Louise Michel during the Prussian Siege

During the short-lived Prussian war of 1870, the Prussians quickly captured Emperor Louis-Napoleon and left Paris in a power vacuum. The French created a provisional government and requested amnesty; however, the Prussians wanted a surrender, and continued fighting the war against this provisional government. Their troops cut off Paris from the outside world for four long months during the winter of 1870: an event known as the Prussian Siege.

During the Prussian Siege, Louise became a member of the National Guard, the people’s army of Paris. The Government negotiated a surrender to the Prussians in early 1871, but the people of Paris were unhappy with the gross incompetencies that had led to the deaths of many thousands, and the crippling war debts that the poor were forced to shoulder afterwards. Distrust simmered between the fresh government, led by new president Adolphe Thiers, and the poor working class citizens of Paris, who had been decimated by war, famine, fighting and disease, and who were now forced to repay the debts of the Siege, such as suspended rents, payable immediately.

Louise Michel Marie Ferré and Paule Minck portrait

Louise Michel on March 18

When, on March 18, the government stole into Montmartre in the early hours of the morning to steal cannons paid for with public conscriptions, the people discovered the treachery, but the army refused to fire on the people. A so-called ‘peaceful revolution’ was born. The government, having lost control of its military, fled Paris and established itself at Versailles.

Paris declared its new government the Paris Commune. It aspired to a great number of social measures including secular education, workers rights, a democratisation of art and public spaces, and the abolition of the death penalty.

When the Paris Commune was declared, Louise was elected head of the Montmartre Women’s Vigilance Committee. She urged her friend Théophile Ferré to march on Versailles and secure their position, but Théophile did not want to, believing it outside their mandate. Louise feared that the Versailles government would attack. She argued that she could assassinate the new president, Adolphe Theirs, but Théophile urged her not to. Nonetheless she took a train to Versailles just to prove it could be done, and send him a newspaper from Versailles as proof, along with a new recruit for the National Guard that she had met while there.

Louise Michel in the National Guard portrait

Louise Michel during the Paris Commune

When the Versailles government attacked Paris in April 1871, Louise dedicated herself to the armed struggle against the French government. She fought with the 61st Battalion of Montmartre and organised ambulance stations. She also continued to chair committees, nurse the wounded, and feed 200 children a day at her local school, which was run by her mother in her absence.

During Bloody Week, Louise fought hand to hand in the barricades, continually being pressed back until she was one of the last ones standing. She was thrown into a ditch and left for dead; when she recovered her senses, she went to find her mother in the devastated ruins of the city. She discovered her mother had been captured, and went and exchanged herself for her mother.

She was marched to Chantiers where she observed such horrors as women being shot and undressed in their death throes, and prisoners being forced to dig their own graves.

Louise Michel Chief of the Incendiaries Head of the Petrol Girls

Louise Michel before the Council of War

In December 1871, Louise was brought before the 6th Council of War, charged with offences including trying to overthrow the government, encouraging citizens to arm themselves, and herself using weapons and wearing a military uniform.

Louise was defiant, eloquent and magnificent at her trial. Some of the declarations she made before the military court include:

“You accuse those poor women you have brought to trial of being pétroleuses? Let them free. It was me that did it. I wanted to block the Versailles invaders with a barrier of flames.”

“I am in your power. Do whatever you please with me. Take my life if you want it. I am not the woman who would dispute your wishes for a moment.”

“What I demand from you, you who pass yourselves off as my judges, you who are from the military and who judge me publicly – what I call for is the field of Satory where our revolutionary brothers have already fallen. I must be cut off from society… Since it seems that any heart that beats for liberty has only the right to a small lump of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I will not stop crying for vengeance, and I will denounce the assassins on the Board of Pardons to the vengeance of my brothers…”

[The Prosecutor stated: “I cannot allow you to continue speaking if you continue in this tone…”]

“I have finished. If you are not cowards, kill me.”

Louise was instead one of the 10,000 supporters of the Commune who were sentenced to penal transportation.