New Glory & Defeat Episode: The 1st (Failed) Paris Commune Uprising

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This week on Glory and Defeat: The soldiers and the people want peace, but the leaders want to continue the war. Which means Paris is ripe for revolution:

Hi, I'm Jesse Alexander and welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week Marshal Bazaine’s plan to ally with the Germans failed and he surrendered his army at Metz, and the Germans stopped another French attempt to break the siege of Paris. This week we catch up on new revolutionary outbreaks in France and the torturous negotiations for an armistice.

On October 31, 1870 Paris and several cities in the south experience another outbreak of revolutionary fervor by frustrated citizens. Tens of thousands of Frenchmen have been killed, hundreds of thousands taken prisoner, and a French victory seems even more unlikely after the surrender of Metz and the defeat at Le Bourget. These latest catastrophes are too much for many left-wing forces in the country who have had enough of the Government of National Defense.

The so-called “red” quarters of Paris have been unhappy with the Third Republic, and leftists accuse Trochu’s government of military incompetence, allying itself with French conservatives, allowing social injustice, and possibly surrendering to the Prussians. Charles Louis Delescluze’s socialist newspaper 'Le Réveil' even calls for the overthrow of the system and the establishment of a Commune based on socialism and direct democracy.

But these political factors are just the triggers – the real problem is the shortage of food and unequal access to it. Many Parisians are reduced to scavenging no man’s land in front of the German siege ring for potatoes, an activity made possible because sympathetic German troops often hold their fire. Wealthier Parisians, on the other hand, can still afford the high food prices. Citizens’ anger about access to food is the main driver behind the uprising that breaks out on October 31.

A crowd of about 15,000 workers and national guardsmen leave their working class neighborhoods and Montmartre, and push into the centre of Paris. When they reach city hall, they proclaim the Commune, and the crowd shouts its political goals:

"Guerre à outrance! Pas d’armistice! À bas les traîtres! War to the fullest! No armistice! Down with the traitors!" (Gouttman, 341)

About 300 armed men storm city hall and try to take the government prisoner – but President Trochu and his cabinet refuse to step down. Inside the building, historian and radical socialist Gustave Flourens jumps up on a table and announces the new revolutionary government members. But Flourens and the other radicals are not representative of most Parisians. Loyal Mobile Guards soon arrive and their very appearance ends the would-be revolution without bloodshed. The ministers are freed, and Trochu promises to hold city council election, and a referendum on whether the government should be deposed. Police arrest the leaders of the revolt and by the evening of October 31, the first commune is over.

Conservative Frenchmen like the Comte d’Herisson are appalled, and don’t understand the social causes of the uprising:

"[They are] two hundred thousand individuals equally devoid of originality and virtues, incapable of thinking, but quick to fall in love with any idea, provided that it is violent and subversive, both cowardly and ferocious. A ready-made army for the unconscious or thoughtful villains who know how to lead it. It is the dregs of Paris. C’est la lie de Paris." (Hérisson 208)

While internal French tensions are at boiling point, the situation on the front this week allows troops on both sides to dream of peace.

In the first week of November, small-scale fighting and shelling continues across France. German batteries shell the besieged town of Neu-Breisach on the 2nd, and surround Belfort on the 3rd. Franc-tireurs clash with German troops near besieged Mezières, and outside Paris the French gain a rare success on the 7th when they defeat a Bavarian reconnaissance party and inflict 337 casualties. By this stage, war weariness is setting in on both sides. At one location on the front lines outside of Paris, French troops and their officers visit the German unit opposite them. A German soldier recalls they drank cognac together, and shared cigars and food:

"We also let them taste the pea sausage we had just cooked, and it tasted excellent to them […] They said they didn't see why we shouldn't correspond with each other and share news, they were tired of war and eagerly wanted peace." (Kürschner, p. 909)

German soldier Albert Böhme of the 92nd Braunschweig Infanterie Regiment is also tired of the war. He is guarding French prisoners in the mud outside Metz, and he is short of food. On November 2 he writes one of his many letters to his wife Friedrike:

"20,000 Frenchmen came to our barracks, we had to go to the post office and patrols, it was a real shame to live in this filth, it lasted all day and night [...] during the day there was also rain and the night was very cold, it was impossible to sleep, we had to camp in the open [...] [I wish] everything would soon be at peace and I would soon return to you. [Ich wünsche mir es] wär bald alles in Friede und ich kähme auch bald zu Dier zurück ". (Schikorsky, 101).

Thousands of soldiers on both sides want peace, but some of their leaders want to continue the war. Gambetta continues to gather fresh troops for his guerre a outrance, though these units cannot make up for the over 300,000 French troops captured by the Germans. He also accuses Marshal Bazaine of treason for surrendering Metz, so Bazaine defends himself from captivity in Germany by writing letters to French newspapers. French General Uhrich, who surrendered Strasbourg just over a month ago, accuses Gambetta and the Third Republic of treason.

Reputation is also more prominent than peace for German leaders. A November 4 “Dispatch from the Theatre of War” proudly announces the spoils of war taken at Metz:

"53 eagles and flags, 541 field guns, material for more than 85 batteries, about 800 fortress guns, 66 mitrailleuses, about 300 000 rifles, great numbers of cuirasses [and] sabers, [and] about 2000 military vehicles [...]." (Kürschner, Sp. 907)

The war cannot end until the leaders on both sides agree to an armistice, but even fresh talks in Paris are on shaky ground.

The hopes of millions in France and the German states depend on ongoing peace negotiations in Versailles. French liberal-conservative politician Adolphe Thiers has spent the last few weeks on a diplomatic mission abroad to get international support for a better peace agreement for France. But leaders in London, Vienna and St. Petersburg are not interested, and France is still isolated.

On November 1st, Thiers is in Versailles for talks with Bismarck. Thiers isn’t part of the Government of National Defense but he’s acting on their behalf with permission. In theory the talks are only about armistice terms but in practice they’re a clash or irreconcilable political goals. The Germans insist on annexing territory, while the French still think they can determine the conditions of a future peace.

Both sides are so entrenched that agreeing on armistice terms is nearly impossible. Thiers asks for time to allow elections for a new National Assembly and food deliveries for Paris; Bismarck insists that German troops occupy key French forts during a ceasefire.

For Thiers, the German demand to occupy the forts ends the talks. Bismarck sees things differently, as he writes to his wife Johanna on the 3rd:

"For 3 days now, 3 hours daily tête-à-tête with Thiers, and yet no truce will come out of it; they want to have everything and grant nothing. Sie wollen alles haben und nichts gewähren." (N.N., 57f.)

It’s not only the chief negotiators who cannot compromise. Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm complains about French stubbornness to his diary on the 3rd:

"[Thiers’] demands for provisions [show] that the supplies must soon run out, - and yet, according to the opponents, the French are to offer nothing in return! We all dread the moment of the outbreak of famine, and yet the Parisians’ delusions must necessarily drive them to it." (Meisner, 198)

Thiers consults with Foreign Minister Jules Favre and General Ducrot on the 5th. Despite his misgivings, Thiers considers accepting German armistice terms, but General Ducrot will not hear of it:

"[…] we must defend Paris as long as possible to give the country the chance to form new armies; the resistance of Paris will make up for the shame of Metz and of Sedan. If the material ruin increases, the moral ruin will decrease. Si les ruines matérielles s'augmentent, les ruines morales diminueront." (Chuquet, 268).

That very same day, Alfred Böhme writes to Friederike and tells her how much he wants peace and to see her again. He doesn’t know it, but his hopes will be dashed when talks once again collapse on November 7.

This week is a week of failure. The revolutionaries in Paris fail to topple the Third Republic and establish the Commune, and the diplomats fail to agree to armistice terms. Revolutionaries and desperate citizens in Marseilles and other southern cities also attempted to rise up this week, a sign that the Third Republic was on the edge – and that the Commune would rise again.


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  • Spiekermann, Uwe: Die wahre Geschichte der Erbswurst, unter: (zuletzt besucht am 21.9.2021)


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