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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXX


1870. DECEMBER. SIEGE CONTINUED

The day after battle—Disaster--Next day—Paris "dead "—Benevolence and clamour- -Citizen soldiers—A possible significance—Spy mania—A duel—Sortie on Le Bourget—A lady on the field—After the battle—An Irishman in French Navy —Christmas—Public opinion—First shell in Paris.

FROM early morning, and all next day, ambulance equipages and men patrolled the field of battle in the performance of their merciful work) their search for wounded made difficult by the dense fog prevailing. Hostilities had ceased for the time, to permit of interment of the dead and succour to the wounded. But unhappily the truce was taken advantage of by stragglers of many kinds, some of whom were bent on plunder. Everywhere on and near the scene of recent combat there was devastation; houses burnt and otherwise dilapidated; boundary walls reduced to fragments; trees broken and torn by shot; the ground furrowed by shells. Bivouacking in the open, or in small groups taking advantage of such shelter as remained against the bitterly cold wind, were soldiers, who, after the fight of yesterday, so spent the night where they had fought; more than half benumbed by cold, they kept up camp fires by means of fragments of furniture, some of great value, taken from neighbouring ruins. Their cooking utensils were supplied for the occasion by viande freshly cut from horses killed by Prussian shells. The carriages were soon filled with wounded. They were driven back to Paris^ their loads appropriately disposed of; after which a second trip was made to the field, the carriages again filled, the wounded in them similarly distributed, the horses getting over more than thirty-six miles in the double journey. Rumours spread that in some few instances the role of the Red Cross had been departed from; intrenching tools conveyed in carriages bearing that emblem; information interchanged between contending forces, communication of which was beyond its proper sphere. The rumours applied to the one side as to the other.

Throughout the dreary night that followed, the French troops had to remain in bivouac among the scenes and wreck of battle, their physical strength, already lowered by privation, still further reduced by fatigue and cold, for the weather was now bitterly cold; their morale impaired by the scenes around them, added to the experiences of the previous day. As subsequently learned, conditions of the German troops were very different All who had survived on the 30th were withdrawn from the field of battle and positions near it, their places taken by others who had not seen the carnage of that day, well fed, comfortably sheltered, and thus, in physical condition as in morale better fitted than their opponents to renew the combat At break of day on December 2 a furious onslaught was made by them upon the French, hundreds of whom were so benumbed by cold as to be unable to stand to their arms. No wonder, therefore, that to them the day became one of disaster. During all that day wounded in great numbers arrived from the field in Paris, all available accommodation for them became crowded. Eminent surgeons were busy in the performance of needful operations among the five thousand six hundred so brought to them. As to the dead, their probable numbers did not transpire but at one point of the extensive range over which the fight extended, eight hundred were interred in one long trench. During the succeeding night the troops recrossed the Mame and bivouacked in the Bois de Vincennes.

The most determined effort yet made to break the besting circle having failed, the fact was now apparent that unless aid came from the provinces, all within the beleaguered city were about to enter upon a condition of things more desperate than we had as yet experienced. On the day immediately following what undoubtedly was a withdrawal from the field of combat, the aspect of Paris and of its people was that of sadness, mourning, and uncertainty. The day was cold, a thick fog overhung the city, with occasional falls of snow. Along the great thoroughfares the usual traffic was replaced to a great extent by conveyances engaged in the transport of wounded; funeral processions, more or less imposing in their surroundings, met with in different parts of the city. The absence of sound of heavy guns in the early part of the day seemed to add to the sombreness of our conditions. It was in a manner a ''relief," as afternoon advanced, to hear the familiar boom from outlying forts, as their guns opened fire upon the German positions in front of them.

A week of sadness passed; Paris ''dead"; its shroud a thick covering of snow; not a wheeled carriage in the streets; scarcely a foot-passenger to be seen. Winter more than usually severe was upon us; even the more unsettled classes of the populace seemed to give a thought to the seriousness of conditions present, and more particularly to those of the near future. As time advanced, so did the prevailing miseries among the besieged increase and assume different forms; in some disease and death, in others starvation in respect to food and fuel, insufficient clothing, want of necessary care and attendants among the poorer classes, and so on. As a result of exhausted fuel supplies, the streets were dimly lighted by oil or petroleum lamps; shops closed at nightfall; in streets and boulevards pedestrians had to grope their way along the distance that intervened between the flickering lamps. Meanwhile^ by day and night, with hardly an interruption, the sound of heavy cannonading was heard with suggestive distinctness. An occasional hope expressed that help from the provinces would soon arrive, only to be destroyed by the receipt by pigeon post of news of defeat near Orleans. Riot and a spirit of upheaval became manifest; the places where "demonstrations" by the dangerous classes were most pronounced, the Halles Centrales, and others where food was issued. Within the churches scenes of a different kind were enacted: some were nearly filled with men, women, and youths engaged in private devotion; in others were groups in the midst of which the Service for the Dead was being performed over a more or less richly draped coffin, according to the social position of him or her whose body it enclosed.

Now it was that noble efforts were made by individuals, municipalities, and by the Assistance Publique to lessen, as far as that was possible, some of the greatest straits prevailing among particular classes. Large sums of money were presented to the Paris Administration for that purpose by some wealthy residents, of whom Sir Richard Wallace gave 80,000 francs. Places of distribution of such fuel as could be procured, and of food to the poor, were arranged ; nor was it long before the discovery was made that the persons who obtained the lion's share in these respects were the most clamorous and dangerous, rather than the most necessitous for whom those measures of philanthropy were intended. But among all classes, notwithstanding everything possible in the way of help, the difficulties and privations incidental to our position increased apace.

In the ranks of the citizen "soldiers," more especially those of Belleville, disaffection and insubordination took various new developments. They established among themselves a so-called Committee of Administration, by which all orders were thenceforward to be issued, and promotions made. They once more clamoured to be sent to the front against the enemy; their demand was acceeded to; their conduct when face to face with their opponents so objectionable in more respects than one that they were hastily recalled. The particular corps most implicated were disbanded; a general reorganization, as far as practicable, applied to the whole body of the Garde Nationale.

A possible significance in respect to other forces than those of Paris under similar complications of circumstances attached to the occurrences just mentioned; it was emphasized by conditions pertaining to other classes of citizen soldiers whose reputation stood higher than that alluded to. It was said of those enrolled under such titles as Amis de France^ Francs Yreurs, and so on, that so far from being recognised by the Germans as soldiers, properly so called, when they fell into the hands of the latter they were looked upon as brigands and assassins; dealt with accordingly, that is, taken to the rear and shot. It was said of them that ''if the franctireurs will indulge in Red Indian warfare, they must take the consequences."

The spy mania acquired renewed activity, experiences among us foreigners becoming again unpleasant, though never to the extent already mentioned. Such was the degree to which the new development prevailed that certain aristocratic ladies who had taken upon themselves the part of vivandieres, in place of those to whom allusion has already been made, were subjected to unpleasantness as a result of suspicion that fell upon them. Houses in the windows of which lights were detected in the course of the long nights of midwinter were disagreeably overhauled by order of "the authorities"; those occupied by Germans, or by French suspected of German proclivities, were in some instances invaded by roughs, and that without interference by the police, who were passive spectators of violence done to person or property, or both. It was necessary for all who desired some measure of individual safety to obtain at the office of the Governor and to have the card so named vis6d from time to time at the same bureau.

Arising out of what seemed to us outsiders a very silly quairel in connection with the tittletatde and can-cans of a dub a duel took place, while the circumstances around us were as have just been described. The principals and their "friends," all French, every endeavour made by the latter to prevent the encounter having failed, the meeting took place in a garden within the city. The adversaries, each with foil in hand, took their places as arranged by their "friends," the foils of the latter held so as to be under those of their respective opponents, and so^ ready to strike up the weapon in case of "accident," undue advantage, or other sufficient cause. Stripped to the shirt, the combatants lunge, pary, and thrust at each other in the grey mist of morning, while the sound of heavy firing from outlying forts was borne through the air. From their persons perspiration issues, to be converted by the cold of a December morning into visible vapour; the shirt of one is pierced, his side grazed ; the fight lasts forty-five minutes; the bared arm of the other principal is suddenly raised quivering in the air, blood trickles.the weapon falls; "honour" has been satisfied.

From forts and other positions around the city firing increases in degree; it is continuous by day and throughout the night. Within, there are large bodies of troops in motion to the sounds of drum and bugle;
orders issued that all gates of the fortifications shall be closed alike to egress and ingress, these incidents being precursors of another attempt against the enemy. Long before daybreak on December 21 the Rue Lafayette was crowded by troops and ambulance establishments making their way to the Porte de Pantin. Soon thereafter a combined force, comprising this and other portions, took up position on the open field, triangular in form, at the angles of which stand respectively Aubervilliers, Le Bourget, and Drancy. On the left of the French position the combat immediately became terrific in its violence, the interchange of fire firom guns and rifles on each side amounting to a continuous roar and shower of missiles. Heaviest of all was the bombardment of Bourget, then in possession of the Germans, from the fort of Aubervilliers. After a time the marine battalion, led by Admiral de la Roncibre, made a rush, hatchets in hand, cheering as they went, upon the village, with the result that out of six hundred men, of whom their force consisted when their charge began, two hundred and seventy-nine lay dead or wounded within a few minutes, the position still retained by the enemy. At other places also the French attack failed; a third defeat had been sustained. The intensity of cold was the greatest hitherto experienced.

While the fight was at its hottest a lady bearing the Red Cross brassard came upon the scene, her precise object and purpose not apparent Wounded men were being brought to and attended by members of ambulance societies under circumstances to which most of us had become accustomed Not so the lady, to whom the scene around and its general accompaniments proved altogether "too much"; her demeanour and style of action showed how unsuited she was to the position into which, no one knew how or why, she had come. She was taken in charge by a courteous surgeon, and guided with gentle firmness to the rear, after which ambulance work proceeded with regularity and system, as usual.

On the day following the scene presented by the battlefield was one that fancy could have hardly pictured. The village of Drancy a mass of ruin ; fire and smoke everywhere rising there from;, the church destroyed, but in the midst of ruin the figure of the Madonneapd Child erect upon its pedestal, and untouched. Parties of troops who bivouacked during the night sheltered themselves as best they could, some by pieces of Units and others by pieces of doors and furniture; camp fires kept up by means of fragments of cabinets, costly furniture, and pianos. Among the men some had possessed themselves with sheep-skins, blankets, rugs, or carpets, .with pieces of which their heads and bodies were protected, giving to them a strange and wild appearance. Everywhere the deeply frozen ground was torn by shells, or had in it pits formed by the explosion of those missiles.

Accompanied by a Staff officer I visited two of the largest barracks within the city, meeting in both of them from the soldiers through whose rooms I passed such a display of civility and hospitality as I had heretofore been unaccustomed to. In the Caserne de Papinifere, in accepting the cup of wine proffered by a soldier, I drank ''Success to the French army," feeling as I did so how little likely was that sentiment to be realized. From the further end of the room came the inquiry, expressed in the English tongue, "How do you like our wine, sir?" A brief talk with the speaker followed. In the course of it he said he was by birth an Irishman; had left his wife in Dublin; had served twenty years in the French navy; was well satisfied with that service, in which there were a good many of his countrymen; that his period for pension was very nearly complete; but in all that time he had never been so near "losing his number" as ' there at Bourget"

Christmas is upon us. Weather bitterly cold; many of the troops in bivouac suffer from frost-bite; the Seine thickly covered with ice; fuel expended; pumping machinery, like other kinds, at a standstill, hence water supply materially interfered with, personal ablution and laundry work all but impossible. Marauding parties break down and rob wood wherever they can; trees newly cut down are placed on the heatth; they refiise to bum, but yield smoke in abundance which irritates and inflames the eyes. Food difficulties have increased in urgency; the daily ration insufficient in quantity to maintain strength and animal warmth. In the hospitals upwards of 20,000 sick and wounded; mortality in those establishments greater than on the field of battle among the wounded prevailing to an alarming extent. The health of besieged had become impaired by semi-starvation; hands, feet, and ears were chapped and painful. These were among the conditions in which our great festival was celebrated; affectionate thoughts wafted towards those from whom no communication had reached us since the unhappy day of Chatllon.

Public opinion manifested itself in ways opposed to religion, law, and order. Classes of people belonging to, or of similar type to those of Belleville and Vilette, broke into ribaldry of expression that seemed to approach in profanity that of 1792 ; in that also they were joined by some of the daily papers, the position assumed by the Communists so violent as to menace the existence of the Provisional Government Meantime there was increased activity in the batteries of the besiegers, indicating that the circle of ''fire and steel" beyond the city had narrowed ; yet, with all this, the dangers, present and prospective, were looked upon as at least equal in gravity from enemies within as from those beyond the walls.

On the 27th of December newly unmasked batteries opened heavy fire on Avron and other places in its vicinity; shells began to fall within the enceinte of the city, and so the long-expected bombardment began. So heavy was the volume of fire on that position that during three days of its continuance it was estimated that 7,000 missiles — all of large size — fell upon it. Manfully for a time did the defenders stand their ground; very great their losses in killed and wounded when at last they were forced to abandon their forts on the north-eastern side, their wounded serving to still further crowd the overcrowded ambulances. The ultimate issue of the siege, never very doubtful to us foreigners, had now become less so than before. Men asked each other, "How is it that 600,000 Frenchmen permitted themselves to be blockaded by 200,000 Germans?" The mystery seemed to be solved by a writer of that day, somewhat according to this manner: ' It is confessed that the Governor (Trochu) has shown unfortunate hesitations; but to do good work the tools must be good, and in these respects he is deficient. To fight the Prussians we should have old soldiers, well disciplined and inured to war, reliable and instructed officers ; not young soldiers of three months, poorly fed and sickly, and officers who have been too recently promoted to properly understand their duties." In gloom and sadness to us the year 1870 ended.


 


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