History of the Paris Commune of 1871

29. On the barricades

Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration. (Thiers’ speech to the National Assembly, 24th May, 1871.)

The defenders of the barricades, already without reinforcements and munitions, were now left even without food, and altogether thrown on the resources of the neighbourhood. Many, quite worn out, went in search of some nourishment; their comrades, not seeing them return, grew desperate, while the leaders of the barricades strained themselves to keep them back.

At nine o’clock Brunel received the order to evacuate the Rue Royale. He went to the Tuileries to tell Bergeret that he could still hold out, but at midnight the Committee of Public Safety again sent him a formal order to retreat. Forced to abandon the post he had so well defended for two days, the brave commander first removed his wounded and then his cannon by the Rue St. Florentin. The Federals followed; when at the top of the Rue Castiglione, they were assailed by shots.

It was the Versaillese, who, masters of the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Neuve des Capucines, had invaded the Place Vendôme, entirely deserted, and by the Hôtel-du-Rhin turned the barricade of the Rue Castiglione. Brunel’s Federals, abandoning the Rue de Rivoli, forced the rails of the garden, went up the quays, and regained the Hôtel-de-Ville. The enemy did not dare to pursue them, and only at daybreak occupied the Ministry of Marine, long since abandoned.

The rest of the night the cannon were silent. The Hôtel-de-Ville had lost its animation. The Federals slept in the square; in the offices the members of the committees and the officers snatched a few moments of repose. At three o’clock a staff officer arrived from Notre Dame, occupied by a detachment of Federals. He came to tell the Committee of Public Safety that the Hôtel-Dieu harboured eight hundred sick, who might suffer from the proximity of the struggle, and the Committee commanded the evacuation of the cathedral in order to save these unfortunate people.

And now the sun rose, eclipsing the glare of the conflagrations; the day dawned radiant, but with no ray of hope for the Commune. Paris had no longer a right wing; her centre was broken; to assume the offensive was impossible. The prolongation of her resistance could now only serve to bear witness to her faith.

Early in the morning the Versaillese moved on all points. They pushed towards the Louvre, the Palais-Royal, the Bank, the Comptoir d’Escompte, the Montholon Square, the Boulevard Ornano, and the line of the Northern Railway. From four o’clock they cannonaded the Palais-Royal, round which desperate battles were being fought. By seven o’clock they were at the Bank and at the Bourse; thence they descended to St. Eustache, where they met an obstinate resistance. Many children fought with the men; and when the Federals were outflanked and massacred, these children had the honour not to be excepted.

On the left bank the troops with difficulty marched up the quays and all that part of the sixth arrondissement bordering upon the Seine. In the centre, the barricade of the Croix-Rouge had been evacuated during the night, like that of the Rue de Rennes, which thirty men had held for two days. The Versaillese were then able to enter the Rues d’Assas and Notre-dame-des-Champs. On the extreme right they reached the Val de Grace, and advanced against the Panthéon.

At eight o’clock about fifteen members of the Council assembled at the Hôtel-de-Ville and decided to evacuate it. Two only protested. The third arrondissement, intersected by narrow and well-barricaded streets, sheltered the flank of the Hôtel-de-Ville, which defied every attack from the front and by the quays. Under such conditions of defence to fall back was to fly, to strip the Commune of the little prestige still remaining to it; but no more than the days before were they able to collect two sound ideas. They feared everything, because ignorant of everything. Already the commander of the Palais Royal had received the order to evacuate that edifice, after having set it on fire. He had protested, and declared he could still hold out, but the order was repeated. Such was the state of bewilderment, that a member proposed a retreat on Belleville. They might as well abandon the Château d’Eau and the Bastille at once. As usual, the time was spent in small-talk. The governor of the Hôtel-de-Ville went backwards and forwards impatient.

Suddenly the flames burst forth from the summit of the belfry; an hour after the Hôtel-de-Ville was but one glow. The old edifice, witness of so many perjuries, where the people have so often installed powers that have afterwards shot them down, now cracked and fell with its true master. With the noise of the crumbling pavilions, of the toppling vaults and chimneys, of the dull detonations and the loud explosions, mingled the sharp reports of the cannon from the large St. Jacques barricade, that swept the Rue de Rivoli.

The War Office and all the services moved off to the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement. Delescluze had protested against the desertion of the Hôtel-de-Ville, and predicted that this retreat would discourage many combatants.

The next day they left the Imprimerie Nationale, where the Officiel of the Commune appeared on the 24th for the last time. Like an Officiel that respects itself, it was a day behind time; it contained the proclamations of the day before and a few details of the battle, but not beyond the Tuesday morning.

This flight from the Hôtel-de-Ville, cutting the defence in two, increased the difficulty of the communications. The staff officers who had not disappeared reached the new headquarters with great trouble; they were stopped at every barricade and constrained to carry paving-stones. On producing their despatches pleading urgency, they were answered, ‘Today there are no more epaulettes.’ The anger they had inspired for a long time broke out this very morning. In the Rue Sedaine, near the Place Voltaire, a young officer of the general staff, the Count de Beaufort, was recognized by the guards of the 166th battalion, whom he had threatened some days before at the War Office. Arrested for having tried to violate the orders of the post, Beaufort, losing his temper, had flung out a menace to purge the battalion. Now, the day before, near the Madeleine, the battalion had lost sixty men, and believed in a revenge on the part of Beaufort. This officer was arrested and conducted before a court-martial, which installed itself in a shop of the Boulevard Voltaire. Beaufort produced such certificates that the accusation was abandoned. Nevertheless, the judges decided that he was to serve in the battalion as a simple guard. Some of those present objected and named him captain. He came out triumphant. The crowd, ignorant of his explanation, grumbled on seeing him free. A guard rushed at him, and Beaufort was imprudent enough to draw out his revolver. He was immediately seized and thrown back into the shop. The chief of the general staff did not dare to come to the rescue of his officer. Delescluze hurried up, asked for a respite, said that Beaufort should be judged; but the crowd would not hear of it, and it was necessary to yield in order to prevent a terrible affray. Beaufort was conducted to the open space situated behind the mairie and shot.

Close by this outburst of fury at the Père la Chaise, Dombrowski was receiving the last honours. His corpse had been transported thither in the night, and during the passage to the Bastille a touching scene had taken place. The Federals of these barricades had stopped the cortege and placed the corpse at the foot of the July column; some men, torches in their hands, formed into a circle, and all the Federals, one after the other, came to place a last kiss on the brow of the general, while the drums beat a salute. The body, enveloped in a red flag, was then put into the coffin. Vermorel, the general’s brother, his aides-de-camp, and about 200 guards were standing up bareheaded. ‘There is he,’ cried Vermorel, ‘who was accused of treachery! One of the first, he has given his life for the Commune. And we, what are we doing here instead of imitating him?’ He went on stigmatizing cowardice and panics. His speech, usually intricate, now flowed from him, heated by passion, like molten metal. ‘Let us swear to leave here only to seek death!’ This was his last word; he was to keep it. The cannon a few steps off had at intervals covered his voice; few of the men present but shed tears.

Happy those who may have such funerals! Happy those buried during the battle saluted by their cannon, wept over by their friends.

At that same moment the Versaillese agent who had flattered himself he could corrupt Dombrowski was being shot. Towards mid-day the Versaillese, vigorously pushing their attack on the left bank had stormed the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Institute, the Mint, which its director, Camélinat, left only at the last minute. On the point of being shut up in the Ile Notre Dame, Ferré had given the order to evacuate the Prefecture of Police and to destroy it. The 450 prisoners arrested for slight offences were, however, first set at liberty; one only, Vaysset, was retained and shot on the Pont-Neuf before the statue of Henry IV. Just before his death he uttered these strange words, ‘You will answer for my death to the Comte de Fabrice.’[187]

The Versaillese, neglecting the Prefecture, entered the Rue Tarranes and the contiguous streets. They were held in check for two hours at the barricade of the Place de l’Abbaye, which the inhabitants of the quarter helped to outflank. Eighteen Federals were shot. More to the right the troops penetrated into the Place St. Sulpice, where they occupied the mairie of the sixth arrondissement; thence they entered the Rue St. Sulpice on one side, and on the other penetrated by the Rue de Vaugirard into the garden of the Luxembourg. After two days of struggle the brave Federals of the Rue Vavin fell back, and on their retreat blew up the powder-magazine of the Luxembourg garden. The commotion for a moment suspended the combat. The Palace of Luxembourg was not defended. Some soldiers crossed the garden, broke down the rails facing the Rue Soufflot, traversed the boulevard, and surprised the first barricade in that street.

Three barricades were raised before the Panthéon; the first at the entrance of the Rue Soufflot – it had just been taken; the second in the centre; the third extending from the mairie of the fifth arrondissement to the Ecole de Droit. Varlin and Lisbonne, hardly escaped from the Croix-Rouge, had hastened up again to face the enemy. Unfortunately the Federals would listen to no chief, remained on the defensive, and, instead of attacking the handful of soldiers exposed at the entrance of the Rue Soufflot, gave the reinforcements time to arrive.

The bulk of the Versaillese reached the Boulevard St. Michel by the Rues Racine and De l’Ecole de Médecine, which women had defended. The St. Michel Bridge ceased firing for want of ammunition, so that the soldiers were able to pass over the boulevard in a body, and got as far as the Place Maubert, while at the same time on the right they remounted the Rue Mouffetard. At four o’clock the height of Sainte Genevieve, well-nigh abandoned, was invaded by all its slopes and its few defenders dispersed. Thus the Panthéon, like Montmartre, fell almost without a struggle. As at Montmartre, too, the massacres commenced immediately. Forty prisoners were shot one after the other in the Rue St. Jacques, under the eyes of and by the orders of a colonel.

Rigault was killed in this neighbourhood. The soldiers, seeing a Federal officer knocking at the door of a house in the Rue Gay-Lussac, fired without hitting him. The door opened and Rigault went in. The soldiers followed at full speed, rushed into the house, seized the landlord, who proved his identity, and hastened to deliver up Rigault. The soldiers were dragging him to the Luxembourg, when, in the Rue Royal-Collard, a Versaillese staff colonel met the escort, and asked the name of the prisoner. Rigault bravely answered, ‘Vive la Commune! Down with assassins!’ He was immediately thrown against a wall and shot. May this courageous end be counted to him!

When the fall of the Panthéon, so valiantly defended in June, 1848, became known in the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement, they at once cried out against traitors; but what then had the Council and the Committee of Public Safety done for the defence of this capital post? At the mairie, as at the Hôtel-de-Ville, they were deliberating.

At two o’clock the members of the Council, of the Central Committee, superior officers, and the chiefs of the services were assembled in the library. Delescluze spoke first, amidst a profound silence, for the least whisper would have covered his dying voice. He said all was not lost; that they must make a great effort, and hold out to the last. Cheers interrupted him. He called upon each one to state his opinion. ‘I propose,’ said he, ‘that the members of the Commune, engirded with their scarfs, shall make a review of all the battalions that can be assembled on the Boulevard Voltaire. We shall then at their head proceed to the points to be conquered.’

The idea appeared grand, and transported those present. Never since the sitting when he had said that certain delegates of the people would know how to die at their post, had Delescluze so profoundly moved all hearts. The distant firing, the cannon of the Père la Chaise, the confused clamours of the battalions surrounding the mairie, blended with, and at times drowned his voice. Behold, in the midst of this defeat, this old man upright, his eyes luminous, his right hand raised defying despair, these armed men fresh from the battle suspending their breath to listen to this voice which seemed to ascend from the tomb. There was no scene more solemn in the thousand tragedies of that day.

There was a superabundance of most vigorous resolutions. Open on the table lay a large case of dynamite; an imprudent gesture might explode the mairie. They spoke of cutting off the bridges, of upheaving the sewers. What was the use of this tall talking? Very different munitions were needed now. Where is the engineer-in-chief who had said that at his bidding an abyss would open and swallow up the enemy? He is gone. Gone too the chief of the general staff. Since the execution of Beaufort, he has felt an ill wind blowing for his epaulettes. More motions were made, and motions will still be made to the end. The Central Committee condescended to declare that it would subordinate itself to the Committee of Public Safety. It seemed settled at last that the chief of the 11th legion was to group all the Federals who had taken refuge in the eleventh arrondissement; perhaps he might succeed in forming the columns of which Delescluze had spoken.

The Delegate for War then visited the defences. Solid preparations were being made at the Bastille. In the Rue St. Antoine, at the entrance of the square, a barricade provided with three pieces of artillery was being finished; another at the entrance of the faubourg covered the Rues de Charenton and de la Rouquette; but here, as everywhere else, the flanks were not guarded. Cartridges and shells were piled up along the houses, exposed to all projectiles. The approaches to the eleventh arrondissement were hastily armed, and at the intersection of the Boulevards Voltaire and Richard-Lenoir a barricade was being thrown up with casks, paving stones, and large bales of paper. This work, inaccessible from the front, was also to be turned. Before it, at the entrance of the Boulevards Voltaire, Place du Château d’Eau, a wall of paving-stones two yards high was raised. Behind this mortal rampart, assisted by two pieces of cannon, the Federals for twenty-four hours stopped all the Versaillese columns setting foot on the Place du Château d’Eau. On the right, the bottom of the Rues Oberkampf, d’Angouleme and du Faubourg du Temple, the Rue Fontaine-au-Roi, and the Avenue des Amandiers were already on the defensive. Higher up, in the tenth arrondissement, Brunel, arrived that same morning from the Rue Royale, was again to the fore, like Lisbonne, like Varlin, eager for new perils. A large barricade cut off the intersection of the Boulevards Magenta and Strasbourg; the Rue du Château d’Eau was barred, and the works of the Porte St. Martin and St. Denis, at which they had worked day and night, were filling with combatants.

Towards ten o’clock the Versaillese had been able to gain possession of the Northern Railway station by turning the Rue Stephenson and the barricades of the Rue de Dunkerque; but the Strasbourg Railway, the second line of defence of La Villette, withstood their shock, and our artillery harassed them greatly. On the Buttes Chaumont, Ranvier, who directed the defence of these quarters, had established three howitzers of 12cm., two pieces of 7 near the Temple de la Sybille, and two pieces of 7 on the lower hill, while five cannon flanked the Rue Puebla and protected the Rotonde. At the Carrières d’Amérique there were two batteries of three pieces; the pieces of the Père la Chaise fired incessantly at the invaded quarters, seconded by cannon of large calibre at bastion 24.

The ninth arrondissement filled with the sound of firing. We lost much ground in the Faubourg Poissinnière. Despite their success in the Halles, the Versaillese were not able to get into the third arrondissement, sheltered by the long arm of the Boulevard Sebastopol, and we commanded the Rue Turbigo by the Prince Eugène Barracks. The second arrondissement, almost totally occupied, still held out on the banks of the Seine; from the Pont-Neuf the barricades of the Avenue Victoria and Quai de Gevres resisted till night. Our gunboats having been abandoned, the enemy seized and re-armed them.

The only success of our defence was at the Butte aux Cailles, where, under the impulsion of Wroblewski, it changed into the offensive. During the night the Versaillese had examined our positions, and at daybreak they mounted to the assault. The Federals did not wait for them, and rushed forward to meet them. Four times the Versaillese were repulsed, four times they returned; four times they retreated, and the soldiers, discouraged, no longer obeyed their officers.

Thus La Villette and the Butte aux Cailles, the two extremities of our defence, kept their ground; but what gaps all along the line! Of Paris, all theirs on Sunday, the Federals now only possessed the eleventh, twelfth, nineteenth, and twentieth arrondissements, and a part only of the third, fifth, and thirteenth.

On that day the massacres took that furious flight which in a few hours left St. Bartholomew’s Day far behind. Till then only the Federals or the people denounced had been killed; now the soldiers knew neither friend nor foe. When the Versaillese fixed his eye upon you, you must die; when he searched a house, nothing escaped him. “These are no longer soldiers accomplishing a duty,” said a conservative journal, La France. And indeed these were hyenas, thirsting for blood and pillage. In some places it sufficed to have a watch to be shot. The corpses were searched,[188] and the correspondents of foreign newspapers called those thefts the last perquisition. And the same day M. Thiers had the effrontery to tell the Assembly: “Our valiant soldiers conduct themselves in such a manner as to inspire foreign countries with the highest esteem and admiration.”

Then, too, was invented that legend of the petroleuses, which, born of fear and propagated by the press, cost hundreds of unfortunate women their lives. The rumour was spread that furies were throwing burning petroleum into the cellars. Every woman who was badly dressed, or carrying a milk-can, a pail, an empty bottle, was pointed out as a petroleuse, her clothes torn to tatters, she was pushed against the nearest wall, and killed with revolver-shots. The monstrously idiotic side of the legend is that the petroleuses were supposed to operate in the quarters occupied by the army.

The fugitives from the invaded quarters brought the news of these massacres to the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement. There, within smaller compass and more menacing, reigned the same confusion as at the Hôtel-de-Ville. The narrow courts were full of wagons, cartridges, and powder; every step of the principal staircase was occupied by women sewing sacks for the barricades. In the Salle des Mariages, whither Ferré had removed the office of Public Safety, the delegate, assisted by two secretaries, gave orders, signed free passes, questioned the people brought to him with the greatest calm, and pronounced his decisions in a polite, soft, and low voice. Farther on, in the rooms occupied by the War Office, some officers and chiefs of services received and expedited despatches; some of them, as at the Hôtel-de-Ville, doing their duty with perfect sangfroid. At this hour certain men revealed extraordinary strength of character, especially among the secondary actors of the movement. They felt that all was lost, that they were about to die, perhaps even at the hands of their own people, for the fever of suspicion had reached its utmost degree of paroxysm; yet they remained in the furnace, their hearts calm, their minds lucid. Never had a Government, with the exception of that of the National Defence, more resources, more intelligence, more heroism at its disposal than the Council of the Commune; never was there one so inferior to its electors.

At half-past seven a great noise was heard before the prison of La Roquette, where the day before the three hundred hostages, detained until then at Mazas, had been transported. Amidst a crowd of guards, exasperated at the massacres, stood a delegate of the Public Safety Commission, who said, ‘Since they shoot our men, six hostages shall be executed. Who will form the platoon?’ ‘I! I!’ was cried from all sides. One advanced and said, ‘I avenge my father,’ another, ‘I avenge my brother.’ ‘As for me,’ said a guard, ‘they have shot my wife.’ Each one brought forward his right to vengeance. Thirty men were chosen and entered the prison.

The delegate looked over the jail register, pointed out the Archbishop Darboy, the President Bonjean, the banker Jecker, the Jesuits Allard, Clerc, and Ducoudray; at the last moment Jecker was replaced by the Curé Deguerry.

They were taken to the exercise-ground. Darboy stammered out, ‘I am not the enemy of the Commune. I have done all I could. I have written twice to Versailles.’ He recovered a little when he saw death was inevitable. Bonjean could not keep on his legs. ‘Who condemns us?’ said he. ‘The justice of the people.’ ‘0h, this is not the right one,’ replied the president. One of the priests threw himself against the sentry-box and uncovered his breast. They were led further on, and, turning a corner, – met the firing-party. Some men harangued them; the delegate at once ordered silence. The hostages placed themselves against the wall, and the officer of the platoon said to them, ‘It is not we whom you must accuse of your death, but the Versaillese, who are shooting the prisoners.’ He then gave the signal and the guns were fired. The hostages fell back in one line, at an equal distance from each other. Darboy alone remained standing, wounded in the head, one hand raised. A second volley laid him by the side of the others.[189]

The blind justice of revolutions punishes in the first-comers the accumulated crimes of their caste.

At eight o’clock the Versaillese closed in upon the barricade of the Porte St. Martin. Their shells had long since set the theatre on fire, and the Federals, pressed by this conflagration, were obliged to fall back.

That night the Versaillese bivouacked in front of the Strasbourg Railway, the Rue St. Denis, the Hôtel-de-Ville (occupied towards nine o’clock by Vinoy’s troops), the Ecole Polytechnique, the Madelonnettes, and the Monsouris Park. They presented a kind of fan, of which the fixed point was formed by the Pont-au-Change, the right side by the thirteenth arrondissement, the left by the streets of the Fauborg St. Martin and the Rue de Flandre, the arc by the fortifications. The fan was about to close at Belleville, which formed the centre.

Paris continued to burn furiously. The Porte St. Martin, the St. Eustache Church, the Rue Royale, the Rue de Rivoli, the Tuileries, the Palais-Royale, the Hôtel-de-Ville, the Theatre-Lyrique, the left bank from the Légion d’Honneur up to the Palais de Justice and the Prefecture de Police, stood out bright red in the darkness of night. The caprices of the fire displayed a blazing architecture of arches, cupolas, spectral edifices. Great volumes of smoke, clouds of sparks flying into the air, attested formidable explosions; every minute stars lit up and died out again in the horizon. These were the cannon of the fort of Bicêtre, of the Père la Chaise, and the Buttes Chaumont, which fired on the invaded quarters. The Versaillese batteries answered from the Panthéon, the Trocadéro, and Montmartre. Now the reports followed each other at regular intervals; now there was a continuous thunder along the whole line. They aimed at random, blindly, madly. The shells often exploded in the midst of their career; the whole town was enveloped in a whirl of flame and smoke.

What men this handful of combatants, who, without leaders without hope, without retreat, disputed their last pavements as though they implied victory! The hypocritical reaction has charged them with the crime of incendiarism, as if in war fire were not a legitimate arm; as if the Versaillese shells had not set fire to at least as many edifices as those of the Federals; as if the private speculation of certain men of order had not its share in the ruins.[190] And that same bourgeois who spoke of ‘burning everything[191] before the Prussians, calls this people scoundrels because they preferred to bury themselves in the ruins rather than abandon their faith, their property, their families, to a coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than the foreigner.

At eleven o’clock two officers entered Delescluze’s room and informed him of the execution of the hostages. He listened to the recital without ceasing to write, and then only asked, ‘How did they die?’ When the officers were gone, Delescluze turned to the friend who was working with him, and, hiding his face in his hands, ‘What a war!’ cried he, ‘what a war!’ But he knew revolutions too well to lose himself in bootless reflections, and, mastering his emotion, he claimed, ‘We shall know how to die!’

During the whole night despatches succeeded each other without intermission, all demanding cannon and men under the threat of abandoning such or such a position.

But where to find cannon? And men began to be as rare as the bronze.


[187] One of the commanders of the German troops.

[188] Appendix XVIII.

[189] At half-past eight o’clock in the mairie of the eleventh arrondissement the delegate Genton made this recital, which we heard, and reproduce verbatim.

[190] Appendix XIX.

[191] ‘Bum everything! I have heard these words from the most wise, the most virtuous men.’ – Jules Favre, Enquête sur le Mars Vol. II, p. 42. ‘Rather Moscow than Sédan,’ wrote one of these wise and virtuous men during the first siege – M. Jules Simon.

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