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Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris online

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Second Edition, Revised.


_The Right of Translation is Reserved_.


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|Transcriber's note: In this book there are inconsistencies in|
|accentation and capitalisation; these have been left as in |
|the original. This book contains two chapters labeled XVII. |
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The publishers of these letters have requested me to write a preface. In
vain I have told them, that if prefaces have not gone out of date, the
sooner they do, the better it will be for the public; in vain I have
despairingly suggested that there must be something which would serve
their purpose, kept in type at their printers, commencing, "At the
request of - perhaps too partial - friends, I have been induced, against
my own judgment, to publish, &c., &c., &c.;" they say that they have
advertised the book with a preface, and a preface from me they must and
will have. Unfortunately I have, from my earliest childhood, religiously
skipped all introductions, prefaces, and other such obstructions, so
that I really do not precisely know how one ought to be written; I can
only, therefore, say that -

These letters are published for the very excellent reason that a
confiding publisher has offered me a sum of money for them, which I was
not such a fool as to refuse. They were written in Paris to the _Daily
News_ during the siege. I was residing there when the war broke out;
after a short absence, I returned just before the capitulation of
Sedan - intending only to remain one night. The situation, however, was
so interesting that I stayed on from day to day, until I found the
German armies drawing their lines of investment round the city. Had I
supposed that I should have been their prisoner for nearly five months,
I confess I should have made an effort to escape, but I shared the
general illusion that - one way or the other - the siege would not last a

Although I forwarded my letters by balloon, or sent them by messengers
who promised to "run the blockade," I had no notion, until the armistice
restored us to communications with the outer world, that one in twenty
had reached its destination. This mode of writing, as Dr. William
Russell wittily observed to me the other day at Versailles, was much
like smoking in the dark - and it must be my excuse for any inaccuracies
or repetitions.

Many of my letters have been lost _en route_ - some of them, which
reached the _Daily News_ Office too late for insertion, are now
published for the first time. The reader will perceive that I pretend to
no technical knowledge of military matters; I have only sought to convey
a general notion of how the warlike operations round Paris appeared to a
civilian spectator, and to give a fair and impartial account of the
inner life of Paris, during its isolation from the rest of Europe. My
bias - if I had any - was in favour of the Parisians, and I should have
been heartily glad had they been successful in their resistance. There
is, however, no getting over facts, and I could not long close my eyes
to the most palpable fact - however I might wish it otherwise - that their
leaders were men of little energy and small resource, and that they
themselves seemed rather to depend for deliverance upon extraneous
succour, than upon their own exertions. The women and the children
undoubtedly suffered great hardships, which they bore with praiseworthy
resignation. The sailors, the soldiers of the line, and levies of
peasants which formed the Mobiles, fought with decent courage. But the
male population of Paris, although they boasted greatly of their
"sublimity," their "endurance," and their "valour," hardly appeared to
me to come up to their own estimation of themselves, while many of them
seemed to consider that heroism was a necessary consequence of the
enunciation of advanced political opinions. My object in writing was to
present a practical rather than a sentimental view of events, and to
recount things as they were, not as I wished them to be, or as the
Parisians, with perhaps excusable patriotism, wished them to appear.

For the sake of my publishers, I trust that the book will find favour
with the public. For the last three hours I have been correcting the
proofs of my prose, and it struck me that letters written to be
inserted in separate numbers of a daily paper, when published in a
collected form, are somewhat heavy reading. I feel, indeed, just at
present, much like a person who has obtained money under false
pretences, but whose remorse is not sufficiently strong to induce him to
return it.



PARIS, _September 18th._

No one walking on the Champs Elysées or on the Boulevards to-day would
suppose that 300,000 Prussians are within a few miles of the city, and
intend to besiege it. Happy, said Laurence Sterne, in his "Sentimental
Journey," the nation which can once a week forget its cares. The French
have not changed since then. To-day is a fête day, and as a fête day it
must be kept. Every one seems to have forgotten the existence of the
Prussians. The Cafés are crowded by a gay crowd. On the Boulevard,
Monsieur and Madame walk quietly along with their children. In the
Champs Elysées honest mechanics and bourgeois are basking in the sun,
and nurserymaids are flirting with soldiers. There is even a lull in the
universal drilling. The regiments of Nationaux and Mobiles carry large
branches of trees stuck into the ends of their muskets. Round the statue
of Strasburg there is the usual crowd, and speculators are driving a
brisk trade in portraits of General Uhrich. "Here, citizens," cries one,
"is the portrait of the heroic defender of Strasburg, only one sou - it
cost me two - I only wish that I were rich enough to give it away."
"Listen, citizens," cries another, "whilst I declaim the poem of a lady
who has escaped from Strasburg. To those who, after hearing it, may wish
to read it to their families, I will give it as a favour for two sous."
I only saw one disturbance. As I passed by the Rond Point, a very tall
woman was mobbed, because it was thought that she might be a Uhlan in
disguise. But it was regarded more as a joke than anything serious. So
bent on being happy was every one that I really believe that a Uhlan in
the midst of them would not have disturbed their equanimity. "Come what
may, to-day we will be merry," seemed to be the feeling; "let us leave
care to the morrow, and make the most of what may be our last fête day."

Mr. Malet, the English secretary, who returned yesterday from Meaux, had
no small difficulty in getting through the Prussian lines. He started on
Thursday evening for Creil in a train with a French officer. When they
got to Creil, they knocked up the Mayor, and begged him to procure them
a horse. He gave them an order for the only one in the town. Its
proprietor was in bed, and when they knocked at his door his wife cried
out from the window, "My husband is a coward and won't open." A voice
from within was heard saying, "I go out at night for no one." So they
laid hands on the horse and harnessed it to a gig. All night long they
drove in what they supposed was the direction of the Prussian outposts,
trumpeting occasionally like elephants in a jungle. In the morning they
found themselves in a desert, not a living soul to be seen, so they
turned back towards Paris, got close in to the forts, and started in
another direction. Occasionally they discerned a distant Uhlan, who rode
off when he saw them. On Friday night they slept among the
Francs-tireurs, and on the following morning they pushed forward again
with an escort. Soon they saw a Prussian outpost, and after waving for
some time a white flag, an officer came forward. After a parley Mr.
Malet and his friend were allowed to pass. At three o'clock they arrived
at Meaux. Count Bismarck was just driving into the town; he at once
recognised Mr. Malet, whom he had known in Germany, and begged him to
call upon him at nine o'clock. From Mr. Malet I know nothing more. I
tried to "interview" him with respect to his conversation with Count
Bismarck, but it takes two to make a bargain, and in this bargain he
declined to be the number two. About half an hour afterwards, however, I
met a foreign diplomatist of my acquaintance who had just come from the
British Embassy. He had heard Mr. Malet's story, which, of course, had
been communicated to the Corps Diplomatique, and being slightly
demoralised, without well thinking what he was doing, he confided it to
my sympathising ear.

Mr. Malet, at nine o'clock, found Count Bismarck seated before a table
with wine and cigars. He was in high spirits and very sociable. This I
can well believe, for I used to know him, and, to give the devil his
due, he is one of the few Prussians of a sociable disposition. The
interview lasted for more than two hours. Count Bismarck told Mr. Malet
that the Prussians meant to have Metz and Strasburg, and should remain
in France until they were obtained. The Prussians did not intend to
dismantle them, but to make them stronger than they at present are. "The
French," he said, "will hate us with an undying hate, and we must take
care to render this hate powerless." As for Paris, the German armies
would surround it, and with their several corps d'armée, and their
70,000 cavalry, would isolate it from the rest of the world, and leave
its inhabitants to "seethe in their own milk." If the Parisians
continued after this to hold out, Paris would be bombarded, and, if
necessary, burned. My own impression is that Count Bismarck was not such
a fool as to say precisely what he intended to do, and that he will
attack at once; but the event will prove. He added that Germany was not
in want of money, and therefore did not ask for a heavy pecuniary
indemnity. Speaking of the French, Count Bismarck observed that there
were 200,000 men round Metz, and he believed that Bazaine would have to
capitulate within a week. He rendered full justice to the courage with
which the army under Bazaine had fought, but he did not seem to have a
very high opinion of the French army of Sedan. He questioned Mr. Malet
about the state of Paris, and did not seem gratified to hear that there
had been no tumults. The declaration of the Republic and its peaceful
recognition by Paris and the whole of France appeared by no means to
please him. He admitted that if it proved to be a moderate and virtuous
Government, it might prove a source of danger to the monarchical
principle in Germany.

I do trust that Englishmen will well weigh these utterances. Surely they
will at last be of opinion that the English Government should use all
its moral influence to prevent a city containing nearly two million
inhabitants being burnt to the ground in order that one million
Frenchmen should against their will be converted into Germans. It is our
policy to make an effort to prevent the dismemberment of France, but the
question is not now so much one of policy as of common humanity. No one
asks England to go to war for France; all that is asked is that she
should recognise the _de facto_ Government of the country, and should
urge Prussia to make peace on terms which a French nation can honourably

General Vinoy, out reconnoitering with 15,000 men, came to-day upon a
Prussian force of 40,000 near Vincennes. After an artillery combat, he
withdrew within the lines of the forts. There have been unimportant
skirmishes with the enemy at several points. The American, the Belgian,
the Swiss, and the Danish Ministers are still here. Mr. Wodehouse has
remained to look after our interests. All the secretaries were anxious
to stay. I should be glad to know why Mr. Falconer Atlee, the British
Consul at Paris, is not like other consuls, at his post. He withdrew to
Dieppe about three weeks ago. His place is here. Neither a consul, nor a
soldier, should leave his post as soon as it becomes dangerous.

Victor Hugo has published an address to the nation. You may judge of its
essentially practical spirit by the following specimen: - "Rouen, draw
thy sword! Lille, take up thy musket! Bordeaux, take up thy gun!
Marseilles, sing thy song and be terrible!" I suspect Marseilles may
sing her song a long time before the effect of her vocal efforts will in
any way prevent the Prussians from carrying out their plans. "A child,"
say the evening papers, "deposited her doll this afternoon in the arms
of the statue of Strasburg. All who saw the youthful patriot perform
this touching act were deeply affected."

_September 19th._

I don't know whether my letter of yesterday went off or not. As my
messenger to the post-office could get no authentic intelligence about
what was passing, I went there myself. Everybody was in military
uniform, everybody was shrugging his shoulders, and everybody was in the
condition of a London policeman were he to see himself marched off to
the station by a street-sweeper. That the Prussian should have taken the
Emperor prisoner, and have vanquished the French armies, had, of course,
astonished these worthy bureaucrats, but that they should have ventured
to interfere with postmen had perfectly dumbfounded them. "Put your
letter in that box," said a venerable employé on a high stool. "Will it
ever be taken out?" I asked. "Qui sait?" he replied. "Shall you send off
a train to-morrow morning?" I asked. There was a chorus of "Qui sait?"
and the heads disappeared still further with the respective shoulders to
which they belonged. "What do you think of a man on horseback?" I
suggested. An indignant "Impossible" was the answer. "Why not?" I asked.
The look of contempt with which the clerks gazed on me was expressive.
It meant, "Do you really imagine that a functionary - a postman - is going
to forward your letters in an irregular manner?" At this moment a sort
of young French Jefferson Brick came in. Evidently he was a Republican
recently set in authority. To him I turned. "Citizen, I want my letter
to go to London. It is a press letter. These bureaucrats say that they
dare not send it by a horse express; I appeal to you, as I am sure you
are a man of expedients." "These people," he replied, scowling at the
clerks, "are demoralised. They are the ancient valets of a corrupt
Court; give me your letter; if possible it shall go, 'foi de citoyen.'"
I handed my letter to Jefferson, but whether it is on its way to
England, or still in his patriotic hands, I do not know. As I passed out
through the courtyard I saw postmen seated on the boxes of carts, with
no horses before them. It was their hour to carry out the letters, and
thus mechanically they fulfilled their duty. English Government
officials have before now been jeered at as men of routine, but the most
ancient clerk in Somerset House is a man of wild impulse and boundless
expedient compared with the average of functionaries great and small
here. The want of "shiftiness" is a national characteristic. The French
are like a flock of sheep without shepherds or sheep-dogs. Soldiers and
civilians have no idea of anything except doing what they are ordered to
do by some functionary. Let one wheel in an administration get out of
order, and everything goes wrong. After my visit to the post-office I
went to the central telegraph office, and sent you a telegram. The clerk
was very surly at first, but he said that he thought a press telegram
would pass the wires. When I paid him he became friendly. My own
impression is that my twelve francs, whoever they may benefit, will not
benefit the British public.

From the telegraph-office I directed my steps to a club where I was
engaged to dine. I found half-a-dozen whist tables in full swing. The
conversation about the war soon, however, became general. "This is our
situation," said, as he dealt a hand, a knowing old man of the world, a
sort of French James Clay: "generally if one has no trumps in one's
hand, one has at least some good court cards in the other suits; we've
got neither trumps nor court cards." "Et le General Trochu?" some one
suggested. "My opinion of General Trochu," said a General, who was
sitting reading a newspaper, "is that he is a man of theory, but
unpractical. I know him well; he has utterly failed to organise the
forces which he has under his command." The general opinion about Trochu
seemed to be that he is a kind of M'Clellan. "Will the Garde Nationale
fight?" some one asked. A Garde National replied, "Of course there are
brave men amongst us, but the mass will give in rather than see Paris
destroyed. They have their families and their shops." "And the Mobiles?"
"The Mobiles are the stuff out of which soldiers are made, but they are
still peasants, and not soldiers yet." On the whole, I found the tone in
"fashionable circles" desponding. "Can any one tell me where Jules Favre
has gone?" I asked. Nobody could, though everybody seemed to think that
he had gone to the Prussian headquarters. After playing a few rubbers, I
went home to bed at about one o'clock. The streets were absolutely
deserted. All the cafés were shut.

Nothing in the papers this morning. In the _Figaro_ an article from that
old humbug Villemessant. He calls upon his fellow-citizens in Paris to
resist to the death.

"One thing Frenchmen never forgive," he says, - "cowardice."

The _Gaulois_ contains the most news. It represents the Prussians to be
all round Paris. At Versailles they have converted the Palais into a
barrack. Their camp fires were seen last night in the forest of Bondy.
Uhlans have made their appearance at St. Cloud. "Fritz" has taken up his
quarters at Ferrières, the château of Baron Rothschild. "William" - we
are very familiar when we speak of the Prussian Royal family - is still
at Meaux. "No thunderbolt," adds the correspondent, "has yet fallen on
him." The Prussian outposts are at the distance of three kilometres from
St. Denis. Near Vitry shots have been heard. In the environs of
Vincennes there has been fighting. It appears General Ambert was
arrested yesterday. He was reviewing some regiments of Nationaux, and
when they cried, "Vive la République" he told them that the Republic did
not exist. The men immediately surrounded him, and carried him to the
Ministry of the Interior, where I presume he still is. The _Rappel_
finds faults with Jules Favre's circular. Its tone, it says, is too
humble. The _Rappel_ gives a list of "valets of Bonaparte, _ce coquin
sinistre_," who still occupy official positions, and demands that they
shall at once be relieved from their functions. The _Rappel_ also
informs its readers that letters have been discovered (where?) proving
that Queen Victoria had promised before the war to do her best to aid

Butler of a friend of mine, whose house is close by the fortifications,
and who has left it in his charge, has just been to see me. The house is
a "poste" of the National Guard. Butler says the men do not sleep on the
ramparts, but in the neighbouring houses. They are changed every
twenty-four hours. He had rather a hard time of it last night with a
company from the Faubourg St. Antoine. As a rule, however, he says they
are decent, orderly men. They complain very much that their business is
going to rack and ruin; when they are away from their shops, they say,
impecunious patriots come in to purchase goods of their wives, and
promise to call another day to pay for them. On Saturday night the
butler reports 300 National Guards were drawn up before his master's
house, and twenty-five volunteers were demanded for a service of danger.
After some time the twenty-five stepped forward, but having heard for
what they were wanted, eighteen declined to go.

A British coachman just turned up offers to carry letters through - seems
a sharp plucky fellow. I shall employ him as soon as the Post-office is
definitely closed. British coachman does not think much of the citizen
soldiers in Paris. "Lor' bless you, sir, I'd rather have 10,000
Englishmen than the lot of them. In my stable I make my men obey me, but
these chaps they don't seem to care what their officers says to them. I
seed them drill this morning; a pretty green lot they was. Why, sir,
giving them fellow Chassepots is much like giving watches to naked

The Breton Mobiles are making pilgrimages to the churches. I hope it may
do them good. I hear the curés of Paris have divided the ramparts
between them, and are on the fortifications - bravo! curés. By-the-bye,
that fire-eater, Paul de Cassagnac, has not followed the example of his
brother Imperial journalists. He enlisted as a Zouave, fought well, and
was taken prisoner at Sedan. He is now employed by his captors in making
bread. I hope his bread will be better than his articles.

1.30 P.M.

Been sitting with a friend who commands a company of National Guards.
The company is now outside the fortifications. Friend tells me that the
men in his company are mostly small shopkeepers. At first it was
difficult to get them to come to drill, but within the last few days
they have been drilling hard, and he is convinced that they will fight
well. Friend tells me that a large number of National Guards have run
away from Paris, and that those who remain are very indignant with them.
He requests me to beg my countrymen, if they see a sturdy Monsieur
swelling it down Regent Street, to kick him, as he ought to be defending
his country. I fulfil his request with the greatest pleasure and endorse
it. I have just seen a Prussian spy taken to prison. I was seated before
a café on the Boulevard des Capucines. Suddenly there was a shout of "un
Prussien;" every one rushed towards the Place de l'Opéra, and from the
Boulevard Haussmann came a crowd with a soldier, dressed as an
artilleryman, on a horse. He was preceded and followed by about one
hundred Mobiles. By his side rode a woman. No one touched them. Whether
he and his "lady friend" were Germans I do not know; but they certainly
looked Germans, and extremely uncomfortable.

3 P.M.

Been to Embassy. Messenger Johnson arrived this morning at 12 o'clock.
He had driven to Rouen. At each post station he was arrested. He drove
up to the Embassy, followed by a howling mob. As he wore an unknown
uniform they took him for a Prussian. Messenger Johnson, being an old
soldier, was belligerently inclined. "The first man who approaches," &c.
The porter of the Embassy, however, dragged him inside, and explained to
the mob who he was. He had great difficulty in calming them. One man
sensibly observed that in these times no one should drive through Paris
in a foreign uniform, as the mass of the people knew nothing of Queen's
messengers and their uniforms. Messenger Johnson having by this time got
within the Embassy gates, the mob turned on his postilion and led him
off. What his fate has been no one has had time to ask.

When I went upstairs I found Wodehouse sitting like patience on a stool,
with a number of Britons round him, who wanted to get off out of Paris.
Wodehouse very justly told them that Lord Lyons had given them due
notice to leave, and that they had chosen at their own risk to remain.
The Britons seemed to imagine that their Embassy was bound to find them
a road by which they might safely withdraw from the town. One very
important Briton was most indignant - "I am a man of wealth and position.
I am not accustomed to be treated in this manner. What is the use of
you, sir, if you cannot ensure my safe passage to England? If I am
killed the world shall ring with it. I shall myself make a formal
complaint to Lord Granville," said this incoherent and pompous donkey.
Exit man of position fuming; enter unprotected female. Of course she was
a widow, of course she had lost half-a-dozen sons, of course she kept
lodgings, and of course she wanted her "hambassader" generally to take
her under his wing. I left Wodehouse explaining to her that if she went
out of Paris even with a pass, she might or might not be shot according
to circumstances. I will say for him that I should not be as patient as

Online LibraryHenry LabouchereDiary of the Besieged Resident in Paris → online text (page 1 of 31)