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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXVIII


1870. OCTOBER. SIEGE OF PARIS

Ceinture Railway—Advanced post—First Prussian—St. Cloud Palace—Historical associations—Signs of the times—Balloon and pigeon post—Le don Anglais - British Charitable Fund—Two emergencies—Defences and workmen—Superior officers—Other officers—Rank and file—Federals—Extemporized "troops "Francs Tireurs—Amazones de hr Seine--Council of Hygiene—Sortie on Malmaison—The days following—Excursion to Boulogne—Stirring events—Minor measures—Numerous sick and wounded.

EARLY in October two of us proceeded some way by Ceinture Railway, the more conveniently to see conditions beyond the walls. The Bois de Boulogne was sadly transformed in aspect; trees recklessly cut down, flower beds destroyed, troops ready established in camps, others preparing for themselves bowers of branches from Mont Valérien, the frequent recurring boom of heavy guns told of missiles directed therefrom upon strong positions of the enemy on the heights of Meudon.

Descending at Porte Montrouge, it was with some difficulty we obtained permission from the Etat Major to go outside that part of the fortifications. Proceeding along what once had been the road to Bicètre, we came upon and passed a succession of barricades. On either side of our route were gardens and fields now laid waste, hamlets and villages deserted, houses dilapidated, and in many instances destroyed, the better to clear the way for artillery fire upon our besiegers; at short intervals a thin layer of earth concealed a torpedo. Still further towards the front, outlying sentries of the contending forces exchanged stray shots with each other.

At Arcueil the Dominican College, transformed to an ambulance, was filled with wounded men. Among them was a German soldier, he belonging to the 23rd Infantry, the first of the enemy with whom, so far, we had become acquainted. He was not only well cared for, but petted by those around him, and, to judge by expression, was well contented with his surroundings. In course of our trip we came upon various parties of troops of the line marching to their front, for already we were within range of the Prussian needle gun. In one of those parties was a man upon whose knapsack was perched a cat, which clung to its position as best it could. It was probably the creature the man loved best.

On another occasion of an excursion by the Ceinture we witnessed the conflagration by which the palace of St Cloud utterly perished. From various positions artillery fire was continuous. As we watched, first a mass of dense smoke, then of lurid flame, burst from the edifice, and speedily the whole was in a state of ruin. Subsequently it was said that to the French themselves was due this great mishap; whether by intention or accident did not transpire.

Among the historical associations connected with that palace the following may be noticed: In it on July 29, 1589, Henry III. was murdered by the monk Jacques Clement; Henrietta of Orleans died; Peter the Great was received by the Regency in the time of Louis XIV. There was signed the capitulation of Paris in 181 5 ; Queen Victoria was received by Napoleon III. in 1855; and in 1870 the Declaration of War against Prussia was signed. Strangely enough, the table used on the last-named occasion was among the few articles saved from the conflagration just witnessed.

Signs of the times multiplied apace. Sounds of firing by heavy guns became more and more distinct and continuous, conversation turning upon the circumstance as if it were an ordinary though interesting subject Precautions against incendie were pressed on. Demonstrations of various kinds took place in the different parts of the city, the people composing them comprising numbers of those from Belleville and Mobiles bearing arms. At most of them the Marseillaise with other patriotic music mingled with denunciations against the besiegers, against whom, however, those who most loudly denounced seemed to consider further personal action unnecessary. Nor did the Provisional Government escape their declamations, the expressions against it being in some instances no less strong than those against the Prussians.

A post by balloon and the employment of carrier pigeons had been already introduced, the first for the dispatch of communications, the second for their conveyance to the authorities within the city. The first so brought in was a Proclamation by Gambetta, who had by means of aerial transit proceeded to Tours. By photography it was reduced to a minimum size, and so attached to a pigeon; by a reverse method it was enlarged, and so made legible. Throughout the remaining period of the siege letters were regularly dispatched by balloon to those dear to me ; but weeks had to elapse before intimation from the outside world was received.

The arrival of Colonel Lloyd Lindsay in the middle of October as bearer of £20,000, a donation from England to the sick and wounded in Paris, was an important event. He entered the city in the uniform of his rank. The spy mania was still strong; he was captured as such, and underwent various unpleasant experiences notwithstanding the philanthropic character of his mission. By order of General Le Flo, Minister of War, I became a member of the Committee appointed to distribute 'Me don Anglais," and fulfilled the duty as best as I could. Looking back through the vista of many years doubts occur as to the actual amount of good effected by that day. While it was in process of distribution, jealousies were expressed among institutions to which portions of it were given, while among various classes of persons the remark was heard, "It is all very well to send us money, but France expected aid of another and more active kind." Nor were the French singular in the views expressed, if information subsequently gained is correct.

Those who, as already alluded to, claimed rights and privileges as British subjects had to be seen to by countrymen able to afford partial help in the circumstances of the time. Previous to the departure of their Representative, intimation was sent to them that they also were at liberty to quit the threatened city ; but if they preferred to remain, they did so on their individual responsibility. So stringent were orders left with regard to the "British Charitable Fund" that help therefrom could only be given under authority of that Representative, and it impossible to obtain after his departure. As expressed by some of the persons alluded to, "What could they do by quitting Paris? All their possessions were in the city; so were their homes; if they were to die of starvation, better do so there than away, shelterless and wanderers among strangers and possibly enemies. Their means of obtaining or earning income had for the time being ceased; unless aided by compatriots, they must perish." An extemporized Board of Assistance obtained for and distributed among them help, and to those suffering from illness professional aid. But in all this the official element had no part.

The current of events had made two points clear: the first that in the annihilation of her army at Sedan, France was subjected to an emergency not calculated upon or provided against; the second, equally unforeseen, that a powerful army was rapidly strengthening an investing circle around her capital. Such measures as were adopted under the combined circumstances must needs be taken on the spur of the moment, and from materials ready at hand, these facts to be borne in mind by those of us who were mere lookers-on.'

Works of defence included the strengthening of forts and ramparts already existing; the erection of barricades, and other operations incidental to conditions at the time existing. Workmen unused to such requirements had to be employed, the results being disproportion between labourers numerically and in their performances, alike in quantity and in quality. Much of their time was spent in trifling, in "demonstrations," in drinking, singing, and fighting with comrades who had joined the ranks as "soldiers"; others of them were loud in demands for arms, though, as subsequently shown, those given to them were misused. The general result of these conditions was that when October had came to an end defensive works were still incomplete.

The line of action, and of what was looked upon as inaction by some of the higher military officers, was subject of talk and comment Of the Governor it was said that in these respects his policy was enigmatical; his sympathies were more with the deposed Emperor than towards the Republic, holding communication with the Empress and her enemies, but abandoning her in her time of greatest difficulty. Little fitted to conduct the duties of a leader; more able to detect administrative faults than to remedy them; vacillating in opinion; liable to adopt the views of the latest speaker in an interview; making promises which he left unfulfilled; substituting phrases for action; circulars and proclamations for force of arms; his demeanour between opposing factions so equivocal that he was doubted and mistrusted by all Having little confidence in the "armed men" under his command, and in ultimate success of the defence, his object in continuing it was that he might so ''maintain the honour of France."

Disbelieving in the continuance of the Republic, his hopes were in restoration of the deposed Emperor: an event towards which the policy of Bazaine at Metz was deemed likely to conduce. Towards his officers, personal feelings rather than public considerations dictated his demeanour; thus his supersession of Vinoy by Ducrot at Chatillon was considered to have led to misfortune on that occasion, as ill-feeling towards Bellemere did subsequently at Le Bourget. It was said of another general officer that on September 4 he was in command of the line at the Corps Legislatif, who fraternized with the National Guards, and on the 19th abandoned his position at Chatillon, re-entering Paris with other fugitives.

That among staff and other officers were men whose reputation stood high was acknowledged. But an impression was abroad that the former class were so numerous that individual efficiency was thereby impaired, while battalions suffered in consequence of their withdrawal. That there were some who scarcely gave the impression of efficiency was no less apparent. These were to be seen lounging about cafes and boulevards, usually in exaggerated uniform and trappings, their hands encased in manchons, On the line of march towards advanced positions, the frequency with which a few of the latter resorted to the artistes who acted as vivandtkres was subject of not admiring wonder to foreigners who looked on. While in actual movement the process of electing their officers was gone through by some battalions of "Federals." On such occasions, political considerations seemed to outweigh those of military efficiency. Men have been seen soliciting votes with bottle in hand ; in some instances men "elected" refused to accept the distinction ; in others, altercations were to be seen between individuals.

The rank and file of the "defenders'' were more formidable in numbers than efficiency. It was felt that in creating such a force arms of precision were placed in the hands of men belonging to recognised "dangerous classes," nor was the difficulty that might possibly arise in getting from them again those arms unperceived by responsible authorities. Subsequent events sufficiently proved it would have been better for Paris and for France had such a force not been organized, had terms of peace been arranged prior to the calling together of "Federal" elements. With the exception of relatively small numbers of the old army and marines, the defence was to be carried out by levies, of whom it was said that "they comprised the old and the young; the hale and the lame, gamblers, and the disturbers of the peace.'' These elements thrown together promiscuously were formed into battalions, but otherwise they were without cohesion or affinity.

Of the regular cavalry, the numbers available for service were small, not exceeding some 5,000 men, and not all these were employed in the face of the enemy. The artillery was made up in part of regular soldiers of that branch, partly of marines, and partly of Mobiles; thus it presented the two extremes of excellence and non-efficiency — the old soldiers presenting the former of these characteristics, those newly drafted into the ranks the latter. The Zouaves, of whose achievements we were already accustomed to hear so much, and from whom so much was expected, failed altogether to fulfil those anticipations; in some instances showing defection and panic in the face of the enemy, in others such feeble resistance that they came to be looked upon as useless against trained soldiers inured to battle.

The National Guard was distinct from the army proper; it had its own laws and code of regulations. The Mobile Guard was assimilated to the active army for purposes of pay and discipline —like the line, organized in distinct battalions. While the German forces were at a considerable distance from the capital, several corps of Mobiles were brought thither from the provinces. No sooner had the Republic been declared than several of their members were among the first of the insurgents to force their way into the Tuileries, from which the escape of the Empress had not yet been effected. When, immediately thereafter, orders were issued within Paris for the enrolment of such troops, those orders were obeyed to a partial extent only; evasions were frequent, desertions numerous. If in their ranks there were some trustworthy men, report stated that there was also a dangerously large proportion of fugitives from justice, and of the criminal classes. Subsequent experience proved that such elements were more ready to declare for the Commune than to face the besiegers ; that when led to the front they speedily withdrew therefrom, although on such occasions their casualties were nil.

To many of the extemporized troops the declaration of the Republic was looked upon as giving them the right to trangress law and order, to claim whatever they chose at the moment to desire, but to give nothing in return. Fraternizing with the worst elements of Belleville and Vilette, they early joined them in demonstrations against existing government; and being billeted upon the civil population, evil influences were spread from class to class, to the serious danger of public administration.

Various corps of Francs Tireurs were extemporised. With regard to them as a body, it has been said that for the most part the men were bad soldiers, acting according to their individual pleasure; marauders not only with regard to the enemy, but to the French, whom they were supposed to assist By the Germans they were looked upon as assassins, and dealt with accordingly, whenever they fell into the hands of our besiegers. It is true that among them there were good men, but so relatively small their numbers that their influence upon the general morale was imperceptible. There was at least one corps among them whose bearing and efficiency was unquestionable, namely, Franchetti's Edaireurs d Cheval de la Seine 'y but, unfortunately for them, their gallant commander fell in battle before the operations were nearly over. As a body, the reputation accorded to the Francs Tireurs was that they fled before small bodies of the Germans, by whom in consequence they were looked upon with contempt

A movement of very unusual kind was suggested, and although never carried out deserves to be noticed in these reminiscences. The intended movement was none other than a demand on the part of a number of women that in the first place they should be granted ''social solidarity,'' whatever that may mean; and in the second, should be drafted into a series of battalions, armed and clothed suitably to their sex ; that those battalions should have the designation from one to ten of the "Amazones de la Seme"; that they should "man" the ramparts, and so take the places of battalions proceeding more to the front.

A Council of Hygiene was early organized to take upon itself the various duties relating to public health, that is so far as it could be protected under the circumstances in which the city was placed. The gradually diminishing food supplies, including milk, produced evil effects in the aged, the very young, and the sick; ordinary diseases incidental to the season of the year increased in prevalence, while smallpox did so to an extent which ultimately merited the name of a pestilence. Vaccination became compulsory, and it was a somewhat amusing sight, even under the conditions of the time, to see whole battalions of citizen soldiers being marched to the cole de Medecine, there to undergo that operation.

An important sortie against Prussian positions on the west of Paris took place on October 21, the first on a large scale that had as yet been made. The several ambulances established within the city dispatched to the field no fewer than two hundred carriages of sorts in anticipation of a severely contested battle. Among them were eight from the American, situated in the Avenue de I'lmperatrice, the carriages well and elegantly built, each horsed by four high-bred animals from the stables of wealthy Americans, the personnel in smart uniform, the maiiriel provided on a most liberal scale, the whole in a state of completeness for its expected work. As the cavalcade stood, drawn up in r^;ular order, all eyes were turned towards Mont Valeien, from which three guns fired in quick succession were to be the signal for the general advance. About noon the appointed signal was given. Away started, in their assigned order, the line of carriages; down by the Avenue de la Grande Arm^e towards Port Maillot, they went at rapid pace, attracting the admiration of pedestrians, many of whom waved their hats in token thereof. Arrived at Courbevoie, the appointed rendezvous of the ambulance services, we were directed by an Intendant to take up position on a vinelad ridge behind Mont Valerien, midway between Reuil and Bougeval, towards both of which places the active forces were advancing. Two French batteries in our immediate front opened fire upon the enemy ; one of the two, consisting of mitrailleuses being so directed as to sweep the valley that intervened between the ridges on which were respectively posted the guns of besiegers and besieged. Across that valley, but partly hidden by vine bushes, a strong infantry force of Germans was in progress towards us, while stretching away on our right battalions were making progress towards the enemy. The fight quickly became developed, artillery and infantry fire from contending sides becoming increasingly rapid and destructive. That from the batteries close to our position, though less regular than what in actions in the Mutiny campaign we had opportunities of observing as directed against the rebels, was so to a degree beyond what we had been led to expect, considering the materials of which the defending and extemporized forces were composed. The mitrailleuses were new to us, hence their performances were observed with all the greats interest; the general impression left upon us that their destructiveness in the open fell short of anticipations. In our immediate vicinity and along the line of combat, casualties became so numerous that the best energies of our ambulanciers were fully taxed. The approach of evening told that hostilities must soon cease. Our carriages now filled with wounded, sixty-four in all were collected, and so began their journey back towards Paris. It was dark when we re-entered the gate by which a few hours earlier we had emerged in the great thoroughfare towards the Arc de Triomphe was dimly lighted by oil lamps, for the manufacture of gas had ceased with the expenditure of reserve coal. From the crowds at Port Maillot came loudly expressed inquiries for friends who perchance might be among our wounded. As we continued our progress, people formed dense lines on either side of the broad avenue; hats were respectfully raised; our further progress was between rows of uncovered heads — a touching and spontaneous mark of appreciation and deference to the Red Cross establishments of which we were members. The results to the French of this great sortie were unfortunate, the casualties on their side very heavy. Among the subjects of those casualties were an ex-consul at Stettin, two popular landscape painters, and a sculptor, all of whom fought in the ranks as private soldiers.

The events during the next few days were in their several ways characteristic of the time and circumstances. The press boasted that seventy German soldiers had been captured at, and brought into the city from, the late battle, while rumour ran that the captives were cast into the ordinary prisons, there to associate with the criminal population of such places. Seasonal cold was rapidly increasing in severity; the supply of fuel giving way, the issues of food, already under strict supervision, were still more rigidly superintended; the quantities allowed per ration curtailed, not only in respect to persons in health, but for the sick and wounded. The explosion of an establishment devoted to the manufacture of Orsini bombs caused a good deal of injury to life and property, at the same time that the attention of the authorities was thereby drawn to the circumstance that those implements were being prepared on an extensive scale, but for use within the walls, rather than against the enemy still beyond the lines of fortification. The diminishing supply of materials for the manufacture of gunpowder directed attention to the catacombs as a possible source whence in greater emergency saltpetre might be obtained. Between National and Mobile Guards quarrels occurred from the circumstance that the former were employed only on the fortifications, while the latter were sent to the front, there to engage against the enemy. As the readiest way of solving the difficulty it was ordered that ''the citizen soldiers should in their turn be taken beyond those lines, in order that they might be gradually accustomed to the sight of the enemy."

An excursion to the village of Boulogne brought me face to face with an incident new to me in "civilized" warfare. That small town, once the favourite resort of visitors, was now reduced to utter dilapidation; its ordinary occupants fled ; its ruins giving shelter more or less complete to defending troops; its streets barricaded; garden and other walls loopholed. Through some of those loopholes sentries took aim at isolated Germans^ as the latter came into view among the woods in which they were posted; at others, a sentry for a small ''tip" handed his rifle to a stray visitor to have a shot at le Frusse, It was not long, however, before a rattle of rifle bullets on the wall put a stop to this kind of "sport." From Valdrien and other forts heavy continuous firing went on, their missiles directed upon particular points of the German position, where siege batteries were in course of erection for possible bombardment of our city; from those positions an equally active shell-fire upon French outposts went steadily on.

Among the minor events of the time, one was the addition of several battalions of Federals to those already existing. Another, an attempt made to suppress the extent to which cantinieres had come to march at the head of battalions. The grounds of that attempt included the fact that in all instances such followers were young girls, many of them little more than children, who were thus exposed to temptation while beyond the observation and care of their parents or other guardians.

For once in a way our besiegers appear to have been taken unawares. At Le Bourget, towards the end of October, a small body was success- fully attacked by Francs Tireurs and Mobiles. But their success was of brief duration. Report circulated that reinforcements were applied for.

Bellemere were refused by Trochu, that refusal the outcome of personal feeling. Be that as it may, an attack in force was speedily delivered by the Germans; the position carried, with great slaughter of the occupants. There was consternation in Paris. All through the 31st the streets were in a state of turmoil. Masses of people, the great majority armed, marched towards the Hotel de Ville; that building surrounded by them; the members of the Defence made prisoners; cries of "Vive la Commune!" interspersed with yells, and clarion blasts everywhere; the Commune was in fact declared. But not for long. The 106th Battalion of National Guards forced their way through the insurgents and rescued the Government, and so saved the capital from scenes which were to disgrace it four months later on, in which scenes the same battalion was to play so iniquitous a part.

The extent to which sickness prevailed within the city had become alarming. Accommodation and other necessities for the suffering were severely taxed; for although regular combats between the opposing forces were not frequent, the results from collisions of daily occurrence, and of almost continuous fire from the batteries of the enemy, were a large influx of wounded men. Funeral processions along the cold sloppy streets were of constant occurrence. Certain maladies, among them small-pox, prevailed to a great and fatal extent As if to emphasize these conditions news circulated that Metz had capitulated; a large portion of the investing force thus set free on its way to increase that of the besiegers around Paris. So ended the month.


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