bloody week

-Geoffrey Hodgson

During the final leg of the Paris Commune’s ten-week holdout, blood and rubble filled the streets, sealing the fate of the Commune. Spanning a mere seven days, beginning on May 21 until its conclusion on the 28th, the “Bloody Week” resulted in one of Paris’s most devastating conflicts and the death of over 12,000 Parisians.1 In preparation for the eventual clash between the Commune’s National Guard and the Army of Versailles, Paris’s citizens were quick to erect defences prior to May 21. As Communards barricaded the streets however, their five-foot-high fortifications resembled little more than a pile of rubble, cobblestone, and broken-down wagons to withstand a professionally operating military.2 The fundamental failure to build adequate barricades would be a driving factor behind the success of the French army’s quick penetration and occupation over much of the city.

The downfall of Montmartre perfectly encapsulates the lacklustre defences constructed by the Communards leading up to the weeklong skirmish. With much of Paris falling due to inadequate barriers, half-erected barricades, unserviceable guns, and deserters, this ensured a quick and decisive demise for the Paris Commune.3 Furthermore, as Frenchmen killed Frenchmen in the streets, hastily built barricades continued to arise throughout the city. Yet many were ineffective and easily dismantled once taken.4  Severely shorthanded, ill-equipped, and with few adequate barricades, the Paris Commune’s fate was fundamentally sealed before the first shot had even been fired.

With the streets of Paris continuing to bathe in the blood of the dead, the emergence of the Pétroleuses would leave one of the most important legacies in the history of the Paris Commune. With the army of Versailles continuing to conquer the city, Parisian women armed with gas and other flammable substances began to burn Paris down in hopes of quelling the advancing forces and destroy their quarters.5 While these women became a symbol of resistance for Communards, or figures of depravity for the government, the sight of Paris in flames offered an excuse to Versailles to slaughter and massacre the citizens of the Paris Commune.6 Similarly, just as the sight of Paris burning fuelled the fire for revenge, the execution of Archbishop Darboy at the hands of the Communards only exacerbated the senseless revenge killings by the army of Versailles. The innocent slaughter of over one hundred grey-haired prisoners due to their age and participation in the 1848 revolution epitomizes the French army’s complete ruthlessness during their massacre of Parisians.7 Adolphe Thiers, the head of the new French republic, even stated that the streets of Paris had turned into “an orgy of killing.”8 Thus, in correlation with the National Guard’s lacklustre barricades, the army of Versailles had free rein to enact revenge and to slaughter Communards at will.

As the fighting continued and bloodshed ravaged the city, the danger of a plague became a major concern to the people of Paris. With bodies overflowing in the city, graveyards were forced to utilize mass burials to prevent the spread of diseases.9 Yet, after the dust had settled and the indiscriminate massacring had ceased, the legacy of the Bloody Week’s death count remains highly contested. Whereas those sympathetic to the Communards initially estimated that over 50,000 had been killed, other assessments of the Bloody Week situate the number of dead to be closer to 17,000.10 Initial reports were politicized and exaggerated the crimes committed against the Commune. Contemporary historians such as Robert Tombs have utilized historical sources to provide accurate examinations of the Bloody Week’s death toll. Tombs’s dependence on cemetery reports, for instance, debunks the assertion that over 11,000 bodies were buried in the Ivry and Montmartre cemeteries, in favour of a grounded analysis that only 1,300 were buried between the two sites.11 With the final shots of the Bloody Week fired 150 years ago, historical claims regarding the death toll remain a controversial debate in academic circles today.   

from the archive

Commune de Paris, barricade du faubourg Saint-Antoine, 1871, Wikimedia Commons accessed February 25, 2021,,_barricade_du_faubourg_Saint-Antoine.jpg

Pictured prior to the start of the Bloody Week, this undated photo excellently depicts the lacklustre defences erected in the streets of Paris. While this photo is overtly propagandistic, purposely framing two cannons and a unit of armed Communard soldiers aiming directly into the camera, the strength of the National Guard was far weaker than this photo illustrates. In actuality, Paris fell far short of the necessary defences needed to adequately defend the city, either through their dismal first line, or the incomplete secondary chain of barricades. Ultimately, the Paris Commune was fundamentally helpless to repel the army of Versailles with their inability to properly erect suitable barricades to defend themselves.12 Moreover, it is overtly apparent that instead of sufficient materials to construct a barricade, Communards were forced to rely on cobblestone and bricks. As a result, this photo helps to illustrate both the haphazard construction of the barricades which relied heavily on simplistic materials, as well as the propagandistic representation the National Guard.

Secondly, the inclusion of civilians truly emphasises the collaboration between the National Guard with the citizens of Paris. While this photo overtly thematizes the role of soldiers by keeping them as the focal point, the inclusion of two boys on the periphery acknowledges the united effort in the erection of the barricades throughout Paris. Whether it be through the building of defences, or the role of women as Pétroleuses, it is integral to understand that women and children worked day and night constructing and defending the city.13 Although women were most prominently remembered in their role as Pétroleuses, thousands of women still fought shoulder to shoulder with men defending and dying on the very barricades they helped to install.14 Therefore, even with the inclusion of native Parisians limited in this photo, it still illuminates that civilians were front and centre in the weeklong bloody battle.    

1. Robert Tombs, “How Bloody was La Semaine Sanglante of 1871? A Revision,” The Historical Journal 55, no. 3 (September 2012): 682.

2. Stewart Edwards, “The Commune: Barricades and Repression” in The Paris Commune, 1871, (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1971): 316-317.

3. Alistair Horne, “Bloody Week & Paris Burns” in The Terrible Year: The Paris Commune, 1871 (London: Phoenix, 2004): 125.

4. Edwards, 417.

5. Mason. S Edward, “The Fall of the Commune” in Paris Commune, An Episode In The History Of The Socialist Movement, (New York: New York Company, 1930): 281.

6. Edward, 282

7. Edwards, 344.

8. Horne, 137.

9. Edward, 345.

10. Tombs, 681.

11. Tombs, 690.

12. Edwards, 313.

13. Edwards, 317-318.

14. Edith Thomas, “The Women of the Commune”, The Massachusetts Review 12, no. 3 (Summer 1971): 416.

further reading

Howard G. Brown. “The Paris Commune and the ‘Bloody Week’ of 1871” in Mass Violence and the Self: From the French Wars of Religion to the Paris Commune. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019: 161-215.

Focusing on a bottom-up approach, Howard Brown highlights the psychological impact of Parisians during the Bloody Week. Consequently, this source illuminates how Communard identity continuously grew with its culmination in the Bloody Week. Moreover, instead of reflecting on the Bloody Week as a class struggle, Brown situates his argument around the collective experience of Parisians. Brown’s reliance on illustrations further contextualizes the nature of the conflict and visualizes how Parisians were forced to cope with the carnage and tragedy that engulfed their city.

One thought on “bloody week

  1. The reference to a potential plague resulting from the problems of body disposal does raise really interesting questions about public health during the Commune. Given the near-starvation conditions created by the siege of the Franco-Prussian War, do we know anything about epidemic diseases increasing during the Commune, or potentially contributing to even more deaths in the city?

    Liked by 1 person

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