REMINISCENCES OF THE SIEGE OF PARIS. By L. Mounier.
When the last war broke out between Prance and Germany I was nearly eighteen - the age of vivid and lasting impressions. In spite of the famous saying of the third Napoleon, "the Empire tis Peace," there had been several wars involving France, from two of which I had been old enough to derive impressions, but these were insignificant impressions or facts when compared with those of 1870.
The war was declared in July, the hostilities beginning immediately. The Emperor needed that war - not France. The year 1&69 had seen the Republican party make such steady gains, and Pierre Bonaparte, a so-called cousin of Louis Napoleon, had committed such a political blunder by killing the young journalist, Victor Noir, that nothing else but a successful war with a powerful nation could keep the Emperor on his tottering throne and assure the continuance of his regime in the person of his son, the Imperial Prince. The Empress was the principal moving force in that direction. Bismarck had cunningly baited the trap and Napoleon's wife and her followers eagerly seized it. As for the Emperor, he, as usual, hesitated. Did he suspect the truth about the condition of his armies? Had he premonitions that all would end fatally for him and for France?
Immediately after the declaration of the war, the sinister trio, composed of the Emperor, his wife and Emile Ollivier, the renegade Republican, organized artificial demonstrations in favor of war. They tried to arouse our belicose spirit by hiring a few hundred men to march the streets of Paris and to shout "A Berlin! To Berlin! to Berlin!" It was a strange sight, indeed, the people mockingly laughing at those "White Blouses," as they were nicknamed. Their actions were not a bit contagious, notwithstanding the assertions of the Bonapartist Press, which pretended that those manifestations were genuine.
The fact is the great majority of the people, particularly the toilers, had never been before in such a mood for fraternal sympathy with the people of Germany. Neither side of the Rhine desired war. In view of what was known of the tremendous ramifications of the "International Society of Workingmen," this childish attempt at arousing enthusiasm was as ridiculous as it proved ineffective.
Not only had the eighteen years of a demoralizing reign done their dreadful work, but the Republican ideals had matured and had spread to such an extent that the war spirit could not be stirred by such means. It could not even be for a purpose which was only known by Bismarck primarily, and by Napoleon simply to save his throne. Moreover the latter had never been famed for bravery in battle. His conduct through the first month up to and including the terrible defeat of Sedan was very much unlike the popular notion of an Imperial warrior. He fought his battles while riding in a magnificent carriage, smoking cigarettes incessantly. This was not of a nature to alter the state of mind of the people.
The great disaster of Sedan deepened the people's hatred of the Emperor, and his illness, which might have enlisted their sympathy, had been concealed from them. The exasperation of the great mass of the people when the capitulation of Sedan became confirmed knew no bounds. "Down with him! Down with the Empire!" On the 4th of September he was proclaimed dethroned. What a relief! Everybody - people of all classes - shook hands with a feeling that all would now go well, and the dire tragedy of Sedan seemed of secondary importance. The government of the National Defense was provisionally organized by the Chambers. The Empress, having just time enough to flee, aided by the "Great Frenchman" De Lesseps and an American dentist named Evans, left behind her all state and other documents which were published later on, disclosing astonishing secrets.
Barring the invasion of France, the situation seemed at first politically satisfactory. The Parliament was Republican enough to work smoothly, the Bonapartists being completely derouted. But the army chiefs of high ranks were all the creatures of Napoleon, there having been a complete elimination of the Republicans for eighteen years. Down to and including petty officers they were all more or less Imperialists. What could Republican France expect from Bonapartist generals and officers? But no one supposed or even would believe that such a treason as that of Bazaine at Metz could ever take place.
Thus the two weeks which followed the downfall of Napoleon, witnessed the new enthusiasm of the Republican populace, the coolness and reluctancy of the Imperial generals and Bonapartists, and the steady march of the Germans to Paris.
On the 17th of September they had their lines established all around the forts which circled the "fortifications," as the ramparts were called. On the 18th, just fourteen days after Sedan and the downfall of the Empire, all communication between Paris and the rest of the world was at an end. They had destroyed every telegraph line, every railroad, and though they had as yet blown up only three important bridges, every one was guarded by strong forces.
We must pause a moment to consider what this means. We must realize the magnitude of this military operation: the fortified walls around the immense oval city had a total length of thirty miles; they were very high and surrounded by a continuous moat as wide as a large canal, with an unobstructed zone of considerable width between that moat and the country. At all the roads or avenues there were breaks in the walls, called city gates. These had no doors, of course, and the moat was not bridged over as in feudal days. Beyond the city walls was a belt of sixteen forts situated in strategic or commanding positions, the most powerful and conspicuous being the Fort du Mont Valerien on the west side. These forts were at a distance varying between one and two miles, forming by far the stronger fortifications. The German army thus had to form a line of at least forty miles in circumference. They established their strongest artillery on the south of Paris, the other part being more difficult of approach.
From the distance of their positions Paris had little to fear. At that time their Krupp guns, though very powerful, were not capable of throwing shells further than six or seven miles. Thus, if our forts were not silenced, they could not bombard the center of Paris. So we felt - but we all knew that they would starve us into submission unless we could break their lines and communicate with the armies of France. Such was the situation on the 18th of September, 1870.
I was then lacking two months of being eighteen. I wanted, like all the young men, to enlist. But my father, an ardent revolutionist who had seen much during the days of the Coup d'Etat, and was wise enough to foresee that Republican soldiers led by Bonapartist chiefs could only come to disaster, positively refused to let me join the army. But he consented to let me enlist in the military repair shops. On the day the Germans reached Paris I was already at work. The Government had established a shop for gun repairing and bullet casting, a sort of arsenal, in the Government tobacco factory, in that southwestern part of the city called Gros-Caillou, between the Champ de Mars, where now stands the Eiffel Tower, and the Invalids, in which rest the remains of Napoleon I. This was an immense concern where thousands of cigars and cigarette girls were employed. These girls and other employes were yet working in the beginning of the siege.