Paris Commune 1871

The Pantheon’s About to Blow Up!

Source: Maxime Vuillaume, Mes Cahiers Rouge. Paris, La Decouverte, 2011;
Translated: from the original for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2016.

12:30 in the afternoon. Let’s go to the town hall...

I go down by the Medicis fountain. In the dried-out basin two fighters are sitting. Packets of cartridges are laid out in the middle. I tell them

They're exposed on all sides.

“What do we give a fuck? We'll fire laying down.”

On the balcony of the house at the corner of the boulevard and Rue Soufflot a half-dozen young people, rifles slung across their backs. I recognize a few of them. Maroteau, with his Christ-like face. Larochette of Pyat’s paper the Vengeur. Others.

Here comes Vallès. He’s ill, he says, exhausted. Three nights without sleep. He’s wearing felt slippers, walking on the arm of a female friend.

“To town hall?”

I don’t have the time to answer. A frightful explosion freezes the words on my lips.

A cloud of black smoke with large blotches of fire rises from the Luxembourg palace on the side nearest the Observatory. Lisbonne has just blown up the powder magazine, set up in the place formerly occupied by the nursery.

The smashed windows tinkle on the sidewalk. Cries of terror and despair have replaced the silence of just a few minutes ago.

“The Pantheon is going to blow up! The Pantheon is going to blow up!”

And a crowd rushes through the barricades, the ammunition, the field hospitals. Where are they running? They don’t know. With the Pantheon won’t the entire quarter collapse into the catacombs?

Women flee, panicked, dragging their children behind them. Others with packages. One has a clock under her arm...

And always the cry: “The Pantheon is going to blow up!”

At the town hall, down below, I pass the leader of the 248th, Henri Régère. The son of the member of the Commune, who ties his horse to the grating on a window. We go upstairs together.

Upstairs it’s the tumult of the final moments. Seated at tables are employees assailed with demands for requisitions, for signatures on supply vouchers, money for wages. I look around for members of the Commune. A few worried faces. Others determined to fight.

Downstairs the square is filled with fighters. There are some on the steps of the Pantheon, behind the columns of the portico. Everywhere. There are even some beneath the dome on the circular platform surrounding the colonnades. It is these men who, fighting until the final moment, no longer having the time to descend the steps and flee, were executed on the very spot they were taken prisoner.

A witness assured me that for a long time, behind this colonnade, one could see large pools of blood...

Thursday, May 25 – The day after the taking of the Pantheon. At the bottom of Rue Soufflot. The early morning hours.

The barricade on Rue Gay-Lussac is still standing. Behind the fences of the Luxembourg Garden, whose entrances are closed, soldiers are coming and going. Cavalrymen in unbuttoned blue jackets with white braiding, police caps tilted on their heads, talk and smoke near their horses, tied to the trees.

On Boulevard Saint Michel, soldiers. Cannons hitched to their wagons, ready to head to the battle rumbling in the distance. Tricolor flags in all the windows.

Spread out all over the ground are kepis, belts, cartridge pouches, and army boots. At the corner of Rue Monsieur-le-Prince a heap of dead men, five or six of them. Another dead man stretched out on his back, an arm folded across his chest, the other extended, his face covered with the Communard kepi. The beard sticking out from under the hat is stained with blood. He must have been hit square in the face. A final modesty – quite rare on those horrible days – impelled someone to hide the horrible wound. I bend down to look at the number of his battalion. If I were to lift the kepi...

I don’t dare.

The basin of the Medici fountain is filled with corpses. Jumbled together are victors and vanquished. Executioners and the executed. Surrounded fighters lie dead on the paving stones.

Tiny chasseurs in their slate colored tunics who I saw the day before from the top of the Pantheon’s steps crossing the square at a run. The grapeshot of the Rue Soufflot barricade mowed them down like blades of grass.

They are there, about twenty of them, crushed one against the other, dusty, bloody. Their eyes, who no one has closed, remain wide open. They were tossed into the basin the previous day, after the battle, so they wouldn’t block the street. Soon the horrible cart of the dead – a yellow moving van – will pick them up to spill them into the ditches being hastily dug in the necropolises.