Archive for March 18th, 2020

1871: Generals Lecomte and Thomas, at the birth of the Paris Commune

Add comment March 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the Paris Commune was born, with the execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas.

Paris had come to the brink of revolution by dint of the country’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. After a monthslong Prussian siege of the capital, Paris had become thoroughly radicalized and stood at tense loggerheads with the newly elected conservative national government of Adolphe Thiers. A militant National Guard swelled by the city’s large proletariat had defended Paris during its late privations, only to see a government of national humiliation accept punishing peace terms from Bismarck and submit to a Prussian victory parade on the Champs d’Elysees.

Now, it blanched at the national government’s intention to reassert its own long-absent authority in Paris.

These sovereigns’ rivalries chanced to focus in the critical moment upon 400 bronze cannon in Paris, which the National Guard had used in the city’s defense and deployed to working-class neighborhoods with the intention of keeping them out of the government’s hands.

On March 18, upon an order by Thiers which some of his ministers opposed, the army moved upon these guns, intending to seize weapons and authority together. General Claude Lecomte (English Wikipedia entry | French), a rock-ribbed career officer of 63, had charge of this operation so offensive to the Parisian populace.

Lecomte was able to deploy his men at Montmarte where a great portion of the guns would come into his possession, but well did the master observe that “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics” — for a delay in the arrival of the horses and tumbrils by which the artillery would be hauled away gave time for word to spread in the city and an angry crowd assemble to oppose this outrage. Thiers had overruled objections that his soldiery was itself sympathetic to the radicals and would not be reliable in the breach; now, those warnings were vindicated as the soldiery declined to fire on Parisians and instead fraternized as the people took back Montmarte.

Although Lecomte was “merely” seized for the Central Committee of the National Guard, Paris’s blood was up; “the mob wanted to tear their victims to pieces, and it is my opinion they are the culpable judges,” writes John Leighton in Paris Under the Commune.

The first to lay hands on General Lecomte were linesmen and Mobiles, one of the latter observing, as he made a gesture, “Formerly you punished me with thirty days in prison, now I will be the first to fire at you.” Whilst this was going on a new movement was observed in the crowd. It was the arrival of another prisoner, a venerable gentleman, with a white beard, in plain clothes. It was General Clement Thomas, who had been arrested in the Place Pigalle by the National Guards. The General had been advised to run away, but he would remain, saying, “I will walk, it is my right.” This brought about a mob, who conducted him to the Rue des Rosiers, making it still worse for the prisoner Lecomte, for it was well known that Clement Thomas had been pretty severe at the Hotel de Ville and elsewhere, on the battalions of Montmartre and Belleville.

Once in the Rue des Rosiers, General Thomas felt he was lost, but as he would not die without knowing the cause, he mounted some steps and in a loud voice demanded, “What do you reproach me with?” “To death!” replied the crowd. “You are too great cowards to shoot me,” said the General. With these words he was driven into the garden, whilst General Lecomte in the scuffle attempted to escape by the back door, though unfortunately without success. Once in the garden, the old vine-covered walls and chestnut trees became crowded with miserable spectators ready to see the horrible deed perpetrated by a peloton of soldiers of the line and two francs-tireurs. In falling, poor General Lecomte exclaimed, “Oh my poor children! my —-” As he sunk mortally wounded, a villain of the group stepped forward and slapped him in the face. Clement Thomas was shot by National Guards. At first only wounded, he afterwards fell pierced in fourteen places. A National Guard pulled him over by the beard, that his face might be seen, and for two hours afterwards the bodies afforded a ghastly spectacle that was enjoyed by an ignoble procession of spectators.

Outside the garden, with the city in an uproar, the proletarian organs that had grown over the long siege took Paris firmly in hand while national government officials fled as they could — or were rounded up as hostages if they could not. The Commune would be master of Paris for ten tense weeks, until Thiers’s republic drowned it in blood.

For Leighton, no friend of the Commune, all the woe in its suppression could be traced to the ham-handed cannon debacle of March 18, 1871:

One thing appears certain — that General Lecomte did not take prompt measures and proper precautions, and that the Government, which sent him to remove 171 guns, without teams, and so small a force, acted inconsiderately, and must be held morally responsible for the disasters which ensued — disasters that, terrible as they are, might have been worse and have led to the total ruin of France.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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