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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXVII


1870. SEPTEMBER. SIEGE OF PARIS

An Alsacienne—Action at Chatillon—The dangerous classes—' iWozerir pour lapatrie" —Contrasted conditions—Batteries open—Theatres and Louvre—Food and prices—More contrasts—Action at Viflejuif—Again the Alsacienne—Historical sieges.

AMONG the "ambulances" visited by me while being prepared for their intended purpose was one in the near vicinity of the Luxembourg Palace. A particular club was in process of transition accordingly; its members, socially distinguished in Parisian society, had arranged among themselves to undertake the entire management and work, professional and otherwise, in connection therewith, the female members of their respective families devoting themselves to the performance of such functions as pertained more properly to them. In a spacious apartment of that club-ambulance, a number of ladies were variously occupied in arranging articles of bedding, night-dresses, bandages, etc. Among them was one, an Alsacienne, young, fair, and so gentle in manner, that as she accompanied me through the several apartments about to become wards, I took leave to ask whether she had formed any idea as to the nature of the duties that might fall upon her in relation to wounded men, and, if so, whether she felt that she was physically capable of them. "Of course," so she said in reply, "she could not tell what those duties might be, or if she would be able to fulfil them; but in such circumstances as now threatened, it was the duty of every one, man and woman alike, to do their best, and she hoped to do hers."

In the early hours of the 19th, the French forces, some 60,000 strong, occupying the heights of Meudon and Oiatillon, were attacked, and driven away by the Germans. It subsequently transpired that although considerable numbers of the regular soldiers of the line stood their ground as became them, others, including some Zouaves, fled panic-stricken ; their example was quickly followed by the Mobiles, and so, as day advanced, great numbers of those classes were seen in flight along the great thoroughness of the city, a few of them carrying their arms, but the great majority without weapons of any kind, shouting as they fled, "Nous sommes trahi! " themselves saluted by the populace with cries of "Laches" The sight was a melancholy one, its tendency to impair whatever belief existed in regard to the successful issue of the defence now entered upon. Still later, ambulance carnages passed along the streets, bearing their loads of men wounded in this the first serious engagement in the near vicinity of the capital, the siege of which begins as a result of that action. As subsequently expressed by newspaper correspondents, there is little doubt that had the Prussians followed up the fugitives on this occasion they might with them have entered Paris.

In the evening of that day the sound of shots fired in the streets was heard; report spread that two thousand of "the dangerous classes'' were abroad, a report so far confirmed that they were being marched under escort to the gates, and so expelled, to take their chances between the lines of besieged and besiegers. It was deemed unsafe for foreigners to appear, lest, being taken for Prussians, they might vicariously suffer for the success of the morning. Cafe and such places were ordered to close early; a declaration published that persons convicted of pillage should be held liable to death penalty. The discovery was made that telegraphic communication with the outer world was cut of£ Under all these circumstances there existed an impression that the risks to life had been lessened to those within the city by the repulse sustained by our "defenders'' in the morning.

On September 21 was celebrated in Paris the outbreak in 1792 of the Republic, and massacre of French nobles. Placards declared that the successors of men of that day will prove themselves worthy of their ancestors; other affiches expressed determination to resist to the death, to accept no armistice, to yield neither a stone of a fortress nor an inch of territory. In the Place de la Concorde a battalion of the Garde Nationale presented arms to the statue of Strasbourg, sang in chorus the Marseillaise, decorated the emblem itself with floral wreaths; having done so, they marched away! Soon there came a body of "patriots"; their task to drape the figures of Marseilles and Lyons in red, in token of the Republic declared at both those places. Along the Rue Rivoli came a battalion of newly-enrolled citizen soldiers, their destination said to be the front. At the head of the column marched in gorgeous and picturesque costume a cantinibre. The men's rifles were decorated with evergreens; accompanying them were then: wives and children, all in tears; the brave men loudly singing, "Mourir pour la pairie". As they reached the Rue Royale an affecting and sad parting was witnessed; the column resumed its march, but now in silence; but, as subsequently transpired, not to come in conflict with the enemy. A strange contrast between conditions was now observable. Considerable numbers of the fugitives from Chatillon were marched along some thoroughfares, their coats turned outside in, their hands tied behind them, the word "Lacht" placarded on their backs. Masses of men, including old and young, the strong, decrepid and malformed, gathered in front of the Hotel de Ville, and along the boulevards extending thence to the Place de la Bastille. After a time the crowds dispersed, but the reason alike of their gathering and of their dispersion did not then transpire. Meanwhile, the aspect of the boulevards was bright and gay with women fashionably dressed, and men in uniform; the cafes crowded, their inmates laughing and joyous. At the kiosks people eagerly purchased papers of the day, and laughed at the caricatures of Germans, executed in even worse style, if that were possible, than anything previously seen. In the Champs Elyses goat carriages and merry-go-rounds, Mobiles playing games of sorts, nursery maids neglecting their charges, men squabbling, songs, patriotic and ribald, half-drunken men everywhere.

Events developed rapidly. The sound of heavy guns at different points around the outskirts told its own tale. The heaviest firing came from the direction of Meudon. Crowds of people gathered at the Trocadero and there watched for explosions of Prussian shells as they burst in mid air or crashed through the leafy woods adjoining the Seine, though at some distance from the city. A balloon dispatched from within glided westward at an elevation beyond the reach of Prussian fire ; the balloon, as we subsequently learned, being guided by M. Nadar, who, while passing over their camp, dropped showers of his own advertisements among them.

Now the theatres were in some instances turned to another purpose than that of mere amusement; they were transformed into ambulances, the male portion of the usual performers taking their places in the fighting ranks, the ladies adopting the brassard as nurses. Another significant incident was the barricading of doors and windows of the Louvre Museum, a number of water reservoirs being prepared near it, in case of fire, and with evident regard to possible bombardment. The inhabitants of villages within the line of investment were admitted inside the ramparts; there they became established as so many communities, each under its own administration. Conditions, present and prospective, pointed to the necessity of systematising the issue of food stores; meat was unobtainable at butchers' establishments and restaurants. A register was established on which was inscribed the names and residence of persons authorized to remain within the walls, these numbering two millions, exclusive of bouches inutiles already expelled.

From academies and medical schools students enrolled themselves as artillerymen and ambulanciers. So popular was the last-named corps that many fictitious "members" were soon arrested for bearing its brassard. In some instances it was said of citizen "soldiers" that they showed small desire to take post in advanced positions; in a few, that Gardes Nationaux and Mobiles objected to proceed beyond the barriers. While on the one hand certain enthusiasts endeavoured to set on foot a League of Peace, others proposed schemes of mutual assurance against casualties incidental to a state of siege. Still went on the work of destroying emblems and changing the names of streets associated with that of Napoleon. A proposal was made to strip from the column in the Place Vendome the historical scenes on its metal casing, and utilise the bronze for purposes of defence. Wives of workmen on barricades and other defences might be seen carrying the implements of their husbands, while the latter lounged about unencumbered, and in all respects unlike earnest ouvriers. In the long hours of inactivity that intervened between short periods of .indifferent work, tongues and idle hands became in their respective ways so demonstrative that, as a counterpoise, a series of cheap performances "for the benefit of the masses" was organized. In the pages of Le Combat was a proposal that a subscription list should be opened, 'with a view to present a fusil Phonneur to the man who should shoot the King of Prussia, the subscriptions to be limited to five sous per person, Prussian helmets were offered for sale in such numbers that people asked each other how far off was their place of manufacture.

Ten days elapsed since the Prussians gained their position on the heights of Chatillon. Meanwhile it would seem that beyond slight combats nothing of importance occurred between besieged and besiegers. Rumour ran that ''the people" — within Paris — demanded to be led against the enemy by whom their city was surrounded, while the daily journals advocated such a demonstration, if for no other object than to quiet such of the disaffected as declaimed against the past inaction. On September 30 a combined force of the line, artillery, cavalry. National Guards and Mobiles, said to number in all 10,000 men, attacked the Prussians at Villejuif, where at first they were successful At another point, however, — namely, Choisy-le-Roi, — the result of the incautious rush made by them was unfortunate to themselves; they sustained heavy loss in killed and wounded, — General Guilham being among the former, — and were constrained to withdraw behind the adjoining forts.

During the interval between those actions I visited several ambulances, containing considerable numbers of wounded, and now much added to by those from the sortie just mentioned. Among those visited was the one near the Luxembourg Palace already noticed. But the Alsacienne was no longer there. On the fisital day of Chatillon, among the wounded carried thither from the field was an officer whose injury was of the gravest nature. To him was assigned an apartment; he was placed under sole charge of the young nurse, whose first patient he thus became. Night closed in; the surgeons attended to his injuries; then patient and "nurse" were left together. With return of daylight came the morning visit On the bed lay stiff and cold what had been the wounded man; kneeling beside the bed, her face buried in the sheets, herself in a state of catalepsy, was the nurse, her condition so sad and extreme that she was straightway taken to her friends, with whom, as subsequently transpired, she long remained an invalid.

All of us recognised the fact that the attendant conditions of a siege were upon us, that with regard to their future course everything was uncertain. Under such circumstances we read with interest a resume of the history of past sieges of Paris, published apparently for our encouragement in one of the morning journals. It appears that Paris has undergone seven different sieges ; namely, in a.d. 856-7, by the Normans, for thirteen months, at which date its population numbered 60,000 persons; on that occasion, though the besiegers committed great destruction in its immediate environs, they were ultimately obliged to withdraw. In 970, the Emperor Otho II., with 60,000 troops, appeared before its walls ; but he was routed by King Lothaire, and pursued as far as Soissons, In 1359 Charles of Navarre blockaded the city, and tried to reduce it by famine; the population suffered intensely, but in the end, Charles, learning of the approach of relieving armies, raised the siege, and with his forces withdrew. In November of the same year, Edward III. of England invaded France with 100,000 men, and marched on Paris the following spring. At that time Paris contained 200,000 inhabitants. During the siege which lasted three months, they suffered the horrors of famine, but the troops of Edward, having devastated all the surrounding country, became themselves short of provisions, and were consequently compelled to withdraw. A century later, the English, under Edward IV., who became possessed of the city, were attacked by Charles VII., whom they had before driven to Bourges, and Joan of Arc was wounded at the head of a storming party. Finally the French were repulsed. For seven years Paris was "between the hammer and the anvil,'' till at last the citizens revolted against the exactions of the English, and let the French into the place. In 1589, at which time Henry IV. laid claim to the throne of France, the lung's army attacked the Faubourg St Germain; after which the siege was raised for a few months, to be renewed in 1590. On that occasion the siege lasted eighty-five days; namely, from May 30 to August 23. The populace were reduced to such straits that animals of all kinds, clean and unclean, were slaughtered; soldiers chased children, and put them to death as food; bones were dug up and prepared as path; an instance related of a woman who devoured some of the flesh of her own offspring, and shortly afterwards died mad — and no wonder. At the end of that time the approach of the Duke of Parma forced Henry to raise the siege. In 1814 and in 1815 the city capitulated without a battle. The seventh siege is now in progress. It is for us to fulfil our destiny to the best of our ability.


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