-by Matt Risenbrough
The Paris Commune would come to an end soon after the Versailles Army entered the city on May 21st and began a brutal campaign against the Communards known as the “Bloody Week.” The Communards were heavily outnumbered with 20,000 troops compared to the Versailles Army of 130,000.1 Despite these numbers, some scholars argue that there was a path to victory for the Commune’s National Guard. Karl Marx argued that the army should have attacked Versailles after their victory at Montmartre when the former was at its weakest.2 Prosper Lissagaray argued that the National Guard should have blown up the forts and armed the ramparts. The National Guard was said not to have enough soldiers and experienced officers to make these forts effective. In the end, the Council could not choose between the two defensive strategies of arming either the forts or the ramparts.3 Overall, being outnumbered was just one of the many issues the Commune’s military faced. Infighting among the Council and a lack of professionalism within the army resulted in heavy losses on the battlefield.
A problem with the National Guard was that “a crowd of men with rifles was not an army.”4 Throughout the history of the Commune, the National Guard struggled to come together as a solid unit. The split of authority between the Central Commission, Executive Commission, and the Delegate of War allowed for undisciplined behaviour. Victor Jaclard, Chief of the Seventeenth Legion, condemned the split as it gave “most of the troops the impression of every man for himself.”5 On May 14th, a group of battalions abandoned their posts and instead pillaged the wine cellar of a Jesuit college and then dressed up in costumes.6 On the other hand, Versailles was set to reunite their professional army with the release of about 300,000 POWs from the Franco-Prussian War.7
The amateur soldiers were not given the best conditions to succeed by the Central Committee, who were often responsible for the army’s disorganization. This is seen in the Executive Commission’s response to the attack from Paris on April 2nd. The three generals on the Commission supported a counter-attack. However, they were outvoted by the four civilian members of Commission, who instead requested that the generals give statements regarding their soldiers, artillery, ammunition, and transport.8 Despite this, the generals set out to battle anyway. This would be a disaster for the National Guard. There were no staff officers to guide their movements which resulted in poorly executed movements, there were no orders of the day, and men were left for hours without food.9 The National Guard soldiers were led to believe they had occupied the fort Mont-Valérien and mass panic broke out among the battalions when they were fired upon. The Central Committee had concealed it from the National Guard and hoped that the fort would not be used against them.10 According to Wickham Hoffman, who was part of the US legation during the siege, the Commune’s army was so disorganized that the Versailles army could walk into Paris sometimes unopposed. This happened near Auteuil when a civil engineer on an afternoon walk noticed that the fortifications were unguarded. He then let the Versailles army into the city, who were on the other side of the fortifications preparing to battle.11 Although the reason for the desertion of the fortifications is unknown, Hoffman speculated that it was probably due to dissension within the National Guard. The battalion that held the fortification had not been relieved, so they decided to leave.12
Numbers do not tell the whole story of the military defeat of the Paris Commune. The Communards were heavily outnumbered throughout, but had the numerical advantage in the beginning. Their advantage was wasted due to a lack of central authority surrounding the army as the many factions of leadership fought among themselves. This would show on the battlefield as the Commune soldiers, who lacked discipline, guidance, and organization, would be routinely slaughtered by a much more experienced and professional army.
from the archive
The poster pictured here translates roughly to:
“It is forbidden to interrupt fire during a fight, even if the enemy raises the butt of their rifle in the air. It is forbidden, under penalty of death, to continue firing after the order to cease has been given, or to move forward when it has been prescribed to stop. The fugitives and those who remain behind in isolation will be cut down by the cavalry; if there are too many, they will be gunned down. The military leaders have, during combat, all power to make the officers and soldiers placed under their orders march and obey.”
It is signed by the Minister of War, Rossel. This poster is indicative of the problems faced by the Paris Commune’s military, which lacked discipline and organization. These problems came to the surface once the Commune came under threat from a revitalized Versailles army. From the very beginning of the Commune, the essential task for the Commune’s survival was readying an army to repel the Army of Versaille, which was waiting for the more than 300,000 soldiers and officers to be released by Germany. Efforts to discipline the National Guard ultimately failed. Legion disciplinary tribunals and central courts martial were set up. However, the court martial punishments were never sanctioned, and the tribunals never met.13
Communard Victor Jaclard claimed that the battalions were incoherent and could never be commanded like Prussian-style disciplined regiments. He blamed Rossel for not adjusting to the unique circumstance of the National Guard.14 The source pictured above is part of the failed attempt at installing discipline within the army. It shows the extent to which the soldiers ignored the commands of their officers. A death penalty instituted for failing to cease fire shows the extreme position that Rossel took.
Testimony from National Guardsman Émile Maury also showed this lack of discipline within the army. On May 19th at 2 am, Maury was called into service, where only 200 of his battalion showed up. They marched to the Place d’Italie where the other battalion they were supposed to meet never arrived. He then went to a wine shop with a friend and went home soon after.15 With this type of discipline and organization, the army was no match for a professional army from Versailles that now also outnumbered them.
1. John Merriman, Massacre (New York: Basic Books, 2014): 149
2. Karl Marx, Civil War in France (London: Electric Book Company, 2000): 72
3. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, History of the Commune of 1871, from the French of Lissagaray. (London, England: T. F. Unwin, 1902): Ch.14. Project Gutenberg, Retrieved April, 2021, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/36043/36043-h/36043-h.htm
4. Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune, 1871 (London; New York: Longman, 1999: 152
5. Mitchell Abidor, “Voices of the Paris Commune” (The Anarchist Library, 2015), Voices of the Paris Commune | The Anarchist Library.
6. Tomb, 158.
8. Lissagaray, 164.
9. Lissagaray, 165.
10. Lissagaray, 166.
11. Wickham Hoffman, Camp, Court and Siege A Narrative of Personal Adventure and Observation During Two Wars: 1861-1865; 1870-1871, (Project Gutenberg: n.d.): 278, Project Gutenberg, Retrieved April, 2021, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/51195.
12. Hoffman, 278.
13. Tomb, 155.
15. Merriman, 132.