Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The March of the Marseillais

Volunteers were asked to defend France from their King, to strike a blow for liberty that should make its rule supreme. The South were the first to answer an appeal for "five hundred men who knew how to die." They mustered at Marseilles, bold Provencals for the most part, black-browed, sturdy, and of hearts undaunted by the dangers of the march to Paris through a country which had orders to stay them by any means that should seem powerful.

They were galley-slaves, some assert, men of irregular life and the lowest character. Not orderly citizens, it is probable, yet they were true to their promise and they "knew how to die." Four and twenty hours sufficed to select the five hundred from a host of volunteers. Two days only could be given to drilling the chosen recruits and appointing officers. The Marseillais were to march under men they had themselves approved. They had their own leaders and their own discipline. It was a rapidly organized body which set out at nightfall on the 2nd of July and sang the song which had been first heard by the soldiers at a banquet to welcome the messengers from Paris, demanding help against the tyrant.

Mireur had sung the song, ignorant of its origin. His voice was one that raised echoes, and the words had something stirring, martial. Soon the whole city rang to it, and Rouget de Lille, the bold composer, made the Hymn of the Marseillaise express the feelings of the marchers, whose blood ran swiftly, whose patriotism was aroused. Armies were to sing it after them, gaining courage from the strain which made them weep the tears of burning exaltation. A nation was to adopt it as the anthem of all Frenchmen. No wonder that the grim Provencals trod more firmly than the regulars; no wonder that they never fell by the wayside but were all ready at the end of that amazing march to answer to their names.

So, well armed with sabre and musket, dragging three pieces of cannon, they set out in the sultry July weather of the South, their minds set on victory, their hearts defiant, not a doubt among the whole five hundred of the object before them which they should accomplish. "They have left their sunny Phocean City and Sea-haven, with its bustle and its bloom: the thronging Course, with high-pendent avenues, pitchy dockyards, almond and olive groves, orange-trees on house-tops, and white glittering bastides that crown the hills, are all behind them. They march on their wild way, from the extremity of French land, through unknown cities, towards an unknown destiny; with a purpose that they know."

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


Meanwhile, in the city towards which this steady regiment was marching, there were rumours and suspicions that brought other volunteers to enlist as eagerly. Lafayette, the Hero of Two Worlds, had become so unpopular as to be burnt in effigy. He had been moved by the invasion of the Tuileries to protest against the violence of the Jacobins, the party ready to do and dare, while the Girondins theorized and kept the King in office. He was allowed to speak in the National Assembly, but he was no longer the delight of the French nation. They murmured that the general was taking too much upon himself, and accusations of disloyalty were brought against him. He was young still, but he played little part in the stirring times that followed. His gallant, handsome figure never occupied again the centre of the stage when the drama of King and people struggling against each other was carried on before the eyes of startled Europe.

On July 22nd, a proclamation was made in Paris that the country was in danger. It was not generally known that Marie Antoinette had desperately called upon Austria and Prussia to take vengeance on the rebels who refused to submit to the royal authority and seemed inclined to storm the royal palace. She chose to regard her own life and her husband's as the hostages of Paris, a city which should surely be destroyed by fire and sword if any harm should befall either Marie Antoinette or Louis Seize. Yet, ignorant as the nation were of this fierce correspondence, they suspected treason in the Tuileries, and had learnt that a hostile camp was forming. The emigrants would return with that vast army under Brunswick. It was time to make ready for a royal reception when they did come. The example of the South was followed. Brest took up arms, and there was competition for the role of soldier in the capital, those too short in stature bewailing their misfortune, and those too old leading forward sons whom they would sacrifice for liberty without a pang. Some ten thousand left Paris, and throughout the quarters the rumours of war made the very air seem foul with suspicion. The Assembly was disturbed at midnight by an inroad of men and women shouting "Vengeance, they are poisoning our Brothers." There had been a dark report that the bread served to troops at Soissons was not the usual camp bread. The citizens were dispersed by promise of inquiries, but on the morrow there were other rumours rife.

It was July 29th when the Marseillais came in sight of welcoming patriots, straining their eyes from Charenton down the dusty roads. The regiment had covered five hundred miles at the rate of eighteen miles a day, and they had been encumbered by the weight of cannon. Their rations were scanty, and their faces looked drawn and weary when they marched in fine order across the bridge to the strains of their song and answered to the roll-call. They were refreshed by the enthusiasm of the men who came to meet them. Their sore feet were bathed, and a dinner was served to them at the "Blue Dial," where they rested. The next day they made a public entry into Paris with their drums and colours before them. Great was the applause of Saint Antoine, the quarter where poverty and patriotism mingled bravely. Petion, the Mayor, came forward to embrace them, for they were men of the South and loved such tributes well. They put down their muskets in the barracks of New France and were regaled by a banquet. They had not tasted food, however, before the cry "To arms!" came shrilly from the citizens.

Out into the street the warlike Marseillais rushed, finding the grenadiers from the Tuileries drawing their swords upon a terrified but defiant populace. There was wrath against the volunteers among the defenders of the palace. The grenadiers had come out to show that they too were patriots, deserving of like honours.

Swiftly the Marseillais followed the soldiers who fled before them. One or two fell before reaching the drawbridge of the Tuileries and knew no more of jealousy or revolution. The rest gained their quarters in safety, and were on the alert for the next move of Paris with its new force for action. The Swiss were the most reliable protectors of royalty, men as fearless as lions though they were but paid mercenaries. Their discipline was perfection. Louis could rely on them to obey orders, and felt that under Mandat, their leader, any attack on the Tuileries would be well opposed. He had in all about 6600 men in the palace.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


On the night of August 9th the alarm bells sounded from the steeples. Nothing had been done yet, though it was a week since the southern patriots had received tumultuous welcome. The bells booming from the Abbey tower were answered by the peals from St Anthony, and the tocsins of St John and St Gervase. Soon there was a rioting of sound in the night-silence. Surely this was a call to arms, but insurrection did not follow, and some scorn was expressed by those gentlemen in the palace who had come to offer their services to the King. Within the Tuileries, the reinforcements had gathered with a clattering of hoofs and tramp of many feet. The Royalists began to jest at the failure of the signal, saying, "Tocsin does not yield." But where was Mandat, the commander? He had answered the third summons of the Town Hall and had not returned to the palace yet.

In the city through the hours of darkness there was a strange shifting mass of men, doubtful whether it were safe to advance alone. One waited for the other, Saint-Antoine seeking counsel of Saint-Marceau. If some hung back, the rising could be checked and punished. There were cowards in Paris, and these lay abed and feigned slumber on that wakeful evening of the 9th. Mlle de Theroigne, a beautiful young girl, was riding through the streets with pistols at her slender waist. She brought back traitors to the guardhouse and saw that they were sentenced. Four of them met the same fate as the unhappy Mandat, on whom the King relied. He was accused of having proposed to Mayor Potion to meet force by force and was cut down on the steps of the Town Hall. The royal family would not have taken the few hours of rest they needed, had they known of the horror of that death. The courage of the citizens was revived by such a victory.

The Queen rose at dawn to watch the sunrise with Princess Elizabeth, who sought to turn her thoughts away from the ominous preparations of the soldiers. The two women exclaimed at the beauty of dawn, reddening the roofs of Paris. It was Marie Antoinette who turned away first and began to plan feverishly for the safety of her children.

The King obeyed the request of his wife by showing himself before the defenders of the Tuileries, drawn up on the western terrace. He was a weary, disheveled figure of a king in violet coat and tumbled wig; he did not win their admiration. The Swiss must die for him, since discipline demanded that they should obey their superiors. There was a hint of mockery in the salutes they rendered, and Marie Antoinette saw the covert smiles and bitterly repented her impulse of the moment. If it had been Fersen, the noble and commanding—she must still try to inspire Louis, her husband, but what an irony that made him succeed to the Bourbon throne when there was need of a strong ruler to crush these revolutionary citizens!

Outside the long front of the Tuileries there was a dense crowd under the command of Santerre, the mighty brewer, who gave orders from the Town Hall. The red-coated Swiss were awaiting the command to fire. They looked to the priming of their weapons, while the courtiers drew their swords. The sun lit up the pikes and scythes of the attacking multitude. The steel gleamed in the Court of the Carrousel while King Louis set out with his Queen and the Dauphin through the gardens to the riding-school, where protection could be sought among the National Assembly which held its meetings there. The Dauphin kicked the leaves which had fallen early from the trees that summer. He was thankful when a grenadier of the Royal Militia carried him, for he was a delicate child and could not keep pace with his father striding ahead and his mother dragging him, thoughtless of comfort. Marie Antoinette had been weeping and had lost her beautiful serenity.

From the little box where reporters of the debates in the Assembly were given seats, the royal fugitives could hear the sound of cannon. Their hearts beat faster when the first rally of the Swiss had swept away the mob from the Carrousel. All might be over now, thanks to the mountaineers' stern courage. The Marseillais returned the volley, and from that time the noise of shot and breaking glass was constant. It was impossible from the riding-school to know who fired or advanced, but the sounds soon proclaimed that the people of Paris were storming the doors of the Tuileries.

The King signed a last order to the guard to bid them to cease firing. The commander scorned to obey the words, and scrawled as much hastily on paper. He crushed the paper in the pocket of his uniform and proceeded to direct the defence. He would not give the order to cease firing till the mob had begun to sack the palace. Then he saw that resistance was useless, that his men would be cut down without mercy. He commanded them to fall back, and instantly the Swiss retreated. They did not break their lines till they were well out of the palace. Some took refuge in private houses, some were rescued in the street by patriots who admired their heroism. Fifty were taken prisoners by the National Guards and massacred by the populace, despite the mercy of the Marseillais. Fury had been aroused in Paris by the effort to beat off the nation in that last assault upon tradition and the King tradition had given them.

Many of the five hundred lay wounded and dying, yet their last words had been entreaties to their comrades to avenge their death. These still chanted the marching song along the river when the two hours' fight was ended. It was a hymn of victory now. The Queen heard and shuddered. She knew that they had struck down the tyrant as they had promised those who called them from the South. Louis was beside her in the riding-school. He had done nothing all that terrible day except give that last command for the defenders of the palace to cease firing. He had waited for his own cause to perish and the cause of that little son, now complaining of the heat and inaction of a long summer's day. It was the Tenth of August 1792, and with the windows of the royal household was shattered all that had remained of the authority of Louis Seize,