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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXIX


1870. NOVEMBER. SIEGE OF PARIS

Le Jour des Morts—Requiem—Political excitement—Conditions within the city— Progress of affairs—Porte St. Denis—Intended sortie—Battle of Champigny - Night on the field.

LE Jour des Morts was devoted to visiting the cemetery of Père la Chaise. That vast city of the silent was more than usually crowded with mourners and other visitors. Recently covered graves were numerous; around many such stood sorrowing relatives and friends, some of whom placed thereon wreaths or other tokens of affection; around others stood similar groups, some of whom redecorated tombs of those longer numbered among the dead. The assembled crowds were grave and demure, as befitted the occasion. At intervals the sound of heavy guns came as if floating on the air. On reaching the higher ground within the cemetery, the sharp ping of German rifle shots came sharply and often, as the missiles passed overhead or fell among us; for it seemed as if they were directed upon the mourners by the more advanced posts of the besiegers out of a spirit of wantonness—not unlike, it must be confessed, that already shown by French sentries and others at Boulogne. But "it was not war" in either instance.

A requiem mass in the Madeleine for victims of the war up to that date was a most impressive service. That beautiful church, draped in black for the occasion, was filled to crowding by men and women, belonging to all social grades, those of the higher classes wearing deep mourning, all having lost members of their families on the field of battle, or by disease which had already assumed the character of pestilence; in near proximity to the altar sat some few mutilated men, who had so far escaped with their lives. While the service was in progress, the rich music of the recently erected organ, then used for the first time, was broken in upon from time to time by the sound of heavy artillery from the outer forts. During the address delivered by the Abbe Deguerry the same accompaniment continued. In less than four months thereafter the venerable and respected Abbd was numbered among the victims of the Commune.

Political excitement was rampant within the city; serious outbreak by the inhabitants of Belleville and Vilette was dreaded ; but on the result being declared of elections rendered necessary by recent events at the Hotel de Ville, the disturbing elements accepted for a time the defeat thereby given to their cause, and gradually became less demonstrative in behaviour. But not for long. The publication of orders for reorganization of the National Guard was immediately followed by renewed disturbances in those localities, from neither of which did men volunteer for the ranks in obedience to the call do so; some battalions, already including members from those quarters, refused to take their turn of duty on the ramparts, declaring their intention to plunder the city if such orders were persisted in. The difficulties of the existing Government had become very great Public loans for purposes of the defence were called for and subscribed. Negotiations were earned on for an armistice, whether with or without ravitaillement These proved unsuccessful; but as events were subsequently to show, acceptance of the terms of Bismarck, hard as they were, would have saved much suffering and loss of human life.

Winter weather rapidly advanced; strong winds, rain, and sleet gave way to snow and bitter frost Clothing had to be supplemented in various ways; skins of animals slaughtered were utilised, and articles of various kinds "converted" in a manner heretofore unknown. Fuel had become scarce. The public markets were bare of all things eatable; horses and other draught animals belonging to private individuals were requisitioned; licences issued by the municipality to official classes and others permitted to retain and draw rations for particular specified numbers; an embargo was placed upon the small fish already mentioned as furnishing sport for anglers on the Seine. All persons were placed on the universal ration scale, but "the poor" had the additional advantage of gratuitous meals provided at certain places by maines. The more respectable classes refused to so declare themselves; the consequence was that little, if any, advantage in the way of free meals reached them, whereas the distiurbing elements of Belleville and Vilette reaped the full advantages of the scheme, while the classes alluded to became gradually reduced to direst poverty and privation. The wounded increased rapidly in numbers; disease in ordinary forms and as epidemics acquired alarming prevalence, various hotels and other large buildings being taken up as additional hospitals. Some schools and colleges still remained open; the Theatre Francaise and a few similar establishments presented the ordinary scenes of performances in one portion of the buildings, while in others lay wounded men, sick, dying, and dead.

From outside came evidences that our besiegers were actively at work. Intervals between rounds of fire from Prussian guns became shorter as time wore on. From French outposts came reports that siege batteries were being erected, and armed with Krupp guns of large calibre, with the evident object of bombarding the city. Additional measures were taken to interfere with communication, such as it was, between Paris and the provinces, even to the extent of keeping a more than usual sharp look-out upon messenger pigeons, many of these birds having failed to arrive. Two, if not more, of our balloons, while floating across positions occupied by our enemies, were brought to earth by their bullets, or otherwise fallen into their hands, their occupants threatened with trial by Court-Martial on charges of unauthorizedly attempting to traverse the circle of investment.

In the year 1814, and again in 1815, the allied army entered Paris by the Porte St. Denis. The impression arose that an entrance by our besiegers was possibly intended on the present occasion to take place from the same direction; the defences on that side were accordingly strengthened to so great an extent that those of us able to do so took an opportunity of visiting them. One entire cold foggy day was so spent by me, the Red Cross card procuring for me ready admittance, and "circulation" everywhere. Rumour said that on some of the advanced posts in this direction, men of the opposing forces were wont, during the long weary hours of night, to meet in friendly intercourse and partake of such small hospitality as they could, leaving for the morrow their allowance of meat granted by mairies to persons authorized to remain within the walls, namely : —

respective transition from "friends" to "enemies." Records of the Peninsular War relate similar stories in reference thereto.

As the end of November drew near, rumour spread that the outer gates of the city had been closed; that a sortie on a greater scale than any of those preceding was about to take place; that the investing circle was to be broken, and the victorious army from Paris to march triumphantly into the provinces. Along the thoroughfares of the city leading eastward marched battery after batteiy of artillery and battalion after battalion of infantry; the crowds cheered, general excitement prevailed; high-sounding promises were expressed that our isolation from the outside world was about to cease. Towards evening orders reached those concerned that early on the morrow the attack was to be delivered; at the same time the publication of a subsequently much jeered at "Proclamation" by a general officer became the subject of comment. At the early hour of one o'clock the following morning a heavy cannonade was opened upon the positions held by the enemy from the whole line of forts on the west and south of the city, and continued during the succeeding hours, so heavy indeed that according to calculation some two hundred missiles per minute were discharged upon them, while a no less furious bombardment was opened upon our outposts, the continuous bursting of shells in mid air of a grey foggy morning having a most weird effect Throughout those weary hours equipages of all kinds to be used in the removal of wounded were being collected and arranged by the Intendance; while on the river, rows of bateaux mouches ready prepared for similar work, were moored to the embankment At length morning broke, and such a morning bitterly cold, a dense fog hanging over us; we, several hours without shelter or refreshment, our innate powers of maintaining animal warmth materially reduced by privation of food. Hour after hour passed, and we were still in our assigned positions ; some few conveyances and boats took their departure for the front, but that was all. Noon passed; afternoon advanced. Rumour spread that the intended attack on the position at Champigny had miscarried; that during the previous night the Mame had come down in flood, available pontoons proved insufficient in the emergency, the passage of the forces across the stream had to be postponed- We knew that on the morrow the attempt would be renewed, but all perceived that meantime preparations against that attack would be made by those upon whom it was to be directed.

As daylight broke on November 30 heavy cannonading as on the previous day began. Now the long line of conveyances was set in motion eastward, along the road between Charenton and the Seine. As we neared Joinville we met an escort party conveying to the city a considerable number of German soldiers who had- fallen into their hands. At the same time we learned, what subsequent information confirmed, that the first onslaught by our besieged troops was so far successful, the village of Champigny being attacked by them; the mitrailleuse sweeping its streets, the Wurtembergers and Saxons by whom it was occupied were driven from it with extremely heavy loss to their numbers. During the past night the bridge across the Mame that had suffered from the mania of destruction already mentioned was temporarily repaired, a bridge of boats completed, so that the troops, together with thirty-three batteries of artillery, had crossed in the darkness and begun their attack at an unexpectedly early hour. There was no great difficulty connected with the transit of Red Cross conveyances. As we advanced towards Champigny, appearances betokened continued success on the part of the French; and although wounded men were being carried to the rear in great numbers, the general impression was that the endeavours of our citizen forces against their enemies were on this occasion attended by success. Thus matters continued during the next two hours; our establishments moving little by little onwards, following as we then considered the victorious progress of those with whom our sympathies naturally were. The fight now raged with great fury, its scene covering a vast extent of ground, the ridges that stretch from Brie to Champigny, and beyond the latter place still further to our right, presenting an almost uninterrupted line of batteries from which the deadly missiles fell thickly upon the troops engaged, and upon the ground occupied by us, while from the forts in rear of us similar showers of projectiles directed against those positions whizzed over our heads. Now there came a pause; brancardiers carrying wounded, and conveyances of sorts similarly laden, came from the front, and continued their journey rearward. There is confusion. The range of some of the enemy's guns has changed; so has the line of fire. Shells fall more and more near to us; Spahis gallop in an irregular way among us. There is confusion among the ambulance conveyances; brancardiers are unable to discover those to which they respectively belong. For the time being means are unavailable for the removal from the field of men who had fallen wounded After a short time there was a rally. Again it was evident that the French were attacking the German positions; but ere night closed in they were everywhere repulsed It was during the state of confusion just described that the commander of the 4th Zouaves, having received what proved to be his death-wound, was dropped and so left by the men who had brought him so far from the front. A shell had burst in their close vicinity. They abandoned the unfortunate officer, helpless as he was, and themselves disappeared in the general confusion. Some few of us expressed indignation in no doubtful terms. We rallied to the aid of the dying man^ to whom we gave such aid as we were able to render. A gentleman connected with one of the Embassies who was present succeeded in finding his brougham; in it was placed our patient, and so we started back to Paris for further help. Having recrossed the Mame, we were driven by the road traversing the Pare de Vincennes, and so entered the city by the Place du Trone. Denser and more dense became the crowd as we neared the city; people in uniform and in bourgeois dress, waggons, and troops in disorder, all served to impede our progress. When near enough to the bulwarks to observe what was taking place upon the slopes connected with them, a scene of the most astounding character presented itself. Crowds of people, male and female, were there, indulging in games as if the occasion were a holiday ; and yet within a very short distance from them their brothers and other jelations were engaged in deadly combat, torn and mangled, in many instances, into shapeless masses of humanity. Having entered the city, we were driven quickly to the American ambulance, and there within a few short hours the sufferings of the poor Chif de Battalion had ceased. He entered his rest

Before we could regain the field of battle, darkness had set in. Firing had much diminished, though still proceeding heavily, the flames from guns and burning buildings around us lighting up from time to time portions of the plain on which the events of the day had taken place. A considerable number of Red Cross men had returned in the hope of succouring such of the wounded as were left on the ground. Bitterly cold was the night, as hour after hour, till well past midnight, all of us, with lamp in hand, and in small separate bodies pursued our search, our own frames benumbed, unsupported by sufficient food, and without the possibility of obtaining such comfort as hot coffee or tea could afford. While so engaged, to our surprise, there flashed over us from the Faisanderie a beam of bright white light. For a moment it illumined the Prussian position upon the heights of Villiers, then suddenly ceased. A shell flew through the air. There was a loud explosion, preceded by a blaze of flame. We were made aware that for the first time the electric light was made use of in this way. At last, wearied, tired, exhausted by cold, we were able in the early hours of morning to reach our respective hotels.


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1906