History of the Paris Commune of 1871

22. Conspiracies against the Commune

The Commune had given rise to the various trades of the plotmonger, the betrayer of gates, the conspiracy-broker. Vulgar sharpers, Jonathan Wilds [character in a novel by Henry Fielding] of the gutter, whom a shadow of police would have scared away, they had no other strength than the weakness of the prefecture and the carelessness of the delegations. The evidence relative to them is to a certain extent still in the keeping of the Versaillese; but they have themselves published a good deal, often borne witness against each other, and what with private information, what with the opportunities offered by our exile, we shall be able to penetrate into this realm of blackguardism.

From the end of March they levied contributions upon all the Ministries of Versailles, offering for a few sous to surrender some of the gates of Paris or to kidnap the members of the Council. By degrees they were more or less classed. The colonel of the staff, Corbin, was charged with the organisation of the faithful National Guards still at Paris. The commander of a reactionary battalion, Charpentier, a former drill officer of St. Cyr, offered him his services, was accepted, and presented a few of his cronies, Durouchoux, Demay, and Gallimard. Their instructions were to recruit clandestine battalions, who were to occupy the strategic points of the town on the day when the general attack would summons all the Federals to the ramparts. A naval officer, Domalain, offered at that moment to surprise Montmartre, the Hôtel-de-Ville, the Place Vendôme, and the commissariat, with a few thousand volunteers, whom he professed to have at hand. He entered into partnership with Charpentier.

They bestirred themselves with might and main, grouped an astonishing number of persons around official posts, and soon gave notice of 6,000 men and 150 artillery men provided with spiking machines. All these brave ones only waited for a signal. In the meanwhile, money was of course wanted to keep up their zeal, and Charpentier and Domalain, through the agency of Durouchoux, indeed drew several hundred thousand francs from the Versaillese.

Towards the end of April they found a redoubtable rival in Le Mere de Beaufond, an ex-naval officer and governor of Cayenne ad interim. Instead of drumming up for bourgeois recruits, an idea he declared ridiculous, Beaufond proposed paralysing the resistance by means of clever agents who should provoke defections and disorganize the services. His plan, quite in accord with M. Thiers’ notions, was favourably looked upon at Versailles, which gave him full powers. He took as helpmates two men of resolution, Laroque, a clerk at the bank, and Lasnier, an ex-officer of Schoelcher’s legion.

Besides these, the Ministry had still other bloodhounds – the Alsatian Aronshonne, colonel of a free corps during the war, cashiered by his men, who at Tours had accused him of theft; Franzini, later on extradited by England and condemned as a swindler, Barral de Montaut, who boldly presented himself at the War Office, and, thanks to his aplomb, got himself named chief of the seventh legion; the Abbé Cellini, chaplain of one knows not what fleet, patronized by Jules Simon; last, the noble-minded conspirators, the great generals disdained by the revolution, Lullier, Du Bisson, Ganier d’Abin. These honest Republicans could not allow the Commune to ruin the Republic. If they accepted money from Versailles, it was only with a view to saving Paris and the Republican party from the men of the Hôtel-deVille. They wanted to overthrow the Commune, but betray it, oh! no, by no means!

One Briere St.-Lagier framed comprehensive reports on all these knights, and M. Thiers’ secretary, Troncin-Dumersan, condemned three years after as swindler, travelled backwards and forwards between Paris and Versailles, brought the money, superintended and held in his hand all the threads of these multifarious conspiracies, the one being often carried on behind the back of the other.

Thence continual collisions. The ragamuffins mutually denounced each other. Briere de St.-Lagier wrote: ‘I beg M. le Ministre de I’Intérieur to have M. Le Mere de Beaufond watched. I strongly suspect him of being a Bonapartist. The money he has received has

been used to a great extent to pay his debts.’ By way of compensation another report said, ‘I suspect MM. Domalain, Charpentier, and Briere de St.-Lagier. They often meet at Peter’s, and instead of occupying themselves with the great cause of the deliverance, imitate Pantaguruel. [pleasure-loving character in a book by Rabelais] They pass for Orleanists.’[158]

The most venturesome of these enterprisers, Beaufond, managed to enter into relations with the general staff of Colonel Henri Prodhomme, with the Ecole Militaire, commanded by Vonot, and with the War Office, where the chief of the artillery, Guyet, contrived to embroil the service of the munitions. His agents, Lasnier and Laroque, worked upon a certain Muley, who, having circumvented the Central Committee, got himself named chief of the seventeenth legion, and to some extent disabled it. An officer of artillery, Captain Piguier, placed at their disposal by the Ministry, traced the plan of the barricades, and one of the band could write on the 8th May, ‘No torpedoes are laid; the army may enter to the flourish of trumpets.’ Now they had recourse to direct subornation; now acting the part of fervent Communards, they knew how to draw out information; while the imprudence of the functionaries singularly facilitated their task. Staff officers, service chiefs, fond of assuming consequential airs, discussed the most delicate matters in the cafés of the boulevards, full of spies.[159] Cournet, who had succeeded Rigault at the prefecture of police, despite the gravity of his deportment, did not better the service of general security. Lullier, twice arrested, each time escaping, openly spoke in the cafés of sweeping away the Commune. Troncin-Dumersan, known for twenty years as the police agent of the Ministry of the Interior, freely walked along the boulevards, passing his retainers in full view. The contractors charged with the fortification of Montmartre every day found new pretexts to defer the opening of the works; the Bréa Church remained intact; the undertaker of the demolition of the expiatory monument managed to put it off till the entry of the troops. Chance alone discovered the brassard (armlet) plot, and the fidelity of Dombrowski disclosed that of Vaysset.

This commercial agent had gone to Versailles to propose to the Ministry an operation of revictualling. Shown out, he again turned up, but this time with the offer to bribe Dombrowski. Under the patronage of Admiral Saisset – more crazy than ever – he got up his enterprise in the shape of a commercial society, found shareholders, twenty thousand francs for the incidental expenses, and entered into communication with an aide-de-camp of Dombrowski’s named Hutzinger, afterwards employed by the Versaillese police as spy amongst the exiles in London. Vaysset told him that Versailles would give Dombrowski a million if the general surrendered the gates under his command. Dombrowski at once apprised the Committee of Public Safety, and proposed to allow one or two Versaillese army corps to enter the town and then to crush them by battalions lying in ambush. The Committee would not risk this venture, but ordered Dombrowski to follow up the negotiation.[160] Hutzinger accompanied Vaysset to Versailles, saw Saisset, who offered to surrender himself as hostage in guarantee of the execution of the promises made to Dombrowski. The admiral was even, on a certain night, to repair secretly to the Place Vendôme, and the Committee of Public Safety, forewarned, was preparing to arrest him, when Barthélemy St. Hilaire dissuaded Saisset from this new blunder.

Then M. Thiers began to abandon the hope of taking the town by surprise. This was his hobby of the first days of May. Upon the faith of a bailiff, who promised to get the Dauphine gate surrendered by his friend Laporte, chief of the sixteenth legion, M. Thiers had built up a whole plan in spite of the repugnance of MacMahon and of the army, eager for a triumphal entry.[161] During the night of the 3rd May the whole active army and part of the reserve were set on foot, and General Thiers went to sleep at Sevres. At midnight the troops were massed in the Bois de Boulogne before the lower lake, their eyes fixed on the closed gates. The latter were to be thrown open by a reactionary company which had formed at Passy under the orders of Wéry, a lieutenant of the thirty-eighth, acting as deputy of his former commander, Lavigne. But the intelligent conspirators had forgotten to warn Lavigne, and the company that was to relieve the Federals having had no order from their superior, suspected an ambush, and refused the service. Thus the trusty watch was not relieved. At dawn, after waiting in vain for several hours, the troops returned to their cantonments. Two days after, Laporte was arrested and set free again, much too soon.

Beaufond, taking up the bailiffs plan, guaranteed the surrender of the gates of Auteuil and Dauphine for the night of the 12th to the 13th May. M. Thiers, again caught, forwarded all the scaling gear, and several detachments were directed towards the Point du Jour, while the army held itself in readiness to follow. But at the last moment the profound combinations of the conspirators were foiled,[162] and, as on the 3rd, the army had to turn tail. This attempt was known to the Committee of Public Safety, who had known nothing of the first one.

Lasnier was arrested the next day. The Committee had just laid hands upon the tricolor armlets which the National Guards of order were to have worn on the entry of the army. The woman Legros, who made them, neglected to pay the girls in her employ. One of them, believing that the work was done on account of the Commune, went to ask for her wages at the Hôtel-de-Ville. Inquiries made at the woman Legros’ put them on the traces of Beaufond and his accomplices. Beaufond and Laroque managed to hide; Troncin-Dumersan packed off to Versailles. Charpentier thus remained master of the field. Corbin urged him to organize his men by tens and hundreds, and traced him out a whole plan by which to get possession of the Hôtel-de-Ville immediately after the entry of the troops. Charpentier, always imperturbable, diverted him day by day by news of fresh conquests, spoke of 20,000 recruits, asked for dynamite to blow up the houses,[163] and in true Pantagruelic style gobbled up the considerable sums made over to him by Durouchoux.

After all, the whole gang of conspirators did not succeed in surrendering one single gate, but they lent considerable aid in disorganizing the services. Still great care should be taken in availing oneself of their reports, often inflated with imaginary successes to justify the disbursement of the hundreds of thousands of francs that they pocketed.

Notes

[158] All the unpublished reports that 1 quote and on which I rely have been copied from the originals.

[159] Appendix XI.

[160] Appendix XII.

[161] ‘It was better to take possession of the town by main force,’ said the apostolic Comte de Mun (Enquête sur le 18 Mars, Vol. II, p. 277). ‘Thus right manifests itself m peremptory manner’ – the right of carriage, no doubt. ‘It was better that it should not be said that we had got in by the back-door.’

[162] It has been stated that a Polish officer of Dombrowski’s staff, killed afterwards during the street fight, was the agent in this attempted treason. I have been unable, in spite of a minute search to discover the least proof of this imputation.

[163] See a letter from Colonel Corbin, quoted in the Histoire des conspirations sous la commune, a work by A. J. Dalseme, arranged in the form of a novel, but containing some documents.

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