Louis grunted audibly when he saw the young guardsman approach him, gleeful anticipation creaking from his patchy boots.
“Tired from the talk already, sergeant?” asked Henri. It was his damned eyes, Louis thought, mockery or honesty so alike in them.
“I have heard it all before, son”, he shifted back on the cold stone that formed the edge of the city wall, freeing his left hand from the brisk morning air in the same motion. His gaze moved wilfully away from the young eyes out to the horizon. In that fuzzy haze of grey, brown and green shapes, what he knew was supposed to be the war-torn suburbs, now empty fortresses and hills. He also knew that the German army was still lurking in the east, waiting to occupy until they were pleased with the riches that the fools calling themselves government in Versailles would concede to them. Louis imagined he could see them as well.
“Then why are you looking in the wrong direction?” the carpenter apprentice asked as he sat down beside the officer. He pulled out a truly shabby looking cigarette from his right coat pocket and tried passionately to ignite it with what he found in the other pocket. It was irreverence that emitted from the green eyes, Louis realised.
“Why do you start fights about things we agree on?” Louis asked.
The green shimmered. “Cause how else would we know we agree on them?” the youth assured. “After all,” his chest puffed out slightly as he let the lit cigarette float through the air, “it is only through debate that we can form our own beliefs. It is something we do together. A dialectic if you will.”
“And which thinking man lofted those words to you, was it Recluse? Or one of the foreigners that seems to have gotten a bit of purchase these days?” Louis mocked, lifting his stubby chin reluctantly up to the boy’s redeemed expression.
“Merely myself,” Henri grinned.
Henri settled down with a new drag. “The battalion wasn’t talking about anything like that today though. Not like they could complain about the food like we used to, I haven’t had to sell rat steak for a few weeks now.”
“You haven’t heard the rumours then, old man?” an excited whisper was heard from the other’s lisp. Louis responded, “there are always rumours, son.”
“Not like these,” Henri assured. A sense of anticipation filled his breath. “The old crook Thiers has called an emergency meeting with the generals and the city mayor, that traitor Jules Ferry. They plan to seize Paris!”
Louis shivered as a cold crept up his spine. “They would have done so already if they were planning to,” he assured. “Where did you even hear that? Another one of Georges’ deductions?” He added in the same breath. Louis paused, frustrated as he groaned. “It was one of Nicholas’ acquaintances, right?”
Henri bobbed his head, leaning forward on his rifle. “Sophie, a housemaid, was working for some silk slipper lawyer in Premier. She joined the Frey at Montmartre while on her errands. She heard from a friend working under Ferry that he was in a sudden rush for some hush-hush trip out-town.”
“Is that it?” Louis grunted bemused.
“What do you mean? What else would the mayor be called for?” Henri sprang up as his raised voice struck the morning.
“Anything else involving Paris,” Louis explained pedantically. “It’s not exactly going well at the moment. How many times have the damned simpletons in the National Guard tried to take over at this point? It’s already been twice, though thankfully they haven’t gotten very far. Most men still haven’t lost the grip on things! But from what you are telling me they might actually light this keg ablaze soon. It is we who will bleed and die from that, son. Not Thiers or the bourgeoise.”
Henri looked like he was going to leave the sad butcher to his own company, but he turned around with a bodily sigh and stared him down, his cold hands pressing up against the tired rifle. “We can’t let them get away with it,” he huffed, the blackening cigarette disintegrating as it went up and down. “God knows,” he began, “nothing knows what halfwit tyrant they will settle on, whoever the Prussians prefer surely! Orléanist or Legitimist makes no difference to us.”
“It doesn’t”, Louis agreed. “But what are you or Nicholas or any of the other hot bloods among the officers and the Central Committee going to do about it? They hate us. Haven’t you learned that? Didn’t your mum and dad beat that into you when they came crawling from Normandy? They remember the Great Revolution, with its terror and infernal columns, with its intellectuals and foreigners. They blame us, they blame Paris for that. Who do you think elected monarchists to the National Convention? There are not enough bourgeoise and nobles for that. They haven’t forgotten, but it seems all of you have.” He finished his tirade, his eyes glued to the stone wall, clammy hands clutching the iron barrel.
“I think we’re even since they voted in our late emperor,” Henri sighed with a little chuckle and sat down again as he lit another cigarette.
“It wasn’t just bitter farmers who did so,” Louis added. He rubbed his right shoulder, stiff and aching. “Your new pal Nicholas admitted to having voted for Bonaparte in all plebiscites, didn’t he?”
“I know, I know,” Henri repeated with frustration, “shut up about him already”.
“I don’t trust him. Or like him for that matter,” Louis went on.
“Really?” the apprentice questioned.
“Never trust a lawyer, dear Michelle likes to remind me,” Louis went on, “Certainly not some third-rate one from Strasbourg who knows everyone and yet no one.”
“You don’t say.” The apprentice inspected some persistent smudges on the barrel of his rifle.
“Do you want people like this in charge?” The butcher turned around, frustrated by the lacking responses.
“No”, Henri said with a stern look to his companion. He crushed the cigarette butt under his heel, already marked in ashes by its brethren. “I don’t want anyone in charge.”
“Bah,” Louis uttered almost instinctively, “there will always be someone in charge, and someone will always resent them for it.”
“Not necessarily,” Henri assured with a confident smile, “Proudhon and Recluse don’t think so, neither does Blanqui or Marx for that matter.”
“Spare me,” Louie grumbled. “Good luck with that, when most of the country doesn’t even want another republic.”
“Perhaps,” Henri agreed. “Certainly a lot more now than eighty years ago. If they hadn’t done anything back then, we’d still be in the ancien régime. At least that’s not one of our problems.”
“I suppose,” Louie grunted in response. “I still think provoking the government is a bad idea. I was there in ’48. Got a damned bullet through my shoulder for the trouble. It won’t work this time either.”
“We won’t know until we try,” Henri said with a hint of something else in his voice. Even if we fail, at least we will be remembered.” A slight smile parsed his lips as he looked at the other. “Besides, we are merely fulfilling our role defending Paris and the people. If they threaten us, then blood is on their hands.”
Louis bowed his head reluctantly. “Aye. If it comes to that.”
Henri got back up, stretched his lanky limbs and let his gaze move towards Montmartre, the hill pointing up from the north of the city from which the wall distanced them only so slightly. The rest of the battalion was spending their time there at the moment, clearly in heated discussion with passers-by, who moved in and out of the day’s topics of discussion and contention. The guards almost appearing to be something far more than they were, there they sat and stood around the ancient Saint-Pierre. A little smile dared itself across Louis’ gruff face at the sight. Though the guardsmen were not alone on watch. Old, worn cannons stared down from the hill. The city artillery had recently served admirably against Berlin and might have to do so again against Versailles.
Noticing they stared at the same thing, Henri said, “Someone mentioned that they might go after the cannons.”
Louis sighed. “A symbolic grab for sure, though not the most useful thing for barricades. If it comes to that.”
Henri agreed as he slung his rifle back across his shoulder and sent the comrade a glance for him to follow. “We agreed to keep watch for the coming nights for that reason. So, we’ll find out.”
Louis dragged his stiff and disobedient body from the wall. “There are still a couple of hours left of this shift so maybe we will,” he murmured quietly.
As they left to return to their battalion, the old revolutionary sent one last glance, this time to the west. He could make no more out of the fleeting colours and shapes there either, but they reassured him anyhow. “We will not be forgotten,” but this he said only to himself.
Written by Inge Erdal
Gluckstein, Donny, ‘Militia and Workers’ State: Paris 1871’. In Mike Gonzalez and Houman Barekat, ed. Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 105-122.
Tombs, Robert, The war against Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).