Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXXI


Bombardment begun—Its progress and effects—" The terrible battery of Meudon "Sundry particulars—Conditions of the besieged—A telegram— Increasing privations—Disaffection and corruption—Routine of every-day life—Our food supplies—Photographic messages—Personal circumstances—Night march—A Proclamation—Sortie on Montretout and Bugeval—Defeat—The killed and wounded—Armistice declared— Vive la Commune —General events—At our worst—Ambulances—Ward scenes and statistics—Unexpected recognition.

INCESSANT firing between the enemy's positions and outlying forts during the last night of 1870 and first day of 1871, increasing in violence as the day advanced; additional batteries unmasked on the German side, thus giving visible signs of what was to come. At 3 a.m. on the 5th, the first shell of actual bombardment fell within the city; then followed similar missiles in quick succession chiefly falling and exploding near the Pantheon, Luxembouig, and market of Montrouge. In the course of that day a Government Proclamation was issued, the terms of which as they are transcribed seem almost childish in their simplicity: 'The bombardment of Paris has commenced. The enemy, not content with firing upon our forts, hurls his projectiles upon our houses ; threatens our hearths and our families. His violence will redouble the resolution of the city, which will fight and conquer. The defenders of the forts, exposed to incessant firing, lose nought of their calmness, and know well how to inflict terrible reprisals upon the assailants. The population of Paris valiantly accept this new token. The enemy hopes to intimidate it; he will only render its bound the more vigorous. It will show itself worthy of the Army of the Loire, which has caused the- enemy to retire; of the Army of the North, which is marching to our relief. "Vive la France! Vive la Repuhlique!"

Bombardment increased in violence and rapidity during the nights and days immediately following, the shells falling nearer and nearer to the centre of the city. With reports of casualties among men, women, and children, came accounts of buildings struck and penetrated by shells, including private dwellings, hospitals, ambulances, churches, and convents, all situated on the left side of the Seine. An exodus of people from the places struck was a natural result 'They flocked to parts of the city situated on the right side of the river, and there, in the face of great difficulties, were provided with accommodation, food being obtained for them with even greater difficulty than accommodation. Sick and wounded had similarly to be provided for; so had the inmates of maternity establishments. Hotels, business establishments, churches, and public buildings of all sorts were rapidly transformed for the reception of the several classes alluded to; private houses belonging to persons who had quitted the beleaguered city were ''requisitioned" for the same purpose, while in many instances private families gave shelter and aid to refugees from the bombarded quarters.

Then opened upon the city what speedily became known among us as ''the terrible battery of Meudon," on account of the great violence of bombardment by it; the missiles therefrom committed greater havoc than anything previously experienced, and fell nearer and nearer to the centre of Paris as ''practice" went on. Day and night continuously, with varying intensity, but always greatest during the night, did the bombardment continue. Answering fire from the forts around was scarcely less actively directed upon the German positions, the incessant rolling sound of heavy guns varied by that of exploding shells, the tremor of houses so caused rendered the hours of darkness somewhat "hideous."

So passed twelve days and nights. On the 17th of January there was a slackening of fire from the forts. Rumour in different shapes spread in regard to the cause: that to which most ready belief was given being that ammunition had begun to fail; the meaning of such a report significant At this time certain published records appeared in which statistics of casualties purported to be given ; those during the first eight days of bombardment 51 killed and 138 wounded, the damage to buildings unexpectedly small. Some of us set to work to calculate arithmetically our individual chances of being struck, and so made them out to be relatively little. Those chances would no doubt have been materially increased had the intentions assigned to the German artillery been carried out of discharging incendiary bombs upon Paris — an intention firustrated by order of the Emperor — for that dignity had recently been assumed by him. Fortunately for us not more than three out of every five obuses discharged upon us exploded; whether as a result of defects in themselves or other cause did not matter to us upon whom they were directed.

It was now that the terms of a telegram said to have been sent by "King William to Queen Augusta" was everywhere exhibited in the great thoroughfares. That message intimated that "the bombardment of Paris proceeds satisfactorily, thank God." The comments passed with reference to it were at the time distinctly expressive, and no wonder. But now, long years after the event, the question arises — Was such a telegram ever sent?

Meanwhile the conditions of the besieged, as already noticed, had increased in severity. The season of mid-winter was of unusual inclemency; sickness and mortality by disease had acquired alarming rates, irrespective of casualties in battle; fuel was unobtainable, the want of it a cause of increased suffering and illness. The best energies of arrondissements, public institutions, and private individuals were directed to the mitigation of these and other evils incidental to a people besieged and under bombardment; but, alas ! while the cause remained, the ordinary effects could only be averted in a very small degree, if in any.

It was under these circumstances that a renewed spirit of disaffection towards the existing Government broke out violently among the classes who were the chief recipients of help in various ways specially granted to them by that Government, even to the relative neglect of those who, equally needy, were less clamorous. There arose dissensions among the sectional Representatives; distrust of, and ill-feeling towards, the foreign residents on imaginary grounds that the latter carried on a system of communication with the besiegers. Signs of disaffection and corruption were manifest among the citizen soldiers, those signs giving peculiar significance to the extravagant terms in which official orders made mention of the services performed by them; for the facts were popularly known that an attempted sortie on the 10th miscarried because information regarding it had reached the enemy; that a second, planned for the 14th, had to be abandoned on account of some of those citizen "soldiers" having failed to be in their assigned positions at the appointed time. So far as indications pointed, revolution and civil war were imminent, while heavy bombardment by the enemy was still in progress.

Meanwhile the ordinary routine of everyday life went on much as if besiegers outside and various dangerous elements within our gates were non-existent, with the 'difference that to more common subjects of talk was added obuses including probable size, distance at which from the speaker, and places of their explosion, damage to property and life caused thereby, and so on. As time went on the bombardment became, to some degree, a substitute for the weather as subject of first remark between acquaintances when meeting each other for the day; for example: "The bombardment is rather lively to-day," or "it is rather slow." People met at dinner, if that term can be applied to the fare procurable. Walking became a necessity, for the reason that the horses of omnibuses and other public conveyances had been requisitioned for purposes of food; hence, those of us who had duties to perform, experienced increasing difficulties in carrying them out. But these conditions were not altogether unrelieved by an incident having in it much of the ludicrous. An order was published declaring that widows of "soldiers" of the Mobile and National Guards should thenceforward be deemed entitled to pension, the immediate result being a great outcrop of marriage ceremonies among the classes concerned.

All ordinary supplies of viande had now become expended, the small reserve store being retained for the sick and wounded. Animals of all kinds, excluding the camivora, were requisitioned, their carcases exposed for sale in boucheries, but only issued to persons provided with the required but de rationnement from the mairie of his airondissement Supplies of grain were in like manner "requisitioned" and issued under authority; armed sentries guarded retail establishments, their services on various occasions required against rioters, as already alluded to, from Belleville and Vilette. In the southern parts of the city long queues of women were to be seen, each individual waiting her turn to receive her "ration"; not a few of the elderly and weak among them falling where they had stood, exhausted as their physical powers were from cold and insufficient food. In some localities, more especially near the Luxembourg, casualties among them occurred by the explosion of Prussian shells. The daily "ration" for which they scrambled consisted latterly of about ten ounces of bread, one ounce of horseflesh, and a quarter litre of vin ordinare. The bread contained flour, fecula of potatoes, rice, peas and lentils, of ground straw, the remaining fraction made up of water and "sundry" materials. Women of all social classes aided the real poor in every possible way, and in other respects maintained the reputation of their sex in times of danger and difficulty.

An improved and ingenious method by which news from the outer world could be brought within access to the ordinary people within the city was now introduced^ through the instrumentality, it was said, of the Times. A series of advertisements addressed to individuals appeared in that journal; these having been reduced at Tours to minimum dimensions by photography, the sheet containing them was thrice transmitted by pigeon-post On arrival within Paris the whole was enlarged by means of the camera, after which the messages were copied and dispatched to their several addresses. In this way a message reached me from my beloved wife — the first I had received for upwards of four months — it was, "Your family are well; most anxious about you." I fully appreciated the significance of these few words.

In respect to privations and risks, my individual experiences were neither more nor less than those to which many others within the bombarded city had perforce to submit My stock of cash had become exhausted; to all intents and purposes I was a pauper, only able to obtain the requirements of life by giving to the malle Hotel in which I resided written authority to my London agents, that in the event of my death they should pay all his claims upon me. I subsequently learned that, in response to my urgent requests sent par ballon mante, my wife had vainly endeavoured to have money transmitted to me, until, having applied to the American Embassy in London, a remittance was at once sent through that channel; in due time received by me from Mr. Washboume, and so my pecuniary obligations discharged. As pressure in respect to food increased, I fear that on some few occasions I partook of bifteck de cheval and once,-— only once,— of pati de chien, but against both of these appetite rebelled, and latterly I had to put up with the one salt herring with which I was supplied as ''meat rations" for three days. Prior to the complete investment of the city, I .had procured and hidden away such small supplies as I could lay hands on, of anchovies, mushrooms, sailors biscuits, and oatmeal; the quantities of each were small, but such as they were, they served their purpose.

All through the night of the 18th, large bodies of troops marched silently towards positions previously assigned to them with reference to coming events. The night was unusually dark ; the streets presented only glimering lamp-lights at distant intervals; the city enshrouded in dense mist; beyond the gates the ground saturated with rain, the roads by which the forces had to proceed encumbered with guns, waggons, and other obstructive objects.

Daylight revealed to "all concerned " the Proclamation as follows, not only published in the journals, but affixed to walls in various places, namely : " Citizens, the enemy kills our wives and children, bombards us night and day, covers with shells our hospitals. One cry, 'To Arms!' has burst from every breast Those who can shed their life's blood on the field of battle will march against the enemy; those who remain, jealoos of the honour of their brothers, will, if required, suffer with calm endurance every sacrifice, as their proof of their devotion to their country. Suffer and die if necessary, but conquer Vive la Ripublique!

Three Corps Armie comprising more than one hundred thousand men, under the commands of Ducrot, Vinoy, and Bellemere, had taken, or were in progress of taking up positions under cover of Mont Valerien against the Prussian lines between Montretout and Bugeval, the prevailing fog so dense that assigned routes could not be maintained; several hours were thus lost. The French troops were consequently worn out with fatigue; portions of them had not arrived in position, among others considerable bodies of artillery so that when about 9 a.m. the fight began, they had not been consolidated. On the other hand, the larger forces against whom they were led were unfatigued by night march and other difficulties; they had passed the night in relative quiet, had good and ample rations, and were in full physical strength. With all these disadvantages the first onslaught against the enemy's positions at Montretout and Fouilleuse was successful. Thence, toward the French right, the combat quickly developed in fury; no fewer than five hundred cannon, including both sides, were estimated as engaged in their deadly work, excluding those of Mont Valerien, missiles from which whizzed above our heads in their flight towards the German lines. On our side, shells from the latter fell as it were from the zenith among the masses of advancing infantry, making great gaps, as each successive cloud of debris from their explosions cleared away. From Fouilleuse we were able to see the terrible violence with which the fight now raged. There the Social Internationale des Secours aux Blesses established a field ambulance; many wounded received first aid, and thence were dispatched to "fixed" establishments within the city. To reinforce the troops engaged, whose losses were already very great, large bodies of men from those in reserve marched laboriously towards the front The ground was soaked by rain, their progress slow and difficult, themselves weary, fatigued, and physically weak. In their advance they came upon many carcases of horses killed by German shells, some of the men falling out of their ranks to cut from them slices of bleeding flesh; having secured them on their backs, they resumed their places, and so onward towards the enemy. Meanwhile, a horrible scene was taking place in close proximity to the place where, mounted, I stood with a group of Staff officers.

A private of the 119th regiment of the line shot the captain of his company while their battalion was advancing, and torn by vertical fire as already mentioned. Ducrot ordered the man to be put to death on the spot A party of his own regiment was at once detailed for the purpose; by it he was taken aside — not more than a few feet from the left of the advancing column; he was seen to fall. A party of brancardiers approached; they were warned off; one of the execution party levelled his rifle and fired at him as he lay struggling on the ground; then another; then a third, and now the unhappy man lies still in death. We speculated among ourselves as to the circumstances that may have led him to commit the crime so expiated.

As day advanced the thick mist of morning cleared away, revealing the progress of battle and extent of field on which it raged. That the French were more exposed than were the enemy was at once apparent;
yet, though suffering greatly by shot and shell from unseen batteries, they stood their ground with obstinacy, inured as they had now become to combat by their four months of experience. Later on, however, hesitation is shown in their ranks; stragglers drop away; needlessly large numbers accompany to the rear their wounded comrades; unsteadiness affects battalions; and now the sad spectacle is seen of one such body in flight down the declivity adjoining Montretout Officers make frantic efforts to rally their men; daylight fades in gloom ; soon night closes in, mist again covers the scene; firing from both sides have ceased; all around is dark and silent

In the darkness for hours did the ambulance men of various societies traverse the field in pursuance of their work. As conveyances were in progress towards the general rendezvous, confusion and crush increased, as a combined result of darkness and an absence of regular roadways; progress consequently so retarded that night was far advanced when we reached the rampart gates, our conveyances complete with wounded men. As on the first occasion, roadsides and avenues within Port Maillot were crowded with people. Loud and anxious inquiries for relatives and friends who had taken part in the recent battle were frequent; frivolity in abeyance, as if experience had impressed upon them the significance of combat against our besiers. That the result of the day had been disastrous to the French was speedily realized. Next day the casualties among the forces engaged were estimated at 1000 killed, the greater number by artillery fire; the wounded as "very many."

Meanwhile the work of bombarding Paris, scarcely if at all interfered with by the incident of severe conflict just narrated, was increased rather than diminished in its intensity ; new batteries opened upon the city, with achamemmt shells falling upon places hitherto untouched. St. Denb was assailed, and underwent greater destruction in respect to property and life than had been sustained by the capital itself. A rush of people from that suburb took place, causing serious inconvenience to those whose duty it was to provide them with accommodation and food. All hopes of deliverance had become extinguished; negotiations were accordingly opened with the German Chancellor in view to an armistice being arranged. While they were in progress, bombardment continued with its usual violence. Early in the night of the 26th there was a sudden lull; a few minutes before midnight there was discharged upon us a volley from all points of the circle, such as we had never previously experienced; then followed stillness. Bombardment had ceased; we knew that the Convention had been signed. For 130 days Paris had been besieged; during thirty, the advanced forts had been bombarded; during twenty-one, the city.

Demonstrations by "the dangerous classes" of Belleville and Vilette took place; their plea, the terms on which the armistice had been concluded. The Hotel de Ville was menaced by crowds of excited men, gesticulating wildly as they shouted, "Vive la Commune!" They are dispersed by force of arms; several of their numbers killed, many more wounded. There is a flight towards the Mazas prison; an entrance thereto is effected, some of the more noted of its inmates released. A rush is made upon the small remaining food stores of their arrondissements; they are broken into, their contents distributed among the assailants. After a time these disturbances are suppressed. Trochu has resigned his command; Vinoy is his successor.

When on January 27, 1871, the morning papers published the terms of amnesty, the fact was one of common knowledge that the stock of food remaining was not equal to more than six or seven days "rations," even according to the reduced scale to which the besieged were at the time brought down; in fact, all were now at starvation point as a result of gradually diminishing allowances of food. Next day the Germans occupied Mont Valerien as the French troops marched out of it. Some hours later appeared a proclamation by the Goverment of the Defence announcing that "'the Convention which terminates the resistance of Paris will be signed in a few hours"; that "we could not have prolonged the resistance without condemning to certain death two millions of men, women, and children. Mortality has
increased threefold." "We come out with all our honour," the same document said, "and with all our hopes, in spite of our present grief."

In accordance with the terms agreed upon, the process began of disarming the citizen soldiers, of whom groups along the thoroughfares showed by their gloomy style and demeanour those pent-up feelings of disaffection which were soon to break out in the horrors of the Conunune.

The conditions to which Paris and its people had been reduced were urgent. Severe cold, absolute want of fuel, the insufficient scale of food to which all were officially limited, prevailing sickness and mortality by disease, added to the recurring influx of wounded as a result of desultory conflicts beyond the line of fortifications, combined to render further resistance impossible.

All establishments set apart for the reception of wounded were over-crowded. Not alone food, but appliances were insufficient in quantity and kind. In many instances private families had received wounded into their houses, and so crippled their own resources. The result of the recent sortie and action at Montretout was an accession to the numbers requiring care and accommodation of three to five thousand, for actual statistics were unobtainable; professional and other attendants were insufficient to meet the demands on their services; while, as if still further to complicate matters, the Germans sent several hundred wounded French into the city, and so lightened the work of their own establishments.

In some ambulances such scenes were to be seen as French and German wounded occupying adjoining beds; no longer "enemies," but helpless; unable to communicate with each other; many destined to quit the place in death, for hospital diseases setting at defiance disinfection and all other supposed preventive measures proved fatal to a large proportion of patients within those establishments. A heavy offensive odour, that oi pourriturt^ pervades wards and corridors of the buildings, extending to the streets or boulevards immediately adjoining. In the mortuary of a large hospital the scene presented was too horrible for detailed description.

The defence now ended had been carried on at a cost in human life in respect to which reliable statistics were unobtainable. According to one account, deaths on the field of battle and in ambulances amounted among troops of the line and Mobiles to 50,000; to another to 63,000; to a third to 73,000; neither estimate taking into account mortality by disease and privation among the non-military inhabitants. On the capitulation of Paris the troops who became prisoners of war numbered about 180,000; the fortress guns "captured" by the enemy 1,500 field pieces and 400 mitrailleuses; in addition the gun-boats on the Seine, locomotives, and rolling stock.

While making my round among the ambulances, I was somewhat surprised to hear myself accosted by name by a wounded man who occupied one of the beds past which I was moving. At once I entered into conversation with him, naturally enough expressing sympathy for him. He briefly informed me that he was in the 101st (British) Regiment, and landed with that corps at Gosport on the occasion of its first arrival in England from India; that he remembered me on duty there; that having left the regiment he joined the Francs Tireurs of Paris at the beginning of the siege ; that fifty per cent, of his comrades had perished by shot, disease, or at the hands of the Germans, into which they may have fallen as prisoners; that he himself had not slept in a bed for three months until brought to the ambulance wounded. He was but one example of the material of which such volunteers were composed, and a similar story to his could doubtless be told by many others.

Under the circumstances to which we were now reduced, welcome was the news that supplies of food sent to the besieged from England and elsewhere had arrived in proximity of the outskirts; credit must be accorded to the supreme officers of the investing force for the rapidity with which those supplies were forwarded to the now starving people within, so that on the last day of January many waggon loads were received, and forthwith distributed. On that day also postal communication with the outer world was re-established, though with the proviso that letters dispatched should be unsealed.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus