Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXVIII
The street battles continue


The defenders of the barricades slept on their paving-stones. The hostile outposts were on the watch. At the Batignolles the Versaillese reconnaissance carried off a sentinel. The Federal cried out with all his might, ‘Vive la Commune!’ and his comrades, thus warned, were able to put themselves on their guard. He was shot there and then. In like manner fell D'Assas and Barra.

At two o'clock La Cécilia, accompanied by the members of the Council, Lefrançais, Vermorel and Johannard, and the journalists Alphonse Humbert and G. Maroteau, brought up a reinforcement of 100 men to the Batignolles. To Malon’s reproaches for having left the quarter without succour the whole day, the General answered, ‘I am not obeyed.’

Three o'clock — To the barricades! The Commune is not dead! The fresh morning air bathes the fatigued faces and revives hope. The enemy’s cannonade along the whole line salutes the break of day. The artillery men of the Commune, from Mont-Parnasse to the Buttes Montmartre, which seem awaking, answered as well as they could.

Ladmirault, almost motionless the day before, now launched his men along the fortifications, taking all the gates from Neuilly to St. Ouen in the rear. On his right, Clinchant attacked by the same movement all the barricades of the Batignolles. The Rue Cardinet yielded first, then the Rues Noblet, Truffaut, La Condamine, and the lower Avenue of Clichy. Suddenly the gate of St. Ouen opened, and the Versaillese poured into Paris; it was the Montaudon division, which since evening had been operating in the exterior. The Prussians had surrendered the neutral zone, and so, with the help of Bismarck, Clinchant and Ladmirault were able to take the Buttes by the two flanks.

Nearly surrounded in the mairie of the seventeenth arrondissement, Malon ordered the retreat on Montmartre, whither a detachment of twenty-five women, come to offer their services under the conduct of the citoyennes Dimitriev and Louise Michel, were also sent.

Clinchant, pursuing his route, was arrested by the barricade of the Place Clichy. To reduce these badly disposed paving-stones, behind which hardly fifty men were fighting, required the combined effort of the Versaillese of the Rue de St. Pétersbourg and the tirailleurs of the College Chaptal. The Federals, having no more shells, charged with stones and bitumen; their powder exhausted, they fell back upon the Rue des Carrières, and Ladmirault, master of the St. Ouen Avenue, turned on their barricade by the Montmartre Cemetery. About twenty guards refused to surrender, and were at once shot by the Versaillese.

In the rear, the Des Epinettes district still held out for a time; at last all resistance ceased, and about nine o'clock the entire Batignolles belonged to the army.

The Hôtel-de-Ville knew nothing yet of the progress of the troops when Vermorel rushed thither in search of munitions for Montmartre. As he was setting out at the head of the wagons he met Ferré, and, with the smile familiar to him, said, ‘Well, Ferré, the members of the minority fight.’ ‘The members of the majority will do their duty,’ answered Ferré. Generous emulation of these men, who were both devoted to the people, and who were to die so nobly.

Vermorel could not take his wagons as far as Montmartre, the Versaillese already surrounding the heights. Masters of the Batignolles, they had but to stretch out their hand to seize upon Montmartre. The Buttes seemed dead; during the night panic had hurried on its underhand work; the battalions, one after the other, had grown smaller, vanished. Individuals seen later on in the ranks of the army had stirred defections, spread false news, and every moment arrested civil and military chiefs, under the pretext that they were betraying. Only about a hundred men lined the north side of the hill; a few barricades had been commenced in the night, but without spirit; the women alone had shown any ardour.

Cluseret had, according to his usual habit, gone off in a huff. Despite his despatches and the promises of the Hôtel-de-Ville, La Cécilia had received neither reinforcements nor munitions. At nine o'clock, no longer hearing the cannon of the Buttes, he hurried up, and found the gunners gone. The runaways from the Batignolles arriving at ten o'clock only brought in panic. The Versaillese might have presented themselves; there were not 200 combatants there to receive them.

MacMahon, however, only dared attempt the assault with his best troops, so redoubtable was this position, so great the renown of Montmartre. Two entire army corps assailed it by the Rues Lepic, Mercadet, and the Chaussée Clignancourt. From time to time some shots were fired from a few houses; forthwith frightened columns came to a standstill and began regular sieges. These 20,000 men, who completely surrounded Montmartre, helped by the artillery established on the platform of the enceinte, took three hours to climb these positions, defended without method by a few dozen tirailleurs.

At eleven o'clock the cemetery was taken, and shortly afterwards the troops reached the Château-Rouge. In the environs there were some shootings, but the few obstinate men who still fought were soon killed, or withdrew discouraged at their isolation. The Versailles, scrambling up to the Buttes by all the slopes that lead to them, at midday installed themselves at the Moulin de la Galette, descended by the Place St. Pierre to the mairie, and occupied the whole of the eighteenth arrondissement without any resistance.

Thus without a battle, without an assault, without even a protestation of despair, was this impregnable fortress abandoned, from which a few hundred resolute men might have kept the whole Versaillese army in check, and constrained the Assembly to come to terms.

Hardly arrived at Montmartre, the Versaillese staff offered a holocaust to the fighters of Lecomte and Clément-Thomas. Forty-two men, three women, and four children were conducted to No. 6 in the Rue des Rosiers and forced to kneel bare-headed before the wall, at the foot of which the generals had been executed on the 18th March; then they were killed. A woman, who held her child in her arms, refused to kneel down, and cried to her companions, ‘Show these wretches that you know how to die ‘upright.’

On the following day these massacres continued. Each batch of prisoners halted some time before this wall, marked with bullets, and were then despatched on the slope of the Buttes that overlooks the St. Denis route.[185]

The Batignolles and Montmartre witnessed the first wholesale massacres. Every individual wearing a uniform or regulation boots was shot., as a matter of course, without questions put, without explanations given. Thus the Versaillese had been assassinating since the morning in the Place des Batignolles, Place de L'Hôtel-de-Ville, and at the gate of Clichy. The Parc Monceaux was their principal slaughter-house in the seventeenth arrondissement. At Montmartre the centres of massacre were the Buttes, the Elysée, of which every step was strewn with corpses, and the exterior boulevards.

A few steps from Montmartre the catastrophe was not known. At the Place Blanche the women’s barricade held out for several hours against Clinchant’s soldiers; they then retreated towards the Pigalle barricade, which fell at about two o'clock. Its leader was led before a Versaillese chief of battalion. ‘Who are you?’ asked the officer. ‘Léveque, mason, member of the Central Committee.’ The Versaillese discharged his revolver in his face; the soldiers finished him.

On the other bank of the Seine our resistance was more successful. The Versaillese had been able since morning to occupy the Babylone Barracks and L'Abbaye-au-Bois, but Varlin stopped them at the cross-roads of the Croix-Rouge. This cross-road will remain celebrated in the defence of Paris. All the streets that open into it had been powerfully barricaded, and this stronghold was only abandoned when fire and shells had reduced it to a heap of ruins. On the banks of the river, the Rues de l'Université, St. Dominique, St. Germain, and de Grenelle, the 67th, 135th, 138th, and 147th battalions, supported by the enfants perdus and les tirailleurs, resisted obstinately. In the Rue de Rennes and on the adjoining boulevards the Versaillese exhausted their strength. In the Rue Vavin, where Lisbonne conducted the defence, the resistance was prodigious; for two days this advanced sentinel kept back the invasion from the Luxembourg.

We were less secure on our extreme left. The Versaillese had early in the day surrounded the Mont-Parnasse Cemetery, which we held with a handful of men. Near the restaurant Richefeu, the Federals, allowing the enemy to approach, unmasked their machine-guns; but in vain, for the Versaillese were numerous enough to surround the few defenders of the cemetery on all sides, and soon stormed it. From there, passing by the ramparts of the fourteenth arrondissement, they arrived at the Place St. Pierre. The fortifications of the Avenue d'Italie and of the Route de Châtillon, long since carefully prepared, but still against the ramparts, were taken in the rear by the Chausée du Maine, and the whole defence of the cross-roads of the Quatre-Chemins was concentrated round the church. From the top of the steeple about a dozen Federals of Montrouge supported the barricade that barred two-thirds of the Chaussée du Maine, held by thirty men for several hours. At last, their cartridges exhausted, the tricolor flag was hoisted at the mairie, at the same hour that it floated above the Buttes Montmartre. Henceforth the route to the Place d'Enfer was open, and the Versaillese arrived there after having undergone the fire from the Observatoire, where some Federals had made a stand.

Behind these lines thus forced other defences were thrown up, thanks to the care of Wroblewski. The day before, the general, receiving the order to evacuate the forts, had answered, ‘Is it treachery or a misunderstanding? I will not evacuate.’ Montmartre taken, the general went to Delescluze, urging him to transfer the defence to the left bank. The Seine, the forts, the Panthéon, the Bievre, formed, in his opinion, a safe citadel, with the open fields for a retreat; a very just conception this with regular troops, but one cannot at will displace the heart of an insurrection, and the Federals were more and more bent on remaining in their own quarters.

Wroblewski returned to his headquarters, assembled the commanders of the forts, prescribed all the dispositions to be taken for their defence, and came back to resume the command of the left bank, given him by earlier decrees. But on sending orders to the Panthéon, he was answered that Lisbonne commanded there. Wroblewski, undeterred, placed the section left to him in a state of defence. He installed a battery of eight pieces and two batteries of four on the Butte-aux-Cailles, a dominant position between the Panthéon and the forts; he fortified the Boulevards d'Italie, de l'Hôpital, and de la Gare. His headquarters were established at the Mairie des Gobelins, and his reserve at the Place d'Italie, Place Jeanne d'Arc, and at Bercy.

At the other extremities of Paris the fourteenth and twentieth arrondissements also prepared their defence. The brave Passedouet had replaced Du Bisson, who still dared to present himself as chefde-legion of La Villette. They barricaded the Grande Rue de la Chapelle behind the Strasbourg Railway, the Rues d'Aubervilliers, de Flandre, and the canal, so as to form five lines of defence, protected on the flank by the boulevards and the fortifications. Cannon were placed in the Rue Riquet at the gasworks, while rampart pieces were carried by the men on to the Buttes Chaumont and others to the Rue de Puebla. A battery of six was mounted on the height of the Père la Chaise, covering Paris with its rumbling reports.

A mute and desolate Paris. As on the day before, the shops remained closed, and the streets, bleached by the sun, looked empty and menacing. Despatch riders riding at full speed, pieces of artillery shifted from their places, combatants on the march, alone broke this solitude. Cries of ‘Open the shutters!’ ‘Draw up the blinds!’ alone interrupted this silence. Two journals, Le Tribun du Peuple and Le Salut Public, were published, notwithstanding the Versaillese shells that were falling into the printing-office of the Rue Aboukir.

A few men at the Hôtel-de-Ville did their best to attend to details. One decree authorized the chiefs of barricades to requisition the necessary implements and victuals; another condemned every house from which Federals were shot at to be burned. In the afternoon the Committee of Public Safety issued an appeal to the soldiers:

The people of Paris will never believe that you could raise your arms against them. When they face you your hands will recoil from an act that would be a veritable fratricide. Like us, you too are proletarians. That which you did not the 18th March you will do again. Come to us, brothers, come to us; ours are open to receive you.

The Central Committee at the same time posted up a similar appeal — a puerile but generous illusion — and on this point the people of Paris entirely agreed with their representatives. In spite of the frenzy of the Assembly, the fusillade of the wounded, the treatment inflicted upon the prisoners for six weeks, the working men did not admit that children of the people could rend the entrails of that Paris who combated for them.

At three o'clock M. Bonvalet and other members of the Ligue des Droits de Paris presented themselves at the Hôtel-de-Ville, where some members of the Council and of the Committee of Public Safety received them. They bewailed this struggle, proposed to interfere, as they had so successfully done during the siege, and to carry to M. Thiers the expression of their sorrow; further, they placed themselves at the disposition of the Hôtel-de-Ville. ‘Well, then,’ they were answered, ‘shoulder a gun and go to the barricades!’ Before this direct appeal the League fell back upon the Central Committee, which had the weakness to listen to them.

There was no question of negotiating in the midst of the battle. The Versaillese, following up their success at Montmartre, were at this moment pushing towards the Boulevard Ornano and the Northern Railway station. At two o'clock the barricades of the Chaussée Clignancourt were abandoned, and in the Rue Myrrha, by the side of Vermorel, Dombrowski fell mortally wounded. In the morning Delescluze had told him to try his best in the neighbourhood of Montmartre; and, without hope, without soldiers, suspected since the entry of the Versaillese, all Dombrowski could do was to die. He expired two hours afterwards at the Lariboisière Hospital. His body was taken to the Hôtel-de-Ville, the men of the barricades presenting arms as he was carried by. His glorious death had disarmed suspicion.

Clinchant, thenceforth free on his left, proceeded to the ninth arrondissement. A column marched down the Rues Fontaine, St. Georges, and Notre Dame de Lorette, and made a halt at the crossroads; while another cannonaded the Rollin College before penetrating into the Rue Trudaine, where it was held in check until the evening.

More in the centre, at the Boulevard Haussmann, Douai pressed close upon the barricade of the Printemps shop, and with gunshots dislodged the Federals who occupied the Trinité Church. Five pieces established under the porch of the church were then directed at the very important barricade that barred the Chaussée d'Antin at the entrance of the boulevard. A detachment penetrated into the Rues Châteaudun and Lafayette, but at the cross-roads of the Faubourg Montmartre a barricade, a yard high at the utmost, defended by twenty-five men, held them up until night.

Douai’s right was still powerless against the Rue Royale. There for two days Brunel sustained a struggle only equalled by that of the Butte-aux-Cailles, of the Bastille, and the Château d'Eau. His main barricade, transversely crossing the street, was overlooked by the neighbouring houses, from which the Versaillese decimated the Federals; and Brunel, impressed with the importance of the post confided to him, ordered these murderous houses to be burned down. A Federal obeying him was struck by a ball in the eye, and came back dying to Brunel’s side, saying, ‘I am paying with my life for the order you have given me. Vive la Commune!’ All the houses between 13 and the Faubourg St. Honoré were caught in the flames, and the Versaillese, appalled, ran away, some passing over to the Federals. One of them put on the Parisian uniform and became Brunel’s orderly.

On the right the Boulevard Malesherbes, on the left the terrace of the Tuileries, which Bergeret occupied since the day before, seconded Brunel’s efforts. The Boulevard Malesherbes, furrowed by shells, was like a field ploughed up by gigantic shares. The fire of eighty pieces of artillery at the Quai d'Orsay, Passy, the Champ-de-Mars, the Barrière de l'Etoile converged on the terrace of the Tuileries and the barricade St. Florentin. About a dozen Federal pieces bore up against this shower. The Place de la Concorde, taken between these crossfires, was strewn with fragments of fountains and lamp-posts. The statue of Lille was beheaded, that of Strasbourg pitted by the grapeshot.

On the left bank the Versaillese made their way from house to house. The inhabitants of the quarter lent their assistance, and from behind their closed blinds fired on the Federals, who, indignant, forced and set fire to the treacherous houses. The Versaillese shells had already begun the conflagration, and the rest of the quarter was soon in flames. The troops continued to gain ground, occupied the Ministry of War, the telegraph office, and reached the Bellechasse Barracks and the Rue de l'Université. The barricades of the quay and the Rue du Bac were battered down by the shells; the Federal battalions, which for two days had held out at the Légion d'Honneur,. had no longer any retreat but the quays. At five o'clock they evacuated this unclean place after having set it on fire.

At six o'clock the barricade of the Chaussée d'Antin was lost to us; the enemy advancing by the side streets had occupied the Nouvel Opéra, entirely dismantled, and from the top of the roofs the marines commanded the barricade. Instead of imitating them, of also occupy ing the houses, the Federals, there as everywhere else, obstinately kept behind the barricade.

At eight o'clock the barricade of the Rue Neuve des Capucines, at the entrance of the Boulevard, gave way under the fire of the pieces of 4 cm. established in the Rue Caumartin. The Versaillese approached the Place Vendôme.

At all points the army had made decided progress. The Versaillese line, starting from the Northern Railway station, following the Rues Rochechouart, Cadet, Drouot, whose mairie was taken, the Boulevard des Italiens, stretched to the Place Vendôme and the Place de la Concorde, passed along the Rue du Bac, the Abbaye-au-Bois, and the Boulevard d'Enfer, ending at Bastion 8 1. The Place de la Concorde and the Rue Royale, surrounded on their flanks, stood out like a promontory in the midst of a tempest. Ladmirault faced La Villette; on his right Clinchant occupied the ninth arrondissement; Douai presented himself at the Place Vendôme; Vinoy supported Cissy operating on the left bank. At this hour hardly one-half of Paris was still held by the Federals.

The rest was given over to massacre. They were still fighting at one end of a street when the conquered part was already being sacked. Woe to him who possessed arms or a uniform! Woe to him who betrayed dismay! Woe to him who was denounced by a political or personal enemy! He was dragged away. Each corps had its regular executioner, the provost; but to speed the business there were supplemen tary provosts in the streets. The victims were led there — shot. The blind fury of the soldiers encouraged by the men of order served their hatred and liquidated their debts. Theft followed massacre. The shops of the tradesmen who had supplied the Commune, or whom their rival shopkeepers accused, were given over to pillage; the soldiers smashed their furniture and carried off the objects of value. jewels, wine, liqueurs, provisions, linen, perfumery, disappeared into their knapsacks.

When M. Thiers was apprised of the fall of Montmartre, he believed the battle over, and telegraphed to the prefects. For six weeks he had not ceased to announce that, the ramparts taken, the insurgents would flee; but Paris, contrary to the habits of the men of Sedan and Metz and of the National Defence, contested street by street, house by house, and rather than surrender, burned them.

A blinding glare arose at nightfall. The Tuileries were burning, so also the Légion d'Honneur, the Conseil d'Etat, and the Cour des Comptes. Formidable detonations were heard from the palace of the kings, whose walls were failing, its vast cupolas giving way. Flames, now slow, now rapid as darts, flashed from a hundred windows; the red tide of the Seine reflected the monuments, thus redoubling the conflagration. Fanned by an eastern wind, the blazing flames rose up against Versailles, and cried to the conqueror of Paris that he will no longer find his place there, and that these monarchical monuments will not again shelter a monarchy. The Rue du Bac, the Rue du Lille, the Croix-Rouge, dashed luminous columns into the air; the Rue Royale to St. Sulpice seemed a wall of fire divided by the Seine. Eddies of smoke clouded all the west of Paris, and the spiral flames shooting forth from these furnaces emitted showers of sparks that fell upon the neighbouring quarters.

Eleven o'clock — We go to the Hôtel-de-Ville. Sentinels on far advanced posts made it secure against any surprise; at long intervals a gaslight flickered in the obscurity; at several barricades there were torches, and even bivouac fires. That of the St. Jacques Square, opposite the Boulevard Sebastopol, made of large trees, whose branches swung to and fro in the wind, muttered and fluttered in the redoubtable gloom.

The façade of the Hôtel-de-Ville was reddened by distant flames; the statues, which the reflection seemed to move, stirred in their niches. The interior courts were filled with crowds and tumult. Artillery ammunition wagons, carts, omnibuses crammed with munitions, rolled off with a great noise under the vaults. The fetes of Baron Haussmann awoke no such sonorous echoes. Life and death, agony and laughter, jostled each other on these staircases, on every storey. illumined by the same dazzling light of the gas.

The lower lobbies were encumbered by National Guards rolled up in their blankets. The wounded lay groaning on their reddened mattresses; blood was trickling from the litters placed along the walls. A commander was brought in who no longer presented a human aspect; a ball had passed through his cheek, carried away the lips, broken the teeth. Incapable of articulating a sound, this brave fellow still waved a red flag, and summoned those who were resting to replace him in the combat.

In the notorious chamber of Valentine Haussmann the corpse of Dombrowski was laid out upon a bed of blue satin. A single taper threw its lurid light on the heroic soldier. His face, white as snow, was calm, the nose fine, the mouth delicate, the small fair beard standing out pointed. Two aides-de-camp seated in the darkened corners watched silently, another hurriedly sketched the last traits of his general.

The double marble staircase was filled with people coming and going, whom the sentinels could hardly keep away from the delegate’s office. Delescluze signed orders, mute and wan as a spectre. The anguish of those later days had absorbed his last vital powers; his voice was only a death-rattle; the eye and the heart alone lived still in this moribund athlete.

Two or three officers calmly prepared the orders, stamped and sent the despatches; many officers and guards surrounded the table. No speeches, a little conversation, among the various groups. If hope had waned, resolution had not grown less.

Who are these officers who have laid aside their uniforms, these members of the Council, these functionaries who have shaved their beards? What are they doing here amongst these brave men? Ranvier, meeting two of his colleagues thus disguised, who during the siege had been among the most beplumed, harangued them, threatening to shoot them if they did not at once return to their arrondissements.

A great example would not have been useless. From hour to hour all discipline foundered. At that same moment the Central Committee, which believed itself invested with power by the abdication of the Council, launched a manifesto, in which it made conditions: ‘Dissolution of the Assembly and of the Commune; the army to leave Paris; the Government to be provisionally confided to the delegates of the large towns, who will have a Constituent Assembly elected; mutual amnesty.’ The ultimatum of a conqueror. This dream was posted up on a few walls, and threw new disorder into the resistance.

From time to time some greater clamour arose from the square. A spy was shot against the barricade of the Victoria Avenue. Some were audacious enough to penetrate into the most intimate councils.[186] That evening, at the Hôtel-de-Ville, Bergeret had received the verbal authorization to fire the Tuileries, when an individual pretending to be sent by him asked for this order in writing. He was still speaking when Bergeret returned. ‘Who sent you?’ said he to the personage. ‘Bergeret.’ ‘When did you see him?’ ‘Just here, a moment ago.’

During this evening, Raoul Rigault, taking orders from himself only, and without consulting any of his colleagues, repaired to the prison of Sainte PéIagie, and signified to Chaudey that he was to die. Chaudey protested, said he was a Republican, and swore that he had not given the order to fire on the 22nd January. However, he had been at that time the only authority in the Hôtel-de-Ville. His protestations were of no avail against Rigault’s resolution. Led into the exerciseground of Sainte PéIagie, Chaudey was shot, as were also three gendarmes taken prisoner on the 18th March. During the first seige he had said to some partisans of the Commune, ‘The strongest will shoot the others.’ He died perhaps for those words.