At Five O’Clock We’ll All Be Dead – 7

A second time, the noise of the cannon stopped. The line infantry and the National Guard were advancing; when they were within two hundred paces of us, they started firing, still marching at a charge. We were all crouched low behind the barricade, our guns placed in the firing-holes formed by gaps in the paving stones. The Polytechnic student ran from one man to another, repeating to each, “Hold your fire, my friends, hold your fire! Let them approach..! At ten paces! At ten paces, my friends..!” & not a single gunshot was fired on our side until the command “Fire!”, shouted in a loud and assured voice by the Polytechnician, informed us that the moment to vanquish or perish had arrived.

I cast a quick glance over our men; their faces, solemn but calm, their terrible gazes in which breathed the courage of despair, announced that they had formed the unshakeable resolution to perish there, but not to fall except upon a pile of corpses. For me, a thought quicker than a flash tore at my heart like the sharpest of barbs; I thought about my good & aged parents, whom I would never see again… I felt my chest tighten at the memory of their caresses…. But that short instant of anguish, far from laying my courage low, seemed to add to it; I had just said my last farewell to them…. Animated by despair, it seemed to me that I had become invincible.

We fired; the result was terrible. It was at point-blank range, & each of us had chosen his victim; every bullet felled at least one adversary. Confusion broke out for a moment in the enemy ranks, & by the time our guns were recharged, they still hadn’t recovered from the stupor that the loss of some of their leaders had cast them into. I don’t think I’d ever charged my weapon with such vivacity… their fire crossed ours; we were so close that I had my hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes scorched, & yet I wasn’t hit…. We recharged with the same energy, & without even using our ramrods (by striking the butt of the gun on the ground) & when the smoke, which surrounded us like a curtain the eye couldn’t penetrate, had lifted a bit, we saw the crest and the outer base of our barricade covered in the corpses of our enemies. The assailants had fallen back, they were 50 paces away from us. “Knees on the ground, my friends,” I cried, “& aim well!” We started up a rolling fire; they responded with a platoon fire that was heavy but, thanks to our barricade, did us no harm. Finally we saw them beat their retreat once more. We had only had two men wounded, and even then, one of them was only lightly grazed, but several of us had had their clothing pierced with bullets; my old companion had his coat shot through with them. His hat, which he found lying on the ground, was pierced by three bullets; “Clumsy idiots,” he said, smiling, “they’re firing too high..!” A young man near me who had his handkerchief in his cap found two bullets lodged in it. I still have no idea how half of us weren’t left lying on the pavement.

We counted 17 dead, both on the barricade and outside it; all of them were soldiers, no doubt the National Guards had thought that politeness obliged them to cede place to the troops & driven by modesty, they had taken their places in the rear guard. A sergeant had fallen along the length of the barricade, his gun still on him. We didn’t take the trouble of carrying them away, which we had always done until then, we only took their cartridges, but unfortunately for us, they didn’t have very many left.

We barely had time to quench the thirst that was devouring us before the cannon thundered again, but the artillery was closer to us now & was placed around the level of the Rue Michel-le-Comte; soon we saw our unfortunate barricade fly into pieces….. & we couldn’t defend it…!! Soon it was reduced to just the base, which up to a height of 3 or 3 ½ feet presented a thickness of 6 feet to the cannonballs, including the interior steps.

This barricade, now easy to break through, no longer offered us the protection necessary to compensate for the inequality of forces; to protect against this disadvantage, we took up position in the carriage-doors that bordered on our destroyed fortifications from both sides of the street. Eight to ten of us placed themselves at the corner of the Rue Maubuée, & in that position we waited for the enemy, who wasn’t slow to advance. The assailants did not, however, try to approach the barricade as closely as they had in the previous attack. Placed, like us, on both sides of the street, they took our example and fought as snipers, and as for us, scattered in all the doorways, we could no longer act together; thus our ammunition was soon used up.

Seeing our fire slow down and die away, the assailants came closer, though cautiously; no doubt they feared [crossed-out words, illegible] a new trap…. It was then that a large part of our men, who no longer had any ammunition, left their cover, crying, “To the headquarters! To the headquarters…!” At this cry the rest of the combatants followed their example.

When they saw us beat our retreat, the assailants advanced; already a company in the center had crossed the barricade & found itself cut off from the attack column by our men who, taking cover in the Rue Maubuée & joined by some other patriots who had unfortunately arrived too late, were keeping up a very heavy fire that had already laid out on the ground a large number of our enemies and made the others fall back. Not daring to advance alone, and dreading the danger of crossing the barricade under our friends’ fire to rejoin the bulk of their column, this company stayed there without making any movements, but was holding the entire breadth of the street. The Rue St Méry was already occupied by the line; a fairly considerable number of troops was advancing from the embankments via the Rue St Martin, & to top off the difficulty of an already hopeless position, a cannon aiming from the end of the Rue Aubry-le-Boucher started up a very heavy fire of canister-shot on the windows of No. 30…

My friends,” I said to those who were still around me, “if we enter the house, we’ll be captured & shot: the Rue Maubuée is still holding out & in front of us we have only a company of conscripts….. Let’s charge them & try to break through by bayonet… Come on, my friends! Who wants to follow me…?”

Me, me, me…” answered a few voices, but at the explosion of a cannon shot that knocked us down, two men rushed into the house… there were eleven of us left..! Already we could hear our comrades piling up rocks & paving stones behind the carriage door, and already the column that was advancing from the embankments & that had breached the St-Merry Cloister, despite the fire of the patriots who had shut themselves up in there, was barely 50 paces away from us, when I addressed the ten men who had stayed near me: “Are you decided, my friends..?”

Yes! Yes! Better to die fighting…!!”

Well then! Let’s charge, and not let their fire stop us…. By bayonet, & to the Rue Maubuée..!”

We fling ourselves upon the line, holding our bayonets in front of us; either through surprise, or through scorn for our small number, they don’t fire & simply cross bayonets. We hadn’t left the right side of the street in order to be closer to the goal of our final efforts, & in a movement quicker than thought, I seize my gun in my left hand and, holding it vertically, I then engage with their bayonets by an abrupt rightward motion of my left arm, I manage by throwing all my weight into it to disrupt the ones I engaged with by bringing them towards the wall. Taking skillful & lively advantage of this move, the men following me hurl themselves forward, & manage, by killing or wounding several men, to make a breach…. We see the Rue Maubuée… We’re there…!! But we’re being pursued, and in order to let us reach them, our allies ceased fire as soon as they saw us, the troops have taken advantage of these circumstances, they’re in the street…., and then from the windows, a deluge of dishes, of flowerpots, of household utensils rained down on the heads of those who were pursuing us and firing, & to avoid being crushed, they’re forced to stop & beat their retreat. (I’ve heard that what was being thrown included even a pianoforte, but I can only report this as hearsay, although it was told to me by a very honorable citizen.) We had passed those of our men who were still firing from the cover of alleyways; we were saved from the hands of our enemies, but not from their bullets, when an alley gate was opened to us… We rush inside, & only then could we count ourselves. There were eight of us..!! Three of our brothers had fallen…. “They’re lucky, if they’ve been killed!” we cried spontaneously, “their suffering is over…”

Five of us were wounded. One had been struck by a bayonet in the left shoulder, & a second strike had wounded him in the left forearm; a second man had been wounded in the front of his upper left thigh; a third, who had already been struck by a bullet in the back of his knee, had just received another that had badly torn up his right buttock; of the two others, one had had his left hand lightly grazed & the other had had his ribs on the right side scratched by a bayonet; the wound was very shallow.

They were tended to with the greatest care; the people who had taken us in treated us with every possible kindness; we stayed there until nightfall. From time to time we heard loud explosions of musketry, I thought our side had regained the advantage, that maybe reinforcements had arrived…. And yet I had seen all the ways out occupied by masses of troops… I was like a madman. I didn’t want to stay any longer in this horrible uncertainty, a thousand times crueler than the most atrocious torture. I was prevented by our generous host, who kept the key in his pocket.

Stay here, my friend, stay here,” he told me, “going out right now would give away your companions’ hideaway, compromise their existence and my own, it would mean getting yourself killed without accomplishing anything, without any benefit to our common cause. What can I say! It’s a failed attempt, and generous blood lost… May it fall back upon the head of the monster who spilled it…!! By flying the red flag & cap, the despicable police have executed a master-stroke..!! It’s most unfortunate that a few young heads, for whom anything new is what’s best, worked up an enthusiasm for those signs and paraded them around the city: they’ve done more damage than they’ll ever be able to repay…”

Finally, our host let us leave, though still taking the precaution of only letting us out one by one & at some distance from one another; he kept the two most grievously wounded in his home to be tended to.

Everything was over… Everything was calm, silent, like the tomb… Order reigned in Paris…!! The troops, the police, the national guard were blocking off the Rue St Martin; sentinels had been placed from point to point in all the adjacent streets & I had to respond to the “Who goes there?” of two sentries before arriving at my door. Overwhelmed with fatigue, I threw myself down on my bed; but the only rest I could find there was more tiring than staying awake.

Part 6 | Part 8

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