Reminiscences of the Siege of Paris

By Prof. L. Mounier A Resident of Vineland Since 1 894

It will be remembered that one of the strange incidents of the siege was the balloon flight over the German lines, of Qambetta, the youngest and most active member of the government This took place on October 7th. There were no " dirigibles' 1 then, therefore Gambetta had to take his chances as to landing, simply selecting B southwestern wind for steering as well as for propelling power. From the beginning the balloon service had boon organised ami divided into two "equipes" or crews, One was in charge of Qodard, a Bonapartist, the other of Nadar, the artist, photographer, writer and aeronaute, who advocated then and predicted the principle of "heavier than air" machines and who, by the way, lived long enough to witness the flight of aeroplanes. Nadar was a Radical. It is a fact to be noted that Godard was favored by the army generals and received ample appropriations, while Nadar, the Republican, had constantly to beg for funds in order to carry on his captive balloon observations. These details came to my knowledge through my father, who, after his resignation of October 31st, became one of Nadar 's balloonists.

The balloons carried a number of people away (52 ascensions in all), for it was comparatively easy to go but too risky to return. They carried also each time our homing pigeons, which faithfully returned bringing a little quill filled with a dispatch, unless shot on the way or pounced upon by the Germans ' trained falcons. It would move anyone almost to tears to watch those faithful birds come home - some half frozen, others utterly exhausted, some even wounded, bringing us some tidings of the world and of the formation of the armies of the southwest which were to co-operate with us in breaking the German belt of artillery and needle guns! But time went by. Hopes, one by one, were shattered and soon the bombardment commenced.

This was very late in December. The Germans offered gallantly, when they saw how long it would take to starve us, and before they shelled us, to let the women and children leave Paris unmolested. We are proud to state that none of our women, rich or poor, young or old, ill or well, hesitated even a moment to stay and share our fate. The shelling was a terrible sight and usually was done at night. The destruction was awful wherever one of the shells hit. They were very large even in those days, many reaching a length of 24 inches by 10 in diameter.

The gilded dome of the Invalides was the favorite target, but the gunners never succeeded in hitting it and they never got the satisfaction of seeing the ashes of Napoleon scattered to the winds ! The Val de Grace, or military hospital, had also a large dome which served as a target; this was hit a few times, but without irreparable damage. It must be said to the credit of the German gunners that their shells were mostly spent ones; the distance was beyond the capacity of their guns. However, they killed and maimed and shattered whatever they touched, even though they were but random shots.

The colonel in charge of the repair shops was a chemist and inventor of gun powder, constantly carrying on experiments with new explosives. He employed me at firing new cartridges in the cellars, twenty-four of them in succession, to ascertain their effects on the breeches and rifling of the guns. He also noticed that I came to work on a bicycle. So he employed me as a courier from the repair shops to the Ministry of War, and once to one of the forts of the east side.

On one occasion I was summoned to his office. "Louis, take these two shells to the Ministry of War with this dispatch." Giving me a card, he added, "Put them in your overcoat pocket and be careful you don't fall." They were about eight or nine inches long by three in diameter and had a cap to explode the contents on striking. "Oh, no fear of falling," I said, boastfully, "but, are they loaded?" Of course they are, are you afraid?" Oh, no," I said, blushing for that untruth, and I went on trying to look brave, and I delivered thein. Had I fallen I should not be here to tell the story. On that return trip I saw a man literally cut in two by a shell which did not explode though it ploughed the grounds for a couple of rods. I have thus the distinction of being the first man who rode a bicycle officially in war, notwithstanding the statement made by the London "Punch" that bicycles were used thus for the first time in 1876.

I remember serving in the National Guard. All the men who worked in the repairing shops, who could carry a gun, one with a wooden leg, even, were impressed. I received a uniform which was about four sizes too large and two too short, it mattered little then. I confess to a feeling of pride in that accoutrement; but when father saw me in a soldier's dress he frowned, feeling as if the enemy had invaded his home. Father and soldiery were "irreconciliables," the only soldiers he was willing to concede must be citizen soldiers, militia men.

Our duty was to guard the works and the powder magazines attached thereto. Came one day my turn to be a sentry in the yard of that magazine. The sergeant took my gun and gave me a lance instead, and special felt shoes, told me to hand over my matches and giving me the pass-word, placed me on duty at 8 o'clock at night whence I was to be relieved at midnight. My post was inside a yard around which was stacked and stored powder kegs, gun cotton, cartridges, etc., the whole highly fenced and tightly enclosed. The night was very dark. The shelling had begun at six o'clock. Most of the shells were not falling in the immediate vicinity but a few passed over my head and their trajectory could plainly be seen when they were of the variety known as time-fused. When they were capped with fulminate they were invisible in their flight but in all eases they made a sinister, horrible sound which seemed to enter the marrow of my bones. Time never seemed so long as did those hours. At midnight when I gladly thought I was going to be relieved, no one came. Half an hour passed, one hour; no sound other than that periodical swish made by the shells, occasionally an explosion more or less violent, and the dull booming of the far away German batteries and the sharper guns from our own forts. It soon dawned upon me that I had been forgotten, whereon I expected to be relieved at four. But four o'clock came and no one in sight! 1 was cold and almost fainting from hunger and want, and the fear o{ being found sleeping, as well as the cold, compelled me to tramp around like a caged animal. Oh! the terrible night! The longest o\' the year and certainly the longest one could ever wake through. Finally the squad came to relieve me at 8 o'clock - twelve hours after 1 had been placed there ! I simply had been forgotten.

On the fifth of January flaming posters could he read on all the walls of the city; they emanated from nearly L50 delegates of the twenty wards, and bore their names, in fact they were put up by the "Comite Central," or the same faction, now greatly extended and ramified into the more conservative elements, that had attempted the overthrow of the government on the 31st of October. In substance, as well as I can remember, they told the citizens of the great city the government had given by this time the measure of its incompetency; that it was a fact that we were yet 500,000 combatants against 200,000 Prussians. They reminded them that the men of the 4th of September had practically retained all the Bonapartists and ignored the Republicans; that they had not even attempted seriously to break the German lines; that their aimless skirmishes were decimating our troops uselessly, etc.

The statement was violent and revolutionary, but, though exaggerated, unfortunately contained much truth. It ended with an appeal to establish the Commune or some form of municipal government, saying that that was the sole salvation of the people of Paris.

This declaration was eagerly read by the masses, and it made a very deep impression upon them and also upon the Conservatives. We were by that time getting desperate and almost everybody wished for some action, wise or unwise - for a move of some sort, even if fraught with the utmost danger, from the men of the National Defense. Naturally, those of us who were more or less in sympathy with the Radicals, knew or believed that the bourgeois Republicans were incapable of any decisive, risky or desperate efforts.

By the middle of January this feeling of desperation became one of frenzy, and it seemed as if a current belief was shared by the great majority of citizens that the whole Etat Major from General Trochu to the most obscure colonels, were reluctant to fight seriously and were simply procrastinating with sinister purpose in their minds. Of course there had been fighting right along at the outposts; several more or less abortive sorties had been tried. At one time the Germans were frightened and got ready to evacuate Versailles, but our great commanders did not find that out. Many men of prominence had been killed in these useless attempts, among them our beloved young artist and genius, Henri Regnault, at the battle of Buzenval, January 19.

Another insurrection took place on the 22d of January, but even the spirit of those exasperated men was starved, and no sustained effort was longer possible. What seemed to portend a greater uprising than on October 31st ended in failure still more speedily, and the government was able to dally some time longer.

Paris was now in the throes of famine and desolation. Deaths were so numerous that it seemed as though nothing but funerals passed through the horseless streets, and the rude coffins were all carried on men's shoulders - often without even a pall over the crude deal boxes.

Two curious facts should be noticed here. They have given scientists, criminologists and eugenists food for study. In the first place, the absence or rarity of crime during those tragic five months and during the Commune (I except the last, or " Bloody week") in spite of the looseness of the machinery of law; in the second, the great increase of criminality and degeneracy among the children who had been born in 1871 and the beginning of 1872.

Those children, conceived when violence, war, and its awful consequences were uppermost in the minds of the people, and when their physical condition was at the lowest ebb, could not be normal. It was, therefore, to be expected that France should reap later on the fruits that had been sown in "l'annee terrible," as Hugo termed that year. It is a matter of official record that army recruits, eighteen to twenty years after the siege, were both physically and morally unfit for military duty. Juries, instinctively or consciously were lenient, and the death penalty was nigh abolished, resulting, unfortunately, in such another wave of crime that its re-enforcement became imperative. Evidently those youths were the victims of unusual circumstances and therefore more or less irresponsible.

However if crimes of violence were rare, one crime was committed which was far more horrible in a way. I mean the crime perpetrated by heartless merchants and speculators in foodstuffs. Thousands of bushels of potatoes and other foods were secretly stored; they were expected to bring fantastic prices to their shameless owners. These, half rotten, were dumped in the river after the capitulation.

At last an armistice was declared. The bombarding was stopped and firing at the front ceased. Negotiations were started at Versailles and the gigantic tragedy came to an end. We could, with proper management, have held easily ten to twelve months with lcs> suffering and with glory instead of defeat. But I believe the lesson, though so costly, will never be lost, and France never will again pass through such an awful experience.

It had been stipulated by the Germans that they must occupy the city if we insisted on keeping Belfort and to give satisfaction to their army, a moral compensation for their terrible losses. But it was deemed prudent to do this mostly at night. On the 1st of March they came and marched through the Avenues de Neuilly ami do la Grande Armee and passed around the Arc de Triomphe (they did not pass through and under it) erected by Napoleon 1. There was not one being in sight. A few shameless women of the town tried to come near the Germans, but they were seized by men in the side streets and spanked without mercy. Every window on their line of march was tightly shut, and numerous black flags and draperies were the only signs that their " occupation' ' had been noticed. They never as much as beat a drum and their march would have been silent but for the clatter of the horses' feet, the rattling of the artillery and the dull thumping of their measured tramp. Behind those closed windows were faces blanched with shame and aimer, cheeks over which silent tears were flowing, hearts throbbing in impotent despair.

This "occupation" was only of 48 hours duration, and the marching covered but a couple of miles, through what was then the outskirts of Paris and is now a very fashionable part of the city.

There are historians who wrote that Paris was sold to the (Germans. Perhaps this shall not be confirmed by later reeearohefl ami documents; nevertheless it is a fact that the main responsibility for all those disasters rests upon the shoulders of the Emperor, the Empress and their generals. A share of this falls upon those lukewarm Republicans, who, rather than see the Radicals and Revolutionists take hold of the state and military affairs and push the invaders back over the frontiers, preferred to undertake that glorious but stupendous task - evidently beyond their capacity - and retain their positions.

On the day after the surrender, trainloads of victuals were ready for us, sent ahead of time by the United States which was the first in line, the first in time and the first in quantity to help us - a fact which cemented the friendship between the two great republics by equalizing the gratitude which each feels for the other. But truth compels me to state that among the other nations which tendered food, Germany herself was generously conspicuous.

The enormous indemnity exacted by the Germans was paid in full long before the time set, and that was soon forgotten, but there is one sore that refuses to heal.

No one can foretell what the future reserves for France. AlsaceLorraine may never be French again. But one can believe that if that is the case, it shall be only because nations will have ceased to exist, and wars shall no longer be resorted to by a more enlightened humanity. L. MOUNIER, 1912.

Postscript. - Curiously prophetic are the concluding words of the foregoing lecture. They show the author's faith in France's power of recovering Alsace-Lorraine if war should have to be resorted to, but also foresee enlightened humanity seeking other agencies for the settlement of international problems. Since they were written the terrible war restored Alsace and Lorraine to France and there is the tentative League of Nations.

L. MOUNIER, Nov. 11, 1920.