Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XX
Rossel replaces Cluseret


The last act of the second Executive Commission was to name Rossel delegate at War. On the same evening (the 30th April) it sent for him. He came at once, recited the history of famous sieges, and promised to make Paris impregnable. No one asked him for a written plan, and there and then, as on the stage, his nomination was signed. He forthwith wrote to the Council, ‘I accept these difficult functions, but I want your entire support in order not to succumb under the weight of these circumstances.’

Rossel knew these circumstances through and through. For twenty-five days chief of the general staff, he was the best-informed man in Paris as to all her military resources. He was familiar with the members of the Council, of the Central Committee, the officers, the effective forces, the character of the troops he undertook to lead.

At the outset he struck a wrong chord in his answer to the Versaillese officer who had summoned the fort of Issy to surrender. ‘My dear comrade, the first time you permit yourself to send us such an insolent summons, I shall have your flag of truce shot. Your devoted comrade. ‘The cynical levity smacked of the condottiere. Certainly he who threatened to shoot an innocent soldier, and bestowed his dear, his devoted comrade upon a collaborator of Galiffet, was foreign to the great heart of Paris and her civil war.

No man understood Paris, the National Guard, less than Rossel. He imagined that the Père Duchesne was the real mouthpiece of the workmen. Hardly raised to the Ministry, he spoke of putting the National Guard into barracks, of cannonading the runaways; he wanted to dismember the legions and form them into regiments, with colonels named by himself. The Central Committee, to which the chefs-de-légion belonged, protested, and the battalions complained to the Council, which sent for Rossel. He set forth his project in a professional way in sober, precise words, so different from the Pyatical declamations, that the Council believed it beheld a man and was charmed. Still his project was the breaking-up of the National Guard, and the Council no more than the Executive Commission got a general plan of defence from him. He certainly demanded that the municipalities should be charged with concentration of arms, the horses, and prosecution of the refractory, but he made no condition sine qua non.

He sent in no report on the military situation. He gave orders for the construction of a second enceinte of barricades, and of three citadels at Montmartre, the Trocadero, and the Panthéon, but never personally concerned himself about their execution. He extended the command of General Wroblewski over all troops and forts on the left bank, but three days after restricted it again to bestow it upon La Cécilia, who had none of the qualities necessary in a superior commander. He never gave the generals any instructions for attack or defence. Despite certain fits and starts, he had in reality so little energy that he named Eudes commander of the second active reserve at the very moment when, against formal orders, this latter left the fort of Issy, which he had commanded since the reoccupation.

The Versaillese had recommenced firing with perfect fury. The shells, the bombs, battered the casemates, the grapeshot paved the trenches with iron. In the night of the lst-2nd, the Versaillese, always proceeding by nocturnal surprises, attacked the station of Clamart, which was taken almost without a struggle, and the castle of Issy, which they had to conquer foot by foot. On the morning of the 2nd the fort again found itself in the same situation as three days before. A part of the village of Issy was even in the hands of the soldiers. During the day the francs-tireurs of Paris dislodged them at the point of the bayonet. Eudes, who in vain demanded reinforcements, went to the War Office to declare that he would not remain if Wetzel were not discharged. Wetzel was replaced by La Cécilia, but Eudes did not return to the fort, and left the command to the chief of his staff.

Thus since the 3rd it was evident that everything would go on as under Cluseret, and the Central Committee grew bolder. It had been thrown more and more into the shade, for the Commission of War kept it at a distance. Its sittings, more and more confused and void, were little attended-by about ten members, sometimes even by less.

The enterprise of Rossel against the legions gave it back a little authority and daring. On the 3rd, in accord with the chefs-de-légion, they resolved to ask the Council for the direction and administration of the War Office: Rossel got wind of the affair, and had one of its members arrested; the others in great numbers, the chefs-de-légion with their sabres at their sides, went up to the Hôtel-de-Ville, where they were received by Félix Pyat, deeply moved by the odd conceit that they came to lay hands on him. ‘Nothing is getting along at the War Office,’ said they. ‘All the services are in disorder. The Central Committee offers itself to direct them. The delegate will conduct the operations, the Committee will see to the administration.’ Félix Pyat approved of the idea and submitted it to the Council. The minority took umbrage at the pretensions of the Committee, and even spoke of having them arrested. The majority left the matter to the Committee of Public Safety, which issued a decree admitting the co-operation of the Central Committee. Rossel accepted the situation and announced it to the chiefs of corps. The Commission of War continued, in spite of all this, to squabble with the Committee.

Our men paid dearly for these small office revolutions. Tired out, badly commanded, they were negligent of their watches, and thus exposed to every surprise. The most terrible one took place in the night of the 3rd-4th May at the redoubt of the Moulin Saquet, held by 500 men at that moment. They were sleeping in their tents, when the Versaillese, having seized the sentinels, entered the redoubt and butchered about fifty Federals. The soldiers pierced the tents with their bayonets, slashing the corpses, and then made off with five pieces and 200 prisoners. The captain of the 55th was accused of having betrayed the pass word. The truth is not known, as incredible fact! — the Council never inquired into the affair.

M. Thiers announced this ‘elegant coup-de-main[147] in a bantering despatch to the effect that they had killed two hundred men; that ‘such was the victory the Commune might announce in its bulletins.’ The prisoners, taken to Versailles, were received by the elegant rabble who killed time in the cafés of St. Germain, now become the headquarters of high-life prostitution, or who went to the heights to see the shells battering the walls and the Parisians. But what were these insipid amusements by the side of a convoy of prisoners, whom they could beat, spit upon, and revile, a thousand times renewing the agonies of Mathô?

The simply bestial ferocity of the soldiers was much less horrible.

These poor wretches firmly believed that the Federals were thieves or Prussians, and that they tortured their prisoners. There were some who, taken to Paris, for a long time refused all nourishment in dread of poison. The officers propagated these horrible stories; some even believed them. [148] The greater part, arriving from Germany in a state of extreme irritation against Paris, [149] said publicly, ‘We shall give these scoundrels no quarter,’ and they set the example of summary executions. On the 25th April, at the Belle-Epine, near Ville-Juif, four National Guards, surprised by mounted chasseurs, called upon to surrender, laid down their arms. The soldiers were leading them when an officer appeared, and, without further ado, discharged his revolver at them. Two were killed; the two others, left for dead, were able to drag themselves as far as the neighbouring trenches, where one of them expired.[150] The fourth was transported to the ambulance. Paris, erstwhile besieged by the Prussians, was now tracked by tigers.

These sinister forebodings of the lot reserved to the vanquished made the Council indignant, but did not enlighten it. The disorder grew greater with the danger. Rossel set nothing going. Pyat, whom he had often silenced with a word, abhorred him, and never ceased undermining his authority. ‘You see this man,’ said he to the Romanticists, ‘well, he is a traitor — a Caesarian! After the Trochu plan, the Rossel plan.’ On the 8th May he had the direction of the military operations transferred to Dombrowski, leaving only nominal functions to Rossel, who, apprised of this that same evening, hurried to the Committee of Public Safety and forced it to revoke the decree.[151] On the 4th Félix Pyat sent orders to General Wroblewski without informing Rossel. The next day Rossel complained to the Council of the Committee of Public Safety of this mischievous interference, which embroiled everything. ‘Under these circumstances I cannot be responsible,’ said he, and demanded the publicity of the sittings, as he had always been received in private audience. Instead of forcing him to communicate his plan, they amused themselves with making him pass a sort of Freemason examination. The antediluvian Miot asked him what were his democratic antecedents. Rossel extricated himself very cleverly. ‘I will not tell you that I have studied the question of social reforms profoundly, but I abominate this society which has just betrayed France in so dastardly a way. I do not know what will be the new order of Socialism. I like it on trust, and it will anyhow be better than the old one.’ Everybody put him the questions he chose personally, and not through the medium of the president. He answered them all with sangfroid and precision, disarming all their scruples, and carried away cheers, but nothing more.

Had he possessed the strong head he was credited with, he would long since have fathomed the situation, understood that for this struggle without precedent new tactics were wanted, found a field of battle for these improvised soldiers, organized the internal defence and awaited Versailles from the heights of Montmartre, the Trocadero, and Mont-Valérien. But he dreamt of battles, was at bottom but a bookish soldier, original only in speech and style. While always complaining of want of discipline and of men, he allowed the best blood of Paris to be shed in the sterile struggles without the town, in heroic challenges at Neuilly, Vanves, and Issy.

At Issy above all. It was no longer a fort, hardly a strong position, but a medley of earth and rubble-work battered by shells. The staved-in casemates opened a view upon the country, the powder magazines were laid bare half of Bastion 3 was in the moat, and one could drive up to the breach in a carriage. Ten pieces at most answered the fire of sixty Versaillese ordnance pieces, while the fusillade of the trenches aimed at the embrasures killed almost all our artillerymen. On the 3rd the Versaillese renewed their summons to surrender, they were answered with the word of Cambronne. The chief of the general staff left by Eudes had also made off, but happily the fort remained in the valiant hands of the engineer Rist and of Julien, commander of the 14th battalion of the eleventh arrondissement. It is to them and to the Federals who stood by them that the honour of this prodigious defence belongs. Here are a few notes from their military journal.

4th May. — We are receiving explosive balls that burst with the noise of percussion-caps. The wagons do not come; food is scanty and the shells of seven centimetres, our best pieces, will soon fail us. The reinforcements promised every day do not appear. Two chiefs of battalions have been to Rossel. He received them very badly, and said that he had the right to shoot them for having abandoned their post. They explained our situation. Rossel answered that a fort defends itself with the bayonet and quoted the work of Carnot. Still he has promised ‘reinforcements. The Freemasons have planted their banner on our ramparts. The Versaillese knocked it down in an instant. Our ambulances are full; the prison and corridor that lead to it are crammed with corpses. An ambulance omnibus arrives in the evening. We put in as many of our wounded as possible. During its passage from the fort to Issy the Versaillese pepper it with balls.

5th. — The fire of the enemy does not cease for a moment. Our embrasures no longer exist; the pieces of the front still answer. At two o'clock we receive ten wagons of seven centimetre shells. Rossel has come. He looked at the works of the Versaillese for a long time. The enfants-perdus who serve the pieces of Bastion 5 are losing many men; they remain steadfast. There are now in the dungeons corpses two yards deep. All our trenches, riddled by artillery, have been evacuated. The trench of the Versaillese is sixty yards from the counterscarp. They push on more and more. The necessary precautions are taken in case of an attack to-night. All the flank pieces are loaded with grapeshot, We have two machine-guns above the platform to sweep at once the moat and the glacis.

6th. — The battery of Fleury regularly discharges its six rounds on us every five minutes. A cantinière has just been brought to the ambulance, wounded in the left side of the groin. For four days past three women have gone into the thickest of the fire to tend the wounded. This one is dying and bids us remember her two little children. No more food. We eat only horse-flesh. Evening: the rampart is untenable.

7th. — We are receiving as many as ten shells a minute. The ramparts are totally uncovered. All the pieces, save two or three, are dismounted. The Versaillese works almost touch us. There are thirty more dead. We are about to be surrounded.