Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XVII
Women of the Commune and the opposing armies


The glorious flame of Paris still hid these failings. One must have been enkindled by it to describe it. Beside it the Communard journals, in spite of their romanticism, show pale and dull. It is true the mise en scène was unpretending. In the streets, in the silent boulevards, a battalion of a hundred men setting out for the battle or returning from it; a woman who follows, a passer — by who applauds — that is all. But it is the drama of the Revolution, simple and gigantic as a drama of Aeschylus.

The commander in his vareuse, dusty, his silver lace singed, his men greyheads or youths, the veterans of June 1848 and the pupils of March, the son often marching by the side of the father.[124]

This woman, who salutes or accompanies them, she is the true Parisienne. The unclean androgyne, born in the mire of the Empire, the madonna of the pornographers, the Dumas fils and the Feydeaux, has followed her patrons to Versailles or works the Prussian mine at St. Denis. She, who is now uppermost, is the Parisienne, strong, devoted, tragic, knowing how to die as she loves. A helpmeet in labour, she will also be an associate in the death-struggle. A formidable equality this to oppose to the bourgeoisie. The proletarian is doubly strong — one heart and four hands. On the 24th of March a Federal addressed these noble words to the bourgeois battalions of the first arrondissement, making them drop their arms: ‘Believe me, you cannot hold out; your wives are all in tears, and ours do not weep.’

She does not keep back her husband.[125] On the contrary, she urges him to battle, carries him his linen and his soup, as she had before done to his workshop. Many would not return, but took up arms. At the plateau de Chatillon they were the last to stand the fire. The cantinières, simply dressed as workwomen, not fancy costumes, fell by dozens. On the 3rd April, at Meudon, the Citoyenne Lachaise, cantinere of the 66th battalion, remained the whole day in the field of battle, tending the wounded, alone, without a doctor.

Louise Michel

If they return, it is to call to arms. Having formed a central committee at the mairie of the tenth arrondissement, they issued fiery proclamations: ‘We must conquer or die. You who say, “What matters the triumph of our cause if 1 must lose those I love?” know that the only means of saving those who are dear to you is to throw yourselves into the struggle.’ Their committees multiplied. They offered themselves to the Commune, demanding arms, posts of danger, and complaining of the cowards who swerved from their duty.[126] Madame André Léo, with her eloquent pen, explained the meaning of the Commune, summoned the delegate at the War Office to avail himself of the ‘holy fever that burns in the hearts of the women.’ A young Russian lady, of noble birth, educated, beautiful, rich, called Demitriev, was the Théroigne de Méricourt of this Revolution. The proletarian character of the Commune was embodied in Louise Michel, a teacher in the seventeenth arrondissement. Gentle and patient with the little children, who adored her, in the cause of the people the mother became a lioness. She had organized a corps of ambulance nurses, who tended the wounded even under fire. There they suffered no rivals. They also went to the hospitals to save their beloved comrades from the harsh nuns; and the eyes of the dying brightened at the murmur of those gentle voices that spoke to them of the Republic and of hope.

In this contest of devotion the children fought with men and women. The Versaillese, victorious, took 660 of them, and many perished in the battle of the streets. Thousands served during the siege. They followed the battalions to the trenches, in the forts, especially clinging to the cannon. Some gunners of the Porte-Maillot were boys of from thirteen to fourteen years old. Unsheltered, in the open country, they performed exploits of mad heroism.[127]

This Parisian flame radiated beyond the enceinte. The municipalities of Sceaux and St. Denis united at Vincennes to protest against the bombardment, demand the municipal franchises and the establishment of the Republic. Its heat was even felt in the provinces.

They began to believe Paris was impregnable, and laughed much at the despatches of M. Thiers, saying on the 3rd April, ‘This day is decisive of the fate of the insurrection; on the 4th, ‘The insurgents have to-day suffered a decisive defeat;’ on the 7th, ‘This day is decisive;’ on the 11th, ‘Irresistible means are being prepared at Versailles,’ on the 12th, ‘We expect the decisive moment.’ And despite so many decisive successes and irresistible means, the Versaillese army was all the while baffled at our advanced posts. Its only decisive victories were against the houses of the enceinte and the suburbs.

The neighbourhood of the Porte-Maillot, the Avenue de la Grande Armée and the Ternes were continually lighting up with conflagrations. Asnières and Levallois were filling with ruins, the inhabitants of Neuilly starving in their cellars. The Versaillese threw against these points alone 1,500 shells a day; and yet M. Thiers wrote to his prefects, ‘If a few cannon-shots are heard, it is not the act of the Government, but of a few insurgents trying to make us believe they are fighting. while they hardly dare show themselves.’

The Commune assisted the bombarded people of Paris, but could do nothing for those of Neuilly, caught between two fires. A cry of pity went up from the whole press. All the journals demanded an armistice for the evacuation of Neuilly; the Freemasons and the Ligue des Droits de Paris interposed. With much trouble, for the generals did not want an armistice, the delegates got a suspension of arms for eight hours. The Council appointed five of its members to receive the bombarded people; the municipalities prepared them an asylum, and some of the women’s committees left Paris to assist them.

On the 25th, at nine o'clock in the morning, the cannon from the Porte-Maillot to Asnières were silent. Thousands of Parisians went to visit the ruins of the Avenue and the Porte-Maillot, a mortar of earth, granite, and fragments of shells; stood still, deeply moved, before the artillerists leaning on their famous pieces, and then dispersed all over Neuilly. The little town, once so coquettish, displayed in the bright rays of the sun its shattered houses. At the limits agreed upon were two barriers, one of soldiers of the line, the other of Federals, separated from each other by an interval of about twenty yards. The Versaillese, chosen from amongst their most reliable troops, were watched by officers with hangdog looks. The Parisians, good fellows, approached the soldiers, speaking to them. The officers immediately ran up shouting furiously. When a soldier gave a polite answer to two ladies, an officer threw himself upon him, tore away his musket, and pointing the bayonet at the Parisiennes, cried, ‘This is how one speaks to them.’ Some persons having crossed the boundary marked out were taken prisoners. Still five o'clock struck without any massacre having occurred. The Avenue grew empty. Each Parisian on returning home carried his sack of earth to the fortifications of the Porte-Maillot, which found themselves re-established as if by magic.

In the evening the Versaillese again opened fire. It had not ceased against the forts of the south. That same day the enemy unmasked on this side the batteries he had been constructing for a fortnight — the first part of the plan of General Thiers.

He had on the 6th placed all the troops under the command of that MacMahon, his stains of Sedan still upon him. The army at this time was 46,000 strong, for the most part the residuum of depots, incapable of any serious action. To reinforce it and obtain soldiers, M. Thiers had sent Jules Favre whining to Bismarck. The Prussians had set free 60,000 prisoners on harsher conditions of peace, and authorized their ally Thiers to augment to 130,000 men the number of soldiers round Paris, which, according to the preliminaries of peace, were not to have exceeded 40,000 men. On the 25th April the Versaillese army comprised five corps, two of them, those of Douai and Clinchant, composed of the released prisoners from Germany and a reserve commanded by Vinoy, all in all 110,000 men. It increased to 170,000 receiving rations, of whom 130,000 were combatants. M. Thiers displayed real ability in setting it against Paris. The soldiers were well fed, well dressed, severely overlooked; discipline was reestablished. There occurred mysterious disappearances of officers guilty of having given utterance to their horror at this fratricidal war. Still this was not yet the army for an attack, the men always scampering away before a steady resistance. Despite official brag, the generals only counted upon the artillery, to which they owed the successes of Courbevoie and of Asnières. Paris was only to be overcome by fire.

As during the first siege, Paris was literally hemmed in by bayonets, but this time half-foreign, half-French. The German army, forming a semicircle from the Marne to St. Denis, occupying the forts of the east and of the north; the Versaillese army, closing the circle from St. Denis to Villeneuve St. Georges, mistress only of Mont-Valérien. The latter could then only attack the Commune by the west and south. The Federals had then the five forts of Ivry, Bicetre, Montrouge, Vanves, and Issy to defend themselves, with the trenches and the advanced posts that united them to each other, and the principal villages, Neuilly, Asnières, and St. Ouen.

The vulnerable point of the enceinte facing the Versaillese was on the south-west, the salient of the Point du Jour, defended by the fort of Issy. Sufficiently covered on the right by the park, the castle of Issy and a trench uniting it to the Seine, commanded by our gunboats, this fort was overtopped in front and on the left by the heights of Bellevue, Meudon, and Chatillon. M. Thiers armed them with siege pieces which he had sent from Toulon, Cherbourg, Douai, Lyons, and Besancon — 293 ordnance pieces — and their effect was such that from the first days the fort of Issy was shaken. General Cissey, charged with the command of these operations, immediately commenced manoeuvring.

To crush the fort of Issy and that of Vanves, which supported it, then to force the Point du Jour, whence the troops could deploy into Paris, such was M. Thiers’ plan. The only object of the operations from St. Ouen to Neuilly was to prevent our attack by Courbevoie.

What forces and what plan did the Commune oppose?

The returns stated about 96,000 men and 4,000 officers for the active National Guard; for the reserve, 100,000 men and 3,500 officers. [128] Thirty-six free corps claimed to number 3,450 men. All deductions made, 60,000 combatants might have been obtained had they known how to set about it. But the weakness of the Council, the difficulty of supervision and repression, allowed the less brave and those who did not stand in need of pay, to shirk all control. Many contrived to limit their services to the interior of Paris. Thus for want of order the effective forces remained very weak, and the line from St. Ouen to Ivry was never held by more than 15,000 or 16,000 Federals.

The cavalry existed only on paper. There were only 500 horses to drag the guns or the wagons and to mount the officers and despatch-riders. The engineer department remained in a rudimentary state, the finest decrees notwithstanding. Of the 1,200 cannon possessed by Paris, only 200 were utilized. There were never more than 500 artillerymen, while the returns stated 2,500.


Dombrowski occupied the bridge of Asnières, Levallois, and Neuilly with 4,000 or 5,000 men at the utmost.[129] To protect his positions he had at Clichy and Asnières about thirty ordnance pieces and two ironclad railway carriages, which from the 15th April to the 22nd May, even after the entry of the Versaillese, did not cease running along the lines; at Levallois, a dozen pieces. The ramparts of the north assisted him, and the valiant Porte-Maillot covered him at Neuilly.

On the left bank, from Issy to Ivry, in the forts, the villages, and the trenches, there were 10,000 to 11,000 Federals. The fort of Issy contained on an average 600 men and 50 pieces of 7 and 12 centimetres, of which two-thirds were inactive. The bastions 72 and 73 relieved him a little, aided by four ironclad locomotives established on the viaduct of the Point du Jour. Underneath, the gunboats, rearmed, fired on Breteuil, Sevres, Brimborion, even daring to push as far as Chatillon, and, unsheltered, cannonaded Meudon. A few hundred riflemen occupied the park and the castle of Issy, the Moulineaux, Le Val, and the trenches which united the fort of Issy to that of Vanves. This latter, exposed like Issy, valiantly supported its efforts with a garrison of 500 men and about 20 cannon. The bastions of the enceinte supported it very little.

The fort of Montrouge, with 350 men and 10 to 15 ordnance pieces, had only to support the fort of Vanves. That of Bicetre, provided with 500 men and 20 pieces, had to fire at objects hidden from its view. Three considerable redoubts protected it — the Hautes Bruyeres, with 500 men and 20 pieces; the Moulin Saquet, with 700 men and about 14 pieces; and Villejuif, with 300 men and a few howitzers. At the extreme left, the fort of Ivry and its dependencies had 500 men and about 40 pieces. The intermediate villages, Gentilly, Cachan, and Arcueil, were occupied by 2,000 to 2,500 Federals.

The nominal command of the forts of the south, first confided to Eudes, assisted by an ex-officer of Garibaldi, La Cecilia, on the 20th passed into the hands of the Alsatian Wetzel, an officer of the army of the Loire. From his headquarters of Issy he was to superintend the trenches of Issy and of Vanves and the defence of the forts. In reality, their commanders, who often changed, did just as they pleased.

The command, from Issy to Arcueil was, towards the middle of April, entrusted to General Wroblewski, one of the best officers of the Polish insurrection, young, an adept in military science, brave, methodical, and shrewd, turning everybody and everything to account; an excellent chief for young troops.[130]

All these general officers never received but one order: ‘Defend yourselves.’ As to a general plan, there never was one. Neither Cluseret nor Rossel held councils of war.

The men were also abandoned to themselves, being neither cared for nor controlled. Scarcely any, if any, relieving of the troops under fire ever took place. The whole strain fell upon the same men. Certain battalions remained twenty, thirty days in the trenches, while others were continually kept in reserve. If some men grew so inured to fire that they refused to return home, others were discouraged, came to show their clothes covered with vermin and asked for rest. The generals were obliged to retain them, having no one to put in their places.

This carelessness soon destroyed all discipline. The brave wanted to rely only upon themselves, and the others slunk from the service. The officers did the same, some leaving their posts to assist the fight at a contiguous place, others returning to the town. The court-martial sentenced a few of them very severely. The Council quashed the sentences, and commuted one condemnation to death to three years’ imprisonment.

As they recoiled from rigour, from regular war discipline, they ought to have changed their method and their tactics. But the Council was now even less capable of showing will of its own than on the first day. It always lamented that things were at a stand-still, but did not know how to set them going. On the 26th, the military commission, declaring that decrees and orders remained a dead letter, charged the municipalities, the Central Committee, and the chefs-de-légions with the reorganization of the National Guard. Not one of these mechanisms functioned methodically; the Council had not even thought of organizing Paris by sections; the Central Committee intrigued; the chefs-de-légions were agitated; certain members of the Council and generals dreamt of a military dictatorship. In the midst of this fatal wrestling, the Council discussed during several sittings whether the pawn tickets to be given back gratuitously to their owners should amount to twenty or thirty francs, and whether the Officiel should be sold for five centimes.

Towards the end of April, no observer of any perspicacity could fail to see that the defence had become hopeless. In Paris, active and devoted men exhausted their strength in enervating struggles with the bureaux, the committees, the sub-committees, and the thousand pretentious rival administrations, often losing a whole day in order to obtain possession of a single cannon. At the ramparts, some artillerymen riddled the line of Versailles, and, asking for nothing but bread and iron, stood to their pieces until torn away by shells. The forts, their casemates staved in, their embrasures destroyed, lustily answered the fire from the heights. Brave skirmishers, unprotected, surprised the line-soldiers in their lurking-places. All this devotion and dazzling heroism were spent in vain, like the steam of an engine escaping through hundreds of outlets.