Hostname: page-component-546b4f848f-bvkm5 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-06-03T12:57:29.168Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Paris and the Rural Hordes: an Exploration of Myth and Reality in the French Civil War of 1871

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Robert Tombs
St John's College, Cambridge


On 2 April 1871, soon after the echoes of cannon fire had died away over Neuilly and Courbevoie in the first engagement of the civil war, the executive commission of the revolutionary Paris commune drafted an angry proclamation:

The royalist conspirators have attacked! Despite the moderation of our attitude they have attacked! No longer able to count on the French army, they have attacked with the pontifical zouaves and imperial police…This morning, Charette's Chouans, Cathelineau's Vendéens, Trochu's Bretons, flanked by Valentin's gendarmes…embarked on civil war against our National Guards.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1986

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Journal Officiel (of Commune), 3 April 1871.

2 Dispatch from Dir.-Gen. of Telegraphs, 2 April. Archives Historiques de la Guerre (AHG), Ly 3.

3 General Valentin was the recently appointed prefect of police, Cresson his civilian predecessor; generals Ducrot (‘infamous’ because he had promised during the Franco-Prussian war to conquer or die) and Vinoy (active in the 1851 coup d'état) had held commands in Paris during the Prussian siege, and the latter was at this time Military Governor of Paris and commander of the Army of Paris.

4 24 February. Edited by Jules Vallès, a member of the Commune, it was the most widely circulated left-wing newspaper in Paris at this time.

5 La Commune, a widely read socialist paper under the influence of the assembly deputy J.-B. Millière, later became critical of the Commune and was banned by it; Millière was shot by the Versaillais.

6 For this conflict in the eighteenth century, seeCobb, Richard, Paris and its provinces 1792–1803 (London, 1975)Google Scholar, and for nineteenth-century urban suspicions of rural primitivism, seeWeber, Eugen, Peasants into Frenchmen: The modernization of rural France 1870–1914(London, 1977), ch. 1Google Scholar.

7 Dalotel, A. et al. , Aux origines de la Commune: Le mouvement des réunions pubhques à Paris 1868–1870 (Paris, 1980), pp. 178–84Google Scholar.

8 Le Cri du Peuple, 22 Feb. (Unless otherwise stated, all dates are 1871.)

9 Ibid, 1 March.

10 Rougerie, J, ‘Notes pour servir à L'histoire du 18 mars 1871’, in Mélanges d'histoire sociale offerts à Jean Maitron (Paris, 1976), pp. 233–4Google Scholar.

11 Rougerie, J., Paris libre 1871 (Paris, 1971), p. 116Google Scholar.

12 Malo, Henri, Thiers 1797–1877 (Paris, 1932), p. 493Google Scholar.

13 Flourens, Gustave, Paris livré (Paris, 1871), p. 70Google Scholar.

14 Debate of 10 March 1871, Annales de I'Assemblée Nationale, 1, 271–3, 277. Similar views were expressed in a pamphlet of striking unoriginality, Qu'est Parìs en France? Absolument tout. Que doit-il étre? Infinsment moins, par Jacques Bonhomme, electeur rural (Rouen and Versailles, 05 1871)Google Scholar. The author denied that ‘la France appartient à Paris et non pas Paris à la France’ (p. 6) and deplored the fact that ‘toutes nos révolutions ont eu Paris pour auteur et pour berceau. Nous les avons toujours subies, nous les avons jamais faites’ (p. 8).

15 Le Père Duchêne, a pastiche of Hébert's paper edited by Humbert and Vermersch, was, with Le Cri, the most widely read Communard paper. It was famous for its extreme Jacobinism and pseudo-demotic language.

16 Les Ruraux, par un citadin (Malo, Saint, 2 edn, 05 1871)Google Scholar.

17 Bourgin, G., ‘La Commune de Paris et le Comité Central’, Revue Historique, CL (1925), 166Google Scholar; for details of early National Guard organization, seeClifford, Dale L., ‘Aux armes citoyens! The National Guard in the Paris Commune of 1871’ (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Tennessee, 1975)Google Scholar.

18 For ‘fellow travellers’, seeGaillard, J., ‘La Ligue d'Union Républicaine des Droits de Paris’, Bulletin de la Société d'Histoire Moderne, 13e série, v (1966), 813Google Scholar.

19 Edited by Hector Pessard, it was close to the position of Thiers and his allies.

20 Odilon Delimal in La Commune.

21 22 March. See also 21 March and 6, 8 and 10 April.

22 La Révolution Politique et Sociale (the paper of the 13th arrondissement section of the Association Internationale des Travailleurs), 3 Floréal/23 April.

23 Minister of War circular, 29 March, AHG Li 120.

24 Cathelineau, Henri de, Le Corps Cathelineau pendant la guerre (1870–1871), 2 vols. (Paris 1871)Google Scholar.

25 Triger, R., ‘Le général de Charette au Mans, du II octobre au 9 novembre 1870’, Revue Historique et Archéologique du Maine, LII (1911)Google Scholar; Jacquemont, S., La Campagne des Zouaves Pontificaux en France sous les ordres du général baron de Charette (1870–1871), (Paris, 1871)Google Scholar.

26 Le Sotr (Paris edition), 24 March.

27 Joséfa, M. T., Le Géntral de Sonts, le héros de Patayi (Paris, n.d.), p. 8Google Scholar.

28 Dombrowski to executive commission, 16 April, AHG Ly 2; and see Cluseret, G., Mémoires du Général Cluseret (Paris, 1887), I, 204Google Scholar, 230–1.

29 Le Gaulots, 2 May and 8 June; order, 7 April, AHG Li 121.

30 Letter from Cathelineau in Le Gaulois, 26 April; Min. of War to Cathelineau, 31 May, AHG Li 124.

31 A certain Marquis de Carbonnel, who wished to form a ‘Guard of Honour’ of ex-officers for the national assembly, was turned down flat by the government: Brunox, E., Le Batallon d'Honneur de Versailles (Paris, 1881)Google Scholar. Interestingly, one of Charette's biographers suggests that he himself was glad to remain out of the fight, fearing that the republican government would place the odium of the repression on the royalist volunteers: Devigne, Paul, Charette et les Zouaves Pontificaux (Paris, 1913), p. 151Google Scholar. But Capt. Jacquemont, one of the volunteers, recalled that ‘jusqu’ aux, derniers jours du siége ils gardaient I ‘espoir d'etre appelés à Versailles’: La Campagne des Zouaves Pontificaux, p. 181Google Scholar.

32 See letters and reports of Col. Corbin (chief of staff of loyalist National Guard), AHG Lu 93.

33 Hans, A., Souvenirs d'un volontatre versatllais (Paris, 1873), p. 31Google Scholar.

34 Compiegne, Marquis de, ‘Souvenirs d'un Versaillais pendant le second siége de Paris’, Le Correspondent, 10 08 1875, p. 594Google Scholar.

35 Gen. Appert to Mai. MacMahon, 18 April, AHG Lu 95.

36 Fonvielle was an interesting case illustrating the complexity for some on the Left of the dilemma posed by the outbreak of insurrection. His radical credentials were impressive: in 1870 he had been, with Victor Noir, a second of Pascal Grousset (now external relations delegate of the Commune) when he challenged Prince Pierre Bonaparte to a duel, and had been with Noir when the latter was shot dead by the Prince. He had previously served as ADC to General Cluseret (now war delegate of the Commune) during the American civil war. And his name was in the address book found on the body of Gustave Flourens, a Communard commander killed on 3 April. Very few left-wingers who opposed the insurrection went so far as to fight against it like Fonvielle, who explained his action on grounds of patriotism; typically they pressed for negotiation between the two sides. See Fonvielle dossier, Archives de la Prefecture de Police (APP) Ba 1081; Cluseret, , Mémoires, II, 167Google Scholar; and police report, 8 April, APP Ba 364–4.

37 Prefect of Police to MacMahon, 25 April, AHG Lu 93; Gen. Valentin to Gen. Vergé, 10 May, Lu 35.

38 Hans, Souvenirs; Grandeffe, A. de, Mobiles et volontaires de la Seine pendant la guerre el les deux sièges (Paris, 1871), pp. 225–36Google Scholar.

39 National Guard MacMahon, 8 June, AHG Lu 93.

40 Hans, , Souvenirs, p. 104Google Scholar; police report, 24 May, APP Ba 365–1.

41 Lists and reports, AHG Lu 95; Hans, , Souvenirs, p. 26Google Scholar.

42 Fix, Théodore, Souvenirs d'un officier d' étal-major (Paris, 1896), II, 93Google Scholar.

43 Police reports, 2 April, APP Ba 364–4. An anonymous brochure, Simples notes pour servir à; I'histoire du second siége de Paris 1870–1871, par un volontaire de 1870–1871 (?Paris, 1872)Google Scholar, lists the names of 150 officers who came to Versailles to volunteer, and states that 500 eventually arrived.

44 Letter of Lieutenant Paternotte complaining to Gambetta, in Archives du Ministère des Affaires Étrangè;res, Papiers d'agents: Papiers Gambetta vol. 52 (Armée, Personnel).

45 Vidalenc, J., ‘La province et les journées de juin’, Études d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine (1948), pp. 83141Google Scholar.

46 ‘Déclaration au Peuple Français’, Journal OJfiael (of Commune), 28 April, P.-O. Lissagaray was not convinced that ‘Chouans’ had suddenly become allies: ‘Or qu'attendre, qu'espérer des autonomies de Basse-Bretagne, des neuf dixièmes des communes françhises’. Histoire de la Commune de 1871 (new edn, Paris, 1972), p. 211Google Scholar.

47 Maret, Henry in La Revue blanche, XII (1897), 261Google Scholar. For an acute and concise survey of provincial action and opinion, see Gaillard, Jeanne, Communes de province, Commune de Pans 1870–1871 (Paris, 1971)Google Scholar, and for details of the conciliatory efforts of the city governments, see Greenberg, Louis M., Sisters of liberty: Marseille, Lyon, Parts and the reaction to a centralized state, 1868–1871 (Cambridge, Mass., 1971)Google Scholar.

48 See Rougerie, Pans libre, chapter 2. Milliére, writing in La Commune (19 April), argued that the notion of the ‘Commune’ became popular in 1870–71 because it fitted the isolated position of Paris within France.

49 Vallés in Le Crt du Peuple, 28 February. See also ibid. 1 March for joint appeal from leaders of the International, workers' societies and the Central Committee of the 20 Arrondissements.

50 La Commune, 4 April. On the Commune's policy, see Paz, M., ‘Le mythe de la Commune: relations avec les Prussiens’, Est et Ouest, no. 479 (16–31 12 1971), 524–8Google Scholar, and no. 485 (16–31 March 1972), 138–40.

51 Le Cri du Peuple, 30 March. For similar exhortations, see, e.g., Le Cri 22 and 24 March, and Le Pére Duchaêne, 8 Germinal.

52 Leo Fraenkel (who was Hungarian), in Commune debate on 12 May. Journal Officiel (of Commune), 13 May.

53 Apart from the central issue of the autonomy of Paris, the Commune's programme consisted mainly of elaboration of the political institutions that the model Republic would require, very similar to those outlined in the celebrated Belleville Programme accepted by Gambetta in 1869. Social reforms were vague and caused dissension.

54 Quoted in Paz, , ‘Le mythe’, Est et Ouest, no. 479 (163112 1971), 528Google Scholar.

55 Millière put it precisely: ‘Au fond, la véritable question est celle de savoir si la constitution de la France sera fake par l'Assemblée des nouveaux seigneurs de village… ou si… l'Assemblée constituante sera élue sous 1'inspiration de 1'esprit parisien, par les populations affranchies du mensonge et de la fraude, de l'ignorance et de l'erreur… Elle ne peut plus être tranchee que par la guerre.’ La Commune, 19 April. One suggestion was that a provisional government should be chosen by the cities alone; another that rural voters should have a restricted franchise. See Gaillard, , ‘La Ligue d'Union Républicaine’, p. 8Google Scholar.

56 Numerous reports by police agents in Paris give the impression that at least up to late April many people, even conservatives, believed the Commune's version of events, i.e. that the National Guard was beating the ‘Chouans’ and that Paris was impregnable (e.g. reports of 18, 29 and 30 April, APP Ba 364–5). Even when hopes of victory ebbed, many continued to believe that rescue would arrive from the provinces (e.g. report 7 May, APP Ba 364–6).