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(en) France, UCL AL #312 - Special file Paris 1871, Military aspects: Why and how the federates were crushed (ca, de, it, fr, pt)[machine translation]

Date Sun, 28 Mar 2021 10:57:28 +0300


Why did the Communards not triumph ? We often talk about their lack of offensive daring (it would have been necessary to march on Versailles) and their lack of discipline. The first explanation is incorrect, the second insufficient. It was above all the isolation of Paris, due to the revolutionary failure in the provinces, which condemned the Commune. The anachronism of a barricaded defense, quarter by quarter, did the rest. ---- The military failure of the Commune was explained by some of the vanquished themselves, then by a pontificant Marxist-Leninist litany, by the absence of military discipline and by the modesty of its tactical objectives. In short, these far too anarchist insurgents did not march fast enough on Versailles. Reasoning thus reveals a deep ignorance of what animated the communard combatant base. And, on the part of the exiles themselves, a denial of their ideals which can only be explained by the trauma of the Versailles massacre.

Many Communards had no political past before 1871. They joined the revolution through their engagement in the National Guard , without which the Commune would have been inconceivable, just like the revolutions of 1789, 1792, 1830 or 1848. They fully experienced what self-government was, full citizenship in this locally organized civic militia, electing and controlling its officers.

Jaroslaw Dombrowski (1836-1871)
A veteran of the Polish insurrection of 1863, he is one of the most capable officers of the Commune. He is killed on the barricade on Myrrha Street.
The National Guard had an assembly dimension of "citizen combatants", exercising their sovereignty as directly as possible by taking up arms. But his ideals and his practices made a strengthening of the discipline inconceivable. Strict Colonel Rossel, a brief general-in-chief of the Commune, wanting to put things in order, "gets lost in a popular revolt that he hardly understands", judges historian Jacques Rougerie. Of course, many Communards were former professional soldiers, sometimes non-commissioned officers. But none wanted to imitate the Empire army or reproduce the arbitrary arrogance of the officers.

The Commune was deeply anti-militarist, as evidenced by the destruction of the Vendôme column, a hated symbol of Napoleonic arrogance, brutality and "false glory". To imagine that imposing more military discipline in this context would have made it possible to win the war makes little sense: what the Commune would have possibly gained in coordination and speed, it would have lost in motivation. And it is not even certain that, in a fight that has become absurd for them, because they deny their hopes, the Communards would have obeyed.

Versailles, a questionable objective
What about the reproach of not having marched on Versailles while there was still time ? It is irrelevant for three reasons.

To begin with, an exit was indeed attempted, on April 3 and 4, 1871. Tactically complicated, strategically limited, this torrential exit was not an absolute necessity. It ended in a disaster that scalded the fighters.

Second, making Versailles a military objective is questionable. Faced with the Germans, the republican government had demonstrated its mobility. He had settled in Tours, then in Bordeaux. He could have done the same to continue the war against the Paris Commune.

Finally, the main reason is that the Communard army was basically a self-defense force. For the first time since 1789, the Parisian revolutionaries did not intend to speak in the name of France, nor to impose the Commune as a national government, out of respect for local direct democracy. The Communards' war, subordinated to this federalist ideal, could only be defensive.

From the insurgents' point of view, this strategy was coherent. Politically, she was better able to rally the province. Militarily, the defensive scenario was plausible. Paris was one of the most formidable fortified cities in the world thanks to the enclosure completed in 1845 and, since the Prussian siege, was teeming with arms and ammunition. Bismarck had starved the city, but gave up on storming. Why would the Versailles army - hastily reconstituted with the remains of Bonapartist staffs and sometimes inexperienced recruits - dare it ?

Impaired chain of command
The archives reveal that the head of government, Adolphe Thiers, was very worried at the prospect of a street war in Paris, especially since the Commune regularly affirmed its determination to bury itself under the ruins of the city. This decided him to take a cautious approach, by methodical bombardment destroying entire suburbs.

This is when the Versailles outside Paris were that we could attribute to the lack of discipline and the deficiency of the chain of command a major fault: the enemy entered the 16 tharrondissement of Paris 21 May, in a place where the enclosure was not guarded.

The insurgents then returned spontaneously and in disorder to "their" neighborhoods, in the popular East. One of the last posters of the Commune proclaimed: "May Paris bristle with barricades and that behind these improvised ramparts it still throws at its enemies its war cry, a cry of pride, a cry of defiance, but also a cry of victory ; for Paris with its barricades is impregnable." This was an additional cause of the defeat of the Commune, more fatal than his indiscipline or its alleged moderation: the anachronism of its urban guerrilla tactics. The Communards had a late war, modernity was Versailles.

"Paris with its barricades is impregnable" proclaimed a poster from the Commune. Alas no.
Orders were given never to attack the barricades head-on but to surround them either by passing through the adjacent streets or by "walking" through the buildings, that is to say by piercing the walls and partitions to establish barriers. overhanging firing positions. The Versailles people thus perfected tactics experimented with during the workers' revolt of June 1848.

Contrary to popular belief, few barricades were attacked with cannon. Most were surrounded and submerged. The burning of the city by the Communards appears as an improvised response to this "progress" of the soldiers, by opposing them a "barrier of flames", in the words of Louise Michel. The fire was also assumed as the ultimate act of sovereignty in a city which had been the theater of the revolutionary achievement of the social republic - "the social" - which is, according to the luminous formula of the historian Jacques Rougerie, a "libertarian questioning of democracy". The Communards defended it to the death, during the Bloody Week.

At the Paris Commune, fighter and resolute, he finally had one fundamental thing: the extension of the revolution to other provincial towns, so as not to fight alone.

Eric Fournier

Éric Fournier, La Commune is not dead. Political uses of the past from 1871 to the present day, Libertalia, 2013.

https://www.unioncommunistelibertaire.org/?Aspects-militaires-Pourquoi-et-comment-les-federes-furent-ecrases
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