Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXXIII
The fate of the prisoners


The cause of justice, order, humanity and civilization has triumphed. (Thiers to the National Assembly.)

Happy the dead! They had not to mount the Calvary of the prisoners.

From the wholesale shootings one may guess the number of arrests. It was a furious razzia; men, women, children, Parisians, provincials, foreigners, a crowd of people of all sexes and all ages, of all parties and all conditions. All the lodgers of a house, all the inhabitants of a street, were carried off in a body. A suspicion, a word, a doubtful attitude were sufficient to cause one to be seized by the soldiers. From the 2 1st to the 30th May they thus picked up 40,000 persons.

These prisoners were formed into long chains, sometimes free, sometimes, as in June, 1848, bound by cords so as to form only one body. Whoever refused to walk on was pricked with the bayonet, and, if he resisted, shot on the spot, sometimes attached to a horse’s tail . [224] In front of the churches of the rich quarters the captives were forced to kneel down, bareheaded, amidst an infamous mob of lackeys, fashionable folk, and prostitutes, crying, ‘Death! death! Do not go any further; shoot them here!’ At the Champs-Elysées they wanted to break lines to taste blood.

The prisoners were sent on to Versailles. Gallifet awaited them at La Muette. In the town he escorted the chains, halting under the windows of the aristocratic clubs in order to earn plaudits and hurrahs. At the gates of Paris he levied his tithe, walked past the ranks, and, with his look of a famished wolf, ‘You seem intelligent,’ said he to some one; ‘step out of the ranks.’ ‘You have a watch,’ said he to another; ‘you must have been a functionary of the Commune,’ and he placed him apart. On the 26th, in one single convoy, he chose eightythree men and three women, made them draw up along the talus of the fortifications and had them shot .[225] Then he said to their comrades, ‘My name is Gallifet. Your journals in Paris had sullied me enough. I take my revenge.’ On Sunday, the 28th, he said, ‘Let those who have white hairs step out from the ranks.’ One hundred and eleven captives advanced. ‘You,’ continued Gallifet, ‘you have seen June, 1848; you are more culpable than the others,’ and he had their corpses thrown over into the fortifications.

This purgation over, the convoys entered upon the route to Versailles, pressed between two lines of cavalry. It looked like the population of a city dragged away by fierce hordes. Lads, grey-bearded men, soldiers, dandies, all and every condition; the most delicate and the most rude confounded in the same vortex. There were many women, some with manacles on their hands; one with her baby, pressing its mother’s neck with its frightened little hands; another, her arm broken, her blouse stained with blood; another depressed, clinging to the arm of her more vigorous neighbour; another in a statuesque attitude, defying pain and insults; always that woman of the people, who, after having carried the bread to the trenches and given consolation to the dying, hopeless — ‘weary of giving birth to unhappy souls’ — longed for liberating death.

Their attitude, which inspired foreign journals with admiration,[226] exasperated the Versaillese ferocity. ‘In seeing the convoys of insurgent women,’ said the Figaro ‘one feels in spite of oneself a kind of pity; but one is reassured by thinking that all the brothels of the capital have been thrown open by the National Guards, who patronized them, and that the majority of these ladies were inhabitants of these establishments.’

Panting, covered with filth, idiotic with fatigue, hunger, and thirst, burnt by the sun, the convoys dragged themselves along for hours in the over-heated dust of the roads, harassed by the cries, the blows from the mounted chasseurs. The Prussians had not thus cruelly treated these soldiers when, prisoners themselves some months before, they had been led away from Sedan or Metz. The captives who fell were sometimes shot, sometimes they were only thrown into the carts that followed.

At the entry into Versailles the crowd awaited them, always the élite of French society, deputies, functionaries, priests, officers, women of all sorts. The fury of the 4th April and the preceding convoys were as much surpassed as the sea swells at the equinoctial tide. The Avenues de Paris and de St. Cloud were lined by savages, who followed the convoys with vociferations, blows, covered them with filth and broken pieces of bottle. ‘One sees,’ said the Liberal-Conservative newspaper, the Siècle, of the 30th May, ‘women, not prostitutes, but elegant ladies, insult the prisoners on their passage, and even strike them with their sunshades.’ Woe to whoever did not insult the vanquished! Woe to him who allowed a movement of commiseration to escape him! He was at once seized, led to the post,[227] or else simply forced into the convoy. Frightful retrogression of human nature, all the more hideous in that it contrasted with the elegance of the costume l Prussian officers came from St. Denis once more to see what governing classes they had had to oppose them.

The first convoys were promenaded about as a spectacle in the streets of Versailles; others were stationed for hours at the torrid Place d'Armes, a few steps from the large trees, whose shade was refused them. The prisoners were then distributed in four depots, the cellars of the Grandes-Ecuries, the Orangerie of the castle, the docks of Satory, and the riding-school of the Ecole de St. Cyr. Into these damp, nauseous cellars, where light and air only penetrated by some narrow openings, men, children, of whom some were not more than ten years old, were crowded without straw during the first days. When they did get some, it was soon reduced to mere dung. No water to wash with; no means of changing their rags, as the relations who brought linen were brutally sent back. Twice a day, in a trough, they got a yellowish liquid, a porridge. The gendarmes sold tobacco at exorbitant prices, and confiscated it in order to sell it over again. There were no doctors. Gangrene attacked the wounded; opthalmia broke out; deliriousness became chronic. In the night were heard the shrieks of the feverstricken and the mad. Opposite, the gendarmes remained impassive, their guns loaded.

Even these horrors were outdone by the Fosse-aux-Lions, a vault without air, absolutely dark, the antechamber of the tomb, under the large red marble staircase of the terrace. Whoever was noted as dangerous, or whoever had simply displeased the corporal, was thrown into it. The most robust could only bear up against it a few days. On leaving it, giddy, the mind a blank, dazzled by the broad daylight, they swooned. Happy he who met the look of his wife. The wives of the captives pressed against the outer rails of the Orangerie, striving to distinguish some one amidst the dimly seen herd. They tore their hair, implored the gendarmes, who thrust them back, struck them, called them infamous names.

The open-air hell was the docks of the plateau of Satory, a vast parallelogram enclosed by walls. The soil is clayey, and the least rain soaks it. The first arrivals were placed within the buildings, which could contain about thirteen hundred persons, the others remained outside, bareheaded, for their hats had been knocked off at Paris or at Versailles. The gendarmes were on duty, being more reliable, more hardened than the soldiers.

On the Thursday evening at eight o'clock a convoy, composed chiefly of women, arrived at the dock. ‘Many of us,’ one of them has reported to me, the wife of a chef-de-légion, ‘had died on the way; we had had nothing since morning.

‘It was still daylight. We saw a great multitude of prisoners. The women were apart in a hut at the entrance. We joined them.

‘We were told that there was a pond, and, dying of thirst, we rushed thither. The first who drank uttered a loud cry, vomited. “Oh, the wretches! they make us drink the blood of our own people.” For since evening the wounded went there to bathe their wounds; but thirst tormented us so cruelly, that some had the courage to rinse out their mouths with this bloody water.

‘The hut was already full, and we were made to lie on the earth in groups of about 200. An officer came and said to us, “Vile creatures! listen to the order I give. Gendarmes, the first who moves, fire on these — !”

‘At ten o'clock we heard reports quite near. We jumped up. “Lie down, wretches!” cried the gendarmes, taking aim at us. It was some prisoners being shot a few steps from us. We thought the balls would pass through our heads. The gendarmes who had just been shooting came to relieve our guardians. We remained the whole night watched by men heated with carriage. They grumbled at those who writhed with terror and cold. “Do not be impatient; your turn is coming.” At daybreak we saw the dead. The gendarmes said to each other, “Oh! isn’t this a jolly vintage?”

‘In the evening the prisoners heard a sound of spades and hammers in the wall of the south. The shootings, the menaces had maddened them. They awaited death from all sides and in every shape; they thought that this time they were going to be blown up. Holes opened and machine-guns appeared, some of which were discharged.’[228]

On Friday evening a storm of several hours broke out above the camp. The prisoners were forced, on pain of being shot, to lie down all night in the mud. About twenty died of cold.

The camp of Satory soon became the Longchamp of Versailles high life. Captain Aubrey did the honours with the ladies, the deputies, the literary men, showing them his subjects grovelling in the mud, devouring a few biscuits, taking tumblers of water from the pond into which the gendarmes stood on no ceremony in relieving themselves. Some, going mad, dashed their heads against the walls; others howled, tearing their beards and hair. A fetid cloud arose from this living mass of rags and horrors. ‘There are,’ said the Indépendence Française, ‘several thousands of people poisoned with dirt and vermin spreading infection of a kilometre around. Cannon are levelled at these wretches penned up like wild beasts. The inhabitants of Paris are afraid of the epidemic resulting from the burying of the insurgents killed in the town. Those whom the Officiel of Paris called the rurals are much more afraid of the epidemic resulting from the presence of the live insurgents at Satory.’

Those are the honest people of Versailles, who had just caused the triumph of ‘the cause of justice, order, humanity, and civilisation.’ How good and humane, despite the bombardment and the sufferings of the siege, those brigands of Paris had been, above all by the side of these honest people! Who ever ill-treated a prisoner in the Paris of the Commune? What woman perished or was insulted? What obscure corner of the Parisian prisons had hidden a single one of the thousand tortures which displayed themselves in broad daylight at Versailles?

From the 24th May to the first days of June the convoys did not cease flowing into this abyss. The arrests went on in large hauls by day and night. The sergents-de-ville accompanied the soldiers, and, under the pretext of perquisitions, forced the locks, appropriating objects of value. Several officers, were in the sequel condemned for the embezzlement of objects seized .[229] They arrested not only the persons compromised in the late affairs, those who were denounced by their uniforms, or documents found in the mairies and at the War Office, but whoever was known for his republican opinions. They arrested, too, the purveyors of the Commune, and even the musicians, who had never crossed the ramparts. The ambulance attendants shared the same fate. And yet during the siege a delegate of the Commune, having inspected the ambulances of the press, had said to the personnel, ‘I am aware that most of you are the friends of the Government of Versailles, but I hope you may live long enough to recognize your mistake. I do not trouble myself to know whether the lancets at the service of the wounded are royalist or republican. I see that you do your task worthily. I thank you for it. I shall report it to the Commune.’

Some poor wretches had taken refuge in the Catacombs. They were hunted by torchlight. The police agents, assisted by dogs, fired at every suspicious shadow. Hunts were organized in the forests near Paris. The police watched all the stations, all the ports Of France. Passports had to be renewed and checked at Versailles. The masters of boats were under supervision. On the 26th Jules Favre had solemnly asked the foreign powers for the extradition of the fugitives, under the pretext that the battle of the streets was not a political act.

Extradition flourished at Paris. Fear closed all doors. No shelter was there for the fugitives. Few friends were left — no comrades. Everywhere pitiless refusals or denunciations. Doctors renewed the infamies of 1834, and delivered up the wounded .[230] Every cowardly instinct rose to the surface, and Paris disclosed sloughs of infamy whose existence she had not suspected even under the Empire. The honest people, masters of the streets, had their rivals, their creditors, arrested as Communards, and formed committees of inquiry in their arrondissements. The Commune had rejected denunciators; the police of order received them with open arms. The denunciations rose to the fabulous height of 399,823, [231] of which a twentieth at most were signed.

A very considerable part of these denunciations issued from the press. For several weeks it did not cease stirring the rage and panic of the bourgeoisie. M. Thiers, reviving one of the absurdities of June, 1848, in a bulletin spoke of ‘poisonous liquids collected in order to poison the soldiers.’ All the inventions of that time were again taken up, appropriated to the hour, and horribly amplified; chambers in the sewers with wires all prepared, 8,000 petroleuses enrolled, houses marked with a stamp for burning, pumps, injectors, eggs filled with petroleum, poisoned balls, roasted gendarmes, hanged sailors, violated women, prostitutes requisitioned, endless thefts — all was printed, and the gulls believed all. Some journals had the speciality of false orders for arson;[232] false signatures, of which the originals could never be produced, but which were to be admitted as positive evidence by the courts-martial and honest historians. When it fancied the of the bourgeoisie was flagging, the press fanned it again, each journal outbidding the other in villainy. ‘Paris, we know,’ said the Bien Public, ‘asks for nothing better than to go to sleep again; though we should trouble her, we will awaken her.’ And on the 8th June the Figaro still drew up plans of carnage.[233] The revolutionary writer who will take the pains to collect in a volume extracts from the reactionary press of May and June, 1871, from the Parliamentary inquiries, the bourgeois pamphlets, and histories of the Commune — a mixture as monstrous as that of the witches’ cauldron — will do more for the edification and the future justice of the people than a whole band of mouthing agitators.

There were, to French honour, some traits of generosity, and even heroism, amidst this epidemic of cowardice. Vermorel, wounded, was taken in by the wife of a concierge, who succeeded for a few hours in passing him off for her son. The mother of a Versaillese soldier gave several members of the Council of the Commune an asylum. A great number of insurgents were saved by unknown people; and yet it was during the first days a matter of death, afterwards of transportation, to shelter the vanquished. The women once again showed their great heart.

The average of arrests kept up in June and July to a hundred a day. At Belleville, Ménilmontant, in the thirteenth arrondissement, in certain streets, there were only old women left. The Versaillese, in their lying returns, have admitted 38,568 prisoners, [234] amongst whom were 1,058 women and 651 children, of whom forty-seven were thirteen years of age, twenty-one twelve, four ten, and one seven,[235] as though they had by some secret method counted the herds whom they fed at the troughs. The number of those arrested very probably reached 50,000 men.

The errors were numberless. Some women of that beau monde who went with dilated nostrils to contemplate the corpses of the Federals were included in the razzias, and led off to Satory, where, their clothes in rags, devoured by vermin, they figured very well as the imaginary petroleuses of their journals.

Thousands of individuals were obliged to hide; thousands gained the frontier. An idea of the general losses may be gathered from the fact that at the by-elections of July there were 100,000 less electors than in February.[236] Parisian industry was crushed by it. Most of the workmen who gave this branch of manufacture its artistic cachet perished, were arrested, or emigrated in masses. In the month of October the municipal council proved in an official report that certain industries were obliged to refuse orders for want of hands.

The savageness of the searches, the number of the arrests, joined to the despair of the defeat, tore from this town — bled to the last drop of blood — some supreme convulsions. At Belleville, at Montmartre, in the thirteenth arrondissement, shots were fired from houses. At the Café du Helder, in the Rue de Rennes, the Rue de la Paix, Place de la Madeleine, soldiers and officers fell, struck by invisible hands; near the Pépinière Barracks a general was shot at. The Versaillese journals wondered, with naive impudence, that popular fury was not calmed, and could not understand ‘what reason, even the most futile, of hatred one could have for soldiers who had the most inoffensive look in the world’ (La Cloche).

The Left followed to the very end the line it had traced out for itself on the 19th March. Having prevented the provinces from coming to the rescue of Paris and voted its thanks to the army, it also joined its maledictions to those of the provincials. Louis Blanc, who in 1877 was to defend the red flag, wrote to the Figaro to stigmatize the vanquished, to bow down before their judges, and declare ‘the public indignation legitimate.[237] This Extreme Left. which five years later grew enthusiastic for the amnesty, would not hear the death-groans of the 20,000 shot, nor even, though but a hundred yards from them, the shrieks from the Orangerie. In June, 1848, the sombre imprecation of Lammennais fell upon the massacres, and Pierre Leroux defended the insurgents. The great philosophers of the Rural Assembly, Catholic or Positivist, were all one against the working men. Gambetta, delighted at being rid of the Socialists, hurried back from St. Sebastien, and in a solemn speech at Bordeaux declared that the Government which had been able to crush Paris ‘had even by that proved itself legitimate.’

There were some men of courage in the provinces. The Droits de l'Homme of Montpelier, the Emancipation of Toulouse, the National du Loiret, and several advanced journals recounted the assassinations of the conquerors. Most of these journals were prosecuted and suppressed. Some movements took plate; a commencement of riots at Pamiers (Ariège) and at Voiron (Isère). At Lyons the army was confined in its barracks, and the prefect, Valentin, had the town closed in order to arrest the fugitives of Paris. There were arrests at Bordeaux.

At Brussels Victor Hugo protested against the declaration of the Belgian government, which promised to deliver up the fugitives. Louis Blanc and Schoelcher wrote him a letter full of blame, and his house was stoned by a fashionable mob. Bebel in the German Parliament and Whalley in the House of Commons denounced the Versaillese fury. Garcia Lopez said from the tribune of the Cortes, ‘We admire this great revolution, which no one can appreciate justly today.’

The working men of foreign countries solemnized the obsequies of their brothers of Paris. At London, Brussels, Zurich, Geneva, Leipzig, and Berlin, monster meetings proclaimed themselves in accord with the Commune, devoted the slaughterers to universal execration, and declared accomplices of these crimes the Governments which had not made any remonstrances. All the Socialist journals glorified the struggle of the vanquished. The great voice of the International recounted their effort in an eloquent address[238] and confided their memory to the workmen of the whole world.

On the triumphal entry of Moltke at the head of the victorious Prussian army into Berlin, the workmen received them with hurrahs for the Commune, and at several places the people were charged by the cavalry.