Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXI
Paris bombarded: Rossel flees


The greatest infamy in living memory is now being enacted. Paris is being bombarded. (Proclamation of the Government of National Defence on the Prussian bombardment.)
We have crushed a whole district of Paris. (Thiers to the National Assembly, Session of 5th August, 1871.)

We must leave this heroic atmosphere to return to the quarrels of the Council and of the Central Committee. Why did they not hold their sittings at the Muette or under the eyes of the public?[152] The shells of Montretour, which had just unmasked its powerful battery, and the severe attitude of the people, would no doubt have made them unite against the common enemy. He had begun to batter a breach in their ranks.

On the 8th May, in the morning, seventy naval guns began to attack the enceinte from the bastion 60 to the Point du Jour. The shells of Clamart already reached the Quai de Javelle, and the battery of Breteuil covered the Grenelle quarter with projectiles. In a few hours half Passy had become uninhabitable.

M. Thiers accompanied his shells with a proclamation: ‘Parisians, the Government will not bombard Paris, as the men of the Commune will not fail to tell you. It will discharge its cannon.... It knows, it would have understood, even if you had not said so on all sides, that as soon as the soldiers cross the enceinte you will rally round the national flag.’ And he invited the Parisians to open the gates to h im. What was the action of the Council in reply to this appeal to treason?

On the 8th it entered upon a random discussion on the minutes of its sittings’[153] and the publicity of the latter, which one member of the majority wanted to suppress altogether. The minority complained of the Central Committee, which had encroached upon all services in spite of the Commission of War; it had driven away Varlin from the commissariat, entirely reorganized by him. They asked whether the Government called itself Central Committee or Commune. Félix Pyat justified himself by accusing Rossel. ‘It is not the fault of the Committee of Public Safety if Rossel has neither the strength nor the intelligence to keep the Central Committee within its functions.’ The friends of Rossel answered, accusing Pyat of continually interfering even in purely military questions. If the Moulin Saquet had been surprised, it was because Wroblewski, who commanded on that side, received a formal order from Félix Pyat to repair to Issy. ‘It is false,’ said Pyat; ‘I have never given such an order.’ They let him thoroughly enmesh himself, and then produced the order, written entirely in his own hand. He took hold of it, turned it round, feigned astonishment, and was finally obliged to confess.[154] The discussion then reverted to the Central Committee — were they to dissolve it, arrest its members, or surrender to it the administration of the War Office? The Council, as usual, did not dare to decide, and, after a confused debate, confirmed by the resolution of the 3rd May — the Central Committee will be held subordinate to the Military Commission.

At this very moment strange scenes were enacted at the War Office. The chefs-de-légion, who were stirring more and more against Rossel, had that day resolved to ask him for the report of all the decisions he was about to take with respect to the National Guard. Rossel knew of their project. In the evening, when they arrived at the Ministry, they found in its court an armed platoon, and beheld Rossel watching them from his window. ‘You are audacious,’ said he; ‘do you know that this platoon is here to shoot you?’ They, without appearing to care much: ‘There is no need of audacity; we simply come to speak to you of the organization of the National Guard.’ Rossel relaxed, went to the window, gave orders to the platoon to re-enter. This burlesque demonstration did not miss its effect. The chefs-de-légion disputed the project on the regiments point by point, demonstrating its impossibility. Tired of arguing, Rossel said to them, ‘I am fully aware that I have no forces, but I affirm you have not either. You have, say you? Well, give me the proof. To-morrow, at eleven o'clock, bring me 12,000 men to the Place de la Concorde, and I will try to do something.’ He wanted to make an attack by the Clamart station. The chefs-de-légion engaged to find the men, and spent the whole night in search of them.

While these contests went on, the fort of Issy was being evacuated. Since the morning it had been reduced to the last extremity. Any of its defenders who approached the guns was a dead man. In the evening the officers assembled, and came to the conclusion that they could no longer hold out. Thereupon the men, driven away from all sides by the shells, massed themselves under the entrance vault, when a shell from the Moulin de Pierre fell in their midst, killing sixteen of them. Rist, Julien, and several others, who were stubbornly bent upon holding these ruins, were at last obliged to yield. About seven o'clock the evacuation began. The commander, Lisbonne, one of the members of the first Central Committee, a man of extraordinary courage, covered the retreat amidst a shower of bullets.

A few hours later, the Versaillese, crossing the Seine, established themselves before Boulogne in front of the bastions of the Point du Jour, and opened a trench three hundred yards from the enceinte. All that night and the whole morning of the 9th the War Office and the Committee of Public Safety knew nothing of the evacuation of the fort.

On the 9th, at mid-day, the battalions asked for by Rossel were drawn up along the Place de la Concorde. Rossel arrived on horseback, hardly looked at the front lines, and then addressed the chefs-de-légion, ‘There are not enough men here for me;’ and at once turning about, rode off to the War Office, where he was informed of the evacuation of the fort of Issy. He seized his pen, wrote, ‘The tricolor floats from the fort of Issy, abandoned yesterday evening by the garrison,’ and, without apprising the Council or the Committee of Public Safety, gave the order to post up ten thousand copies of these two lines, while six thousand was the number usually printed.

He next sent in his resignation: ‘Citizens, members of the Commune, I feel myself incapable of any longer bearing the responsibility of a command where every one deliberates and no one obeys. The Central Committee of Artillery has deliberated and prescribed nothing. The Commune has deliberated and resolved upon nothing. The Central Committee deliberates and has not yet known how to act. During this delay the enemy has hemmed in the fort of Issy by imprudent attacks, for which I would punish him if I had the smallest military force at my disposal.’ He then recounted in his own fashion, and very inaccurately, the evacuation of the fort, the review on the Place de la Concorde; said that, instead of the 12,000 men promised, there were only 7,000,[155] and concluded: ‘Thus the nullity of the Committee of Artillery prevented the organization of the artillery; the hesitation of the Central Committee stopped the administration; the paltry pre-occupations of the chefs-de-légion paralysed the mobilization of the troops. My predecessor committed the fault of struggling against this absurd situation. I retire, and have the honour to ask you for a cell at Mazas.’

He thus thought to clear his military reputation, but point by point he might have been categorically answered. Why did you accept this ‘absurd’ situation with which you were thoroughly conversant? Why did you make no conditions on entering the Ministry on the 1st April, no condition to the Council on the 2nd and 3rd May? Why did you send away at least 7,000 men this morning, when you pretend not to have ‘the smallest military force’ at your disposal? Why did you know nothing for fifteen hours of the evacuation of a fort whose straits it was your duty to watch from hour to hour? Where is your second line of defence? Why has no work been done at Montmartre and the Panthéon?

Rossel might perhaps have addressed his reproaches to the Council, but he committed an unpardonable fault in sending his letters to the newspapers. Thus in less than two hours he had disheartened 8,000 combatants, spread panic, stigmatized the brave men of Issy, denounced the weakness of the defence to the enemy, and that at the very moment when the Versaillese were rejoicing over the taking of Issy.

There everyone was merry-making. M. Thiers and MacMahon harangued the soldiers, who, singing, brought back the few pieces found in the fort. The Assembly suspended its sittings and came into the marble court to applaud these children of the people who thought themselves victors. M. Thiers a month later said from the tribune, ‘When I see these sons of our sod, strangers often to an education that elevates, die for you, for us, I am profoundly touched.’ Touching emotion this of the hunter before his pack. Remember this avowal and the sort of men for whom you die, sons of the sod!

And at the Hôtel-de-Ville they were still disputing! Rigault recriminated. The majority of the Council had named him procureur of the Commune in spite of his culpable levity at the Prefecture. The discussion was growing angry when Delescluze entered hastily and exclaimed, ‘You discuss when it has been proclaimed that the tricolor floats from the fort of Issy. I make an appeal to you all. I had hoped that France would be saved by Paris and Europe by France. The Commune is pregnant with a power of revolutionary instinct capable of saving the country. Cast aside to-day all your animosities. We must save the country. The Committee of Public Safety has not answered our expectations. It has been an obstacle instead of a stimulus. With what is it occupying itself? With individual appointments instead of general measures. A decree signed Meillet names this citizen himself governor of the fort of Bicetre. We had a man there, a soldier,[156] who was thought too severe. It is desirable that all were as severe as he. Your Committee of Public Safety is undone, crushed beneath the weight of the memories attached to it. I say it must disappear.’

The Assembly, thus brought back to a sense of its duty, resolved into a secret committee, thoroughly discussing the Committee of Public Safety. What had it done for a week past? Installed the Central Committee at the War Office, increased the disorder, sustained two disasters. Its members lost themselves in details or else did amateur service. One deserted the Hôtel-de-Ville to go and shut himself up in a fort; if at least it had been that of Issy or of Vanves! Félix Pyat passed the greater part of his time in the office of the Vengeur, there venting his spleen in long-winded articles. A member of the Committee of Public Safety endeavoured to defend it by pleading the vagueness of its attributes. He was answered that Article 3 of the decree gave the Committee full powers over all the Commissions. Finally, after many hours, they decided to renew the Committee at once; to appoint a civil delegate to the War Office; to draw up a proclamation; to meet, save in cases of emergency, only three times a week; to establish the new Committee permanently at the Hôtel-de-Ville, while the other members of the Council were to stay regularly in their respective arrondissements. Delescluze was named Delegate at War.

In the evening, at ten o'clock, there was a second meeting for the nomination of the new Committee. The majority voted Félix Pyat, quite exasperated at the attacks of the afternoon, to the chair. He opened the sitting by demanding the arrest of Rossel. Cleverly grouping together appearances which seemed proofs to the suspicious, he made Rossel the scapegoat of the faults of the Committee, turning the anger of the Council against him. For half an hour he disparaged the absent man, whom he would not have dared attack to his face. ‘I told you, citizens, that he was a traitor. You would not believe me. You are young, you did not, like our paragons of the Convention, know how to mistrust military power.’ This reminiscence ravished the Romanticists. They had but one dream — to be Conventionnels. So difficult was it for this revolution of proletarians to rid itself of bourgeois tinsel.

The ire of Pyat was not wanted to convince the Assembly. Rossel’s act was culpable in the eyes of the least prejudiced. His arrest was decreed unanimously, less two votes, and the Commission of War received the order to carry it out.

They next passed to the nomination of the Committee. The minority, a little reassured by the election of Delescluze and Jourde, which seemed to acknowledge the right of the Council to appoint the delegates, resolved to take part in the vote, and asked for a place in the list of the majority. This was an excellent occasion to efface all differences, to re-establish union against Versailles. But the perfidious promptings of Félix Pyat had induced the Romanticists to look upon their colleagues of the minority as veritable reactionaries. After his speech the sitting was suspended; little by little the members of the minority found themselves alone in the council-hall. They looked for their colleagues and surprised them in a neighbouring room deliberating apart. After a violent altercation they all returned to the Council.

A member of the minority demanded that they should put an end to these shameful divisions. A Romanticist answered by asking for the arrest of the factious minority, and the President, Pyat, was about to empty the vials of his wrath, when Malon cried to him, ‘Silence! you are the evil genius of this revolution. Do not continue to spread your venomous suspicions, to stir up discords. It is your influence that is ruining the Commune!’ And Arnold, one of the founders of the Central Committee, ‘It is still these fellows of 1848 who will undo the revolution.’

But it was too late now to engage in the struggle, and the minority was to expiate its doctrinairism and maladroitness. The whole list of the majority passed; Ranvier, Arnaud, Gamlon, Delescluze and Eudes. The nomination of Delescluze to the War Office having left a vacancy, there was after two days a second vote, and the minority proposed Varlin. The majority, abusing their victory, committed the impropriety of preferring Billioray, a most worthless member.

The Council broke up at one o'clock in the morning. ‘Did not we do them? and what do you think of the way I managed the business?’ said Félix Pyat to his friends on leaving the chair.[157] This honest mandatory, altogether absorbed in the work of ‘doing’ his colleagues, had forgotten to verify the capture of the fort of Issy. And that same evening, twenty-six hours after the evacuation, the Hôtel-de-Ville posted up on the doors of the mairies, ‘It is false that the tricolor floats on the fort of Issy. The Versaillese do not and shall not occupy it.’ This contradiction was as good as Trochu’s apropos of Metz.

During these tempests at the Hôtel-de-Ville the Central Committee had sent for Rossel, reproached him with the poster of the afternoon, and the unusual number of copies printed. He defended himself acrimoniously. ‘It was my duty. The greater the danger, the greater the duty to make it known to the people.’ Yet he had done nothing of the kind on the surprise of the Moulin-Saquet. After his departure the Committee deliberated at length. Someone said, ‘We are lost if we get no dictatorship.’ For some days this idea was uppermost in the Committee. The latter voted quite seriously that there should be a dictator, and that the dictator was to be Rossel. A deputation of five members gravely went to fetch him; he came down to the Committee, pretended to reflect, and finally said, ‘It is too late. I am no longer delegate. I have sent in my resignation.’ Some waxing angry with him, he rebuked them and left. In his office he found the Commission of War, Delescluze, Tridon, Avrial, Johannard, Varlin and Arnold, who had just arrived.

Delescluze explained their mission. Rossel listened very calmly; said that though the decree was unjust, he submitted to it. He then described the military situation, the rivalries of all kinds that had continually clogged him, the weakness of the Council. ‘It has not known,’ said he, ‘how to utilize the Central Committee, nor how to break it at the opportune time. Our resources are quite sufficient, and I am ready, for my own part, to assume all responsibility, but on the condition of being supported by a strong and homogeneous power. I could not in the face of history take upon myself the responsibility for certain necessary repressions without the assent and support of the Commune.’ He spoke at great length in that clear and nervous style that twice in the Council had won over his most decided adversaries. The Commission, much struck by his arguments, withdrew to another room. Delescluze declared that he could not make up his mind to arrest Rossel till the Council had heard him. His colleagues were of the same opinion, and left the ex-delegate under the guard of Avrial and Johannard, who the next morning conducted him to the Hôtel-de-Ville. Avrial stayed with Rossel in the questor’s office, while Johannard went to apprise the Council of their arrival.

Some wanted Rossel to be heard; the greater number, distrustful of themselves, were afraid lest his voice should again bring round the Council, maintained that his hearing was contrary to equity, and cited the example of Cluseret, who had been arrested without being heard, as though one injustice could sanction another. The admission of Rossel was refused.

Charles Gérardin, a member of the Council, repaired to the questor’s office. ‘What has the Commune decided?’ said Avrial. ‘Nothing yet,’ answered Gérardin, who nevertheless had just left the sitting, and seeing Avrial’s revolver on the table, he said to Rossel, ‘Your guardian fulfils his duty conscientiously.’ ‘I do not suppose,’ answered Rossel hurriedly, ‘that this precaution concerns me. Besides, Citizen Avrial, I give you my word of honour as a soldier that I shall not seek to escape.’

Avrial, very tired of his post as sentry, had already asked the Council to relieve him. Receiving no answer, he thought he might leave his prisoner under the guard of a member of the Committee of Public Safety — for Gérardin had not yet been discharged from his functions — and he proceeded to the Council. When he returned, Rossel and Gérardin were gone. The ambitious young man had slunk like a weasel out of this civil war into which he had heedlessly thrown himself.

One may divine whether Pyat was sparing of adjectives against the fugitive. The new Committee having just been informed of the discovery of two conspiracies, launched a desperate proclamation: ‘Treason had slipped into our ranks. The abandonment of the fort of Issy announced in an impious poster by the wretch who surrendered it, was only the first act of the drama. A monarchical insurrection in our midst coinciding with the surrender of one of our gates was to follow. All the threads of the dark plot are now in our hands. Most of the culprits are arrested. Let all eyes be open, all arms ready to strike the traitors!’

This was going off into melodrama when cold blood and precision were wanted. And the Committee boasted strangely when it pretended to have arrested ‘most of the culprits’ and that it held ‘in its hands all the threads of the dark plot.’