Paris Commune 1871

The Commune Day by Day

Source: Elie Reclus, La Commune de Paris au jour le jour. Paris, Schleicher, 1908;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2006.

Thursday, May 25

Fusillades can no longer be heard on the other side of the water. Around seven or eight o’clock in the morning we look at the Pantheon: it’s been stripped of its red flag.

The Pantheon is no longer anything but the Church of St. Genevieve, a great Catholic chapel, the counterfeit of a Roman monument. What does the Pantheon matter to me now?

The Left bank of the Seine is entirely in the hands of the army of Versailles which, master now of the river and an entire half of the city, with its growing forces inundates the Parisians whose men, decreasing by the minute, are penned in in ever smaller spaces. If since the taking of the gates the result of the fight was no longer in doubt, its fated end is crushingly obvious. Nevertheless, the National Guard still resists, they don’t surrender even an inch of terrain: they guard it as long as they’re alive. Killed, they occupy it still with their corpses. “A few cowards,” as M. Thiers called them. “A vile handful of rebels.”

The barricade where I could have been had I cared to is a few hundred meters from my house. It’s at the extremity of the Austerlitz Bridge, fired on by a formidable battery, at the other bridgehead by two or three batteries on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, by another at the Jardin des Plantes. What’s more, the Gare d’Orléans, transformed into a barracks, and the walls of the banks, with their lookouts, ceaselessly fire upon the defenders of the barricade, supported from afar by a few artillerymen at the summit of Père Lachaise.

A few shots and the din begins. It’s deafening; you ask yourself if in the great forges and boiler works there is this much noise. Explosions follow explosions; the brain is shaken by an unspeakable mixture of cracking and crumbling, of crushing and tearing, of rolling and whistling.

These various noises come from various projectiles at various distances. We are under a cloud of hail on one side alone. Shells burst on the quay; they sink into the water, setting aflame the docked boats; bullets fall in our courtyard, iron balls strike our wall and our roof. Looking out the window facing the battery I see bits of lime and plaster fall at my feet. A piece of tin reaches me, missing me by a few feet, but a tile changes its course, I have it in my pocket. One has to seek refuge in the cellar, but one can’t help oneself from going out from time to time to see what’s going on.

In the courtyard the rabbits leap, frightened, and nibble the leaves that fall torn from the trees. A terrified chicken clucks at its chicks, who are digging into the earth; branches fly away from the Jardin des Plantes: the swallows haven’t left us, but in this storm of steel they don’t make their tiny, joyous cries heard, nor do they wheel in the sky in their usual fashion. “What are these terrifying birds,” they must be asking themselves, “these birds that invisibly pass with their strident cries and the horrifying flapping of their wings, breaking the branches as they pass?”

Lightning crashes, atrocious din, the earth trembles, everything shakes and wobbles, you find yourself enveloped in a white cloud...I’m still alive, I thought after the first dizziness, yes, I’m alive, but who else is still alive? And through a dark and suffocating dust, I climb over the ruins. I call and a few seconds later I find my wife and my son. None of my friends had been either killed or wounded, three or four had escaped through near miraculous chance: they were in the immediate area of an office where everything had been blown to flinders. A shell had penetrated the house from one end to the other, smashing walls and furniture and, piercing a third wall, had devastated the kitchen of a neighboring house. The base of the shell is found. It alone was a heavy load; the entire shell would have pushed the limits of what a man could carry. The damages it caused in this house are estimated at four or five thousand francs, including the small disorders caused by six long-range balls. But for the piano, the chairs, the mirrors, the curtains, the library, hardly a word of regret was wasted; no one had been either killed or wounded.

And the barricade is still holding up. We admire its proud resistance. Is it by hundreds or is it by thousands of shells that it is struck? And the evening approaches. But now, in order to reduce it, here comes fire from Arcy, then a more. One moves upstream, the other downstream of the barricade. We shiver looking at these terrible, invincible, invulnerable, arrogant, devastating, cowardly monsters, since they have nothing to fear. Flat as water bugs the balls ricochet off their bronze bodies. Except for the holes through which murderous bullets escape, their thick armor plating only opens in front a long and formidable maw: every ship is nothing but a cannon. How do we respond to them? What can we oppose to them? With one blow they demolish a wall; with two or three they cave in a house. Neglecting the barricade, the gunners strike entire sections of streets to the right and the left, which are soon on fire. In an hour or two the barricade is nothing but a heap of useless stones in the midst of smoking ruins and, five hundred against one, bayonets lowered, the soldiers of the Bruat Division rush against the defenders of the forward post of the Bastille and the Gare de Lyon, supported by the De Roja brigade, Right Bank and Left Bank the soldiers of Marious’s brigade of Faron’s Division. Victorious, the tricolor was raised above a heap of corpses in a pool of blood.

My conscience asked me again: was I wrong to not rest now under the tricolor?

And after considering it, I responded: No, I was not at all wrong. I even did my duty. But I humbly admire those who did more than their duty and who lie at my side, groaning, dying, or crushed beneath the stones. They condensed their lives in a supreme act that is perhaps worth more than all we could still do in the days that are left to us to live.

There were thirty-five of us: men, the elderly, women and children sheltered from the shells, taking refuge in the same welcoming house. We were of various schools of opinion, most of us bourgeois. One would have thought we were a herd of beasts fleeing a flood or a fire and taking shelter on some island in the jungle or in the same cave. During normal periods these beasts chase and devour each other, but in the immense common peril they call a truce in their ferocious war. It is the same here. Every political statement or allusion is carefully pushed away. Inspecting the pale faces of these worried children, of these half-fainted women is it possible to think: “It’s you, you bourgeois, you and your kind whose cowardly ignorance and cruel egoism have caused us the present horrors, the past horrors, and those that will yet befall us!” On his side, the bourgeois ruminated: “It’s you, you damned revolutionary, with your brothers and accomplices who, by your criminal obstinacy, force the friends of order to shoot you down, which I don’t at all regret, and to demolish my house and my store, for which I can never be consoled.”

On both sides these bitter thoughts were mulled over when suddenly heavy steps and the clinking of metal were heard: it was Property, Order and Religion making an appearance in the form of three soldiers in red pants, their faces crimson with sweat, wine and anger. They descended the steps of the cellar, their bloody bayonets held before them: “Where are they, the bastards, the cowards? We’re going to fix them.”

Immediately the bourgeois of our society fell upon them with real or affected cries of joy: Ah, you’re here, we’re friends of the Versaillais! And then the bourgeois surrounded them, touching the arms and shoulders of these mercenaries with magnetized and caressing movements while two or three young girls fainted, or almost did. These cries, these congratulations, this touching, and two bottles of wine soon tamed two of the soldiers, but the third, one with braids, searched the darkness of the cellar with his grey, hard eyes. He scrutinized the physiognomies, questioned on this side and that, barked with a cold anger: one more victim perhaps means one more stripe. While he was busy recriminating, one of his colleagues became tender while showing off with vanity a revolver: “It’s still warm from an insurgent whose belly I opened up.” And the other one added: “Yes, we took two hundred and we executed them. Our battalion is posted along the quay, we search the houses, gardens and paths.” “In any event,” the one with braids said, “none of you is going to get out, and we are placing sentinels at the door of each house.”