The Paris Commune 1871 and Montmartre

Historical timeline: Paris, Montmartre and the Commune 1870 – 71

A vertical infographic timeline giving text details of the major events leading up to and including the Paris Commune of 1871.
The sequence of major events of 1870 – 71 leading up to the Paris Commune of 1871.

Text version of Paris Commune infographic:

If you are using a mobile device on the walk and for some reason the image has not loaded or become inaccessible, here is the text from the Paris Commune infographic timeline:

September 1870:

Defeat September 1870: shattering military defeat for France at hands of Prussians. End of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.

First siege of Paris: Prussians advance and besiege Paris. Provisional Government of National Defence set up.

Paris National Guard influenced by revolutionary ideas: France is defeated but radical and revolutionary elements within National Guard in Paris wish to continue fight.

October 1870:

Gambetta escapes: charismatic Minister of Interior Gambetta is successfully sent by balloon from Montmartre over Prussian lines to organise government actions from Tours. Fails to break through to and link up with Paris.

Hardship improvised cuisine. Severe winter; food starts to run out, population eats: dogs, cats, horses, rats, and zoo animals.

January 1871:

Prussians shell Paris. Prussian bombardment: shell Paris for 23 consecutive nights.

Trochu government sues for peace: several breakout attempts led by General Trochu, head of the Provisional Government of National Defence all fail. Following final attempt Trochu sends emissary to Prussian leader Bismarck in Versailles, sues for peace.

Tough peace terms: Harsh peace terms including the loss of Eastern French territories Alsace and Lorraine, enormous war indemnity and humiliating Prussian parade in Paris on Champs Elysées.

February 1871:

Reactionary Thiers elected President: election February 1871, a plebiscite for peace elects Thiers as President. March 1871, orders the 200 cannon on Montmartre to be seized.

March 1871:

Army fails to seize Montmartre cannon: regular army troops sent to seize artillery fraternise with Paris National Guard subsequent skirmishing with loyal government forces ends with two army generals executed by National Guard. Thiers evacuates all army forces from Paris to Versailles.

Commune proclaimed Paris Hotel de Ville 26 March 1871: the Commune is not a Communist revolution but a reference to the French Revolution. The Commune in the French Revolution was the body responsible for the municipal government of Paris.

April 1871:

April 1871 second siege of Paris: second siege and bombardment of Paris this time the French regular forces based in Versailles the “Versaillais” under Thiers against the Paris “Communards”.

May 1871:

Execution of the Archbishop of Paris Darboy; he had been taken hostage in April and was executed in prison as the Government forces advanced on 24 May.

21 May 1871 Government forces break into Paris: Government forces the “Versaillais” break into Paris and slowly advance from west to east from barricade to barricade in ruthless, bitter, street fighting.

Black and White contemporary photograph by Auguste Hippolyte Collard of Communard barricades from the Paris Commune of 1870 – 1871. View of fortified barricades on the junction of Rue Royale and Place de la Concorde, Paris. Some Communard soldiers stand on front of barricade posing with rifles.
Auguste Hippolyte Collard’s photograph of Communard barricades on the junction of Rue Royale and Place de la Concorde. Notice the age of some of the Communards. The architecture is today identical, except for the barricades. © Auguste Hippolyte Collard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (1)
Buildings totally or partially destroyed: The Tuileries Palace, The Hôtel de Ville, The Vendôme Column with statue of Napoleon on top, The Palais Royale, The Palais de Justice, part of Louvre, attempt to burn Notre Dame Cathedral.

28 May 1871 end of Paris Commune: victory for government forces. Final shots and executions in Père Lachaise Cemetery 28 May 1871. About 20 000 Communard dead and 1000 Versaillais dead making the suppression of the Commune one of the most terrible and deadly events ever to take place in Paris. The wall where the Communards were executed becomes a pilgrimage site for the left in Paris. Sacré Coeur built as symbol of national reconciliation and atonement.

Black and White contemporary photograph by Alphonse J Liébert of the damage on Rue de Rivoli. The photograph shows destroyed and partially destroyed buildings with the fallen debris on Rue de Rivoli. The debris reaches to the top of the Rue de Rivoli arches.
Alphonse J Liébert’s photograph of the aftermath of the Commune street fighting. This photograph of damage in the Rue de Rivoli. © Alphonse J Liébert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (2)

Breaking the siege with balloons

Balloons were quickly identified as a way of breaking the encircling Prussians’ siege lines. The redundant railway stations, especially the Gare du Nord railway station, became a balloon assembly line.

Balloons were also produced at the Elysée Montmartre dance hall at the foot of the hill on Boulevard Rochechouart, just a few hundred meters from Montmartre.

The summit of Montmartre was the ideal launching site. The windmills proved it caught any available breath of wind. It was from Montmartre that the Minister of the Interior Gambetta took off on 7 October 1870 to link up with the provisional government in Tours.

The balloon link was extremely important for Parisian morale. The success of the operation meant that the Parisians were able to communicate with the outside world and ‘put one over’ the Prussians. Thousands of letters and government dispatches continued to exit Paris by balloon, but it was a one way trip. Carrier pigeons were also extensively used.

The Montmartre cannons and the red flag of the Commune.

General Trochu, who was in charge of the Parisian forces and the head of the self-proclaimed Government of National Defence, sued for peace with the Prussians in January 1871. The resulting national elections produced a conservative majority in favour of armistice.

The new President, Adolphe Thiers, who had declined to become part of the Parisian government at the beginning of the siege, immediately identified the strategic importance of the 200 artillery cannon placed on the brow of Montmartre. He ordered the regular army to seize the cannon.

Black and White contemporary photograph by Bruno Braquehais of four cannons on Montmartre Hill overlooking Paris. The cannons aim in different directions over Paris.
Bruno Braquehais’ photograph of cannon on Montmartre probably on site of Sacré Coeur. © Bruno Braquehais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. (3)
The artillery had been paid for by public subscription, much of it coming from working class districts where the Red Clubs had taken hold. Some of these club members were Parisians who had been evicted when, inconveniently, they appeared in the line of Haussmann’s ruler as he drew up and executed plans for his idea of a modern model city based on straight lines in the 1860s.

It is a matter of historical debate if Haussmann also had troop movements and lines of fire in mind when he laid out plans for the sweeping, intersecting boulevards of his new Paris. Both he and Napoleon III certainly aspired to realise a prestige project in line with France’s imperial ambitions of the time. Much of the uniformity of design and scale of modern Paris is of course Haussmann’s but a project of such ambition was always going to create displacement and resentment.

A convergence of circumstances meant that anger was about to boil over into desperate action.

The attempt to seize the Montmartre cannons sparks the insurrection

France had been humiliated in the war. There was the rationing, hunger and bitter cold of the winter of 1870 – 71. The bourgeois led Paris government had shown incompetence in its foiled attempts to break the Prussian siege; then they had betrayed the people of Paris by suing for peace at any price. The Prussians had paraded up and down the Champs Elysees and now, to cap it all, the French Versailles forces were about to seize the Parisians’ own artillery section on Montmartre.

It was too much and the result was bloodshed with two of the regular army generals sent to carry out the confiscation being captured and shot in a Montmartre street, Rue des Rosiers (which has since been destroyed by the building of the Sacré Coeur).

This incident and the resulting bloodshed was the spark that shifted the gravity from feelings of bitterness and betrayal to insurrectionist action in the Parisian revolutionary tradition. The Commune was born in blood in Montmartre.

Later in the ‘Bloody Week’ in May 1871 during the reconquest of Paris by the ‘Versaillais’ or as they would see it the legitimate army acting in the name of the elected French Government, 49 Communards were summarily executed in the same place, Rue des Rosiers, Montmartre.

Montmartre becomes identified with the Commune uprising

The Commune is an interesting and perhaps not well enough known episode in the history of France and more particularly Paris. Whilst the fighting was widespread and the final stand was in the working class areas of the east of the capital, because of the failed attempt to seize the cannon, Montmartre is often closely associated with the uprising. That association helped to galvanise the image of the independent spirit of Montmartre.

Louise Michel la Vierge Rouge (Red Virgin)

Louise Michel  trained as a teacher before moving to Paris. In 1865 she opened a school where she was able to spread her progressive and egalitarian views. In Paris she became influenced by the radical revolutionary Auguste Blanqui and agitated for women’s rights.

During the Commune she joined the National Guard and saw action with the 61st Batallion of Montmartre. She also helped organise an ambulance service. After the fall of the Commune she was imprisoned then deported before being finally amnestied in 1880.

Louise Michel never mellowed with age, at her trial she demanded her own death penalty: “If you let me live, I shall never stop crying for vengeance…” Her time in the penal colony where she was eventually sent convinced her that that people could only become fully free if liberated from the oppressive control of social institutions such as the government, the military or the church. She became an anarchist and speaker. She wrote several books including her memories of the Commune and has become a symbol of radicalism and feminism.

A square in Montmartre, at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the Sacré Coeur, is named after her.

The British journalist and historian Alistair Horne has written an interesting book about the Commune called ‘The Fall of Paris’ and he also deals extensively with the subject in his more recent ‘Seven Ages of Paris‘.

Having seen something of the background of the Commune and the impact of the cannon episode as a catalyst for setting the Commune in motion let’s get back to the Montmartre introduction.

For wheelchair users please return to top of Montmartre Funicular.

All photographs © David Macmillan except:

(1) The Barricades; all photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :

Auguste Hippolyte CollardBarricades pres de Ministere de la Marine et l'Hötel CrillonCC0 1.0

(2) The Ruins of Rue de Rivoli :

Alphonse J. Liébert (French, 1827–1913), Les Ruines de Paris et de ses Environs 1870-1871, Cent Photographies, Premier Volume. DP161589CC0 1.0

(3) Cannons on Montmartre Hill on site of future Sacré Coeur :

Русский: Браквейе, Бруно, 1823—1875 гг. Français : Braquehais, Bruno, 1823-1875 English: Braquehais, Bruno, 1823-1875 中文: 布鲁诺·布拉奇海思,1823-1875 年 Português: Braquehais, Bruno, 1823-1875 العربية: براكهيه برونو، 1823-1875 Español: Braquehais, Bruno, 1823-1875, Battery of the Montmartre Hills WDL1246, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons