Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871


Chapter XXV
Paris on the eve of death

The Paris of the Commune has but three days more to live; let us engrave upon our memory her luminous physiognomy.

He who has breathed in thy life that fiery fever of modern history, who has panted on thy boulevards and wept in thy faubourgs, who has sung to the morning of thy revolutions and a few weeks after bathed his hands in powder behind thy barricades, he who can hear from beneath thy stones the voices of the martyrs of sublime ideas and read in every one of thy streets a date of human progress, even he does less justice to thy original grandeur than the stranger, though a Philistine, who came to glance at thee during the days of the Commune. The attraction of rebellious Paris was so strong that men hurried thither from America to behold this spectacle unprecedented in the world’s history — the greatest town of the European continent in the hands of the proletarians. Even the pusillanimous were drawn towards her.

In the first days of May one of our friends arrived — one of the most timid men of the timid provinces. His kith and kin had escorted him on his departure, tears in their eyes, as though he were descending into the infernal regions. He said to us, ‘What truth is there in all the rumours spread about?’ ‘Well, come and search all the recesses of the den.’

We set out from the Bastille. Street-arabs cry Rochefort’s Mot d'Ordre, the Père Duchêne, Jules Vallès’ Cri du Peuple, Félix Pyat’s Vengeur, La Commune, L'Affranchi, Le Pilori des Mouchards. The Officiel is little asked for; the journalists of the Council stifle it by their competition. The Cri du Peuple has a circulation of 100,000. It is the earliest out; it rises with chanticleer. If we have an article by Vallès this morning, we are in luck; but in his stead, Pierre Denis, with his autonomy a outrance, makes himself too often heard. Only buy the Père Duchêne once, though its circulation is more than 60,000. Take Félix Pyat’s article in the Vengeur as a fine example of literary intoxication. The bourgeoisie has no better helpmates than these vain and ignorant claptrap-mongers. Here is the doctrinaire journal La Commune, in which Milliere sometimes writes, and in which Georges Duchêne takes the young men and the old of the Hôtel-de-Ville to task with a severity which would better fit another character than his. Do not forget the Mot d'Ordre, whatever the romanticists may say. It was one of the first to support the Revolution of the 18th March, and darted terrible arrows at the Versaillese.

In the kiosques are the caricatures. Thiers, Picard, and Jules Favre figure as the Three Graces, clasping each other’s paunches. This fine fish, the mackerel, with the blue-green scales, who is making up a bed with an imperial crown, is the Marquis de Gallifet. L'Avenir, the mouthpiece of the Ligue, Le Siècle, become very hostile since the arrest of Gustave Chaudey; and La Vérité, the Yankee Portalis’s paper, are piled up, melancholy and intact. Many reactionary papers have been suppressed by the prefecture, but for all that are not dead; for a lad, without any mystery about him, offers them to us.

Read, search, find one appeal to murder, to pillage, a single cruel line in all these Communard journals excited by the battle, and then compare them with the Versaillese papers, demanding fusillades en Masse as soon as the troops shall have vanquished Paris.

Let us follow those catafalques that are being taken up the Rue de la Roquette, and enter with them into the Père la Chaise cemetery. All those who die for Paris are entombed with funerals in the great resting-place. The Commune has claimed the honour of paying for their funerals; its red flag blazes from the four corners of the hearse, followed by some comrades of the battalion, while a few passers-by always join the procession. Here is a wife accompanying her dead husband. A member of the Council follows the coffin; at the grave he speaks not of regrets, but of hope, of vengeance. The widow presses her children in her arms, and says to them, ‘Remember and cry with me, “Vive la République! Vive la Commune!” ‘[176]

On retracing our steps, we pass by the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement. It is hung with black, the mourning of the last Imperialist plebiscite, of which the people of Paris was innocent and became the victim. We cross the Place de la Bastille, gay, animated by the ginger-bread fair. Paris will yield nothing to the cannon; she has

Carriages are rare, for the second siege has cut short the provisions for horses. By the Rue du 4 Septembre we reach the Stock Exchange, surmounted by the red flag, and the Bibliotheque Nationale, where readers are sitting round the long tables. Crossing the Palais-Royal, whose arcades are always noisy, we come to the Museum of the Louvre; the rooms, hung with their pictures, are open to the public. The Versaillese journals none the less say the Commune is selling the national collections to foreigners.

We descend the Rue de Rivoli. On the right, in the Rue Castiglione, a huge barricade obstructs the entrance of the Place Vendôme. The issue of the Place de la Concorde is barred by the St. Florentin redoubt, stretching to the Ministry of Marine on its right, and the garden of the Tuileries on its left, with three rather badly directed embrasures eight yards wide. An enormous ditch, laying bare all the arteries of subterranean life, separates the Place from the redoubt. The workmen are giving it the finishing stroke, and cover the banks with turf. Many people walking by look on inquisitively, and more than one brow lowers. A corridor skilfully constructed conducts us to the Place de la Concorde. The proud profile of the Strasbourg statue stands out against the red flags. The Communards, who are accused of ignoring France, have piously replaced the faded crowns of the first siege by fresh spring flowers.

We now enter the zone of battle. The avenue of the Champs-Elysées unrolls its long-deserted line, cut by the dismal bursting of the shells from Mont-Valérien and Courbevoie. These reach as far as the Palais de I'Industrie, whose treasures the employees of the Commune courageously protect. In the distance rises the mighty bulk of the Arc de Triomphe. The sightseers of the first days have disappeared, for the Place de I'Etoile has become almost as deadly as the rampart. The shells break off the bas-reliefs that M. Jules Simon had caused to be iron-clad against the Prussians. The main arch is walled up to stop the projectiles launched against it. Behind this barricade they are getting ready to mount some pieces on the platform, which is almost as high as Mont-Valérien.

By the Faubourg St. Honoré we pass along the Champs-Elysées. In the right angle comprised between the Avenue de la Grande Armée, that of the Ternes, the ramparts, and the Avenue Wagram there is not a house intact. You see M. Thiers ‘does not bombard Paris, as the people of the Commune will not fail to say.’ Some shreds of a poster hang from a half-battered wall; it is M. Thiers’ speech against King Bomba, which a group of conciliators have been witty enough to reproduce. ‘You know, gentlemen,’ said he to the bourgeois of 1848, what is happening at Palermo. You all have shaken with horror on hearing that during forty-eight hours a large town has been bombarded. By whom? Was it by a foreign enemy exercising the rights of war? No, gentlemen, it was by its own Government. And why? Because that unfortunate town demanded its rights. Well, then, for the demand of its rights it has got forty-eight hours of bombardment!’ Happy Palermo! Paris already has had forty days of bombardment.

We have some chance of getting to the Boulevard Péreire by the left side of the Avenue des Ternes. From there to the Porte-Maillot every spot is beset with danger. Watching for a momentary lull, we reach the gate, or rather the heap of ruins that mark its place. The station no longer exists, the tunnel is filled up, the ramparts are slipping into the moats. And yet there are human salamanders who dare to move about amidst these ruins. Facing the gate there are three pieces commanded by Captain La Marseillaise; on the right, Captain Rouchat with five pieces; on the left, Captain Martin with four. Monteret, who commands this post for the last five weeks, lives with them in this atmosphere of shells. The Mont-Valérien, Courbevoie, and Bécon have thrown more than eight hundred of them. Twelve pieces are served by ten men, naked to the waist, their body and arms blackened with powder, in a stream of perspiration, often a match in each hand. The only survivor of the first set, the sailor Bonaventure, has twenty times seen his comrades dashed to pieces. And yet they hold out, and these pieces, continually dismounted, are continually renewed; their artillery men only complain of the want of ammunition, for the wagons no longer dare approach. The Versaillese have very often attempted, and may attempt, surprise attacks. Monteret watches day and night, and he can without boasting write to the Committee of Public Safety that so long as he is there the Versaillese will not enter by the Porte-Maillot.

Every step towards La Muette is a challenge to death. But our friend must witness all the greatness of Paris. On the ramparts, near the gate of La Muette, an officer is waving his képi toward the Bois de Boulogne; the balls are whistling around him. It is Dombrowski, who amusing himself with inveighing against the Versaillese of the trenches. A member of the Council who is with him succeeds in king him forego this musketeer foolhardiness, and the general takes us to the castle, where he has established one of his headquarters. All the rooms are perforated by shells. Still he remains there, and makes his men remain. It has been calculated that his aides-de-camp on an average lived eight days. At this moment the watch of the Belvedere rushes in with appalled countenance; a shell has traversed his post. ‘Stay there,’ says Dombrowski to him; ‘if you are not destined to die there you have nothing to fear.’ Such was his courage — all fatalism. He received no reinforcements despite his despatches to the War Office; believed the game lost, and said so but too often.

This is my only reproach, for you do not expect me to apologise for the Commune’s having allowed foreigners to die for it. Is not this the revolution of all proletarians? Is it not for the people to at last do justice to that great Polish race which all French governments have betrayed?

Dombrowski accompanies us across Passy as far as the Seine, and shows us the almost abandoned ramparts. The shells crush or mow down all the approaches to the railway; the large viaduct is giving way at a hundred places; the iron-clad locomotives have been overthrown. The Versaillese battery of the Billancourt Isle fires point-blank at our gunboats, and sinks one, L'Estoc, under our very eyes. A tug arrives in time, picks up the crew, and ascends the Seine under the fire that follows it up to the Jena Bridge.

A clear sky, a bright sun, peaceful silence envelop this stream, this wreck, these scattered shells. Death appears more cruel amidst the serenity of nature. Let us go and salute our wounded at Passy. A member of the Council, Lefrançais, is visiting the ambulance of Dr. Demarquay, whom he questions as to the state of the wounded. ‘I do not share your opinions,’ answers the doctor, ‘and I cannot desire the triumph of your cause; but I have never seen wounded men preserve more calm and sang-froid during operations. I attribute this courage to the energy of their convictions.’ We then visit the beds; most of the sick anxiously inquire when they will be able to resume their service. A young fellow of eighteen, whose right hand had just been amputated, holds out the other, exclaiming, ‘I have still this one for the service of the Commune!’ An officer, mortally wounded, is told that the Commune has just handed over his pay to his wife and children. ‘I had no right to it,’ answers he. ‘These, my friend, these are the brutish drunkards who, according to Versailles, form the army of the Commune.’

We return by the Champ-de-Mars; its huts are badly manned. Other cadres, a different discipline would be needed to retain the battalions there. Before the Ecole, 1,500 yards from the ramparts, and a few steps from the War Office, a hundred ordnance pieces remain inert, loaded with mud. Leaving on our right the War Office, that centre of discord, let us enter the Corps Législatif, transformed into a work-shop. Fifteen hundred women are there, sewing the sand sacks that are to stop up the breaches. A tall and handsome girl, Marthe, round her waist the red scarf with silver fringe given her by her comrades, distributes the work. The hours of labour are shortened by joyous songs. Every evening the wages are paid, and the women receive the whole sum, eight centimes a sack, while the former contractors hardly gave them two.

We now proceed along the quays, lulled in imperturbable calm. The Academy of Sciences holds its Monday sittings. It is not the workmen who have said, ‘The Republic wants no savants.’ M. Delaunay is in the chair. M. Elie de Beaumont looks through the correspondence, and reads a note from his colleague, M. J. Bertrand, who has fled to St. Germain. We shall find the report in the Officiel of the Commune.

We must not leave the left bank without visiting the military prison. Ask the soldiers if they have met with a single menace, a single insult in Paris; if they are not treated as comrades, subjected to no exceptional rules, set free when willing to help their Parisian brothers.

Meanwhile evening has set in. The theatres are opening. The Lyrique gives a grand performance for the benefit of the wounded, and the Opéra-Comique is preparing another. The Opéra promises us a special performance for the following Monday, when we shall hear Gossec’s revolutionary hymn. The artists of the Gaieté, abandoned by their manager, themselves direct their theatre. The Gymnase, Châtelet, Théatre-Français, Ambigu-Comique, DéIassements, have large audiences every night. Let us pass to more virile spectacles, such as Paris has not witnessed since 1793.

Ten churches open, and the Revolution mounts the pulpits. In the old quarter of the Gravilliers, St. Nicholas des Champs is filling with the powerful murmur of many voices. A few gas-burners hardly light up the swarming crowd; and at the farther end, almost hidden by the shadow of the vaults, hangs the figure of Christ draped in the popular oriflamme. The only luminous centre is the reading-desk, facing the ,Pulpit, hung with red. The organ and the people chant the Marseillaise. The orator, over-excited by these fantastic surroundings, launches forth into ecstatic declamations, which the echo repeats like a menace. The people discuss the events of the day, the means of defence; the members of the Council are severely censured, and vigorous resolutions are voted to be presented to the Hotel-de-Ville the next day. Women sometimes ask to speak; at the Batignolles they have a club of their own. No doubt, few precise ideas come forth from these feverish meetings, but many find there a provision of energy and of courage.

It is only nine o'clock, and we may still be in time for the concert of the Tuileries. At the entrance, citoyennes, accompanied by commissioners, are making a collection for the widows and orphans of the Commune. The immense rooms are animated by a decent and gay throng. For the first time respectably-dressed women are seated on the forms in the court. Three orchestras are playing in the galleries, but the soul of the fete is in the Salle des Maréchaux, where Mademoiselle Agar recites from ‘Les Châtiments’ in that same place, where, ten months before, Bonaparte and his band were enthroned. Mozart, Meyerbeer, Rossini, the great works of art have driven away the musical obscenities of the Empire. From the large central window the harmonious strains vibrate to the garden; joyous lights shine like stars on the green-sward, dance among the trees, and colour the playing fountains. Within the arbours the people are laughing; but the noble Champs-Elysées, dark and desolate, seem to protest against these popular masters, whom they have never acknowledged. Versailles, too, protests by that conflagration of which a wan reflex lights up the Arc de Triomphe, whose sombre mass overtowers the civil war.

At eleven o'clock, as the crowd is retiring, we hear a noise from the side of the chapel. M. Schoelcher has just been arrested. He has been taken to the prefecture, where, a few hours after, the procureur Rigault sets him at liberty.

The boulevards are thronged with the people coming from the theatres. At the Café-Peters there is a scandalous gathering of staffofficers and prostitutes. Suddenly a detachment of National Guards appears and leads them off. We follow them to the Hôtel-de-Ville, where Ranvier, who is on duty there, receives them. Short shrift is made: the women to St. Lazare, the officers, with spades and mattocks, to the trenches.

One o'clock in the morning. Paris sleeps tranquilly. Such, my friend, is the Paris of the brigand. You have seen this Paris thinking, weeping, combating, working, enthusiastic, fraternal, severe to vice. Her streets free during the day, are they less safe in the silence of the night? Since Paris has her own police crime has disappeared.[177] Each one is left to his instincts, and where do you see debauchery victorious? These Federals, who might draw milliards, live on ridiculous pay compared with their usual salaries. Do you at last recognize this Paris, seven times shot down since 1789, and always ready to rise for the salvation of France? Where is her programme, say you? Why, seek it before you, and not at the faltering Hôtel-de-Ville. These smoking ramparts, these explosions of heroism, these women, these men of all professions united, all the workmen of the earth applauding our combat, all monarchs, all the bourgeois coalesced against us, do they not speak loudly enough our common thought, and that all of us are fighting for equality, the enfranchisement of labour, the advent of a social society? Woe to France if she does not comprehend! Leave at once; recount what Paris is. If she dies, what life remains to you? Who, save Paris, will have strength enough to continue the Revolution? Who save Paris will stifle the clerical monster? Go, tell the Republican provinces, ‘These proletarians fight for you too, who perhaps may be the exiles of to-morrow.’ As to that class, the purveyor of empires, that fancies it can govern by periodical butcheries, go and tell them, in accents loud enough to drown their clamours, ‘The blood of the people will enrich the revolutionary field. The idea of Paris will arise from her burning entrails and become an inexorable firebrand with the sons of the slaughtered.’