Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXX
The Left bank falls

A few thousand men could not indefinitely hold a line of battle several miles long. When night had set in, many Federals abandoned their barricades in order to snatch a little rest. The Versaillese, who were on the look-out, took possession of their defences, and the glimmering of dawn saw the tricolor where on the eve had floated the red flag.

In the darkness the Federals evacuated the greater part of the tenth arrondissement, whose artillery pieces were transported to the Château d'Eau. Brunel and the brave pupilles de la Commune still stood their ground in the Rue Magnan and on the Quai Jemappes, the troops holding the top of the Boulevard Magenta.

On the left bank, the Versaillese erected batteries at the Place d'Enfer, the Luxembourg, and Bastion 81. More than fifty cannon and machine-guns were levelled at the Butte aux Cailles; for, despairing of taking it by assault, Cissey wished to crush it with his artillery. Wroblewski, on his side, did not remain inactive. Besides the 175th and 176th battalions, he had under his command the legendary 101st, which was to the troops of the Commune what the 32nd brigade had been to the army of Italy. Since the 3rd April the 101st had not rested. Day and night, their guns hot, they had roamed about the trenches, the villages, the fields; the Versaillese of Neuilly, of Asnières, ten times fled before them. They had taken three cannon from them, which, like faithful mastiffs, followed them everywhere. All citizens of the thirteenth arrondissement and the Mouffetard quarter, undisciplined, undisciplinable, wild, rough, their clothes and flag torn, obeying only one order, that to march forward, mutineering when inactive, when hardly out of fire rendering it necessary to plunge them into it again. Sérizier commanded, or rather accompanied them; for indeed their rage was their only commander. While at the front they attempted surprises, seized outposts, kept the soldiers in alarm, Wroblewski, uncovered on his right since the taking of the Panthéon, secured his communications with the Seine by a barricade on the Bridge of Austerlitz, and furnished the Place Jeanne d'Arc with cannon, in order to check the troops who might venture along the railway station.

That day M. Thiers dared to telegraph to the provinces that Marshal MacMahon had just, for the last time, summoned the Federals to surrender. This was an odious lie added to so many others. Like Cavaignac in 1848, M. Thiers, on the contrary, wanted to prolong the battle. He knew that his shells were setting Paris on fire, that the massacre of the prisoners, of the wounded, would fatally entail that of the hostages. But what cared he for the fate of a few priests and a few gendarmes? What cared the bourgeoisie if it triumphed amidst ruins — if on these ruins it could write, ‘Paris waged war with the privileged; Paris is no more!’

The Hôtel-de-Ville and the Panthéon in the power of the troops, their whole efforts concentrated upon the Château d'Eau, the Bastille, and the Butte aux Cailles. At four o'clock Clinchant resumed his march towards the Château d'Eau. One column, setting out from the Rue Paradis, went up the Rues du Château d'Eau and De Bondy; another advanced against the barricade of the Boulevards Magenta and Strasbourg; while a third from the Rue des Jeuneurs pushed on between the boulevards and the Rue Turbigo. The Douay corps on the right supported this movement, and endeavoured to remount the third arrondissement by the Rues Charlot and de Saintonge. Vinoy advanced towards the Bastille by the small streets that abut upon the Rue St. Antoine, the quays of the right and of the left banks. Cissey, with more modest strategy, shelled the Butte aux Cailles, before which his men had so often turned tail.


Painful scenes were enacted in the forts. Wroblewski, whose left wing was covered by them, relied for their preservation upon the energy of the member of the Council who had assumed the functions of delegate. The evening before the commander of Montrouge had abandoned that fort and had retreated to Bicêtre with his garrison. The fort of Bicêtre did not hold out much longer. The battalions declared that they wanted to return to the town in order to defend their districts, and the delegate, in spite of his threats, was unable to retain them; so, after having spiked their guns, the whole garrison returned to Paris. The Versaillese occupied the two evacuated forts, and there at once erected batteries against the fort of Ivry and the Butte aux Cailles.

The general attack on the Butte did not begin till midday. The Versaillese followed the ramparts as far as the Avenue d'Italie and the Route de Choisy, with the view of making sure of the Place d'Italie, which they attacked from the side of the Gobelins. The Avenues d'Italie and de Choisy were defended by powerful barricades which they could not dream of forcing; but that of the Boulevard St. Marcel, protected on one side by the conflagration of the Gobelins, could be taken by the numerous gardens intersecting this quarter, and the Versaillese succeeded in doing this. They first took possession of the Rue des Cordillières St. Marcel, where twenty Federals who refused to surrender were massacred, and then entered the gardens. For three hours a prolonged and obstinate firing enveloped the Butte aux Cailles, battered down by the Versaillese cannon, six times as numerous as Wroblewski’s.

The garrison of Ivry arrived towards one o'clock. On leaving the fort they had let off a mine which sprung two bastions. Soon after the Versaillese penetrated into the abandoned fort, and then there was no struggle, as M. Thiers tried to make it appear in one of those bulletins in which he very cleverly intermingled truth and falsehood.

Towards ten o'clock on the right bank the Versaillese reached the barricade of the Faubourg St. Denis, near the St. Lazare prison, outflanked and shot seventeen Federals. [193] Thence they went to occupy the St. Laurent barricade at the junction of the Boulevard Sebastopol, erected batteries against the Château d'Eau, and by the Rue des Récollets gained the Quai Valmy. On the night, their advance on to the Boulevard St. Martin was retarded by the Rue de Lanery, against which they fired from the Ambigu-Comique Théatre. In the third arrondissement they were stopped in the Rue Meslay, Rue Nazareth, Rue du Vert-Bois, Rue Charlot, Rue de Saintonge.

The second arrondissement, invaded from all sides, was still disputing its Rue Montorgueuil. Nearer the Seine, Vinoy succeeded in entering the Grenier d'Abondance by circuitous streets, and in order to dislodge him the Federals set fire to this building, which overlooks the Bastille.

Three o'clock — The Versaillese invaded the thirteenth arrondissement more and more. Their shells falling upon the prison of the Avenue d'Italie, the Federals evacuated it, at the same time taking out the prisoners, amongst whom were the Dominicans of Arcueil, who had been brought back to Paris with the garrison of Bicêtre. The sight of these men, doubly odious, exasperated the combatants, whose guns, so to say, spontaneously went off, and a dozen of the apostles of the Inquisition fell under the bullets at the moment they were running away by the Avenue. All the other prisoners were respected.

Since the morning Wroblewski had received the order to fall back upon the eleventh arrondissement. He persisted in holding out, and had shifted the centre of his resistance a little further to the rear, to the Place Jeanne d'Arc. But the Versaillese, masters of the Avenue des Gobelins, made their junction with the columns of the Avenues d'Italie and Choisy in the thirteenth arrondissement. One of their detachments, continuing to file along the rampart, reached the embankment of the Orleans Railway, and the red-coats were already showing themselves on the Boulevard St. Marcel. Wroblewski, almost hemmed in on all sides, was at last forced to consent to a retreat. Moreover, the subaltern chiefs had, like their general, received the order to fall back; and so, protected by the fire of the Austerlitz Bridge, the able defender of the Butte aux Cailles passed the Seine in good order with his cannon and a thousand men. A certain number of Federals, who obstinately remained behind in the thirteenth arrondissement, were surrounded and taken prisoners.

The Versaillese did not dare to disturb Wroblewski’s retreat, although they held part of the Boulevard St. Marcel, the Orleans Station, and their gunboats were ascending the Seine. The latter were delayed for a moment at the entrance of the St. Martin’s Canal, but putting on full steam, they overcame the obstacle, and in the evening lent assistance in the attack on the eleventh arrondissement.

The whole left bank now belonged to the enemy; the Bastille and the Château d'Eau became the centre of the combat.

In the Boulevard Voltaire might now be seen all the true-hearted men who had not perished, or whose presence was not indispensable in their quarters. One of the most active was Vermorel, who during the whole struggle showed a courage composed at once of fire and coolness. On horseback, his red scarf tied round him, he rode from barricade to barricade, encouraging the men, fetching and bringing reinforcements. At the mairie another meeting was held towards twelve o'clock. Twenty-two members of the Council were present; about ten more were defending their arrondissements, the others had disappeared. Arnold explained that the evening before, the secretary of Mr. Washburne, the ambassador of the United States, had come to offer the mediation of the Germans. The Commune, he said, had now only to send commissaries to Vincennes in order to regulate the conditions of an armistice. The secretary, introduced to the meeting, renewed this declaration, and the discussion began. Delescluze showed great reluctance to accept this plan. What motive induced the foreigner to intervene? To put an end to the conflagration and preserve their guarantee, he was answered. But their guarantee was the Versaillese Government, whose triumph was no longer doubtful at this moment. Others gravely asserted that the inveterate defence of Paris had inspired the Prussian with admiration. No one asked whether this insensate proposition did not hide some snare; if the pretended secretary were not a simple spy. They clung like drowning men to this last chance of salvation. Arnold even set forth the basis of an armistice similar to that of the Central Committee. Four of the members present, and amongst them Delescluze, were charged to accompany the American secretary to Vincennes.

At three o'clock they reached the gate of Vincennes, but the commisar of police refused to let them pass. They showed their scarfs, their cards of members of the Council. The commissar insisted upon a safe-conduct from the Commission of Public Safety. While the discussion was going on some Federals came up. ‘Where are you going?’ said they. ‘To Vincennes.’ ‘Why?’ ‘On a mission.’ A painful controversy ensued. The Federals thought the members of the Council wanted to abscond, and they were even about to ill-use them, when someone recognized Delescluze. His name saved the others; but the commissar still insisted upon a safe-conduct.

One of the delegates ran off to the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement to procure it, but, even on Ferré’s order, the guards refused to lower the drawbridge. Delescluze addressed them and said that the common weal of all was at stake; but prayers and threats proved alike unable to overcome the idea of a defection. Delescluze came back shivering all over. For one moment he had been suspected of cowardice; this was to him a death-blow.

Before the mairie he found a crowd shouting at some flags, surmounted by eagles, which had just, they said, been taken from the Versaillese. Wounded were’ being brought from the Bastille. Mademoiselle Dimitriev, wounded herself, supported Frankel, wounded at the barricade of the Faubourg St. Antoine. Wroblewski just arriving from the Butte aux Cailles, Delescluze offered him the command-in-chief. ‘Have you a few thousand resolute men?’ asked Wroblewski. ‘A few hundred at most,’ answered the delegate. Wroblewski could not accept any responsibility of command under such unequal conditions, and continued to fight as a simple soldier. He was the only general of the Commune who had showed the qualities of a chef-de-corps. He always asked to have those battalions sent him which everybody else declined, undertaking to utilize them.

The attack was coming nearer and nearer the Château d'Eau. This square, constructed with the object of checking the faubourgs, and opening into eight large avenues, had not been really fortified. The Versaillese, masters of the Folies-Dramatiques Théatre and of the Rue du Château d'Eau, attacked it by skirting the Prince Eugène Barracks. House by house they tore the Rue Magnan from the pupilles de la Commune. Brunel, after facing the enemy for four days, fell wounded in the thigh. The pupilles carried him away on a litter across the Place du Château d'Eau amidst a shower of bullets.

From the Rue Magnan the Versaillese soon reached the barracks, and the Federals, too few in number to defend this vast monument, had to evacuate it.

The fall of this position uncovered the Rue Turbigo, thus enabling the Versaillese to occupy the whole upper part of the third arrondissement, and to surround the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. After a rather long struggle the Federals abandoned the barricade of the Conservatoire, leaving behind them a loaded machine-gun. A woman also remained. As soon as the soldiers were within range she discharged the machine-gun at them.

The barricades of the Boulevards Voltaire and Dejazet’s Theatre had henceforth to sustain the whole fire of the Prince Eugène Barracks, the Boulevard Magenta, the Boulevard St. Martin, the Rue du Temple, and the Rue Turbigo. Behind their fragile shelter the Federals gallantly received this avalanche. How many men have been called heroes who never showed a hundredth part of this simple courage, without any stage effects, without a history, which shone forth during these days in a thousand places in Paris! At the Château d'Eau a young girl of nineteen, rosy and charming, with black, curling hair, dressed as a marine fusilier, fought desperately a whole day. At the same place a lieutenant was killed in front of the barricade; a child of fifteen, Dauteuille, went to pick up the képi of the dead man in the thick of the bullets, and brought it back amidst the cheers of his companions.

For in the battle of the streets, as in the open field, the children proved themselves as brave as the men. At a barricade of the Faubourg du Temple the most indefatigable gunner was a child. The barricade taken, all its defenders were shot, and the child’s turn also came. He asked for three minutes’ respite; ‘so that he could take his mother, who lived opposite, his silver watch, In order that she might at least not lose everything.’ The officer, involuntarily moved, let him go, not thinking to see him again; but three minutes after the child cried, ‘Here I am!’ jumped on to the pavement, and nimbly leant against the wall near the corpses of his comrades. Paris will never die as long as she brings forth such people.

The Place du Château d'Eau was ravaged as by a cyclone. The walls crumbled beneath the shells and bombs; enormous blocks were thrown up; the lions of the fountains perforated or overthrown, the basin surmounting it shattered. Fire burst out from twenty houses. The trees were leafless, and their broken branches hung like limbs all but parted from the main body. The gardens, turned up, sent forth clouds of dust. The invisible hand of death alighted upon each stone.

At a quarter to seven, near the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement, we saw Delescluze, Jourde, and about a hundred Federals marching in the direction of the Château d'Eau. Delescluze wore his ordinary dress, black hat, coat, and trousers, his red scarf, inconspicuous was was his wont, tied round his waist. Without arms, he leant on a cane. Apprehensive of some panic at the Château d'Eau, we followed the delegate. Some of us stopped at the St. Ambrose Church to get arms. We then met a merchant from Alsace, who, exasperated at those who had betrayed his country, had been fighting for five days, and had just been severely wounded; farther on, Lisbonne, who, like Brunel, having too often defied death, had at last fallen at the Château d'Eau; he was being brought back almost dead; and finally, Vermorel, wounded by the side of Lisbonne, whom Theisz and Jaclard were carrying off on a litter, leaving behind him large drops of blood. We thus remained a little behind Delescluze. At about eighty yards from the barricade the guards who accompanied him kept back, for the projectiles obscured the entrance of the boulevard.

Delescluze still walked forward. Behold the scene; we have witnessed it; let it be engraved in the annals of history. The sun was setting. The old exile, unmindful whether he was followed, still advanced at the same pace, the only living being on the road. Arrived at the barricade, he bent off to the left and mounted upon the paving-stones.

For the last time his austere face, framed in his white beard, appeared to us turned towards death. Suddenly Delescluze disappeared. He had fallen as if thunderstricken on the Place du Château d'Eau.

Some men tried to raise him. Three out of four fell dead. The only thing to be thought of now was the barricade, the rallying of its few defenders. A member of the Council, Johannard, almost in the middle of the boulevard, raising his gun, and weeping with rage, cried to those who hesitated, ‘No! you are not worthy of defending the Commune!’ Night set in. We returned heart-broken, leaving, abandoned to the outrages of an adversary without respect for death, the body of our friend.

He had forewarned no one, not even his most intimate friends. Silent, having for confidant only his severe conscience, Delescluze walked to the barricade as the old Montagnards went to the scaffold. An eventful life had exhausted his strength; he had but a breath left, and he gave it. The Versaillese have stolen his body, but his memory will remain enshrined in the heart of the people as long as France shall be the mother-country of the Revolution. He lived only for justice. That was his talent, his science, the pole-star of his life. He proclaimed her, confessed her, through thirty years of exile, prisons, insult, disdaining the persecutions that crushed him. A Jacobin, he fell with the men of the people to defend her. It was his recompense to die for her, his hands free, in the open daylight, at his own time, not afflicted by the sight of the executioner.

Compare the conduct of the Minister of War of the Commune with the cowardice of the Bonapartist Minister and generals escaping death by surrendering their swords.

The whole evening the Versaillese attacked the entrance of the Boulevard Voltaire, protected by the conflagration of the two corner houses. On the side of the Bastille they did not get beyond the Place Royale, but they were breaking into the twelfth arrondissement. Under the shelter of the wall of the quay, they had in the course of the day penetrated beneath the Austerlitz Bridge; in the evening, protected by their gunboats and the batteries of the Jardin des Plantes, they pushed as far as Mazas.

Our right wing held out better. The Versaillese had not been able to proceed further than the Eastern Railway line. From afar they attacked the Rue d'Aubervilliers, aided by the fire of the Rotonde. Ranvier vigorously shelled Montmartre, when a despatch from the Committee of Public Safety informed him that the red flag was floating from the Moulin de la Galette. Ranvier, unable to believe this, refused to cease firing.

In the evening the Versaillese formed in front of the Federals a broken line, commencing from the Eastern Railway, passing the Château d'Eau and the Bastille, and ending at the Lyons Railway. There remained to the Commune but two arrondissements intact, the nineteenth and twentieth, and about half of the eleventh and twelfth.

The Paris of Versailles no longer presented a civilized aspect. Fear, hate, and fiendish brutishness smothered all feelings of humanity. It was a universal ‘furious madness,’ said the Siècle of the 26th. ‘One no longer distinguishes the just from the unjust, the innocent from the guilty. The life of citizens weighs no more than a hair. For a cry, for a word, one is arrested, shot.’ The ventilators of the cellars were blocked up by order of the army, which wanted to give credit to the legend of the petroleuses. The National Guards of order crept out from their lurking-places, proud of their armlets, offering their services to the officers, ransacking the houses, requesting the honour of presiding at the shootings. In the tenth arrondissement the former mayor, Dubail, assisted by the commander of the 109th battalion, led the soldiers to hunt those who had formerly been under his administration. Thanks to the brassardiers, the tide of prisoners swelled so that it became necessary to centralize the carnage. The victims were pushed into the mairies, the barracks, the public edifices, where prevotal courts were organized, and shot in troops. When the firingsquad proved insufficient the machine-gun mowed them down. All did not die at once, and in the night there arose from these bleeding heaps ghastly cries of agony.

The shades of night brought back the spectacle of the conflagrations. Where the rays of the sun had only shown sombre clouds, Pyramids of fire now appeared. The Grenier d'Abondance illuminated the Seine far beyond the fortifications. The column of the Bastille, entirely perforated by the shells, which had set its covering of crowns and flags on fire, blazed like a. gigantic torch. The Boulevard Voltaire was burning on the side of the Château d'Eau.

The death of Delescluze had been so simple and so rapid, that even at the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement it was doubted. Towards midnight some members of the Council agreed to evacuate the mairie.

What! always fly before powder and shot! Is the Bastille taken? Does not the Boulevard Voltaire still hold out? The whole strategy of the Committee of Public Safety, its whole plan of battle, was to retreat. At two o'clock in the morning, when a member of the Commune was wanted to support the barricade of the Château d'Eau, only Gambon was found, asleep in a corner. An officer awoke him and begged his pardon. The worthy Republican answered, ‘It is as well it should be I as another; I have lived,’ and he departed. But the balls already swept the Boulevard Voltaire up to the St. Ambrose Church. The barricade was deserted.