Henry Vizetelly’s eye-witness account of the siege of Paris in 1870-1 must have been one of the high points of what was by any standards a remarkable life. From a dynasty of printers, he became a publisher and journalist, co-founding the Illustrated London News in 1842, as well as several other less long-lived periodicals. In 1849 he published Four Months among the Goldfinders of Alta California, written by one J. Tyrwhitt Brooks, a doctor who had made and then lost a fortune in the gold rush: it became a best-seller, admired on both sides of the Atlantic for its authenticity. However, as Vizetelly admitted in his 1893 two-volume autobiography, Glances Back Through Seventy Years, he had made the whole thing up. He was also heroic/notorious as a defender of the freedom of the press, having been sent to prison for publishing in Britain the appalling French obscenities of Zola.
From 1865 to 1877, Vizetelly lived in Paris, as foreign correspondent and general agent of the Illustrated London News: he also wrote articles for the Pall Mall Gazette, and All The Year Round. He was thus ideally placed (or not, depending on how you look at it) when in July 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out.
I did this stuff for A-level about half a century ago, but all that remains is vague memories about the Ems Telegram (duh?), air balloons, eating the poor elephant from the Paris zoological gardens, and the veiled statues of Alsace and Lorraine. Interestingly, Vizetelly, writing in 1882, doesn’t mention the Ems Telegram, or any other Bismarckian duplicity: as far as he is concerned, ‘the Emperor Napoleon III had, mainly from dynastic motives, embarked upon an aggressive war directed ostensibly against Prussia alone, but in which he found himself confronted by all the forces of united Germany’. And hence the German empire, and ‘dropping the pilot’, and the First World War . . .
Vizetelly begins his account in medias res, and assumes that his readers will know who most of the protagonists of this then-recent European conflict are, especially the incompetent generals and ministers of the doomed Second Empire. (He is clearly one of the very many British visitors who love Paris, but can’t stand the French.) The succession of military catastrophes, culminating in the battle of Sedan, the surrender of Napoleon III and the uncertain beginnings of the Third Republic are briskly sketched: ‘Many believed that the mere transformation of France from an Empire into a Republic would cause the olive-branch to blossom and bear fruit.’ But the Germans had no intention of letting peace break out, and for more than a month Paris awaited an inevitable siege with a bizarre combination of sang-froid and frenzy which Vizetelly describes very well.
Food supplies (and panic-stricken peasants) from the surrounding areas flooded in – including beef, lamb and pork on the hoof, which was corralled into the Bois de Boulogne. Walls were strengthened, extra fortifications thrown up in front of the gates and across the main access roads, civilians were recruited to the National Guard, the Guard Mobile and the companies of Francs-tireurs – sharp-shooters who, once the city was surrounded, would attempt to infiltrate the enemy lines, kill as many men as possible, and retreat. Sailors from the Atlantic and Mediterranean ports were brought to Paris, to try and compensate for the lack of soldiers (over 5,000 were lost at Sedan, and 180,000 surrendered), and many of them were trained as aeronauts, presumably on the reasonable ground that running around in the rigging of a ship would give you a head for heights if it didn’t kill you. But as the Germans advanced, in a leisurely manner, the flow of people changed direction: the railway terminals for the south and west were besieged by citizens trying to leave on the last few days before the complete encirclement on 19 September, at which point the trains ceased to run.
The Parisians expected a major assault to follow at 2 o’clock the following morning, but Bismarck had no intention of wasting men and ammunition when he could simply starve Paris into surrender. Vizetelly has lots of fascinating information about normal consumption levels in Paris before the war and the amounts of food, from the cattle in the Bois to flour and potatoes, stored before the siege. The maths was simple, and discouraging. In September, ‘a class of people was encountered at the Halles who had never before been observed there, purchasing live fowls and pigeons with a stock of grass for feeding them. The shops of the grocers . . . were moreover laid siege to, and all such commodities as hams, tongues, brawn, cheese, sardines, preserved and potted meats, including Liebig’s extract, macaroni, biscuits and concentrated milk, commanded day by day gradually ascending prices’. In November, the daily ration of beef or mutton decreased to 35 g a day for an adult, half that for a child. Horseflesh, including that of mules and donkeys, was also rationed, and in Volume 2, Vizetelly provides three striking engravings: the frontispiece shows ‘wild meat’ for sale: a middle-class father bargains with a smug and corpulent-looking butcher, while his daughter looks apprehensively round at the carcases of antelope, ostrich, and what might be an elephant’s head. Opposite page 132 is a depiction of a market stall with ‘dogs, cats and rats for sales’ (and again, a père de famille in a top hat is among the customers), while opposite page 185 we are shown the shooting of the elephants at the zoo, Castor and Pollux, who were later served up as ‘filet d’éléphant au vin de Madère’ to gourmets who could afford to celebrate New Year’s Day 1871 – mostly a very bleak day for Parisians.
While Paris was besieged, the Germans were making inroads into western France: Orleans and Rouen were captured. And the besiegers were not passive: bombardments caused hundreds of casualties, and in a bitterly cold winter, during which all the trees in the city were felled for firewood, thousands weakened by hunger died of cold or disease. By mid-January, a single egg cost the equivalent of two shillings and sixpence sterling, when the prewar rate had been ninepence a dozen. On 25 January, the French government surrendered, and hostilities ceased.
During the entire siege Vizetelly had been sending out bulletins to the Illustrated London News, mostly by air balloon. His descriptions of the way the balloons worked, and the parallel use of pigeon post to get news in and out of the city, are fascinating, as are his vignettes of ordinary life carried on in extraordinary circumstances, as the atmosphere of almost cheerful unreality that characterised the beginning of the siege was replaced by an increasing realisation among the Parisians that the Germans weren’t going to wander off home again, and that nobody was going to come and rescue them. By the end, Vizetelly has modified his view of the French, and is outspoken in his admiration of the ordinary soldiers, sailors and citizens who endured such privations with such courage. But he is unsparing of the government and the generals: not donkeys leading lions, as was said in the First World War, but donkeys actually holding back and frustrating the lions under their command by their incompetence and timidity.
Vizetelly does however end on a positive note: after further revolutionary upheavals, a stable (for France) government was formed, the trees were replanted, and in 1878 a ‘world’s fair’ was held in Paris to celebrate the recovery of France from the war. ‘With new streets, avenues, and boulevards, illuminated at night-time by the electric light, with innumerable improvements effected in every direction, no one would recognise in the Paris of 1882 the devastated city of 1870–71.’ And, presumably, they got some more elephants for the zoo.