Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Siege of Paris

One of the first duties of the Government of National Defense had been to arm or set to work every man in Paris, and to prepare for a siege by storing up the greatest possible quantity of fuel and provisions. Thus the new forts and ramparts built by Louis Philippe were stocked and manned as promptly as possible, and the suburbs cleared, the houses and trees in outlying parks being torn down to serve for fuel, as well as to prevent their masking the approach of the foe.

After the investment of the capital, no news could reach or leave beleaguered Paris save by means of carrier pigeons or balloons. Thanks to photography, however, even a carrier pigeon could bring, in microscopic form, a whole budget, and it was by such methods that the imprisoned Parisians learned of the successive capitulations of the fortresses of Toul, Strassburg, and Metz, and of the continued brave resistance of Belfort. The fact that Bazaine had surrendered Metz with its immense stores and a force of 170,000 men, proved a staggering blow for the poor Parisians, who had hitherto hoped that that army might yet break through the Prussian lines and come southward to deliver them! Then, too, while sufficient numbers of Germans were camping all around Paris to maintain the strictest blockade, large hostile forces were overrunning other parts of the country, although heroic attempts were made to check them at Orleans and elsewhere. The war in the provinces was energetically directed by Gambetta, a prominent member of the national government, who escaped from Paris in a balloon after the siege began and joined his colleagues at Tours, which had been made the temporary capital because Paris was cut off from communication with the rest of the country.

Time and again the Parisians planned sorties from one point or another, always hoping to break through the German lines and thus get news, provisions, and aid for their beleaguered fellow-citizens; but all these sorties, made by untrained and often badly led forces, resulted only in intense suffering and great loss of life. Heroic attempts to relieve the capital were also made by new armies raised in different parts of France; but although these forces did win several insignificant victories, none of them succeeded in reaching the capital. In the end, the French Army of the Loire was compelled to retreat toward the west and surrender; the Army of the North was driven toward Belgium; and the Army of the East, on its way to relieve Belfort, was driven into Switzerland, where, that being a neutral country, the men had to lay down their arms.

At first, the Parisians bore the siege with all the good-natured philosophy which characterizes the French nation. Even the rich gayly put up with all manner of privations and restrictions, and all seemed animated only by the desire to display the purest patriotism. So, while the men of all ages and ranks of society were employed in the trenches, ambulances, machine shops, and manufactories of ammunition, the women were equally busy in all branches of hospital and relief work, one and all doing their duty with a courage which cannot be sufficiently praised. There were, indeed, more than enough sick for these volunteer nurses to attend, for the winter was unusually early and cold, and the unwonted privations and constant exposure in the trenches and forts caused an alarming increase in disease. The sick, therefore, together with those wounded in the constant fighting, kept the beds of the improvised hospitals constantly full. Almost from the first, fuel and provisions had to be placed in charge of certain officials, who portioned out rations according to the number of persons in each family. If you have ever noticed the thousands of market wagons, the long trains of cars, and the many ships or boats which daily bring provisions into a large city, you can imagine how it must be when such a center is deprived for more than four months of all such supplies! Then, too, as fuel was scarce, no gas could be made, the streets had to remain unlighted, and even kitchen fires were used only when absolutely necessary, and then in the most economical fashion. Lack of fresh milk—the first supply to fall short—caused the death of babies by the score, so that more infants died during that siege than men.

Soon, ordinary meat could not be had even at fancy prices, and although all the animals at the "Zoo," all the cab and other horses, and finally all the dogs, cats, and rats were devoured, the Parisians daily suffered more and more from the pangs of constant, gnawing hunger. Even the provisions of flour and other cereals became so low that, toward the end, bread was made from a queer mixture of bran, chopped straw, and the sweepings of flour mills, such as would not, in ordinary times, be considered proper food for common cattle.

The worst came, however, when the Germans, exasperated by the Parisians' resistance, and hoping to compel them to surrender sooner, began to bombard the city two days after Christmas. With their great Krupp guns, the Prussians could throw huge bombshells over the forts and ramparts, into the very heart of the capital, where each exploding missile scattered death and destruction over a large area. At first the awful whizz of those bombs filled all hearts with dismay, but even timid citizens grew accustomed to them before long, so that they went about their business as calmly as if nothing were happening.

This bombardment lasted a whole month, for it was only when the last outside forces had been disarmed or driven far away, when the government had been obliged to flee from Tours to Bordeaux, and when the last sortie of one hundred thousand men had again failed to break through the German lines, that Paris, having scanty provisions for only a few days longer, at last capitulated (Jan. 28, 1871). As there was no possible hope of succor, this was really the only thing to do. The terms were arranged by Favre, who was sent out to Versailles under a flag of truce, to discuss matters with Bismarck, then cozily established in the royal palace built by Louis XIV. This was now, however, entirely occupied by the Germans, who, a few days before this, in the great Hall of Mirrors, had proclaimed King William of Prussia as Emperor of all Germany, the unification of that country having been hastened by this very war. It was thus in the palace of Versailles that Favre—who had declared at the beginning of the siege that "France would yield neither an inch of territory nor a stone of its fortresses"—was obliged to pocket his pride, and humbly inquire what terms the Germans would be willing to grant.

After some hesitation, it was agreed that the seventeen forts around Paris should at once be handed over to the Germans, that most of the French troops in Paris, except the National Guard, should be disarmed, and that the city should pay a war contribution of $40,000,000; and, on the other hand, a three weeks' truce was declared, in effect throughout all France, to give opportunity for the election of a National Assembly, which should decide whether to resume the war or to make a treaty of peace. Bismarck, however, refused to tell what terms he would demand in the final treaty.

It was with a heart filled with dark forebodings that Favre returned to the capital, to confess what he had done. To his surprise, however, the news of the armistice was received at first with joy by most of the Parisians, to whom it meant only that the siege and famine were over, that provisions and tidings could enter the city once more, and that many of them could join their families and friends who had gone elsewhere before the blockade began.