Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXXII
The Versaillese fury

We are honest men: justice will be done in accordance with the ordinary laws. (Thiers to the National Assembly, 22nd May 1871.

Honest, honest Iago! (Shakespeare.)

Order reigned in Paris. Everywhere ruins, death, sinister crepitations. The officers walked provokingly about clashing their sabres; the non-commissioned officers imitated their arrogance. The soldiers bivouacked in all the large roads. Some, stupefied by fatigue and camage, slept on the pavement; others prepared their soup by the side of the corpses, singing the songs of their native homes.

The tricolor flag hung from all the windows in order to prevent house-searches. Guns, cartridge-boxes, uniforms, were piled up in the gutters of the popular quarters. Before the doors sat women leaning their heads upon their hands, looking fixedly before them, waiting for a son or a husband who was never to return.

In the rich quarters the joy knew no bounds. The runaways of the two sieges, the demonstrators of the Place Vendôme, many emigrants of Versailles, had again taken possession of the boulevards. Since the Thursday this kid-glove populace followed the prisoners, acclaiming the gendarmes who conducted the convoys ‘[202] applauding at the sight of the blood-covered vans.[203] The civilians strove to outdo the military in levity. Such a one, who had ventured no further than the Café du Helder, recounted the taking of the Château d'Eau, bragged of having shot his dozen prisoners. Elegant and joyous women, as in a pleasure trip, betook themselves to the corpses, and, to enjoy the sight of the valorous dead, with the ends of sunshades raised their last coverings.

‘Inhabitants of Paris,’ said MacMahon on the 28th at mid-day, ‘Paris is delivered! Today the struggle is over. Order, labour, security are about to revive.’

‘Paris delivered’ was parcelled into four commands under the orders of General Vinoy, Ladmirault, Cissey, Douay, and once more placed under the regime of the state of siege raised by the Commune. There was no longer any government at Paris than the army which massacred Paris. The passers-by were constrained to demolish the barricades, and any sign of impatience brought with it an arrest, any imprecation death. It was posted up that any one in the possession of arms would immediately be sent before a court-martial; that any house from which shots were fired would be given over to summary execution. All public places were closed at eleven o'clock. Henceforth officers in uniform alone could circulate freely. Mounted patrols thronged the streets. Entrance into the town became difficult, to leave it impossible. The tradespeople not being allowed to go backwards and forwards, victuals were on the point of failing.

‘The struggle over,’ the army transformed itself into a vast platoon of executioners. On the Sunday more than 5,000 prisoners taken in the neighbourhood of the Père la Chaise were led to the prison of La Roquette. A chief of Battalion standing at the entrance surveyed the prisoners and said, ‘To the right,’ or ‘To the left.’ Those to the left were to be shot. Their pockets emptied, they were drawn up along a wall and then slaughtered. Opposite the wall two or three priests bending over their breviaries mumbled the prayers for the dying.

From the Sunday to the Monday morning in La Roquette alone more than 1,900 persons were thus murdered .[204] Blood flowed in large pools in the gutters of the prison. The same slaughter took place at the Ecole Militaire and the Parc Monceaux.

It was butchery, nothing more, nothing less. At other places the prisoners were conducted before the prevotal courts, with which Paris swarmed since the Monday. These had not sprung up at random, and, as has been believed, in the midst of the fury of the struggle. It was proved before the courts-martial that the number and seats of these prevotal courts, with their respective jurisdictions, had been appointed at Versailles before the entry of the troops .[205] One of the most celebrated was that of the Châtelet Theatre, where Colonel Vabre officiated. Thousands of prisoners who were led there were first of all penned in upon the stage and in the auditorium, under the guns of the soldiers placed in the boxes; then, little by little, like sheep driven to the door of the slaughter-house, from wing to wing they were pushed to the saloon, where, round a large table, officers of the army and the honest National Guard were seated ‘[206] their sabres between their legs, cigars in their mouths. The examination lasted a quarter of a minute. ‘Did you take arms? Did you serve the Commune? Show your hands.’ If the resolute attitude of a prisoner betrayed a combatant, if his face was unpleasant, without asking for his name, his profession, without entering any note upon any register, he was classed. ‘You?’ was said to the next one, and so on to the end of the file, without excepting the women, children, and old men. When by a caprice a prisoner was spared, he was said to be ordinary, and reserved for Versailles. No one was liberated.

The classed ones were at once delivered to the executioners, who led them into the nearest garden or court. From the Châtelet, for instance, they were taken to the Lebau Barracks.[207] There the doors were no sooner closed than the gendarmes fired, without even grouping their victims before a platoon. Some, only wounded, ran along by the walls, the gendarmes chasing and shooting at them till they fell dead. Moreau of the Central Committee perished in one of these gangs. Surprised on the Thursday evening in the Rue de Rivoli, he was conducted into the garden and placed against a terrace. There were so many victims, that the soldiers, tired out, were obliged to rest their guns actually against the sufferers. The wall of the terrace was covered with brains; the executioners waded through pools of blood.

The massacre was thus carried on, methodically organized, at the Caserne Dupleix, the Lycée Bonaparte, the Northern and Eastern Railway Stations, the Jardin des Plantes, in many mairies and barracks, at the same time as in the abattoirs. Large open vans came to fetch the corpses, and went to empty them in the square or any open space in the neighbourhood.

The victims died simply, without fanfaronade.[208] Many crossed their arms before the muskets, and themselves commanded the fire. Women and children followed their husbands and their fathers, crying to the soldiers, ‘Shoot us with them!’ And they were shot. Women, till then strangers to the struggle, were seen to come down into the streets, enraged by these butcheries, strike the officers and then throw themselves against a wall waiting for death.[209]

In June, 1848, Cavaignac had promised pardon, and he massacred. M. Thiers had sworn by the law, and he gave the army carte-blanche. The officers returned from Germany might now glut to their hearts’ content their wrath against that Paris which had insulted them by not capitulating; the Bonapartists revenge on the Republicans the old hatreds of the Empire; the boys just fresh from St. Cyr serve their apprenticeship of insolence upon the pékins. A general (Cissey most probably) gave the order to shoot M. Cernuschi, whose crime consisted in having offered 100,000 francs for the anti-plebiscitary campaign of 1870.[210] Any individual of some popular notoriety was sure to die. Dr. Tony Moilin, who had played no part during the Commune, but had been implicated in several political trials during the Empire, was in a few moments judged and condemned to death; ‘not’, his judges condescended to tell him, ‘that he had committed any act that merited death, but because he was a chief of the Socialist party, one of those men of whom a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion.[211] The Radicals of the Chamber, whose hatred of the Commune had been most clearly demonstrated, did not dare to set foot in Paris for fear of being included in the massacres.


The army, having neither police nor precise information, killed at random. Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium. At Grenelle they shot a pseudo-Billioray ‘[212] notwithstanding his despairing protests; at the Place Vendôme they shot a pseudo-Brunel in the apartments of Madame Fould. The Gaulois published the recital by a military surgeon who knew Vallès, and was present at his execution ‘[213] an eye-witness declared he had seen Lefrançais shot on the Thursday in the Rue de la Banque. The real Billioray was tried in the month of August; Brunel, Vallès, and Lefrançais succeeded in escaping from France. Members and functionaries of the Commune were thus shot, and often several times over, in the persons of individuals who resembled them more or less.

Varlin, alas! was not to escape. On Sunday, the 28th May, he was recognized in the Rue Lafayette, and led, or rather dragged, to the foot of the Buttes Montmartre before the commanding general. The Versaillese sent him to be shot in the Rue des Rosiers. For an hour, a mortal hour, Varlin was dragged through the streets of Montmartre, his hands tied behind his back, under a shower of blows and insults. His young, thoughtful head, that had never harboured other thoughts than of fraternity, slashed open by the sabres, was soon but one mass of blood, of mangled flesh, the eye protruding from the orbit. On reaching the Rue des Rosiers, he no longer walked; he was carried.

They set him down to shoot him. The wretches dismembered his corpse with blows of the butt-ends of their muskets.

The Mount of Martyrs has no more glorious one than Varlin. May he too be enshrined in the great heart of the working-class! Varlin’s whole life was an example. He had quite alone, by the mere force of his will, educated himself, giving to study the rare hours left him in the evening after the workshop; learning not with the view to push into the bourgeoisie, as many others did, but to instruct and enfranchise the people. He was the heart and soul of the working men’s associations at the end of the Empire. Indefatigable, modest, speaking little, always at the right moment, and then enlightening a confused discussion with a word, he had preserved that revolutionary instinct which is often blunted in educated workmen. One of the first on the 18th March, labouring during the whole Commune, he was at the barricades to the last. His death is all to the honour of the workmen. It is to Varlin and to Delescluze that this history should be dedicated, if there were room in the frontispiece for any other name than that of Paris.

The Versaillese journalists spat on his corpse; said that some hundreds of thousands of francs had been found on him.’[214] Returned to Paris behind the army, they followed it like jackals. Those of the demi-monde, above all, were mad with a sanguinary hysteria. The coalition of the 21st March was re-made. All uttered one howl against the vanquished workmen. Far from moderating the massacre, they encouraged it, published the names, the hiding-places of those who were to be killed, unflagging in inventions calculated to keep up the furious terror of the bourgeoisie. After every shooting they cried encore.

I quote at random, and could quote pages: ‘We must make a Communard hunt’ (Bien Public). ‘Not one of the malefactors in whose hands Paris has been for two months will be considered as a political man. They will be treated like the brigands they are, like the most frightful monsters ever seen in the history of humanity. Many journals speak of re-erecting the scaffold ‘destroyed by them, in order not even to do them the honour of shooting them’ (Moniteur Universal). ‘Come, honest people, an effort to make an end of this international democratic vermin’ (Figaro). ‘These men, who have killed for the sake of killing and stealing, are taken, and we should answer, Mercy! These hideous women, who stabbed the breast of dying officers, are taken. and we should cry, Mercy!’ (Patrie).[215]

To encourage the hangmen, if that were necessary, the press threw them crowns.

‘What an admirable attitude is that of our officers and soldiers!’ said the Figaro. ‘It is only to the French soldier that it is given to recover so quickly and so well.’ ‘What an honour!’ cried the Journal des Débats. ‘Our army has avenged its disasters by an inestimable victory.’

Thus the army wreaked on Paris revenge for its defeats. Paris was an enemy like Prussia, and all the less to be spared that the army had its prestige to reconquer. To complete the similitude, after the victory there was a triumph. The Romans never adjudged it after the civil struggles. M. Thiers was not ashamed, under the eye of the foreigner, before still smoking Paris, to parade his troops in a grand review. Who then will dare to blame the Federals for having resisted the army of Versailles as they would have the Prussians?

And when did foreigners show such fury ?[216] Death even seemed to whet their rancour. On Sunday, the 28th, near the mairie of the eleventh arrondissment, about fifty prisoners had just been shot. Urged not by an unworthy curiosity, but by the earnest desire to know the truth, we went, at the risk of being recognized, as far as the corpses lying on the pavement. A woman lay there, her skirts turned up; from her ripped-up body protruded the entrails, which a marine-fusilier amused himself by dividing with the end of his bayonet. The officers, a few steps off, let him do this. The victors, in order to dishonour these corpses, had placed inscriptions on their breasts, ‘assassin’, ‘thief’, ‘drunkard’, and stuck the necks of bottles into the mouths of some of them.

How to justify this savagery? The official reports only mention very few deaths among the Versaillese — 877 during the whole time of the operations, from the 3rd April up to the 28th May .[217] The Versaillese fury had then no excuse for these reprisals. When a handful of exasperated men, to avenge thousands of their brothers, shoot sixtythree of their most inveterate enemies[218] out of nearly 300 whom they had in their hands, the hypocritical reaction veils its face and protests in the name of justice. What, then, will this justice say when those shall be judged who methodically, without any anxiety as to the issue of the combat, and, above all, the battle over, shot 20,000 persons, of whom three-fourths had not taken part in the fight? Still some flashes of humanity were shown by the soldiers, and some were seen coming back from the executions their heads bowed down; but the officers never slackened for one second in their ferocity. Even after the Sunday they still slaughtered the prisoners, shouted ‘Bravo!’ at the executions. The courage of the victims they called insolence.[219] Let them be responsible before Paris, France, the new generation, for these deeds of infamy.

At last the smell of the carnage began to choke even the most frantic. The plague was coming, if pity did not. Myriads of flesh-flies flew up from the putrefied corpses. The streets were full of dead birds. The Avenir Libéral singing the praises of MacMahon’s proclamations, applied the words of Flechier; ‘He hides himself, but his glory finds him out.’ The glory of the Turenne of 1871 betrayed him even up to the Seine .[220] In certain streets the corpses encumbered the pathway, looking at the passers-by from out of their dead eyes. In the Faubourg St. Antoine they were to be seen everywhere in heaps, half white with chloride of lime. At the Polytechnic School they occupied a space of 100 yards long and three deep. At Passy, which was not one of the great centres of execution, there were 1, 100 near the Trocadero. These, covered over by a thin shroud of earth, also showed their ghastly profiles. ‘Who does not recollect,’ said the Temps, ‘even though he had seen it but one moment, the square, no, the charnel of the Tour St. Jacques? From the midst of this moist soil, recently turned up by the spade, here and there look out heads, arms, feet, and hands. The profiles of corpses, dressed in the uniform of National Guards, were seen impressed against the ground. It was hideous. A decayed, sickening odour arose from this garden, and occasionally at some places it became fetid.’ The rain and heat having precipitated the putrefaction, the swollen bodies reappeared. The glory of MacMahon displayed itself too well. The journals were taking fright. ‘These wretches,’ said one of them, ‘who have done us so much harm during their lives, must not be allowed to do so still after their death.’ And those that had instigated the massacre cried ‘Enough!’

‘Let us not kill any more,’ said the Paris Journal of the 2nd June, ‘even the assassins, even the incendiaries. Let us not kill any more. It is not their pardon we ask for, but a respite.’ ‘Enough executions, enough blood, enough victims,’ said the Nationale of the 1st June. And the Opinion Nationale of the same day: ‘A serious examination of the accused is imperative. One would like to see only the really guilty die.’

The executions abated, and the sweeping off began. Carriages of all kinds, vans, omnibuses, came to pick up the corpses and traversed the town. Since the great plagues of London and Marseilles, such cart-loads of human flesh had not been seen. These exhumations proved that a great number of people had been buried alive. Imperfectly shot, and thrown with the heaps of dead into the common grave, they had eaten earth, and showed the contortions of their violent agony. Certain corpses were taken up in pieces. It was necessary to shut them as soon as possible into closed wagons, and to take them with the utmost speed to the cemeteries, where immense graves of lime swallowed up these putrid masses.

The cemetries of Paris absorbed all they could. The victims, placed side by side, without any other covering than their clothes, filled enormous ditches at the Père la Chaise, Montmartre, Mont-Parnasse, where the people in pious rememberance will annually come as pilgrims. Others, more unfortunate, were carried out of the town. At Charonne, Bagnolet, Bicêtre, etc. the trenches dug during the first siege were utilized. ‘There nothing is to be feared of the cadaverous emanations,’ said La Liberté ‘an impure blood will water the soil of the labourer, fecundating it. The deceased delegate at war will be able to pass a review of his faithful followers at the hour of midnight; the watchword will be Incendiarism and assassination.’ Women by the side of the lugubrious trench endeavoured to recognize these remains. The police waited that their grief should betray them, in order to arrest those ‘females of insurgents.’

The burying of such a large number of corpses soon became too difficult, and they were burnt in the casemates of the fortifications; but for want of draught the combustion was incomplete, and the bodies were reduced to a pulp. At the Buttes Chaumont the corpses, piled up in enormous heaps, inundated with petroleum, were burnt in the open air.

The wholesale massacres lasted up to the first days of June, [221] and the summary executions up to the middle of that month. For a long time mysterious dramas were enacted in the Bois de Boulogne .[222] Never will the exact number of the victims of the Bloody Week be known. The chief of military justice admitted 17,000 shot, [223] the municipal council of Paris paid the expenses of burial of 17,000 corpses; but a great number were killed out of Paris or burnt. There is no exaggeration in saying 20,000 at least.

Many battlefields have numbered more dead, but these at least had fallen in the fury of the combat. The century has not witnessed such a slaughtering after the battle; there is nothing to equal it in the history of our civil struggles. St. Bartholomew’s Day, June 1848, the 2nd December, would form but an episode of the massacres of May. Even the great executioners of Rome and modern times pale before the Duke of Magenta. The hecatombs of the Asiatic victors, the fetes of Dahomey alone could give some idea of this butchery of proletarians.

Such was the repression ‘by the laws, with the laws.’ And during these atrocities of incomparably worse than Bulgarian type, the bourgeoisie, raising to heaven its bloody hands, undertook to incite the whole world against this people, who, after two months of domination and the massacre of thousands of their own, had shed the blood of sixty-three prisoners.

All social powers covered the death-rattle of the victims by their applause. The priests, those great consecrators of assassination, celebrated the victory in a solemn service, at which the entire Assembly assisted. The reign of the Gesu was about to commence.