Lissagaray: History of the Paris Commune of 1871

Chapter XXXIV
The trials of the Communards

Conciliation is the angel descending after the storm. (Dufaure to the National Assembly, 26th April, 1871.)

The human lakes of Versailles and Satory were soon overflowing. From the first days of June the prisoners were filed off to the seaports and crowded into cattle-wagons, the awnings of which, hermetically closed, let in no breath of air. In a corner was a heap of biscuits; but themselves thrown upon this heap, the prisoners had soon reduced it to mere crumbs. For twenty-four hours, and sometimes thirty-two hours, they remained without anything to drink. They fought in this throng for a little air, a little room. Some, maddened, flung themselves upon their comrades.[239] One day at La Ferté-Bemard cries were uttered in a wagon. The chief of the escort stopped the convoy; the sergeants-de-ville discharged their revolvers through the awning. Silence ensued, and the rolling coffins set out again at full speed.

From the month of June to the month of September 28,000 prisoners were thus thrown into the harbours, the forts and the oceanic isles, from Cherbourg to the Gironde. Twenty-five pontoons took in 20,000, the forts and isles 8,087.

On the pontoons tortures were inflicted by regulation. The traditions of June and of December were religiously observed with the victims of 1871. The prisoners, penned in cages made of wooden planks and iron bars, received only a dim light through the nailed down port-holes. Ventilation there was none. From the first hours the exhalations were unbearable. The sentinels walked up and down in this menagerie with the order to fire at the slightest alarm. Cannon charged with grapeshot overlooked the batteries. There were neither hammocks nor blankets, and for all food some biscuits, bread, and beans, but no wine or tobacco. The inhabitants of Brest and Cherbourg having sent some provisions and little luxuries, the officers sent them back.

This cruelty relaxed somewhat after a time. The prisoners received a hammock for every two, some shirts, some blouses, and now and then some wine. They were allowed to wash, to come on to the deck to snatch a little fresh air. The sailors showed some humanity, but the marines were still the same bandits as in the days of May, and the crew was often obliged to tear the prisoners from them.

The regime of the pontoons varied according to the officers. At Brest the second officer, commander of the Ville de Lyon, forbade the insulting of the prisoners; while the master-at-arms of the Breslau treated them like convicts. At Cherbourg one of the lieutenants of the Tage, Clémenceau, was ferocious. The commander of the Bayard turned his vessel into a diminutive Orangerie. This ship had witnessed the most abominable acts perhaps that have sullied the history of the French navy. Absolute silence was the rule on board. As soon as anyone spoke in the cages the sentry menaced and several times shot. For a complaint, or mere forgetfulness of a rule, the prisoners were tied to the bars of their cages by the ankles and wrists. [240]

The dungeons on shore were as terrible as the pontoons. At Quélern as many as forty prisoners were shut up in the same casemate. The lower ones were deadly. The cesspools emptied into them, and in the morning the faecal matter covered the floor some two inches deep. By the side of these was salubrious unoccupied accommodation, but they would not remove the prisoners thither. One day M. Jules Simon came, thought that his former electors were looking but poorly, and decided that recourse must be taken to severity. Elisée Reclus had opened a school, and tried to raise out of their ignorance a hundred and fifty-one prisoners who could neither read nor write. The Minister of Public Education had the classes stopped, and had the small library, which the prisoners had got together by making the greatest sacrifices, closed.

The prisoners of the forts, like those of the pontoons, were fed on biscuits and bacon; later on, soup and broth were added on Sundays; knives and forks were forbidden; it cost several days’ struggle to get spoons. The profit of the sutler, which, according to the list of charges, ought to be limited to a tenth, reached as much as five hundred per cent.

At the Fort Boyard men and women were packed into the same enclosure, separated only by a screen. The women were forced to perform their ablutions under the eyes of the sentinels. Sometimes their husbands were in the neighbouring compartment. ‘We noticed,’ wrote a prisoner, ‘a young and beautiful woman, twenty years old, who fainted every time she was forced to undress.’[241]

According to much evidence which we have received, the most cruel prison was that of St. Marcouf. The prisoners remained there for over six months, deprived of air, light, and tobacco, forbidden to speak, having for their only nourishment the crumbs of brown biscuits and rancid fat. All were attacked with scurvy.

This continual severity got the better of the most robust constitutions; there were in consequence 2,000 sick in the hospitals. The official reports admit 1,179 dead out of 33,665 civil prisoners. This figure is evidently below the truth. During the first days at Versailles a certain number of individuals were killed, and others died without being counted. There were no statistics before the transfer to the pontoons. There is no exaggeration in saying that 2,000 prisoners died while in the hands of the Versaillese. A great number perished afterwards of anaemia, and of maladies contracted during their captivity.

Some idea of the tortures of the pontoons and the forts, far from the surveillance of public opinion, may be gathered from those that were openly displayed at Versailles,[242] under the eyes of the Government the Chamber, and the Radicals. Colonel Gaillard, chief of military justice, had said to the soldiers who guarded the prisoners of the Chantiers, ‘As soon as you see any one move, raising their arms, fire; it is I who give you the order.’

At the Grenier d'Abondance of the Western Railway there were eight hundred women. For weeks and weeks they slept on straw, were unable to change their linen. At the slightest noise, a quarrel, the guards threw themselves upon them, struck them, more especially on the breasts. Charles Mercereau, a former Cent-Garde, the governor of this sink, had those that displeased him tied down and then beat them with his cane. He led about over his dominions the ladies of Versailles, covetous of petroleuses, and before them said to his victims, ‘Come, hussies, cast down your eyes.’ And indeed that was the least our Federal women could do before these worthy persons.

Prostitutes, carried off in the razzias, and carefully kept there in order to spy upon the other prisoners, publicly abandoned themselves to the guardians. The protests of the women of the Commune were punished by blows with cords. With a refinement of infamy, the

Versaillese wished to bow down these valiant women to the level of the others. All the prisoners were subjected to inspection.

Dignity and outraged nature revenged themselves by terrible cries. ‘Where is my father? Where my husband? and my son? What! alone, quite alone, and all these cowards against me! I, the mother, the laborious wife, subjected to the whip, insult, and sullied by these unclean hands for having defended liberty!’ Many went mad. All passed through their hours of madness. Those who were pregnant miscarried or brought forth still-born children.

The priests were no more wanting in the prisons than at the shootings. The chaplain of Richemont said to the prisoners, ‘I know that I am here in a forest of Bondy’[243] but my duty,’ etc. On the day of St. Magdalene the Bishop of Algiers, making a delicate allusion to the saint of the day, said to them, ‘That they were all Magdalenes, but not repentant; that Magdalene had neither burned nor assassinated;’ and uttering other evangelical amenities.

The children were shut up in a part of the women’s prison, and were just as brutally treated. A corporal, the secretary of Mercereau, kicked open the stomach of a boy; another received the bastinado, and lingered for a long time at the infirmary. The son of Ranvier, twelve years old, was cruelly beaten for refusing to betray the hiding-place of his father.

All these unfortunate prisoners of the pontoons, the forts, and the houses of correction were for several months devoured by vermin before their cases were inquired into. The Versaillese Moloch held more victims than he could digest. After the first days of June he disgorged 1,090 persons reclaimed by the reactionaries. But how to draw up indictments against 36,000 prisoners? It was all very well for Dufaure to let loose all the police agents of the Empire into the prisons; in the month of August only 4,000 prisoners had been interrogated.

Still it was necessary to satiate the rage of the bourgeoisie, which wanted a sensational trial. A few celebrities who had escaped the massacre had been taken, some members of the Council of the Commune, of the Central Committee, Rossel, Rochefort, etc. M. Thiers and Dufaure got up a grand performance.

The trial was to be the model to serve as a type for the jurisprudence of the courts-martial, for the prisoners were to be judged by the same soldiers who had conquered them. The old procureur and his president applied all their pettifogging cunning to lowering the debate.

They refused the character of political men to the accused, and reduced the insurrection to an ordinary crime, thus securing to themselves the right of cutting short effective defences, and the advantage of condemnations to the penal colony and to death, which the hypocritical bourgeoisie pretends to have abolished in political cases.[244] The third court-martial was carefully selected. The commissar chosen was Gaveau, a base fanatic, who had shown signs of mental derangement and had struck the prisoners in the streets of Versailles; the president, Merlin, a colonel of engineers, one of the capitulationists of Bazaine’s army; the rest an assortment of trusty Bonapartists. Sedan and Metz were going to judge Paris.

The ceremony commenced on the 7th August, in a large hall containing two thousand seats. Personages of rank reclined in the red velvet arm-chairs; deputies occupied three hundred seats; the remainder belonged to the bourgeois of note, to ‘worthy’ families, to the aristocracy of prostitution, and to the howling press. The talking journalists, the brilliant dresses, the smiling faces, the toyings with fans, the gay bouquets, the opera-glasses pointed in all directions, reminded one of the most elegant first-night performances. The staff officers, in full uniform, smartly conducted the ladies to their seats, not forgetting to make the indispensable bow.

All this scum boiled over when the prisoners appeared. There were seventeen: Ferré, Assi, Jourde, Paschal Grousset, Régere, Billioray, Courbet, Urbain, Victor Clément, Trinquet, Champy, Rastoul, Verdure, Decamps, Parent, members of the Council of the Commune; Ferrat and Lullier, members of the Central Committee.


Gaveau read the accusation act. This revolution was born of two plots, that of the revolutionary party and that of the International; Paris had risen on the 18th March, in answer to the appeal of a few scoundrels; the Central Committee had ordered the execution of Lecomte and Clément-Thomas; the demonstration of the Place Vendôme was an unarmed demonstration; the head-surgeon of the army had been assassinated while making a supreme appeal to conciliation; the Commune had committed thefts of all kinds; the implements of the nuns of Picpus were transformed into instruments of orthopaedy; the explosion of the Rapp magazines was the work of the Commune; desirous of kindling violent hatred of the enemy in the hearts of the Federals, Ferré had presided at the execution of the hostages of La Roquette, set fire to the Ministry of Finance, as was proved by the facsimile of an order written in his hand, ‘Burn Finances!’ Each one of the members of the Council of the Commune had to answer for facts relating to his particular functions and collectively for all the decrees issued. This indictment, worthy of a low police agent, communicated beforehand to M. Thiers, indeed made of the cause a simple affair of robbery and arson.

It took up a whole sitting. The next day, Ferré, interrogated the first, refused to answer, and laid his conclusions upon the table. ‘The conclusions of the incendiary Ferré are of no moment!’ cried Gaveau, and the witnesses against him were called. Fourteen out of twentyfour belonged to the police; the others were priests or Government employees. An expert in handwriting, celebrated at the lawcourts for his blunders, affirmed that the order ‘Burn Finances’ was certainly in Ferré’s hand. In vain the accused demanded that the signature of this order should be compared with his, which figured very often in the jail register; that at least the original should be produced, and not the facsimile. Gaveau exclaimed indignantly, ‘Why, this is want of confidence!’

Thus set to rights from the outset as to the plot and the character of their judges, the accused might have declined every debate; they committed the fault of accepting it. If even they had proudly proclaimed their political character! But it was not so; some even denied it. Almost all, confining themselves to their personal defence, abandoned the Revolution of the 18th March, whose mandate they had solicited or accepted. Their preoccupation for their own safety betrayed itself by sad defections. But from the very dock of the accused the voice of the people thus denied arose avengingly. A workman of that brave Parisian race, the first in labour, study, and combat, a member of the Council of the Commune, intelligent and convinced, modest in the Council, one of the foremost in the struggle, the shoemaker Trinquet, proclaimed the honour of having fulfilled his mandate to the end. ‘I was,’ said he, ‘sent to the Commune by my co-citizens; I have paid with my person; I have been to the barricades, and I regret not having died there; I should not today assist at this sad spectacle of colleagues who, after having taken their share in the action, will no longer bear their part of the responsibility. I am an insurgent; I do not deny it.’

The examinations were drawn out with fastidious slowness during seventeen sittings. Always the same public of soldiers, bourgeois, courtesans, hissing the accused; the same witnesses, priests, police agents, and functionaries; the same fury in the accusation. the same cynicism in the tribunal, the same howling of the press. The massacres had not glutted this. It yelled at the accused, demanded their death, and every day dragged them through the mire of its reports.[245] Foreign correspondents were revolted. The Standard, a great reviler of the Commune, said, ‘Anything more scandalous than the tone of the demi-monde press during this trial it is impossible to imagine.’ Some of the accused having asked for the protection of the president, Merlin took up the defence of the newspapers.

Then came the prosecutor’s address to the court. Gaveau to remain true to his instructions, was to demonstrate that Paris had fought for six weeks in order to enable a few individuals to steal the remainder of the public chests, to bum some houses, and to shoot a few gendarmes. This epauletted limb of the law overthrew as a soldier all the arguments he built up as a magistrate. ‘The Commune, ‘he said, ‘had acted as a Government,’ and five minutes after he refused the members of the Council of the Commune the character of political men. Passing in review the different accused, he said of Ferré, ‘I should be wasting my time and yours by discussing the numerous charges weighing upon him,’ of Jourde, ‘The figures he has given you are quite imaginary. I shall not trespass upon your time by discussing them.’ During the battle in the streets Jourde had received the order of the Committee of Public Safety to remit a thousand francs to every member of the Council. About thirty only had received this sum. Gaveau said, ‘They divided millions amongst each other;’ and a man of his sort must have believed this. What sovereign has ever abandoned power without carrying off millions? He lengthily accused Grousset of having stolen paper in order to print his newspaper; another of having lived with a mistress. A coarse lansquenet, incapable of understanding that the more he lowered the men the greater he made this Revolution, so vital despite all defections and incapacities.

The audience emphasised this accusation with frantic applause. At the conclusion there were calls as in a theatre. Merlin gave Ferré’s advocate permission to speak, but Ferré declared he wished to defend himself, and commenced reading:

Ferré: ‘After the conclusion of the treaty of peace consequent upon the shameful capitulation of Paris, the Republic was in danger, the men who had succeeded the Empire fallen in the midst of mire and blood’ —

Merlin: Fallen in the midst of mire and blood! Here I must stop you. Was not your Government in the same situation?

Ferré: ‘Clung to power, and, though overwhelmed by public contempt, they prepared in the dark a coup-d'état; they persisted in refusing Paris the election of her municipal council’ —

Gaveau: This is not true.

Merlin: What you are saying, Ferré, is false. Continue, but at the third time I shall stop you.

Ferré: ‘The honest and sincere journals were suppressed, the best patriots condemned to death’ —

Gaveau: The prisoner cannot go on reading this. I shall ask for the application of the law.

Ferré: ‘The Royalists were preparing for the partition of France. At last, in the night of the 18th March, they believed themselves ready, and attempted to disarm the National Guard, and the wholesale arrest of Republicans’ —

Merlin: Come, sit down. I allow your advocate to speak.

(The advocate of Ferré demanded that his client might be allowed to read the last sentences of his declaration, and Merlin gave way.)

Ferré: ‘A member of the Commune, I am in the hands of its victors. They want my head; they may take it. I will never save my life by cowardice. Free I have lived, so I will die. I add but one word. Fortune is capricious; I confide to the future the care of my memory and my revenge.’

Merlin: The memory of an assassin!

Gaveau: Such manifestoes should be sent to the penal colony.

Merlin: All this does not answer to the acts for which you are here.

Ferré: This means that I accept the fate that is in store for me.

During this duel between Merlin and Ferré the hall had remained silent. Ferocious hisses burst forth when Ferré concluded. The president was obliged to raise the sitting, and the judges were going out when a barrister demanded that notice should be taken for the defence that the president had called Ferré ‘assassin’.

The hisses of the audience answered. The advocate indignantly turned to the tribunal, to the seats of the press, to the public. Cries of rage arose from all corners of the hall, drowning his voice for several minutes. Merlin, who was radiant, at last obtained silence, and answered cavalierly, ‘I acknowledge that I made use of the expression of w ich the advocate spoke. The court takes notice of your conclusions.’

The day before, as a barrister remarked to him, ‘We are all answerable, not to the public opinion of today, but to history, which will judge us;’ Merlin had cynically answered, ‘History! At that epoch we shall no longer be here!’ The French bourgeoisie had found its Jeffries.

Early the next day the hall was crowded. The curiosity of the public, the anxiety of the judges, were extreme. Gaveau, in order to accuse his adversaries of all crimes at once, had for two days talked politics, history, socialism. It would have sufficed to answer each one of his arguments, in order to give the cause that political character which he denied it, if one of the prisoners were at last to rouse up, and, less careful of his person than of the Commune, follow up the accusation step by step, oppose to the grotesque theories of conspiracy the eternal provocation of the privileged classes; describe Paris offering herself to the Government of National Defence, betrayed by it, then attacked by Versailles, abandoned; the proletarians reorganizing all the services of this great city, and in a state of war, surrounded by treason, governing for two months without police spies and without executions, remaining poor in sight of the milliards of the bank; if he were to confront the sixty-three hostages with the 20,000 assassinated, unveil the pontoons, the jails, swarming with 40,000 unfortunate beings; take the world to witness in the name of truth, of justice, of the future, and make of the accused Commune the accuser.

The president might have interrupted him, the cries of the public drowned his appeal, the court after the first words declared him outlawed. Such a man, reduced to silence, would, like Danton gagged, find a gesture, a cry, which should pierce the walls and hurl his anathema at the head of the tribunal.

The vanquished missed this revenge. Instead of presenting a collective defence or of maintaining a silence which would have saved their dignity, the accused entrusted themselves to the barristers. Each one of these gentlemen stretched a point to save his client even at the expense of his brother lawyers. One barrister was also the Figaro’s and the confidant of the Empress; another, one of the demonstrators of the Place Vendôme, begged the court not to confound his cause with that of the scoundrel’s near him. There were scandalous pleadings. This debasement disarmed neither the tribunal nor the public. Every moment Gaveau bounded out of his arm-chair. ‘You are an insolent fellow,’ said he to a lawyer. ‘If there is anything absurd here, it is you.’ The audience applauded, ever ready to pounce upon the prisoners. On the 31st August its fury rose to such a pitch that Merlin threatened to have the court cleared.

On the 2nd September the court feigned to deliberate the whole day. At nine o'clock in the evening it returned to the sitting, and Merlin read the judgment. Ferré and Lullier were condemned to death; Trinquet and Urbain to hard labour for life; Assi, Billioray, Champy, Regere, Grousset, Verdure, Ferrat to transportation in a fortress; Courbet to six months’ and Victor Clément to three months’ imprisonment. Decamps and Parent were acquitted. The audience retired much disappointed at having got only two condemnations to death.

As a fact, this judicial performance had proved nothing. Could the Revolution of the 18th March be appreciated from the conduct of secondary actors, and Delescluze, Varlin, Vermorel, Tridon, Moreau, and many others, by the attitude of Lullier, Decamps, Victor Clément, or Billioray? And even if the hearing of Ferré and Trinquet had not proved that there had been men in the Council of the Commune, what then did the defection of the majority show if not that this movement was the work of all, not of a few great minds; that in this crisis the people only had been great, they only revolutionary; that the Revolution was to be found in the people, not in the Government of the Commune?

The bourgeoisie, on the contrary, had displayed all its hideousness. The audience, the tribunal, had been on the same level. Some witnesses had manifestly perjured themselves. During the debates, in the lobbies, in the cafés, all the ragamuffins who had endeavoured to dupe the Commune impudently ascribed to themselves the success of the army. The Figaro, having opened a subscription for Ducatel, had picked up 100,000 francs and an order of the Légion d'Honneur for him. Allured by this success, all the conspirators demanded their aims and their order. The partisans of Beaufond-Lasnier, those of Charpentier-Domalain, fell out, recounted their prowess, each and all swearing that he had betrayed better than his rivals.

While society was being avenged at Versailles, the Court of Assizes of Paris avenged the honour of Jules Favre. Immediately after the Commune, the Minister for Foreign Affairs had had M. Laluyé arrested, who was guilty of having communicated to Millière the documents published in the Vengeur. The honest Minister, not having succeeded in getting his enemy shot as a Communard, summoned him before the assizes for libel. Here the former member of the Government of National Defence, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, the deputy of Paris, publicly confessed that he had committed forgeries, but he pleaded having done so to secure his children a fortune. This touching avowal melted the patres familias of the jury, and Laluyé was condemned to imprisonment for one year. Some months later he died at Sainte PéIagie. Jules Favre was terribly lucky. In less than six months the firing squad and the dungeon had delivered him of two redoubtable enemies.[246]

While the third court-martial was quarrelling with the lawyers, the fourth hurried through its business without more ado. On the 16th August, almost immediately after its opening, it had already pronounced two sentences of death. If the one court had its Jeffries, the other had its Trestaillon in Colonel Boisdenemetz, a kind of wild boar, a drunkard, seeing all red, a wit at times, and correspondent of the Figaro. On the 4th September some women were brought before him, accused of setting fire to the Légion d'Honneur. This was the trial of the petroleuses. The eight thousand enrolled furies who had been announced by the newspapers of order were reduced to the number of five. The cross-examination proved that the so-called petroleuses were only admirably kind-hearted ambulance nurses. One of them, Rétiffe, said, ‘I should have looked after a soldier of Versailles as wen as a National Guard.’ ‘Why,’ another was asked, ‘did you remain when all the battalion ran away?’ ‘There were wounded and dying,’ answered she simply. The witnesses for the prosecution themselves declared that they had not seen any of them kindle fire; but their fate was decided beforehand. Between two sittings Boisdenemetz cried in a café, ‘Death to all these trulls!’

Three barristers out of five had deserted the bar. ‘Where are they?’ said the president. ‘They have asked to be allowed to absent themselves to go to the country,’ answered the commissar. The court charged soldiers with the defence of these poor women. One of them, the Quatermaster Bordelais, made this fine speech: ‘I defer to the wisdom of the tribunal.’

His client, Suétens, was condemned to death, as were also Rétiffe and Marchais, ‘for having attempted to change the form of the Government;’ the two others to transportation and confinement. One of the condemned, turning to the officer who read the sentence, cried to him in a heartrending voice, ‘And who will feed my child?’

‘Thy child! See, he is here!’

Some days after, before this same Boisdenemetz, fifteen children of Paris appeared; the eldest was sixteen years old, the youngest, so small that he could hardly be seen in the dock of prisoners, was eleven. They wore blue blouses and military képis.

‘Druet,’ said the soldier, ‘what did your father do?’

‘He was a mechanic.’

‘Why did you not work like him?’

‘Because there was no work for me.’

‘Bouverat, why did you join the Pupilles de la Commune?’

To get something to eat.’

‘You have been arrested for vagrancy?’

‘Yes, twice; the second time for stealing a pair of stockings.’

‘Cagnoncle, you were Enfant de la Commune?’

Yes, sir.’

‘Why did you leave your family?’

‘Because they had no bread.’

‘Did you discharge many shots?’

‘About fifty.’

‘Lescot, why did you leave your mother?’

‘Because she could not keep me.’

‘How many children were there of you?’


‘You have been wounded?’

‘Yes, by a ball in the head.’

‘Leberg, you have been with a master, and you were surprised taking the cash-box. How much did you take?’

‘Ten sous.’

‘Did not that money burn your hands?’

And you, red-handed man! these words, do they not burn your lips? Sinister fools! who do not understand that before these children, thrown into the streets without education, without hope, through the necessity you have made for them, the culprit is you, lace-bedecked soldier, you, the public minister of a society in which children twelve years old, capable and willing to work, are forced to steal in order to get a pair of stockings, and have no other alternative than to fall beneath bullets or die of hunger!