The Paris Commune

The Death of Delescluze

By Maxime Du Camp

Source: Maxime Du Camp, Les Convulsions de Paris, Vol I. Paris, Hachette at cie, 1879;
Translated: from the original for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2005.

Translator’s note: Like most of the French literary world Maxime Du Camp (1822-1894), friend and travelling companion of Gustave Flaubert and later member of the Académie Française, was a fierce opponent of the Commune. He vented his spleen in a four volume attack on it, “Les Convulsions de Paris.” In this excerpt his target is the martyr of the Commune Charles Delescluze (1809-1871). A veteran of the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, Delescluze, a believer in the peaceful road to socialism, held numerous posts under the Commune. As it entered its death agony Delescluze, hoping to avoid needless bloodshed, proposed negotiations with Versailles. Opposed by those with him at the town hall of the eleventh arrondissement, he wrote a farewell letter to his sister in which he said, “I cannot and will not serve as a victim and plaything for victorious reaction, but I lack the courage to suffer one more defeat after so many others.” He met his death at the barricades. In his version Du Camp turns Delescluze into just one more victim of the Commune, further proof of its cowardice and sanguinary nature.

“O Paris, which is no longer Paris, but a cave full of ferocious beasts!” says M. Daubray’s harangue in “Satyre Ménippée.” Who among us did not repeat this exclamation during the terrible days of May 25-26? Everything was on fire; everything was going to be set on fire. An ocean of flame rolled over the city. Never was a battle so fierce, never had such destruction been seen. The storehouses of the Quai Bourbon were on fire, as well as the warehouses of La Villette and, in the same place, the depot of the Compagnie des Petites Voitures where, in preparation for the siege, piles of supplies were still to be found. Seven hundred and seventy two houses in flames, seven hundred and fifty four others attacked by fire; the d'Orsay barracks, the Tuileries, the Palais-Royal, the Cour des Comptes and its archives, the palace of the Legion of Honor, the savings banks, the Palace of Justice, the prefecture of police, the Gobelins, the Hôtel-de-Ville, the customs offices, the public assistance building, the Théâtre Lyrique, the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin, the Théâtre des Délassements-Comiques, the library of the Louvre, the ministry of finance, everything was on fire and collapsing, turning Paris into a horrific inferno. More than one Parisian, upon contemplating this spectacle, cried and asked himself, without daring to respond, if he truly belonged to the race and the country of the men who had committed this crime.

The French troops, in their turn intoxicated and maddened, charged into battle in a rage. During the first two days of the fight, May 22 and May 23, they had been calm, passively following their officers, who set an example and delivered this difficult street combat with abnegation, a form more unpleasant and painful than any other. The sight of the first fires filled them with anger; the resistance of the rebels exasperated them, and it was no longer possible to moderate them. Bad memories turned bitter in the hearts of the soldiers. These men, who had suffered so much, who had pointlessly expended so much bravery, who had put up with captivity, poverty, hunger, illness, longs stages on inhospitable roads and the shame of an undeserved defeat and who, as a reward for their humble sacrifices, had received nothing but insults, became the champions of their personal cause. They had to reduce those who rebelled, those who set our monuments on fire, pulled own our military trophies, assassinated the country’s most honest men. What had these men they were fighting done during the war? They had drunk themselves silly amidst barrels of wine and eau-de-vie; perorated in the cabarets; neutralized the defense by their sacrilegious riots; had never gone out to meet the enemy and miserably husbanded all their forces in order to attempt to overwhelm France’s army and government. These soldiers, who had been accused of cowardice, who had been blithely called capitulators, instinctively understood that they were in the presence of men who by their lack of discipline, their unbearable braggadocio, their will not to fight, had been the surest auxiliaries of the invading armies. In striking them they thought they were not only obeying the law, but avenging the fatherland.

In reality, what they ruthlessly punished was less the murderous army of March 18 than the army which during the siege had systematically held itself back from its duty and from danger. It was this above all that gave a character of implacable brutality to the fight. The revolt had been without pity; the repression was merciless. As in battles that are prolonged beyond human strength, the intoxication of butchery seized all involved. Victors and vanquished had no forgiveness for each other. The laws of blood promulgated and applied by the Commune fell back on it. It was to be murdered in its turn.

Was the illusion sincere on the part of the leaders of the insurrection? Did they think that, repudiated by the entire country, attacked by the French army, threatened by the German troops who would have forced their entry into Paris if the legal government hadn’t decided to act; did they think that their cause, without either a banner or a principle or a name could triumph and wasn’t condemned to a violent death? We are led to believe this is the case if we refer to certain documents of the era. On May 24, the very day when the murder of the hostages destroyed any chance of reconciliation, a proclamation was posted that members of the Central Committee had written the previous day. One could read with amazement the conditions proposed as if from one power to another: 1- The National Assembly, whose role has been terminated, must dissolve itself. 2- The Commune will also dissolve itself 3- The so-called regular army will leave Paris and hold itself at a distance of 25 kilometers. You would think you were dreaming! If a few men whose brains were absolutely perverted by the strange role they'd wrested from events were able to imagine that definitive victory was theirs, such was not the case for the consternated spectators of that descent of the revolutionary Courtille.[1] No one in Paris believed in the durability of this abjectly materialist power, and among those who had the singular courage to exercise it no one had any hope after May 25. Even if one was lacking in wisdom and patriotism, the most simple reasoning demanded that they put down their arms and that, for a cause all the more lost because it wasn’t born viable, they not sacrifice thousands of existences. This was what humanity demanded; but it was passion that carried the day, and all was lost...

The apologists of the Commune deified Delescluze, but they omitted to tell of the series of violent acts directed against him that preceded him on his march towards death. Motivated by party interests they haven’t told the whole truth. We will attempt to tell the truth in its entirely, while warning the reader that our tale rests on nothing but conjectures, but conjectures so probable, supported by eyewitness testimony so concordant, that they are the same as the truth.

May 25 – which was, in fact, the last day of the Commune – was extraordinarily tumultuous at the town hall of the eleventh arrondissement. The people were gathered in the salle des fêtes, which had been turned into Augean stables. The floor was covered with piles of plates, broken bottles, charcuterie; stained mattresses were laying in the corners; half-caved in barrels of wine, bags overflowing with cartridges, bottles of petrol filled the rooms. Adjutants and officers came and went; people brawled in the doorways: there were no longer either leaders or soldiers; there was nothing but the defeated, shipwrecked men who were devouring each other. Delescluze had understood that the Commune’s refuge, threatened on all sides, couldn’t hold out for long and that it would be prudent to ensure a final retreat. He gave orders so that the different services gathered around him, the cash box which was to be dipped into one last time before separating forever, and the principal wounded they didn’t want to abandon to the victorious troops could be evacuated to the town hall of the twentieth arrondissement, that is, to Belleville, where they hoped, from the heights of Ménilmontant and the Buttes-Chaumont, to bombard Paris à outrance in order to prepare a funeral “worthy of a great people.”

It was there, on the day of May 25, that Delescluze signed the order to remove the hostages held at the Grande- and Petite-Roquette prisons, 1500 in all, and to transfer them to the town hall of Belleville. The order, communicated to Ferré, was countersigned by the latter and given to Benjamin Sicard who was charged, along with Émile Gois, with ensuring its execution as soon as the Commune – or whatever was left of it – would be established in its final cave. Delescluze hoped to still be able to negotiate with the legal government, doubtless more to save his companions that himself. Digging himself in behind 1500 hostages held at discretion, he wanted to impose conditions whose acceptance humanity alone would have forced: either the immediate execution of 1500 innocent people or the lives and flight of the guilty ensured. He would have left the choice to Versailles.

This done he had a brief conversation with the correspondent for an American newspaper and, tired out by the noise, wanting perhaps to learn the situation for himself, he left the building and went to the enormous barricade which, supported by numbers 1 and 2, Boulevard Voltaire, commanded the approach to the Place du Château-d'Eau. Protected by the Prince Eugene barracks and the vast buildings of the Magasins-Réunis, which formed its forward defense lines, this truly formidable obstacle was the key to Belleville. It was thus extremely important that it hold out at least until midnight so that the proposed evacuation not be interrupted by the unexpected arrival of the French army. Delescluze examined the situation, spoke with a Negro, a former turco, who had fought at the barricade, and then entered the house bearing the number 4. He remained there for two hours, his hands clasped behind his back, pacing back and forth and appearing lost in thought.

When he returned to town hall he was greeted by a volley of insults. His absence had been noted and commented on. At that moment, when mistrust had seized all the rebels, he was suspected of cowardice, of having wanted to flee, abandoning those he'd dragged to their destruction. ...For these confused people the correspondent of the American newspaper was turned into a minister plenipotentiary who had brought him a passport. The time of his absence had been employed in attempting to go through a gate that the patriotism of the fédérés had refused to open. Delescluze was impassive. He called over several members of the Commune, Franckel [sic], who a wound forced to wear a sling, Jourde, Johannard, and others. They wouldn’t listen to him; they argued, spit truths into each others’ faces, mutually accused each other and blamed each other for their mistakes. Perhaps, carried away in their fury, they addressed to each other the horrible remark made by a member of the Convention to Fouché in 1814: “Get away from here, traitor! There’s not a flea on your body that doesn’t have the right to spit in your face!”

Soldiers and officers of lower ranks surrounded Delescluze, waved threatening fists in his face, told him he was a coward, that he'd wanted to flee but that, “since he'd gotten them into this fix he would die in it along with them.” Delescluze took his hat and cane and, walking towards the door saluted the group of insulters, saying, “Adieu messieurs,” and left. A fédéré shouted: “He’s getting away” and a dozen men rushed after him. He walked towards Château-d'Eau and crossed with no difficulty two barricades blocking the Boulevard Voltaire. When he arrived at the Rue Rampon he pretended to stop, as if he intended to take shelter there. One of the fédérés who followed him, less to fight than to keep an eye on him, thought he was attempting to escape and fired on him. The ball grazed his forehead. Delescluze shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of unspeakable disgust and continued along his way. A ball fired by the French troops hit him in the left side and he was knocked down; he attempted to raise himself and collapsed. He fell before number 5, Boulevard Voltaire. Was death instantaneous? We think so, for the trajectory of the ball indicates that the heart and the lungs were perforated. However, a woman, who in the middle of the night slid down the sidewalk saw a man in civilian attire drag himself towards a wounded fédéré and heard him cry in a dying voice, “Kill me, I'm Delescluze!”

The wind was blowing from the south. The corpse was covered by the cinders and debris of fabric escaping from the two houses the rebels had set fire to on the corner of the boulevard. The neck and wrist bore the traces of deep burns. When Delescluze was found on May 27 he was in the same spot. There was no question as to his identity; it almost as if he had intentionally accumulated proof of it in his wallet. There could also be found in it several pieces that symbolize the Commune: a denunciation informing him that Vermorel had decided to be rid of him “by fire or poison;” a request for fifteen liters of eau-de-vie for the ration of thirty-five men; the order to destroy the houses from which the fédérés had been fired upon and to execute all their residents; and a letter from Citizeness Verdure, delegate to the orphanage on the Rue Oberkampf, relating to a feat of venal gallantry. Suspicion, drunkenness, cruelty, debaucheries: are these not the very heart of the insurrection that was about to succumb? While Delescluze was dying Vermorel, while helping to carry away a rebel struck by a ball, received a wound from which he was not to recover. He and Delescluze represented the two extreme parties of the Commune, the two future adversaries who would have fought over power. One was an ardent socialist, hating the Jacobins; the other was a Jacobin who detested the socialists. The fight between them would have been fierce, and it’s probable that it is the dreamer Vermorel who would have succumbed.

When Delescluze’s death was learned of at the town hall of the eleventh arrondissement the post of commander-in-chief was proposed to Wrobleski, the Pole, who had firmly fought at the Butte-aux-Cailles. He refused the post for the solid reason that there were no longer enough men under arms to reasonably expect them to be able to resist the French troops. The delegation for war was abandoned rather than confide it to Colonel Hyppolite Parent, who was worthy of assisting the Commune in breathing its last breath, for the day before, May 24, and that very morning, he had had executed eight fédérés he accused of being in contact with Versailles. Two subaltern agents, Lachapelle and Forrestier, had written the transcript of the execution. What is more, his record made him precious in desperate cases. He was a hat maker to whom the justice system had granted a certain amount of leisure time, which he had doubtless taken advantage of to study social science and the military art. On November 10, 1859 the tribunal of Montdidier sentenced him to three months in prison for fraud; on November 13, 1863 the tribunal of Péronne sent him to prison for a year for a similar crime; on January 14, 1863 the assize court of the Somme sentenced him to three years imprisonment for forgery; November 30, 1868 he was sentenced in Lyon to one year for abuse of confidence; June 14, 1870, in the same city, six months in prison punished a new misdeed. In May 1871 Hyppolite-Achille Parent, alias Narcisse, was thirty-two years old and it can be seen he knew how to occupy his youth.

In conformity with the dispositions adopted by Delescluze all that was left of the Commune installed itself around midnight in the town hall of the twentieth arrondissement, which was the former restaurant the Ile d'Amour, so often celebrated in the novels of Paul de Kock.

1. Site in Paris of numerous cafes, bars, and music halls where drinks could be consumed without paying internal customs duties.