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Paris Commune

They advanced on the morning of 3 April—without cavalry to protect the flanks, without artillery, without stores of food and ammunition, and without ambulances—confident of rapid success. They passed by the line of forts outside the city, believing them to be occupied by national guardsmen. In fact the army had re-occupied the abandoned forts on 28 March. The National Guard soon came under heavy artillery and rifle fire; they broke ranks and fled back to Paris.

Once again national guardsmen captured with weapons were routinely shot by army units. Commune leaders responded to the execution of prisoners by the Army by passing a new order on 5 April—the Decree on Hostages.

Under the decree, any person accused of complicity with the Versailles government could be immediately arrested, imprisoned and tried by a special jury of accusation. Those convicted by the jury would become "hostages of the people of Paris. The National Assembly in Versailles responded to the decree the next day; it passed a law allowing military tribunals to judge and punish suspects within 24 hours. They are not fighting with cannon shots, they are slaughtering each other with decrees. By April, as MacMahon's forces steadily approached Paris, divisions arose within the Commune about whether to give absolute priority to military defense, or to political and social freedoms and reforms.

The publications La Commune , La Justice and Valles' Le Cri du Peuple feared that a more authoritarian government would destroy the kind of social republic they wanted to achieve. Soon, the Council of the Commune voted, with strong opposition, for the creation of a Committee of Public Safety, modelled on the eponymous Committee that carried out the Reign of Terror — Because of the implications carried by its name, many members of the Commune opposed the Committee of Public Safety's creation.

The Committee was given extensive powers to hunt down and imprison enemies of the Commune. Led by Raoul Rigault , it began to make several arrests, usually on suspicion of treason, intelligence with the enemy, or insults to the Commune.

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Those arrested included General Edmond-Charles de Martimprey , the governor of the Invalides, alleged to having caused the assassination of revolutionaries in December —as well as more recent commanders of the National Guard, including Gustave Cluseret. High religious officials had been arrested: The policy of holding hostages for possible reprisals was denounced by some defenders of the Commune, including Victor Hugo, in a poem entitled "No Reprisals" published in Brussels on 21 April. Thiers refused the proposal.

On 14 May, Rigault proposed to exchange 70 hostages for the extreme-left leader, and Thiers again refused. Since every able-bodied man in Paris was obliged to be a member of the National Guard, the Commune on paper had an army of about , men on 6 May; the actual number was much lower, probably between 25, and 50, men.


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At the beginning of May, 20 percent of the National Guard was reported absent without leave. The National Guard had hundreds of cannons and thousands of rifles in its arsenal, but only half of the cannons and two-thirds of the rifles were ever used. There were heavy naval cannons mounted on the ramparts of Paris, but few national guardsmen were trained to use them.

Between the end of April and 20 May, the number of trained artillerymen fell from 5, to 2, The officers of the National Guard were elected by the soldiers, and their leadership qualities and military skills varied widely.

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Gustave Clusaret, the commander of the National Guard until his dismissal on 1 May, had tried to impose more discipline in the army, disbanding many unreliable units and making soldiers live in barracks instead of at home. He recruited officers with military experience, particularly Polish officers who had fled to France in , after Russians crushed the January Uprising ; they played a prominent role in the last days of the Commune.

On 5 May, he was appointed commander of the Commune's whole army. Dombrowski held this position until 23 May, when he was killed while defending the city barricades. One of the key strategic points around Paris was Fort Issy , south of the city near the Porte de Versailles, which blocked the route of the Army into Paris. The fort's garrison was commanded by Leon Megy, a former mechanic and a militant Blanquist, who had been sentenced to 20 years hard labour for killing a policeman.

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After being freed he had led the takeover of the prefecture of Marseille by militant revolutionaries. The army commander, General Ernest de Cissey , began a systematic siege and a heavy bombardment of the fort that lasted three days and three nights. At the same time Cissey sent a message to Colonel Megy, with the permission of Marshal MacMahon, offering to spare the lives of the fort's defenders, and let them return to Paris with their belongings and weapons, if they surrendered the fort.

Colonel Megy gave the order, and during the night of 29—30 April, most of the soldiers evacuated the fort and returned to Paris. Before General Cissey and the Versailles army could occupy the fort, the National Guard rushed reinforcements there and re-occupied all the positions.

General Cluseret, commander of the National Guard, was dismissed and put in prison. General Cissey resumed the intense bombardment of the fort. The defenders resisted until the night of 7—8 May, when the remaining national guardsmen in the fort, unable to withstand further attacks, decided to withdraw. The new commander of the National Guard, Louis Rossel , issued a terse bulletin: Bitter fighting followed, as MacMahon's army worked their way systematically forward to the walls of Paris.

Dombrowski reported that the soldiers he had sent to defend the ramparts of the city between Point du Jour and Porte d'Auteuil had retreated to the city; he had only 4, soldiers left at la Muette, 2, at Neuilly, and at Asnieres and Saint Ouen. On the front line, soldiers learned from a sympathiser inside the walls that the National Guard had withdrawn from one section of the city wall at Point-du-Jour, and the fortifications were undefended.

MacMahon immediately gave orders, and two battalions passed through the fortifications without meeting anyone, and occupied the Porte de Saint-Cloud and the Porte de Versailles. By four o'clock in the morning, sixty thousand soldiers had passed into the city and occupied Auteuil and Passy. Once the fighting began inside Paris, the strong neighborhood loyalties that had been an advantage of the Commune became something of a disadvantage: The webs of narrow streets that made entire districts nearly impregnable in earlier Parisian revolutions had in the center been replaced by wide boulevards during Haussmann's renovation of Paris.

The Versailles forces enjoyed a centralized command and had superior numbers. They had learned the tactics of street fighting and simply tunnelled through the walls of houses to outflank the Communards' barricades. The trial of Gustave Cluseret, the former commander, was still going on at the Commune when they received the message from General Dombrowski that the army was inside the city.


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He asked for reinforcements and proposed an immediate counterattack. We must not be defeated! The first reaction of many of the National Guard was to find someone to blame, and Dombrowski was the first to be accused. Rumors circulated that he had accepted a million francs to give up the city. He was deeply offended by the rumors. They stopped when Dombrowski died two days later from wounds received on the barricades. His last reported words were: On the morning of 22 May, bells rang around the city, and Delescluze, as delegate for war of the Commune, issued a proclamation, posted all over Paris:.

In the name of this glorious France, mother of all the popular revolutions, permanent home of the ideas of justice and solidarity which should be and will be the laws of the world, march at the enemy, and may your revolutionary energy show him that someone can sell Paris, but no one can give it up, or conquer it!

The Commune counts on you, count on the Commune! That Paris be bristling with barricades, and that, behind these improvised ramparts, it will hurl again its cry of war, its cry of pride, its cry of defiance, but its cry of victory; because Paris, with its barricades, is undefeatable That revolutionary Paris, that Paris of great days, does its duty; the Commune and the Committee of Public Safety will do theirs! Despite the appeals, only fifteen to twenty thousand persons, including many women and children, responded. The forces of the Commune were outnumbered five-to-one by the army of Marshal MacMahon.

Little resistance was encountered in the west of Paris, but the army moved forward slowly and cautiously, in no hurry. Barricades had not been prepared in advance; some nine hundred barricades were built hurriedly out of paving stones and sacks of earth. Many other people prepared shelters in the cellars. The first serious fighting took place in the afternoon of the 22nd, an artillery duel between regular army batteries on the Quai d'Orsay and the Madeleine, and National Guard batteries on the terrace of the Tuileries Palace. On the same day, the first executions of National Guard soldiers by the regular army inside Paris took place; some sixteen prisoners captured on the Rue du Bac were given a summary hearing, and then shot.

On 23 May the next objective of the army was the butte of Montmartre, where the uprising had begun.


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The National Guard had built and manned a circle of barricades and makeshift forts around the base of the butte. The garrison of one barricade, at Chaussee Clignancourt, was defended in part by a battalion of about thirty women, including Louise Michel, the celebrated "Red Virgin of Montmartre", who had already participated in many battles outside the city. She was seized by regular soldiers and thrown into the trench in front of the barricade and left for dead.

She escaped and soon afterwards surrendered to the army, to prevent the arrest of her mother. The battalions of the National Guard were no match for the army; by midday on the 23rd the regular soldiers were at the top of Montmartre, and the tricolor flag was raised over the Solferino tower. The soldiers captured 42 guardsmen and several women, took them to the same house on Rue Rosier where generals Clement-Thomas and Lecomte had been executed, and shot them.

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On the Rue Royale , soldiers seized the formidable barricade around the Madeleine church; prisoners captured with their weapons were shot there, the largest of the mass executions of prisoners. On the same day, having had little success fighting the army, units of national guardsmen began to take revenge by burning public buildings symbolising the government. The Tuileries Palace , which had been the residence of most of the monarchs of France from Henry IV to Napoleon III, was defended by a garrison of some three hundred National Guard with thirty cannon placed in the garden.

They had been engaged in a day-long artillery duel with the regular army. At about seven in the evening, the commander of the garrison, Jules Bergeret, gave the order to burn the palace. The walls, floors, drapes and woodwork were soaked with oil and turpentine, and barrels of gunpowder were placed at the foot of the grand staircase and in the courtyard, then the fires were set. The fire lasted 48 hours and gutted the palace, except for the southernmost part, the Pavillon de Flore. I wish that the same will happen to all the monuments of Paris.