Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXIV
The new Committee at work


At the advent of the new Committee on the 10th May our military situation had not changed within the line from St. Ouen to Neuilly, where both sides faced each other on the same level; but it was becoming serious from La Muette. The powerful battery of Montretout, that of Meudon, of Mont-Valérien, covered Passy with shells and greatly injured the ramparts. The Versaillese trenches extended from Boulogne to the Seine. Their skirmishers were pressing upon the village of Issy, and occupied the trenches between the fort and that of Vanves, which they tried to cut off from Montrouge. The negligence of the defence was still the same. The ramparts from La Muette to the fort of Vanves were hardly armed; our gunboats bore almost alone the fire of Meudon, Clamart, and Val-Fleury.

The first act of the new Committee was to order the demolition of M. Thiers’ house. This giddy act helped the bombarder to a palace, which the Assembly voted him the day after. Then the Committee issued its proclamation: ‘Treason had slipped into ...’ etc.

Delescluze issued one on his own account. He dragged himself along, panting for breath, and might well say, ‘If I consulted only my strength I should have declined this function. The situation is grave; but when I contemplate the sublime future in store for our children, even though it should not be given us to reap what we have sown, I shall still enthusiastically hail the revolution of the 18th March.’

On entering the Ministry, he found the Central Committee also elaborating a proclamation. ‘The Central Committee declares that it is its duty not to allow this revolution of the 18th March, which it had so well begun, to succumb. It will unsparingly break down all resistance. It is determined to make an end of all controversies, put down the malignants, quell rivalry, ignorance and incapacity.’ This was to speak more authoritatively than the Council, and, above all, to flatter itself strangely.

From the first night it was necessary to repair a disaster. The fort of Vanves, upon which all the fires formerly directed against Issy were now concentrated, had become almost untenable, and its commander had evacuated it. Wroblewski, informed of this, took the command from La Cécilia, who had fallen ill, and in the night of the 10th to the 11th hurried thither at the head of the 187th and the 105th battalions of the celebrated 11th legion, which up to the last day did not cease to supply the defence with men. At four o'clock in the morning Wroblewski appeared before the embankment where the Versaillese were stationed, charged them at the point of the bayonet, put them to flight, took some prisoners, and recovered the fort. Once more our brave Federals showed what they could do when properly commanded.

During the day the Versaillese recommenced the bombardment. They overwhelmed the Des Oiseaux convent and the whole village of Issy, whose principal street was now one heap of ruins, with shells and grenades filled with potassium picrate. On the night of the 12th to the 13th they surprised the Lycée of Vanves, and on the 13th they attacked the seminary of Issy. For five days Brunei exhausted himself in trying to bring a little order into the defence of this village. Rossel had sent for this brave member of the Council, whom the jealousy of coteries kept at a distance, and said to him, ‘The situation of Issy is almost lost; will you undertake its defence?’ Brunei devoted himself, threw up barricades, asked for artillery (there were only four pieces), and new battalions to relieve the 2,000 men who had held out for forty-one days.[172] They only sent him two or three hundred men. He tried to make something of these, and fortified the seminary, which the Federals, under a hailstorm of shells, were unable to hold. Brunei organized a second line of defence in the houses of the village, and in the evening repaired to the War Office, where Delescluze wanted him to attend the Council of War.

It was the first and only Council of War held under the Commune. Dombrowski, Wroblewski and La Cécilia were present. Dombrowski, very enthusiastic, spoke of raising 100,000 men. Wroblewski, more practical, proposed to concentrate all the efforts uselessly spent at Neuilly against the trenches of the south. After a long debate no conclusion was come to. When Brunei arrived the sitting was already raised; so he was obliged to go and look for Delescluze at the Hôtel-de-Ville, and then he retraced his steps to Issy. At the gate of Versailles he perceived his battalions on the other side of the rampart. These, deaf to their chiefs, had evacuated the village and wanted to re-enter the town. Brunel forbade the lowering of the drawbridge, and tried to get out by the gates of Vanves, where they refused to let him pass. He returned to the War Office, explained the situation, asked for men, wandered about the whole night looking for some, and at four o'clock in the morning set out with 150 Federals, but found the village entirely occupied by the Versaillese. The officers of Issy were tried by court-martial. Brunel gave evidence, and complained bitterly of the culpable carelessness which had paralysed the defence. For answer he was arrested.

He spoke but too truly. The disorder of the War Office rendered all resistance chimerical. Delescluze had brought only his devotion. Of a weak character despite his apparent rigidity, he was at the mercy of the general staff, still directed by Prodhomme, who, surviving all his chiefs, had succeeded in making himself thought indispensable. The Central Committee, emboldened by the timidity of the Council, intruded everywhere, published decrees, ordered the payment of expenses without submitting them to the control of the Military Commission. The members of the Commission, men of intelligence, but belonging to the minority, complained to the Committee of Public Safety, which replaced them by Romanticists. The dispute went on all the same, and waxed so violent that rumours of a rupture between the Council and the Central Committee spread amongst the legions.

The Versaillese, on their part, still pushed on. In the night of the 13th to the 14th the fort of Vanves, which now only fired occasional volleys, was quite extinguished, and could no more be rekindled. The garrison, cut off on all sides, retired by the quarries of Montrouge, and the Versaillese occupied what remained of the fort. There was again an ovation at Versailles.

On the 16th May we had not a single man from the left bank to the Petit Vanves, where about 2,000 Federals, under the command of La Cécilia and Lisbonne, were encamped. We attempted to retake the village of Issy, but were repulsed. Henceforth the enemy could continue his approaches and arm the two bastions of the fort of Issy that faced the town. His fire, counteracted for a moment by the ramparts, now showed a marked superiority, and joined the batteries that crushed the sixteenth arrondissement. This unfortunate quarter was now taken, attacked from the front and the flank by nearly a hundred ordnance pieces. It was indeed time to think of the defence of the interior. Delescluze extended the powers of the three generals to the quarters of the town contiguous to their command; he disbanded the battalion of the barricades, which had been of no utility whatever; he confided the works to the military engineers, and made an appeal to the navvies. But all his decrees remained so much waste paper or were crossed by others. When the delegate offered the navvies 3 francs 50 centimes, the Committee of Public Safety, in the same column of the Officiel, offered them 3 francs 75 centimes.

The Committee of Public Safety contributed to the defence by a decree obliging all the inhabitants of Paris to provide themselves with an identity card, whose production might be requested by a National Guard — as impracticable and unpractised a decree as that on the refractory recruits. The Hôtel-de-Ville awed nobody; behind its big words impotence made itself felt. On the 12th, some battalions having surrounded the Bank and wanting to make a search, old Beslay prevented them doing so, and the terrible dictators of the Committee of Public Safety disavowed their own agent. The public chaffed — a terrible thing! A last blow, and it was all over with the authority of the Commune; and this blow came from the minority.

The latter was exasperated at seeing its most capable members expelled from the services — Vermorel from the Commission of Public Safety, Longuet from the Officiel, Varlin from the Commissariat — and was struck with dismay at the disorder of the War Office. It had the unfortunate idea of denying its own responsibility, prepared a manifesto, and brought it to the sitting of the 15th. The majority, forewarned, with the exception of four or five members, kept away. The minority had their absence verified, and instead of waiting for the next sitting, sent the declaration to the papers. ‘The Commune,’ it said, ‘has abdicated its power into the hands of a dictatorship, to which it has given the name of Committee of Public Safety. The majority has declared itself irresponsible by its vote. The minority, on the contrary, affirms that the Commune owes it to the revolutionary movement to accept all responsibilities. As to ourselves, we claim the right of being alone answerable for our acts without screening ourselves behind a supreme dictatorship. We withdraw to our arrondissements. Convinced that the question of the war takes the lead over all others, we shall spend the time left us by our municipal functions in the midst of our brothers of the National Guard.’

A great fault this, and altogether inexcusable. The minority had not the right to cry out about a dictatorship, having voted, without making any express reserve, for the second Committee. It had not the right to say that the elected delegates of the people were encroaching upon its sovereignty, for this concentration of power was quite accidental, necessitated by the battle, and leaving the principle of the people’s sovereignty intact under ordinary circumstances. It would have been more dignified to openly disavow the acts of the Committee, and then propose something better themselves. It would have been logical, since ‘the question of the war took the lead over all others,’ not to thus morally weaken the defence by deserting the Hotel-de-Ville. It was not with a view to retain them in their arrondissements that the arrondissements had sent delegates to the Council.

Several members of the minority brought the question before public meetings, which called on them to return to their posts. Those of the fourth arrondissement gave an explanation in the Theâtre-Lyrique, in which they said ‘that their guiding principle was that the Commune was to be only the executive agent of the public will, manifesting itself continually, and indicating day by day what was to be done to secure the triumph of the revolution.’ No doubt that principle was correct, and the revolution can only be made safe by the direct legislation of the people. But was this a time to legislate when the cannon ruled supreme? And in the midst of the fire, is the ‘executive agent’ to expect that the soldier who does battle for him will also bring him ideas?

The Versaillese journals crowed over this manifesto. Many of those who had signed it understood their mistake, and fifteen of them presented themselves at the sitting of the 17th. The Council had never been so numerous; the roll-call was answered by sixty-six members. The Council was first taken up with a proposition prompted by a traitor. Barral de Montaut, chief of the staff of the 7th legion, had just published that the Versaillese of Vanves had shot an ambulance woman of the Commune. Urbain, urged by Montaut, who had managed to gain his friendship, asked that, as reprisal, five hostages should be shot in the interior of Paris, and five at the advanced posts. The Council passed to the order of the day. Immediately after this incident, a member of the majority challenged those of the minority. He demonstrated without any difficulty the futility of the reasons invoked in their manifesto, and, growing warm, called his adversaries Girondists. ‘What! Girondists!’ answered Frankel, ‘one can see that you go to bed at night and get up in the morning with the Moniteur of 1793, else you would know the difference there is between us Socialist Revolutionaries and the Girondists.’ The discussion became heated. Vallès, who had signed the manifesto, said, ‘I have declared that we must come to an understanding with the majority; but they must also respect the minority, which is a force;’ and he demanded that all forces should be turned against the enemy. Citizen Miot answered severely from the profound depths of his beard. A member of the majority spoke of conciliation; immediately Félix Pyat, to incense their ire, asked for the reading of the manifesto. In vain Vaillant said, with sense and justice, ‘When our colleagues come back to us disavowing their programme, we must not put it under their eyes to engage them to persevere in their faults,’ and a conciliatory order of the day was beaten by that of Miot, drawn up in terms offensive to the minority.

Suddenly a tremendous explosion interrupted the dispute. Billioray rushed into the room with the news that the cartridge factory of the Avenue Rapp had just blown up.

The whole east of Paris was shaken. A pyramid of flame, of molten lead, human remains, burning timber and bullets burst forth from the Champ-de-Mars to an enormous height, and showered down upon the environs. Four houses fell in; more than forty persons were wounded, and the catastrophe would have been still more terrible if the firemen of the Commune had not torn wagons of cartridges and barrels of gunpowder from the midst of the flames. A maddened crowd gathered, and believed in a crime; a few individuals were arrested, and an artilleryman was taken to the Ecole Militaire.

Who was the culprit? Nobody knows. Neither the Council nor the procureur of the Commune examined the affair. Yet the Committee of Public Safety announced in a proclamation that it held four of the culprits, and Delescluze that the case was to be sent before the court-martial. No more was heard about it , although it was as much the duty as the interest of the Council to throw light upon this affair. A serious inquest would probably have revealed a crime. The women, who usually left the factory at seven o'clock, had been on that day dismissed at six o'clock. It has been seen that Charpentier asked Corbin for dynamite; it might have been very useful to the conspirators to spread panic with one stroke at the War Office, the Ecole Militaire, the artillery park and the huts of the Champ-de-Mars, which were always occupied by a few Federals.[173] Paris firmly believed in a plot. The reactionaries said, ‘This is the revenge for the Vendôme column’. [column erected in 1805 in honour of Napoleon’s victories. Became a symbol of Bonapartism]

It had been pulled down the evening before with great ceremony. Its demolition, the idea of which had become quite current during the first siege,[174] was decreed on the 12th April.[175] This inspiration, popular, humane, profound, showing that a war of classes was to supersede the war of nations, aimed at the same time a blow at the ephemeral triumph of the Prussian. The rather expensive preparations, costing almost 15,000 francs, had been much protracted, owing to the lukewarmness of the engineer and the continual efforts to suborn the workmen. On the 16th May, at two o'clock, an immense crowd thronged all the neighbouring streets, rather anxious as to the result of the operation. The reactionaries foretold all sorts of catastrophes; the engineer, on the contrary, affirmed that there would be no shock; that the column would break to pieces during its descent. He had sawn it horizontally a little above the pedestal; a slanting groove was to facilitate the fall backwards upon a vast bed of faggots, sand and dung, accumulated in the direction of the Rue de la Paix.

A rope attached to the summit of the column was twisted round a capstan fixed at the entrance of the street. The square was crowded with National Guards; the windows, the roofs were filled with curious spectators. In default of MM. Jules Simon and Ferry, erstwhile warm partisans of the operation, M. Glais-Bizoin congratulated the new prefect of police, Ferre, who had just taken the place of Cournet, and confided to him that for forty years it had been his ardent desire to see the expiatory monument demolished. The bands played the Marseillaise, the capstan turned about, the pulley broke, and a man was wounded. Already rumours of treason circulated among the crowd, but a second pulley was soon supplied. At a quarter past five an officer appeared on the balustrade for some time, waved a tricolor flag, then fixed it on the rails. At half-past five the capstan again turned, and a few minutes after the extremity of the column slowly displaced itself, the shaft little by little gave way, then, suddenly reeling to and fro, broke and fell with a low moan. The head of Bonaparte rolled on the ground, and his parricidal arm lay detached from the trunk. An immense acclamation, as that of a people freed from a yoke, burst forth. The ruins were climbed upon and saluted by enthusiastic cries, and the red flag floated from the purified Pedestal, which on that day had become the altar of the human race.

The people wanted to divide among themselves the fragments of the column, but were prevented by the inopportune interference of the Council members present. A week afterwards, the Versaillese picked them up. One of the first acts of the victorious bourgeoisie was to again raise this enormous block, the symbol of their sovereignty. To lift up Caesar on his pedestal they needed a scaffolding of 30,000 corpses. Like the mothers under the First Empire, may those of our days never look upon this bronze without weeping.