At Five O’Clock We’ll All Be Dead – 5

These two successive attacks might have lasted about an hour; then we were left in peace for about half an hour; & I think it was around one o’clock or one-thirty when one of our young scots came to tell us that an infantry column was coming towards us in the Rue St Denis and that we were probably about to be attacked through the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher. Instantly, the same preparations that had already been taken in the previous attack were taken once again. Soon we could see the assailants, who stopped at our cry of “Halt!” at the foot of our outer barricade.

It seemed to us we saw the officers conferring, & soon we saw an under-officer come towards us, & stop in the middle between the two barricades. He asked for a representative to come out for parley; my first movement was to jump forward, but an old soldier, a former officer under the Empire who had struck up a friendship with me, & who since the 5th had always fought near me, caught me brusquely by my bandoliers & said to me just as brusquely, “Where are you going, you f—— idiot? To get yourself captured by those b——s? A fat lot of good you’ll have done when you’ve got yourself served a 3-franc 14-sou meal, eh…? [Military slang: to be shot.] Stay here, it’s your post; if they want to talk to us, let them lay down their weapons & come to us; but at a respectful distance, even then!”

I’ll admit, the thought of being taken prisoner frightened me; it didn’t matter to me if I was killed in combat, I was expecting it, and considered my sacrifice already made; but to be massacred without being able to defend myself…!! Endure all the mistreatment we had been told had been inflicted on those weak enough to surrender…! I won’t try to hide it, all those thoughts that went through my head quicker than a flash made me shudder. I wasn’t afraid of death; I believe I’ve given sufficient proof of that on many different occasions; but the fear of martyrdom made me go pale, & I stayed where I was. I bade the under-officer to come boldly towards us, I swore to him that we would respect his person; but the same fear that had seized my mind was no doubt troubling his: he would come no further. Already, after waiting a few seconds, he was about to rejoin the ranks, when the boy I’ve already spoken of (the young man of 14 or 15 years old, redheaded, short and skinny) called out for him to wait and sprang over the barricade. “But you’re going to get yourself killed, you poor devil…!”

“Well then! It’ll be one man less; if they kill me, you’ll avenge me…!!” Soon afterwards, he was in discussion with the under-officer, then with a lieutenant who came to join them. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but we could guess after a fashion by our young envoy’s expressive gestures; he often turned towards us, pointing at us, our barricades, the house under construction, & the windows filled with combatants who were leaning on their weapons, just waiting for the signal to start up a terrible gunfire. His appearance exuded the keenest enthusiasm; he was admirable…! A few moments afterwards, accompagnied by the two he was talking to, he headed towards the main body of our assailants; we soon saw the commander & a large number of officers surrounding him; he spoke with them briefly, clasped hands with several of them, & returned to us at a run. Our first movement was to clasp him in our arms, & the second was to question him. “Have no fear,” he told us, “they’re good sorts; they don’t want to fight us & are asking only to pass through our barricades, they won’t stop here, & I promised them we would grant them passage.” Generous and noble child! He judged men with his experience of 15 years…!! How many disappointments await him before he gets to know them even superficially! It was only with great difficulty that we managed to get through to him that that was not only unwise, but also impossible; that it would be delivering ourselves to the discretion of the enemy, who, once inside our barricades, could set themselves up there… “But they promised they wouldn’t! I gave my word!” he kept repeating: that was his greatest regret.

While we were trying to convince him that we couldn’t go through with the capitulation, the assailants, after waiting a few moments for authorization to advance, were about to do so anyway in virtue of the saying: “He who says nothing consents”; some of them had already crossed the outer barricade, when a fresh cry of “Halt!” & the guns instantly aimed at them from the barricade & the windows let them know that we hadn’t ratified our thoughtless envoy’s verbal capitulation. They stopped again & the same officer who had already come out to meet our young & gullible comrade-in-arms stepped forward for the second time. Ashamed of my earlier weakness, & followed by my inseparable old officer, I set forth in his direction. Once arrived where he was waiting for me, I informed him that we couldn’t grant him the passage he asked for; that such a proposition should rightly surprise us, & that we could only consider it a trap, a wartime ruse, but that this ruse was too crude for men who knew their business to fall for it.

“I give you my word of honor,” he repeated, raising his hand to his chest, “that we give you this proposition with no ulterior motives; our one and only intention is to prevent bloodshed: we received the order to cross the barricades and if, as I think I can tell, you have been soldiers, you must know that no matter the price, a soldier has to execute the orders he’s been given. If you allow us to pass through, you will have spared noble blood from being shed–both ours & yours, for we are all Frenchmen–& for us our honor will be preserved. So consult your comrades, urge them not to oppose our request, & receive once again my word of honor that not only will we pass through your barricades as quickly as possible, but furthermore that not a single stone will be knocked out of place.”

“My comrade,” replied my old companion, “I’ve been a soldier too, and no doubt longer than you; like you I’ve worn epaulettes, but if I had been given orders against my fellow citizens, against brave men fighting for liberty, by twenty Gods on high [sacré vingt Dieux]! I’d’ve put my epaulettes in my pocket and broken my saber!”

I saw the officer’s face turning red, & I hastily interrupted our overly-petulant orator, who kept muttering under his breath, “Words of honor! Words of honor! Are we supposed to believe in them when they’re given by Philippists…! I’d rather rely on a wet cartridge, by twenty Gods on high!” He didn’t stop until I turned towards him and said, “Lieutenant, who’s in command here?”

“You are, you smooth-face b——, & I’m not complaining, because you maneuver your squadron prettily enough. But, by twenty Gods on high…!”

“All right, lieutenant, if you can’t be quiet, then you’ll do me the favor of returning to your post.”

“My post is next to you, by a thousand Gods! I’m not going to leave you. But go on, talk… I’ll go smoke my pipe and keep my weather eye open.”

Then, addressing my adversary, “Citizen,” I told him, “if, as I’d like to believe since you said so, you want to avoid bloodshed, I’ll tell you the only way to achieve that goal: go back the way you came from.”

Gesture in the negative.

“And why wouldn’t you? What would be the shame in it…? Is the French soldier once again an armed automaton…? Are we still in the times when he thought he had to butcher father, mother, relatives, friends, fellow citizens, without remorse & without pity, all because of an order from a superior, with no reflection whatsoever, without even daring to let himself show regret…? I don’t think so. Well, comrade, what will you find behind these barricades? Fellow citizens, friends, perhaps relatives…! In any case, you’ll find men who are fighting for their freedom, for yours, for the well-being of all… men who will only deal death to you with sorrow, who will regret that you were deaf to the voice of reason, who would consider themselves fortunate to take you all in their arms & to see you only as brothers….!! Withdraw, believe me, I myself don’t blush to implore you…. What would you gain by acting otherwise? These barricades are still virgin, they’re defended by men who have all sacrificed their existence, by men who have sworn to perish to the last man rather than surrender them…. I implore you once more, citizen, withdraw; better to do it now than after beginning an attack; because that way you will have spared the blood of your soldiers, of some of us perhaps, & all noble hearts, all patriotic hearts will thank you for it. It seems to me that he renown of Hiram is preferable to that of all the regiments whose flags are stained with the people’s blood!”

The man I was talking to seemed shaken; nevertheless, he still objected that the laws of honor compelled them to attempt the passage if it wasn’t granted to them. “Lieutenant,” I told him, “we don’t understand honor the way you yourself seem to understand it. For us, honor consists of sacrificing our lives for the glory, the prosperity, the independence, and the liberty of our country! You’re free to interpret it the way Charles X’s Swiss Guards did! Now, one last word: in giving us your word of honor that you will merely pass through our barricades, you commit yourself very lightly, because you don’t know what your commander’s secret instructions might be… you will not enter our barricades as long as a single one of us can still hold his gun; even if I were cowardly enough to promise you passage, my comrades wouldn’t allow it, because they’re just as prudent as they are brave; they wouldn’t let you enter except disarmed, & then you would only leave our barricades with us, after our victory, if we win as I hope we will. You wouldn’t agree to that, would you? Now consider & confer amongst yourselves. But take particular note that at the first shot fired, everything around you will rain down death upon your heads…. Go back to your men, make them see reason, tell them that the blood you’re stepping on, the blood that’s bathing their feet, is the blood of the municipal guards who tried twice to pass through here…. Try to ensure that that blood is understood…. Farewell, lieutenant, I hope we’ll see each other again at a happier time.”

My old companion, who had spent our conversation smoking his pipe, his backside resting on the bollard, told me as he put his pipe back in its case: “By a thousand Gods on high, commander, you talk like a priest! Comrade,” he said to the officer, “there’s a watchword for you, make sure it’s put in the report, we’ll stay friends.”

As we crossed back over the barricade, the officer we had just left was already surrounded by his colleagues. He spoke for a few moments to the commander of the column, & soon we saw the troop they directed do an about-face and return to the Rue St Denis, to repeated cries of “Long live the line!” from our men.

From that moment, we enjoyed about half an hour of rest, and then a new attack from the 6th legion, around 3 o’clock, let us know that between us and them it was war to the death; but, less audacious this time, they fired from two hundred or two hundred fifty paces away, & didn’t approach any further. That attack was one of the longest and deadliest of all the ones we had had to repel until then. One of our flag-bearers, an old man well over sixty, took a bullet to the forehead that knocked him lifeless to the ground; a few seconds afterwards, his son, struck by a bullet that went through his chest, responded to those who wanted to take him to the field-hospital with: “Your place is at the barricade, stay there… & avenge us…!” He got to the field hospital by himself and died there, I’ve been told, two hours later.

A brave man who’d hurried to pick up the barricade our flag again climbed atop the barricade & planted it there in the midst of a hail of bullets, after waving it for some time in a gesture of defiance, without receiving the slightest wound; after this courageous action, he picked his gun back up, & was hit by a bullet that broke his left arm at the very moment he’d just brought down a national guardsman.

I had the satisfaction of seeing that man again four months later; taken prisoner, he stayed at the Hôtel-Dieu [hospital] for 96 days, and was set free for lack of sufficient evidence. He wasn’t fully healed yet, & told me that he would be devastated if they beat to quarters (he was a former sailor) before he was back in action, since in the aftermath of our two unfortunate days he hadn’t learned to love <i>Philippe</i> any more than he had before; & that he wanted, no matter what it cost him, to contribute to the overthrow of the quasi-citizen monarchy.

Another of our men had his lower jaw broken; a fourth took a bullet through the collarbone; finally, a fifth was wounded dangerously in his right shoulder.

Among us, there was a man 60 to 65 years old who had joined us on the evening of the 5th; his clothing suggested affluence, his extremely pronounced features indicated a strong and tempered soul; his conduct was very brave… it became frenzied when he saw such a large number of us fall. His great height (he was at least 5 feet 6 or 7 inches tall [in French units; about 182cm or 6 modern American feet]) put him at greater risk than any of the rest of us because he scorned the idea of taking cover behind the barricade; and yet he hadn’t received any wounds…. One of our brothers-in-arms received a mortal blow at his side… “Those scoundrels!” he shouted furiously; “doing us so much harm & not even knowing how to shoot…!” Upon which he put down his gun, jumped up onto the barricade, exposed his backside, and presented it to the national guards, saying, “Here, you pack of f——, you have no idea how to shoot on target, & you’re too cowardly to ever see one that’s the equal of this!” It was with great difficulty that we managed to get him to come down, by pointing out that his gun was lying idle; but he didn’t come back down until he’d re-fastened his trousers. “Don’t have any fear on my account,” he told us, smiling sardonically, “it’s because they’re aiming at me that they aren’t going to hit me!” Finally, he picked his gun back up, & we applauded, because he was one of our best shooters. I’ve been told that he was one of the 19 poor souls who, after surrendering in the house at number 30, our headquarters, were massacred in the most atrocious ways by cannibals wearing the uniform of the National Guard and the number of the 6th legion.

A few sentinels had stayed at the St Méry barricade (we always observed this measure of prudence to avoid any surprises); from there, standing on the highest part of the barricade, they were firing on the national guards, when a cry of “To arms!” coming in a loud voice from their direction warned us that we were about to be caught between two fires. The combined column of line infantry and national guards was advancing from that side. I hurriedly grab a dozen men and run with them to help our sentinels repel this new attack. Imagine my surprise when I saw a red flag flying on the barricade next to the national flag..! “My friends,” I cried as I approached, “which of you was rash enough to raise such a standard…? Is yesterday so far away from us that we no longer remember that this is the emblem responsible for the terror that seized some of the men who are missing from our ranks, & that we might’ve been able to count on them without this unfortunate attempt? Do you not remember any longer that last night you were saying yourselves that it must’ve been police agents who raised the red flag and cap? Could we have some of those agents among us now? I have trouble believing it, since up until now I’ve seen nothing but bravery from you…. My friends, let’s never raise any flag other than the national flag, we couldn’t find any that would remind us of as much glory as the flag of the republic…!!”

“He’s right! He’s right!” cried the brave men I was speaking to, & the red cravat they had raised—to indicate, they told me afterwards, that they wanted to win or perish—was taken down and didn’t reappear.

Part 4 | Part 6

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