George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life

Apparently the party, about five hundred strong, were members of the business classes, and in this form, that of a large deputation, they began to descend the Rue de la Paix. But immediately upon this, indications as to what their reception was to be began to be heard. Directly after, sharp military commands rang out from the lines of the defenders who held the H?tel de ville, on the Place Vend?me bugles were sounded, and a body of the National Guard advanced at the double and formed four deep across the end of the Rue de la Paix. This thoroughly blocked farther advance, while, to form a reserve, the Place was occupied by a strong body of nearly three thousand National Guards, who stood looking calm and determined and ready to prevent the party of order from passing. Looking more peaceful than ever, the demonstrators came steadily on without the slightest suggestion of military formation.

Henty relates that he did not anticipate trouble, for he felt sure that the demonstrators would not attempt to force their way through the solid body of Communists, and, satisfied with his excellent position as spectator and gatherer of news, he stood fast.

As the black-clothed body of men drew near the line of National Guards they began to wave their handkerchiefs, shouting, Vive la R?publique! or Vive lordre! and then, seeing that the Communists stood firm, they distributed themselves across the street and began to enter into conversation. They formed an irregular group some five or six feet deep, and everything appeared as if it would come to an amicable conclusion. The excitement of the gathering of armed men had passed away, and nothing was heard but the murmur of conversation. So far from anticipating danger, Henty had joined the demonstrators, and was standing in the second row facing the Communists, when all at once something occurred which was like the dropping of a spark into a heap of gunpowder. A musket went off. The Communist who held it had fired in the air, whether accidentally or of malice intent it is impossible to say. The result was that, startled by the report, the lines of unarmed men who faced the Communists took a step or two backward; then, as if ashamed of their alarm, in the silence that followed, a cry arose that it was nothing, an accident, and directly after there was another shout, that of Vive la R?publique!

But the spark had fired the mass. Another shot was fired. A sensible and visible thrill ran through the front line of the Communists, they levelled their guns, and the next moment, as if without orders, they commenced a heavy fusillade upon the unarmed lines in front. The French citizen who stood next to Henty, and with whom he had just been in conversation respecting the probable termination of the affair, fell dead at his feet, and many of those in the front row met the same fate, for they were so near the Communists that the hitters muskets almost touched them when the firing began.

There was utter paralysis for the moment, and then a wild rush began, men turning upon their heels and running straight up the Rue de la Paix along which they had approached, while others, Henty included, turned off to the right down the first street, a short distance from the entrance to the Square.

It was a state of wild excitement, a sauve qui peut, men stumbling and tripping over each other in their desperate haste to escape the storm of bullets that were whistling by them, too many of which reached their mark, probably without aim in the excitement of the discharge. It was a matter of minutes, but the time seemed long enough before the angle of the street was turned and the retreating crowd were in comparative safety, though all were in full expectation, as they tore on, of hearing the Communists advancing tramp and halt as they stopped to fire down the street. This did not follow, for the insurgents were too busy in expending their cartridges upon the flying men who were running straight up the Rue de la Paix, giving Henty and those with him time to escape up the next street before they fired in their direction. How many were killed was never exactly known, but it must certainly have been sixty or seventy; and he recalled, long years after, the rage of the peaceful demonstrators against their cowardly assailants. This was undoubtedly the match that fired one of the long trains of disaster that ran through Paris during the holding of the Commune.

It might have been supposed that, warned by the risk of mingling too much with the excited people, Henty would have held aloof and avoided too near proximity to the explosive race, ready to take fire without a moments warning. Yet his thirst for news would not allow him to stay in the background when information reached him a couple of days later of the possibility of there being a regular battle in the streets.

At this time the quarter of the Bank was strongly held by the National Guard of that arrondissement, and every approach was thoroughly guarded. A messenger came to Henty at the hotel where he was staying, with the information that the Communists were astir in earnest, and had sent two battalions of their infantry with a battery of artillery to seize the Mairie of the First Arrondissement.

Hurrying off, he reached the entrance to the Place Saint Germain lAuxerrois as the head of the column of Communists came up, to find themselves much in the same position as their victims of the peaceful demonstration had occupied two days before, for they were immediately facing a strong party of the National Guard, who were faithful to the body of order. These men were drawn up eight deep across the street, the windows of the houses on either side were also filled with men who commanded the approach, while the main body of the Reserve occupied the Place.

Everything looked threatening in the extreme, for upon this occasion it was not the armed against the unarmed, but two strong bodies of determined men face to face. The Communists as they marched up filled the whole street; and while their officers advanced and began to parley, their battery of field-pieces was brought forward and took up position threateningly in front of the attacking party.

There was an excited interval. The defenders of the Mairie absolutely refused to give way, and the angry conference went on, for the Communists were determined to carry out the orders they had received from head-quarters and to obtain possession of the place.

At length, after angry debate, fierce bluster began, and the commander of the Communist force shouted to the gunners in front to load with grape an order which was immediately carried out. Henty states that, in his eagerness to see and learn everything that passed, he was standing on the footway with a couple of civilians in a line with the officers parleying. He now shifted his position a few yards to an open door leading into one of the houses, which was held by the party of order, so as to be able to rush into shelter when the first shot was fired.

Still the excitement grew. Nothing could have exceeded the calmness and determination of the defenders who stood facing the loaded cannon ten paces away. Meanwhile, though, their comrades who occupied the houses on either side of the line had their pieces levelled in readiness to shoot down the artillerymen as soon as matters came to the worst and the officers in front had withdrawn from their conference. So firm and commanding, indeed, was the position of the defenders, that Henty felt convinced that, in spite of the field-pieces, had the orders to fire come, although outnumbered by fully two to one, the scowling ruffians bent on advance would have been driven down the street, leaving their battery in the hands of their foe. This, however, could only have been a short-lived success, for there were thousands of their comrades at the Communists head-quarters, with several batteries of cannon.

Be that as it may, the tension was extreme. The defenders of the Mairie stood silent and waiting for the worst, whilst a roar of angry denunciations and revilings came from the Communists. In spite of the threats levelled at them, the defenders of the Mairie stood fast, waiting for the orders to be given, and this without even attempting to load. Their instructions were to fix bayonets ready for the order Charge! and there they stood with their pieces levelled, waiting for the signal before springing forward with a dash to clear the Place and street with the bayonet; the signal was understood to be the firing by the enemy of the first gun. It was, as has been said, a time of extreme tension, and the firm aspect of the defenders had its effect upon the insurgent mob.

The blustering on the part of the Communist officers was succeeded by thought. These men, these leaders of the Communists, were the noisy demagogues and declaimers of the various cabarets; they were men selected not for political knowledge, nor for military instinct, nor for ability as men of brain, but entirely on account of their policy of bluster, their savageness of language, and their denunciation of everything that was opposed to decent policy and order; and now they felt that they were face to face with defeat and probably with their own death. They were being put to the test, and it was no time for carrying matters with words.

They gave a look round, and at the first glance saw muskets at all the windows aimed at them as well as at the gunners at their posts, and the sight of these menacing muzzles made such courage as they possessed begin to ooze. They fully realised that their notion of being able to overawe the defenders by ordering the field-pieces to the front and having them charged was a failure, and they felt pretty certain that were a field-piece discharged they would be among the first of the victims of the defence. Accordingly the leaders gathered together and exchanged whispers, the result of which was that the parley which had come to an end in a fierce bullying way was reopened in a much tamer spirit. There was no shouting, no gesticulation, and at the end of a minute or two these self-constituted heroes of the moment issued fresh orders to their followers, with the result that the battery of field-pieces was run back about a hundred yards. Henty and his companions, who were standing, as it were, strung up and waiting between two fires, now began to breathe again, seeing as they did that the threats of the Communists upon that occasion were empty wind, for the latter had backed down and dared not carry out their threats. The struggle with all its horrors was averted for the time, and to the intense satisfaction of the civilian spectators, the Communist infantry fell back level with their guns; mounted officers who acted as aides-de-camp to the leaders of the enemy cantered to and fro to the H?tel de ville with messages and fresh orders, with the result at last that each party agreed to hold its own till after the elections that were about to take place. Henty, who had stood fast through all, narrates that of all the episodes he witnessed during the Commune, these were the most exciting incidents through which he passed.

Chapter Twenty Three.
The Vend?me Column

Of course there were patriots and patriots, but, as an observer, Hentys intercourse with those who vapoured under the self-assumed title seems to have aroused in him scarcely anything but scorn, and more than once he attaches the adjective drunken to the savage barricaders with whom he came in contact during his busy watching of proceedings and his visits to barricade and trench. He describes vividly the state of the streets which had been under fire shop fronts smashed in, windows shattered, gables and roofs riddled with shrapnel, trees splintered. Every second lamp-post lay a battered wreck on the ground. Here and there a yawning hole revealed a gas-pipe laid open. In another place there would be a pit made as if by pickaxe and shovel, showing where a shell had plunged into the soil, and where the earth had been thrown up as if by some internal revulsion. And everywhere, when firing had ceased, spectators collected to see what mischief had been done where shells had entered and shattered walls. In one spot, where there was something to attract the curious seekers after novelty, upwards of fifty people had collected like a London crowd at an accident, risking their lives as they watched a foolhardy fellow who was digging out a bomb which had not exploded. It was exciting in the extreme, and the spice of danger added to the interest, though the people were so crowded together, that if, as the man dug, the bomb had exploded, the tale of killed and wounded must have been awful. Shakespeare writes of him who gathered samphire half-way down the Dover cliffs, and speaks of it as dreadful trade, and this mans occupation of gathering shells, though profitable, was full of risks. Still it went on, and in spite of the horrors connected with these revolutionary times there were plenty of quick-witted men ready to speculate and take their chances of making an honest penny. Planted in spots where they were out of fire, telescopes were propped up on the side-ways, offering views of the enemy at work in the forts. There was a busy time, too, for the French representatives of the owners of Pantechnicon vans, which bulky vehicles were drawn up at many a door for the removal of the furniture where the houses were within reach of shells.

Horrors were plentiful, and among the statistics gathered by the learned in such matters Henty mentions the fact that the mortality in the National Guard during this stupid civil war was greater in fifty days than for the entire period of the Prussian investment.

A propos of the mock patriots of the Commune engaged in this imbecile insurrection, Henty with his military instincts and contempt for vanity has a word or two for a great soldier. Bonaparte, he says, has left a name that is imperishable in the annals of his country. He fought for France at the head of the French armies. He was the idol of the people, and, dying, his last thoughts were of France. I desire, he said, that my ashes shall be laid to repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the people I love so well; and his remains were brought back from Saint Helena to be interred as he had asked. Yet his people assisted at the degradation of the memorial raised to his fame not all the people, but the very dregs of it. I am no convert, says Henty, to the faith of conquest as foreign policy, and an autocracy as the best of domestic governments, but I avow it did cost me, a stranger, something like a pang to see the Vend?me Column fall down on a litter of stable dung, amidst the obscene ribaldry of a mock patriotic rabble and the unmusical fanfares of a make-believe soldiery. Out of the purest love for the nations, they pretended this was done, and as a guage of amity to the world all round. These hypocrites seized a moment when their country was prostrate and galled by defeat in a war with a foreign invader as the fit one to kindle the flames of civil war! They profess that when they rule there shall be no more bloodshed. It shall be the millennium. And yet at the same moment they condemn the generals of the Second Empire for not having overwhelmed the hordes of the German army, and they press their own unwilling fellow-citizens, under pain of court-martial, to go into the ranks to slay or be slain by their brothers. With all their declarations of attachment to the Goddess of Peace, they would be ready to bow to the popular clamour if it took up again the shout, ? Berlin! ? Berlin! sooner than lose the power they have momentarily succeeded in: clutching within their grasp, and this while they jabber of despotism, and swear they have pulled over the pillar to Bonaparte because he was a despot. The circumstance that the tricolour was hoisted on the column before it fell, and waved so that all might see it, is safe evidence that these ignorant Frenchmen knew not what they did. For the tricolour is the national emblem, and these harlequins desired that this national symbol should go down into the dust with the emperors statue before their sheet of unhallowed crimson. It was but a poor victory to raise the red flag of the Commune over the tricolour in the heart of the disarmed city, while the same red was retiring before the tricolour in the outskirts. As I looked on at this sorry spectacle from the head of the Rue de la Paix, I overheard a Forfarshire man remark in Doric English to an acquaintance among the bystanders, I am not sanguinary, but I own I would not weep if a volley were fired into those blackguards. Neither am I sanguinary, but I own I could almost sympathise with the Scotchmans wish.

As soon as this piece of vandalism had been perpetrated a picket of cavalry some score strong, which had been keeping the ground, trotted backwards and forwards for a few minutes to prevent the mass of spectators from pushing on to the scene where the colossal memorial in bronze and stone lay like a corpse. When the crowd found there was no danger, it streamed along the thoroughfare, and the members of the Commune yielded to the desire of the public to walk by the fallen monument. As soldiers are marched by the dead body of a comrade who has been shot, the Parisians that chose had the privilege of penetrating into the Place by batches, and leaning over the fallen Caesar. National Guardsmen stood on either side on the top of the barricade, barring the entrance, and behind them on the crest of the work were ranged masquerading mariners, some with revolvers in their belts and cigars in their mouths, a few gaping miscreants in the uniform of soldiers of the line, and of course the Paris urchin with his bold, merry face, who turns up in every scene of popular commotion. The base of the column was still erect on the Place, its jagged surface, where the shaft had broken off, covered over with plaster dust as if snow had fallen there recently. Red flags had already been fixed on cross poles on the platform it afforded, and captains of the staff, with the inevitable vivandi?re, lounged in graceful attitudes, looking on the world beneath from their novel and unaccustomed elevation. The capital of the column seemed to have turned in the fall, for the figure of the emperor lay buried in the litter with the face to the sky.

Some of those admitted to the spectacle of great Caesar low had the bad taste to spit on the face, thus proving how thoroughly justified was the English correspondents feeling of utter scorn for mob patriotism. Henty ends his description of the fall with the words: I should have mentioned that the only display of bunting in the Rue de la Paix during the f?te of the rabble was on the houses of the British and American residents, and their flags were floating merely to signify that the property beneath was foreign. One flag peculiarly suited to the Commune at the time was conspicuous by its absence the black flag of death.

Chapter Twenty Four.
The Days of Reprisal

The day which marked the fall of the Vend?me Column heralded the coming of the end, the termination of the short-lived triumph of the Commune. For the party of safety was fully awake now to the necessity of saving France from what threatened to prove a perhaps more bloody repetition of the Revolution of 1793. MacMahons commands came sharp and to the point, and every week made the position of the Communists so desperate, that it seemed as if in feline rage they had determined to die fighting, marking their end with every mischievous piece of destruction they could effect. Hence it was that not only was fire set to buildings, but the destruction was rendered more furious by the application of mineral oils. Civilisation shuddered as reports were sent in of the work of the petroleuses, which seemed to indicate that the fairest city of the world was doomed to become a heap of ashes. In these latter days Henty writes that never since the days of Saint Bartholomew has Paris passed through such a terrible twenty-four hours as those which I spent there. I question if even that famous massacre was more terrible. I do not remember the number of victims which history records to have fallen then, but since the troops entered Paris seven or eight thousand of the Communists were estimated to have been shot, and to this slaughter must be added the horrors of the conflagration. To make a comparison, it was a mingling of the great Protestant massacre and the burning of Rome. The smoke of the blazing city, after hanging like a pall, as if to hide the horrors, drifted slowly away, and flakes of incandescent paper, which fluttered down in the suburbs as thick as snow, were some of them carried a distance of fifty miles away. At this time it was apparently lawful for anyone to shoot his neighbour. An unguarded word, a movement which an excited man might consider suspicious, and a cry was raised, A Communist! The voice of the accused was drowned in the tumult, and the unfortunate man was lucky if he was not at once held up and shot by the first armed men who came upon the scene. Innocent and guilty alike fell victims; and, as instancing the risk of strangers being about, two of our English officers, not being in uniform, had got as far as the Louvre just as the troops were about to advance against the H?tel de ville. They were at once seized and questioned. The answer was: We are English officers. We have our papers to prove our position. The reply to this was: Messieurs, we have no time to examine papers now. Fall in behind, and if you attempt to escape you will be shot. There was nothing for it but to obey. The regiment went off at the double; the officers followed. Another regiment seeing these two officers in mufti running behind the troops, at once seized them. Question and explanation were again postponed, for there was no time to talk. Put these fellows in front, said an officer; and this time in front of the troops they went forward under a tremendous fire, until, the insurgents falling back, there was time to inspect papers. This is the sort of thing, Henty concludes na?vely, to which one was every moment exposed in Paris. I can assure you that a special correspondents duties were no sinecure.

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