Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Swiss Guard

It will be remembered that the palace of the King of France was guarded by a thousand Swiss soldiers. These men were well drilled, brave, and faithful; and even in the raging sea of disloyal Paris the monarch felt secure,—too secure, as it proved. The Swiss do not seem to have meddled with the politics of the day, but to have done their duty, earned their paltry pay, and kept to themselves.

We have already noticed the king's Sunday levee, and the futile efforts which his friends made to get him removed to Rouen. These he would not second; "for," said he, "the insurrection is not so near as you suppose." But it was near, very near now. In fact, the leaders of the Revolution had already determined that if the Assembly would not pronounce the dethronement of Louis on the next Thursday, they would rise and do it by force of arms.

But the Assembly were busied about Lafayette, who had denounced the Jacobins, by a letter, as dangerous people; his conduct was therefore discussed for several days, and on Wednesday he was acquitted of blame by a majority of two to one.

Thursday evening arrived, and no sentence of deposition had been pronounced. All that night men were arming and drilling, and making ready for an attack on the Tuileries early the next morning. The loyal gentlemen of France were aware that something serious was about to happen; and they gathered round their king, each man with his weapon of war. It was a very close night, and the palace windows were thrown open, for every room was densely crowded. About midnight those in the palace could plainly hear the "storm-bells" calling the people together in various parts of the city. One bell was the same which was rung by a king's order on St. Bartholomew's Eve, 1572, as a signal for the massacre of the Huguenots. Another bell which sounded in the night air was that of the Town-hall; this was pulled by Marat, the editor of the "People's Friend," who had been imprisoned for what he had written.

It must have been an awful night; and yet as its hours stole on and no armed mobs appeared, a joke was bandied from one to the other: "The tocsin is like a dry cow; it does not yield any milk."

During the night the king had a short nap, and about five o'clock he went out into the garden to review his troops, in company with old Marshal Maille, who was nearly eighty years of age. The soldiers did not seem very loyal, and their shouts of "Vive le Roi" ended in "Vive la Nation,"—as if the king and nation were not one and the same, as they ought to be.

When the sun began to shine, a countless army of men who had been gathering, each in his proper quarter during the night, united and moved in the direction of the Tuileries. At the head of all, in the place of honor, marched the "six hundred who knew how to die." There were squadrons drawn up to resist this army of the people, but none of them did anything except get quietly out of the road; so that the six hundred and the host which followed in their rear found no resistance until they arrived at the outer gate of the great courtyard of the palace, called the Place du Carrousel.

If Louis had been a general, like Napoleon, or even if he had been a resolute prince like Charles the First, he might have made a good fight of it, and even carried the day. It is said that the queen offered him a pistol and said, "Now, if ever, it is the time for you to show yourself a hero." But Louis was not a fighting man. He did not lack courage, but he lacked the resolution to strike one great blow for his ancient crown. There he sat in this awful hour doing nothing; his hands were on his knees, and his head bent low. The troops in the court sent in for orders. "Are we to fire the cannon on the people or not?" No orders were sent out to them; so they threw down their lighted matches. There was no head; no quick, sharp word of command; no orders promptly given and as promptly obeyed. A few minutes after eight o'clock the king decided on leaving the palace and taking refuge in the Assembly. He left his gallant gentlemen and his red-coated Switzers to fight or yield, to fly or die, as they liked or could. There they were left; and they turned their reproachful looks on the monarch who had abandoned them, until he and his queen and children were lost to sight in the crowd. The gentlemen slipped away as well as they were able by one door or another, and the unfortunate Swiss Guard stood to their arms and waited what might happen like brave men. They were soon face to face with the six hundred, and then there was a short parley.

"Where is the king?"

"He has gone over to the Assembly."

"We have come here to take possession of his house until the Assembly pronounces him deposed."

And then what were the Swiss Guard to do or say, the king having gone? Were they to defend the empty palace or not? While pausing undecided, there was a discharge of cannon, and the balls struck the roof of the Tuileries. This seems to have decided the Swiss captain. "Fire!" said he.

His men did so; and not a few Marseillese lay stretched on the earth, dead or dying, the next moment. The volley was so sudden and well-directed, and the appearance of the serried ranks of the Swiss so terrible, that the huge mob recoiled, and backed out of the great court, and the Swiss advancing seized the cannon and prepared to use them in their own defense.

The "six hundred who knew how to die" soon rallied, however, and returned to the charge; and the National Guards in the garden also fired on the Swiss as foreigners while they were attempting, though without success, to discharge the cannon. Had they succeeded in firing off those great guns, the cause of the king might not have been lost. But even though they could not manage the cannon, they fired their muskets with deadly precision, and killed very many people. Bonaparte himself was a witness of this battle, and he believed that the Swiss would have won the day if they had had a capable general.

When this bloody struggle was at its height, a written order of the king was carried by some daring messenger to the Swiss to cease firing. But why did he not also order the mob to cease firing? The poor Swiss obeyed the order and fired no more, but were fired at as hotly as ever. What were they now to do? The people had become maddened like bears bereft of their whelps, for they saw bleeding and dying patriots carried along the streets; and the Swiss felt sure if they laid down their arms and ventured into the crowd they would be torn to pieces in a moment. Yet something must be done, and at once; so they broke up into detachments, and tried to make their way to places of safety.

One party was utterly destroyed; another rushed into the National Assembly, and found a refuge there; a third, three hundred strong, made for the Champs Elysees and Courbevoye, where there were other soldiers of their nation. But very few of them escaped; they died fighting here and there. Fifty were marched to the Hotel de Ville; but they were massacred on the way, every one. The Marseillese, like brave men, tried to save the Guard after the victory was won; but the Paris mob were cruel, and thirsted for the last drop of the Swiss soldiers' blood.

Swiss Guard


This murder of unresisting men, who had simply done the duty they were paid to do, is a very dark blot on the character of the people of Paris. It shows them in a very unfavorable light. But to our minds it is also a great blot on the king's character; for he forsook his brave defenders, and then, by sending an order to cease firing, he became, though without meaning it, their destroyer. They were paid sixpence a day for defending his house, and when it was attacked they acted as true soldiers only could and would have acted; and in obeying the king's orders to cease firing, they became martyrs to the high cause of soldierly discipline. Near Lucerne there is a monumental lion, the work of a first-rate sculptor, which has been erected in memory of these brave men.

The scenes inside the Tuileries were shocking and hardly to be described. Outside, one hundred and eighty bodies of dead Swiss guardsmen were piled in one ghastly heap; while more than a hundred carts, piled up with dead patriots, went sorrowfully away from the scene of bloodshed to the cemetery of Sainte Madeleine.