Reminiscences of the Siege of Paris
By Prof. L. Mounier
When I applied for work, I found in line the most curious crowd of applicants. There were boys younger than I, men too old to serve, cripples with wooden legs and crutches, hunchbacks, decrepit old actors, neer-do-wells ; some of whom expected good pay, while others, moved by a patriotic desire, meant to help in the measure of their capacity.
What could I do? Oh! Anything; I was a clever boy, quite handy with tools. They put me at the forge ; a sergeant instructor showed me how to make and temper screw drivers for small troopers' kits. I made thousands of these. Later on I was put at the vise, cleaning dirty guns. Oh! the sight of those Chassepot guns from the French, and needle guns from the Germans! Some came from the battlefields or more often from advanced posts, covered with mud and blood and. hairs, carrying upon their stocks the gruesome proofs of close and personal encounters. This, however, did not take place in the beginning, but rather toward the middle and the end of the siege - in November, December and January.
I had luckily less to do with that work than others. The foreman, having noticed my good handling of the tools, promoted me from the cleaning to the repair shop, then to bullet-mould making and repairing. These moulds were of bronze, primitive in construction and accurate only when in good repair. As their capacity was but two dozen leaden bullets at each casting they wore out rapidly. My work for several weeks, consisted in keeping these moulds in perfect condition, the least inaccuracy causing the bullet to be lopsided and serviceable.
How strange the behavior of this motley crowd ! With the wellknown French gaiety we sang the patriotic songs which inflamed our hearts ceaselessly while working; we even sang the popular songs of the day, the favorite one being ' i Badinguet, ' ' which came out on the 8th of September, four days after Louis Napoleon's downfall. If this usurper had been cruel to the Republicans, we could also be cruel, in our fashion ; the man was down, but we had no scruples in striking him and his own with the bitterest of sarcasm.
It is easy to imagine what were the feelings of our officers and foremen as we boldly shouted our ironical and contemptuous songs. A few openly sided with us ; the majority kept an enigmatic countenance thinking probably that this would be like other French revolutions, of short duration.
While the German army was advancing toward Paris, there was more or less consternation among the population through which they marched. They of course had to submit to the inevitable. Not so those which lived beyond the forts ; all the villagers of that vast periphery and those lying between the forts and the city ramparts were deserted by their inhabitants as soon as it was plain that the Germans would besiege Paris. Thus the Germans found plenty of room to entrench their batteries and absolutely no resistance. But in the way of supplies and fodder and food not a speck. All the villagers had taken along with them not only their crops, live stock, hay, but also their furniture and belongings. It was a wonderful sight to behold those villagers forming long trains, veritable caravans, with wagons, push carts, buggies, carriages of every conceivable description followed by cattle, dogs, donkeys, cats, birds, goats, geese, and all loaded to the point of breaking down. All with a look of determination on their faces and yet not knowing where they would find a place to live and to store their belongings. The sight of those women tramping with their children along the roads leading to Paris, leaving behind them their dear homes to the mercy or rather the vandalism of the invaders, was heartrending ; yet this was one of the minor calamities of that fateful war.
We must not forget to dispel from our minds the vague notion of a fortified town or a citadel besieged by an army easily seen around its walls as in ancient warfare. Paris - a vast city, containing millions of people, quite a number of troops and cavalry which had been concentrated within and around its forts, and all the suburban population which sought refuge within its walls as soon as the Germans left Sedan and turned their fronts toward the great city - was a totally different affair. All was on such a scale as to preclude the possibility of seeing the operations except as a mental picture. There was excitement, and bustle, tumultuous crowds of civilians, of soldiers and cavalry and long, noisy trains of artillery, apparently much activity everywhere. On every face one could see hope beaming, and signs of the certitude of success, at least during the first five weeks, and little indication of apprehension or fear. But at no time could the enemy be seen. They were miles away. The forts were scarcely visible from the ramparts, except the one on Mount Valerian. Hundreds of thousands of people never saw a German soldier, and lived all through that great siege without seeing a battle; and the booming of the cannon could scarcely be heard from the central parts of the city except when the bombardment was going on in January.
During those four or five first weeks the life of Paris was apparently as gay, as brilliant as usual. Every Eepublican hoped that the Third Republic would do as the first, annihilate all its enemies ; and we now were the majority. The gladness of being rid of Napoleon, at last, was easily seen on our faces and on the faces of those who stood on the fence, so to speak. The Imperialists did not now dare to show their disappointment; they kept wonderfully quiet. Thousands of them, disgusted by the shameful capitulation of Sedan, felt so certain that such a dishonorable defeat would forever settle the fate of Bonapartism in France, that they joined the ranks of the Republicans, who now apparently held the destinies of France in their hands. Patriotism was at the boiling point in the hearts of those who only a short time before were but lukewarm, and the only ones who proved to be cowards had left Paris as soon as they had heard, after Sedan, that the Germans were coming to besiege us. We branded them with the terrible nickname of "Francsfileurs" - a play of words upon that of "Francs-tireurs" or sharpshooters, whom the Germans dreaded most. Franes-fileurs can be fairly well rendered by "Sharp-skiddooers."
There was yet no method in the way of regulating the food question. Restaurants, cafes, stores, shops and factories, were still open. Gas was still flowing through the mains, and though the military authorities had charge of the city, the change was not yet visible. General Trochu was placed at the head as Governor of Paris, and the whole city was in his power as if it had been an ordinary fortified town. Such a burden was crushingly heavy for a man of his calibre. It would have hcen almost too heavy for the shoulders of a VonMoltke and only the genius of the first Napoleon in its prime, or the combined efforts of great patriots working in perfect harmony, could have solved the gigantic problem.
Soon it became apparent to the redder Republicans that the famous "plan" of Trochu, which was constantly spoken of by the moderate and the official press, was only a myth, and much unrest became noticeable. The end of October had come without any real serious effort having been made to break the German lines; while the German army had been busy all that time in fortifying its positions and its headquarters which were in Versailles, fifteen miles from Paris.
My father had been appointed chief of the ambulance corps of the IV ward - a position he owed to the fact that he had been one of the victims of the Coup d'Etat in 1851. As a Radical, he had much influence locally, and he was in complete harmony with those who tried to press the government and Governor Trochu into more activity.
Then in some manner, it became known that Metz, the strongest fortified city in the East, had been sold by Bazaine, who had surrenderd with 80,000 men, guns and ammunition. This was on the 29th. Two days after that unparalleled disaster.
On the 31st of October all the regiments of the National Guard from the Republican wards, my father among them, went to the great City Hall as insurgents and seized the government by arresting all its members save one, Henri Rochefort, who joined them. The immense square in front of that colossal building was packed with people, among whom I was, naturally, this having seemed to me much more important than going to my bench. Not one of that tremendous crowd knew really what was going on behind those closed windows. Suddenly one of them was opened and from the central balcony over the main entrance, a man waving a red flag cried the news that the government had been "ren verse" - thrown over - and a new one substituted. This news spread over that vast sea of human beings like wildfire over the prairies. In another instant a stupendous cry of "Vive la Republique!' went up from a hundred thousand throats. All those beings, packed so close that not the slightest individual motion was possible, felt hope returning to their hearts which, only a minute before, were filled with anger, despondency, and the certitude that the government was lulling them into inactivity and leading them to capitulation.
Those men who had invaded the seat of the government were for the most part, ultra Radicals, Socialists, Communists; also moderate but intensely patriotic Republicans who had been made insanely impatient by the procrastinations of Trochu, and the surrender of Metz.
There was little hope, however, that the whole conservative population would be satisfied with and endorse the leadership of such hot headed Revolutionists as the Blanquis, the Plourenses, the Raoul Rigaults and Henri Rocheforts. It was soon resolved to seek the co-operation of such well known men as would give assurance to the Conservatives that extreme revolutionary measures would not be resorted to. To that effect, delegates were sent to Victor Hugo, Louis Blanc, the author of the best history of the French Revolution, his brother Charles Blanc, the then Minister of Fine Arts, Schoelcher, an ex-deputy - all highly respected and tried men - all victims of the Coup d'Etat. Also Paul Meurice and Jules Claretie.
It was my father who was sent, accompanied by four National Guards, as deputy to Victor Hugo, with whom he was on friendly terms. He found all those men named above at supper in Hugo's house. Victor Hugo, with his usual suavity of manner, pressingly invited my father and his four guards to partake of that appetizing supper, but they refused, saying that this was no time to indulge in eating, and father forthwith stated the object of his mission. All these great men promptly declined to accept the honor tendered to them and positively refused to lend their names or the quieting influnce of their presence to the insurgent movement. They would never be identified with such Revolutionists as Blanqui and Flourens. One of them adding: "If Blanqui would keep his hands off, the proposition might be considered." And they resumed their supper, as good, rich bourgeois do in peaceful times. My father returned heartbroken, for he saw plainly that without the prestige of these men's names the insurgents never could hope to succeed in allaying the fears of the Conservatives. Hugo, later, must have had qualms of conscience, for he could have changed easily the march of events, and then the Commune and its incidental horrors would certainly have been averted. His kindness to the Communist refugees afterward, which led to the stoning of his home in Brussels, seems to lend support to this idea; at any rate it was a kind of tacit reproof to the conservative government. He never could agree with those reactionaries and he resigned his seat in the Chamber of Deputies while it was sitting at Bordeaux. The relation of that fateful supper has never appeared in print to my knowledge, yet it was one of the momentous incidents of that momentous war.
Thus the great insurrection of the 31st of October proved a failure. My father resigned his position, as all Radicals did who had any to resign; the Conservatives again got the upper hand in all public affairs and Trochu could study his famous "plan" at leisure. Then followed a stern reaction. Flourens and many other Radicals were hunted down by the Conservative police, and several were arrested. We concealed Flourens, who was a colonel of one of the revolutionary regiments, and his secretary Greffier, for two weeks. If caught it meant the death penalty for both of them, perhaps for father. But in times of stress and revolution personal risks do not seem to count.