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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXXII


1871. FEBRUARY. PARIS AFTER CAPITULATION

Food in abundance—Theatrical parody—Contrasted conditions—preparations for German entry—Causes assigned for defeat—Citizen and regular soldiers— Distributing food.

RENEWED disturbances inaugurated the month of February. The central market, in which were the food stores arriving from without, was again attacked and pillaged; nor were the rioters dispersed until a strong military force arrived on the spot. Further supplies came pouring into the city, until within a few days there was abundance everywhere; all restrictions on sale removed; restaurants recovered much of their ordinary aspect. From London came large quantities of food, and of appliances for wounded; a donation from the city to the Municipality of Paris. The whole of those supplies, in accordance with such terms, were divided among the twenty arrondissements of Paris, with the result that a large share fell to the dangerous classes so often alluded to; comparatively little to the professional and other respectable classes who all through the times of greatest trial had borne their privations in silence. Within a few days thereafter, so profuse had been the supplies issued that large quantities, exposed for sale in shops, could be purchased at less than their ordinary retail price. But money wherewith to make purchases had not yet come into the hands of those most in want.

The urgency of conditions among the "better" classes alluded to was known to those of us who had passed through the difficulties of the siege now at an end; proffered suggestions in regard to issuing food and other requirement to them were ignored by those in charge. Thus came about the undesirable state of things that the disaffected and dangerous among the population had more than they could make use of; the orderly and reputable obtained little, if anything, to relieve their necessities. An Englishman applied at the maine of the 9th Arrondissement for help in food from the don anglais received. He was asked, "Are you really much in want to-day?" "Very much," was his reply, "or else I should not have wasted the day by coming here." So they gave him a halfpenny biscuit, a square inch of cheese, and three lumps of sugar, but not until he had been kept waiting several hours! That is but one illustration.

While on the one side the scenes just mentioned were in progress as an outcome of well-meant liberality on the part of our own country, others were to be seen, the style of which presented to us foreigners a phase of Parisian characteristics altogether new. In a theatre close to the Porte St. Martin, the privations and various other painful incidents of the siege were parodied much to the apparent amusement of the crowded house. Comment on the "performances" in question is best omitted.

Fugitives who had abandoned their houses while investment of the city was incomplete returned in daily increasing numbers, to find for the most part that stores of food and wine they had left behind were non-existent, they having been taken possession of meanwhile. Railway passenger traffic was resumed; on the Seine the bateaux mouches conveyed crowds of sightseers to the various river stations, near which the most interesting relics of the siege might be seen, including dismantled forts, dilapidated houses, devastated grounds, and burial places of victims of the war. For the payment of the indemnity to the Germans in accordance with terms of Convention it became necessary to raise a special loan. No sooner were the terms 1 of that Convention published than the people took it up with enthusiasm; from morning till night queues of intending subscribers,2 from sums of a few francs to thousands, occupied the pavements in the vicinity of the offices where their contributions were to be received. Nothing could better indicate the frugality of the Parisian masses in respect to available money than the fact that a sufficient sum was thus quickly and readily obtained to enable the municipality to pay to the German authorities. at Versailles the first moiety—namely, one hundred millions of francs— of that indemnity. Return to the ordinary conditions of the capital went on; shops were re-opened; the windows made gay with merchandise; gas re-lighted in the thoroughfares at night. Supplies of provisions and of money in large sums, sent from various sources, continued to arrive, one noteworthy contribution of the latter kind being 112,000 francs from Mexico. The process of disarming the troops was still in progress, until the numbers should be reached in accordance with the preliminaries already determined. The Government of the Defence gave place to the National Assembly. The armistice was extended, first from the 19th to 24th of February, then from the latter date to March 12, the Treaty of Peace being signed on 26th of that first named. Part of that Convention was that German troops should enter Paris, and occupy part of the capital until the ratification of the Treaty by the Assembly. Great excitement and threatened outbreak among the lower orders was the immediate result, while the papers of the day fanned rather than moderated popular ill-feeling by rhodomontade and calumnies in their columns.

Preparatory to the entrance of the German forces, it was determined that those of Paris should occupy quarters for the time being on the left side of the Seine; that the duty of maintaining order should be confided to the Garde Nationale. The citizen soldiers "magnanimously" offered to take charge of the artillery guns, for the removal -of which horses were non-existent; the whole were collected and 9' in the Parc de Monceau, though at the time questions arose as to the means by which' they were again to be got from the hands of those to whom they had so fallen. Signs of probable disturbance multiplied apace; barricades were erected in some of the principal thoroughfares; fights occurred between the most violent elements of the populace and the Garde Nationale, with the result that some of the guns were taken possession of by the former.

Brought in contact with representatives of various classes of society, political and religious opinion, opportunity was afforded me to note the views expressed by them respectively as to the causes to which the present humiliation of Paris and of France was considered to be due. It was my custom to record the several opinions expressed in conversation as soon as I had an opportunity of doing so. I reproduce them as follows, rather than in a classified order, namely

1. The empire was looked upon as "expended."

2. The manhood of Paris and of France had become degenerated in physique; the sick and the relatively weak having been alone left after the wars of the 1st Napoleon to propagate their kind.

3. The study of the military sciences had been neglected; officers underwent examination rather for the purpose of obtaining appointments than to attain proficiency in knowledge of their profession.

4. Defects in administration by the Intendance, and general obstructiveness in that branch of the service.

5. Over-centralization, so that when emergency of war occurred, n corps was complete in itself; materiel had to be obtained from Paris, means of transport and roads being at once blocked in consequence.

6. The soldiers being allowed to give their votes at elections, their sympathies were diverted to their political parties rather than with their, military commanders.

7. Want of mutual confidence between officers from the highest to the lowest rank; between officers and their men, and between the men themselves. In fact, general mistrust prevails where confidence should exist.

8. The officers to a great extent being members of the same class of society to which the rank and file belong, there is an absence of that deference towards them by the latter, such as is considered essential to the maintenance of the highest order of discipline. From this and other circumstances there was said to exist a deplorable state of indiscipline, of which indeed some striking illustrations occurred during the siege.

9. Laxity of discipline among the higher officers, due to the (assigned) circumstance that the deposed Emperor manifested hesitancy and uncertainty with regard to punishments for shortcomings and offences on their part.

10. A spirit of impatience of control and of opposition against authority, fostered by the conditions of social life in France, including the absence of domesticity, and, as a consequence, of lively affection between parents and children, and among children themselves, many of whom spend their early years among strangers.

11. The expenses connected with the unfortunate expedition to Mexico had so far exceeded the estimate, that the Emperor "feared to make public the whole of the circumstances connected therewith; hence it was considered necessary to divert to their liquidation money obtained nominally for current military purposes. Thus it was asserted the actual condition of military establishments differed from that represented on paper.

12. A general lowering of the moral sense, of which the religious sentiment is the first great principle.

To this somewhat imposing list I append the subjoined, which was subsequently collated while perusing various works relative to the Franco-Prussian war, namely

(a) Absolute unpreparedness of a war, which was begun "with frivolity without parallel."

(b) General maladministration.

(c) Antagonism between the Paris and Provincial Governments.

(d) Misrepresentations of actual conditions contained in official Proclamations and in organs of the Press.

(e) Political divisions and sub-divisions among the people, whether official or non-official.

(f) Antagonism of interests and personal considerations among the higher administrators and commanders.

(g) Disturbances fomented and brought about by agitators.

(h) The inferior military qualities of a large portion of the citizen-soldiers.

(i) Social immorality. For a long time past piety and moral earnestness have been much shaken in French society; the cancer of frivolity and immorality has eaten into the heart of the people.

That several of the defects above enumerated are real is beyond all question, even when allowance is made for those which are perhaps more theoretical than actual. Some had special reference to the episode of the war from which France was about to emerge heavily crippled; others have a prospective significance; nor is it easy to conceive of success, so long as they are permitted to continue.

Adverting to the non-military qualities already mentioned, and to the conduct in face of the enemy displayed by the extemporised citizen- soldiers, to whom per force of circumstances the defence of Paris had to a considerable extent to be confided, the fact is noteworthy and suggestive that, having become to some extent acquainted with the use of arms and with war, they became transformed into very dangerous elements when the Commune was declared. It was then that they fought resolutely against the Versailles forces, and committed many of the atrocities by which that occasion was to be disgraced. Of the troops belonging to the regular army, however, it is their due to observe that in actual combat the gallantry displayed by them could not be exceeded; no more could their patient endurance under the difficulties, privations, and general hardships incidental to the siege. But individual qualities were overbalanced by the disadvantages and evils just enumerated.

No sooner had the gates of Paris been opened, under provision of the armistice, than my coadjutor I with the Germans performed to me the good and brotherly act of bringing for myself, and for distribution among my friends and other persons whom I knew to be in necessitous circumstances, not only liberal supplies of food, but also considerable sums of money, contributed by charitable persons to me unknown. It was a source of lively satisfaction to be able thus to aid individuals and some institutions; and in the performance of that most pleasant task several incidents occurred the recollection of which is still fresh. A few examples must suffice. One lady, to whom I carried a fowl, among other articles, was prostrate in bed, her physical powers reduced by starvation to an extremely low ebb. When I told her that she was simply dying from want of food, her reply was that she really had no appetite; she did not think she could eat anything if she had it; yet when I supplied her with some savoury morsels to be used at once, and then the fowl to be cooked later on, her face brightened, she half raised herself in bed, and clutched the little articles I had brought to her. Another lady, to whom I presented some balls of butter, rolled up separately in bits of newspaper, did not delay to unfold the packet, but took a mouthful of the whole, including butter and paper. Being informed that I had a few red herrings for distribution, she next day drove to my hotel in her well-equipped carriage to receive one of those savoury fish. The "Little Sisters of the Poor" were astounded and delighted to be presented with a small cartload of mutton, bread, eggs, butter, and various other articles; for the aged paupers, to whose care till death they devoted themselves, had been reduced to extreme want, not a few having succumbed under their privations. In accordance with invitation from the Lady Superior, I visited their establishment to receive expressions of gratitude from its inmates, and in the course of my visit was shown through a ward in the uppermost storey into which a Prussian shell had penetrated, and where some of the old, decrepid inmates had there and then died of fright. A Roman Catholic Seminary sent a representative to express the thanks of its inmates for supplies given to them. As I subsequently was informed, the nurses in an ambulance that I similarly aided danced round the table on which the supplies were displayed, while they invoked blessings on my head. Some British subjects to whom I was able to give assistance in food and money were most grateful. As regards myself, what I most craved for, and indulged in when opportunity offered, was fried fat bacon and fruit, more especially apples.


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