two, one of whom, Besson, was responsible for the surprise of Beaumont L'Argonne during the march on Sedan. But the soldiers in overwhelming force succeeded in pushing as far as the old park of Neuilly.

The loss of this outlet was all the more serious that Bergeret, in a letter published in the Officiel, had answered for Neuilly. The Executive Commission replaced him by the Pole Dombrowski, whom Garibaldi had demanded for his general staff during the war in the Vosges. Bergeret’s staff protested, and their bickerings led to the arrest of their chief by the Council, already grown suspicious. The National Guard itself showed some distrust of the new general. The Commission had to present him to Paris, and, misinformed, invented a legend in his favour. Dombrowski was not long in making it good.

The same day the Federals of Neuilly beheld a young man, of small stature, in a modest uniform, slowly inspecting the vanguards in the thick of the fire. It was Dombrowski. Instead of the explosive glowing French bravery, they saw the cool and, as it were, unconscious courage of the Slav. In a few hours the new chief had conquered all his men. The able officer soon revealed himself. On the 9th, during the night, with two battalions from Montmartre, Dombrowski, accompanied by Vermorel, took the Versaillese by surprise at Asnières, drove them off, seized their cannon, and from the ironclad railway carriages cannonaded Courbevoie and the bridge of Neuilly from the flank At the same time his brother stormed the castle of Bécon, that commands the road from Asnières to Courbevoie. Vinoy having tried to retake this post on the night of the 12th-13th, his men were Shamefully repulsed, and fled to Courbevoie as fast as their legs would carry them.

Paris was ignorant of this success, so defective was the service of the general staff. This brilliant attack was the deed of one man, just as the defence of the forts was the spontaneous work of the National Guard. There was as yet no direction. Whoever cared to rush into some venture did so; whoever wanted cannon or reinforcements went to ask for them at the Place Vendôme, at the Central Committee, at the Hôtel-de-Ville, of the generalissimo Cluseret.

The latter had made his debut with a blunder, calling out only the unmarried men from seventeen to thirty-five, thus depriving the Commune of its most energetic defenders, the grey-headed men, the first and last under fire in all our insurrections. Three days after, this ‘,,,decree had to be revoked. On the 5th, in his report to the Council, this ,profound strategist announced that the attack of Versailles masked a movement for occupying the forts of the right bank, at that moment in the hands of the Prussians. Like Trochu, he blamed the cannonades of the last few days, for squandering, as he said, the munitions. And this when Paris abounded in powder and shell; when her young troops should have been amused and sustained by artillery; when the Versaillese of Chatillon, incessantly pursued by our fire, were obliged to remove every night; when an uninterrupted cannonade alone could save Neuilly.

The Council was no wiser in its measures of defence. It decreed compulsory service and the disarmament of the refractory; but the perquisitions, made at random, without the assistance of the police, did not procure a man or a hundred muskets the more. It voted life-pensions to the widows, to the parents of the Federals killed in combat, to their children an annuity till the age of eighteen, and adopted the orphans. Excellent measures these, raising the spirits of the combatants, only they assumed the Commune would be victorious. Was it not better, as in the cases of Duval and Dombrowski, to give at once a few thousand francs to those having a right to them? In fact, these unfortunate pensioners received but fifty francs from the Commune.

These measures, incomplete, ill-managed, implied a want of study and of reflection. The members came to the Council as to a public meeting, without any preparation, there to proceed without any method. The decrees of the day before were forgotten, questions only half solved. The Council created councils of war and court-martials, and allowed the Central Committee to regulate the procedure and the penalties; it organized one-half of the medical service and Cluseret the other; it suppressed the title of general, and the superior officers retained it, the delegate at War conferring it on them. In the middle of a sitting, Félix Pyat bounded from his chair to demand the abolition of the Vendôme column, while Dombrowski was making desperate appeals for reinforcements.

He had hardly 2,500 men to hold Neuilly, Asnières, and the whole peninsula of Gennevilliers, while the Versaillese were accumulating their best troops against him. From the 14th to 17th April they cannonaded the castle of Bécon and on the morning of the 17th attacked it with a brigade. The 250 Federals who occupied it held out for six hours, and the survivors fell back upon Asnières, where panic entered with them. Dombrowski, Okolwitz, and a few sturdy men hastened thither, succeeded in re-establishing a little order and fortified the bridge-head. Dombrowski asking for reinforcements, the War Office sent him only a few companies. The following day our vanguard was surprised by strong detachments, and the cannon of Courbevoie battered Asnières. After a well-contested struggle, towards ten o'clock several battalions, worn out, abandoned the southern part of the village. In the northern part the combat was desperate. Dombrowski, in spite of telegram after telegram, received only 300 men. At five o'clock in the evening the Versaillese made a great effort, and the Federals, exhausted, fearing for their retreat, threw themselves upon the bridge of boats, which they crossed in disorder.

The reactionary journals made much ado about this retreat. Paris was stirred by it. This fierce obstinacy of the combat began to open the eyes of the optimists. Till then many persons believed it all some dreadful misunderstanding and formed groups of conciliation. How many thousands in Paris failed to understand the plan of M. Thiers and the coalition till the day of the final massacre! On the 4th April some manufacturers and tradesmen had created the National Union of the Syndical Chambers, and taken for their programme, maintenance and enfranchisement of the Republic, and acknowledgment of the municipal franchises of Paris. The same day, in the Quartier des Ecoles, professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and students posted up a manifesto demanding a democratic, lay Republic, an autonomous Commune and the federation of the communes. An analogous group posted up a letter to M. Thiers: ‘You believe in a riot, and you find yourself brought face to face with precise and universal convictions. The immense majority of Paris demands the Republic as a right superior to all discussion. Paris has seen in the whole conduct of the Assembly the premeditated design of re-establishing the monarchy.’ Some dignitaries of the Freemason lodges appealed at once to Versailles and to the Council: ‘Stop the effusion of such precious blood.’

Finally, a certain number of those mayors and adjuncts who had not capitulated till the eleventh hour, like Floquet, Corbon, Bonvalet, etc., pompously got up the Republican Union League for the Rights of Paris. Now they asked for the recognition of the Republic, the right of Paris to govern herself, and the custody of the town exclusively confided to the National Guard; all that the Commune had wanted all that they had contended against from the 19th to the 25th of March.

Other groups were forming. All agreed on two points — the consolidation of the Republic and the recognition of the rights of Paris.


Almost all the Communal journals reproduced this programme, and the Republican journals accepted it. The deputies of Paris were the last to speak, and then only to fall foul of Paris. In that lachrymose and jesuitical tone with which he has travestied history, [120] in those longwinded sentimental periods which serve to mask the aridity of his heart and the pettiness of his mind, that king of gnomes Louis Blanc, wrote in the name of his colleagues: ‘Not one member of the majority has as yet questioned the Republican principle ... As to those engaged in the insurrection, we tell them that they ought to have shuddered at the thought of aggravating, of prolonging the scourge of the foreign occupation by adding thereto the scourge of civil discords.’

It is this that M. Thiers repeated word for word to the first conciliators, the delegates of the Union Syndicale, who applied to him on the 8th May: ‘Let the insurrection disarm; the Assembly cannot disarm. But Paris wants the Republic. The Republic exists; by my honour, so long as I am in power, it will not succumb. But Paris wants municipal franchises. The Chamber is preparing a law for all communes; Paris will get neither more nor less.’ The delegates read a project of compromise which spoke of a general amnesty and a suspension of arms. M. Thiers let them read on, did not formally contest a single article, and the delegates returned to Paris convinced that they had discovered the basis of an arrangement.

They had hardly left when M. Thiers rushed off to the Assembly, which had just endowed all communes with the right of electing their mayors. M. Thiers ascended the tribune, demanding that this right should be restricted to towns of less than 20,000 souls. They cried to him, ‘It is already voted.’ He persisted, declaring that ‘in a republic the Government must be all the better armed because order is the more difficult to maintain;’ threatened to hand in his resignation, and forced the Assembly to annul its vote.

On the 10th, the League of the Rights of Paris sounded the trumpet and had a solemn declaration posted up: ‘Let the Government give up assailing the facts accomplished on the 18th March. Let the general re-election of the Commune be proceeded with ... If the Government of Versailles remains deaf to these legitimate demands, let it be well understood that all Paris will rise to defend them.” [121] The next day the delegates of the League went to Versailles, and M. Thiers took up his old refrain, ‘Let Paris disarm’ and would hear neither of an armistice nor of an amnesty. ‘Pardon shall be extended’ said he, ‘To those who will disarm, save to the assassins of Clément-Thomas and Lecomte.’ This was to reserve himself the choice of a few thousands. In short, he wanted to be replaced in his position of the 18th March with victory into the bargain. The same day he said to the delegates of the Masonic lodges, ‘Address yourselves to the Commune; what is wanted is the submission of the insurgents, and not the resignation of legal power.’ To facilitate this submission, the next day the Officiel of Versailles compared Paris to the plain of Marathon infested by a band of ‘brigands and assassins.’ On the 13th, a deputy, Brunet, having asked whether the Government would or would not make peace with Paris, the Assembly adjourned this interpellation for a month.

The League, thus well whipped, went on the 14th to the Hotel-de-Ville. The Council, foreign to all these negotiations, left them entirely free, and had only forbidden a meeting announced at the Bourse by ill-disguised Tirards. It contented itself with opposing to the League its declaration of the 10th: ‘You have said that if Versailles remained deaf all Paris would rise. Versailles has remained deaf. arise.’ And to make Paris the judge, the Council loyally published in its Officiel the report of the conciliators.