History of the Paris Commune of 1871

26. The enemy enters Paris

The St. Cloud gate has just been breached. General Douai has thrown himself at it. (Thiers to the Prefects, 21st May.)

The great attack approached; the Assembly drew up in battlearray. On the 16th May it refused to recognize the Republic as the Government of France, and voted public prayers by 417 out of 420. On the 17th the army established its breach batteries against the gates of La Muette, Auteuil, St. Cloud, Point du Jour, Issy. The batteries in the rear continued to pound the enceinte of the Point du Jour and to confound Passy. The pieces of the Château de Brécon ruined the Montmartre cemetry, and reached as far as the Place St. Pierre. We had five arrondissements under shell.

On the 18th, in the evening, the Versaillese surprised the Federals of Cachan by approaching them with the cry of ‘Vive la Commune!’ However, we succeeded in preventing their movement towards the Hautes-Bruyeres. The Dominican monks who from their convent gave signals to the enemy were arrested and taken to the Fort de Bicetre.

May 19th: – Despite the Versaillese approaches, our defence did not become more vigorous. Bastions 72 and 73 threw a few occasional shells upon the village and the fort of Issy. From the Point du Jour to the Porte-Maillot we had only the cannon of the Dauphiné gate to answer the hundred Versaillese pieces and check their works in the Bois de Boulogne. A few barricades at the Bineau and Asnieres gates and the Boulevard d’Italie, two redoubts at the Place de la Concorde and Rue Castiglione, a moat in the Rue Royale and another at the Trocadero; this was all that the Council had done in seven weeks for the defence of the interior. There were no works at the Mont-Parnasse Station, the Panthéon, the Buttes Montmartre, where two or three pieces had been fired off on the 14th, only to kill our own men at Lavallois. At the terrace of the Tuileries about twelve navvies sadly dug away at a useless trench. The Committee of Public Safety could not, they said, find workmen, when they had 1,500 idlers at the Prince-Eugene Barracks, 100,000 sedentary guards, and millions of francs to hand. An iron will and firm direction might still have saved everything; and we were now in the period of coma, of immense lassitude. The competitions, quarrels, and intrigues had absorbed all energy. The Council occupied itself with details, with trifles. The Committee of Public Safety multiplied its romantic proclamations, which moved nobody. The Central Committee thought only of seizing upon a power it was unable to wield, and on the 19th announced itself administrator of the War Office. Its members had made so sure of their sway, that one of them by a decree inserted in the Officiel ordered all the inhabitants of Paris to ‘present themselves at their homes within forty-eight hours,’ on pain of ‘having their rent-titles on the grand livre burnt.’ This was the pendant of the identity card.

Our best battalions, decimated, abandoned to themselves, were but wrecks. Since the beginning of April we had lost 4,000 men, killed or wounded, and 3,500 prisoners. There now remained to us 2,000 men from Ansieres to Neuilly, 4,000 perhaps from La Muette to PetitVanves. The battalions designated for the posts of Passy were not there, or stayed in the houses far from the ramparts; many of their officers had disappeared. At bastions 36 to 70, precisely at the point of attack, there were not twenty artillerymen; the sentinels were absent.

Was it treason? The conspirators boasted a few days after of having dismantled these ramparts; but the terrible bombardment would suffice to explain this dereliction. Still there was a culpable heedlessness. Dombrowski, weary of struggling against the inertness of the War Office, was discouraged, went too often to his quarters at the Place Vendôme, while the Committee of Public Safety, informed of the abandonment of the ramparts, contented itself with warning the War Office instead of hurrying to the rescue and taking the situation in hand.

On Saturday, the 20th May, the breach batteries were unmasked; 300 naval guns and siege-pieces blending together their detonations announced the beginning of the end.

The same day De Beaufond, whom Lasnier’s arrest had not discouraged, sent his habitual emissary to warn the chief of the Versaillese general staff that the gates of Montrouge, Vanves, Vaugirard, Point du Jour and Dauphine were entirely deserted. Orders for concentrating the troops were immediately issued. On the 21st the Versaillese found themselves in readiness, as on the 3rd and 12th, but this time success seemed certain; the gate of St. Cloud was dashed to pieces.

For several days some members of the Council had pointed out this breach to the chief of the general staff, Henri Prodhomme. He answered à la Cluseret that his measures were taken; that he was even going to throw up a terrible iron-clad barricade before this gate; but he did not stir. On the Sunday morning, Lefrançais, traversing the moat on the ruins of the drawbridge, at about fifteen yards distance, ran up against the Versaillese trenches. Struck by the imminence of the peril, he sent Delescluze a note, which was lost.

At half-past two, under the shade of the Tuileries, a monster concert was being given for the benefit of the widows and orphans of the Commune. Thousands of people had come; the bright spring dresses of the women lit up the green alleys; people eagerly inhaled the fresh air sent forth from the great trees. Two hundred yards off, on the Place de la Concorde, the Versaillese shells burst, uttering their discordant note amidst the joyous sounds of the bands and the invigorating breath of spring.

At the end of the concert a staff officer ascended the platform of the conductor of the orchestra. ‘Citizens,’ said he, ‘M. Thiers promised to enter Paris yesterday. M. Thiers has not entered; he will not enter. I invite you to come here next Sunday, to the same place, to our second concert for the benefit of the widows and orphans.’

At that very hour, at that very minute, almost within gunshot, the vanguard of the Versaillese was making its entry into Paris.

The expected signal had at last been given from the St. Cloud gate, but did not come from the licensed conspirators. An amateur spy, Ducatel, was crossing these quarters, when he saw everything, gates and ramparts, quite deserted. He thereupon climbed Bastion 64, waving a white handkerchief, and cried to the soldiers in the trenches, ‘You can enter; there is no one here.’ A naval officer came forward, interrogated Ducatel, crossed over the ruins of the drawbridge, and was able to assure himself that the bastions and neighbouring houses were entirely abandoned. Returning immediately to the trenches, the officer telegraphed the news to the nearest generals. The breach batteries ceased firing, and the soldiers of the trenches nearby penetrated by small platoons into the enceinte. M. Thiers, MacMahon, and Admiral Pothuan , who were just then at Mont-Valérien, telegraphed to Versailles to have all the divisions put in motion.

Dombrowski, absent from his headquarters of La Muette for several hours, arrived at four o’clock. A commander met him, and informed him of the entry of the Versaillese. Dombrowski let the officer terminate his report, then, turning to one of his aides-de-camp, with a coolness that he exaggerated in critical circumstances, said, ‘Send to the Ministry of Marine for a battery of seven cannon; warn such and such battalions. I shall take the command myself.’ He also addressed a despatch to the Committee of Public Safety and the War Office, and sent the batallion of volunteers to occupy the gate of Auteuil.

At five o’clock, National Guards, without képis, without arms, uttered a cry of alarm in the streets of Passy; some officers unsheathing their swords tried to stop them; the Federals left their houses, some loading their guns, others maintaining that it was a false alarm. The commander of the volunteers picked up and led off as many men as he could get to follow him.

These volunteers were troops inured to fire. Near the railway station they saw the red-coats, and received them with a volley. A Versaillese officer on horseback, who hurried up trying to urge on his men with drawn sabre, fell beneath our balls, and his soldiers retreated. The Federals established themselves solidly on the viaduct and at the opening of the Murat Boulevard, while, at the same time, the quay abreast of the Jena. Bridge was being barricaded.

Dombrowski’s despatch had reached the Committee of Public Safety. Billioray, on duty at this moment, at once proceeded to the Council. The Assembly was just putting Cluseret on trial, and Vermorel was speaking. The ex-delegate, seated on a chair, listened to the orator with that vain nonchalance which the naive took for talent. Billioray, very pale, entered, and for a moment sat down; then, as Vermorel went on, cried to him, ‘Conclude! conclude! I have to make a communication of the greatest importance to the Assembly; I demand a secret sitting.’

Vermorel: ‘Let citizen Bil lioray speak.’

Billioray rose and read a paper that trembled slightly in his hand.

‘Dombrowski to War and Committee of Public Safety. The Versaillese have entered by the Porte de St. Cloud. I am taking measures to drive them back. If you can send me reinforcements, I answer for everything.’[178]

There was first a silence of anguish, soon broken by interpellations. ‘Some battalions have marched off,’ answered Billioray; ‘the Committee of Public Safety watches.’

The discussion was again taken up, and naturally cut short. The Council acquitted Cluseret; the ridiculous impeachment brought forward by Miot, made up only of gossip, neglected the only incriminating fact – the inactivity of Cluseret during his delegation. They then formed into groups and commented on the despatch. The confidence of Dombrowski, the assurance of Billioray, proved quite sufficient to the romanticists. What with faith in the general, the solidity of the ramparts, the immortality of the cause; what with the responsibility of the Committee of Public Safety, the question at issue was slurred over; let every one go about in search of information, and in case of need betake himself to his own arrondissement.

The time was wasted in small-talk; there were neither motion nor debate; eight o’clock struck , and the president raised the sitting. The last sitting of the Council! And there was no one to demand a permanent committee; no one to call on his colleague to wait here for news, to summon the Committee of Public Safety to the bar of the Council. There was no one to insist that at this critical moment of uncertainty, when perhaps it might be necessary to improvise a plan of defence at a moment’s notice or take a great resolution in case of disaster, the post of the guardians of Paris was in the centre, at the Hôtel-de-Ville, and not in their respective arrondissements.

Thus the Council of the Commune disappeared from history and the Hôtel-de-Ville at the moment of supreme danger, when the Versaillese penetrated into Paris.

The same prostration reigned at the War Office, where they had received the news at five o’clock. The Central Committee went to Delescluze, who seemed very calm, and said, what many indeed believed, that the fight in the streets would be favourable to the Commune. The commander of the section of the Point du Jour having just come to report that nothing serious had happened, the delegate accepted his statements without corroboration. The chief of the general staff did not even think it worth while to go and make a personal recognisance, and towards eight o’clock he had this incredible despatch posted up: ‘The observatory of the Arc de Triomphe denies the entry of the Versaillese; at least, it sees nothing that looks like it.

The commander (Renaud) of the section has just left my office, and declares that there has only been a panic, and that the gate of Auteuil has not been forced; that if a few Versaillese have entered, they have been repulsed. I have sent for eleven battalions of reinforcements, by as many officers of the general staff, who are not to leave them till they have led them to the posts which they are to occupy.’

At the same hour M. Thiers telegraphed to his prefects, ‘The gate of St. Cloud has fallen under the fire of our cannon. General Douai has dashed into the town.’ A twofold lie. The gate of St. Cloud had been wide open for three days without the Versaillese daring to pass it, and General Douai had crept in very modestly, man by man, introduced by treason.

At night the Ministry seemed to wake up a little. Officers flocked thither asking for orders. The general staff would not allow the tocsin to be sounded, on the pretext that the population must not be alarmed. Some members of the Council pored over the plan of Paris at last, studying those strategical points that had been forgotten for six weeks. When it was necessary at once to find an idea, a method, and give precise instructions, the delegate shut himself in his office in order to frame a proclamation.

While in the midst of Paris, confident in her trustees, a few men, without soldiers, without information, prepared the first resistance, the Versaillese continued to slip in through the breaches of the ramparts. Wave on wave their flood grew, silent, veiled by the dusk. By degrees they massed themselves between the railway line and the fortifications. At eight o’clock they were numerous enough to divide into two columns, one of which, turning to the left, crowned Bastions 66 and 67, while the other filed off to the right on the route to Versailles. The first lodged itself in the centre of Passy, occupying the St. Périne asylum, the church and the place of Auteuil; the other, having swept away the rudimentary barricade constructed on the quay at the top of the Rue Guillon, towards one o’clock in the morning, by the Rue Raynouard, scaled the Trocadero, neither fortified nor manned on this side, and it once took possession of it.

At the Hotel-de-Ville the members of the Committee of Public Safety had at last assembled. Billioray alone had vanished not to appear again. They knew nothing of the number and position of the troops, but knew that under the cover of night the enemy had entered Passy. Staff officers sent to La Muette to reconnoitre came back with the most reassuring news. Thereupon, at eleven o’clock, a member of the Council, Assi, entered the Rue Beethoven, where the lights had been put out. Soon his horse refused to advance; it had slipped down in large pools of blood, and National Guards seemed to lie asleep along the walls. Suddenly men sprang forward. They were the Versaillese waiting in ambush; these sleepers were murdered Federals.

The Versaillese were slaughtering within the walls of Paris and Paris knew it not. The night was clear, starlit, mild, fragrant; the theatres were crowded, the boulevards sparkling with life and gaiety, the bright cafés swarming with visitors, and the cannon were everywhere hushed – a silence unknown for three weeks. If ‘the finest army that France ever had’ were to push straight on by the quays and boulevards, entirely free of barricades, with one bound, without firing a shot, if would crush the Commune of Paris.

The volunteers held out on the railway line till midnight; then, exhausted, left without any reinforcements, they fell back upon La Muette. General Clinchant followed them, occupied the Auteuil gate, passed by that of Passy, and marched on the headquarters of Dombrowski. Fifty volunteers for some time still kept up a skirmish in the Château, but outflanked on the east, about to be closed in from the Trocadero, at half-past one in the morning they beat a retreat on the Champs-Elysées.

On the left bank General Cissey had the whole evening massed his forces at about 200 yards from the enceinte. At midnight his sappers crossed the moat, scaled the ramparts, without even encountering a sentinel, and opened the Sevres and Versailles gates.

At three o’clock in the morning the Versaillese inundated Paris through the five gaping wounds of the gates of Passy, Auteuil, St. Cloud, Sevres, and Versailles. The greater part of the fifteenth arrondissement was occupied, the Muette taken; all Passy and the heights of the Trocadero were taken, and the powder-magazine of the Rue Beethoven, immense catacombs running underneath the sixteenth arrondissement, crammed with 3,000 barrels of powder, millions of cartridges, thousands of shells. At five o’clock the first Versaillese shell fell upon the Légion d’Honneur. As on the morning of the 2nd December, Paris was asleep.


[178] The original of this document has been lost, but we have been able to re-establish the text with the evidence of Dombrowski’s brother and of a great number of members of the Council present at this sitting.

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