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Chapter XLVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


The Commune - Demonstrations of the Red Faction - Seizures of Cannon - Disbandment of the Army of Paris - Suppression of Journals - The Government resolve to retake the Cannon - The Central Committee dominant in Paris - Murder of Generals Clement Thomas and Lecomte - Loss of Vincennes - Military Preparations at Versailles - Manifesto of the 20th March - Efforts of Admiral Saisset - The International Society - Election of a Municipal Council, which takes the name of Commune - The Bank of France - Defeat of the Federals - Actions of the 3rd April - Storming of the Bridge of Neuilly - Decree of the Hostages - Arrest of the Archbishop of Paris and other Ecclesiastics - Decree for the Demolition of the Napoleon Column - It is carried into Execution on the 16th May - Decree for the Expropriation of Works and Factories - Declaration of the 19th April - Circular sent from Versailles - Conduct of the Freemasons - The Delegacy of War - Cluseret, Rossel, Delescluze, New Committee of Public Safety - The Commune orders M. Thiers House to be Destroyed - Proclamation concerning Petroleum and Mineral Oils.
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At the end of Chapter XL. we related the conclusion of a treaty of peace between France and Germany, and the entry of a portion of the Prussian army into Paris on the 1st March, 1871. A still more disastrous chapter of French history must now be briefly touched upon. We shall see France torn to pieces by the arms of her own sons, after having suffered incredible losses and humiliations from a foreign enemy; we shall contemplate a furious struggle in which the enemies of religion, morality, and social order were ranged on one side, and all that was soundest and best in the French nation on the other. Happily the contest was short, for the insurgents showed their hand too plainly for the issues at stake to be misunderstood by any portion of their countrymen; even Lyons would not fight for Felix Pyat and Blanqui; but the barbarians of the nineteenth century were not vanquished till, amidst the destruction of monuments and works of art, the conflagration of libraries, and the ruins of the fairest city in Europe, their red flag - the symbol of hatred and despair - was torn from their grasp, and flaunted no longer before the outraged eyes of civilised mankind.

From the date of the capitulation at the end of January a feeling of savage discontent with their own government and all persons in authority animated the greater part of the population in the revolutionary quarters of Paris. As early as the 11th February officers and soldiers could not enter the precincts of Belleville without being exposed to menace and insult. Of the sounder portion of the National Guard, representing the respectable and well-to-do classes in Paris, a largo number, wearied out by the privations and confinement of the siege, had gone into the country, and the remainder, despondent and dejected, reluctantly obeyed the summons of their commanders. On the other hand, the battalions of the National Guard recruited from Montmartre and Belleville, to the members of which the daily pay was an important consideration, remained under arms, and were all the more formidable as a military force, because the regular army and the Mobiles, with the exception of the division Faron, had been compelled under the armistice to surrender their arms to the Prussians. At a meeting of the Council of Government held on the 16th February, General Clément Thomas, the commandant-in-chief of the National Guard, explained the dangerous condition of the force, and asked leave to resign. His resignation was accepted, and the command was given ad interim to Vinoy, until it could be assumed by General d'Aurelle de Paladines, whom it was intended to make the new commandant, but whom his duties as deputy to the National Assembly detained for the present at Bordeaux. Meantime a secret organisation, which had for a long "time been making progress in the disaffected portion of the National Guard, prepared to dispute the control of the force with the nominee of the Government. This organisation had by this time gained external form in the shape of a "Central Committee of the National Guard," sitting in the Rue de la Corderie. Round this nucleus of revolt all the elements of sedition and anti-social conspiracy with which the revolutionary quarters of Paris were teeming quickly gathered. The International Society, formed in this country with quite innocent objects in 1864, but soon perverted by continental members to communistic and anarchical purposes, entered into a league of friendship - upon what terms is not precisely known - with the Central Committee. Sinister demonstrations soon showed the nature of the power that was getting the upper hand in Paris. On the 24th February, by way of celebrating the downfall of Louis Philippe, and the Revolution of 1848, a mob hoisted the red flag on the column of the Place de la Bastille. On the next day a processional demonstration took place round the same column, at which 2,000 Mobiles of the Seine, and even many soldiers of the line in uniform, were present. On the 26th, Vicensini, the police agent, was foully and brutally murdered by a mob in which there were many women. On the same day a number of persons, acting probably under orders from the Central Committee, seized a number of cannon which were standing on the Place Wagram, under the pretence of saving them from the Prussians, and "carried them off to Montmartre. General Vinoy, who had now only a slender armed force at his disposal, could not prevent the seizure, nor did he think it advisable to send troops at once to retake the guns, partly because his thoughts and time were occupied with the subject of the approaching entry of the Prussians, partly because a number of honest people had taken part in the removal of the guns in perfect good faith, thinking that they were thereby saving them from the Prussians. From this date seizures of cannon and munitions of war, made by that portion of the National Guard which obeyed the orders of the Central Committee, occurred almost daily at the different bastions of the enceinte, till by the 18th March a mass of artillery numbering not less than 170 pieces was collected at Montmartre, and a large number also at the Buttes de Chaumont in Belleville. In their new positions the guns were carefully placed behind temporary earth-works, and National Guards mounted guard over them.

General Vinoy had little time to attend to these disquieting incidents till the occupation of Paris by the Germans was at an end. The vapouring bluster and sanguinary rant of the Red journals gave reason to fear that collisions, of which none could foresee the terrible consequences, might arise between the Germans and the troops of the émeute, upon the triumphant entry of the former into Paris. To prevent this was for the moment the one absorbing care of the commander-in-chief. His arrangements to this end were admirably planned, and completely answered their purpose. But after the Germans had departed (March 3), it was still impossible for a time to pay much attention to the Central Committee. The Army of Paris, disarmed and worse than useless, a great proportion of the soldiers composing it being now due for their discharge, had to be disbanded and sent to their several homes before any effectual steps could be taken towards forming the regular army of the future. At the date of the capitulation, this army, including 100,000 Mobiles, numbered about 250,000 men. The Mobiles of the department of the Seine, a force of about 21,000 men, were disbanded first; they received their discharge with ten days' pay on the 7th March. Immediately after, 26,000 Mobiles from the departments nearest to Paris were discharged; and the remainder of the Mobiles, whose homes lay farther off, were all dispatched into the provinces before the 15th March. From the dilapidated state of the railways, and the trouble caused by the arrogant domination of the conquerors in a large portion of France, the disbandment of these troops was an affair of much delicacy and difficulty. The gallant tars, who had worked the great guns in the forts with such unflagging vigour, were then sent down to the coast; lastly, the troops of the line, divided into three great columns, were sent out of the city to the respective destinations of Orleans, Chartres, and Evreux. Seeing that he was about to be left with hardly any other troops at his disposal than those of the division Faron, Vinoy wrote to Bordeaux early in March, requesting the Minister of War, General Le Flô, to send him an immediate reinforcement. The Minister promised to send four divisions, the total strength of which, however, did not exceed 25,000 men, and also ten batteries of artillery.

General d'Aurelle arrived in Paris on the 4th March, and assumed the command of the National Guard. The Central Committee viewed with the highest disfavour this assertion of a regular and legitimate authority; and they lost no time in acquainting De Paladines with their sentiments. Unfortunately, the right of choosing their own officers in the subordinate ranks had been already conceded to the National Guard during the siege; the demand, therefore, that they should also elect their commander-in-chief was not without a certain plausibility. Availing themselves of the ill-judged concession just mentioned, the National Guards of the 13th Arrondissement elected as their commander (March 8) a working man named Duval, who immediately dubbed himself " General." On the previous day the Prussians had evacuated the forts on the left bank of the Seine, which were given in charge to the brigade Daudel. An attempt made on the 10th March to get back the guns on Montmartre peaceably, through the intervention of M. Clemenceau, Mayor of the 18th Arrondissement, proved a failure. All this time a number of journals were, by the seditious and blasphemous language in which they revelled, pouring daily poison into the popular mind and heart. The Government felt the evil to be so great that it ordered (March 11) the suppression of six journals, of which the Vengeur, edited by Felix Pyat, and the infamous Père Duchesne, edited by Vermesch, were the most notorious. About the same time a council of war condemned Flourens and Blanqui to death for their seditious proceedings during the siege. It also became known in Paris that» the National Assembly, when it left Bordeaux, would not fix itself at the capital, but would sit at Versailles. This news, the condemnation of their fellow conspirators, and the suppression of the journals, caused a great ferment among the party of anarchy. They were, however, exasperated without being deterred; so long as they kept the guns, and held the command of the heights of Montmartre and Belleville, they knew that no other Government could consider itself master of Paris.

M. Thiers, the Chief of the State, knew this also; and the growing audacity of the Red Republicans disquieted him more and more. The Germans having evacuated Versailles on the 12th March, he had come up from Bordeaux to make preparations for the opening of the Assembly in its new chamber, the Versailles Theatre, on the 20th instant. He held council with Vinoy, De Paladines, and Le Flô, on the 17th. All were agreed that the guns must be recovered, the Central Committee dissolved, and its members arrested. But Vinoy, who knew better than the others the unsatisfactory condition of the army, wished that the attempt should be postponed for a few days, till the return of some good and seasoned troops from Germany should have imparted greater solidity to the force at his disposal. He was overruled, and the attack was arranged for the next day. The divisions Susbielle and Faron were to march simultaneously on Montmartre and Belleville, and to recover the guns, using whatever force might be required for the purpose. All went well at first; by 5 a.m. the divisions named, without having encountered any serious opposition, had made themselves masters of the heights, and had the stolen guns in their possession. But they could not be removed without horses and gun-carriages; and as these, in order not to impede the movements of the troops, had been left at some distance in the rear, a delay of several hours took place. The Central Committee, which the suddenness of the blow appears to have at first stunned, recovered courage, and called out the battalions of National Guards which obeyed its orders. Barricades began to rise in the streets leading to the heights, and the heads of columns to appear. An incident which occurred in the Boulevard d'Ornano decided the issue of the day. Here a detachment of the 88th Regiment met a column of the National Guard, at whose head were some soldiers of the line, who had deserted their colours and fraternised with them. The mutineers shouted " Vive la République," and the men of the 88th Regiment (one of those which had been lately sent up from Bordeaux) threw the butts of their rifles into the air, fraternised with those whom it was their duty to quell and disperse, and afterwards, when the gun-carriages arrived, assisted them to prevent the removal of the guns. The misconduct of the 120th Regiment at the Buttes de Chaumont caused the attempt to retake the guns to fail there also. By twelve o'clock the enterprise had failed signally; the troops seemed determined not to fire on the insurgents, whatever might happen; and they were withdrawn in the course of the afternoon, leaving the brave General Lecomte in the hands of the revolted National Guard.

General Vinoy has been much blamed for the delay which occurred after the troops had gained possession of the heights; it has been said that if the carriages had been brought up immediately, an hour would have sufficed for the removal of the guns, and the party of disorder would not have had time to rally. The General replies by calling attention to the number of guns and the quantity of warlike material that had to be removed, - a removal, he says, which it would have required at least forty-eight hours, instead of one, to accomplish. If this be so, but little progress could have been made in removing the guns in the four or five hours which elapsed between the first arrival of the troops and their treacherous collusion with the mob, even if the gun-carriages and horses had been present from the commencement.

To a fine old soldier like Vinoy, the conduct of the troops on the 18th March must have been heart-breaking. Evidently it would not do to keep the army any longer in Paris; the men must be removed at once out of the reach of the corrupting voices of the siren city. Orders were sent to all generals of brigade, and all officers on detachment duty, to concentrate at the Ecole Militaire, near the Champs de Mars. General Derroja, finding that his brigade, which was quartered near the Hotel de Ville, was hemmed in on all sides by the troops of the insurrection, assembled his men in the Napoleon barrack, and drawing his sword, placed himself at their head, and marched out into the middle of the crowd. Not the slightest attempt was made to stop him. By the morning of the 19th, the whole army had evacuated Paris, and in the course of that day and the next it encamped in and round Versailles. At the same time the order was given to the troops of the brigade Daudel, who held the five southern forts, to evacuate them, and follow the rest of the army to Versailles. It must have cost the General much to give such an order, to surrender strongholds -

Quas multo repetet Francia milite, -

strongholds which were not recovered without shedding the blood of many brave and many misguided men. But besides that the positive order of M. Thiers left him no choice in the matter, Vinoy was himself of opinion that it was the right course to adopt. The garrisons of these forts, besides being exposed without support to the seductions and temptations with which they would be sure to be plied by the insurgents, had little chance of being able to defend them successfully, if seriously attacked from the side of the enceinte. They were of course never intended, and it would have been very difficult to adapt them, for defensive purposes as against the city and enceinte. But the most pressing reason of all was that drawn from considerations of discipline. "It was above all things necessary," says Vinoy, " to consider how to re-organise completely this army, which had just given such a fatal proof of its weakness and inexperience; and if this result were not promptly arrived at, one could not but expect still greater misfortunes than those already experienced. But to succeed in giving to the troops, within the space of a few days, a little cohesion and firmness, it was indispensably necessary to have them all under one's hand, united at one and the same place, and grouped under the direct orders of their chiefs."

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Pictures for Chapter XLVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

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