VI. The War Begins with Disaster for the Commune

On the 1st of April Thiers officially declared war in a circular sent to the Prefects, and the same day, without any warning given to Paris, the Versaillese opened fire upon the town. The Parisians were in consternation at the recommencement of the siege. No one had thought that matters would really come to this pass. Everywhere within the city was bustle and confusion. The military commission of the Commune placarded the following: “The Royalist conspirators have attacked – our moderate attitude notwithstanding. Our duty is to defend the city against this wanton aggression.” That day but little was done. The Versaillese attacked and drove off an inadequate garrison of Federals at Courbevoie, taking five prisoners, one a lad of fifteen, all of whom they murdered in cold blood. This was the beginning of the series of atrocities perpetrated by those fiends in human shape which culminated in that sublimest tragedy in modern history, the “bloody week.”

After much discussion a sortie was decided upon by the military authorities of the Commune for the next day. That night Cluseret was appointed delegate of war, in company with Eudes, one of the military men of the situation. The National Guard, suddenly called upon to act, was in a state of great disorganisation, often without staff officers or any guiding spirit, and much confusion resulted in consequence. At length, at midnight, three columns were got together. The plan was to make a strong demonstration in the direction of Reuil as a blind for a column under Bergeret and Flourens to operate on the right, while Eudes and Duval respectively, were to command those on the centre and the left. Unfortunately, these excellent men had never commanded a battalion in the field before, in addition to which the sub-officering, as before said was hopelessly defective. The elementary requisites of a campaign were neglected, artillery, ambulances and ammunition wagons were everywhere else except where they should have been. At about o’clock on the morning of the 3rd of April, Bergeret’s column, 10,000 men strong but with only eight cannon, reached the bridge at Neuilly. They proceeded quite coolly on their way, under the rang of Mont Valerien, every National Guard believing it to be in the possession of the Commune, when suddenly shells burst from the great fortress, spreading death and destruction in the ranks of the Federals and severing the column into two halves. Panic, confusion, and cries of “Treachery” overwhelmed everything.

I well remember my astonishment at the headlong folly of the Federals’ confidence in Mont Valerien being safe, since the English papers had days previously published the information of its occupation by the Versaillese. It seemed incredible that what was known to us over here should have been utterly unknown to those on the spot and most immediately interested. The fact was the leaders did know that Mont Valerien was lost to the Commune, but hoped the troops of the line would refuse to fire, and so kept the fact secret. The memory of how the linesmen had fraternised on the 18th of March, and reports as to the untrustworthiness of the Assembly’s soldiers, now reinforced by regiments from Germany, had deceived them. They forgot that for this important fort Thiers’ military staff had selected their men, and they forget, moreover, that insubordination in the interior of a fortress is a very different thing from insubordination in the open street under the moral pressure of a sympathetic crowd ready to protect the insubordinate from the vengeance of their superior officers. This deception, however well-intentioned it may have been, was little less than criminal under the circumstances. Most of the Guard scattered in all directions, and finally found their way back to Paris, only about 1,200 remaining with Bergeret, and pushing on. They were supported by Flourens who, with only a thousand men, (the rest having straggled off such was the state of discipline), routed the Versaillese vanguard, and occupied the village of Bougival. A whole Versaillese army corps was directed against this detachment, and the Parisian vanguard had to fall back on Reuil, where a few men had held the position, the object being to cover Bergeret’s retreat. Flourens was here surprised with his staff, and this noble-hearted people’s hero was killed, his head cleft with a sabre. Poor Flourens was a type of revolutionist of whom we have few now-a-days left. Many there are now who understand the economic question better than Flourens, but none we know who have quite that old-world chivalrous devotion to the Revolution which this remarkable man had, and which so endeared him to the impressionable working-classes of Paris. Of a well-to-do middle-class family, Flourens impulsive nature led him in his early youth to join an insurrection against the Turks in the Levant. During the latter part of the Second Empire he was, next to Rochefort, the most prominent people’s agitator. His untimely death threw a doom over all Paris, and heightened the effect of the defeat.

The centre column under Eudes was not more successful than the others. Duval, through mismanagement, was left unsupported, and had to surrender. He was murdered by order of Vinoy, in spite of pledges given to the contrary. Crowds of Guards returned disheartened in the evening. The only good point, from a military point of view, in the day’s proceedings was the supplying of Fort Issy with cannon through the energy and thoughtfulness of Ranvier. The disaster of the 3rd of April, however, notwithstanding all, had the effect of stirring up the whole latent resisting strength of the National Guard. Next day all the forts were manned. The Commune even gained a few points, within a day or two reoccupying Courbevoie, and holding the bridge of Neuilly, but it was not for long. There was no lack of heroism. The Porte Maillot held out for weeks under the fire of Mont Valerien. Yet to the onlooker versed in military lore it was evident that the situation meant a prolonged death agony for Paris. With Mont Valerien lost there was no hope. In a few days the Commune was everywhere on the defensive. Meanwhile strict care was taken by the Versaillese to prevent any tendency favourable to Paris from manifesting itself at Versailles. Officers who merely expressed regret at the fratricidal struggle were secretly murdered by order of the villains with whom the whole of the “respectable” classes of Europe sided.

On the 6th of April took place the funeral of those killed in the disastrous sortie of the 3rd, and an imposing sight it was. Two hundred thousand accompanied the catafalque to the Pere la Chaise cemetery. Five members of the Commune, headed by the old hero of ’48, Delescluze, followed as chief mourners. At the grave, the aged man, the father of the Revolution, spoke a few words, after which the vast concourse dispersed. From this time forward the history of the Commune is largely a history of military blunders and incapacity allied with bravery and good intentions. We shall, however, deal very briefly with the purely military side of the movement, as that has mainly a local and temporary interest, and, moreover, cannot be properly understood without a large map of Paris and its environs.