by Mark Jacobsen, USMC Command & Staff College
Following the surrender of half of the French Army of the Rhine and of the Emperor Napoleon III at Sedan on 2 September 1870, the German armies moved swiftly to invest Paris. By 18 September, they had sealed off the French capital. The only other sizeable French force, the Army of the Loire, retreated to Metz, where it, too, was soon besieged. The other major French fortresses were invested as well. Only one mobile army corps remained in the country.
The surrender at Sedan effectively ended the Second Empire, and with it the political order of France collapsed. The opposition to the emperor immediately proclaimed a "Government of National Defense," headed by General Louis Trochu, the military governor of Paris. It had no basis in popular sentiment and consisted solely of those parliamentary deputies who had been in Paris when the emperor was taken prisoner. In the absence of an accepted national leadership, new organs of government had to be constituted while the French military raised new units in the provinces. The instincts of the Government of National Defense, however, were to make peace with the Germans as quickly as possible. But many patriotic French recalled the events of 1793, when barely trained citizen-soldiers had rallied to the defense of France as a mixed force of Austrians, royalists, and Germans invaded to restore King Louis XVI to the throne. Fired up with revolutionary enthusiasm, the new people's armies had smashed the invaders at Valmy. Nearly 80 years later, it seemed to many that if only the will of the people could be mobilized and arms distributed, the French nation would rise as one and expel the Germans. Thousands of Frenchmen enlisted in hastily formed units of the National Guard, led sometimes by professional officers and NCOs, otherwise by self-appointed leaders of mixed quality.
The Problem of Paris
Because Paris had been ruled directly by the national government, the collapse of the Empire meant that local administration in France's capital and largest city also disappeared, just as the German armies were settling down to a siege. Because Parisians disapproved of the conservative, anti-war tenor of the Government of National Defense, the Government decamped to Versailles, 15 miles outside of Paris and well beyond the reach of angry mobs. Most of the members of the Government were more afraid of the Parisian mob than of the Prussian armies that had laid siege to Paris. Although there were few regulars available, Paris was strongly defended—at least on paper—by thousands of National Guardsmen, the quality of whose units varied widely. Many Guardsmen were politically radical. Few were well-trained, well-disciplined, or well-led. The workers in Paris suspected that their social betters were secretly in league with the invaders. Indeed, many were astounded by the ease with which the armies of so second-rate a state as Prussia had crushed those of France, a nation which as recently as 1814 had ruled nearly half of Europe; to them, only treason—not ineptitude, as was actually the case—could have been responsible. As early as 31 October, a mob suspecting treason attempted to seize the Parisian city hall. During the four-month siege that followed, workers often rioted violently for bread. With the city facing starvation after the new year, the Germans opened a bombardment on 5 January.
Three weeks later, on 27 January, two battalions of Guardsmen led a mob that tried to seize the city hall, but other Guardsmen beat them off. On that same day, the Government of National Defense accepted the German offer of an armistice and peace based on severe terms. These included payment of a huge indemnity; occupation of much of France; the surrender of Paris; and the cession of two provinces, Alsace and Loraine. On 1 March, the Germans proclaimed the Second German Empire (the "Second Reich") in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and German soldiers marched triumphantly through Paris. Afterwards, in accordance with the terms of the treaty, German units remained in place outside Paris. During the 21-day armistice that followed, elections were held for a national assembly to meet in Bordeaux, where the Government had fled after Paris was invested. The new assembly would decide whether to accept these terms or continue the war.
The elections were duly held and a new government was formed at Bordeaux under the 73-year-old Adolphe Thiers (pronounced "TEA-air"), a veteran parliamentarian and opponent of the emperor. Thiers accepted the German terms, which were signed at Versailles on 10 March. The new assembly moved from Bordeaux to Versailles between 10 and 20 March, after which it ratified the terms agreed to by Tiers.
The Beginning of the Commune
Many Parisians were suspicious of Thiers because he was a monarchist; his government, being based on rural votes, hardly represented urbanized France. Back in 1834, acting as minister of interior (equivalent to minister of law and order), he had been faced with a serious rising in Lyons: He quelled the rising there, but—hoping to draw the Parisian radicals into the open—put out the word that the Lyons rebels were prevailing. They obliged him by revolting. Thiers then proceeded to crush them ruthlessly. This was the man now entrusted with the leadership of France and the job of restoring order to its capital.
Adding to the political ferment was the material fact that the population was on the verge of starvation. Although the Germans now allowed food to pass into the city, the citizens lacked the means to buy it, and stores of provisions proved to be much smaller than the Government had estimated. On the day of capitulation, probably no more than a week's worth of food remained to feed the population of the largest city in France. During the siege, foreigners had noted the pervasive vaguely half-sweet, half-rotten odor produced by the cooking of horseflesh. Poorer Parisians had eaten dogs and cats. To avert catastrophe, the Germans diverted army rations to the starving Parisians.
Among the most alarming indications of trouble within Paris was the attitude of the National Guard. Its hastily formed and poorly led battalions had been organized after the defeat of the regular army the previous autumn. During the armistice, Guardsmen staged several demonstrations that suggested they were anything but loyal soldiers of the elected government at Bordeaux. Beginning on 24 February, Guardsmen demonstrated against rumors—quite accurate—that the Government aimed to disarm and disband them. On 25 February, a mass march-past of the National Guard began, lasting for eight hours. Some 300,000 Parisians took part in the demonstration, which began symbolically enough at the Place de la Bastille, the site of the mob outbreak that had triggered the French Revolution in 1789. In an indication of what was to come, the mob lynched a former policeman. On the same day, another mob burst into a prison to release political and other prisoners, just as had the mob at the Bastille. Most importantly, undisciplined Guardsmen descended on various artillery parks throughout the city to reclaim guns that the Germans were preparing to carry off. They moved some 200 pieces to the heights of Montmartre.
MAP: The German Siege of Paris, 1871
(Click image for larger version.)
The city of Paris was built for defence against various threats. The many fortresses on this map illustrate one aspect of this fact, but the city itself was constantly being rebuilt throughout the 19th century to better defend the central government against the population of the city itself—and the population occasionally rearranged the city to defend itself against the government. For an interesting discussion, with many photos and maps, see the website "HISTORY///Chrono-Cartography of the 1871 Paris Commune." This includes a detailed map of the barricades, assault routes, and areas burned-out during the French government's assault on the Commune.
By this time, the most left-wing battalions of the National Guard had been linked together under an executive organ calling itself the Central Committee of the National Guard. In effect, the Central Committee amounted to a parallel ministry of war. Adding to this development, many of the battalions recruited from middle class neighborhoods had by now disbanded, so the Central Committee had a potentially powerful hold on the half-trained Guard, whose politically most reliable elements were shrinking with each passing week. Of scant military value, the Guardsmen were potentially very dangerous indeed in any internal hostilities. By early March, the government at Bordeaux concluded that it was time to reassert its control over the National Guard. After it moved to Versailles (between 10 and 20 March), it sought evidence of National Guard reliability and asked the leaders of the 260 battalions in Paris to report to Versailles. Only some 30 did so, evidence of how little Paris recognized the authority of Versailles.
The Versailles government proceeded to pass legislation that further alienated Paris. It suspended various left-wing journals published in Paris and annulled those Parisian ordinances which had suspended debt repayments during the siege. According to the government at Versailles, such debts and rent arrears were now payable within just 48 hours. Perhaps most importantly, the government cut the pay for National Guardsmen, which had amounted to a kind of welfare stipend. When this was cut off by the government at Versailles, many became convinced that something had to be done.
To Thiers, one of the disturbing things about Paris and the temper of its population was the collection of artillery pieces stashed in the city. On arriving in Paris on 15 March, Thiers decided that all the artillery in Paris, most of it at Montmartre, should be removed to the countryside, that is, to the control of the regular army units answerable to the government at Versailles. Army officers had already attempted to reclaim the guns once (on 8 March), but the Guardsmen had refused to turn them over and the regulars returned meekly to Versailles. Because of this earlier failure, Thiers gathered a column of some 3,000 gendarmes and 15,000 regulars to take the guns. Put under the commandant of the Paris garrison, General Joseph Vinoy, the regulars were also to disarm the National Guardsmen.
For this mission, General Vinoy divided his forces into four "divisions," although these formations were only nominally of division strength. On 18 March, Vinoy sent one to occupy two especially fractious working class areas, another to the Bastille area, a third to cover the city hall, and a fourth to take the guns from Montmartre. Unfortunately, these troops were inexperienced recruits. Neither were they much more reliable politically than the Guardsmen they were sent to displace. Even as they marched through Paris, the soldiers fell to jeering at the gendarmes, representatives of the forces of order and the government. Nominally two brigades strong, the Montmartre division fraternized with the Parisian national Guardsmen and left without the guns. Two elderly generals supervising the abortive action were seized by the mob and lynched. The other divisions also left for Versailles, their mission a total failure.
The National Guardsmen had recognized this abortive stroke for what it was, an attempt on their power. Although the national assembly was at Versailles, the administrative organs of France had remained in the ministries in Paris. Encouraged by the failure of Vinoy's plans, the national Guardsmen then marched on the Foreign Ministry in central Paris, where Thiers was directing events. Learning of this, Thiers and members of his cabinet exited through the rear of the building and withdrew from Paris, where they were joined by many of his government as well as by bureaucrats. The Government had abandoned the capital.
With government authority thus gone, the municipal council—the Commune—took power immediately, although its rule was not proclaimed until 28 March. The Commune immediately repealed the legislation requiring the payment of debts and rent arrears for the period of the siege.
It may be helpful at this point to explain the meaning of the term Commune. Strictly speaking, the Commune was the communal government of the city, as opposed to the prefecture imposed upon the capital by the national government. There is no way of conveying this exact relationship to Americans except to remind them that the District of Columbia was for many years administered directly by Congress and its officials appointed, not elected. In contrast to this national administration of a locality, an opposing tradition of communal self-government had developed. During the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution, the Paris mob ran the city, calling itself the Commune. Here the term acquired the revolutionary freight that survived the Terror itself. During the Second Empire, the Commune had been recalled to protest the government's policies.
For a few days, the Government and the Commune attempted to negotiate a settlement, but the Commune's demands were unacceptable to Versailles and vice versa. The Commune sought functional autonomy within France; the assembly at Versailles sought to reinstate its authority over the municipality. The Commune sought an end to the prefecture of police (that is, to the police force that answered to the national government). It also wanted to institutionalize its own armed forces, the National Guard, allowing the Guard to appoint its own leaders and to reorganize itself. It also demanded that the legitimate Government proclaim a republic; this was a sticking point, since many French conservatives—including those in power at Versailles—wanted at heart to restore the monarchy.
A demonstration by supporters of the government led to a clash with National Guardsmen on 21 March. Only about 12 marchers were killed, but the event soured the mood of the city and convinced Thiers that he would have to use force to crush the rebellion. For its part, the Commune held elections that returned representatives dominated by extreme radicals. The leaders of the Commune were a mixed bag of political radicals of varying intensities: anarchists, intellectuals, foreign exiles, and even women. Only a few were Marxists; nearly all championed the urban working class, more in the spirit of 1789 than of 1917. Their legislation ran the gamut from a ban on gambling, disestablishment of the Catholic Church, imposition of the death penalty for looting, all the way to an ordinance forbidding Parisians from relieving themselves anywhere other than at public urinals. The Commune abolished conscription for the army but required all citizens to register for service with the National Guard.
Within a few days, these events triggered sympathetic rebellions elsewhere in France, most notably at Marseilles, Lyon, Toulouse, and Narbonne. None of these outbreaks lasted more than a few days before being suppressed.
Thiers had no desire for prolonged negotiations. A conservative with a long memory, he bore in mind what had happened in Vienna in 1848 when the mob had seized control of the capital of the Habsburg Empire. It had required a Russian army and an appalling artillery bombardment to break the back of the rebel forces, enabling the government to regain control of its capital and most important city. What the Habsburgs had done with Russian help, Thiers now prepared to do, ideally with French units alone. Things did not look good for the government, however. Thiers had relatively few troops at Versailles, only some 60,000, and even that exceeded the total permitted the Government by the peace treaty recently signed with Germany. After the government's leaders had decamped to Versailles on 18 March, it appeared for a few days that the insurgents might even march on Versailles.
Within a few days, however, Thiers and the government began to regain their confidence. For starters, Versailles troops reoccupied the fortress of St. Valerian, the guns of which dominated the city. The Communards made no move to retake it. Regulars began to reconnoiter the forts held by the Commune, and skirmishing began in late March. The National Guardsmen fared poorly in these affrays and gave way to the Government forces, who early on seized a vital bridge at Neuilly.
These successes of the Versailles forces, however, galvanized the Commune into preparing to defend itself against what promised to be a vigorous counter-attack. On 3 April, the Communards attempted at last to do what they should have done on the first day: to attack Versailles. In this, however, they were unsuccessful. Guns from government-held fortresses tore holes in their ranks and government cavalry cut down the fleeing National Guardsmen. Already it was apparent that in civil strife the ordinary laws of war between nations would be disregarded. Wounded prisoners usually received the coup de grace. The commanders of one of the first units to surrender were asked to identify themselves. When they did, they were shot. Communard prisoners wearing any garment from the regular army uniform were shot out of hand.
Although the Versailles forces might have continued on into Paris, Thiers held back to regroup. Uncertain of the loyalty of the army, he wanted more troops before he tried to retake Paris. To raise additional forces, however, he needed permission from the Germans to expand the French army. This was forthcoming: Bismarck, alarmed at the specter of Red Revolution in plain sight of the German army, agreed to allow the French to expand their forces, initially to 80,000, then to 110,000, and finally to 170,000. In addition, he agreed to return 400,000 French POWs so they could rejoin the army for this, the last act of the Franco-Prussian War. By the end of the month, Thiers had some 130,000 regulars and on 6 April put them under the command of Field-Marshal Patrice MacMahon.
Despite his Scots-Irish name, MacMahon was French. A veteran of fighting in North Africa and the Crimean War, he had commanded the French Army of the Rhine. Along with the emperor, he had surrendered at Sedan, but now he was back, and anxious to restore his reputation. As the army's highest-ranking general, he was well placed to supervise the impending assault on Paris.
For their part, the Communards, after their reverse on 3 April, reorganized and regrouped their forces. A new military commander, a soldier of fortune named Gustave-Paul Cluseret, did all he could to weed out incompetent officers and to organize a central staff, ambulance services, commissary, and communications. Nonetheless, at bottom the National Guard remained a collection of localized units, men from neighborhoods united by friendship more than ideology and disinclined to accept any but local authority. Cluseret also split the National Guard units, separating men over 40 into sedentary battalions and reserving younger men for mobile battalions. The Communards fared poorly in the open combat that continued in the suburbs, but fighting on their own ground and behind barricades they held their own.
One other aspect of the Commune should be mentioned: its seizure of hostages. One of the great uniting cultural attitudes of Parisian radicalism was its intensive anti-clericalism. Early in April, the Commune's police arrested the Archbishop of Paris and began a wholesale roundup of priests and members of religious orders. One famous interrogation deserves to be recounted:
Policeman: What is your profession?
Priest: Servant of God.
Policeman: Where does your master live?
Policeman: (to a clerk) Take this down. Father X, describing himself as servant of one called God, a vagrant.
Although it was never stated openly, the Archbishop and the priests were hostages against the Government. The taking of the Archbishop also aimed to secure the release of the veteran revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui, whom the government held. Thiers, however, saw the aged revolutionary as a potential leader of the Commune and refused to trade.
By mid-April, Thiers had assembled enough heavy artillery and ammunition at Versailles to begin a bombardment of Paris. Many of his guns were heavy naval guns manned by Marines. The government's guns bombarded Paris randomly, ironically striking middle class neighborhoods as often as rough districts. Brutal as the German bombardment had been during the war, the bombardment now meted out to Paris easily matched it. The shelling led increasing numbers of Parisians to abandon the city, leaving only the most determined Communards and impoverished Parisians behind. But as the 20th Century would demonstrate repeatedly, the bombardment of urban areas stiffened the morale of those who remained, causing many who had remained neutral to throw in their lot with the Commune.
Having been minister of the interior when the Parisian forts were constructed, Thiers knew the weak points of the city's defense system and identified the bridge over the Seine at the Pont-de-Jour, in the extreme southwest of Paris, as its Achilles heel. Under cover of a 24-hour truce to evacuate starving Parisians, MacMahon transferred the bulk of his artillery to the point facing the Communard-held Fort Issy, which covered the bridge. On 26 April, no fewer than 53 batteries opened fire and soon reduced it to rubble. On 30 March, the garrison evacuated the fort. Cluseret had not ordered this move, but for this he was arrested. Rumors swept the city that he had sold out to the government. He had not, and his mobile troops reoccupied the fort as the forces of order prepared to assault Paris. Nonetheless, the Commune replaced Cluseret with his former chief of staff, Louis Rossel.
Rossel immediately ordered the construction of a new ring of barricades within the existing ramparts in case the Government forces penetrated the first line of defense. Rossel also tried to concentrate and centralize the 1,100 artillery pieces scattered throughout the city. Many were out of commission with their breechblocks stored in arsenals elsewhere in Paris, so that the only readily available guns were light pieces that fared poorly against the Government's heavy artillery. Furthermore, Rossel began work within the city on three citadels: at the Trocadero, on Montmartre, and at the Pantheon on the Left Bank. Here, the Communards would be able to make a final stand if necessary. He put the defense of the city ramparts under the direct tactical command of a pair of his most talented Polish emigres, youthful veterans of the 1863 Polish rebellion. These were men accustomed to desperate fighting against hopeless odds. Recognizing that a purely passive defense would enable the Government forces to mass at any given point, Rossel developed a plan to organize National Guard battalions into "combat groups," each of five battalions, commanded by a colonel, and supported by some 40 guns. Unfortunately, the National Guard units remained suspicious of central direction and for the most part refused to serve in parts of Paris other than those in which they lived.
Facing disaster, the Commune at this time reorganized itself politically, forming on 1 May a Committee of Public Safety. Named after the revolutionary government that had saved France in 1793, this was a five-man body charged with overseeing the defense and administration of Paris. This measure, whose name recalled the most brutal phase of the French Revolution, set the stage for the last act. To recall its glorious past, the Committee now began dating its documents in the style of the calender proclaimed by the Revolution, for example, renaming 15 May the 15th Floreal, year 79 (after 1792). Less gloriously, the Commune's police force began a systematic hunt for saboteurs and potential traitors. Within just three weeks, the Committee of Public Safety's police had collared 3,000 political prisoners. The Committee also suppressed hostile newspapers one by one. Worse, the Commune turned to official vandalism. It tore down the Vendome Column, erected by Napoleon to commemorate his great land victories of 1805.
However, the Committee found it no easier to reach decisions than had the full Commune. In disgust at having his own orders overruled time after time, Colonel Rossel resigned on 8 March. That day, Fort Issy fell to MacMahon's forces. Informed that he was going to be court-martialled, Rossel disappeared. Within the city, public order was beginning to collapse. In spite of the law, looting mobs methodically sacked hotels and private residences. Voices were heard crying for the demolition of Notre-Dame cathedral. Curators at the Louvre hid important pieces of art. Spy-mania also increased, and citizens took the opportunity to denounce their neighbors and co-workers. Thiers attempted to subvert the leaders of the Commune by payments of huge bribes, and some of the disputes within the Commune were indeed caused by provocateurs in his pay. Even without public hysteria, the police randomly arrested suspects and threw them into jail. The painter Auguste Renoir was sketching by the Seine when National Guardsmen spotted him and arrested him as a potential spy. He was dragged to a police station that maintained a standing firing squad for just such cases as his, but fortunately the Paris chief of police recognized Renoir and ordered him freed.
Endgame: Bloody Week
On 13 May, MacMahon's troops took Fort Vanves. Government troops had elsewhere broken through hard-fought defenses. The weather was perfect for military operations and the pressure to assault Paris grew. Bismarck told Thiers that if the French did not hurry things up, the Germans would be happy to do the work themselves.
The final assault, however, began for an almost freakish reason. On 21 May, a Parisian engineer who opposed the Commune discovered that the Commune had left the Pont-de-Jour bridge unguarded and promptly climbed up and began waving a white flag. A Versailles officer came forward, heard the news, confirmed it, and informed MacMahon. Amazingly, the government forces had not maintained surveillance, but MacMahon swiftly recognized the importance of this intelligence. Government forces swiftly moved across the bridge and poured into the city.
Despite Rossel's earlier efforts, the inner ring of defensive barricades had never been completed. Those barricades that had been erected defended neighborhoods, not the city as a whole. The obliquely intersecting streets of Paris, similar to those of Washington, DC, made it easy for regulars to turn a barricade by going elsewhere in the neighborhood. Within a few hours, before dawn on 22 May, MacMahon had gotten 70,000 troops into Paris and had seized the heights of the Trocadero. He also opened five breaches in the walls on the north side of the city, as the Germans had allowed his men to pass close to their lines for this purpose. In desperation, the Commune's leaders ordered barricades built, sometimes by citizens conscripted at bayonet point. With the population in a panic and fearing treachery, the Communards worked with desperate fury to sandbag key buildings and roads. They could not, however, create an organized defense system. The massed Commune guns at Montmartre, for example, remained silent for many precious hours. Large numbers of Mitrailleuses, the French gatling gun which could have killed many Government troops, remained quietly at Montmartre. The leadership of the Commune had assumed that the assault, when it came, it would be a frontal attack at a point where the Commune would be able to rally sufficient National Guardsmen to stanch the tide. Instead, MacMahon executed a series of turning movements that took prepared positions and barricades from a flank or from the rear. Only a coordinated mobile defense could have kept the government forces at bay, but the Commune was incapable of such tactics. As in 1848, the radicals fought and died at barricades in their own neighborhoods. By nightfall on Monday, 22 May, the hopelessness of the Commune's position was apparent.
Thiers and MacMahon, however, proceeded cautiously. They feared groundless rumors that the Communards had booby-trapped major roads and buildings and continued to doubt the reliability of their forces, comprising inexperienced soldiers and returned POWs whose morale and stamina were uncertain. The Communards, on the other hand, now fought stoutly, at least when defending their own neighborhoods. Knowing what would happen to them if captured, they fought with the courage of the desperate.
Thiers vowed that justice would be executed swiftly and surely. Ominously, he warned that "Expiation will be complete. It will take place in the name of the law, by the law, and within the law." Apart from the first sentence, he could not have been more misleading. The bloodbath that now began exceeded the toll of the Great Terror of 1793 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
By the morning of 23 May, another day of perfect weather, the government forces had seized the western third of Paris. Slowly, they fought their way towards central Paris, hitting first on the left, then on the right. Thiers's remarks of the previous evening, now issued in the form of a proclamation, appear to have encouraged the soldiers to carry out "expiation" without more than momentary hesitations. For example, after capturing Montmartre, government troops collected some 49 Communards, including a few women and children, marched them to the scene where the two old generals had been lynched, told the prisoners to kneel down in front of the same wall, and shot them. Reports of these atrocities only encouraged the most defiant Communards, who clung to barricades in the heart of Paris at the Place de la Concorde. Marines posted in the Opera picked off many of these insurgents but could not dislodge them. Government forces finally assembled 60 field guns in the heart of Paris and brought them to bear on the insurgents' position. The concentrated fire soon killed scores of Communards and destroyed the barricade. The success of Marine and other sharpshooters shooting down on Communards behind their barricades caused the Communard commander in central Paris to order his men to burn any buildings that might be used to jeopardize a defensive line. Still, the government forces pressed on.
The Communards detested everything connected with the monarchy. One commander filled the largest hall of the Tuileries Palace of Louis XIV with gunpowder, and at 2200 on 23 May set it off. With a tremendous roar, this great building disappeared. Next door, the Louvre survived. Other arsonists destroyed some of the most famous buildings in Paris: the Royal Palace, the Palace of Justice, the Council of State, the Prefecture of Police, and the Ministry of Finance. Whole sections of the great city were gutted. Finally, the city hall, one of the finest and most historic buildings in Paris, was burned early on the morning of 24 May. The weather added a new dimension. It had been abnormally dry for several weeks, and now a strong wind blew up. The fires leaped from block to block. What had begun as a scorched earth defense became a true holocaust.
Rumors that the Communards aimed to destroy the entire city enraged the government forces, who believed that women specially detailed as incendiaries were responsible. One woman was actually apprehended in the act, and women fought at the barricades alongside their men. But the government forces took a terrible vengeance by shooting dozens of women who fell into their hands. After seizing one major barricade, government troops gathered all the defenders' bodies, threw them into the trench from which the barricade materials had come, added quicklime, and then filled in the trench, so that they could push their artillery forward to the next position.
Fortunately, the Committee of Public Safety immediately ordered that Notre Dame be evacuated. It survived. The Archbishop of Paris was not so lucky. On 24 May, with government forces closing in on the city hall, the Communard police chief ordered the aged Archbishop and other clerical hostages before a firing squad. Failing to kill him with two volleys, the firing squad administered the coup de grace with their bayonets.
By noon on Wednesday the 24th, the Communards were falling back in many areas, but remained in place on the east. Government forces were hot on their heels, shooting surrendered Communards as they proceeded. Still, the bombardment of eastern Paris continued. Led by a Polish exile, the Communards resisted with suicidal courage. One by one, the leaders of the Commune were killed or fled through the lines. On Wednesday and Thursday, savage killing continued. MacMahon's own mitrailleuses did great work.
The Germans obliged MacMahon on 26 May by moving some 10,000 troops to the eastern suburbs of Paris. There they blocked the last line of escape for the Communards and neutralized the last Communard-held fortress at Vincennes. Still, the Communards held the 20th Arrondissement, a working class district in which men, women, and children held barricades in narrow, medieval streets well suited to this form of defense. In a foretaste of what was to happen in Warsaw and Leningrad during the Second World War, the residents fought valiantly and the troops made little progress in the rain against families fighting liked trapped animals. The Communards, who held several prisons, proceeded to execute their remaining hostages, including dozens of priests and policemen. A massive frontal attack by government troops failed with heavy losses, but the effort exhausted the last of the Communards' ammunition. Thus, early the next morning, the government seized the last Communard strongholds. It was Sunday, 28 May.
Despite formal orders from Thiers and MacMahon at Versailles, the commanders on the spot ignored the laws of war and routinely shot prisoners. There was no pretense of hearing evidence, let alone a court martial. Wounded Communards were quickly put out of their misery. Practically no Communard prisoners got as far as Versailles, where they were in theory to be tried. Many were "shot while trying to escape." The general who escorted them to Versailles was the Marquis de Gallifet, a hero of the Battle of Sedan, who had ample experience of brutal warfare in Mexico as well. He established a headquarters in the Bois de Boulogne, where he sorted prisoners, telling them as they arrived, "I am Gallifet. You people of Montmartre may think me cruel, but I am even crueller than you can imagine." He had prisoners line up and inspected them in military style, tapping individuals on the shoulder. Without further ado, the person thus selected was marched out to the center of the Paris-Versailles road, where a special firing squad dealt with him or her. One woman threw herself on her knees and begged passionately for mercy. She was innocent, she told the General. He responded in a famous sentence, "Madame, I have frequented every theater in Paris; your acting will have no effect on me." His basic method of triage was to select men with gray hair on the grounds that they must have fought in 1848 and therefore had erred twice. Men with watches were taken as probable "officials" of the Commune. The rest were people with remarkable ugliness or coarse features. Any Communard who had served in the regular army was, of course, shot.
It was time for the government to begin the promised "expiation" in earnest. Insurgents were given 48 hours to surrender all weapons; thereafter, anyone with a gun was dealt with summarily. Parisians used the occasion to denounce neighbors for all manner of crimes. At least 350,000 were denounced to the authorities, and many died before firing squads. The evidence used was fragmentary; a discolored shoulder was evidence of having fired a rifle. Wearing a pair of army boots proved fatal. The favorite was the "hand test," whereby anyone with blackened hands was assumed to be an arsonist. The authorities used mitrailleuses to save time, executing prisoners in batches of a couple of dozen. Wagons carted bodies out to the country, where huge funeral pyres were built. For days, the air reeked of human flesh. Other executed prisoners were buried wherever trenches had been dug, and roads were rebuilt atop their graves.
Officially, 17,000 people died in the suppression of the Commune, although estimates ranged up to 40,000 executions. Historians today give the toll as between 20,000 and 25,000. Leaders of the Commune, however, were dealt with more formally. After trials that continued into 1873, some such as Rossel were sentenced to death or to long prison terms. Others were transported for life to New Caledonia or Devil's Island. Memories imprinted on both sides by the War of the Commune still embittered French domestic politics as late as the 1980s.
Contemporary students of military history took away different lessons from the Commune. One nearly universal conclusion was that loosely administered mass armies such as the French National Guard were no good militarily and politically unreliable. Although forced by the example of the Prussian model to recruit mass citizen armies through peacetime conscription, the armies of Europe sought to de-emphasized the ideal of the weekend soldier, strove to instill the conservative values of the long-service professional army, and preferred to recruit from rural areas untainted by the radicalized political ideas of the metropolitan areas.
Within a few days of the fall of the Commune, Karl Marx penned his pamphlet The Civil War in France, in which he proclaimed:
Working men's Paris, with its new Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators' history has already been nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them.
This romantic vision of the Commune has impressed many radicals since then. A more correct judgment by the historian Guy Chapman has written, "The Commune was as a whole aimless. For some it was a social cause, for others an attempt at administrative reform, for the criminals an opportunity for plunder, for the oppressed a protest against stupidity, for the patriot a gesture against the terms of peace." For such as Thiers, the suppression of the Commune represented an opportunity to settle political scores dating back to 1789. For Paris, it was a disaster.
Writing in 1895, Karl Marx's famous collaborator Friedrich Engels concluded that armed rebellion such as the Commune's was hopeless in the face of the firepower advantage of modern armies. Breach-loading repeating rifles, percussion shells, and dynamite had rendered the tactics of 1848 and 1871 perilously obsolete. He wrote in his last work, The Tactics of Social Democracy, that
The most that an insurrection can achieve in the way of actual tactical operations is the proper construction and defense of a single barricade. Mutual support, the disposition and employment of reserves—in short, concerted and coordinated action of the individual detachments, indispensable even for the defense of one section of a town, not to speak of the whole of a large town, will be attainable only to a very limited extent, and most of the time not at all.
More likely, he foretold, insurgents might be able to subvert the loyalty of troops, in which case an insurrection might succeed. But surely, Engels wrote, "The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past ... in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required...." Such were the tactics of German social democracy at the end of the 19th Century.
Many miles to the east and many years later, a child who was one year old at the time of the Commune learned of its fate and studied its meaning. His name was Vladmir Ulyanov, better known to us by his revolutionary name, Nicolai Lenin. He appraised the Communards' errors as having not gone far enough, not seizing the Bank of France, for example, and not having annihilated its class enemies. The Commune showed "unnecessary magnanimity." By 1908, he believed that a determined advance on Versailles at the outset of the Commune would have won the day. When his chance came in 1917, he did not repeat these hesitations or show any of the Communards' misplaced magnanimity.
The Communards’ Wall, at the Père Lachaise cemetery is Paris, is where, on May 28, 1871, one-hundred forty-seven combatants of the Paris Commune were shot and thrown into an open trench at the foot of the wall.