Cut off from the world: What was the first day of the Siege of Paris like?

A communiqué from the Minister of the Interior, Léon Gambetta, announcing the start of the Siege of Paris. This would have been posted on administrative and public buildings throughout the city for everyone to read. (image credit: Les Archives de Paris)

The Siege of Paris began nearly exactly 151 years ago, on September 19 1870. That day, the city was entirely surrounded by Prussian troops, and all train and communication lines had been cut. The Parisians were truly isolated from the world.

Well, the wider world, that is. Parisians could go outside the city wall on most days, and circulate somewhat freely between there and the circle of suburban forts that surrounded the city, as long as there wasn’t a battle in progress. Some people were allowed to revisit their deserted homes, work their land in some suburbs, or set up small garden plots for subsistence. Others claimed to be doing those things but really went around marauding through the abandoned towns or giving Prussian soldiers copies of newspapers that were printed up to twice daily within Paris.

A wall around Paris may seem hard to imagine, since there isn’t one today. But the city has a long history of different walls around it, from its earliest days, until the last one, l’enceinte de Thiers (the Thiers wall) was constructed in the 1840’s. This is the wall that was in place during the Siege.

Named for then-Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers l’enceinte de Thiers was a bulky barrier that circled the city. Although fairly tall and given additional height by the ditch that surrounded its exterior, the wall wasn’t the easiest thing to defend, notably because it had so many points of entry. Not only were there more than 50 openings for things like roads and gates; the wall was also open to waterways. Since it wasn’t built during a time of war in France, its ramparts became a place for people to stroll, especially since the dirt-covered tops sprouted grass. Parisians also enjoyed the grassy slopes of the ditch below. This is one of the reasons it took so long for the essentially useless wall to be demolished, which finally came about from the 1920’s until 1932.

Children letting their goats graze in the ditches outside the Thiers Wall. This photo was taken in 1913, but the overall appearance of the Wall and grassy ditch would have been the same in 1870. (image source)

Today, the grassy ditches have been replaced by the Boulevard Périphérique, a busy, ugly highway encircling the city. All sorts of buildings, including student and low-income housing, a stadium, and a public pool, now stand on what was once the length of the wall itself.

During the Siege, the wall’s entrances were closely guarded, at least. The gates and many other entrances could be shut, and were, from dusk until after sunrise. Barricades were also set up to reinforce them. Additionally, the tops of the walls were adapted to provide shelter for the troops of the Garde nationale sédentaire (the sedentary National Guard — that is, troops who stayed in Paris, as opposed to those of la garde mobile, who left the city for battles). They guarded the city and took turns watching from the walls. But true to their identity as fun-loving Parisians, many drinking spots sprang up nearby so that the soldiers could also enjoy themselves. Still, as the months went on and one of the coldest winters in recent memory crept in, keeping watch was cold, miserable business.

It wasn’t the city walls that made Parisians feel cut off from the rest of the world. And the Prussian troops were never just outside the walls, testing their ability to protect the city, though they did come very close at times. What ultimately made the Siege of Paris’s start official was when the last train had left the city and the last telegraph line was cut. Then, Parisians felt truly walled in.

What was it like to be in Paris on September 19, 1870?

In his memoirs, Wickham Hoffman, secretary to American Ambassador Elihu Washburne, wrote:

Wickham Hoffman (image source)

The siege commenced on the 19th of September. For some days previous the streets of Paris had presented an unwonted and curious appearance. They were thronged with the quaintest-looking old carts, farm-wagons, Noah’s arks of every kind, loaded with the furniture of the poor inhabitants of the neighborhood flying to Paris for safety. On the other hand, the stations were thronged with the carriages of the better classes leaving the city. The railroads were so overworked that they finally refused to take any baggage that could not be carried by the passenger himself. Imagine the painful situation of some of our fair countrywomen, Worth’s admirers and patrons! To have come to Paris amidst all the dangers of war to procure something to wear, to have procured it, and then to be unable to carry it away! But what will not woman’s wit and energy do under such circumstances? A clever and energetic friend of mine hired a bateau-mouche, one of the little steamers that ply on the Seine from one part of Paris to another, and, embarking with her “impedimenta,” sailed triumphantly for Havre.

French writer Juliette Lambert (sometimes known as Juliette Lamber or by her married name, Juliette Adam), on the other hand, expressed less humor and more sorrow in her diary.

Photo of Juliette Lambert by Nadar (image source)

She felt strongly about the start of the Siege, but there was something else on her mind that day: the fact that in the ambulance (small charity hospital set up and run by wealthy Parisians during the War) where she’d started volunteering, many French troops were being treated for wounds in the back, since they’d deserted the Battle of Châtillon.

This desertion is understandable, and not only for a pacifist like myself; the French troops were vastly outnumbered and the decision to go to war in the first place was ill-thought out and doomed to failure (you can read more about the fatal decision of Napoleon III to declare war in Hoffman’s memoir, and explore its consequences in Zola’s novel La Débâcle (The Debacle)). But Lambert, fervently patriotic like many of her fellow Parisians, saw desertion as a disgrace. Still, in addition to her thoughts on that, she finished her own diary entry mourning the situation the city now found itself in:

Que s’est-il passé depuis quatre jours? je n’en sais rien. Je n’ai rien vu, rien entendu. Je souffre si cruellement de notre situation présente que je m’enivre d’activité. Pauvre France ! pauvre Paris !

(What’s happened these past four days? I have no idea. I haven’t seen anything, heard anything. I’m suffering so cruelly from our present situation that I make myself drunk with activity. Poor France! Poor Paris!)

In his memoirs, Jacques-Henry Paradis, a self-described bourgeois de Paris who would join the Garde nationale sédentaire and watch over the city from the ramparts on top of the Thiers Wall, wrote about the Battle of Châtillon as a regrettable and important strategic loss, but didn’t mention or condemn the deserters.

He did evoke what Lambert claimed to be a justified arrest (although she doesn’t give the same details and may not have been correctly informed), that of General Ambert, whose “crime” was yelling “Vive la France!” in the heat of battle, instead of “Vive la République!” This was seen as a sign of disloyalty to the newly created Third Republic, founded a few days before, on September 4. Of the arrest, Paradis writes: Et voici à quoi le Parisien emploie son temps, lorsque l’ennemi est à ses portes! (And this is how Parisians spend their time, when the enemy is at their door!).

Ever the concise but detailed recorder of events, of the start of the Siege itself, Paradis wrote (my translation follows):

Le réseau télégraphique de l’Ouest, le dernier qui permit de transmettre et de recevoir des dépêches, a été coupé aujourd’hui à une heure.

De tous côtés le cercle allemand nous étreint. Le siège commence.

….Les journaux du soir donnent la nouvelle de l’entrée du prince royal à Versailles c’est la triste conséquence du combat de ce matin. Si cette nouvelle est fausse aujourd’hui, elle sera vraie probablement demain….Grand nombre de familles chassées de la banlieue et des localités environnantes, entrent encore aujourd’hui dans Paris. Il en résulte dans certains quartiers un encombrement auquel l’administration municipale s’attache à remédier, par une répartition plus régulière de ce surcroît de population….

Toujours grand mouvement en ville de garde mobile et de garde nationale sédentaire; cette dernière fait l’exercice matin et soir; elle inaugure aujourd’hui son service au rempart….

Ce service sera très-pénible, surtout par le mauvais temps, si l’autorité supérieure ne fait pas de suite construire des baraquements et un plus grand nombre de tranchées-abris. Chaque jour 70,000 hommes sont commandés pour ce service. Comme tout ce qui est nouveau plait aux Parisiens, tous vont au rempart avec plaisir; ils y vont même en chantant.

Mon avis est que si lé siège dure, il y aura-moins d’entrain, moins d’enthousiasme.

Enfin, Paris est devenu tout à fait ville de guerre; les portes se ferment à la nuit et ne se rouvrent qu’une heure après le lever du soleil….Encore aujourd’hui, l’aspect de la capitale n’a point changé; même nombre de voitures, même nombre de promeneurs parcourant les rues et les boulevards en tout sens; même éclat de lumières, même luxe d’étalage.

De tous côtés on s’arrache les journaux du soir.

L’un de ces journaux parle déjà d’armistice!

Fausse nouvelle, comme tant d’autres!

Paris va s’endormir le cœur joyeux.

Mais attendons le réveil.

(The western telegraph line, the last one that allowed us to send and receive messages, was cut at one o’clock today.

From all sides, the circle of German troops around us grows tighter. The Siege has begun.

The evening newspapers say that the Crown Prince has installed himself at Versailles. This is the sad consequence of this morning’s battle. If this news is false today, it will probably be true tomorrow.

….Large number of families fleeing the suburbs and surrounding areas were still coming into Paris today. Some neighborhoods are now so crowded as a result that the administration is trying to redistribute this surplus population….

Still a lot of movement in the city of the Garde mobile and Garde sédentaire troops. The latter perform their military exercises in the morning and evening. This evening they will begin serving on the ramparts….

This watch will be very difficult, especially in bad weather, if those in charge don’t order the construction of barracks and a larger number of trenches. Every day 70,000 men will be on duty here. Since Parisians love anything that’s new, they all head to the ramparts with pleasure; they even sing as they go.

I think that if the Siege lasts a long time, there will be less willingness, less enthusiasm.

At last, Paris has become entirely a city at war. Its gates close at night and open an hour after sunrise. [And yet] today still, the look of the capital has hardly changed; the same number of vehicles, the same number of pedestrians on the streets and boulevards in all directions, the same bright lights, the same luxurious shop window displays.

People everywhere snatch up the evening newspapers.

One of these papers is already mentioning armistice!

False news, like so many other news items!

Paris will fall asleep with a joyful heart.

But let’s see what happens when she awakes.)

In his own diary, US Ambassador Elihu Washburne reflected:

Elihu Washburne, photographed by Mathew Brady (image source)

Has the world ever witnessed such a change in so short a time? It to me seems like a dream. For the first time we feel today that we are cut off from the outside world. All the roads are cut and no mails and no communication. And it seems odd to be in this great world and still not in it….But after all, a certain part of Paris doesn’t seem to mind it much…There are the same omnibuses, the same stores open, the same people moving about.…

Each one of these testimonials, not to mention the numerous others that have survived and can still be read today (many for free online, to boot!), shows the start of the Siege in a slightly different light. And yet, there are some common threads: The way the city continued to run as usual, the way the world had changed so quickly.

Reading these accounts, that last sentiment seems almost uniquely to belong to the Siege of Paris. And yet, the more I live the more I realize that it’s something you feel over the course of life itself, again and again, in a myriad of ways.

During the ten years it took me to write and research Hearts at Dawn, I felt myself thinking it often. Sometimes it was on a personal level. Astonishingly (it seems to me), within a period of only five years, I had lost my beloved mother, father-in-law, cat, and one of my best friends. The opposite kind of change had happened, too — a joyful one: the birth of my son.

And then of course, there were changes that went beyond the scope of my life and those of my family and loved ones.

In late 2019, there was a major transportation strike here in Paris. Strikes are a common part of life in France, and national strikes or strikes on suburban train lines are to be expected (much to my very American outrage and frustration, especially because the reasons for the strikes are rarely widely communicated or known). But within Paris itself, it’s become very rare for the entire Metro and bus network to shut down or be significantly slowed. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. We weren’t cut off from the world in the same way as the Parisians were during the Siege, but it was a small echo.

A more significant echo — a shout, even — came a few months later, when after telling us there was no need to worry about COVID-19, our government did an about-face, suddenly and swiftly proclaiming a lockdown.

For what ended up being two and a half months, most of the city (and most of France) shut down. We couldn’t travel more than a kilometer from our home, and not for more than an hour a day. Like Parisians during the Siege, we worried about food shortages, which luckily never got anywhere near what they experienced. Like them, too, we saw spaces transformed. Some parks and squares now housed COVID testing sites, grim reminders of what was happening. The rest of the parks and playgrounds were closed to us, which was the case for many parks during the Siege as well, as they were repurposed into things like grazing grounds for animals needed to feed the city’s population. Not having access to parks is a BIG DEAL to Parisians. Parks are essentially our backyard, the place where we go to get some air and let our kids run around.

Having the internet and other ways to connect with the outside world, of course, made things easier. In fact, many things were still so much easier than they were from September 19 to January 28, 1870. But there was still that sense of menace just outside our doors, still the same sense of being stuck.

When the Siege ended, after the French capitulated and armistice was officially declared on January 28, 1870, it took some time for life to get back to normal. And then, just as it did, the anger that had been brewing among the working classes and revolutionaries came to a head in March, resulting in the Paris Commune, a two-month period of chaos and violence for most Parisians.

As I write this, life sometimes feels like it’s heading back to normal, and then something happens to burn it all to ruins. I wonder how much longer we’ll have to wait for things to be as they were before — if that’s even possible. Whatever the outcome, I try to take faith in the motto on Paris’s city seal, made official at the start of the Second Empire, the period that preceded the Siege: Fluctuat nec mergitur (Though I am tossed by the waves, I do not sink).

The coat of arms of the City of Paris, which includes the phrase Fluctuat nec mergitur (image source: Ville de Paris)

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A Beauty and the Beast retelling that will enchant lovers of fairy tales, Paris, history and romance, Hearts at Dawn is currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!

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Until next time!

is a writer & worrier. She recently published her first novel, “Hearts at Dawn”, a “Beauty & the Beast” retelling that takes place in Paris, her adopted home.